These are notes concerning the philosophical issues raised by the theory and practice of Emotional Literacy Training. (From the book Achieving Emotional Literacy.)

Love as a Fundamental Good,

The ideal of love as a basic good to be universally pursued and applied with all other human beings is a markedly Christian notion first espoused in the West by Jesus Christ and in China by Mo Di, a contemporary of Confucius’ disciple Mencius.

The most influential critic of Christianity’s concept of love in the history of philosophy is Frederick Nietzsche. He held that the universal love espoused by Christians is disingenuous, hypocritical, neurotic, and leads to depressive nihilism (what he called passive nihilism) and to the degeneracy of society1 and the arts. He maintained that the universal love and altruism to which Christians aspire requires an egalitarian leveling which prevents society from producing excellence by assigning privilege evenly among all people, when it should go to the especially gifted. These special individuals should be allowed to secure the power they need to achieve their vision. Nietzsche’s idols were Napoleon, Julius Caesar, and the early Roman Emperors, strong men after the fashion of his human ideal, the superman.

It should be realized Nietzsche (who died in 1900) is considered perhaps the most influential figure in twentieth century thought, and his critique of the hidden psychological roots of altruism is accepted by thinkers as diverse as Max Horkheimer, Theodore Adorno an Michael Foucalt. Some aspects of Nietzschian thought have even influenced as egalitarian a thinker as Herbert Marcuse. Thus, deviant though many of Nietzsche’s ideas may seem to the uninitiated, they can not be dismissed. Students of contemporary politics may recognize that there are traces of the Nietzschian point of view in the theories and platform of the republican party. These points of view regarding the undesirability of social services and government subsidies to help the disadvantaged are only the tip of the iceberg of a far more extreme elitist conviction which permeates the corridors of conservatism throughout the world.

It should be understood also that even though the views of upon which emotional literacy training are based (the teachings about brotherly love of Jesus of Nazareth) they are likely to be classified as “secular humanism,” anathema to fundamentalist Christians.

Lying and Honesty. 

The notion that it is a universal evil to lie was first recorded as an ethical rule in one of the ten commandments brought down from Mt Sinai by Moses; “Thou shall not bear false witness.” Though it is a fundamental Judeo-Christian dictum, there is very little attention paid to just what precisely, obeying the rule would imply.

When speaking of truth in this book I am applying the well-known criteria followed in the courts, namely that in order not to lie one needs to tell “the whole truth (no lies of omission) and nothing but the truth (no lies of commission.)”

According to this definition a lie is a conscious act, so that a person cannot lie without being aware of it and the truth is simply the truth as the speaker knows it. In this sense lying and truth-telling is related to subjective truth and only vaguely related to the abstract and unattainable concept of “the truth” (See notes on The Truth).

The foremost proponent of absolute truthfulness is St Augustine, who believed that “God forbids all lies.” The notion that one should never lie was taken to its practical extreme by Immanuel Kant who stated that it would even be a moral crime to lie to a murderer about the whereabouts of his intended victim. Benjamin Constant countered by asserting “that no one has the right to a truth that injures others.” In this book, while arguing that being truthful is a requirement of emotional literacy, I recognize that the imperative of truth-telling is secondary to the imperative of people’s safety. Thus any person aspiring to be radically truthful has to keep in mind that truth-telling can, on occasion, be harmful and needs to be evaluated according to circumstances. This may seem to open the door for all manner of lies in the interest of safety. But there are, in everyday life, very few situations that warrant lying on that basis of safety and certainly no justification whatsoever for the constant dishonesty which seems to be accepted as normal. Most of the lies people tell have nothing to do with protecting oneself or others from harm. Rather they have to do with manipulating people to one’s, however subtle advantage, often under the guise of attempting to shield each other from “needless” pain.

According to Dr. Bella de Paulo “everyday lies are part of the fabric of social life.” In a study on lying she found that people lie in one fifth of their social interactions and that seventy percent of those who lie would tell the lies again. Sixty percent of the lies told were outright deceptions, a tenth of the lies were exaggerations and the rest were subtle lies, often lies of omission.

In her book Lying, Sissela Bok, the acknowledged expert on the issue, classifies all manner of lies and secrets and acknowledges the harm that chronic lying causes us. Yet she does not go as far as to recommend that people should not lie at all, mostly, it seems, because of her apprehension that radical honesty can lend itself to sadistic misuse.

In his book Radical Honesty, Brad Blanton, after asserting that “we all lie like hell. It wears us out. It is the major source of all human stress. Lying kills people,” also falls short of recommending a radical truth policy. It seems that he fails to do so (in spite of the title of his book) because part of our chronic lying, as he sees it, is the lies we tell ourselves, something not so easily defined and even less easily stopped. I avoid the self-lying conundrum by defining a lie as a conscious act  and excluding from my discussion of the lies we tell such metaphysical mind teasers as lying to ourselves, which given my definition of lying, (we lie when we say that which we believe is not true) is impossible in any case.

The Truth.

In speaking about the truth and love of truth I am letting myself in for a huge philosophical debate which has frozen in their tracks greater and infinitely more meticulous minds than mine.

The beginnings, in the Western world, of the idea that truth is something to be discovered with the mind rather than accepted from religion were first recorded in the 4th century BC as a result of a new interest in the workings of the physical universe. Socrates and Plato extended their exploration into the realms of ethics, aesthetics, politics and psychology. (Aristotle shifted the emphasis back to empirical inquiry, in defiance of his teacher Plato, who favored speculation and logic with little empirical grounding.) It was the Greek sophists, Plato’s contemporaries and intellectual antagonists, who first began to argue that emotion and prejudice are as important as reason in the pursuit of truth. Plato argued for absolute truth, discoverable through a dialogic process which he called dialectic; the sophists believed that opinion, or “doxa”, is truth and that truth is wholly relative. Hence Protagoras’ famous dictum “Man is the measure of all things”.

The middle ages brought back the dominance of religious truth, but in the Enlightenment the debate resumed. The Rationalists echoed Plato in arguing that reason is the best guide to truth; the Empiricists, like Aristotle, preferred to rely on the physical facts; the Romantics inadvertently came to parallel the sophists by asserting the importance of emotion and the irrational. (It should be noted that while the sophists were often disingenuous hustlers, the Romantics were earnest seekers rebelling against the excesses of rationalism and industrialization.)

Nietzsche, who, though the inheritor of the Romantic tradition through his early idol, Schopenhauer, was one of the least dewy-eyed thinkers who ever lived, argued that language (and even thought) are inherently deceptive and that no society can survive without mutually agreed upon falsehoods, “…to be truthful means to employ the usual metaphors. Thus, to express it morally, this is the duty to lie according to a fixed convention, to lie with the herd and in a manner binding upon everyone.”

Today, those familiar with the work of Nietzsche’s inheritors, the structuralist and post-structuralist philosophers, such as Derrida and Focault,” are likely to sneer at the notion that the concept of truth has any meaning or that it can be discovered. *Even less radical thinkers such as those in the pragmatist school are reluctant to speak of “truth”, as that word is tainted with Platonic associations.

To be sure, there is nothing that can be called “the truth.” The truth changes with time, there are several sometimes seemingly contradictory truths and there is no way to contain the hugely complex facts of nature in any one set of words. But I believe that it can be said that some statements are truer than others. This book does not propose to have a monopoly on universal moral truths. Instead, it offers a paradigm which, within our culture, has been found by many people to be wonderfully efficacious for making their lives happier and richer. What I can say with certainty is that, to reap the benefits of practicing emotional literacy, one must take “love of truth” seriously and seriously strive to be truthful. Love of truth implies that, as George Sand said: “We must accept truth even if it changes our point of view.” Being truthful is speaking the truth as we believe it to be, especially within the context of loving, cooperative relationships, where lies, which to some seem necessary to prevent harm, often create much more harm than they were intended to avert.

Violence and the Dark Side

Most people have, deep in their hearts, a real need and desire to bond, to be open and loving and respectful of other people’s feelings. One of the first tenets of Transactional Analysis is that everyone is born Okay. This idea probably filtered down to Eric Berne from the 19th century philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, who maintained that people are born good and it is social ills that make them bad. Philosopher Herbert Marcuse and, initially, Sigmund Freud have called this original goodness the “inborn social instinct” Eros, and the energy that drives it “libido”. Freud originally believed that our ability to live harmoniously and lovingly with each other comes from this “Eros principle”, while violence and exploitation come from the “ego principle”, the side of human nature that is concerned with self-preservation and therefore strives to become as powerful (and therefore safe) as possible and is willing to harm others to achieve it’s ends.

There are others, like Francis Fukuyama, who have suggested that this Rousseauian conviction, that people are intrinsically good while all negativity comes from bad social conditions, is a naive, liberal notion. Freud himself toward the later part of his life, after witnessing the horrors of the WWII, decided that there was, in addition to the destructive ego principle, another innate human tendency, an inborn antisocial instinct which he called Thanatos, the Death instinct.

The fact is that in addition to the positive, cooperative side of people there is a dark side of human nature that we have to reckon with. Going beyond the simple lessons of this book we will be confronted with hard situations and, as emotional warriors, we should not be taken by surprise if our efforts are met with hard if not nasty resistance.

I do believe and the pursuit of emotional literacy presupposes that people are born with an innate tendency toward goodness, cooperation, and love; that is, a tendency to exercise ethical power. Without that tendency we would be fighting a constant, exhausting uphill battle. But it must be understood that we all have within us parallel  forces which can be profoundly unethical and which are not just implanted by a bad culture but which are probably innate. These forces involve aggression, greed and unethical manifestations of sexuality. They probably stem from powerful, primitive, oft irrepressible and even vital and valuable survival instincts.

The moral philosophers of the Enlightenment generally defined evil as error. In the terms of this book error is equivalent to emotional illiteracy or a lack of a sense of enlightened self interest which would make evident to us that evil deeds will eventually hurt us by leaving us isolated. The root of evil may not be just error but the result of deep, instinctive impulses; the legacy of our primate ancestry.’

To be an effective emotional warrior you must be able to admit to your own aggression, selfishness and greed, your own inborn urge to survive at all costs. You must also be aware of these impulses in others. An Emotional Warrior must be aware that we all have territorial and aggressive instincts, and that managing those instincts in an ethical way is one of the primary aims of emotional wisdom.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky acknowledged this irreducible selfishness in human nature when he wrote: “To love another as oneself according to Christ’s commandment is impossible…Only Christ was able to do this, but Christ is a perpetual and eternal ideal towards which man strives…”

There is a dark side, not only to human nature, but also to the human condition. All human beings live every day with the possibility of loss, tragedy, and even disaster.

In the modern world we have protected ourselves from many types of tragedy through our technology. Yet, in so doing, we may have paved the way for a great, collective tragedy–a world-wide catastrophe–for that same technology, if left unchecked, may destroy the biosphere.

The awareness of tragedy is relevant to the pursuit of emotional literacy, especially for the emotional warrior. Some survivors of tragedy feel that they no longer have the resources to worry about the rights and needs of others. They may fall into a nihilistic “After all I’ve been through, I deserve to be happy, by any means necessary” or “I’ve suffered, why shouldn’t others suffer too?” attitude. An emotional warrior must understand this temptation to succumb to the dark side of our nature and must be able to resist this temptation. She must understand that she may not be rewarded materially for her efforts, she may even suffer tragedy in spite of her valor; sometimes, tragically, virtue is not only it’s own reward, but it’s only reward; a warrior must be prepared for that possibility.

An Emotional Warrior is aware of the dark side, both the dark side of human nature (i.e.: innate greed and aggression) and the dark side of the human condition (tragedy) and strives to practice honorable ethical power even when one or both of these twin facets of the Dark Side threaten to wreak havoc.

Violence and Abuse.

The connection between childhood abuse and violent adult behavior, mediated by emotional numbing, is a strongly established one.

The relationship is not perfect. There are certain neurological determinants of violent behavior which are strongly associated with trauma to the brain, that is to say youngsters who experience head injuries, whether accidental or due to abuse, exhibit a certain lack of inhibitory capacity which can result in and is correlated with uncontrolled violent behavior. On the other hand, childhood abuse is also highly correlated with violent adult behavior. In fact, abuse is more strong correlated with adult violence than brain injury. This underscores the urgent need to stop domestic violence.

The really dangerous mixture of factors is the combination of both abuse and neurological damage.

Using time spent in jail as a rough measure of violent behavior, the results in 95 male juveniles are startling:

No neurological determinants, no abuse. No jail time.

Neurological determinants, no abuse. 360 days jail time No neurological determinants and abuse.562 days jail time Neurological determinants and abuse. 1214 days jail time.

The problem is that brain injuries occur primarily in childhood as a result of abuse or neglect. Child abuse, especially child abuse that involves blows to the head or falls on the head, is therefore a serious determinant of violent adult behavior. In addition the trauma of neglect and abuse produces emotionally numb individuals which find it possible to abuse and neglect a child. Thus it can be seen that intervention in this vicious cycle is needed and that emotional literacy training, which by training empathy would make neglect and abuse less likely, could be very beneficial.

The Critical Parent

It has been my conviction that for millennia human beings have lived under the uninterrupted domination of an oppressive social order. This system is the “civilized” descendant of a simian social structure, the hierarchical pecking order by which primate groups organize themselves, a profoundly territorial and stratified form of social organization. This age-old power structure keeps tight control over people so as to exploit them for the benefit of an elite minority of powerful men and their chosen descendants, while leaving the rest to struggle merely to survive. The Critical Parent is the internalized set of ideas–injunctions and attributions–which have been internalized and attempt to control our behavior from within.

Critical thinkers will question the concept of the Critical Parent and argue that it is altogether too much like a homunculus, a little person inside of our head, which of course it isn’t. The Critical Parent is just a way to visualize and make accessible a debilitating set of recurrent, prejudiced and self-deprecatory thoughts which plague and keep down so many people.  These abusive thoughts are not based on the facts of current reality though they are present in current reality in people’s prejudices and abusive behavior. They are largely remnants from our childhood which distract, demotivate and demoralize us. For some people these are heard as derogatory, insulting, or doom ridden “voices in the head.” For these people the process of decathecting–taking away psychic energy from–.and disconnecting from the Critical Parent is relatively easier than for those whose self deprecation is in the form of disturbing visual images or nebulous feelings of doom or inadequacy. Its easier because it is possible to speak to, disagree with, and evict a voice in one’s head whereas it is more difficult to respond to and resist a doom ridden image or amorphous feeling of inadequacy.

Associated with this discussion is the validity of the concept of ego states. Are there really three and only three distinct states of the ego which manifest themselves in sequence and which operate in three distinctly different ways?

Again the value of these concepts is their utility for accomplishing the purpose that they are designed for: to better understand human social behavior. They are a useful way of representing human beings in their social transactions and when transactional analysts draw two people with their three ego states on the chalk board we know that they are not true representations of those people any more than a street map is a true representation of a city. They are, however, as useful as a street map for getting around the human situation and that is saying quite a bit for their validity.


Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Genealogy of Morals: An Attack. written 1887, Anchor Books, Doubleday, 1956.

St. Augustine, “Lying” in Treatise on Various Subjects vol 14. ed R.J. Deferrari, Fathers of the Church (Catholic University of America Press, 1952)

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Practical Reason and Other Writings in Moral Philosophy. (University of Chicago Press, 1949)

Bock, Sissela. Lying (Vintage, 1978) pg 267

De Paulo, Bella M et al. Lying in everyday Life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. May 1996 v70 #5 6Bok, Sissela. Op.cit.

Blanton, Brad. Radical Honesty. (Dell, 1996)

The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. and the Free Press, 1967, p. 505.

Nietzsche, Friedrich, “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense”, essay written 1873.

Fukuyama, Francis. The End of History and the Last Man, (The Free Press, 1992 p. 236.

Dostoyevsky, Fyodor, from his personal diary, April 16th, 1864, quoted in Fyodor Dostoyevsky, A Writer’s Life, by Geir Kjetsaa, 1987, p. 171.

Gladwell, Malcolm. Damaged New Yorker Feb 24 1997

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