The Emotions You SHOULDN’T Blame Anyone For Having

In the last several posts I’ve written about ethics, I have been talking in part about the various ways in which we are ethically responsible for our emotions and for reasoning through them.

One thing worth to make explicit, which I simply assumed people would understand, is that I have been talking in those posts about neurotypical people who have reasonable potential to reason through their emotions and to alter them accordingly if they were to become conscientious about doing so.

In this the talk below, JT gives a really powerful and personal talk about what it’s like to have neurological deficiencies that make it simply impossible to feel rationally:

Watching this video I feel like simply repeating what I’ve said before about what I think about when JT discusses his mental illness:

One of the most important mental disciplines is to assess yourself honestly. We are so naturally susceptible to judging ourselves according to both the flattery of our admirers and of our own ego, on the one hand, and the disdain of our detractors and our own irrational fears, on the other. It takes a lot of work to look squarely at what we actually do and what it is actually worth. Our brains are structured in such a way that emotionally our fastest judgment is a simplistic positive or negative towards whatever we encounter, including ourselves. And because of this we can think only positively about ourselves one moment and only negatively the next.

So, I concentrate a lot on looking at myself as truthfully as I can manage and it is a daily uphill climb. And tuning out the misperceptions of others is a vital part of this process. I work very hard to not judge myself by widespread misconceptions of what value does or does not consist in.

And so I cannot express enough my agreement with, and admiration for, JT Eberhard’sfrankness about his struggles with mental illness. He is able to insist on seeing the rational truth for what it is. It is not his fault that he has a sickness. It is not anything he should be ashamed of. And it is not anything he should hide from his enemies who would want to exploit it in order to undermine his credibility by trading on resilient myths about either the weakness or the culpability of the clinically depressed.

He will publish his experiences of temporarily losing his mind, even sometimes, intimately, right after they happened. He will publicly let others suffering like him know he is with them. He will model his successes in beating back the monsters and model resiliency after losses against them. He will vividly describe for the rest of us what it is like to live in a brain like his own. He will expose and articulately denounce the attempts to exploit his illness by religious people who misguidedly prey on those they perceive as vulnerable. He will refuse to confuse his sickness with weakness. He will actively counter such misconceptions step by step, putting himself and his own experience unashamedly on the line and daring those who want to assess him by false standards to expose their ignorance.

That is what living according to the truth is like and that is what fighting for the truth is like.

Your Thoughts?

 

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • aspidoscelis

    One thing worth to make explicit, which I simply assumed people would understand, is that I have been talking in those posts about neurotypical people who have reasonable potential to reason through their emotions and to alter them accordingly if they were to become conscientious about doing so.

    So, are you saying that accountability is the result of free will and neural abnormality removes or limits free will? I’m not entirely comfortable with that approach, but I’m not sure how else to interpret this.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      I’m not talking about an undetermined free will but will in the sense of however our brains make choices and “will” things using whatever choice algorithms they have. From what I understand, cognitive behavioral therapy is the most clinically successful with neurotypicals. People are able to reason through situations or come to different beliefs and have altered approaches to life, including emotional. For a simple example, I used to have a much different set of emotional dispositions about a lot of things when I was religious than when I was an atheist. The cognitive change switched over all my emotional responses in time as I thought about things from the different perspective.

      It’s those sorts of changes I’m talking about. I’m not talking about someone with an illness. It’s the difference between giving general advice to people in normal physical health and giving advice to people with cancer or in wheel chairs.

    • aspidoscelis

      How best to modify behavior is certainly dependent on the particular neurochemistry of the person involved. However, I don’t think that this affects accountability for beliefs or actions. If we ascribe the state of a neuroätypical person to biochemistry, surely we must do the same for a neurotypical person? I have difficulty imagining some magic switch here, that causes biochemistry to be a determining influence in one case but not the other. And if we take “X’s behavior is determined by biochemistry” to indicate a decrease in accountability in one case, I think we must do the same in all cases. Whatever stance one takes on the issue of free will or determinism, I cannot see a coherent justification for applying the resulting conclusions selectively.

    • Enkidum

      So, are you saying that accountability is the result of free will and neural abnormality removes or limits free will?

      I don’t want to get into the free will debate, but it seems clear to me that certain varieties of neural abnormality remove or limit accountability. I mean, I realize this is an unpopular thing to say, but someone with Down’s syndrome or severe autism simply has a smaller moral sphere of action than the rest of us. And the extreme form of neural abnormality – death – removes accountability completely.

      It’s not fair, but the universe doesn’t care.

    • aspidoscelis

      Imagine a normal distribution. Then do the following: take the middle of that distribution that includes, say, 70% of your sample, and label that “normal” (or, in this case, “neurotypical”). Then take the 15% at each end of the distribution, and divide it up into various narrow categories (“Down’s syndrome”, “autism”, “schizophrenia”, “depression”, etc.). Then ask: is the variance within each of these narrow categories at the tails greater or less than the variance within the “normal” group? If the answer is “less” (as it apparently must be!), we end up with the statement you’ve made here:

      someone with Down’s syndrome or severe autism simply has a smaller moral sphere of action than the rest of us

      However, then I would ask:

      Isn’t that just a result of how you’ve categorized people? You’re assuming that once we’ve placed a person in a particular category, the full range of values within that category is available to them, and anything outside the category isn’t. If we place someone within a broad category (“neurotypical”), then, we attribute to that person a broad range of available behaviors; if we place someone in a narrow category (“Down’s syndrome”), we attribute to that person a narrow range of available behaviors. However, this assessment lacks data on the range of possibilities open to a particular person. We would need to know something like this: If an individual is at point X along this continuum, what is the probability that, in the future, this individual will be at, say, points X – 10 or X + 10? And how does this probability vary depending on where the initial point X is along the continuum? If you could show that someone within one of the various narrow, atypical categories is less likely to change than someone in the large, neurotypical category, then you can say–Yes, those who are not neurotypical have a smaller sphere of possible behaviors. However, if all you’ve got is a big broad category and a bunch of little narrow categories, this cannot address the question; at most you can say, “If you divide up humanity in this way, some categories are narrower than others.”

      So, the question is: Is the smaller moral sphere attributed to those in various neuroätypical categories an artifact of our categorization, or an objective observation?

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      It’s not a matter of statistical normalcy in determining degree of competence, given one’s particular neurochemistry, to make behavior modifications through rational control. We could imagine 80% of us being as incapable of rationally working through our emotions as the clinically depressed are. 80% of us could all just be lacking the neurochemical possibility to improve our thinking and feeling through cognitive behavioral therapy. The issue is just what the mind is capable of on its own terms—not what other minds are capable of.

      So, regardless of what standard categorizations are, the only question is which of these people can be improved through rationally training their feelings to correspond to what is healthy for them and for others and in which of these people are medicines needed before any kind of normal adjustments to feeling and reasoning can hope to be neurologically possible.

      Also, we could imagine a world where 90% of us have psychopathic brains, in which case, moral reasoning would rely far less on the basis of pro-social feelings and emotional mirroring and emotional aversions to harming other people, and instead it would be more a matter of rational agents calculating necessary prisoner dilemma concessions to each other lest they all kill each other off.

      It all depends on what the brains are like how we can appeal to them to get them to coordinate in the necessary ways that they and those around them can maximally flourish, even through choices that go against immediate self-interest.

    • aspidoscelis

      It’s not a matter of statistical normalcy in determining degree of competence, given one’s particular neurochemistry, to make behavior modifications through rational control.

      In that case, whether or not a person is neurotypical is irrelevant. “Neurotypical” is simply a matter of proximity to a statistical average; if you want a measure of the degree to which behavior modifications are possible through rational control, this is the wrong measure.

      Now, the two might happen to correspond. Perhaps, through some truly baffling coincidence, neurotypicality and capacity for rational control overlap perfectly. This does not strike me as plausible.

      I find it far more parsimonious to assume that concepts of rational control and moral accountability are inseparably grounded in & derived from the characteristics of neurotypical humanity, than that these are independent but correspond by happy coincidence. This causes difficulties for any statements about the relationship between neurotypicality and rationality, morality, etc.

      So, when you say:

      The issue is just what the mind is capable of on its own terms—not what other minds are capable of.

      I do not think that it is possible to examine that issue.

      So, regardless of what standard categorizations are, the only question is which of these people can be improved through rationally training their feelings to correspond to what is healthy for them and for others and in which of these people are medicines needed before any kind of normal adjustments to feeling and reasoning can hope to be neurologically possible.

      There’s that word again–”normal”. :-)

      AFAICT, what you’re describing here and in other related comments is, when stripped of the extraneous philosophical baggage, simply this: There is a norm, and there is a way to treat the people within that norm, and if we are dealing with people outside that norm either we must bring them within the norm or abandon our usual treatment.

      That’s fine and dandy. No need to burden it with implied free will, moral accountability, etc. Dump the ability to “make behavior modifications through rational control” (or in Enkidum’s comments, a “moral sphere of action”) in there and you’ve predicated the straightforward and easily defensible parts of the argument on dubious metaphysics.

      Also, we could imagine a world where 90% of us have psychopathic brains

      No, we can’t.

    • Enkidum

      Look, would you hold someone with Down’s Syndrome criminally responsible for murder? There’s a reason why pretty much all legal systems include different punishments for those with severe mental illness.

      I’m not entirely sure, but you seem to be suggesting that Down’s Syndrome is simply an artifact of human categorization. If so, that’s silly. If not, then I’m simply not following you. And I’m also not following your general line of argument. In terms of your thing about the distribution and variance – what are the axes here? What is being measured? I’m lost. A continuum of what?

    • aspidoscelis

      Look, would you hold someone with Down’s Syndrome criminally responsible for murder?

      That depends on what “criminally responsible for” means, and what the purpose of our justice system is… if the question is: “Would I think it appropriate to take actions (whatever may be appropriate–and this part certainly does depend on the specific characteristics of the person we’re dealing with) to ensure that a murderer with Down’s syndrome does not commit murder again?” Then the answer is “Yes!” If that’s not the question… that suggests, to me at least, an incorrect goal for criminal accountability.

      I’m not entirely sure, but you seem to be suggesting that Down’s Syndrome is simply an artifact of human categorization. If so, that’s silly.

      Well, no, that’s not at all what I’m suggesting. Let’s assume for simplicity that the observed variance does indeed exist regardless of our method of categorization (an assumption which certainly holds–for the most part, at least–for Down’s syndrome, but which may not hold for other categories). The question is whether the observed characteristics of people in a category depend on our categorization. To this, I think the answer is unquestionably “Yes!” For instance, suppose we categorized people with Down’s syndrome as “neurotypical”; well, that increases the range of characteristics we observe in neurotypical people.

      The more troubling question is whether or not our categorization is natural (i.e., recognizes objectively real groups); in some cases this seems straightforward (Down’s syndrome), in other cases not (autism is quite slippery to attempt to define objectively, and neurotypicality much more so–it’s basically a catchall for any person who does not happen to exhibit symptoms of a known and defined kind of neuroätypicality).

      Let’s say we have a very simple (and unrealistic) case, and there are a dozen genes that determine moral behavior. And then let’s say that uncommon alleles at three of them create obvious abnormalities that we can recognize and categorize. The remainder don’t; their influence is complex or unclear. So we get a partially natural (the neuroätypical groups that are recognizable) and partially artificial (the neurotypical group, within which is hidden a lot of genetic variation that determines moral behavior but which is not easily diagnosable) classification. If we compare those two sets we don’t learn anything particularly meaningful. The neurotypical group has a much larger variance, but that’s because it’s a catchall. There’s genetic variation in there that determines behavior, but that’s ignored in our classification.

      Add in a great big slice of environmental influence and complicate the genetics a couple orders of magnitude, and that’s my cartoon view of the situation. When we say that a particular disorder determines (at least partly) a particular person’s behavior, we’re probably right; but if we neglect the other half of this, that the particular kind of “normal” a person has plays the same role, we’re probably wrong.

  • tushcloots

    @aspidoscelis

    Not free will, it but means control over an emotion. I can still make rational decisions even though I may be virtually paralyzed by fear of taking that decision.
    I think the key words are “alter them accordingly” which means the emotions.

  • neptis

    Hrm. I’m not really convinced. Like JT said in the video, no small percentage of people are affected by mental illness. And that doesn’t include people with minor disorders or just differences in their brain structure who never even make it to a doctor. Plus, it’s not like all those people have a tattoo on their forehead that tells the world around them what’s going on with them. You probably don’t know most people you meet in daily life well enough to be able to tell if they’re in the NT spectrum or not, and the stigma on mental illness doesn’t make this any easier.

    Bottom line: How should you know from the outside if other people are truly in control of an emotion they’re having?

  • Stacy

    How should you know from the outside if other people are truly in control of an emotion they’re having?

    Good point. And what about people who don’t know they’re mentally ill? I was clinically depressed for years and just thought I was a weak person (despite having lived through a childhood that could have destroyed many–I just didn’t recognize it; I minimized it.)

    Bottom line:

    which I simply assumed people would understand

    Don’t make that assumption. A lot of suffering people haven’t got a diagnosis; some of us have lived through years of self-blame; and a lot of “neurotypicals” don’t have a clue about mental illness.

    Having said all that, I think I’m starting to grok what you’re saying, Dan. I think I’ve thought of an example: it’s easy to feel better about yourself by looking down on someone else. The resulting emotions, of superiority, contempt, and inflated self-esteem, are blameworthy. This is a natural psychological mechanism; it’s something we all do at times. But as people living the examined life we should become aware of it and eschew it. Am I on the right track?

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Yes. That’s basically it.

      As to not making the assumption, I have been sufficiently scolded by DuWayne in the other thread to take it to heart that in the future it is necessary to make the caveats about the mentally ill explicit whenever talking about the emotions. In the meantime, if you re-read the following paragraphs from the previous post, I advised the sort of frame of mind which would hopefully prevent people from treating the mentally ill prejudicially, even if I didn’t spell that out:

      I think there is a place to advise others about ethical ideals and to encourage a life aimed at maximum flourishing, as I do so often, but this is not because I am walking around judging individuals and assessing how much I think they’ve flourished or not or blaming them and calling them wretched people, etc. Judgment of particular cases requires a great deal of knowledge of particularities of circumstances. While of course not everyone is flourishing to their maximum possibility (certainly, I am not, I know that much!), judgmentalism is naive because it presumes too much about exactly what the struggles, limitations, and possibilities of a particular person are. How do I know what you are capable of or what good or bad reasons you have for your choices from where I stand?

      We should not be judgmental not because there are no highest theoretical ideals for humanity in general to attain to. There are such ideals and talking about them in philosophical and empirical terms might help people figure out how to realize them in their own lives better, and that’s a great thing. We should not be judgmental, though, because we cannot know enough about the depths of the psychology of the person we are judging to know all the particulars of how they can or cannot best attain that ideal.

      And when it comes to blaming, we must be constructive–we must be aimed at the other’s good and not creating a fiction of an undetermined free will which is malignant and blamable as a deliberate purveyor of evil itself. We must recognize that people are usually far more ignorant than evil. We must appreciate that people do things under psychological and social circumstances different from our own which would make them more understandable psychologically. In this way we should not paint them as evil when blaming, but just focus on what it would be constructively best for them to feel and to do, going forward, if they can.

  • Tsu Dho Nimh

    And how many people in the US House of Representatives? 400+

  • http://langcogcult.com/traumatized DuWayne

    Daniel -

    First, I would like to apologize for being quite as much the angry scold as I was in that last post. And I really appreciate that you posted this.

    I would just like to clarify exactly what I am saying though, because I think there is some confusion. I am not asserting that anyone shouldn’t learn to control how they react to their emotional responses to stimuli. While people who are mentally ill often have rather more difficulty learning to control those reactions, with relatively few exceptions it’s possible.*

    My complaint about your previous post was not in the interest of making exceptions. My complaint is that you admonish people to change, or convince others to change their emotional responses, without any explanation of how or how complex such a process will be. Ultimately it is much simpler to call people on being an asshole and focus on the behavior, rather than the emotional response they were reacting to. If they happen to be a close friend, you might try to delve into a conversation about who exactly they are and how that impacts their emotions, rather than how they react to their emotions.

    The discussion about the mentally ill was just to illustrate the importance of differentiating between emotional responses and the behaviors caused by emotional responses.

    Let me put this into your greater social goods/maximum flourishing paradigm; Pressuring people to change their actual emotional responses is, in most cases, running directly counter any effort to maximize flourishing. The best way to help others maximize their potential is to blame them for the behaviors caused by their emotional responses. Even if you’re talking to neurotypicals (which you can’t know for sure that you are), asserting they need to change their actual emotional responses is as likely as not going to be complicated to a degree that will actually interfere with their making positive changes.

    Given this is a rather complicated topic, I am just going to explain things more clearly on my own blog. I am getting rather longwinded and am trying not to clutter comment threads with such long comments…

    * though not necessarily as well as most people.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      No problem, DuWayne, it’s helpful and you’re rightly passionate about these issues. I’ll tell you what. Why don’t you write up a full explanation of your take on the issues and I’ll post it here as a guest post. It’s important to get this right. I have only been concerned about the basic philosophical issues, but I don’t claim any expertise in all the ins and outs of the actual psychological mechanisms.

      If you’re interested, send me something at camelswithhammers@gmail.com and I’ll post it for you here and you can cross-post it at your site (which I’ll link to).

      Thanks

    • http://langcogcult.com/traumatized DuWayne

      I will do just that, but after my rapidly approaching Spanish test.

  • anthonyallen

    Speaking as someone who had lived with mental illness most of his life, (I have dysthymia, which manifests itself as fear and social anxiety) in my own experience, free will is something of an illusion.

    You see, while I certainly do have the power to choose whatever it is that I want to, for the most part, what I want is out of reach. Not because of circumstances, necessarily, but because I simply cannot find the desire to make it happen. I feel that my free will has been usurped by the deficiencies in my head.

    Assessing myself honestly is nearly impossible; I am so overcome with self-doubt and fear that any attempt at looking in the mirror meets with irrational judgement about who I really am, and what I can(not) accomplish.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      So sorry to hear about such struggles, Anthony. I appreciate your candor about your experience.


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