Abstract for Rethinking Mental Disorders: Educating leaders on the ethical implications of psychopathology

(This abstract was accepted by the Society for Ethics Across the Curriculum for the 2017 Conference which will be taking place in Grand Rapids, Michigan, October 5-7, 2017. I will be presenting a paper based on this abstract. I am honored to be accepted and eagerly anticipating the conference.)

With the rising number of mental disorders in our communities, it has become increasingly important for leaders to have a clear understanding of the nature of mental disorder and to be given the appropriate tools to help those who are suffering. Leaders, both inside and outside the psychological community, are struggling with how to treat people with mental disorders and how to provide them the best care possible.

This paper will suggest a fresh way of viewing those struggling with mental disorders by seeing their experiences as not outside the common human experience, but actually arising from the human condition itself. I will turn to the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, a philosopher and psychologist, to demonstrate how cases of psychopathology must be understood as an opening to the horizon of human experience, an expression of the human condition and a way of still using structures of being-in-the-world. We will find that this inclusive account of psychopathology aids in a better understanding of mental disorders as well as a better understanding of the human. We cannot, however, conflate the distinctions between healthy and sick ways of experiencing the world, as the suffering from those with mental disorders is weighty and real. Thus, while recognizing the magnitude of the suffering, this account provides a way to relate to the person struggling, as opposed to perceiving their experiences as inaccessible.

With this inclusive account of psychopathology, leaders can then be equipped both (1) to help those struggling with mental disorders and (2) to incorporate them into the life of their community. For the first, leaders will be reminded of the importance of holistic care: not only is it crucial to offer medical care, but also physical, spiritual and emotional support. And second, although certain times of separation from the community are needed, during times of hospitalization or mental health retreats, leaders can also look for ways to engage those struggling with the community. I will close this paper by looking at several examples of this kind of community engagement, such as sports programs at local recreational centers, art and music workshops at non-profit organizations, educational opportunities at charter high schools, and social and volunteer activities at state hospitals.

Abstract for Foucault’s Care of Self: An Ethical Approach to Technology in the Global Age

(This abstract was accepted by the Society for Ethics Across the Curriculum for the 2015 Conference which will be taking place in Greenville, South Carolina, October 8-10, 2015. I will be presenting a paper based on this abstract. I am honored to be accepted and eagerly anticipating the conference.)

There is no question that technology has become one of the most powerful forces shaping our world. According to mobile-cellular subscriptions, the number of cell phones has now reached over 6.8 billion with the world population being a little over 7 billion. With the gap between the number of cell phones and the number of people rapidly closing, it is evident that at least some form of technology has reached almost every person on this planet. How do we respond to this global invasion of technology? Is there an ethical framework by which we can properly understand and regulate technology?

Drawing mostly on Michel Foucault’s later works, this paper argues that Foucault’s care of self offers us an ethical approach to technology in the global age. First, through his historical investigation, Foucault reveals that the ancient notion of care of self has been eclipsed in the modern age with a reduced notion of knowledge of self. As a result, when we look at modern technology, we find that most modern technology is no longer concerned with a holistic care for self, but only with an obsession for knowledge, especially self-knowledge. And yet, Foucault also claims that technologies can have the power to contribute to a proper care of self. Thus, I believe that his analysis of care of self reveals the shortcomings in modern technology, but also challenges us to discover technologies which do promote a holistic care of self.

Good Decisions Made Without Good Reasons: Connaturality According to Aquinas

Reason clearly plays an important role in making good ethical decisions. Looking back at our own personal lives, we can trace the source of our poor choices to a lack of good reasons or even to complete irrationality. We only need to review the improper actions of governments to see the horrific effects of decisions made without good reasons. And yet, we experience another phenomenon when making decisions where we make a good ethical choice, not based on reason, but on our own natural inclinations. In these situations, we might say, “It just felt right, but I’m not sure why.” Thomas Ryan, a commentator on Thomas Aquinas, accurately describes these types of experiences: “feeling, thinking, willing resonate with each other that this particular response is ‘right’.”[1]

We experience this phenomenon in two types of situations: major life decisions and quick response decisions. First, in a major life decision, we may list all of our reasons, make a pros and cons list, and talk with our family and friends, but when it comes down to it, we rely on our intuitive feeling of what seems right. For example, in choosing a spouse, though we avoid certain characteristics that we know will be harmful to a healthy marriage, we choose someone based on a ‘feeling of love’ for that person, which may be inexpressible in words. In regards to quick response decisions, we may also act, not based on carefully thought out reasons, but on our (hopefully) good intuitive sense in the moment. If we see someone about to walk in front of a moving vehicle, we will quickly shout to alert them without taking the time to contemplate the reasons for the most virtuous response in that situation.

So, what’s happening here? How are these decisions ethical? Thomas Aquinas offers his concept of connaturality to account for these experiences. Connaturality simply means a natural inclination or bent toward something. When Aquinas uses the term though, he is often referring to a natural inclination toward divine things, and ultimately, toward God. If we have a natural inclination toward the things of God, and thus to God, Himself, we will naturally choose the things of God. Aquinas discusses connaturality most explicitely in the Summa Theologica, Part Two of the Second Part, Question 45, Article 2:

Accordingly it belongs to the wisdom that is an intellectual virtue to pronounce right judgment about Divine things after reason has made its inquiry, but it belongs to wisdom as a gift of the Holy Ghost to judge aright about them on account of connaturality with them . . .
Now this sympathy or connaturality for Divine things is the result of charity, which unites us to God, according to 1 Cor. 6:17: “He who is joined to the Lord, is one spirit.” Consequently wisdom which is a gift, has its cause in the will, which cause is charity, but it has its essence in the intellect, whose act is to judge aright, as stated above.[2]

The first type of wisdom mentioned here is based on reason, but Aquinas calls our attention to another type of wisdom: wisdom which is a gift of the Holy Spirit. This wisdom gives us the ability to judge things based on our relationship with God and our intimacy with Him. When we come to know God, we are joined with Him and, as a result, we have access to this wisdom. Even those who do not know God explicitly can still know Him though the natural law and thus, in a similar fashion, are also able to judge based on connaturality.

Connaturality springs out of the heart, a heart full of charity (love). The more that we love God, the closer we will be to Him; the closer we are to Him, the more His judgments will be our judgments. Thus, some of our decisions are made not based on a list of reasons but according to wisdom provided by the Holy Spirit.

Naturally, this concept can easily be abused. A person can claim that he or she is acting based on ‘connaturality’, but the actions clearly only bring despair and dissatisfaction. If the person’s inclinations are bent toward a lesser good, a good that becomes an evil when made a priority, then the decisions will reflect that. Aquinas constantly calls us to seek after the highest good, the only true source of happiness, which is the eternal vision of God. If we consistently direct our hearts toward God, if we “set our minds on things above and not on earthly things”[3], then we can trust our inclinations, given by the Holy Spirit, when we are called to make ethical judgments, whether big or small.

  1. [1] Thomas Ryan, “Revisiting Affective Knowledge and Connaturality in Aquinas,” Theological Studies 66 (March 2005): 58
  2. [2] Summa Theologica, Part Two of the Second Part, Question 45, Article 2 Online
  3. [3] Colossians 3:2