Continuing with the series I started a couple of days ago; another aspect of mental health that I believe to be very important is the topic of morality. Now, morality gets almost no mention whatsoever in psychology textbooks and again I’m highly suspicious of this. The suggestion here is that morality is somehow outside the purview of psychology, however, I would argue that morality, or its lack, is actually at the heart of a lot of what we call mental illness. Consider how many times you hear about criminals pleading insanity in court to justify their crimes. Psychologists are often brought in as expert witnesses to give weight to such claims. Yet, why the lack of mainstream academic discussion among psychologists about morality and it’s relationship to mental health?
The first issue is of course defining what morality is. In the simplest sense, morality is about doing the right thing based on a set of rules. There are two major competing schools of thought about what rules count as moral: one that is very popular in academic writing and trendy social circles, and the other which is considered by many to be old fashioned, out of date, and ridiculous. The popular definition is that morality is socially defined, it is a set of rules that have no objective basis to them, they are just adhered to by people because of traditional and political authority. This is subjective morality, while the supposedly out dated version of morality is called objective morality and the argument here is that morals are not mere popular whims, but come from reason and are universal.
These two definitions of morality are completely at odds with each other, and the key difference between them is the question: is your idea of morality unique to you, or do you share it with everyone else? Here I am glad to say as a philosophical therapist I don’t have to try to fit in with the trendy academics who think morality is unique to each individual. Instead, I can use philosophy to make the case that morality by definition must be universal. It cannot be subjective otherwise it becomes mere will to power: it was ok for President Obama to kill people because he is popular and powerful, it is wrong for John to kill because he is unpopular and weak.
Let’s begin by using the example of theft. It was often suggested to me in university that theft is a European concept, that in other cultures they don’t have a concept of private ownership, things like shelter and tools are communally owned so anyone can use or borrow anyone else’s things in these cultures without having to ask. I was told this so many times that I just took this to be true because of the constant repetition from the lecturer’s pulpit. However, what cultures are they talking about here? Try stealing, i.e. Borrowing without permission, from a Chinese, or an Indian, or an African. Trust me, they will object to having their property stolen from them just as much as any European does, perhaps even more so! So what about nomadic tribes of Polynesians? I was often told these primitive societies shared everything, but again, this just isn’t true. These people clearly understood trade and barter, while they might share their things within their tribes they certainly don’t share them with other tribes so willingly. In fact, this whole idea of primitive communism might be purely an invention of Karl Marx who described primitive tribes as being communist. Karl Marx wasn’t an anthropologist, nor a philosopher.
The idea of self-ownership, property ownership, and that theft and related crimes (fraud, rape, murder, trespass, etc…) seems to be universal to all people. Indeed, even dogs and cats exhibit a less developed sense of ownership over their territory and families. Your immune system is very clear about what is “self” and “non-self” and won’t tolerate anything “non-self” stealing resources from your body. It is quite likely that if we encountered an extra-terrestrial intelligence it would have the same concepts of ownership and morality regarding theft as we do. If you are a conscious organic entity, then moral concepts like theft are going to be universally applicable to everyone in your category.
The argument I get whenever I point this out is that some people who do commit murder, rape, theft etc, but this is a strange argument against universal morality. The argument is that because immoral acts are committed by some people therefore morality therefore can’t be universal, or alternatively. This is confusing moral laws with the universal laws of nature which cannot be violated. Just because there are people out there who steal, rape, and murder, doesn’t mean morality isn’t objective. Rather the people who do rape, steal, murder, lie, etc., are people we should be looking at more closely.
Are murderers, rapists, thieves, and liars a different type of person or are they the same as us except they have different ideas about morality?
The interesting thing about most criminals found in prisons is that they generally believe themselves to be innocent. They will talk about how they had to lie, they had to kill someone, they had to commit rape, they will talk about being provoked by their victims or by other people around them into carrying out these acts. There is in general a denial of self-ownership among criminals. This is where we are starting to cross back over into the realm of psychology. People who don’t take responsibility for their lives, for their decisions, and their actions are the people who tend to have the most psychological problems as described in terms like: depression, anxiety, borderline, dissociative, narcissism, sociopathy, etc… They also are more likely to be struggling with their lives, from failure to launch to winding up in prison complaining they had no choice but to commit crime.
Criminals get more interesting from an academic point of view when you intimidate them, beat them up, lie to them, and rape them. Even though they themselves may have committed these acts against others they object to other people subjecting them to their own behaviour! And there the lie is exposed: morality is universal, criminals know full well it is wrong to beat, rape, and murder them, they just choose to make up excuses for why it is ok for them to commit the wrongs they object vociferously to being subjected to themselves. Morality is not a matter of opinion, it is universal and can be philosophically reduced down to two simple commandments: thou shalt not trespass and thou shalt not bare false witness. No one desires being lied to, abused, murdered, robbed, etc…
But wait! I can hear you cry even as I type these words, what about masochists? What about enablers? Well the problem with these cases, and I submit this challenge to you, can you find an example of a masochist or an enabler who wasn’t neglected, abused, or tormented as a child? Or who doesn’t have brain damage? Or who doesn’t at least know to compartmentalise their masochism and enabling so as to function in environments with other people like in the workplace? Indeed, we have a name for people who can’t describe or practice morality at all: insane. These are people whose words have moved beyond knowing uttering a falsehood (lying) to utter meaninglessness because there is no moral consistency in their thought processes. These are the people who cannot be left unsupervised or live independently because their brains are too broken from genetic disorders or environmental malefactors.
The more moral a person is, the more consistent their speech is with observed reality, the more consistent their actions are with their words, and the more reliable and trustworthy they become. Conversely, the less moral a person is the less meaningful their words become: first through bias, then through falsehoods and calculated lies, and finally into meaningless gibberish. The less moral a person is the less self-control over their bodies and actions they exhibit, this shows up through poor manners, harmful addictions, petty crimes, and in severe cases in violent crimes, and finally in extreme case an inability to even control their feelings and impulses at all.
Thus it becomes a question of serious importance: why is it trendy to believe morality is somehow not related to mental health, when it is probably one of the core elements to mental health?