Voices 5: VOICES OF THE RIGHT AND THE WRONG
Angela and Phillip visit the philo-sopher Linda at her home.
"We are enjoying your philo-sophia workshop," they tell her. "But we were wondering: What is the difference between philo-sophical practice and psychotherapy?"
"That’s a difficult question, because there are so many approaches to psychotherapy and to philo-sophical practice. But I would say that one important difference is this: Psychology deals with the person’s psyche - that’s why it is called ‘psycho-logy’. It focuses on the subjective processes that take place in (or between) people: emotions, thoughts, behaviors, etc.
In contrast, philo-sophical practice, or philo-sophia, focuses on something that happens not in the person’s subjectivity, but between the person and something else. It focuses on the dialogue between the individual and what I call ‘voices of human reality’.”
"When you say 'voices', do you mean ideas, meanings?"
"Not exactly, Angela. An idea, or a meaning, can be something abstract and impersonal, something that doesn’t touch me. By ‘voice’ I mean what you might call ‘a living idea’: an idea (or a meaning) that moves me, speaks to me, tempts me, creates in me a new understanding. And I can respond to it and converse with it – in other words, philo-sophize."
“Are you talking about unconscious voices in our minds? I think Freud talked about being aware of our repressed, unconscious experiences.”
“I don’t think, Phillip, that these psychological concepts would be helpful here. Let’s not translate philo-sophia into the psychological jargon. Voices of reality are not simply subjective creations of our mind. They express certain ways of understanding – they have an inner logic, assumptions, distinctions, networks of concepts. They say something to us, something we can understand and communicate and discuss. This is the focus of philo-sophia: voices of human reality, or if you prefer - ‘living ideas’.”
"I see,” Phillip says. “But I thought that psychotherapies, too, deal with ideas – for example the idea of love.”
“Most psychotherapies regard love as a psychological event – a subjective process inside the person. Therapists don’t usually philo-sophize with clients about the concept of love. I agree that some therapies, like existential psychotherapy, philo-sophize to some extent. They are therefore not completely psychological. They contain a philo-sophical element.”
“Would you say, then, that psychotherapy and philo-sophia are two different ways to help people deal with their personal difficulties?”
“I don’t think so, and this is another important difference between psychotherapy and philo-sophia. A therapy, by definition, tries to improve the person’s life: to resolve a personal problem, to alleviate difficult feelings, to improve functioning in the family, and so on. For me, this is not the goal of real philo-sophia. Philo-sophia doesn’t try to solve or improve anything. Its goal is a dialogue with the voices of human reality, and the new understandings that this raises in us. In this sense a philo-sopher is more like a poet than a psychologist.”
“That’s a bit abstract,” Phillip says. “Can you give an example?”
“Sure. Let's take a topic that is often discussed in standard academic philosophy: the right and the wrong.
“In order to understand this topic, let’s say you are in a moral (ethical) dilemma. For example, you can either lie to make your friend feel good, or tell the truth and hurt her. Or, you can either make a special effort to keep your promise, or alternatively break your promise because nobody will ever know or care. How do you decide which action is morally (ethically) right? How do you determine what you SHOULD do?
“Several ethical approaches give different answers. We can regard them as different ethical voices that speak in us and move us, at least sometimes.”
EMMANUEL KANT – RESPECT FOR PEOPLE’S RIGHTS
The answer given by the 18th century German philosopher Emmanuel Kant is commonly called ‘deontological’ or ‘duty-based’ ethics. For Kant, my action is morally right if I act with the intention of fulfilling my moral duties.
What counts as a moral duty? Kant believes that there is a general moral law that determines all our moral duties. He offers several formulations of this law, which he believes are equivalent to each other.
According to one of these formulations, our duty is to act in a way that would respect the people involved (both me and others) as rational, autonomous individuals. More accurately, we should treat people not only as a means for some purpose, but also as having their own inherent worth as persons. For example, it would be morally wrong for me to enslave another person, because I would be using him as a tool for my own satisfaction. Similarly, it would be wrong for me to lie to somebody, because I would be manipulating her without respecting her right to know and decide freely.
From this perspective, when I face an ethical dilemma I should ask myself: How can I fulfill my duty to respect people as rational, autonomous persons? In other words, how do I behave in a way that would respect their right to control their lives, their rights over their property, their responsibility for their actions, etc.?
JOHN STUART MILL – AS MUCH HAPPINESS AS POSSIBLE
The 19th century British philosopher John Stuart Mill offers a different answer (which he developed from Jeremy Bentham’s philosophy). From his perspective, an action is morally right or wrong only if it influences people’s happiness or suffering. If it makes no difference to anybody, then it is neither right nor wrong.
What makes my action right or wrong is its consequences: It is morally right if it adds to the world more happiness (or less suffering) than alternative actions which I could have performed. It is morally wrong if it produces more suffering (or less happiness) than another action which I could have performed.
Thus, whenever I am free to choose between several actions, I ought to choose the one that would bring as much happiness to as many people as possible (including me). For example, I should tell the truth rather than lie whenever the truth is likely to bring more happiness than the lie. But I should lie when the lie is likely to result in more happiness.
Mill called his approach ‘utilitarianism’, because it tells us to maximize ‘utility’, which for him meant happiness.
From this perspective, when I face an ethical dilemma I should ask myself: How do I act in a way that would add as much happiness to as many people (including me) as possible?
A popular sub-type of utilitarianism (which perhaps Mill himself believed) should be mentioned here: rule-utilitarianism. Rule-utilitarianism focuses not on the happiness produced by one particular action, but on the happiness produced by TYPES of actions. It focuses, for example, not on the consequences of my particular lie, but on the consequences of lies in general.
Accordingly, when I face an ethical dilemma I should ask myself: If most people acted like me, which type of action would result in the most happiness to the world?
ARISTOTLE – TO BE A VIRTUOUS PERSON
The approach called ‘Virtue Ethics’ was common in ancient Greek philosophy, although it has been revived by several contemporary thinkers. According to this view, the basic ethical issue is not ‘What is a right action?’ but rather ‘What is a virtuous person?’ or in other words, ‘Which personality traits are virtues?’
If, however, somebody insists on asking the question: “But which action is morally right?” the answer could be: “Once you become virtuous, the right actions will automatically follow.”
Everything depends, then, on how we understand what a virtuous person is. And different philosophers developed different answers to this question. Each answer portrayed different personality traits as virtues.
For Aristotle, moral virtues are habits which we learn and develop by practice, and which are between two extremes: between excess and deficiency. Courage, for example, is a virtue because it is between cowardice and rashness. Similarly, moderation is a virtue because it lies between pleasure-seeking and abstinence.
From this perspective, if I face a moral dilemma I should ask myself: What kind of a person should I be? Which personality traits should I maintain and develop?
If, for example I wonder how much money I should donate to charity organizations, then I should ask myself: Should I be a stingy person? Or generous? Or something in between?
CAROL GILLIGAN – DEVELOPING CARING RELATIONS
Carol Gilligan, a contemporary American psychologist, was one of the pioneers of so-called ‘feminist ethics’, or ‘care ethics’. In her book ‘In a Different Voice’ she suggested that traditional ethics represents masculine ways of thinking. She went on to identify a feminine way of ethical thinking, based on the concept of ‘care’.
Putting aside the question of males versus females, Gilligan’s point was to distinguish between two kinds of ethics: justice-based and care-based. Justice-based approaches (‘masculine’), such as utilitarian and deontological ethics, are focused on the question who is right and who is wrong. They attempt to define general principles that would determine rightness and wrongness. Their main concern is how to respect the individual as an individual – to respect his rights, freedom, happiness.
On the other hand, for care ethics (which Gilligan regards as feminine) the important thing is the caring relationships between people. The main issue is not how to respect the individual’s rights or happiness, but how to develop and maintain personal caring relationships.
From this perspective, when we face an ethical dilemma, our main question should not be: Who is right and who is wrong? but rather: How can I behave in way that would express and develop caring relationships between us?
“These ethical theories are not completely new to us,” Angela and Phillip say. “They were already mentioned in our classes at university.”
“Very good,” Linda says. “That will make things easier. Now I’d like us to continue with two more steps. First, let’s discuss these four theories and try to understand what they say, like in academic discussions. We want to clarify their inner logic, their implications and assumptions, their strong points and weak points, where they agree with each other and where they disagree.
“But unlike academic discussions, we are not trying to determine which approach is 'correct'. We only want to explore what these theories say to us in everyday life.”
“And what will be our second step?”
“Well, Angela, we will do a meditation exercise on these theories.”
The word ‘meditation’ takes Phillip and Angela by surprise. Linda chuckles. “Soon you will understand.”
For about an hour they discuss the four ethical approaches and analyze several case-studies of ethical dilemmas, some of them imaginary and some real.
Angela tells them that several days ago she experienced a dilemma. Her brother was depressed, but he refused to tell her the reason. Later she found his personal journal on the table. Her first reaction was to open his journal and read it, so that she would understand his problem and be able to help him. But on the other hand she also felt she had no right to violate his privacy. For a long time she sat by the table, the journal in her hand, unable to decide.
“That’s a clash between the deontological voice and the utilitarian voice,” Phillip suggests. “Respecting the person’s right for privacy versus making him happier.”
They discuss this for a while. Then they analyze a few more personal dilemmas.
“Alright,” Linda summarizes. “I think we have a good understanding of these four ethical voices. In the philosophical literature they are usually viewed as theories that contradict each other. Philosophers who regard themselves as utilitarianists, for example, argue against the deontologists, and the deontologists defend themselves and respond with their own attacks.
“But for us, this academic controversy is irrelevant. Each of these theories expresses a real moral intuition in our lives. Each of them expresses a real voice – a voice that speaks in us in certain situations but not in others. Because many ethical voices speak in us, not just one ‘correct’ theory.”
“What you are telling us,” Angela suggests, “is that in philo-sophia the main point is not whether an idea is correct, but whether it is real for us – in other words, whether it speaks in us, whether it is active our lives.”
“Wait,” Phillip objects. “Don’t we need to decide which theory is correct in order to make ethical decisions?”
“Of course you have to make decisions,” Linda explains. “And if the different ethical voices contradict each other, then you will need to decide whether to go along with the deontological voice, or with utilitarianism, or with another voice. But it is not the role of philo-sophia to make this decision for you. Philo-sophia doesn’t solve your dilemmas, it only explores their meaning.”
Linda now starts the second part of the meeting. She teaches Angela and Phillip a simple meditation. “Let’s close our eyes.”
After ten minutes, the minds of the three are tranquil, focused, and receptive.
“And now,” Linda says in a quiet voice, “let us imagine ourselves in Angela’s dilemma. Imagine yourself sitting by the table, holding the personal journal of your brother (or somebody dear to you). You can feel his sadness, his pain. You can see his sad eyes and hear his sad words. Now look at his journal in your hands. You have a choice to make: Either you open it, or you leave it closed. Imagine the happiness that you can bring him, but also imagine his privacy that you can violate.”
Linda falls silent for a few minutes, allowing them to get into the imagined situation.
“Now,” she continues in her quiet voice, “listen to yourself. Listen to the voices of your conscience, listen to the ethical voices that speak in you. What do you hear? What goes on inside you?”
After a while Linda asks them to put down on the table the imaginary journal and step out of the imaginary room. When they are ready they can open their eyes.
“In my meditation,” Angela says, “I felt confused. Each voice pulled me in a different direction, and I felt helpless, unable to decide. But then I had a realization. I realized that whichever alternative I chose, I would violate something. If I read the diary, I would betray my brother’s confidence. And if I didn’t read it, I would be unable to help. This made me sad. I felt I couldn’t possibly do the right thing. And then it struck me that that’s what life is like: We always fail in something… I wanted to cry…”
“Thank you for sharing with us this beautiful moment,” Linda says. “You described a real philo-sophical moment. It was a moment of 'hearing' - or understanding - a new voice in life. It would be very interesting to continue exploring it.”
“Well… I don’t know,” Angela hesitates. “Now that I think about it, maybe I was too sentimental. I am no longer sure that what I said was true.”
“Of course, a voice is only a voice, it doesn’t claim to be a True Theory. It is only one thread in the complex fabric of human reality.”
For a while they talk about Angela’s insight. Then it is Phillip’s turn to describe his meditative experience.
“I don’t have much to tell. All I could think was that the deontological voice was correct: It’s wrong to violate somebody’s privacy like that.”
“Alright,” Linda says. “And? Anything else?”
“I’m afraid not. All I could think was ‘that’s wrong’. I realized that I was listening only to the deontological theory. I realized that to declare one theory ‘correct’ is to silence all other voices. And yet that’s what I did.”
“Very interesting!” Linda smiles at Phillip. “You gave voice to an interesting realization.”
“That was fascinating,” Angela says. “But why did we start with an academic discussion about ethical theories? Why not start with meditation, and forget about the discussion?”
“Because if we meditate about something, we want to know what we are meditating about. We want our understandings to come from a good knowledge of life, not from confusions.”
“As you said,” Phillip remarks, “philo-sophia is a dialogue with the voices of reality.”
“Exactly. To be a philo-sopher is to remember that you are not just in your subjective feelings and subjective thoughts, but you are also encountering reality. You are not just in your psychological processes, but also conversing with real voices. Of course, we are not denying that we have psychological processes - pains and anxieties and satisfactions and so on, but for us they are not very interesting. From the philo-sophical perspective our psychology is the soil that gives birth to the main thing: new understandings of new voices. It is the soil where new flowers grow.”
“The flowers of Sophia.”
“Right. In everyday life it is so easy to lose ourselves in our psychological soil. Philo-sophia reminds us that we are not just the soil, we are the flowers too.”
“Are you saying,” Phillip asks, “that our psychology isn’t important? That we shouldn’t bother to feel better, or to overcome our anxieties?”
“Certainly you should. On the psychological dimension you will continue to do all of that. Without the psychological dimension, there is no life. There are no flowers without soil.”
“But Linda, I don’t see how philo-sophia is going to help people. Their difficulties and their pains are not going to go away!”
“Maybe so, Angela. Pain hurts, confusion is confusing, tedium is boring, anxiety chokes – these are facts. Philo-sophia doesn’t try to undo these psychological facts, but to unfold their meaning. Poets write poems about them, philo-sophers philo-sophize from them. Philo-sophia doesn’t resolve problems in life, but develops an additional awareness of their meanings, of their richness and depth. Because although on the psychological level our pains and anxieties are difficult, on the additional level they are our treasure. We have no richer treasure than them, no richer soil than the life we now live.”