copyright Robert M. Ellis 2010

The Psychology of the Middle Way

The Middle Way theory on this website is as much a psychological theory as a philosophical theory. I do not accept the rigid division that is sometimes imposed by analytic philosophers between the two disciplines. Any theory which puts forward an account of which are more justified beliefs and which are less must also be a psychological theory if it is based on the functions served in the mind by these beliefs. As with any theory, its value is shown by its applicability in fruitfully explaining what we experience. A psychological theory can explain both what we individually experience, and social and historical evidence.

The psychological theory which can be used to support the Middle Way is broadly Jungian, and its basic concepts are different mental energies or desires. It sees the idea of the self as contingent, so is not derived from the idea of the self, but tries to treat mental energies impersonally. Instead, it begins with the recognition that our energies motivate us through identifications. For example, I fetch food and eat because of an identification with my body and its appetite. One's identifications lie not only with one's body and the idea of oneself, but also with other people, with things, and with ideas and beliefs. Nor are these identifications fixed: rather they shift around at different times.

What is morally problematic for us is the divisions we experience between different identifications. This usually reveals itself through inconsistency, or even self-contradiction, as we pursue different incompatible goals. For example, the person who is attempting to give up smoking often has divided identification because they want to give up smoking, but at the same time the desire to experience the relief of smoking again also often comes to the fore. The sum of identifications we happen to have at a particular time I term the ego, whilst the sum of all identifications loosely federating in the mind of one individual I term the psyche, in both these terms following the usage of Jung. Our mental conflicts are conflicts between the ego (i.e. the identifications of a particular moment) and the rest of the psyche, which contains other identifications that are weaker at that moment but still present, ready to reassert themselves at another time. In the smoker who is giving up, the desire to give up may at first hold the ego, but then this may weaken and the desire for a cigarette may again take over the ego. This does not mean that the desire to give up smoking has been lost, only that it is not dominant.

These psychological forces are related to beliefs because it is the adoption of the ego that gives a belief its force and leads it to repress other possible beliefs. A belief is driven by identifications, because beliefs are pragmatically used for various purposes. These purposes may be quite immediate (e.g. my belief that there is a table in front of me enables me to put things on it) or very potential and long-term (e.g. my belief that Ulan Bator is the capital of Mongolia may come in useful, say, in a quiz, or when discussing Asian affairs). When they have an immediate use in experience, beliefs can be rapidly modified by that experience and are thus forced to be very flexible. For example, if I'm not sure whether a given object in front of me is edible, it is more useful to maintain an open mind until I find more information, rather than immediately devouring it. I might reach a provisional conclusion that the object is edible, but my ego will not identify very strongly with this belief as yet. An identification with the belief that the object is not edible is still potentially there in the background, waiting in the rest of the psyche ready for a rapid shift of allegiances if necessary.

Moral problems arise when the ego identifies strongly with a belief and becomes fixed, so that the opposing belief and the energies it represents are dogmatically rejected. This can only happen when the belief cannot be challenged by experience. This is what is wrong with metaphysical beliefs: they become identified with by the ego but cannot be challenged, and thus the person who identifies with them becomes less able to respond to new conditions and create new beliefs that are adequate to them. Metaphysics is thus psychological maladaptation to conditions. The person who is committed to a metaphysical view also blocks their awareness of any experience that might challenge that metaphysical view, and thus constructs a universe that is in accordance with it. Obviously social processes also reinforce this process, as the risks of challenging a socially accepted view further limit the possibilities of being aware of alternatives. It is those whose awareness is blocked by metaphysics that are less likely to appreciate the consequences of their actions, be rationally consistent in their decision-making, or realise the limitations of their character, and thus be less morally effective in the terms of any of the widespread ways of judging normative ethics.

A psychological state of integration is one where there is relatively less division between ego and psyche, so that beliefs are more flexible and opposition to rejected beliefs less entrenched. If there is a change in the conditions, the integrated person is thus able to respond better. An integrated person will make a better investigator of phenomena (and thus a better scientist) because they are less likely to be limited by an attachment to fixed ideas, and better able to respond to new experience by forming new theories. They will be morally better because they will be less limited in their awareness of their actions and their effects on others, more consistent in their attitudes because they are more aware of the possibility of inconsistency, and better able to improve their own characters through spiritual practice. A psychologically more integrated view is thus a more objective view.

Psychology is, of course, an empirical discipline, and no theory will be accepted without evidence. However, it is also an area in which different opposing schools remain divided because scientific evidence alone does not conclusively determine the superiority of a particular theoretical structure. The main way in which this theory can be tested is informally by individuals considering its relationship with their own experience. In my thesis, I have also attempted to test it against historical evidence. However, there is also no reason why empirical psychologists could not take up these ideas in future and devise ways of testing the relationship between metaphysical beliefs and degrees of moral objectivity.

There is, however, another reason for accepting this theory in the event of the evidence being inconclusive and depending on prior assumptions and interpretations. A psychological theory which also offers a way forward in understanding the justification of morality and moral decisions must offer advantages over other theories which do not. The main reason why this theory offers such a way forward is due to its rejection of the fact-value distinction, which has prevented many psychological theories in the past being interpreted in moral terms.

Links to related discussion

The Middle Way and cognitive bias

The Middle Way in relation to metaphysical beliefs

The Middle Way in relation to moral absolutism and relativism

The psychological basis of belief (thesis)

The relationship between the psychological basis of belief and philosophical ideas (thesis)

The psychological basis of the Middle Way (thesis)

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