Mental Health and Ethical Conduct
Lawrence K. Frank
Today our new knowledge of personality development makes it possible to revise some ancient teachings. Some remarkable changes have already taken place--as for example in the criminal law. For generations we have believed, and the lawyers and the courts have maintained, that if an individual violated the law, stole property, damaged the property of others, or injured another not accidentally, or in any way infringed upon the rights of others, he was to be caught if possible, tried and, if convicted, punished.
Within the last forty or fifty years we have seen the rise of juvenile courts and of child guidance clinics which are showing that most of these young offenders--and I do not say all--are individuals who have been neglected, maltreated, subject to terrorization and intolerable brutality. They have grown up as warped, twisted, distorted individuals who are incapable of maintaining the kind of orderly conduct that we expect and require. Instead of punishing them, we are increasingly trying to diagnose and to treat them, to provide psychiatric care, rehabilitation, all the different ways by which we can, in some cases, help them to escape from their own unhappy, disturbed personality difficulties and from those persistent feelings of anxiety, of guilt, and especially of resentful hostility that most of them feel toward the world.
They often have an image of themselves which is self-defeating and prevents them from living up to our social requirements or even trying to do so. Their level of aspiration is too low and they have no hope of trying to be the kind of person we expect them to be.
The studies of babies, pre-school children and school children are revealing that many of the actions and emotional reactions of what we call the "problem child" are indications and symptoms of the problems of the child, of his own futile efforts to cope with situations and the demands and requirements that are beyond his capacity. Thus, we can say that what looks like evil or wickedness or naughtiness, impertinence, disobedience seems to arise from the child being deprived of what he has needed to live up to these ideals and standards.
This viewpoint does not mean that children are angels--far from it. Nor does it mean that they are little devils. They are living, growing, developing organisms with extraordinarily active interests, with immense potentialities and capacities, who are undergoing a severe and trying ordeal of being transformed into members of our society, who must struggle to achieve the kind of conduct we hold up for their attainment. They are unable to do so alone or against the obstacles which, alas, we often present to them without meaning to.
Moreover--and this is important--it may be both necessary and appropriate for children to do many of the things which we dislike or disapprove of, also to react emotionally in ways which are normal for a child, as wholesome and essential stages in their development, but which are often treated as expressions of evil, of wicked intent, of flagrant disobedience or deliberate anti-social conduct. This is difficult for us to realize, because contrary to centuries of belief a child is not just a small-sized adult.
Adolescents too often do or say things that have been considered perverse or anti-social. But many of these are symptoms of the confusions and conflicts which the adolescent cannot resolve by himself, often conflicts in our own traditions which we have handed on to the adolescent expecting him to resolve them when we cannot.
Many of the adults who break the law or legally engage in all kinds of dominating, exploiting, anti-social behavior, who perpetrate so much of what we call man's inhumanity to man in our social, political, economic life, in our home and family life, in our schools and in our professions, are essentially unhappy, warped, twisted, individual personalities, who at whatever cost to society and to other persons engage in these deplorable actions.
Many individuals say: If what people do, no matter how illegal or injurious it may be, is an expression of their personality and emotional problems, does that mean that we can hold no one responsible for what he does? Does that mean that we have to give up the ideal of individual responsibility, of moral autonomy?
This new way of interpreting human conduct and misconduct does not mean excusing anything one does and abandoning our cherished standards of conduct, nor does it mean that we are giving up the ideal of personal responsibility. Rather it is giving us a new and I believe a more effective understanding of what individual responsibility means and what we must do to develop and maintain it.
Today we can say that if we want people to be morally and ethically responsible, to live up to our ideals and standards of conduct, we must provide more effectively the kind of education, relationships and social life which will enable children and adolescents to grow up, capable of accepting and maintaining the standards of responsible conduct. This means that we must think of social and cultural responsibility, of developing increasingly the kind of social order with the political, economic, social institutions and practices, the kind of marriage and family life, the kind of schools and education, which will make it increasingly possible for children and youth to become self-directing personalities, capable of bearing the burdens of freedom, prepared to play their part in maintaining social order and maintaining the ethical ideals we cherish.
We can say this because we see today how often our ethical ideals are being defeated by individual personalities who are driven and coerced into all manner of antisocial and self-defeating activities, partly by our social institutions like our political and economic life, partly by our conflicting traditions which they cannot resolve, but largely by their own personality difficulties which reflect these social institutions and those conflicting traditions but arise from their unhappy childhood.
Thus, if the individual is burdened with strong feelings of hostility toward the world, of resentment or of guilt, he cannot think or act toward others as might be desirable or use the rationality with which he may be endowed, because he is continually subject to distortion by those feelings. The teaching of mental health is not an effort to undermine morality or to threaten individual responsibility. The mental health movement offers one of the most promising leads to the attainment of our cherished values and aspirations. It shows us how it may be possible for us to use our reason and intelligence more effectively, when freed from these distortions and self-defeats to which we are all more or less subject.
As we begin to think in terms of social and cultural responsibility as an extension of the doctrine of individual responsibility, we will recognize how much our very traditions and institutions, our customary interpersonal relations, are themselves largely responsible for the individuals we call delinquent and criminal, the alcoholic and drug addicts, the so-called sex offenders, all the others who violate our legal and other codes of conduct, who bring misery and unhappiness not only to others but to themselves.
The mental health movement asserts that if we want a healthy, orderly, decent society we must try to develop healthy personalities and in turn we cannot have healthy personalities without developing a healthy society. That is not a vicious circle nor is it a play upon words. It is a statement of the essentially reciprocal interrelationship between man and society and society and man; a statement of the circular relationship between cultural traditions and human personality. As we learn to think in these new terms I believe we are going to find it increasingly possible to work constructively in many of these areas where we have been pessimistic and to move forward toward this ideal of a sane, wholesome, mature personality--the goal, as I understand and interpret it of the Ethical Movement.
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