Morality and Culture

Dr. Bossypants in disguise, exchanging ideas about ethics with Tibetan school counselors

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As a psychologist, professor, counselor educator, author, gardener, citizen, jogger, neighbor, mom, wife, sister and daughter, I have a lot of ethical and moral guidelines to pay attention to. These different identities matter to me, and I want to be considered a good representative of each group. (Cue applause from students, clients, spouse, children, readers, carrots and onions.) I also believe life itself is a gift, and we’re each meant to live good, fulfilled lives—authentic expressions of our unique selves.

Just as ethical practices and codes define a profession, moral rules define human culture. As soon as babies are born into their respective cultures, moral instruction begins. As children (and their consciences) develop, they become increasingly aware of the rules for conduct in their family, community, and society.

When I teach ethics, I ask students who taught them about right and wrong. Who taught them what to value, what to strive for, and who to strive to be? Some occasionally cite a religious authority, but the vast majority name parents, grandparents, siblings, or other family members. Sometimes, teachers or coaches make it on the list as well. These early figures are very influential.

Obviously, human morality intersects directly with multiculturalism. If behaving morally is part of the definition of being human, and at least some moral rules vary across cultures, cross-cultural encounters might be confusing or even disturbing. We may be tempted to dehumanize others or judge them as immoral. This brings us to this question:

Are there universal morals?

Humans are, to add a bit to the psalmist’s observations, fearfully, wonderfully, and diversely made. If there’s a Creator, it’s clear the Creator loves diversity. Cultures definitely have differing definitions of morality. But…if morality is intended to point us towards the best of what it means to be human, could we hope to find agreement across cultures regarding certain aspects of morality?

There are natural tensions between diversity and commonality that parallel the intellectual tension between relativism and absolutism. As someone once said, “Everything is relative, and of that, I am absolutely certain.”

Here’s what Dr. Bossypants thinks: As ethical grown-ups, we don’t need to deny our shared humanity in order to celebrate and honor diversity, and we don’t need to fear or minimize diversity as we recognize our commonality. This might seem contradictory, but that’s part of what it means to be fully human.

A moral life will encompass many uncomfortably paradoxical or contradictory situations, such as:

  • I excuse myself for not doing the right thing, but I don’t excuse others.
  • There are two “right” things to do, or none–the choice is between the lesser of evils.
  • If I do the right thing, I will hurt those I love.
  • The right thing to do will turn out to be wrong and harmful because of an inadequate judicial system or lack of funding.
  • If I tell the truth, I will hurt someone’s feelings or even endanger others.
  • Sometimes, something is the right thing to do in one culture, and the wrong thing to do in another. Thomas Jefferson said, “The same act, therefore, may be useful and consequently virtuous in one country which is injurious and vicious in another differently circumstanced.”

In moral matters, humans use both mind and heart. Some are inclined to set their moral compass by intuitions and a deep, gut level sense of morality. Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Do what you feel in your heart to be right—for you’ll be criticized anyway.” Others use the human gift of rationality. They reason their way to a moral choice. Either way, the human condition is such that we will never achieve perfect consistency. Walt Whitman wrote, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself.  I am large, I contain multitudes.”

In upcoming blogs, we’ll take a look at Dr. Bossypants’s shamelessly simplified take on various moral philosophies and how they might shed light on the task of being fully, wonderfully human.

For now, we’ll close with this great quote by Barry Lopez from his book Arctic Dreams:

“No culture has yet solved the dilemma each has faced with the growth of a conscious mind:  how to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in life, when one finds darkness not only in one’s culture but within oneself? If there is a stage at which an individual life becomes truly adult, it must be when one grasps the irony in its unfolding and accepts responsibility for a life lived in the midst of such paradox. One must live in the middle of contradiction, because if all contradiction were eliminated at once life would collapse. There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light.”

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Ethics 101

“Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.”          Franklin D. Roosevelt

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My favorite course as a professor was my Professional Ethics course—not necessarily an opinion shared by my students, at least initially. But many warmed up to it as the weeks went by. I’ve always been drawn to trying to understand right, wrong, and shades of gray. So, I’ve decided to blog about morals and ethics for a while because our current social order seems perilously bereft of basic moral or ethical understandings. I’ll be drawing from my ethics text, and though I doubt our publisher (Wiley) actually minds, I mention this so I won’t be accused of plagiarizing myself or John, my humble, handsome co-author.

The struggle to define the rightly lived life and the best ways to live together as a human community is an ancient one. The Rig Veda, the Torah, the Greeks and Romans, the writings of Plato, Aristotle, Confucius—some of these dating many centuries B.C.—are examples of thoughtful people wrestling with how to be good, fulfilled human beings, functioning within a healthy community. As Robert Wright notes in his book, The Moral Animal, we are social beings. Psychologically, spiritually, and physically, our survival depends on getting along with other humans to some extent. Customs or rules for how to best treat each other are evident in even the most loosely defined communities.

In case you were wondering, the terms morals and ethics have similar origins; the word “morals” is derived from the Latin word, mores, which means manners, morals, or character.  The word “ethics” comes from the Greek word, ethos, which means character, or custom.

Although there is overlap in meaning, in general, morals and morality have become more closely associated with values and matters of conscience, while ethics has come to be more linked to the professional world. For example, professions have codes of ethics, but not codes of morals. Also, academically, ethics is the study of morality, much like political science is the study of politics, or theology is the study of religion. Thus, college courses in ethics are common, but you might do a double-take if you were required to take Morals 101—or even worse, Morals for Dummies. Then again, this might not be a bad idea.

Morality is the story of what it means to be fully human, realizing all that is good and true in human potential. Moral knowledge is essential for the healthy functioning of any community.

When you study to become a professional, you learn the skills of the trade. Dentists study medicine and then learn all about teeth. Teachers study their subject area and specific skills for teaching others. (Wouldn’t it be nice if political leaders were required to learn all about effective governance?) But beyond the skills, professionals also learn the ethics of their profession. That is, what is the best, highest, most effective way to use the knowledge that defines the profession? Usually, these ethical rules are determined by the professionals themselves, and express the heart of the professional endeavor and identity. There are codes of ethics for attorneys, architects, chemists, counselors, dentists, nurses, scientists, zoologists, engineers, and many more. Some argue that without a code of ethics, a profession has not yet fully come into being.

If professionals decide to ignore or violate their particular ethics code, they run the risk of being shunned, sanctioned, or removed from their profession. And I would argue that when basic morality is ignored or violated, a human has lost an essential aspect of what it means to be human.

Ah, but here’s the rub: How do we define what’s moral? What rules, guidelines, codes, or ways of being do we collectively endorse for the good of the community, and for the good of each individual?

Well, tune in next time. I’ll offer my own Bossypants-style summaries of how some very smart people have approached those questions. And in the meantime, feel free to consider how you, your very own self, might have come to believe whatever it is YOU believe about right, wrong, fulfillment, happiness, and the best ways to get along with each other.

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“I am an example of what is possible when girls from the very beginning of their lives are loved and nurtured by people around them. I was surrounded by extraordinary women in my life who taught me about quiet strength and dignity. “        Michelle Obama

Choices

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In my last Bossypants blog, I wrote about Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). Persons with NPD and assorted other personality disorder don’t think they have a disorder. Instead, they blame everyone around them for their troubles, and for the ubiquitous misery they cause.

Remember this old joke? How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb? Only one, but the light bulb has to really want to change.

If the light bulb has a personality disorder, this is highly unlikely.

As co-authors of a Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories text, and some other psychologically fascinating books, my far less bossy husband (https://johnsommersflanagan.com/) and I engage in endless speculation about how to alleviate suffering and facilitate human growth and development. True, people rarely change for the better if they don’t want to. But people can and do change.

Most of us like to believe in free will, the human capacity for conscious choice. But we are finite beings. Biologically, we’re limited to the attributes we were born with, and whatever we might add surgically or medically to those basics. Broadly, this is referred to as “nature.” We are also shaped by the external world—by those who love us, feed us, admire us, or abandon us. And this is referred to as “nurture.” Nurture. Nature. Together, these two 1) account for a very large percentage of who we are, and 2) heavily influence–or even limit–our choices.

Further, some argue that free will is an illusion because we’re genetically programed to reproduce. Behaviors (and choices) are thus dictated by the biological mandate to successfully reproduce with the best partners as often as possible. The more offspring carrying forth our genes, the better—so the argument goes. Of course, no one has yet successfully interviewed a gene, so a lot of these “selfish gene” explanations remain theoretical, and exceptions to the rule are as interesting as the supposed rule. But we’ll leave this discussion for another day.

Here’s what Dr. Bossypants believes. We are sentient, conscious beings, and we do make choices. These choices are influenced by many factors, including:

  • our parents, first grade teachers or that coach we had in seventh grade
  • our biological attributes or needs
  • our desire to successfully reproduce
  • the drugs we take, repeated blows to our heads, and difficulties in our lives.

But even with those forces in play, choices are still to a large degree our own.

Making good choices is more difficult for some people than others, but having the ability and the right to make choices remains a defining feature of what it means to be human. Choices can be loving or hateful, constructive or destructive, selfish or generous. We can choose to be honest or to lie. We can choose to work for our own gain, regardless of what it costs others, or we can choose balance, keeping ourselves and our neighbors equally in mind.

From the perspectives of Alfred Adler, certain feminists, the Dalai Lama, Carl Rogers, Jesus, and many other highly educated and thoughtful people, humans are happiest and healthiest when they choose to be compassionate, generous, honest, and constructive. For what it’s worth, I concur.

And yes, that’s me, second to the last on the right. Whoa.

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Thank you, Mayo Clinic

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Well, hello there. Today I’m re-launching this particular blog, realizing I shouldn’t waste my expensive and difficult graduate education just because I want to write poetry.

The complexities of the human race require many prisms to achieve a decent level of understanding. I’m a clinical psychologist. I respect science. I honor the efforts humans make to solve problems and explain mysteries. I know, I know. It’s become very rewarding to twist scientific inquiry into whatever shape suits our self-interests, but people, listen: We are playing increasingly dangerous games. Self-serving delusions eventually shatter. Repeating something over and over might make you rich in dollars and clicks, but it won’t make it true.

I have friends who are not psychologists. They are cowgirls, artists, bus drivers, carpenters, hot air balloon pilots, dancers, plumbers, and gardeners. These lucky folks may have less occasion to ponder the many ways human personalities become diseased, destructive, entrenched, frozen, or malignant. But ponder, we must.

Dr. Bossy Pants has no need to re-create the wheel in her own words. Because the esteemed folks at Mayo Clinic are excellent writers, I’m going to quote them extensively below. I hope it will be helpful in our quest to understand our species, and seek healing and wholeness, as we the people continue to strive to form a more perfect Union.

From: http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/narcissistic-personality-disorder/basics/symptoms/con-20025568

Narcissistic personality disorder is a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for admiration and a lack of empathy for others. But behind this mask of ultraconfidence lies a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism.

A narcissistic personality disorder causes problems in many areas of life, such as relationships, work, school or financial affairs. You may be generally unhappy and disappointed when you’re not given the special favors or admiration you believe you deserve. Others may not enjoy being around you, and you may find your relationships unfulfilling. …

If you have narcissistic personality disorder, you may come across as conceited, boastful or pretentious. You often monopolize conversations. You may belittle or look down on people you perceive as inferior. You may feel a sense of entitlement — and when you don’t receive special treatment, you may become impatient or angry. You may insist on having “the best” of everything — for instance, the best car, athletic club or medical care.

At the same time, you have trouble handling anything that may be perceived as criticism. You may have secret feelings of insecurity, shame, vulnerability and humiliation. To feel better, you may react with rage or contempt and try to belittle the other person to make yourself appear superior. Or you may feel depressed and moody because you fall short of perfection.

DSM-5 criteria for narcissistic personality disorder include these features:

  • Having an exaggerated sense of self-importance
  • Expecting to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it
  • Exaggerating your achievements and talents
  • Being preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate
  • Believing that you are superior and can only be understood by or associate with equally special people
  • Requiring constant admiration
  • Having a sense of entitlement
  • Expecting special favors and unquestioning compliance with your expectations
  • Taking advantage of others to get what you want
  • Having an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others
  • Being envious of others and believing others envy you
  • Behaving in an arrogant or haughty manner

Although some features of narcissistic personality disorder may seem like having confidence, it’s not the same. Narcissistic personality disorder crosses the border of healthy confidence into thinking so highly of yourself that you put yourself on a pedestal and value yourself more than you value others.

When to see a doctor

When you have narcissistic personality disorder, you may not want to think that anything could be wrong — doing so wouldn’t fit with your self-image of power and perfection. … (end of Mayo quote).

As a human community, striving to live responsibly and lovingly together on the astonishingly beautiful planet we’ve been given to care for, we need to put aside our narcissistic tendencies, even if they are not full-blown pathologies. That’s my opinion. And even though I’m bragging a bit here, it’s both an educated and prayer-informed opinion.