The Cruelty of Indulgence

I wish I had more time to pontificate on the following quote, but since my thesis is due in two days and I have to plan a class to teach, I don’t. But I found this quote, and I love it. It’s from an article called “What We Are,” by C. Terry Warner, published in BYU Studies. I believe what he says 100%:

Part of the intellectual fashion of our era is to think it charitable to excuse people for their behavior on the grounds that it can be completely explained by reference to their biological make-up or their early life experiences. ‘To understand all is to forgive all.’ …

But contrary [to this], there is no charity in this idea, only indulgence. People who believe it can extend no hope to those of us who are emotionally troubled; in their view we are stuck with our emotional deficiencies and will simply have to cope as best we can. … Not only that, people who believe this doctrine will tend … to collude with disturbed individuals in their pity for themselves. A collusive indulgence is just as condemnatory and, if accepted, just as debilitating as a collusive accusation.

On the other hand, treating people as responsible for their emotional lives is not condemnatory: it is a form of believing in them. It holds out hope.

In this quote, Warner is talking specifically about emotionally troubled, abusive, or anger-prone individuals. However, I believe that the same principle applies much more broadly. Holding people morally accountable for their moral conduct and for the way they treat others is not condemnatory—rather, it is the only position that holds out hope for them. To say that others “just can’t help themselves” is to resign ourselves to the fact that we are all simply products of forces beyond our control. That’s not a liberating philosophy—that feels to me quite constrained, and consigns others (in our view) to a position of helplessness against the vicissitudes of life.

Are there exceptions? Sure. I try not to make sweeping, universal, categorical generalizations. I’m speaking only of trends in society that try to exonerate individuals by claiming that they are helpless to control their thoughts, emotions, and behavior towards others. It feels like freedom, because the individuals are now free (so they think) of moral culpability. It feels like charity, since there is no moral condemnation. But truthfully, it is neither freedom nor charity. It’s captivity, because it keeps people from believing they can behave differently than they do. And it’s not love, because true love is willing to chasten, willing to correct, when correction is needed.

I’d say more, but that’s all I have time for now.

12 thoughts on “The Cruelty of Indulgence

  1. I haven’t read the original work from which you pull this, but I think the principle being described is a bit more nuanced or complicated than what you put forth.

    To use myself as an example, it wasn’t until I was in my 40′s that I realized that I had been imitating the emotionally abusive behavior of my father. It wasn’t until I was in my 50′s that I realized that I had Asperger’s Syndrome.

    There was a sinister synergy in the two things. Not only was I emotionally abusive, but without a realization or diagnosis and counseling for the latter, I was incapable of realizing that I was emotionally abusive.

    I think the points of realizations are demarcations in the level of responsibility. Not to fully excuse my prior self, but now “I get it”, and feel more responsible. Hence, now, looking back, there’s more than a particle of truth in the observation that “I just didn’t know better.”

    A lot of guys have to go through several marriages and divorces before they realize that the problem is with them, and not with others. (“The common factor in all your failed relationships is YOU.”) So, in a way, I’m lucky that I didn’t ruin the lives of women and children who would have been my spouses and offspring. (Or, *they’re* the lucky ones.)

  2. Church handbook is very clear on an abuser of any kind are to face church discipline. I’ve seen as many abusers as adulterers, only the adulterers seem to face church discipline.

  3. ldsphilosopher,
    As you say, in some cases, indulgence within reason may be necessary (as with the institutionalized). I wonder if people are really interested in indulging bad behavior, or if it is really a matter of expectation. Knowing about abuse cycles, we don’t find it surprising if the children in abusive homes become abusers themselves, while more normative behavior may come as a pleasant surprise. Knowing how tempting that unclaimed donut is, we may be more likely to be surprised by its continued existence than its theft. Policies and laws that take these expectations into account may guilty of “the soft bigotry of low expectations” but they may be effective for all that. It is terribly hard to find the balance between how we think people should behave and how experience and reason lead us to expect them to behave in codifying and enforcing community norms.

  4. Good post, LDSP. And good point, John C. Both of you make me think.

    So here is the issue I have. It seems to me that both points of view have truth to them. I’ve seen the militant atheists (Dawkins in particular) make the case that people that are bad can’t help it. And, of course, this is true to some degree. We are not all born with equal capacities for good and evil. (Think psychopaths or borderlines here. Or even just narcisism disorder.)

    So it seems to me that *considerable good* has come from the realization that we are biological beings that aren’t equal and that some of us have considerable additional challenges.

    I think about my son, who is Aspergers. A few decades ago he’d probably have been kicked out of school and his life would be ruined. But in our day and age, we recognize that he has an additional biological challenge that others do not. And this seems to motivate us morally to feel like we need to help him along and — frankly — not hold him to all the same standards as others. And ideally he’ll eventually come along at his own pace and perhaps still be a productive member of society.

    But it’s easy to see how this can be taken too far. We can decide that we’re not only going to make space for him to come along at a different pace and instead decide he shouldn’t be held responsible for his actions at all. The moment we decide that, he’s doomed, of course.

    What makes this particularly difficult is that *there are people that have no hope of moral progress enough to be productive members of society.* (Here, think psychopaths and probably, to a lesser degree, certain types of borderlines.)

    Given a very long period of time, perhaps we could move them along. But they will in all probability die before they are really even capable of joining society without endangering others.

    The problem is that there is no way to know for sure who is who or what will ultimately work for someone. So we must go on holding people morally responsible even if we know that in some cases there is no real hope in this life of them changing. Because we need to go on having faith that *this person* is not such a person. Because that is the only way to get *this person* to change.

    There seems to be a tragedy in this. Doesn’t it mean that there are at least a handful of people that have significant enough metal illnesses that they really aren’t capable of taking full responsibility for their actions? Probably, yes. But until someone can come up with an alternative to holding people morally accountable, there is no use crying out that this is ‘immoral’ to do to some people. Faith that a person can change (even if we know there are some exceptions) seems like the only realistic approach we can ever use.

  5. Good points all around. I read Terry Warner’s book, Bonds That Make Us Free, which promotes this idea heavily. Terry Warner has worked it all out. It makes perfect sense, it’s beautiful even. When it is applied correctly, there are true and amazing changes that happens in people’s lives, freedom from self-deception.

    However, I’ve come to the conclusion that in the real world, it is a bit too idealistic. Freedom from self-deception is a wonderful ideal, but for most people, I don’t know if it is possible. Therefore, if it is not possible in most cases, how useful is it to build an entire self-help philosophy around it?

    The reality, is that we are creatures that act, and we are creatures who are acted upon. We are both gods and slaves. We are victims and we are heros. The Bible says, “To him that hath shall be given, and to him that hath not, shall be taken even that which he hath.” This terrible statement by Jesus, regarding the parable of the talents perfectly describes the tragedy of the human state. The poor get poorer, the rich get richer. The smart get smarter, the stupid get stupider. It’s almost a universal law with few exceptions.

    But I agree with Terry Warner that we must believe and preach change. Absolutely. Because it is real, it is possible. The more we believe it, the more it will grow, the more it will become a reality for ourselves and those in our circle. Hope is contagious.

  6. We have learned so much about mental illness since Warner wrote that statement that it has very little bearing on what is going on today. We know so much more about the brain–albeit not nearly enough–that we can understand better what is going on. Only God knows for sure who is capable of being morally accountable and to what degree. It is not our place to judge. It is our place to understand and to learn from those who have developed methodologies and ways of communicating with people who are afflicted with neurological disorders in order to increase insight and learning on every bodies part.

    I do agree that people are sensitive to expectations and tend to live up those expectations, unless they are so sick that they are incapable of being aware of reality in any degree.

  7. YvonneS,

    Don’t take everything psychologists say as fact. They are given almost entirely over to the assumptive presupposition that human beings are not moral agents accountable for their actions. The research doesn’t prove their point—it is grounded in that assumption in the first place.

    This is why I’m studying psychology—so I can learn better how to fight the insidious philosophies of the adversary (that the social sciences are now perpetuating) that we are not moral agents. Please don’t let the precepts of men (psychology included) convince you that human beings are not moral agents, and culpable for the wrongs we commit towards others.

    Ezra Taft Benson said, “The precepts of man have gone so far in subverting our educational system that in many cases a higher degree today, in the so-called social sciences, can be tantamount to a major investment in error.”

  8. Nate,

    I like your thoughts here. You’ve looked into this more than I have. I think you are right that the idea that we can remove our self deceptions is not possible. But then, my real goal is simply to remove as many as I can before I die.

    That is, unless the universe is actually Lovecraftian. Then my real goal is to have as many health self-deceptions as possible and to remove the unhealthy ones where I can. ;)

  9. Great discussion! When it comes to nature and nurture we are not equally blessed, so where should society truncate the bell curve of acceptable behavior? Laws, the Ten Commandments, morals, mores and manners attempt to define this at various levels and of course the cycle of abuse cannot be stopped by tolerating abuse. Beyond this how should the individual who finds himself on the undesirable side of the line be treated? The abuse cycle is a good example of the nuance and complication involved in this issue. Many abusers learned to abuse by being abused. In order to grow them past this history their legitimate victimhood must be recognized and validated but once it has been validated they cannot be allowed to wallow in the victim role if they are to become healthy. So the second step is to teach the underlying drama dynamics of playing the victim role vs. truly being victimized.

  10. God judges us, and will judge us, according to the light which we have received. As the scripture says, those who sin against the greater light are under the greater condemnation.

    It’s very difficult for us mere humans to ascertain just how much light someone has.

  11. I love “Bonds That Make Us Free”

    Nate said, “However, I’ve come to the conclusion that in the real world, it is a bit too idealistic.”

    The book really is teaching repentance. To be accountable for the choices we make. To be true to our true conscience. That may be idealistic but I will take it any day over giving up.

    I have found that repentance is best done early and often and usually in small increments. I may not be able to live as God does but, by His grace, I can grow into it.

  12. ldsphilosopher: “Don’t take everything psychologists say as fact. They are given almost entirely over to the assumptive presupposition that human beings are not moral agents accountable for their actions. The research doesn’t prove their point—it is grounded in that assumption in the first place”

    I am well aware that facts in any discipline are merely the skeleton on which beliefs are hung. Perceptions are as least as important as facts in determining behavior. If persons lack insight it is necessary to relate to them in a way that will help them develop that insight rather than deciding that they are incapable of doing so. It does nothing to pay lip service to the importance of them managing their own decisions until an effort has been made to help them learn basic decision making skills. I am not advocating accepting bad behavior. I am advocating learning how to deal with people who behave badly in a positive way that will help them learn how to make better behavioral choices. I am suggesting that illness isn’t sin. We need to have some idea of what we are dealing with before deciding how to respond.

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