I have for some time been considering how to approach more directly my thoughts on morality—on what is “good” and “bad” when it comes to human decisions, including their behavior, beliefs, attitudes, and judgments. I have wanted to write about this topic directly, but have hesitated. The problem has been that is in my nature to mistrust any pronouncement of moral authority. I can very much relate to those who tell me they have been subjected too often or with too much intensity or self-righteousness the moral thinking of others in their lives–sometimes it is a parent, or an older sibling, a preacher, or, God forbid, a previous therapist! I abhor the idea of hypocrisy, and even more stingingly, I abhor the idea of myself as a hypocrite. Put this all together and I have set myself up for what will be a very difficult, and maybe impossible task: to write about my own sense of right and wrong, while completely avoiding any normative statements (“you should… or should not…”) and thereby forcing my own ideas of right and wrong onto anyone else.
I feel an even keener sense of responsibility to refrain from espousing my ideas of right and wrong within my position as a therapist for fear that clients and others will give it far more credence than it deserves, because after all, it is just my opinion and I am just some guy. So much of my work as a therapist hinges on my strong belief that people have it within themselves to make much better decisions for themselves and the people they love than I or anyone else could decide for them. The last thing I want to do after all these years of doing this work with others is to then suggest, “oh by the way, in addition to having it within yourself to make good decisions, you should also listen to me about what is right and wrong and adopt what I say as the answer for you.” Obviously, that just won’t do.
As a beginning to addressing this dilemma (of wanting to address ideas of right and wrong without telling others how they should be), I have come up with some guiding principles; a skeletal framework for myself in how I should go about resolving this self-imposed dilemma.
- No moral statement or precept from me should contain this kind of definitive moral judgment: “you should do this or not do that if you want to be a good person.”
- I make a strong assumption that no one wants to hear what I think they should be like. Or rather: I don’t want the reader to care what I think they should be like. Or even stronger than this: I want them to not want to care what I think they should be like and to resent any attempt on my part in telling them who I think they should be.
- All reasoning should be able to withstand a new moral imperative: can I imagine that all people would want to be or act this way? Only then is it a moral precept or structure worth writing about or considering. (This is actually a paraphrase of the “categorical imperative” created by Immanuel Kant).
- A rule of thumb to test the above imperative is this: if in viewing your life as a whole does the proposed action or state make it more likely that a person will feel good about the kind of person they have become and are becoming?
- Ideas about morality I share should be able to appeal to an individual considering such thoughts as a way to improve their overall sense of life satisfaction. In other words, an individual reader of my thoughts on morality should be able to imagine themselves implementing the ideas in their lives in a way to achieve positive personal growth, regardless of the extent to which the moral thoughts might also benefit others or be “good” in some other respect. (See my chapter, “Selfishness and Love,” in Firewalking on Jupiter.)
The generalized nature of these guiding principles will suffice as a cautionary starting point for the time being and can act as a set of self-imposed limitations for sharing my thoughts on morality in the future.
For now, though, I want to mention, just mention, a thought I’ve been having about how to fit a way of thinking about morality within this kind of framework—what to call it and think about it. Here’s a preliminary thought I’ve been toying with: I call the idea “Defiant Morality” (note the capital letter for extra and ironic authority). Defiant Morality begins with this proposition: if we could jettison, and I mean completely rid ourselves, of all external influences about right and wrong, about what kinds of actions, decisions, ways of being in our lives are morally okay and not okay (I know we can’t, but just for the sake of discussion assume we could), what would be left in our thoughts about what makes a thing morally right or wrong? For each of us, I assume the answer would be at least slightly different—but maybe not quite as different as we think.
For Defiant Morality, a way to move beyond a thought experiment into a way of being, of acting, of deciding is this: first decide what you are not willing to do, before deciding what you are willing to do. What lines will you refuse to cross? No matter how someone else might try to compel you? In the extreme: if handed a rifle in Nazi Germany and told to shoot innocent civilians or be shot yourself, what would you do? Closer to home (and reality): if your supervisor at work tells you to do something you know, and he or she knows, is blatantly dishonest, will you refuse? Will your answer change if your only other option is to be fired? Will it matter if being fired could be a career-ending decision, or you have a family to support?
When I used to work in the prisons, a short-handed way of describing a morality that begins with only you and your thoughts, and what you will not do, was this: “if it feels wrong, it probably is, so don’t do it.” Of course, it isn’t always that easy though. If it were, there wouldn’t be a need for books and discussions going down through the centuries trying to figure all this out.
As a family therapist, I have encountered something like the following many times. Jenny comes in to see me because her marriage to John is failing. She tells me she is having an affair and feels very conflicted about it. I ask her to tell me how she got to this point. She tells me she’d been dissatisfied with her marriage for years, that she’d met a guy at work who felt the same way. She didn’t want to leave the marriage because they have two kids, and she thought she should just stay in it and be lonely, dissatisfied, and put up with it until the kids were out of the house. After a few years, this began to wear on her. When she discovered Dave at work was suffering the exact same dilemma, the solution seemed easy for both of them. Now that the affair has been going on for more than a year, she finds herself suffering from increasing symptoms of both anxiety and depression. Not surprisingly, some of the anxiety is about her husband or Dave’s wife finding out or even worse, that her kids would find out. The depression is more confusing to her. She likes Dave, but doesn’t love him. She enjoys her time with him as much as she can. Through therapy, she hopes to find out why this isn’t enough, why she is increasingly depressed. There could be many reasons, all of which we will explore together.
Most of the time, people who have long-term affairs end up suffering from some level of depression if the affair doesn’t end or the marriage doesn’t end. Why? The affair doesn’t solve the original problem, which is an unsatisfying marriage you’ve given up on but refuse to leave. The affair just makes the initial problem worse, by adding guilt, fear, and broken trust with your spouse to the equation. Most of the time, when people have affairs, like Jenny, it is a slow, evolving, unintended process. They might spend years lonely, isolated, feeling trapped before they cross any lines beyond the marital boundary. Then, an unanticipated situation presents itself: Dave, or Jenny, depending on your perspective. Someone you know, or meet, seems like a possible solution to the dilemma you’ve been facing—whether to stay in a marriage and be lonely and sad or leave the marriage and cause untold pain and financial hardship to yourself and others. They make a rash decision, or they slide from an emotional support to something more, and then into the affair.
What if, in each of these cases, the lonely married person said to themselves, before the “unanticipated event” (they meet either Dave or Jenny): “One thing I will not do is have an affair, it is not open for consideration.” People do this. And when they do, they force themselves to either do what can be done to fix the marriage, or they often leave, because no other choice is available for finding the kind of attention, sexual satisfaction, and connection that is not coming from the marriage. By telling themselves what they will not do, they force themselves to make only a narrow set of decisions that might be more difficult at the time, but less onerous down the road. They also prevent outside influences (a disappointing marital relationship coupled with a discrete opportunity to obtain affection and connection) to make their decisions for them.
There are many similar situations we encounter in our lives that might actually be easier in the long run to deal with if we were willing to exclude certain choices that seem easier in the moment. How many people do you know, maybe you yourself, who have stayed in a job or career they hate for years and years, because they let themselves think things will get better, that either they will eventually accept it, or something will change that will make the job easier (a nasty boss retires). What if that person (or you) said to herself or himself, “I will not let myself be miserable for extended periods of time, not for any job!” (and you said this before you were miserable). Then, if you find yourself in a job that is untenable, and not likely to change no matter what you do, you won’t stick around. You will start looking for another job, or go back to school. You will seek out support for change from those in your personal life. You will already have announced to yourself and those in your personal life that this is the kind of person you are: someone who has self-imposed limits on what you are willing to tolerate in any job. You will make a better choice for yourself because you’ve already told yourself what you will not do. You will exercise Defiant Morality.
The idea of Defiant Morality is a work in progress. Not only is it incomplete in my mind as I write this, I can see ways that it cannot be a complete way of deciding what to do in many situations. That’s okay. It’s just supposed to be a starting point. Even more than that, it’s just something to consider as a way to put aside all kinds of potential external influences on the way we think about right and wrong, good and bad, all of our moral judgments, until we decide for ourselves, intentionally, which of those influences we want to adhere to and which are not appropriate for us as individuals based on who each of us is and how each of us decide we want to live our lives.
If “Defiant Morality” is a starting point for developing a moral structure for yourself that is not dependent on external influences making those decisions for you, then maybe an end point, or goal to move toward, is another set of moral principles I call “Defining Morality” (note the nice alliteration between the two principles). Defining Morality will be the specific subject of an upcoming blog post.
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)jupitercenter.com.