Denial in Private and Public Life: Emotional Anemia in Ethical Thought

Roderick Hindery


Weapons of mass destruction, were they a valid excuse for war in Iraq

Weapons of mass destruction, were they a valid excuse for war in Iraq? (1)

In its current psychological overtones “denial” connotes self-deception, which in some part may derive from “bad faith.” In the Sartrean sense, bad faith means something less than lying to others, yet more than a posture determined solely by subconscious forces. In this paper denial and self-deception simply denote turning away from information and choices, which in some measure people know to be present. While denial is often more rooted in free choice than they are willing to admit, here we shall explore whether there are factors besides free choice and subconscious forces, which predetermine the extent of self-deception in private and public life.

Private Life

On the assumption that everyone has experienced the elusive phenomenon of rationalization in private life, we begin by illustrating personal self-deceptions which are common, as well as extraordinary. Common self-deceptions comprise the rule, rather than the exception. Rare are individual behaviors, which individuals regret both previously and afterwards, but do not justify by rationalization. Procrastination, for example, is always masked with its best face, as in “It was my friend who insisted that I put off my work;” “Besides I’ll do a better job later;” “I’ll stop drinking or eating too much the first of next month;” or even, with humble humor, “The devil made me do it.”

Denial and rationalization

These dubious appeals to self and others for clemency fail to satisfy non-dualistic hunger to integrate decision and resolution with thinking. So reversal occurs. Minds are adjusted to conform to what wills are doing anyway–the very definition of rationalization. In addition, people in denial create ingenious disguises for continuing to behave in ways not actually preferred at the core of their persons. Contradictorily, they cloak their intent to continue behaviors which they justify for reasons hidden from themselves. St. Augustine’s celebrated decision not to decide, “Lord, I wish to be converted–but not yet!” epitomizes the contradiction inherent within all failed resolutions. Paradoxically, it also illustrates the deadly seriousness with which human beings intend not to change their ways; or to proceed in them for reasons not acknowledged within themselves, an enigma to which this paper will return below, when it analyzes and illustrates self-deception in public life.

Self-deception about personal behavior is exemplified in physiological addictions to sugar, nicotine, alcohol, and other drugs; and also in behavioral abuses, for example, sexual abuses of minors or others who trust us for our age or positions of responsibility. The virus labeled “denial” often slips into sexual abuse so incrementally that it resists detection. If abuse of children seems incomprehensible, it may be better understood through reflecting on the contradictory rationalizations which pervade all undesirable decisions and actions. A Catholic bishop partly excused his own abuse of minors with reference to “competing theologies” which circulated at that time; “third-way” theologies, perhaps, which advocated warmer and more personal expressions of affection so vigorously, that some did not recognize the subtle increments through which affective warmth transformed itself into emotional and physical manipulation. In some cases, not all, a beautiful ideal deftly deteriorated into a self-deceiving artifice for manipulating children and minors.

The device of personal denial in these cases also infected authorities who should protect the victims of abuse more than they guard those who prey on them. Here private self-deceptions begin to enter a public sphere, in which administrators hide abuses, not by eradicating them, but by covering them, hoping, against their better judgment perhaps, that habitual abusers would “disturb the faithful” no more. The question now commonly asked by religious leaders and faithful alike focuses on denial and self-deception, on judgments which were clouded by preoccupation with power and control, if not by hubris. Episcopal failures to acknowledge behavioral errors and abuse were analogous to the undue fear of bishops and other religious leaders to admit doctrinal errors. They failed to recognize that admissions of both behavioral and doctrinal errors may strengthen their credibility more than they weaken it. Self-deception about abuse and other errors rests finally on letting the self deceive itself through the “will to power” over others. Here was the fulcrum of the lie. The same fulcrum of denial may disclose itself elsewhere in public life, for instance, in rationales for initiating or not initiating war against Iraq.

Public Life

Self-deception in public life is arguably illustrated in the case of the war proposed by the Bush administration against Iraq. Denial can be detected at several dimensions. Each of these denials concur with traditional “conditions for just wars,” which delineate situations in which allegedly just wars might occur. Affirming the coherence of these conditions as a theory, is not necessarily equivalent to asserting that they work in practice or that they have even been fairly tried, so prevalent is the reality of self-deception in public life. Let us examine how these conditions work or fail in the case of war contemplated against Iraq. They include self-deception about: 1) competence, 2) motives, 3) means, 4) consequences, and 5) alternatives.

  1. Competent authority has classically denoted the legal authority possessed by leaders who would initiate war; for example, representatives who speak with the competent authority of the United Nations, rather than merely in the name of single nations. In an extended sense in which competence is understood morally as well as legally, it refers to objectivity. It questions whether specific leaders function with the capacity to grasp the social enormity of war or whether their motivation is rather propelled and controlled by more narrow and personal experiences. In a nationally televised interview in 2002, American Vice President Dick Cheney acknowledged how frightened he was at the prospect of being a personal target for terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. President George W. Bush spent several similar hours wondering whether he was being subjected not only to usual terrorist warnings, but also, like his father in previous years, to imminent threats against himself, his staff, and his family. Addressing Congress shortly afterwards he declared: “In our grief and anger we have found our mission and our moment.” (Rich Lowry, King Syndicate, 12//29/02) To wonder for several hours, if not days or weeks, whether he is the personal object of a terrorist siege would understandably arouse and combine feelings like fear with the wish to retaliate or to complete his father’s project, which was thwarted previously. U.S. and other citizens might empathize with such emotional trauma, to a point. If President Bush’s reaction should evolve from emotional stirrings to military retaliation, then he needs to prove that objects of his attack, like Saddam Hussein, are demonstrably linked to the perpetrators of the 9-11 assault on the President’s country and his person. Establishing this linkage is further necessary, because military retaliation will involve consequences which far outreach the domain of the President’s personal trauma. Questions about the objectivity of leaders in this and other instances, therefore, must undergo thorough public scrutiny, because of the enormity of the military and social ramifications at issue. Otherwise, safeguards against potentially “bad faith” or ideological blindness remain elusive. Credible objectivity about the need for retaliatory strikes can be verified, only in the measure that it is tested against opposing points of view and is examined for its opening assumptions or motives.
  2. Motives for public decisions, in war or in peace, often remain as inscrutable as rationales for private judgments. Commonly experienced motives, such as fear, greed, or Nietzschean “ressentiment” and “will to power,” are neither manifestly wicked nor easy to detect. More often they are generated by “bad faith,” that is, they connote something less than self-deception by free choice and even less than denials which stem in part from subliminal psychological drives. Dubious public rationales also derive from problematic styles of thinking critically, as when logic is suffused with emotionalism or, at the other extreme, logic’s blood-flow becomes emotionally anemic. Examples at one extreme can be detected among ideological fundamentalists. Examples at the opposite extreme are found among those who love their fellow human beings too much from their heads, at the neglect of their hearts. Citizens of enemy nations are not distant abstractions, but human beings, tragically indoctrinated and abused by their leaders, who deserve compassionate empathy. In short, the rationales for public actions massive in scale can forego scrutiny no more than the competence of the leaders who initiate such actions. Wars justified as self-defense may represent more than mere self-protection from attacks. As some European leaders have suggested, war against Iraq may actually (self-deceptively) be all about control: controlling Iraqi oil reserves, or dominating the Middle East for reasons which spill over from Bush’s civilly religious, near-evangelical sense of America’s “manifest destiny” to spread itself “to the ends of the earth.” This rationale reaches beyond mere defenses of American “national interest,” by which wars have been commonly rationalized.
  3. Means become evil when they serve evil ends, like world domination, and when they inflict evil, like the deaths of innocent (non-threatening) civilians. In traditional just war theory, on the other hand, wicked methods cannot be justified by good ends. For example, nuclear weapons of mass destruction cannot be launched simply to insure that an enemy country’s weapons will never be aggressively deployed in the future. In this line of thought, beyond the mass arsenals rationalized as defensive deterrents by the United States, Russia, etc., wars cannot be initiated simply to prevent weapons from being launched in the future as “first strikes.” Although the war contemplated against Iraq is allegedly defensive against potential assaults in the future, it will also kill Iraqi military and citizens. As such, it can be initiated no more justly than can similar first strikes against other nations like Russia and China, which already deploy weapons of mass destruction for their own alleged reasons of deterrence. The complexities about actions which constitute “evil means,” are subject to debate and should be weighed in public discussion. Part of that discussion rests in weighing positive effects against negative effects. Many critics of current United States policy, for example, argue that any attacks on Iraq would generate far more chaos and terrorism than they would prevent against Americans, Israelis, or Europeans and Asians in general. Although the Bush administration has warned about such chaos and disaster, it fails to recognize the self-deception in this circular contradiction: the terrorist reactions it risks, by its own admission, through an attack on Iraq may result in more destructive consequences than the alleged Iraqi terrorism which it seeks to curtail by war.
  4. Destructive consequences should not outweigh good ones. In terms of psychological propaganda as well as physical death and destruction, war against Iraq would be plausibly counterproductive for the United States and its potential allies. Like Al-Qaida terrorists, Saddam Hussein, has demonstrated intuitive skills in strategic propaganda. He has mastered the art of surprise. By parroting the claims of adversaries, he keeps them off guard. Successful in the propagation of inflated generalizations, Saddam understands that sheer repetition increases acceptance by the masses. The basic issue with Saddam, therefore, concerns less his deployment of mega-weapons as deterrents, than his ingenious success in indoctrinating and rallying support from masses of the poor. The Bush administration remains in “denial” that war against poverty, at home and abroad, is far more critical than is war against Saddam. The latter war, like any war in traditional theory, should be considered not the first alternative, but the last recourse.
  5. War as the last recourse. Have political and economic alternatives been sufficiently explored? War against Iraq is potentially catastrophic, both for Iraqis and for U.S. and allied military personnel. With or without such apocalypse, it may serve as a catalyst for massive global terrorism. At the very least, therefore, the public needs fact sheets from government, mass media, and other sources, which summarize the diplomatic efforts which have been tried, how they have failed, and what political and economic measures remain for creative and imaginative strategies by citizens as well as their leaders. Failure to recognize assumptions and the merit of competing viewpoints in implementing each of the traditional conditions for “just war” exemplifies the power of self-deception and denial in public leadership. Ongoing failure demonstrates at least tentative validity in pacifist claims that just war theory is self-contradictory in practice. Even if rationales for a just war cohere in theory, as the saying goes, they have not been implemented in practice, at least in ongoing proposals to justify war against Iraq. Why do such denial and self-deception reign?

Emotional Anemia

emotional anemia in academe

Emotional anemia in academe, sometimes, but no lack of appeal or emotional anemia here, right?

Having examined two illustrations of private and public denial, the paper’s third and final section will examine the prevalence of self-deception through denial. It will also explore the function of other factors operative within denial and self-deception besides free choice: e.g., insufficient attention to emotional, moral elements of the heart which, in addition to cerebral logic, pump blood into critical thought.

The rules of logic appropriated by religious believers and others who think critically about ethics have been either grossly misrepresented or vastly misappropriated. Logical functions in ethical thought include the highlights of scientific method; for example:

  • the disclosure of one’s working assumptions;
  • testing or verifying
    one’s conclusions with those drawn from opposing viewpoints and competing positions;
  • tempering
    inflated generalizations.

Contrary to initial impressions, however, none of these or other logical steps exist without interacting with moral and affective elements. Although logical processes are to be distinguished from what is affective and moral in theory, the two realms cannot be separated in practice. Multiple terms fail to describe the intricate interaction of logical and affective elements. They intertwine, intermingle, pervade, and suffuse one another. In the traditions of Pascal, Nietzsche, or Scheler, ethical logic cannot act alone, as though it emanated from androids. However much the affective intermeshes with the logical is displayed in the startling ease with which scientists, ethicists, and other intellectuals come to ignore critical points of scientific method, like testing their positions against competing ones, which they learned so laboriously in their own fields. In a spectacular reversal, they fail to retain and apply scientific methods to controversial issues, like the initiation of war. Why?

Affective and moral components of critical thinking

The inability to apply scientific discipline to social matters may be attributed to a one-sided, rationalistic understanding of what scientific methodology entails. In this hypothesis, even disciplines whose methods most resemble the mathematical require affective and moral components of critical thinking; for example, the honesty to examine one’s assumptions; the courage to think independently, against positions by those who control the paradigms of their fields; and the discipline to temper generalizations. Further, accurate assessments and judgments may increasingly entail openness, tolerance, and, indeed, every positive emotion and virtue imaginable. Without its emotional dimensions, critical thinking in ethics is not accurate, not scientific, not creative, and not practical. Without affective integrity, astute scientists and political leaders will continue to fall prey to self-deception and denial.

Like scientists and other intellectuals, ethicists in Christian and other traditions are often swayed by the emotional excesses inherent within cultural fundamentalism. But at the extreme opposite to emotionalism, they may ignore the intricate interactions of affective and moral elements, without which critical testing and thinking in ethics remains emotionally anemic. Examples of these elements bear repeating: honest and fair disclosure of assumptions; humble openness towards testing one’s conclusions against opposing opinions; the fortitude to think for oneself or face otherness; and the self-discipline to qualify one’s absolutes. In ethical matters, if not elsewhere, there is no logic unless it includes a “logic of the heart.” As the act of seeing impacts on what is seen, so an intelligent perspective about interactions between feeling and thinking increases the levels of moral emotion which are integrally necessary for accurate and productive reasoning. Ethical logic suffused with emotionalism, as in religious and political fundamentalism, or devoid of its emotional counterparts is either emotionally super-charged or affectively anemic. As such it cannot reach beyond the self-deceptive denial which is so prevalent in private and public life.

Questions for discussion:

  1. Do additional affective forces operate within private
    and public denial?
  2. What further emotional elements exist, without which critical
    thought in ethics remains anemic: tolerance, empathy, the creative fortitude
    to face otherness, and …?
  3. In what other private or public areas is the interaction
    of emotion with critical thought especially paramount?


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