Trudi Jane Wyatt, MA, RP, CCC
Psychotherapy for individual male and female adults in Ontario, Canada.
416-901-0994 (no text) or 647-955-6079 (no text)
130 Adelaide Street West PATH Toronto
By appointment only
Clients sometimes wonder, “Am I a bad person?” This reflects that they might hold some variation of the thought, “I might be a bad person.” To help, a cognitive therapy approach might suggest looking for factual evidence to support or disconfirm this thought. But, what evidence supports or disconfirms what a bad or good person IS? This question invokes an exploration of someone’s thoughts about morality – what someone thinks is “virtuous.”
But many people today are understandably confused about their morality and what’s “virtuous.” As The Hon. Peter D. Lauwers of the Ontario Court of Appeal explains, “We need to do better in terms of educating people in the virtues. We’ve lost that degree of moral language in our culture — or, we’re losing it — and we do that at our peril.”1 But how shall we educate them? What virtues shall we educate them IN? What virtues ARE we educating them in, and who’s to say what these should be? The current government? The loudest voice? The most persuasive voice?
Perhaps one approach to deciding what to think about morality could be to start by reviewing some of the various past conceptions of morality, and going from there. I am not an expert on this, but based on what I do know, the following.
All across anno Domini (AD) time, there have various moral codes proposed and followed, such as2: Christianity, based on submitting to God; Altruism (in various forms), based on sacrificing your own self/values for the sake of “others”; Kantianism, based on duty for the sake of duty and including that it’s not moral if you get a reward; etc.
The word “selfish” has been seen as a criticism in all these codes, such that if you’re not fully sacrificing yourself for the sake of God, others, duty, etc., you’re not fully living up to morality. But this is at odds with the at least partially-accepted contemporary self-care message which Dr. George Simon articulates3: “Sometimes overly conscientious people equate acting in their own best interest with being selfish. Nothing can be further from the truth. Selfishness is self-absorption, self-seeking behavior that either disregards the rights and needs of others or tramples them deliberately in favor of personal gain. Taking the time and care to tend to your own legitimate wants and needs while not unnecessarily inflicting harm on others (i.e., self-assertion) is perfectly healthy and desirable.”
Long before AD, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle did not see acting in one’s best interest as a vice4. He looked at “wise and noble men*,” considered the kind of entity man is, and strove to develop an attainable ethics, for the ultimate end of happiness/eudemonia. Just like you can’t tell an acorn to become a willow tree4, he reasoned that you can’t set man up to strive towards an “ethics” that he’s just not naturally capable of (note: this type of unrealistic standard might lead to excessive guilt). Aristotle saw reason as man’s distinctive potentiality, and developed an ethics aimed at actualizing this. He divided virtue into two types, moral for practical guidance and happiness, and intellectual for knowledge (at the time seen as having no practical value). For the moral virtues, he described 3 amounts in various life aspects: too much, too little, or just the right amount (“The Golden Mean”). For example, in the realm of social relationships, there can be too little (misanthrope), too much (obsessed with people), or the just right amount (friendliness)4. Central Washington University offers more Aristotelian Golden Mean examples here.
Much later, in the 20th century AD, controversial author/philosopher Ayn Rand developed a philosophical system (Objective-ism: Volitional adherence to reality) including an ethical code that like Aristotle’s, embraced reason, but that saw this faculty as not only man’s (she meant, men’s and women’s) distinctive potentiality, but as his very means of survival, in part because the evidence of the overall sweeping advances in human quality of life achieved in the Industrial Revolution was available to her. By her philosophy, to the extent that man survives and thrives, it’s because he uses his mind2. Objectivism’s view of morality embraces life as the ultimate value, rationality as the fundamental virtue, and like Aristotle, it does not deem benefiting from one’s virtuous actions as immoral. That said, it also points out that the initiation of force (e.g. against another person), and morality, are opposites — because morality explores the question of “What should I do to be good?”, which implies you have a choice, but if you’re talking force, you have no choice. (I think this is where the law comes in — removing the initiation of the use of force from human interactions, so we can live freely, without coercion.)
In her system, the “cardinal values” are reason, purpose, and self-esteem, and the derivative virtues (pursuits of values) are justice (rationality in evaluation of other people’s use of volition, and acting accordingly, even with praise and similar, where appropriate), honesty (refusal to engage in pretense), integrity (commitment to principles), independence (primary orientation to reality, not to other people), pride (striving to live up to one’s conception of morality), and productiveness (bring values into material existence). Her philosophy also discusses love and friendship, as the emotional responses to individuals who share one’s values, and the idea that helping a loved one is moral because what happens to him or her makes a difference to one’s life5. The emotional reward of volitionally making the effort to live this kind of above-described moral life is non-contradictory happiness.
Of course there are and have been many other perspectives on “the good”! The environmental movement, Stoicism, Maimonides’6, John Stuart Mill’s “utility,”6 simply avoid harming others6, and many more.
SO, circling back to the question of one’s degree of good-ness (morality), the above are some possible ways to perhaps expand one’s thinking around how to approach answering it. Another might be to take a step back and ask more fundamentally what morality even IS, but that’s a blog topic for another day :)
For help with contemplating and achieving “the good” in your life, feel free to contact me to set up an initial in-person appointment or free initial telephone consultation. (Phone: 416.901.0994, no text. Email: See Contact Info tab above.)
(1) “Reflections on Charter Values” Q&A, Runnymede Society Law & Freedom Conference, 2018.
(2) Onkar Ghate, Ph.D. (philosophy), 2008/2009.
(3) How did we end up here? By Dr. George Simon.
(4) Leonard Peikoff, Ph.D., History of Philosophy. *In this lecture it is pointed out that certainly a flaw of Aristotle’s philosophy was that he did not view women as metaphysically equal to men.
(5) Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand.
(6) Peter B. Raabe, Ph.D., Philosophy’s Role in Counselling and Psychotherapy.
Edited 24 March 2018
Note that this post is not psychotherapy / counselling; please contact me or another professional if you require these services. If you need urgent support, consider Toronto Distress Centres at 416.408.4357. If you need immediate help, call 911 or go to your local Emergency Room. Note this post is for information only, does not imply that a professional relationship has been established with readers, is not advice, and does not imply intent to provide professional services to readers. Intended audience: Current adult residents of the Canadian province of Ontario only.
Trudi Jane Wyatt © 2018