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Muddling Through
a weblog about knowing believing and getting better

The Necessity of Moral Engagement

Robert "Bob" Fancher, Ph.D. Updated: Oct 6th 2010

Two of the most destructive questions therapists routinely ask are, "Why do you care so much about what other people think?" and "Why do you give other people so much power?"

stick figures trying to hold hands over a gapThe answers to those two questions are easy and absolute: Because what other people think determines what opportunities you're going to have in life, and other people already have that power, whether you and your therapist recognize it or not.

Similarly, therapists tend to teach an extremely damaging criterion for making decisions: one's subjective emotional state. "It works for me," or "I've discovered my truth," or "I feel so much better," have little to do with whether one's beliefs are accurate, one's actions wisely chosen, or one's future likely to go well. The people to whom one is accountable are under no obligation to accept your beliefs, approve of your actions, or include you in their plans, simply because something feels better or works for you. We are social creatures. The natural state of humans is to live in community with others. If other people don't approve of you, accept you, and include you in their plans and projects, you're going to be hard-pressed to live a satisfying life.

Of course, none of us wants to be at the mercy of other peoples' caprice, whimsy, or selfishness. That's one reason that moral principles are necessary for life: they specify criteria that all of us must use in judging what to think of others, and in evaluating when, whether, and how we must include others in - or can fairly and allowably cut them out of -our lives and plans.

Unless other people find us trustworthy, we're in deep trouble. Others need to know that we're honest, that we live up to our promises and agreements, that we're fair and judicious in our evaluations, that we care about our impact on others, that we repay our emotional and practical and financial debts, that we will not lay claim to what is not ours, that we will forego taking advantage of others' weakness and ignorance, that we will muster the fortitude and courage to live up to what is required of us - and on and on, through the whole list of (perfectly straightforward, uncontroversial) virtues and moral imperatives. No one gets an exemption from any of that because his or her therapist tells him to stop giving others power, or to find his own truth.

"My therapist said" need not carry much weight with the significant people in our patient's lives. Not many people will accept, "But it makes me feel better," as an excuse for letting them down, showing ourselves less than reliable in our obligations, or falsely telling the stories of our encounters with them.

"My therapist said" may be cold comfort when we find ourselves downgraded in, or even extruded from, the lives of those who determine our opportunities.

Should therapists, then, be teaching our patients to be conformists? Not at all. We should be teaching them to think and decide - and argue - morally.

Moral principles apply to everyone, and patients have the right to make their cases to others. We are all, always, free to dissent, or to refuse to conform. If we are to mitigate the negative consequences of those decisions, however, those decisions must be moral, and we must be able to show those who would sanction us that we, not they, are correct.

The world is messy, of course, and people get away with bad deeds all the time. And sometimes the cynical adage, "No good deed goes unpunished," seems true. A simple-minded moralism can't cope with life's complexities. But without a sophisticated moralism, none of us can expect our lives to go well. After all, we are all dependent on the good regard of others for our standing in life.

As patients' allies, therapists do them no favors when we omit from our considerations on their behalves the moral considerations that the people in their lives are going to use in evaluating them. We do them no favors when we teach them willful assertiveness rather than moral autonomy.

Years ago, when I was in psychoanalytic training, one of my fellow students did me a very bad turn, by any reasonable estimation. A few weeks later, one of our teachers gave us each other's papers to grade. By chance, I got hers. I savaged her work, in the most neutral academic language.

I was talking about my evaluation of her paper with my therapist-I honestly don't remember exactly why I brought it up-and he shocked me by saying something I completely did not expect: "You didn't do anything to take care of her feelings in what you said about her work." He allowed as how I was retaliating against her for what she had done to me.

I began to defend the accuracy of my remarks on her paper, and he shocked me again: "Doing a bad thing does not mean you're a bad person."

I thought, at first, that he was talking about her. But he was talking about me. He was telling me to stop defending my sense of myself and recognize what I had done to her.

That was a pivotal moment in my development. I didn't become a saint - I would never claim I ever have. But I began to think differently about my impact on others. I began to think differently about what was at stake in my decisions.

That wasn't the last time he said something like that.

I will always be grateful to that therapist for helping me recognize my own guilt, and to think correctly about what that guilt meant-and didn't. Whatever capacity, however fitful and flawed, I've attained to think clearly about my relationships with others owes much to his willingness to call a wrong a wrong.

 

Robert "Bob" Fancher, Ph.D.

Bob Fancher, Ph.D., is the author of Health and Suffering in America: The Context and Content of Mental Health Care and Pleasures of Small Motions: Mastering the Mental Game of Pocket Billiards. He is founder, CEO, CFO, marketing director, chief clinical officer, janitor, owner, and sole employee of Life Therapy Counseling Services in Portland, Oregon.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

Like a Mystery Novel - - Oct 11th 2010

I come into to check for your articles as they seem like chapters in a mystery novel.  I am agreeing with what you are saying and wondering if at some point, there will be a sudden twist in the story to try to lead me down a different path.  I don't know if that makes sense.  I do wonder what, from a mental health standpoint, "moral" encompasses.  I even looked it up in the dictionary to get another meaning other than the laws of God and found that otherwise, I would define "moral" as "principles or standards with respect to right or wrong in conduct" per one of the choices that Webster's presents.  I think too much emphasis is put on one's happiness depending on anyone other than themselves.  I cannot believe that people sacrifice so much of who and what they are to please others to climb the social ladder and try to "fit" a category so they will be "happy" with themselves.  They will never find happiness in denying themselves and what they believed to be moral in the first place.

Kings depend totally on you and I - Peter Green - Oct 10th 2010

Thanks for posting my comments above.

I am reasonably sure that only the independently wealthy have the power to support themselves without the approval of others,

The opposite is true. Independently wealthy people depend much more than you and I on the approval of others. This is a historical fact. Masters depended totally on their slaves, and kings on their subjects, for their food as well as their status. You and I, because we are not members of the ruling class, can choose to support ourselves. If masters and kings really supported themselves, there could never be any revolutions (which is what happens when the ruled get so fed up with supporting their rulers, they toss them out).

If we can't learn to support ourselves without the approval of others, emotionally, we hold on to the chains of our oppression - we fail to take advantage of the increasing freedom that history is giving us.

Rejoinder - Bob - Oct 9th 2010

I am reasonably sure that only the independently wealthy have the power to support themselves without the approval of others, and only the celibate have the power to take care of their sexual needs without the approval of others, and only hermits have the power to take care of their affiliative needs without the approval of others, and that no one at all has the power to have a social life without the approval of others . . .

 

We have more power than we realise - Peter Green - Oct 9th 2010

This may be too long:

 

Two of the most destructive questions therapists routinely ask are, "Why do you care so much about what other people think?" and "Why do you give other people so much power?"

The answers to those two questions are easy and absolute: Because what other people think determines what opportunities you're going to have in life,

Then the question has to be ‘why do you think that you don’t play an important part in determining what opportunities you have in life?’

and other people already have that power, whether you and your therapist recognize it or not.

Then another question has to be ‘Why do you believe you don’t already have, or can obtain, the power that other people have?’

 

Similarly, therapists tend to teach an extremely damaging criterion for making decisions: one's subjective emotional state. "It works for me," or "I've discovered my truth," or "I feel so much better," have little to do with whether one's beliefs are accurate, one's actions wisely chosen, or one's future likely to go well.

One’s subjective emotional state is the most reliable guide to what is best for us. Our beliefs can be wildly wrong but misleading us in more ways than we realise, and can lead to very unwise actions.

The people to whom one is accountable are under no obligation to accept your beliefs, approve of your actions, or include you in their plans, simply because something feels better or works for you.

I’m not sure who you think ‘one’ should be accountable to, but if we are mentally healthy, we should be accountable to no one but ourselves (to our subjective emotional states). We have to do this because to ensure that we ‘are under no obligation to accept (another’s) beliefs…‘.

We are social creatures. The natural state of humans is to live in community with others. If other people don't approve of you, accept you, and include you in their plans and projects, you're going to be hard-pressed to live a satisfying life.

Most people, most of the time, behave as social creatures – they live in community with others. If some don’t approve of us, we can nevertheless, if we are not fooled by the rules of those who don’t behave as social creatures, live a satisfying life.

 

Unless other people find us trustworthy, we're in deep trouble.

Not at all. If we don’t believe we or others are trustworthy, we’re in deep trouble. If we depend on others to validate our trustworthiness, or our self esteem, we’re in deep trouble.

 

Others need to know that we're honest, that we live up to our promises and agreements, (etc.)

You do not need to know, but should trust, that I am honest, that I live up to my promises, etc. I believe, without you having to prove, that you are honest, that you live up to your promises, etc., otherwise I wouldn’t be writing to you.

No one gets an exemption from any of that because his or her therapist tells him to stop giving others power, or to find his own truth.

Because we are social creatures – because we live in community with others, we should not have to prove to others that we are honest, and that we live up to our promises. And we should, if we are social and community minded, and Christian, not expect others to have to prove those things about themselves to us.

We should all learn how to develop a confident and loving subjective emotional state - and not depend on the approval of others. It works for me. I've discovered that truth, and it makes me feel so much better.

 

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