DevInContext The Case For Personal Growth

1Mar/10Off

The Responsibility Ethic, Part 3: Guilt And Morality

guilt

This post continues my discussion of what I've called the "responsibility ethic" in personal development -- the idea that it's best to see ourselves as responsible for our circumstances in life, as opposed to seeing our situation as the product of chance or forces beyond our control.

In my last post, I noted that many personal growth teachers who advocate the responsibility ethic draw a distinction between taking responsibility for our life situation and blaming ourselves for it.  Taking responsibility is healthy, they say, but "beating yourself up" is not.

I also observed that critics of personal growth often object to this distinction, arguing that our tendency to "beat ourselves up" is actually what keeps us behaving morally.  In other words, it's not enough just to know what's right and wrong.  You won't act morally unless you fear that, if you don't, you'll be wracked with guilt.  Thus, if human beings lost their capacity for self-blame, society would descend into violent anarchy.

A Brief Reality Check

First off, I think it's important to keep in mind that this argument is purely theoretical.  I don't know of any critic who has presented solid evidence that personal growth teachings are actually turning people into violent psychopaths.  Nobody has shown that, say, serial killers are statistically more likely to have read I'm OK, You're OK than the average person.  What the critics claim is that if, hypothetically, people took the "responsibility vs. blame" distinction to its logical extent, people would stop behaving morally and we'd all be in trouble.

Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that the critics are right -- that if people fully accepted the idea that we shouldn't punish ourselves for the past, and they fully understood the logical implications of that idea, they'd start murdering and stealing with wild abandon.  Even if this is true, that doesn't necessarily mean the responsibility vs. blame distinction is a menace to society.  That would only be true if we had reason to believe that people, in practice, are taking, or will take, that distinction to its logical extent.

Is there reason to believe this?  Like I said, there's no conclusive evidence one way or the other, but I think a few observations are worth making.

First, consider the audience. Admittedly, given the vastness of the personal growth field, it would be difficult to come up with a profile of the "average personal development consumer."  But we do know that the majority of self-help book sales are made to women.  I hope it isn't unforgivably sexist of me to point this out, but men commit most recorded violent crimes (and, in fact, most crimes of any stripe).  Notably, in the U.S. in 2008, men committed 90% of murders where the killer's gender was known.

If personal growth teachings really do turn people into miscreants, shouldn't we expect to see more criminality among women, who are self-help books' biggest consumers?  Or, to put the point differently, perhaps we can all rest easier knowing that women, who appear to have a lower propensity for violence, are largely the ones buying these books.  But if there's ever an upsurge in male self-help book consumption, I guess, we'd all better stock up on ammo and canned goods and hunker down for the apocalypse.

Second, consider the teachings. As we saw, the critics' argument is that, if people took the responsibility vs. blame distinction to its logical extent, they would behave destructively.  If this is so, personal growth teachers certainly aren't encouraging their audiences to make that logical leap.  You know the typical goals of personal development:  to help you make money, have fulfilling relationships, develop inner peace, and so on.  We don't often see books, CDs or seminars about "Guilt-Free Murder," "Self-Esteem For Child Abusers," or "Loving Your Inner Car Thief."

I don't know for a fact, but I'll make the educated guess that consumers of self-development products and services, by and large, aren't even thinking about the abstract philosophical implications of the ideas they're learning.  They have specific, practical objectives, and they're interested in personal growth only insofar as its perspectives and techniques help them get where they want to go.

Is Self-Blame Needed For Morality?

We've seen that, even if we assume in the abstract that letting go of self-blame means eliminating morality, it doesn't follow that personal growth teachers who talk about releasing guilt are, here in the real world, promoting immoral behavior.  Now, let's return to the original question:  if we lost our tendency to "beat ourselves up" over the past, would we lose any incentive to act morally?  Would the proverbial dogs and cats start living together?

To some, it's obvious:  a person who doesn't feel guilt (which, I think, is another term for self-blame) is, in psychological terms, a psychopath, and therefore a danger to society.  As we saw earlier, Wendy Kaminer argues as much in I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional, writing that "there's a name for people who lack guilt and shame:  sociopaths."  However, as philosopher Gilbert Harman points out, that's not what psychologists actually think.  Psychologists see the lack of guilt feelings as only one of several defining characteristics of psychopaths -- the others include antisocial behaviors like killing or stealing, a lack of empathy, and so on.

In other words, the fact that someone is guilt-free doesn't necessarily make them a psychopath, just as the fact that my car has an engine doesn't necessarily make it a Lamborghini.  For all the psychologists know, there may be many people out there who don't suffer over the past and nonetheless behave morally.

What's more, clearly the threat of self-punishment isn't the only reason people refrain from antisocial behavior.  Many of us, I suspect, don't even form the desire to harm others in the first place.  I don't know about you, but as I go through my day, I don't usually find myself thinking "you know, it'd be great fun to kill that person, but I'd just feel so guilty if I did."  I also suspect that many of us abstain from hurting others because we care about them, and want to see them stay well.  And, at the very least, surely the fear of getting caught and punished by others -- which is distinct from the fear of self-punishment -- deters some people from criminal activity.

My point is that I think there's reason to question the notion that, if people let go of their tendency to self-blame, widespread chaos would ensue.  Hopefully, this will give some solace to people locked in a painful cycle of self-flagellation.

Next up:  Is the responsibility ethic anti-compassion?

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25Feb/10Off

The Responsibility Ethic, Part 2: Responsibility Vs. Blame

responsibility-poster1

This post continues my discussion of what I've called the "responsibility ethic" in personal development -- the idea that it's best for us to see ourselves as responsible for our situation in life.  I've been looking at the common argument that buying into the responsibility ethic causes people to beat themselves up over the setbacks they face.  You can read the last post in this series here.

2. Responsibility Vs. Blame

The critics of personal growth aren't the only ones aware of what I'm calling the "self-blame argument."  Many personal development teachers understand it as well.  What they often say is that it's possible to see ourselves as responsible for our circumstances without blaming ourselves for them.  In other words, if we suffer a setback, we can admit how our actions contributed to it without suffering over it.  If I'm in debt, for instance, I can acknowledge what I did to create the debt without calling myself lazy or stupid.

As we saw earlier, psychological research suggests that people can, and do, make this "responsibility versus blame" distinction.  People who tend toward an external locus of control -- the belief that they lack control over their lot in life -- often punish themselves for the difficult events in their lives, even though they see themselves as helpless.* People who tend toward an internal locus of control, although they see themselves as in control of events, actually do less self-flagellation when they get bad results.

Some critics acknowledge this distinction but reject it, arguing that it effectively destroys any notion of morality.  For example, in Self-Help Inc., sociologist Micki McGee derides Deepak Chopra's discussion of responsibility in The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, in which Chopra advocates "not blaming anyone or anything for your situation, including yourself."  "This notion of responsibility," writes McGee, "suspends the literal meaning, ensuring that no one is actually accountable for anything," and creating "a mystical world without need of morality or ethics."

The Philosophy Behind Self-Blame

Is this true?  Let's take this question to a deeper level.  As I think you'll see, this discussion is a good example of how the debate over personal growth ideas raises some important, and timeworn, philosophical questions.

What is self-blame?  I'd put it this way:  When we blame ourselves for an event in our lives, we are 1) judging ourselves as worthy of punishment or suffering because it happened, and 2) administering punishment -- by, perhaps, tensing our bodies painfully when we think about the event.  For example, I'll bet you can think of a time when you got really angry at someone, in a way you now see as inappropriate -- and that you cringe (punish yourself) when you remember it.

When you think about it, the idea that I should suffer because of something I did is based on some interesting metaphysical assumptions.  The idea seems to be that, when I do something wrong (whatever that may mean to me), I basically knock the universe out of balance.  I can only restore the cosmic equilibrium by experiencing suffering proportional to the suffering of my victim.  The fancy philosophical term for this idea is "retributive justice."

We see this mindset in how people tend to talk about the criminal justice system.  For instance, people often say of a criminal that he must "pay for his crime."  This means that the criminal has drawn on a sort of "cosmic bank account" by creating suffering for another person, and he must repay the "debt" through his own suffering -- most likely, by going to prison for some number of years.

Justice Without Retribution

In essence, many personal growth teachers, while asking us to take responsibility for our situation, also invite us to let go of the philosophy of retributive justice.  I can acknowledge my role in creating my circumstances, they say, without punishing myself if those circumstances aren't up to my standards.  What's more, when I stop wasting time and energy punishing myself for the past, I become able to look to the future and take constructive action -- make a plan to reduce my debt, perhaps, or look for a new relationship.

If we do what these teachers suggest and let go of the retributive justice idea, do we also eliminate morality?  I think not.  It's certainly possible to believe in moral rules -- that is, rules of right and wrong conduct -- without accepting the concept of retributive justice.

I could believe, for instance, that stealing is wrong, without also believing in retribution against people who steal.  Instead, I might believe that people who steal should be required to pay their victims the money they stole, or the value of the property they took, to put the victim in the position he was in before the theft.  In other words, I may accept what's called compensatory justice, but not retributive justice.

What's more, I would be far from the first to take this stance -- many philosophers have argued against the concept of retributive justice, and the notion that people should suffer for their misdeeds to restore some abstract cosmic balance.  The idea of dispensing with retribution against ourselves and others is not some kooky New Age innovation.

But Isn't Guilt Good For Society?

Now, I think some personal growth critics would acknowledge that we can retain some notion of right and wrong, even if we stop blaming or punishing ourselves when our results are less than perfect.  But that, the critics might argue, is not the real issue -- the point is that, if we don't blame ourselves when we act wrongly, morality loses any practical significance.

The very reason we act morally, they say, is because we're afraid that, if we don't, we'll beat ourselves up over it.  If people lost the capacity to self-blame, society would descend into violent anarchy. "There's a name for people who lack guilt and shame:  sociopaths," writes Wendy Kaminer in I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional.  "We ought to be grateful if guilt makes things like murder and moral corruption 'harder.'"

What will I say about this?  It's a nail-biting cliffhanger!  Stay tuned, dear readers, for Part 3 of The Responsibility Ethic.

As psychologist Helen Block Lewis puts it in The Many Faces of Shame, "behavior theorists have described a cognitive paradox in depression: If depressed people are as helpless as they feel, logic dictates that they should not also feel self-reproaches (guilt) for what they are unable to do." And yet, oddly enough, they do feel guilt.

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