Ethical ConsiderationsAnother issue arising out of the existential/phenomenological stance concerns man's relation to man. This question is dealt with in philosophy under the heading of ethics, a branch of the discipline called axiology which deals with moral and value issues.
To ask the questions with which this section is headed is to put ethical issues into a non-Gestalt orientation. To ask what is right and what is wrong is to assume that there is a right and a wrong, a good and a bad in the matters being addressed. In Gestalt therapy there is no "right" or "wrong" built into any matter or question. There are rights and wrongs, but they are aspects of the stance and choices of an individual or of a society in particular situations; their rightness or wrongness is a factor of attitudes and values vis à vis the issues: they emerge in the process of interaction of the person with the environment or of the societal environment with the person.
The Gestalt therapist does assume that there are "good" things for each individual, that each individual has values and a valuing process. The therapist also assumes that there are social "goods" and values. These values have their origins in the self, in the culture, and in aspects of the social environment, particularly the family. The individual, however, in the Gestalt system is assumed to be responsible for increasing awareness of his value system and, based on his awareness and attention, his choices. We shall return to this issue in later discussion.
The important point is that the "good" things in the Gestalt system are not actions; rather, they are attitudes that are to be encouraged as a Gestalt way of life. Naranjo (1970) has discussed these attitudes cogently as "moral injunctions" or "general principles." He proposes these three, which we paraphrase here:
It is not that the Gestalt therapist preaches these principles to his clients in the sense of demanding acceptance, nor is it that he holds them as covert injunctions withheld by design. Rather, these principles are statements of "truth" for him and are implicitly supported in all of his work. They represent the "good" for him. Clients who work in the Gestalt way are experiencing these "statements of truth" implicit in the therapeutic procedures and processes. Naranjo suggests that success in therapy relates to experiential assimilation of such implicit weltanschauung.
- The valuing of what is actually present in time and space, and real rather than a symbol of a reality.
- The valuing of personal awareness and the affirmation of personal experience.
- The valuing of personal responsibility, which constitutes wholeness.
To continue with the overt ethical aspects of Gestalt therapy, let us consider those that have been enunciated in western culture and philosophy, and explore Gestalt therapy's connection with them. Traditionally, only two ethical stances have been stated—the legalistic view, in which laws are considered the controllers of individual decision and actions (i.e., society is more important than the individuals that live within it); and the antinomian or anti-law view, in which spontaneity or nature controls, and there are no assignable principles. However, there is a third viable ethical stance, whose historical roots go back to ancient China. Confucius, in his Analects, wrote, "The superior [wise] man goes through life without any one preconceived course of action or any taboo. He merely decides for the moment what is the right thing to do" (in Watts 1970, pp. 177-78).
Such an ethical stance is noted by Fletcher (1966) as "situation ethics." This system combines the basic ingredients of both of the traditional ethics: authority exists, nature exists; these are interlocking, even inseparable, aspects of any experience. What controls is the individual whose responsibility is grounded in each situation. There is no intrinsic right or wrong in any event or in any person. Persons are not intrinsically good or bad. Each person is as he or she is in each situation, and makes choices based upon personal awareness, abilities, knowledge, values, and beliefs. A choice may be made for oneself, for others, or for society. That is each person's inevitable choice.
Fletcher explains the situationalist position as that in which there are players, and there is a game and rules such as "Punt on fourth down" or "Take a pitch when the count is three balls." The wise players know all the rules thoroughly, and also know when to ignore them. For the Gestalt therapist, also, there may be some "rules" and there is the breaking of them.
The difficult ethical questions deal primarily, or course, with situations with other persons (although in recent times, dealings with aspects of our environment and of our society have also come to have significance on an ethical level). A central question for us to consider is "Am I my brother's keeper?" Clearly, in Gestalt perspectives, the situation controls the persons within the situation. There is no clear yes or no answer to the ethical question as stated. This is not to say that "I" am not my brother's keeper, only to say that "I" have the choice and the responsibility for the choice as to attitudes and actions in any specific context.
One further comment related to this ethical stance is necessary for clarity. There is some sense in Fletcher's discussion in which the person may be considered to arrive at each situation without any preconceived ethical attitudes or values, as if all such aspects of interactions were derived from the interaction itself. The Gestalt perspective, as we have seen, would include the value systems of the persons; each person has attitudes and values that are brought to any encounter. Part of the therapeutic encounter might involve becoming clear about what attitudes and values are the person's alone and what attitudes and values have been "introjected" (swallowed whole).
Here, a distinction made by Erik Erikson (1964) is helpful. Erikson distinguishes between "ethical" and "moral." In his view, "moral" is legalistic, and he would propose that we consider moral rules of conduct to be based on a fear of threats. In contrast, he would consider ethical rules to be based on inner processes of judgement and consent and "some promise of self-realization." Morality, in other words, is imposed by external authority; ethics is self-regulation. Each person is considered to have a set of ethical/moral standards that have been developed over many years and which are brought to any encounter. With these, this individual negotiates ethical issues within the emerging situation.
Kierkegaard (as discussed in Wild 1966, Chap. II) also denotes the ethical life as that which continuously chooses the whole of itself, and stands by this choice. This is the authentic existence. Unauthentic existence is detached, and views itself as one object among many others; choice is suppressed.
Carrying this argument back to the homo duplex position enunciated earlier—the individual is both uniquely individual and societally bound—individual ethical stances are seen to relate to both individual and societal issues. Persons have values for themselves and for their environments. Some of their "goods" are related to persons and some to society and societal institutions. Persons also have a set of values related to the kind of interaction they favor between the individual and the environment, both other persons and other societal aggregates. The Gestalt perspective says that what is "good" about these values and ethics is that they be self-selected, based on personal awareness and choice.
Now let us see what is meant by "authenticity" in the actuality of interaction processes. Martin Buber's (1958) conception of the I-It and I-Thou relationships is central in this respect. Buber distinguishes between two essential processes of relation, the I-It and the I-Thou. In doing so, he ties the two processes to each other, expressing their ultimate need for each other. The I-It process exists in time and space, separating the identities of the I and the It. The It may be either person or object. The important aspect of the process is that the images the I obtains from the It come from distance from it, standing outside it, and observing. The relationship is static. In Gestalt terms, this is the intellectual function. The intellect computes, categorizes, judges, weighs evidence, organizes, and so forth.
In Gestalt therapy, as in Buber, this intellectual function is seen as an integral part of organismic functioning; however, when used exclusively or overemphasized, this function removes the individual from contact with more direct experience, aliveness. Buber uses the words "experiencing" and "using" to describe the essential processes. "Experiencing" for him is external perceiving of the otherness of the object (person or thing); "using" is treating it as a thing to be manipulated to lead to some result. Although we need to encounter our surroundings in this way, encountering only in this way will lead to separation, alienation from what is.
I-Thou relations are those in which I do not encounter objects; rather I encounter other I's. Such encounters occur in interaction between the subjectivity of each I; they do not happen within one or both of the individuals involved. The French philosopher Merleau-Ponty (1969) also suggests this quality of knowing and encountering that reaches such a height of subjectivity that it becomes a new "objectivity," a holistic experience that denies no parts, leaves out nothing.
The language for I-It relations is the daily syntax and the daily words describing daily experiences, past or future imaginings, "talking about" such experiences. I-Thou relations may be articulated but are beyond description. In any event, the description of an I-Thou experience is invalid, for the experience stands outside of descriptive language.
Having outlined I-It and I-Thou relationships, Buber enunciates the ethical position: both stances are necessary; both are valid; one cannot consider either as right or as wrong per se; one considers the stances within situations in which one finds himself. For both Buber and Perls, the I-It is the traditional, typical, mechanistic way of relating to aspects of the world. The I-Thou is centered in realization of the self and is, therefore, attainable less frequently.
Perls echoes this ethical stance in his "Gestalt Prayer" which may be found in its entirety in Gestalt Therapy Verbatim (1969). When he makes statements that clearly differentiate one person from another and says that each has responsibility for only the self, not for the other's behavior; furthermore, when he indicates that he believes that neither needs to live up to the expectations of the other; and when he defines this kind of statement as a Prayer he is often accused of being antinomian—unprincipled and immoral. However, there are ethics within Gestalt therapy that are implicit, partially explicit, in the statements. Gestalt therapy emphasizes the importance of "I and Thou; Here and Now." Whatever exists and can exist does so only in the present; experiences of human interaction of the I-Thou kind happen only in the present. Existence and experience, however, are not amoral or immoral. Human choices and decisions are made in every moment. Moral principles are acted out in every lived experience out of the ethical stances of the persons involved. Both I-It and I-Thou experiences are necessary; both are ethical in the Gestalt approach. The therapist knows that I-Thou experiences in which therapist and client in the depth of encounter of the moment experience each other fully are not only beautiful but also therapeutic. And I-Thou experiences do not always happen and are sometimes contraindicated.
Although the It and the Thou have been assumed thus far to be individuals, Buber makes it clear that an I may also have either kind of relationship to natural phenomena, to social entities, to the community, group, or society. Each person is seen to be in either an I-It or I-Thou relationship to these collectives or "generalized others," in Mead's (1934, 1962) terms.
The Gestalt therapist shares this situational ethical stance with other philosophers, theologians, and psychologists. In addition to Fletcher and Erikson, William James (1890, 1950), John Dewey (1929, 1930), Charles W. Morris (1942, 1956), and Paul Tillich (1952) have supported these principles. In Modes of Thought (1938), Alfred North Whitehead asserts that one of the principle obstacles to human understanding is the simplistic notion that events can be characterized as being right or wrong.
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