Philosophy Matters in Life and Therapy: Here’s Why

I use philosophy in daily life, and I use philosophy while being a therapist.

First, let me define what I mean by philosophy.

Philosophy has five branches:

Metaphysics — In other words, “What is it?”

Epistemology — In other words, “How do I know that?”

Ethics — In other words, “What should I do?”

Politics — In other words, “How should people get along and what is the role of government?”

Aesthetics — In other words, “What’s the nature of life in concrete form, as expressed in fiction, paintings, sculpture and the like?”

In daily life, and as a therapist, I find these two questions to be the most relevant:

“How do I know that?” (epistemology) and, “What should I do?” (ethics)

Therapists are supposed to be non-philosophical. But there are two problems with this conclusion.

One, philosophy is implicit in everything we do. Two, people are coming to therapists with explicit confusion and concern over ethics and knowledge as applied to daily life.

Examples: How do I know if what I feel is true? How should I cope with my emotions? What’s rational — or “normal” — and what’s not?

These are very common issues in psychotherapy.

They all refer back to epistemology, the theory (in philosophy) of how we know what we know.

In daily life, people might not know the word ‘epistemology’ or really care, one way or another, what a ‘theory of knowledge’ is.

But it affects them deeply, all the same.

The same is true of ethics. Ethics answers the question, ‘What should I do?’

Examples: Should I tell the truth or conceal the truth from my spouse? Should I tell my teenager what to do, or let him learn on his own? Should I change careers, or not? Should I buy this house, or not? Am I living beyond my means, and if so, is that wrong? Should I live for my own sake, or do what others say I should do? (This last question is huge in psychotherapy.)

There are countless questions and dilemmas people experience in daily life. There’s no resolving — or even discussing — these dilemmas in an intelligent way, without the use of ethics.

We’re taught that ethics has to do with other people. Actually, ethics is first and foremost about the self.

Although one’s ethics does affect other people, and often involves relationships with other people, the root of ethics — rationally defined — is the relationship a person has with objective reality.

Is one intellectually honest, and in the habit of facing and confronting facts at all times? Is one conscientious in one’s thinking? Or does one evade, avoid, deny or deliberately look away from facts relevant to one’s own well-being, if not very survival?

These are psychological concerns involving the individual, first and foremost. And there’s no way to resolve these questions without reference to some form of ethics.

The best philosophy, to my knowledge, is Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism. That’s the philosophy I rely upon when making decisions and determinations, great and small, about daily life. It’s likewise the philosophy I rely upon (at least implicitly) when guiding or helping people resolve their own contradictions, concerns or dilemmas.

For example, a client asks, “Should I marry this person, or not?”

I make reference to philosophy, and encourage the client to do the same.

First, “What is?” That’s metaphysics.

Examples: What facts do you know about this person? What do you love about this person? What are the facts that give rise to your emotional responses?

Which of these emotional responses of love and attraction are valid? Are any invalid, or unfounded? Are any based on wishful thinking unsupported (or contradicted) by facts?

That’s epistemology — HOW we know what we know.

The epistemology I subscribe to assumes that just because you feel it doesn’t make it so. Feelings are important, but they have to be backed up by knowledge of objective facts before taking them as true, or acting on them as if they are true. Once you know what’s true, then feel to your heart’s content.

Taking this rational and intellectually honest approach to such a problem constitutes the ethics of rational self-interest.

Self-interest, rationally and according to Objectivism, does not imply sacrificing others to yourself. At the same time, it implies you never sacrifice yourself to another, either. It’s YOUR life. Nobody else’s but yours. Yes, this is selfish. And that’s a good thing!!

You can give, but only if it does not undermine or destroy your own well-being. And you respect the requirement of others to act on the same principle, for themselves. You honor self-interest as a global principle: In yourself, and others, at one and the same time.

Rational and mutual self-interest is not conventional ethics, and that’s why the world is in perpetual dysfunction and conflict.

Conventional ethics ultimately leads to, “It’s either you, or me. Either you perish, or I perish; either you suffer, or I suffer.”

This is because conventional ethics teaches that self-sacrifice is a virtue. This inevitably sets up a world of givers and takers. It’s sheer madness, and is probably the root cause of most psychological (not to mention political) conflicts.

Reason and logic lead to the conclusion that self-sacrifice is neither practical nor virtuous. You live for yourself, while respecting the right of others to do the same.

That leads to politics. Politics refers to government, and government is not a focus of psychotherapy. However, a philosophy of government flows directly from an ethical viewpoint. Ethics is used the same way when looking at government as it is when looking at one’s personal life in a therapy office.

The viewpoint to which I subscribe states that people can and should live in harmony, because the initiation of force—in any respect—should be against the law.

Politics is relevant to human life, even if you’re indifferent to the outcome of a particular election (assuming there’s any meaningful choice in an election, which there rarely is).

This is because politics directly flows from ethics, and ethics must be applied — knowingly, or not — to matters of daily life.

As often as not, when I see therapy clients having problems, I can see that these problems are the direct result of government policy.

For example, many people want to be independent, but they cannot find a job. Unemployment (as I write this) is officially 8 percent, but it’s probably closer to 15 or 20 percent if you count the people who have given up on employment and given in to government subsidies as a way of life.

Psychotherapists are supposed to be neutral about politics as well as ethics. (Exceptions are made when the politics are leftist, but never when they’re anything else.)

Yet politics flows directly from ethics, and it’s impossible to achieve a serene state of mind without a proper ethics, in turn grounded in an epistemology of reason and a metaphysics of objective reality.

People cannot be fully rational, or ultimately even survive, other than in a free society. The less free the society, the less rational people can be expected to be, even if they seek to do everything right ethically.

The effects of social policies are inescapable. Unfortunately, nearly all of our social-political polices are wrong, and getting more wrong all the time. Present-day policies all lead to less and less freedom, even when done in the name of freedom, and people are suffering accordingly.

The mental health of most people is deteriorating as the willingness of government to protect freedom, even in America, diminishes.

In a totalitarian society, there is no mental health because it’s impossible to be sane in a dictatorship. In a society moving towards totalitarianism, as America is progressively doing (there’s “progressivism” for you), mental health and happiness are visibly on the decline.

People are not as happy as they might be, and not as generous either. Their sense of benevolence diminishes as life gradually becomes legislated as a war of all against all. We’re walking towards dictatorship, and blaming the absence of totalitarian dictatorship for all our troubles.

Yes, “it’s the economy stupid”…a free economy, that is.

Aesthetics matters too. Aesthetic discussions about film, novels, plays and the like—are not the central focus of psychotherapy. However, the manner in which you refuel yourself — via movies, television, reading — will have a large impact on your own psychological condition.

Clients in therapy often bring up a movie or work of fiction or art that had a major impact on them emotionally, and it’s appropriate to do so.

It matters whether you fuel your psychological soul with malevolent, depressing works of fiction or art. It matters whether you fuel your psychological soul with benevolent, uplifting and inspiring tales or paintings of humanity at its best. Aesthetics matters.

Some aesthetics will lead to a pervasive feeling that, “If that great person can do it, I can too.” Others will lead to a pervasive feeling that, “If that lousy specimen of a human being is all there is, then there’s really not much purpose in living.”

Ultimately, art and movies/television encourage us to feel, “Life is worthwhile and I can succeed at it’ or just the opposite. Art is the concrete manifestation of metaphysics. Run if you like from that term, “metaphysics,” but you cannot escape its relevance in your mind and life (or your movies and novels).

There’s an old expression from the nutritional field, “You are what you eat.” Similarly, you are what you watch, read, or gaze upon.

This is not an argument for government censorship. It is an argument for the fact that what you consume — mentally and intellectually — inevitably impairs or uplifts your spirit. Aesthetics is often a part of psychotherapy. In art as in food and life, make healthy choices.

I’m not giving you the definitive summary on the philosophy of Objectivism here. You can read that in the works of Ayn Rand, and others who specialize in the field of philosophy.

What I am telling you is that philosophy matters. There’s no escaping it, and it’s relevant in everything you do, think—and feel.

Be sure to “friend” Dr. Hurd on Facebook. Search under “Michael Hurd” (Rehoboth Beach DE). Get up-to-the-minute postings, recommended articles and links, and engage in back-and-forth discussion with Dr. Hurd on topics of interest.