Many years ago, I was discussing religious beliefs with my friend Phil, a thoughtful man who believes in the God of his faith (Judaism). When I told him that I was agnostic, that I didn’t really know what to believe about the existence of a supreme being, he asked how I could be a moral person. I insisted that my lack of belief in the Judeo-Christian God didn’t mean I had no moral values, but he continued to wonder what force those morals could have without religion to back them up.
It’s an interesting question. Phil’s position implies that morality has to come from the outside, from a greater authority or system of values to which we submit; without such a source of authority, he believes we would behave in an amoral fashion. And yet I don’t behave that way. By most people’s standards, I am a “good” person: I’m a law-abiding citizen, an involved father, considerate friend and a psychotherapist who has helped many people in his career; I care about the welfare of my friends and family and do what I can to help them; I remember birthdays and write thank you notes. In my financial dealings, I never take advantage of people. If no God or religion is urging me to behave in these ways, then why do I do so?
You could argue that I’m nonetheless subject to authority in the form of values internalized from my parents and society at large. This has to be true to a large degree. It’s part of what Freud meant when he developed his theory of the superego. That internal agency embodies attitudes and values we absorb from our parents, teachers and the people we’ve chosen as role models. The superego is a kind of internal God, enforcing standards and punishing us with guilt when we fail to meet expectations. Fear of internal punishment and guilt may, in part, keep me in line.
Beyond that, I believe two other factors lead to “moral” behavior: empathy and enlightened self-interest. First of all, I believe that the capacity to feel what others are feeling, to put yourself in their shoes and emotionally identify with them, is the basis of much behavior sanctioned by moral codes. For me, and I suspect for a great many people, it’s more than a capacity; it’s an inclination, something that happens automatically, whether or not I intend to empathize. Since humans are a social species and function best in groups rather than in isolation, it makes sense that we can empathize: it improves communication and promotes social cohesion. To be “moral” in this light is to behave in ways that benefit the family/group/tribe/species as a whole, rather than simply gratifying individual desires without regard to the feelings or needs of anyone else.
I confess that I feel a great deal of empathy only for those who are close to me and the strength of my empathic response diminishes with distance. When I’m listening to a client in my office, sobbing over a major loss, my body will literally ache in sympathy. When I see videos of the current suffering in Japan, I feel something, but it’s faint compared to what I feel for the suffering of my loved ones. In other words, empathy (for me) has its limits for promoting moral behavior. That’s where enlightened self-interest comes in.
Let me give an example. Over the years, I’ve had many clients ask me to submit claims to their insurance carriers over-stating my fee so that their co-payment would be less. From my point of view, this would be a mistake and I have never done so. I explain to my clients that insurance fraud is a federal offense. It’s against the law, and we could both be punished in the unlikely event we were caught. And if everyone were to submit inflated claims, the insurance carriers would merely pass along their additional costs to the consumer as higher premiums. In other words, despite the fact that a few patients have gone elsewhere because I wouldn’t lie for them, despite the fact that I might have helped my clients and maybe benefited financially if they came for session more frequently as a result, I believe such an act would be short-sighted. In the long run, it would be better to tell the truth and submit an honest claim — better for me and better for society as a whole.
Now some people may think I’m a very upright, moral person for taking such a stance; others might think me priggish and self-righteous. I don’t think either is true. First of all, at least for me, it’s not about honesty and rectitude so much as it is a kind of cost-benefit analysis, weighing the possible gain for my client and me against the risks we’d run and the costs to us and our society. This wasn’t a value instilled in me as I grew up but rather an opinion I came to by thinking about it, and through conversations with other professionals. And I don’t think that my position makes me a “good” person, although by many people’s standards, I would appear to be. I don’t feel superior to those therapists who do, in fact, submit false claims.
Many men and women who come across as “good”, who strive to appear as if they are very good people, can seem self-righteous and superior. I’m sure you’ve known men and women like that. To be frank, I have a deep distrust of people who appear to be extremely good, who seem to me to be trying to come across that way. I believe that in those cases, the effort to appear good serves as a defense against something else, often a sense of shame that may be unconscious: it’s a kind of narcissism where displaying virtue means winning instead of losing.
There’s a difference between people who simply are, by nature, extremely “good” in any sense of the word — I’m sure you’ve known some — and those who long to be good (and to appear that way to others). In my view, the first group are men and women who genuinely like themselves (i.e., have authentic self-esteem) and can feel deeply for other people. The latter group has something to hide.
Here’s a clinical illustration. Stephanie, a 19-year-old woman came to see me for depression, recurring nightmares, substance abuse and other issues; she was deeply troubled, with many of the features characteristic of borderline personality disorder. She also cut herself with razor blades. In one early session, Stephanie was recalling an episode from elementary school when some other children found and tortured an injured bird. My client began to tear up as she told how she’d tried to stop the other kids, pleaded with them to spare the poor bird, to no avail. “How can people be so cruel and hateful?” she cried, weeping tears that felt inauthentic to me — what we usually refer to as “crocodile tears.” I don’t mean to suggest she was consciously faking pity and sadness; while I found her depiction of the good-her-versus-cruel-them emotionally unpersuasive, she was completely taken in by it.
Over the course of our work together, we came to understand that Stephanie struggled with powerful sadistic and masochistic impulses, violent rage and murderous feelings that led to explosive attacks on other people, a characteristic of borderline functioning. Her attempt to be “good” involved splitting off and projecting all that hostility, locating it outside in other people and then defining herself as its opposite … at least until the defense failed and all those disowned feelings overwhelmed her.
The appearance of exaggerated goodness, the “holier than thou” sort of virtue always reflects a process of splitting, where good-and-bad, loving-and-hating are kept widely separate. The longing to be an extremely good person often embodies the wish for a permanent and perfect solution to the difficult problem of ambivalence, and behind the virtuous veneer may lie a painful store of destructive emotions that can’t be tolerated.
Finding Your Own Way:
Are you a good person? What does that mean to you? Is it important to you to be a good person, and why? Do you care whether people perceive you as a good person? I imagine you won’t be able to get far in this line of thinking without recourse to the word love. Most people associate goodness with feelings of love and generosity. Why do you think those feelings are considered good? It may seem self-evident to you — that they simply are good — but sometimes they seem politically correct to me, that it’s the way you’re supposed to feel, or at least the kind of emotional attitude you should demonstrate in public, regardless of how you feel.
Think about the “good” people you know. Among your acquaintance, are there people who try too hard to seem kind and empathic, whose sincerity you sometimes doubt? Maybe you feel guilty because at times you dislike them.
If you’re a religious person, this line of thinking may seem foreign to you. You may think of being good as following God’s will. It’s nonetheless worthwhile thinking about these questions. Why, within the terms of your religion, are certain emotions and actions “good” but not others?