by Merle Hoffman
THE NEW PHILOSOPHICAL COUNSELING
Interview with Lou Marinoff by Merle Hoffman
Call me elitist, but I have always agreed with Socrates that the unexamined life is not worth living. The profound question “How shall I live?” is one that I am always in the process of answering for myself. I don’t think I am alone in this. Most people start out this way, articulating a sense of wonder, awe, and questioning about the nature of “reality” and our place in it. As we mature, we put away these “childish things,” and are more likely to share the opinions and worldview of those around us. The nature and meaning of existence, happiness, virtue, love, are grafted onto our consciousness by our interactions with the world. We strive continually for something called the “good life,” assuming we know exactly what this means. In our journeys we seek the traditional remedies of culture, the balms of the therapeutic state, the wisdom of technology and the comfort of science. Frequently, they leave us wanting.
Often, we are unhappy; we feel that we are unfulfilled. And we think we know why this is: Something is wrong, not with the world, but with ourselves. We are lacking, inadequate, weak, sick. Seeking remedies, we frequently turn for counsel to psychotherapists who, following our modern medical model of diagnosis and treatment, attempt to find the cause of our distress and effect a “cure.”
In recent years, practitioners of a discipline known as philosophical counseling have begun to take a different approach. Abjuring the medical model, not intrinsically allied with either psychology or psychiatry, they are followers of the two-thousand-year-old Socratic tradition. Their focus is educational: Through individual counseling, group facilitation, and organizational consulting, a philosophical counselor aims to assist the client to live a better life, not by discovering what ails her, but by leading her to discover for herself what a “better life” means — to answer for herself the questions about just what constitutes a good life, a good person.
Currently, with the Clinton scandals, such questions abound. Indeed, philosophical discussions, dialogues, and debates about what is “right,” about legal versus moral truth, have become the staple of the public arena. What is the real nature of virtue, and should we expect it of ourselves or our leaders? I brought these questions and others to Professor Lou Marinoff, of City College of New York, the president the American Philosophical Practitioners Association and found some of my own assumptions challenged.
Merle Hoffman: What is philosophical counseling?
Lou Marinoff: One of its mandates is inquiry. If we subscribe to Plato’s philosophy, that we already know the important things about ourselves, we sometimes need a guide to help us discover what we know. The tools could be the Socratic method of inquiry, modern decision theory, existential analysis, moral reasoning, critical thinking — whatever is necessary to get the job done. The job being the management of problems.
MH: How is going to a philosophical counselor different from traditional therapy?
LM: A psychologist looks for causes. If you have a problem, a psychologist will say, “Aha! Your emotional distress was probably precipitated by some problem in your childhood, and now it’s manifesting itself.”
Philosophical counseling does not subscribe to a unitary theory of the psyche, according to which we behave “normally” because we have repressed things, pushed them “down” into our unconscious, in order to preserve our ego. Nor do we necessarily suppose that there is a causal theory. It’s possible for people to have a host of problems that have to do with meaning, purpose, values, goals, conflicts, relationships, loss, gain, attachments, career changes. None of these problems in and of itself is a symptom of mental illness. None of them in and of itself requires us to reach back into our childhood to find some distressful event that explains why we have it tough now.
To lead the examined life, we evaluate each problem through philosophical discourse. Dialogue, unlike diagnosis, is a sign of well-being, not illness. Hence, philosophical counseling is, as my Canadian colleague Peter March says, therapy for the sane. And because the idea is not to cure some deeply rooted, chronic illness, in many of the cases I see, one or two sessions may be enough. The idea is to inculcate philosophical self-sufficiency, and this can happen quickly.
MH: What if you never intellectually examined your life, but came for counseling feeling depressed, miserable, unhappy?
LM: This would depend on the nature of your unhappiness: What do you think happiness is? What will make you happy? And why aren’t you there?
MH: Let’s say Bill Clinton is sitting in your philosophical counseling room before the Starr report was issued. “I am 50 years old, in the most powerful position in the world, getting my penis manipulated by a young intern, risking losing everything that I have created.” What would your dialogue with him focus on?
LM: Now we have to introduce another element — medicine. A psychiatrist will find that Clinton has a disease of some kind, a mental illness. The problem is, some psychiatrists find illnesses that are not there, because they need to make a living. But maybe Clinton does have some medical problem. So it would behoove him to be checked out medically.
MH: So the first thing you do for Bill Clinton when he comes to you is say . . .
LM: Get a major work up! We want blood, semen; we want all the bodily fluids, not in the Oval Office, but in the lab. Maybe he’s got too much serotonin. We don’t know.
If the medical profile looks normal, then we have a problem without a cause, and maybe you want to send him to a psychologist who will explore his childhood, or to a Freudian analyst who will discover what sexual problems he has repressed. But if all that fails, then we simply want to talk to him about his philosophy of sex and power.
Before Princess Di had her horrific accident, the BBC asked me what I would do if a member of the royal family whose scandals were in the media came to me for philosophical counseling. What I said was that anybody who is in the public eye has to be more careful than the average person because his or her transgressions are more likely to be revealed. If you are in a position where you need to exercise power, you are going to have to pay for being in that position, to sacrifice. If you are a hedonist or a predator, maybe you should consider getting out of such a position, so you won’t disappoint yourself, your family, and other people who put trust in you.
What would I say to Clinton? I’d inquire about his conception of right and wrong. How does he philosophize about morality? Is what he has done consistent with that belief?
MH: The alternate explanation for what you’re describing is a discongruence between what people want to be and what they are. Philosophical counseling helps them find a way of seeing reality so that they can be more congruent with their ego ideal. So, really, it supports the individual’s status quo in a way that is very similar to therapy.
LM: It is therapy. Therapy without diagnosis.
MH: Would you agree that philosophical counseling could not be viewed as a radical critique of society?
LM: It can be.
LM: I am an advocate for my client. If my client wants and needs some kind of philosophical assurance that she is doing the right thing, and if I think, without lying or being unprofessional or unphilosophical, that I can provide that assurance, I do. But I am doing so in an analytical, rather than an emotional, mode. On the other hand, if my client comes in and says, “I have all these beliefs about the world. I really don’t care for them anymore, subvert them,” then I would work with my client to subvert her views. I don’t determine what my client wants, because I am not in the business of diagnosing.
MH: So if Leopold and Loeb come in to see you wanting to be Nietzchean Supermen, and say they are going to murder a child to prove it, what is your responsibility as a philosophical counselor? Do you in fact say, “This is immoral and you shouldn’t kill”?
LM: Yes. Because I am constrained by the Mill’s Harm Principle.
MH: Which is?
LM: Paraphrased, it says that the state is justified in interfering with or constraining an individual only to prevent him doing harm to others. So if you tell me that you are planning to kidnap and torture a child because you want to become an Ÿberfrau, then I will say, “This session is now terminating.”
I have a two-tier responsibility: One is being an advocate to my client. Second is a responsibility to the larger community. In a case such as you present, the community takes precedence. Even a client’s merely wanting to harm somebody would be a sufficient condition for me to override client-counselor confidentiality.
MH: Do all philosophical counselors subscribe to this theory?
MH: Let’s take a look at a philosophical counselor who doesn’t. In fact, couldn’t such a counselor just have an intellectual dialogue about the nature of murder?
LM: That counselor would likely find himself charged with conspiracy if the client actually murders somebody. But we are talking about a very bizarre hypothetical case.
MH: No, we are talking about the fact that philosophical counselors are not required to have a license, or to adhere to a specific set of standards. Somebody who goes to a philosophical counselor really doesn’t know what to expect, because the field is unregulated.
LM: In so far as it’s an art form, that’s true. Each counselor has individual preferences, philosophers, philosophies. Where morals are concerned, some are absolutists, some are relativists. So you have to decide with which counselor you will have the more interesting or fruitful dialogue. It’s no different if you go to hear your favorite piece of music performed; some musicians will titillate you more than others.
MH: Who is the ideal candidate for philosophical counseling?
LM: Somebody who is functional, who can say what is wrong without getting lost in contradictions or being unable to remember what she just said. Are you able to do your work? Are you able to look out for your children? Are you able to fulfill your basic responsibilities in life? Are you eating properly? Are you sleeping properly?
MH: So, sociopaths would be good candidates for philosophical counseling because they can be ideal raconteurs of their life stories? They are totally functional, and then they go home and eat their friends.
LM: A sociopath would be be able to pose as an ideal candidate. If somebody walked into my office with a broken arm, I don’t think it’s treatable by philosophical means. And I don’t think sociopathologies are either.
MH: Do you think philosophical counseling could be helpful for someone who has no experience with philosophy at all? Perhaps an ex-convict comes to you and says, “I’m really depressed. I am in a funk, and I don’t know what to do.” He’s never heard of Plato, Wittgenstein, Sartre. Can you be as helpful to somebody like that as to somebody with a grounding in philosophy?
LM: I’d stand a better chance with the ex-con.
LM: Yes, because the ex-con will have no prejudices to be overcome. In much of philosophical practice, the people who have no philosophical grounding, but just bring their natural curiosity, are way ahead of people who have philosophical training. Some of the worst people to work with philosophically are philosophers, because they think they already know all the answers.
Philosophical counseling and women
MH:The majority of people seeking mental health are women. How is philosophical counseling more attuned to women, if it is?
LM: Philosophy is dealing with stuff of the mind, the psyche, which as far as I know is ungendered.
MH: Philosophy is very often seen by feminists and feminist critique as extremely gendered. If you come from a Western tradition of philosophy — Plato, Socrates, Descartes — it can even be viewed as misogynist.
LM: I come from the classical tradition of philosophy that reaches not only into Western traditions, but also into Eastern ones, in which yin and yang are balanced. Just the fact that I read Aristotle doesn’t make me a sexist. On the whole, philosophy is gender-neutral in its views. Tell me what gender any kind of problem is.
MH: Unwanted pregnancy . . .
LM: Unwanted pregnancy obviously. But depression, anxiety, interpersonal conflicts or problems with relationships or unfulfilled desires, ethical problems, problems with one’s career — these are problems people experience generally. These are problems that can be dealt with philosophically.
MH: One feminist critique of therapy is that it puts the responsibility for problems — political, sociological, the inequities of the world — onto the individual, not the system. You say, “I’m miserable and I’m unhappy because my parents didn’t treat me well,” not because you’re a black or a minority in a society that treats you as a second-class citizen. How does philosophical counseling handle that transition from self-analysis to critiquing the system?
LM: We presume for the most part that people have a worldview that is much richer than merely a psychological view. This is the other way of illustrating why philosophical counseling is different from both psychiatric and psychological counseling. Leading the examined life is supposed to be a good thing. Even if it shakes you up a little, it still is better in the long run for you to know what’s going on. Because although you are not free to change the past, you are always free to reinterpret the present. And to reinterpret the present philosophically.
MH: So nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so, as Shakespeare said.
LM: I wanted to go from Shakespeare actually to Taoism, because Shakespeare got it partly right, but not quite. Nothing is purely good or bad, but thinking makes it so. So there is no such thing as pure good or bad in the world. Things are alloyed. If you look at the yin-yang symbol, you see some white in the black and some black in the white.
MH: There is nothing good in the Holocaust. There was nothing good in slavery. There is nothing good in oppression. There is nothing good in torture. There is nothing good in cruelty or inequity.
LM: I am going to have to back off a little bit and say there was nothing good in the unspeakable evil of the Holocaust, but some good coexisted with it, at least in terms of the relatively few Jews who were saved and the relatively few non-Jews who risked their own lives to save them. And it helped to motivate the rebirth of the state of Israel.
MH: I don’t think Israel was worth the Holocaust.
Virtue and truth
MH: I want to talk about the nature of virtue, because it seems to me that sex is the one issue that challenges all of us morally. Very few of us are tested like the courageous resisters in the Holocaust, but we are all challenged by sexual desire. But is this the way we should view ethics? Can we say people are moral or immoral solely on the basis of their sexual behavior?
LM: Morality is partly this. The human being is a hypersexual being, not just a sexual being. Most animals who use sexual reproduction use it for procreating purposes. The human being uses it for recreative, for creative as well as procreative purposes, for exercising dominance through humiliation, which is mostly what rape is about.
MH: Also, I have always been under the opinion that the erotic drive in this culture is directed toward consumer resources.
LM: Well of course it is. Everything is. I have yet to discoverÊanything in this culture that is not market-driven. The only thing that is not market-driven is virtue.
MH: What is the nature of virtue?
LM: There are classical virtues such as courage and temperance. And there are Christian virtues — faith, hope, charity. And there are other senses of the word virtue in a more modern or post-modern sense. People speak of the virtues of a product, why you should buy it. That is not exactly the same meaning.
But if we speak of the virtues in the classical sense or the Christian sense, then we are speaking of ideals which are to be emulated. The Stoics had a very interesting take on this. They thought we shouldn’t value anything that can be taken from us by someone else. If we do so, we put ourselves in that other person’s power. For you to overvalue your car, your stereo, your job, or your life, any of which can be taken by someone else, is in effect putting yourself in a position of fear, and always in someone’s power. The Stoics practiced this wonderful sort of detachment. Which didn’t mean that they didn’t care; on the contrary they cared even more about the things we are concerned about, about what constitutes virtue. Because the one thing that can’t be taken from you by somebody is your virtue. You can relinquish it, but no one can take from you.
MH: Your virtue is what? Courage?
LM: Your sense of justice, your temperance, all the good habits you have developed, practiced and attempted to inculcate in others.
MH: But these can be corrupted.
LM: Only if you are an accomplice. You can’t be corrupted unless you are willing to be corrupted.
MH: You can be corrupted without knowing. I know many women who have been so eager to enter the electoral political arena, convinced that they could remain true to their principles. Convinced that they could make a difference. Yet they become corrupted, contaminated.
LM: As Lord Acton said, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. If you are running for office, there are compromises you’ll have to make. That’s the nature of political life. And as soon as you compromise, you in effect compromise your virtue, too.
MH: But life is a compromise. You get up in the morning; you don’t want to. In a sense, life creates a process by which your virtue is corrupted.
LM: Not getting up in the morning when you should is a vice. Having an extramarital affair might be a little more major, depending on the value you place on your marriage. Telling the truth, even more important.
MH: Why is truth a virtue?
LM: This is a very difficult question. It would seem that we are better off having true beliefs than false ones.
MH: Assuming there is an objective reality to know.
LM: Well, there are certainly realities of different kinds. For example, there are many ways in which false beliefs can be harmful. To take a medical case: Go back to medieval times, when it was thought that the bubonic plague was a divine retribution from God. When the plague arrived, everybody went to church and prayed — and spread the contagion.
MH: Truth is a way to survive. Truth is a preservative.
LM: Definitely a preservative.
MH: But not all the time. For instance in adultery, if you want to preserve your marriage sometimes it’s far better not to say you’re having an affair.
LM: Do you think that in a marriage of intimacy, not a marriage of convenience or a political marriage, that one spouse is capable of really deceiving the other about such a thing?
MH: Yes, I do.
LM: Okay. We disagree. Because I think if one is having an affair in a marriage and if it is found out, then this will lead to conflict and strife and dissention. If you assume responsibility, and then there is forgiveness, there is a possibility of moving beyond. Whereas, if the lie is perpetuated, when it is found out — and eventually they all are — it’s far worse. And that’s pragmatic. You don’t have to be noble. You can say, What is better for me? Is it better for me to tell the truth or is it better for me to persevere in the lie. Of course, telling the truth takes a bit of courage, which is also a virtue.
Lies, law and politics
MH: Do you think it matters what you lie about?
LM: In one sense, no. If you are a purist, you will tolerate no lies at all. A little lie differs from a big lie only in degree, not in kind. To succeed as a professional politician, you are probably duty-bound to lie a lot of the time, or at least to deceive a lot of the time.
MH: Right. Witness the so-called “brilliance” of Clinton.
LM: So then maybe it does make a difference what Clinton lied about. But it’s not just what he lied about, it’s how. It’s the motive for the lie that becomes relevant.
MH: Isn’t survival the ultimate motive — the first virtue?
LM: For biological beings, it’s the thing without which there is no virtue. Survival is not questioned in any reasonable political philosophy. The human being has a right to self-preservation.
MH: So one can say that Clinton is being virtuous by attempting to survive.
LM: No. Because survival is not a virtue in itself. I mean, if the only thing that prevents me from committing suicide is dismembering people and eating them, then my survival is not a virtue.
MH: So how should you handle temptation?
LM: We are human beings. We have Eros, so we are tempted. We are in a constant state of temptation. Religiously, if you fall prey to it, you are called sinful. In a secular sense, if you fall prey to it, you are called immoral.
Each of us has a price which can be met. Virtue, like it or not, is for sale. We succumb when the offer looks good enough. So the thing you can always choose to do when you are tempted is raise your rates. But it’s not raising your rates to have a bigger pay off; it’s raising your rates in order to avoid succumbing to the temptation.
MH: At least, this entire Clinton scandal has some of us looking at the difference between what is legal, politically expedient, and morally principled.
LM: Because the lawyers are actually helping us out here by snarling everything in legal red tape. This is gonna be the biggest ball of red tape for the Guinness Book of World Records. No one will be able to figure out how to unwind it so people will back up and say, “Now wait a minute. We forgot about a very important distinction.” Which Jefferson knew. Which Martin Luther King knew. And that is, whether something is right is different from whether it’s legal.
MH: But our society has replaced “right” with legality.
LM: We elect lawyers to office. What do we expect them to do, but use the law to make things better for themselves?
MH: In a sense, because the constitutional concept of the separation of church and state has become a secular mantra. The law has replaced religion and culture as the only true unifier in our society. The great trials are our modern morality plays.
LM: It’s just a stage. We will grow out of it.
MH: The law is a fad?
LM: Not a fad. It’s a phase. We need the law, but the law must always be only a shadow of our morality. It must not dictate our morality or drive our morality or inform our morality. It’s our morality, our sense of right, which must tell us what the law must say. It can’t be the other way around.
Merle Hoffman is publisher/editor-in-chief of On The Issues magazine and founder/president of both Choices Women’s Medical Center, Inc., and Choices Mental Health Center.