The Location of Morality

I am in the mood to offer a very ambitious thought and then try to explain it, knowing the thought is far too broad and complex to have any hope of an adequate explanation in just a few pages. It is likely that the subject will occupy my thoughts to some degree for the rest of my life as I try to noodle out the implications of it. This is a work in progress, and this is my first attempt to put it to writing. So don’t be too surprised if my thoughts about it change quite a bit over time. I might even decide to contradict myself on some points I currently believe. I am open to rethinking this from scratch.

Just so you know where this is going before we actually “get there,” I had originally planned to call this post, “The Location of Morality in Mental Health.” I couldn’t get past what I thought my reaction would be if I came across an article with that title. I might think, “hmmm, a therapist squaking about morality, sounds kind of religious or self-righteous to me…” Or, I might think the title meant, “how ‘morality’ fits within the mental health field.” Both sound like pontification to me, which I find repugnant in the extreme, regardless of the source, and most especially if I am the one doing the pontificating! I don’t really mean either of these things. To avoid these interpretations, I extended the title to “The Location of Morality Within a Person’s Mental Health.” That was too long for Google, so I left it at Morality and a Person’s Mental Health, hoping it doesn’t sound grandiose. The topic is the way a person’s moral structure fits within her or his mental health and overall life satisfaction.

Here’s the the thought. The basis of all emotional concern is this question: “Do I have the capacity to cope with the difference between how things are and how they should be?” For the purposes of this writing, I will refer back to this as “the question.”

Let’s break the question down into its various parts. It is a question about yourself “Do I….” The next part is about your “capacity to cope.” I chose this particular phrase very specifically for two reasons. It is not just a question about how or what you are. It is a question about whether the kind of person you are has it within you to “cope” or deal with reality as it is, precisely when you recognize that reality is not now how you think it should be. I used the word “cope” instead of “change” because the question is meant to cover both those situations in which you might be able to change reality to make it what you think it should be and also those situations that cannot themselves be changed, which means it is you that must somehow change in order to address reality that seems wrong (for example, coming to accept the death of someone close to you as part of your grief process). Finally, the last part of the sentence, “the difference between how things are and how they should be” is actually a question about morality, or about what we do when our personal morality (how all things in our world, including people and our relationships with them, “should” be) collides with our current way of being in the world (a world “as it is,” which often doesn’t seem to care much about our personal brand of morality).

In the context of mental health or mental illness, this question is usually observed as a version of self-doubt. I’ve said this about many other emotional states, and it bares repeating here with self-doubt: all human emotional states exist because they are effective ways to respond to some kinds of circumstances, and are therefore healthy in the right context (See my book, Firewalking on Jupiter, Part Two: Choose Your Feelings). Self-doubt is also no exception as an emotional state that is prone to becoming excessive, or to occur in situations in which is not only ineffective, but destructive. Everyone asks “the question” in some form or another all the time, maybe many times a day, whether or not they are conscious that the question is being asked. It is imperative that we ask the question. Without doing so, we risk ignoring adjusting our responses to a reality that is not acceptable, or which, at the very least, needs to change (according to us) if it is possible to change. In that sense, self-doubt forces us to find whatever internal resources we possess to adequately address a situation that might seem at times difficult to the point of perhaps being insurmountable. Taken too far, though, this kind of self-doubt can become devastating when it turns inward and spirals into feelings of worthlessness, despair, shame or prolonged inadequacy (when we tell ourselves we should be able to change reality or ourselves to cope with reality, but conclude that we cannot).

Now let’s go back to the phrase at the beginning, right before “the question.” I said something very bold—that the question (“Do I have the capacity to cope with the difference between how things are and how they should be?”) is the basis of “all emotional concern.” I do not mean that every emotion invites “the question.” Joy, happiness, contentment, satisfaction, peace, bliss, relaxation, and serenity all imply very strongly that the question is not appropriate to whatever circumstances give rise to those kinds of feelings. These feelings imply there is no “difference between how things are and how they should be.” We experience these kinds of feelings when we believe things are exactly how they should be! That’s why I added the word “concern.” We are not concerned when we are happy. By “emotional concern,” I mean experiences that are typically called “negative emotions.” I don’t like the connotation that emotions that cause us concern are necessarily “negative.” So I just leave it at “emotional concern,” because those feelings we normally call “negative” should cause us concern—in fact, that is their purpose—to make us concerned, to get our attention and in that sense are not “negative” (unless they become so extreme they become debilitating or limiting) and are in fact crucial to our overall well-being.

Now, here is the whole point of this topic—the location of morality as it relates to mental illness (or emotional distress). Wondering if “the question” is at the base of all emotional concern, I have slowly begun to form the opinion that human existence carries with it three distinct but interconnected layers to address the question and what it means for us. At the “top” is the layer of thinking or rationality, which is the process of interpreting perceptions to describe reality or how things currently “are” and for strategizing about how to move toward how we think things “should be.” At the bottom layer is “morality” which is a set of beliefs or attitudes about how things “should be.” In the middle layer are “emotions,” which are internalized subjective mental states that tell us how seriously we should take the difference between how things are and how they should be (or in the case of “positive” feelings, telling us there is no difference—that we and the world are exactly where we and the world should be).

The beginnings of this way of thinking about emotions, thoughts, and morality first appeared when I wrote the chapter, “Choose your anger,” in my book, Firewalking on Jupiter. I wrote that anger is a “moral feeling”—that we feel anger when we perceive someone has done something to us that we think is wrong, when they have caused us a “moral injury.” After putting the whole book together, I took a break. I took a step back. I wanted to get a big picture look at my work as a therapist, the work of my clients, not only as individuals working on individual issues, but as a group, of all of us working toward something that makes us better, makes our lives better. So, what’s the commonality. Is there a way it all fits together? I think there is, and I have a glimpse of it. Just a glimpse, but maybe also a framework, a skeletal structure to tie it all together. I will continue to need the help of clients, friends, colleagues and many others to help me fill in the details of this skeletal structure.

The basic ideas for the layered framework of thoughts, emotions and morality came out of a text exchange I had with a friend after I finished Firewalking on Jupiter. We were discussing the origins of emotions; their source and purpose. I mentioned anxiety and self-doubt as two examples of emotions that seem clearly to provide us with information that things are not well in our world at that time and prompting us by their very discomfort to try to figure out how to make things better for ourselves. I plan to write more specifically about the advantages and disadvantages of self-doubt as part of this framework in future writings. Immediately after the text exchange with my friend, I began to think about all feelings and their purpose. I cannot yet think of any feelings that do not fit into this framework of emotions sitting in a middle layer, mediating our thoughts and our morality. Like I said, though, this is still a work in progress. It is admittedly half-baked and not really quite ready to “pull from the oven” (of ideas). Still, try it for yourself, think of any feeling that gives rise to emotional distress—guilt, sadness, loneliness, anger, resentment, boredom, grief, etc., any “negative feeling;” I think you’ll find just like I have—they all tell us something very important about how we need to change our situation or change our response to our situation. By “situation” I mean just about anything you encounter in your life: a new relationship, a job, a fight you had with your mother, someone cutting you off on the freeway, a grave social injustice, a perceived slight by someone you consider an important friend. Feelings on the positive side tell us there isn’t anything we need to do to change our situation or responses and they reward us (with feeling good) for having created or finding a situation which is (for the moment) just as it should be.

Before I finish, I want to say a word about how to view emotions along a spectrum. As an example, anxiety is at one end of a spectrum toward “urgency” or “very serious”—we need to do something right now so things quickly become the way they should be. At the other end of the spectrum might be acceptance or serenity—the difference between how things are and how they should be is serious, and there may even be a desperate desire to change things, but we conclude we do not have the requisite resources to make the change, so all we can do is change the way we experience the situation internally.

As I said at the beginning of this post, these thoughts are a work in progress. I will need to think about this some more and will keep you posted as I do. I hope you will think about it too and let me know what you think. If you are a current client, feel free to bring it up in therapy if you feel so inclined. Or, whether you are a current client or not, feel free to send me an email with your thoughts about this topic (my email is listed on the “Contact Us” page of this website).


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)