A title like, “Becoming a Better You” might lead some of you to believe that I spent too much time in the self-help section recently.
In truth, there is method to today’s madness. I chose a simple and direct title for this post because the post itself is going to be difficult and somewhat complicated, even philosophical.
I was inspired by a column on The Daily Beast. There Casey Schwartz reported on some recent psychological research which concluded that performing bad actions undermines your values and ends up making you a bad person, even if were a perfectly good person beforehand. Link here.
The article's summary asks it this way: “A lack of morality can lead to bad behavior—but can behaving badly make us lose our morals? Casey Schwartz on how lying, cheating and stealing warps our sense of right and wrong.”
For me, and maybe just for me, that is not very clear and easy to grasp. It is anything but high concept.
And that is before we get to asking why psychologists would want to devise an experiment that seems to be making hapless student subjects into worse people.
Does the name of science make it acceptable to induce people to lie, cheat, and steal? Wouldn’t it be better, and would it not achieve the same results, if the psychologists were spending their grant money trying to induce people to be honest, decent, and honorable?
But do we really know what makes you a better version of yourself? Do we all know what it means to have better character? That seems like a good place to start.
If you are learning ethics from the school system you are likely to come away believing that you can build your character by volunteering at a soup kitchen and having the right feelings about the plight of the poor.
Surely, there is nothing wrong with ladling out the ham and beans, and there is nothing wrong with feeling badly about the poor, but would it not be better, and thus, more ethical, to figure out how to make it that soup kitchens are no longer needed.
Hiring people, putting them to work, paying them a salary so that they do not have to go to soup kitchens… these are certainly moral actions. They make you a better person…
Yet, children today are taught that they can only become good people if they are doling out charity to the disadvantaged and underprivileged.
And they are brought up to believe that if they have the right feelings about certain political and social issues, then they are, necessarily, good people.
If you believe the right things, then you are a good person. And, as Bill Clinton and Ted Kennedy demonstrated, if you hold the right beliefs, you simply get a pass on bad behavior.
Classically, acting ethically involved building character. And that meant learning how to interact with other people in a harmonious community. Ethics was always about etiquette and sociability. It focused on doing the right thing, in the sense of practicing good behavior.
Classical ethics is not about what you believe, but about how you act toward other people in your everyday life.
When a classical ethicist talks about being a better person or a better you, he means that you should aim to improve how well you get along with people, how good a friend you are, and whether you do the right thing toward other people in your everyday transactions.
Wouldn’t it be interesting if the next phase of psychological research did not involve what happens to students’ minds when they are induced to lie, cheat or steal, but what happens when they are taught good table manners?
An ethical individual is trustworthy, polite, courteous, decorous, honorable, loyal and honest. Regardless of his political beliefs.
You should act ethically in your relationships with friends and family, but also in your relationships with colleagues, mentors, managers, and subordinates. You should treat them with courtesy, kindness, consideration, and respect.
In fact, an ethical individual behaves ethically toward everyone. He does not save his good behavior for the people he cares about or the people who can advance his ambitions.
I daresay that everyone wants to improve his character. Having better character means having better relationships, and we all know the importance of having harmonious relationships.
How does one go about it? Here the answer is clear and somewhat obvious. You force yourself to do the right thing even when you do not feel like doing it. Good behavior does not well up from the depths of your mind. It is something you learn by emulating those who know it or by following instructions.
You might know that it is right and proper to RSVP an invitation, but you might not feel like doing it. You might be waiting for a better offer for that Saturday evening.
Nevertheless, the right thing to do is to RSVP. Whether you want to do it, feel like doing it, understand why you should do it… you must RSVP.
And once you do it, you will become a better person, even if only at the margins.
The idea is as old as Confucius, but it’s the point that the psychologists at Harvard were trying to demonstrate… even if backwards.
They were trying to show that if you take a good person and induce him to misbehave… then, his brain will start rationalizing and accommodating the behavior. Eventually, he will change his ethical principles to justify the bad behavior.
This implies that a person who acts badly is not expressing some inner mental conflict. He is not living out a previous unresolved trauma.
Perhaps, in the wake of a trauma, a person adopts some bad behavior as a means of coping. The idea does need to have sprung from the depths of his unconscious mind. Most likely, he will have learned it because he saw someone else doing or because someone else told him to do it.
Once he undertakes to calm the pain of trauma with the bad habit, the bad habit will feel good and it will make him a lesser person.
This implies that understanding the link between the bad habit and the trauma will not cause the bad habit to disappear.
Let’s imagine, for just an instant, that we do not want to run experiments in which we trick unsuspecting college students into behaving badly.
Let’s imagine that we only want to render them socially dysfunctional. Perhaps we have come to believe that society is bad for their libido or their creativity. If that is true, then we are doing them a favor by making it more difficult for them to function in a repressive society.
How can we do it? One way, tried and true, is to send them into psychoanalysis. If you want to develop some really dysfunctional social habits, there is nothing better than psychoanalysis. The same applies to any form of therapy that derives its inspiration from what Freud wrought.
If you think about it, psychoanalysis is a laboratory where you will be taught, in the name of treatment or cure, to develop some very bad conversational habits.
Freudian treatment should be called: How to Lose Friends and to Irritate People.
Psychoanalysis wants you to lie down on the couch and to say whatever comes to mind. Presumably, once you get over the habit of conversing with another human being and taking cues from his reaction, your mind will express itself more freely.
Were you to try this at home, you would be finding yourself without much of a home life. It is rude and inconsiderate, to say nothing of tactless. In other words, it will make you socially dysfunctional.
For some reason psychoanalysts believe that their patients can learn a habit of bad behavior and then not apply it in their everyday lives.
A classically trained psychoanalyst will also refuse to look you in the eye and will greet your verbiage with a mixture of silence and interpretation. He has been trained not to respond as a human being, not to engage in a real conversational exchange, and not to reciprocate what you are telling him.
So, a psychoanalytic patient is being taught to be rude by someone who has already mastered the art.
If it should happen that your sense of your own self-worth depends on your interactions with other human beings-- which is the case for all humans-- then, psychoanalysis will cure you of your feelings of self-worth.
Psychoanalysts offer what should be called the silent treatment. A person who receives the silent treatment is being told, whether in psychoanalysis or elsewhere, that he is basically worthless.
When psychoanalysts are not giving you the silent treatment, they are permitted only one form of verbal expression: interpretation.
That means that they are not going to be listening to what you have to say, they are not going to be taking you at your word, and they are not going to be responding to what you are saying. They will be listening for the hidden meaning. After you have lost enough of your self-worth, they might even tell you what you really mean to say.
Whatever you think you are talking about, whatever you imagine has caused your suffering, a psychoanalyst will tell what you would be saying if you were as self-aware as he is.
Researchers did not have to construct experiments to see what happens when good people are taught to behave badly. They could have used the history of psychoanalysis as their laboratory.
It is not an accident that psychoanalytic institutions have traditionally been known for the fact that no one gets along with anyone and why they have been subject to splits, schisms, and internecine warfare.
Nor is it an accident that patients who have completed psychoanalysis become true believers, to the point where they believe that their dysfunctional behavior represents a higher level of functionality, and where they believe that bad behavior is a good thing.