Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Personal is Philosophical

In hearing a friend recount an argument she had with another friend I thought about how ethics and ethical norms play a role even in intimate encounters. We tend to think of the fights we have with intimates (friends, lovers or family) as purely personal or interpersonal and having to do with feelings. But there is that aspect of arguments in which people say things like: “You should’ve called.” “That’s an overreaction.” “How could you do that to me.” Each has a charged emotional component but they also assume and assert a belief in what is right and wrong. Is it right or expected to call in this or that situation? When is an emotional reaction an overreaction; how do we judge the proper level of emotion for a given perceived offense? Was the wrong committed a wrong? Each of these presupposes and asserts a view of how to behave properly and improperly. Part of the understanding of propriety is based on what we think is right and wrong behavior given our society and culture. In some cultures there could be great offense in not accepting an offer of food or drink upon entering a person’s home. Is that an overreaction? It depends on one’s belief in the social norm being violated. One’s position on that norm is part of the argument in an interpersonal conflict.

When is a reaction to another’s actions an over or under or proper reaction? It is whether the reaction is appropriate to the behavior that caused it? How is that determined if the two people disagree about the norm violated?

A: How could you do this to me?
B: What are you talking about? It’s not that big a deal.
A: It’s a big deal to me!
B: You’re overreacting.
A: No I’m not. I’m hurt by what you did.
B: Well, you’re too sensitive.
A: I’m not too sensitive. You’re insensitive if you can’t see that what you did was wrong.

The emotional element is intertwined with a normative or ethical element and both have to be sorted out. The ethical element brings into play one’s philosophy of right and wrong.

I wonder if some philosophers have thought and written about this. A quick search of the philosopher’s index didn’t reveal anything, but it does seem like the kind of thing others have thought of already, maybe feminist philosophers.


muzuzuzus said...

Feminists most certainly would be the right people to ask about this, because women would have had far more experience of insenstivity towards their feelings by males who are brought up to suppress emotions, and sensitivities.
I have learned that evwen tone of voice is important to consider. For example you may say something that is supposed to be caring but the tone is not. The less senstivie person has no empathy that the other, be it human or animal will be aware of this. In fact the dier may not. yet tone is apparently even more important than what is said. I learnt this lesson late in life, but I try to apply it now and I can say I have seen good results from it.

Lion Goodman said...

I've studied beliefs and belief structures not from the intellectual and philosophical frame, which you have mastered (just read Ch. 9 of your critique on Wilber, and I understood a good deal of it), but from the more practical self-developmental model of actually shifting my beliefs, deleting beliefs that no longer serve me, and studying how they create the "reality" of our experience. We are aligned in our understanding of how beliefs affect even simple conversations, and how our core psychology affects our view of "truth" and "reality." I offer a free eBook on my site, If you get the chance to look it over, I would enjoy having a conversation with you about these topics. - Lion Goodman (San Rafael, CA)

Jeff Meyerhoff said...


You raise an interesting, and I think neglected issue in philosophy. Philosophers typically focus on language, the words that are said: propositions, sentences, grammar. But meaning doesn't only reside in the words themselves and, further, doesn't only reside in the context. You point out that meaning is also in the sound. The sound or intonation can be part of the context, but it can hold the key or truth or deeper meaning to the spoken expression. Maybe that's been examined in some microsociology where they analyze conversations.

Jeff Meyerhoff said...


I'll take a look. You're right I'm interested in psychology - reality creation issue. But I'm skeptical of people who say they can "shift" or "delete" beliefs. That's very tough, but your method may work.