The Moral Limits of Psychology
by Rev. Gregory Jensen
Defenders of the free market insist that virtue is essential to a just and thriving economy. If morality is relevant to economics, it is equally so to allied fields of social science, all of which have as their object of investigation the human person. Indifference to the moral dimension distorts the study of human action in economics; so too does it deform the discipline that reaches behind that action to the human mind: psychology.
Built on a sound anthropological foundation and guided by an equally sound morality that is clear on the proper goals of human life, the empirical findings and practical techniques of psychology can foster the flourishing of both persons and communities. Unfortunately, as Theodore Dalrymple argues in his most recent book Admirable Evasions: How Psychology Undermines Morality, contemporary psychology has long been not only hostile to traditional morality but also indifferent to and dismissive of the larger context of Western culture within which it arose. As a result contemporary psychology, according to Dalrymple, “is not a key to self-understanding but a cultural barrier to such understanding as we can achieve.”
Operating within its own limits, psychology can be helpful. Too often however we appeal to psychology for assistance without a proper understanding of the empirical and moral limits of the discipline. Like all social sciences, psychology’s findings are expressed in probabilities that are narrowly defined by the researcher. In other words, given a specific set of variables (which ignore others for the sake of the research), in a given percentage of cases this or that is likely true. Like all sciences, psychology knows the general but it does so at the expense of the particular about which it knows only probabilities.
Dalrymple’s observation about behavioral psychology is true of the whole discipline (and as Hayek reminds us, economics as well): “What started as methodology became ontology.” Rather than situating itself modestly within the larger context of the Western intellectual tradition, psychology set itself up as a critic of the culture. This isn’t limited to the deformative aspects of culture and personal behavior that have been the concern of critics since Socrates and the Old Testament prophets. No like Freud’s Oedipus, psychologists and psychology have increasingly sought to undermine the culture itself.
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