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  • Psychotherapy Through the Prism of Moral Language
  • Duff R. Waring (bio)

Responsibility, blame, moral education, situationist personality psychology

I am grateful to Professors Martin and Woolfolk for raising the bar in this dialogue. I will consider their comments in turn. Mike Martin claims that I am “insufficiently sensitive” to the implications of applying my analysis to psychotherapists because I fail “to take adequate account” of the perspectival differences between those who observe psychotherapy and those who conduct it. He does not suggest that “explicit moral language is never appropriate during therapy,” but stresses instead the need for “moral language appropriate for third-person observers” to be “filtered through the prism of therapy.” Although I did not address this issue in the article, I am pleased to do so here. I agree with Martin that “much depends on nuance and context” as to whether, and when, moral language should be used by psychotherapists. I also agree that they may have to modify and, if need be, restrict its use. Even in triadic structure cases, which I think are best elucidated in virtue ethical terms, the use of that language by psychotherapists can be more or less sensitive, the elucidations better or worse. Consequently, I do not think that such language is only appropriate for third-party observers and I do envision cases where it is appropriate for psychotherapists to initiate it.

In noting the limitations of my analysis, I distinguish between those patients who begin therapy with some degree of insight and ethical motivation and those who do not. Seneca’s angry man is one of the former. It is an easier case because he knew that the feelings, thoughts, and abusive behavior that plagued him were morally objectionable and he wanted to change for the better. He was ashamed of his past mistakes and sought therapy because he wanted to get closer to the more empathic person he thought he should be. The patient gradually accepted his responsibility for having perpetuated his faults, as well as his responsibility for overcoming them. In such a case, the psychotherapist might use explicit moral language in the following way:

You have come to me for help. You tell me that you can’t control your temper, do not respect yourself, and take advantage of others. You feel shame and guilt about treating yourself and others in a morally reprehensible way. We’ve both acknowledged the problems that brought you here. You’ve found fault with your character. That’s a crucial step. Some people with your problems never honestly face themselves and own up to their responsibility for changing. But you also have a sense that you can and should become a better person than you feel you currently are. We need to work together to help you improve your character and become that person. You are worth that effort, and I believe you [End Page 45] understand that. But you’re not going to become that better person unless you stop putting so much effort into loathing yourself and then taking it out on others. You can think of our therapy as an exercise in acquiring virtues of self-control, self-respect, empathy, and respect for other people.

I do not see these remarks as either therapeutically or morally self-defeating. Indeed, I think it would be self-defeating on both counts for the psychotherapist to avoid acknowledging the patient’s account of what lead him to seek help. Because part of the problem is the patient’s difficulty in getting beyond his self-condemnation, I can only assume that Martin agrees that it would again be self-defeating on both counts to reinforce it. This patient does not need his nose rubbed in his character flaws. The point is to facilitate the patient’s efforts to better understand those flaws so that he stops rubbing his own nose in them. The patient may not improve unless he does. Nor do I see this response as detrimental to the maintenance of “a caring, supportive, autonomy-respecting relationship.” The psychotherapist encourages the patient to accept responsibility for change through moral self-improvement. He does not assign the patient a past-oriented responsibility...


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pp. 45-48
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