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The Necessity of Moral Engagement

Bob Fancher came of age in Mississippi during the Sixties. With the utter upending of “the Mississippi way of life” during the civil rights ...Read More

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, 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.

Keep Reading By Author Robert "Bob" Fancher, Ph.D.
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