Morality and “Me”



by Marcus Otte


It is commonplace for Christians to regard relativism and skepticism as the principal cultural challenges that face catechesis today. And this is not without good reason. But I want to suggest these are not the most fundamental sources of secularism, or of confused religion. Relativism is, at heart, a negative doctrine: it denies the existence of objective truth. Skepticism, which denies the existence of knowledge, is likewise negative. And just as negative passions, such as anger or fear, are ultimately grounded on positive passion (e.g., love for something one believes is threatened), negative doctrines rest upon positive ones. The most fundamental layer of a person’s belief system is not what they are against or deny, but what they are for and affirm.

“Therapy culture,” as it is sometimes called, is among the principal sources of mainstream thought, both secular and religious. I do not intend to criticize therapy as such. Nor am I discouraging anyone from seeking therapy if they would likely benefit from it. The therapeutic culture of which I am speaking is a general social phenomenon, rather than any professional practice inherent to therapy. This social phenomenon originates in the counterculture of the late 1960’s. Today, the doctrines of therapy culture are firmly entrenched in the mainstream.


Therapy culture has all the earmarks of a moral theory, and its central tenets are the bedrock upon which much newfangled morality rests. First, any moral theory is partly founded on a description of human beings. So, Aristotle defines us as “rational animals” and prescribes that we should act as such. For the advocates of therapy culture, the most salient fact about human beings is that we are fragile (and they prescribe that we should act like it). On this view, it is understandable if encounters with ordinary setbacks, disappointments, and conflicts psychologically fracture our egos.  


Second, every moral theory needs a goal. For Bentham, it was the maximization of pleasure. For Kant, it was the fulfillment of duty out of respect for moral law. The principal goal of therapeutic culture is a subjective sense of well-being. On the therapeutic view, the good life means feeling good, especially feeling good about oneself.


Third, a moral theory needs to prescribe a means for us to reach its proposed goal. Normally, these means amount to rule-following, or the cultivation of virtue, or both. Given its description of human beings (“we are fragile”) and its prescribed goal (feeling good), the most important rule of therapy culture is to have unconditional positive regard for yourself. Several other norms follow as corollaries. You are exhorted to “be yourself”—that is, to not reign in your eccentricities or practice any irksome discipline. Since you are supposed to feel no shame, the divulging of your innermost world is also considered a normal and healthy mode of self-expression. Furthermore, unconditional positive regard requires that all of your perceptions be validated. If you perceive yourself as stunningly talented, others should affirm this, no matter how unremarkable you may be.


The requirement that one’s perceptions be validated means that positive regard cannot be given unconditionally to others, or to their perceptions. After all, those perceptions might contradict yours. This is why therapy culture gives rise to the crybully. Fair negotiation, or any rational dialogue, requires the awareness of one’s own ignorance and weakness. It also rests on a kind of charity towards others. Dialogue is only possible if we acknowledge there is an objective world to be right or wrong about, and that others have as much access to it as do I. If we elevate ourselves too much, we cannot meet our interlocutor face to face. More importantly, if we refuse to examine ourselves for faults, we will never find matter for repentance. But that matter is assuredly there.


On every count, therapy culture runs contrary to the spirit of Christian religion. The world insulates us from deep self-critique, and indeed, from seriousness itself. But Christ says “Repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). The world says that you cannot love others without first loving yourself (a lot). The commandments of charity, on the other hand, exhort us to love God above all, and to love neighbor “as yourself,” so that the mention of the self comes last and by way of comparison, rather than command. In Augustine’s words, “There was no need for a command to love ourselves.” In toto, therapy culture begins and ends with the self. Christianity begins and ends with God.

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