Morality as therapy for mental illness

In a previous post, I offered the suggestion that, just as modern medicine provides therapies for physical illness, so morality provides a sort of therapy for mental illness. I think I’ve developed my thoughts on this topic enough to warrant another post.

To begin, I must emphasize that I have a very broad idea of what constitutes mental illness: I’m not simply talking about serious diagnosable conditions such as bipolar disorder or severe depression. I’m also talking about what are universally considered to be undesirable mental states such as fear, anxiety, grief, embarrassment, etc.

Just as we strive to be free of physical pain and illness, so we strive to be free of the mental states listed above. In the comments section of a recent Choice in Dying blog post, I propose that morality may be defined as follows:

Morality is that set of behavioral prescriptions designed to help us obtain the best mental health we can without infringing on others’ pursuit of the same goal.

Mental illness (using my broad definition) has a variety of causes that can be treated with a variety of therapies, and I’m not suggesting that morality comes into play in all cases. Where it does come into play, as the above definition suggests, is where human interactions are important.

Let us look at physical illnesses again: when our physical health is put in danger by the actions of others, we feel it is only right to place restrictions on those sorts of behavior. For instance, smoking is prohibited in restaurants because of the undesirable effects of second-hand smoke inhalation. The alcohol consumption of drivers is restricted to protect people on the roads. Many restrictions are placed on the operation of power plants, water treatment facilities, etc., in the interests of health.

Such restrictions are widely accepted because they protect people from what are universally considered to be undesirable physical states (lung cancer, broken bones, food poisoning, etc.). It seems entirely reasonable, then, to recognize that there are also mental states that are widely considered to be undesirable, including the ones listed at the beginning of this post. Why, if we accept the imposition of restrictions in the name of undesirable physical states, should we not place analogous restrictions in the name of undesirable mental states?

This point is driven home when we recognize that, because of the physical (i.e., neurological) basis of cognition, mental states are really just physical states of a particular kind. This makes it quite difficult to put undesirable mental and physical states into separate categories.

In summary, then, as long as we support the notion of behavioral guidelines geared toward enhancing and protecting physical health, there seems little reason to object to guidelines geared toward enhancing and protecting mental health. It therefore behooves us to stop fretting about the is-ought problem, and various other philosophical issues that prevent us from establishing logical motivations for moral prescriptions. If these prescriptions are designed to promote mental health, then they need no more philosophical scaffolding than our pursuit of physical health.


5 Responses to Morality as therapy for mental illness

  1. NFQ says:

    I really like this angle. So much of the struggle with the acceptance of “real” mental illnesses (diagnosable conditions) has to do with society’s conception of them as somehow fundamentally different from being sick with the flu, or having a broken leg. It’s not seen as shameful to catch the flu. It’s just an undesirable physical state. Not so with mental illness.

    I also think that “stop fretting” is very often the right response to extremely complex philosophical debates. Probably there is a simpler answer that would use less jargon. I think you’ve found it. 😉

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