An Interview with Asa Kasher


Haegwan Kim

Thank you so much for your time. Firstly I would like to ask you about your personal definition of success?

Asa Kasher

To live in a certain manner. I don’t think about success as an achievement; I think about success as a way of life, a successful way of life, not a successful achievement in a pursuit of a goal. The question is what is a successful way of life, and there are several ingredients, several dimensions. If you want to live successfully, then you should find a way of life that fulfils four conditions.

First, it should reflect your views, your understanding, your knowledge, your values that you would like to embody in your life, so first of all it should be perfectly okay with your cognitive dimension. Secondly, you should be satisfied emotionally, which means you should love it. You should be happy about that way of life. It’s not self-evident that if you think that this is the right thing then you’re also happy about doing it. Sometimes there could be conflicts, so the successful way of life is where you think it is the right way of life and you’re happy about pursuing this form of life.

Thirdly, your will, which is independent of your views and your emotions, the thing you desire, should also be compatible with it, which means it’s a form of life that you think is right, that you want, and you’re happy about maintaining it. Fourthly, it must be moral. It must be done within a framework that takes into account the fact that you are not alone. There are other human beings, and they have their own ways of life, and you have to take them, to respect them, respect the human dignity, take into account the rights they have on a par with your own rights, so it should be a moral way of life, so there are four ingredients: the views, the will, the emotions and the morality.

HK

That’s a really interesting. I have some questions, at first, the point you mentioned about the views and emotions - it's quite difficult for many people to grasp emotional perspective and rational perspective at the same time. What's your opinion on this?

AK

You don’t have them automatically. They’re two separate dimensions of your life, and success means that you reach, in your career, you have reached a point where you can have both of them. It’s not automatic. It’s not that if you do the right thing they’re going to be happy about it. You can be not happy about it, not happy about it at all, so you must find a way which makes you both satisfied on the emotional side but also fitting your views.

HK

I'm wondering if there's any relationship between concept of success and what your studying - cognitive science, linguistics and philosophy.

AK

What I’m telling people is to look for areas, and look for ways of life that would be successful, look for them, create them, create your own story. You don’t have to follow in the footsteps of anybody, you don’t have to take just one profession or one social position and say this is what it means to be successful, a minister, a member of parliament, a general, a professor, that’s nonsense. You can be very successful with something that you created as your own way of life, and you can be a seemingly important person and not be successful at all because you’re not happy, because it’s immoral, because you think it’s wrong that someone should do it, things like this. So you start from scratch, you create a way of life which is yours. It could be similar to the way of life of others. It doesn’t have to be similar. It could be a novelty.

Now, if you talk about students and then professors, then for me, one of the most exciting aspects of academic life is that what you love is your profession, which means that it’s an area that has both aspects immediately, you think it’s important, you think it’s the right way to understand the human mind, to understand the society, and you love doing it. Unlike other professions I don’t work from eight to five. I read and I enjoy reading it, and it has to do with my profession, constantly, all the time, and it’s not a burden on me because I love it. It’s my profession and I love it, so here you have two dimensions, and I want to do it, I really want to do it. If I hated it I would not have done it, and then it’s moral. Most of what I’m doing is thinking about what is really moral under certain conditions.

HK

On the other hand there’s many people who can’t find what they love to do… Any advice for them?

AK

If you think in terms of the university, then many universities, all American universities have an undergraduate programme that, and the Israeli universities too have programmes within their undergraduate studies that have… it’s not the typical way of undergraduate studies but it’s a possible way in Israel. But in America, for example, you would have many topics. And you ask yourself what is interesting, and you think you’re interested in, say, history, literature, in physics, in psychology, so you listen to, you attend classes in those areas, and if you like it, go on, if you don’t like it, if it’s boring, if it’s burden on you, try something else.

So try something else until you find that equilibrium. I think that it’s important to notice that you don’t have to be an excellent agent. Excellence is not all over the place. Excellence, sometimes people are excellent and sometimes they are not, so success and excellence are different areas. A person can do something very seriously, successfully in the sense of wants it, it’s interesting, he loves doing it, it’s moral, and it’s not excellent, but it’s successful because he maintains better equilibrium between those different dimensions from his of his life. So if you can do it excellently well, as well, then that’s even better, but it’s not very, it’s not a necessary condition.

HK

I agree. As we are in Israel, I want to raise a question about Israel: is there a certain type of success in this country?

AK

Personal level, and then personal level there is a distinction between, say, there are three different groups that you have to think in terms of: there are Jews of two kinds, and non-Jews, and the Jews of two kinds are the religious ones and the non-religious ones. So there are different conceptions of success within those three different groups.

If you think about religious Jews, then there is a religious conception of what is the right way of life, and children are brought up in a certain manner, and they get accustomed to it, and most of them, not all of them, but most of them think it’s the right way, they love it, they want to live this way, and it’s moral in their view, according to their conceptions so there is the notion of successful way of life of an ultra-orthodox Jew. Now, there’re the secular Jews, that’s, you have the whole spectrum. Anything can be a focus of success.

Then the Arabs, mostly Arabs, also other non-Jews in Israel, there is always a special perspective of a minority, of being the minority, so Jews outside Israel are a minority everywhere and they experience it for many centuries. Now non-Jews in Israel have this experience of being a minority. Now part of your perception of success in, while you are a minority, is that you maintain your identity, that you are not becoming part of the majority culturally, religiously, linguistically and things like this, but you are a citizen, you participate in a civil society of the state, but you maintain your own identity which is the identity of the minority, and there are many non-Jews in Israel who are successful in this sense. They are Muslims or Christians and they do whatever they want in their lives, but they’re successful in a certain sense.

HK

Do you mean there's social tendency on success in Israel in some way? And can you tell me how to enhance individual diversity?

AK

The way I describe success is most accommodating the diversity because it’s a way of life. It’s not pointing out certain social positions and saying okay, that means success. You’re a Hollywood actor or you’re a general, you have an apartment in Beverley Hills and things like this, that’s not my view at all. People could be successful in this way and could be unsuccessful in this way.

So what I’m saying is the person should look for one’s own identity, look for what is important to you in your life, but what is important to you has to do, not just with your present way; it has to do with the way you want to live on a longer range, not what I feel like doing presently. You create a form of life, you impose on yourself principles of activity, this is what I’d like to do in the coming 30 years.

Now I can change my course. It’s not binding. I’m not obliged to take a decision and that’s it. I can change my views in the course of my activities. However, I reflect my own identity, and my own identity is my story. It’s a story I write. I’m the author and I’m the hero, so I’m writing my own story and every story can be different. People could be very successful in thousands of different areas, but there is no one way or not even a cluster, a small cluster of ways. It’s utterly open, utterly open, which means, by the way, that when you face a person, you don’t know whether this person is successful or not. You may know whether he’s socially regarded as successful but that’s not important. Whether you know what his meaning of life is - identity. Well, I don’t really know what his identity is so I cannot evaluate, let along judge another person, so it’s a very personal matter. Only you know what your identity is and what you would like to do with your life.

HK

Great opinion. As a final question, I want to ask you to provide us your advice to be successful in general life.

AK

Write the original story of your life and do it. Take into account the four dimensions that I mentioned. In your life you express your view, your values, your conceptions, you do it with your brains, in your life you express your desires, your will, in your life, you express your emotions, and you should look for those places where all those three are in harmony: your emotions, your will, your views; and do it morally; you’re not alone on an island. There are other people around you so do it in a way which is compatible with their existence, their happiness, their success, that’s the general advice.

Professor Asa Kasher is Laura Schwarz-Kipp Chair In Professional Ethics and Philosophy of Practice at Tel Aviv University.

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