The Virtue of Vicarious Experience
April 1974

“The Virtue of Vicarious Experience,” Ensign, Apr. 1974, 20

The Virtue of Vicarious Experience

If we are selective in the things we choose to do in life, we only have time for high-priority experiences. For example, an enlightened mother chooses parenthood over her career. A youth overcomes any desires to follow the seamy side of life in favor of building on positive, uplifting experiences.

Many people feel that vicarious experiences never lead to meaningful understanding. Only the poor can, they say, really understand poverty. Only the sinner can know the nature or the consequences of sin. They claim there is no substitute for direct experience.

Such an argument has at least two inherent weaknesses. First, it’s risky to live in the atmosphere of sin in order to understand it or to help others who are sinning, since individuals may become trapped in the very things they want others to avoid. Taking drugs to know what it’s like, for example, may lead to personal slavery rather than the redemption of others. Second, the argument overlooks the fact that the Holy Ghost can provide such understanding and that man can, by empathy, come to understand, as Jesus did, what sin means to others.

Jesus understood sin better than the sinner, without ever having sinned. Prophets have been and are acute “vicarious” observers of the consequences of sin and thus can provide adequate leadership in helping others overcome sin.

Spiritually guided empathy leads to a greater understanding of the nature of sin than partaking of sin, because the empathizer seeks only to understand and is not subject to the perceptual distortions present in trying to justify behavior.

Phillip C. Smith
associate professor of education
Church College of Hawaii