Defining Morality

In a recent blog post I discussed the process of “Defiant Morality” leaving for another blog the related process of “Defining Morality,” which will be the topic of this blog post.

Defining Morality might be described as the opposite side of the spectrum from Defiant Morality. Defining Morality is this: “in any given situation, do my choices (in thoughts, words, or actions) involve any moral principles that I need to apply to become closer to a version of myself I can imagine would be the best person I can possibly be (without getting into perfectionism).” Depending on your own sense of who you are as a moral person, these kinds of principles could include things like, “Honesty is the best policy,” or “I know that all my feelings are valid and should be considered and embraced even if I also think they are sometimes based on my own misreading of a situation,” or “the starting point of everyone’s lives are random and arbitrary, not chosen, so I will never assume that anyone is inherently better or worse than I am or each other outside of how they and I act in our lives (e.g. racism is wrong).” These kinds of ideals (and many others) can then be used to start to form a way to “define yourself” as a moral being, using outside influences where you deem them appropriate, but only intentionally, after thinking about it, and deciding for yourself which principles apply to you, not merely because they have been handed to you.

In some ways, I am already applying the ideas of Defining Morality in my therapy process by encouraging clients to incorporate ideal moral versions of themselves in the way they think about their personal growth and emotional well being. Near the beginning of therapy, I use a set of questions (areas of inquiry) to get to know a client. I call the questions, my “Diagnostic Interview” (for more information about my therapy process overall and the Diagnostic Interview specifically, see my chapter, “The Therapy Process” in my book, Firewalking on Jupiter). One area of inquiry in the Diagnostic Interview is simply: “Personal Values.” I ask the client to give me a list of their “personal values.” I try to leave the inquiry as undefined as I can, to avoid creating an answer for the client. I want them to be as open to the question as possible, to get their very individualized sense of what matters to them most. If they need some guidance to make sense of the question, “what are your personal values” I sometimes add, “just tell me what you think is important about being a good person, about living a good life, of the kinds of things you think people should do?” See how this relates to “Defining Morality?” In asking them this question at the beginning of therapy, I am asking them to keep in mind what kind of person they aspire to be, regardless of the particular mental health issues they may have come to therapy to address.

Here is a visual of the layout between Defiant Morality and Defining Morality:

ßStarting Point———————————————————————Life’s Goalà

Defiant Morality————————————————————–Defining Morality

(What I won’t Do)————————————————————–(What I will do)

(Who I am not)———————————————————————–(Who I am)


So, what does Defining Morality have to do with Mental Health? Quite some time ago, in one of my first blog posts (“What is Mental Health?”), which is now a chapter in my book, Firewalking on Jupiter, I defined mental health as “a state in which a person is able and willing to address every aspect of their inner life, regardless of whether they experience difficult feelings, including fear, while addressing those aspects of their inner life.” I have also said in various places, and often explain during the first few sessions of therapy, that the primary source of nearly all mental health issues is this: adverse psychological and emotional consequences that result from a person’s attempts at denying some aspect of themselves, which could include their identity, personality and history. I will now add this to the equation: they are often running, hiding, denying, or avoiding their sense of moral acceptability.

All of us have a very deep and basic sense of the kind of person we should be. This is not quite the same as our identity, which I define as who we think we are. What I am talking about here is our sense of moral idealism applied to ourselves as we are right now, and how far that is from the kind of person we think we should be. It is our “aspirational self:” what do we aspire to be in order to be able to say we are who we should be. Now, let me add one last ingredient, to ensure we are talking about morality as something more than merely what we do: the aspirational self asks the question: “how do I need to be in my life in order to say I am a good person, rather than a bad person?” I know this almost sounds like something a child would ask themselves, which is just about right, because I said that this a very basic and deep set of questions we ask ourselves. The very deep nature of the questions stays with us our whole lives, from early childhood to our deaths. These questions about ourselves, about what we need to do in our lives to be a good person, they never go away. They are always there, in the background of every decision we make, from the big ones like what kind of career do I want, to the small ones like budgeting our finances. That is partly what makes these kinds of questions so troubling, and why avoiding them can cause so many problems. This is also the reason moral aspirations applied to ourselves is at the heart of mental health, and mental health issues.

If we have to constantly question whether every decision we make leads us toward being a better (good) person or a worse (bad) person, you can imagine the cumulative effect if you have a nagging feeling that there is a lot of cumulative unanswered, unresolved, or worse, suspiciously troubling decisions over time a person might have made. It can be a long, frightening and often shame-filled trip from, “I am a good person who has great ideas of how I want to live my life” to “I have not lived the life I thought I would or should and have become a kind of person I didn’t want to be and never thought I would be.” Often, clients will not want to look at this journey, this path, this set of decisions because they have concluded it is too late to retrace all their steps, to significantly change their course, that it is hopeless. You might think I am exaggerating the problem. Think of the millions who would rather continue escaping their lives through the relationships they have formed with alcohol, or drugs, or casinos. Think of how often you are surprised reading in the news that someone who seemed at all levels like they really had their act together, gets arrested for having committed fraud for years in their business. Think of all the unfortunate people who take these issues so seriously, who have come to the conclusion that they will never be the kind of person they want to be, think they should be, that they take their own lives. What so many of these people do not realize is that they do not have to retrace every single decision they might feel bad about and somehow resolve them. Their attempt alone at tackling the larger decisions that continue to plague them, along with making new decisions along a path more consistent with their ideal moral self, will go a long way toward helping them feel so much better about themselves, so they can begin to forgive themselves for their past moral transgressions by recognizing they are human, we all make mistakes, and the most important part of healthy self-worth is the attempt toward doing the right thing, whatever that may be and however individually defined.

When I am meeting with a client who is suffering from all the emotional turmoil that necessarily follows someone they know having committed suicide, I tell them suicide is based on at least one simple, tragic mistake: the person who killed themselves had come to the mistaken conclusion that whatever was causing their intolerably deep pain would never go away and there wasn’t going to be anything they themselves or anyone else could do about it. I suppose the only exception to this might be an assisted suicide when someone is terminally ill, but that isn’t the kind of suicide I am talking about here. I am talking about suicide that occurs with someone who is otherwise physically healthy. This kind of suicide is often, if not always at some level, the result of the person concluding they are not the kind of person who can overcome whatever emotional circumstance they have either encountered or created. From a morality perspective, think about it this way, it’s pretty unlikely a person would commit suicide if they thought, “I am a good, strong person, just the kind of person I want to be, should be, and I have the capacity to deal with whatever life throws my way because I am not afraid to face all aspects of my inner self and I know how to make good decisions for myself and the people I care about.” In other words, morality is at the core of being mentally healthy because it gives us a profound sense of our capacity to address any kind of adversity, any circumstance, without losing our ability to be the kind of person we think we should be. What makes this so important to being mentally healthy is that if we feel this way about ourselves, we will have no reason to believe we need to run, hide, avoid or deny any part of who we are or how our lives are going because we will know we have the capacity to address it and still feel good about ourselves no matter how difficult the issue.

Now that I have established a brief but (I hope) solid basis for the belief that morality as we apply it to ourselves is a fundamental aspect of overall mental health, let’s get back to the topic at hand, which is what I mean by “Defining Morality.” We can begin with some questions that can help us understand how to apply the idea of Defining Morality in our lives. For any decision you face, you are already asking yourself, “will doing (this or that) get me closer to the kind of person I think I should be?” You might think you are not asking this, but I believe you are, always, every time, somewhere in the background. You may not know you are asking it, but it is there. In order to be able to answer this question, regardless of the nature, the magnitude, or the immediacy of the decision you face, you must first know what you mean by “the kind of person I should be,” which is exactly what Defining Morality is all about.

Try this, imagine yourself, right now, being exactly the kind of person you think you should be. Forget about whether you think it is possible. We are shooting for gold here, for perfection, knowing it is not possible. This is the ideal of who you are as the best person you can be. What comes to mind? What kinds of things about being a good person really matter to you? There are the usual suspects that we all (okay most of us) would include. Things like “I’d be honest all the time” and “people would remember me as someone who cared deeply about them.” For you, it might be more specific, like a goal for a legacy.   Some people want to be remembered for their accomplishments, which is perfectly fine. The only caveat I’d add is this (and this comes dangerously close to the kind of moral pronouncements I said I would not make in my writings on “Defiant Morality”): whatever you want to accomplish, even if you believe it is for the greater good, must be justifiable on it’s own, not just based on what it gets you. Or, as Immanuel Kant put it, at least when dealing with other people, you should always treat them as an end in themselves, never as only a means to an end. I would add to this that we shouldn’t be treating people or anything that can feel pain (e.g. animals) as solely a means to an end, but I digress. Whatever kind of questions you can create to get a better sense of your ideal moral self is the very process of Defining Morality.

I may have mentioned this elsewhere, but I can’t remember now, and anyway it’s good for illustrating the topic of Defining Morality, so I will risk repeating myself. When my son was about 12 he asked me, “Dad, what do you want me to be when I grow up?” Although it was a typical question for a child to ask their parent, I was completely unprepared. I know, lame. Anyway, I told him it was an important question and I’d need to think about it. Some time later (we are talking hours, or maybe a day or two), I had the answer I wanted to give him. I told him pretty much in these words, “When you grow up, I want you to be as compassionate as you can with yourself, any other person, and any animal that can feel pain; I want you to be as honest with yourself and others as you can be as often as you can be; and I want you to be interesting. How you do these things is up to you, but if you do all three of these things, you will be what I want you to be when you grow up.” In telling him these things, I can now see I was giving to him my own sense of a broad but fundamental version of my own Defining Morality. I can now see that these are the very basic aspects of what it means to me for me to be a good person, the best person I can be, and was just telling him I wanted the same thing for him. The closer I can get to “perfect compassion,” “perfect self-awareness and honesty,” and “being meaningful,” knowing all the while I will never completely get there, that I will stumble along the way and do things I later recognize as more wrong than right, continue to be strong principles in the decisions I make. Of course these are my values, and you need to find yours. That’s the whole point of Defining Morality. Maybe I should have called it “Defining Your Morality.” A morality, or moral structure that is part of how you define yourself, is what I mean.

Being aware of whatever defines you as your ideal moral self, forcing yourself to keep this in mind for as many of the decisions in your life as you can, even and perhaps most importantly when doing so is particularly difficult, will help you grow stronger, and believe more fully in your capacity to overcome any adverse situation without losing the most important parts of who you think you should be. Keeping questions of Defining Morality in your mind as often as you can will help you eliminate the need to engage in all the unhealthy behaviors that come with avoiding yourself. In the process, the picture of your ideal moral self will become increasingly clear, and hopefully easier to believe in, all the while knowing it is an ideal, and therefore never completely attainable. Lastly, having this goal, this ideal you are trying to achieve, is also a great way for us all to come to a better understanding of what gives our life meaning, of what really matters and what doesn’t. Knowing this will not only help us become “better” versions of ourselves (however we choose to define what that means for each of us), it will almost certainly help us attain more satisfaction with our lives. What could be a more meaningful goal than this for yourself: “I want to be the best, most good, person I can” (especially when you get to define what that means for you)!

Copyright, Michael Kinzer. Blog entries and other materials available on Jupiter Center’s website are only intended to stimulate thoughts and conversations and to supplement therapy work with Jupiter Center clients already in therapy. If you or someone you know suffers from a mental illness, you are strongly encouraged to seek help from a mental health professional. For further information about this blog, or Jupiter Center, contact Michael Kinzer at 612-701-0064 or michael(at)


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