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  • Could Understanding Harm?
  • Iskra Fileva, PhD (bio) and Linda A.W. Brakel, MD (bio)

We would like to thank the editors for organizing this symposium and our commentators—Marga Reimer and James Phillips—for the thought-provoking feedback. Although we had thought about the ideas we discuss from many different angles, our commentators raised several interesting issues we had not considered. We are grateful for the opportunity to continue the conversation.

Reply to Reimer

As Professor Reimer notes, we advocate an approach to self-constitution that we dub “understanding first.” On this approach, non-moral and non-normative understanding of the origin of maladaptive traits must precede moral evaluation and attempts to free oneself—or as we say “prune”—undesirable traits. Professor Reimer presents several interesting cases meant both to extend and test the limits of our proposal. We appreciate this approach and respond to each case in turn.

Genes and Alcoholism

Suppose Alejandro, an adult raised by adoptive parents, struggles with alcohol addiction. He learns that his biological parents died of alcoholic liver disease and comes to believe that his alcohol problem is caused by a genetic propensity toward alcohol abuse. One can ask: “Does an understanding first approach have the potential to undermine the sense of agency that is necessary for the effective treatment of maladaptive traits?”

Answer: It can be explained to Alejandro that genetic proclivities are just that—proclivities—that can be overridden. In fact, behavior can alter our very genes—although not at the sequence level— changes known as “epigenetic.” And the liver disease of the biological parents can serve as a cautionary tale. If even in light of these considerations, Alejandro’s tendency to see genetic propensities as deterministic persists, it is worth asking why. There is no evidence that “genes are destiny,” so the disposition to see them that way must have a psychological explanation. What is the explanation? A self-destructive desire? Fear of freedom? This exploration can itself be empowering. [End Page 211]

Adaptive Forgetting

Suppose Beata, who has an eating disorder, was molested by her own father when she was a child. Subsequently, her father shot himself and now she has no recollection of the molestation. However, Beata’s eating disorder is largely a result of those experiences. It is quite possible that if Beata were to recall being molested, that would do more harm than good. In this connection, one can ask together with Reimer: “Does an understanding first approach have the potential to undermine an adaptive ‘forgetting’ of root causes of maladaptive traits?”

Answer: Here, understanding the history, instead of forgetting it, might allow Beata to gain insight into and empathize with possible motives that may have led to becoming obese. For example, she might have the phantasy that if she had been obese and unattractive, she could have prevented the molestation—hence, become that way now to prevent it from happening again, and more wishfully reverse it. (In unconscious goings-on time is thought to be in the “unexamined present” (Brakel 2009, p. 63; 2015, p. 131; 2022, p. 4; 2023, p. 404.) One benefit of this is that in gaining this type of recognition, Beata might find it easier to change her behavior that she otherwise would not have; it was never her responsibility to prevent her own molestation, and there is no reason whatsoever for her to now make herself unattractive to her deceased father, and very little reason to remain obese in an attempt to deter current day men.

Ego-Syntonic Maladaptive Traits

Claire is a concert pianist and alcoholic. Importantly, Claire does not see her own desire for alcohol as destructive but rather, as something constitutive of her own identity. “I wouldn’t be myself without alcohol,” she says. Reimer asks whether our approach would “work for cases where the agent sees a maladaptive trait as constitutive of their identity?”

Answer: Although no approach can guarantee success, our claim is that our approach has a better chance than the main alternative known as the pruning view. Since Claire, by stipulation, is not inclined to see her own drinking as a problem, a...