PSYCHOTHERAPY AND MORALITY

by Bob Wheeler

    Can science establish a basis for morality? If it could, we would expect to find it in psychology. For psychology is the branch of science that deals specifically with human behavior, and psychotherapy in particular seeks to cure the maladies of the soul. Does psychology, then, provide us with answers to moral and ethical questions?

    Recently we came across an interesting essay entitled “Authenticity, moral values, and psychotherapy,” by Charles B. Guignon. The essay appears in The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger, which was also edited by Prof. Guignon. At the time that the volume was published (1993) Mr. Guignon was Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Vermont.

    Guignon makes the interesting observation that “Many therapists and mental health professionals continue to feel that mainstream ‘scientific’ theories designed to explain and guide psychotherapy fail to capture much of what actually goes on in the practice of therapy” (p. 216). He tells that “a central part of what goes on in helping people in the modern world will consist in addressing questions about what constitutes the good life and how we can be at home in the world” (p. 217). He quotes Morris Eagle as stating that people seek professional help because of feelings of meaninglessness, feeling of emptiness, pervasive depression, lack of sustaining interests, goals, ideals and values, and feelings of unrelatedness.” These conditions, in turn, often result from “the lack of stable ideologies and values . . . or an atmosphere of disillusionment and cynicism in the surrounding society” (p. 217).

    Guignon goes on to say that therapists are poorly trained to handle such a task because psychotherapy is supposed to be based on science, and “scientific endeavor from the outset has aimed at being value-free and objective, basing its findings solely on observation and causal explanation. The result is a deep distrust of authoritarian pronouncements and value judgments” (Ibid.). Moral concerns are treated “as the personal of the client or as reducible to whatever principles of procedural justice are currently accepted as ‘self-evident’ in its own academic and professional community” (p. 218).

    Moreover, modern psychology tends to be based on naturalistic assumptions. “Part of the achievement of the new science of the seventeenth century was to dispel the traditional image of reality as a value-laden, meaningful cosmos in favor of our modern naturalistic view of the ‘universe’ as a vast aggregate of objects in causal interactions” (p. 219). But where does that leave morality? How would psychotherapy, based on naturalistic assumptions, resolve a moral or ethical question?

    One approach is to rely on means-end calculations. Supposedly science can show us how to reengineer our lives to achieve the greatest happiness and fulfillment. But as Guignon points out, “What is most striking about this calculative-instrumentalist approach, of course, is its inability to reflect on the question of which ends are truly worth pursuing” (p. 219). He notes that older views of life made a distinction between “mere living” and “a ‘higher’ or ‘better’ form of existence that we could achieve if we realized our proper aim in life” (Ibid.). But “the modern naturalistic outlook tries to free itself from such a two-tiered view of life.” “Psychotherapy, seen as a technique designed to help people attain their ends, remains indifferent to the ends themselves as long as they are realistic and consistent” (pp. 219-220).

    In an attempt to get around the limitations of naturalistic science when it comes to discerning any meaning and purpose in life, some Existentialist thinkers tried to revive the earlier, 19th Century Romantic view in which self-expression becomes paramount. Guignon cites the work of Rollo May as an example. Yet the radical individualism latent in this approach still leaves unanswered the question of whether or not life itself has any intrinsic meaning and purpose. As Guignon points out, May “seems unable to account for how the autonomous, disengaged chooser of values could ever come to regard any values as genuinely binding in the first place” (p. 222).

    Which brings us to Martin Heidegger. Guignon suggests that perhaps Heidegger can show us a way out of our dilemma.

Martin Heidegger

Martin Heidegger


    I do not pretend to understand Heidegger. His understanding of Being or “Dasein” is extremely abstruse. But from what we can gather from reading Guignon and other writers who have dealt with his philosophy, Heidegger viewed human existence within the context of human history and society. We have to make choices within the limitations of our circumstances, and it is the flow of human history that gives our actions meaning and significance.

    While that may help the therapist deal with the immediate needs of his patients, it still leaves unanswered the larger question of whether or not life as a whole has any meaning or purpose, and whether or not there are any universally binding norms of right and wrong. We are faced with a particularly unfortunate example of this in Heidegger himself. In one of the other essays in The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger Thomas Sheehan notes that Heidegger made a great show of joining the Nazi Party and actively supported Hitler’s cause. And, as Sheehan points out, this was perfectly consistent with Heidegger’s concept of “historicity.” Heidegger looked to the Fuehrer to lead Germany to its historical destiny.

    The basic question, then, remains unresolved by modern psychology. How can science, or any other secular philosophy for that matter, provide us with clear guidance about right and wrong? The answer is that it cannot. Either we live in a rationally ordered universe created by an Intelligent Being, or we do not. And if we do not, if we are merely so many accidents of a blind, impersonal natural process, there is no “right” or “wrong.” We simply exist, with all of our aggression, all of our prejudices, and all of our inhumanity. What you see is what you get.

    And yet we still seek therapy. There is something inside of us that cannot accept this state of affairs as normal. We are troubled by the actions of others, and even by the actions of our own selves. It is the law of God written on our hearts.

    “For thou hast created us for thyself, and our heart cannot be quieted till it may find repose in thee.” St. Augustine, Confessions, I.i.