Ricky Gervais and the Wrong Way to Grieve

After Life, created by Ricky Gervais, seems to be a quest to show just what it would mean to grieve in the wrong way. While grief counselors and well-meaning supporters will often assure us there is “no right or wrong way to grieve,” the central character, Tony, is destined to be an exemplar for how badly things can go when someone takes that advice to heart.

Tony recently lost his wife along with his will to live. Even without a will to live, though, he keeps living in spite of himself, partly because the dog needs to be fed. Maybe he really does feel an obligation to the dog, or he really wants to live, or he is just afraid to die. It doesn’t really matter why he keeps living, maybe, but several characters do make note of the fact that he does, in fact, find a reason to go on each day, even if he can’t say what it is.

So he goes on without wanting to live, which he feels gives him the freedom to do things he never would have done before. Of course, he always had the same freedom, but his suicidal ideation has now made him aware of it. The fact that suicide is on his mind tells him that if something he does causes things to get even more unpleasant for him, he will simply end it all.

This is, of course, a central tenet of existentialism, especially as articulated by Jean-Paul Sartre. Humans have radical freedom to choose their actions because they can annihilate themselves at any time. This annihilation can come in the form of suicide or simply choosing to become a different person. Sure, you can’t actually become a different person, but you can choose radically different actions, and we are defined by what we do.

Suicide is also the central question for another existentialist, Albert Camus, of course, but for Camus the question of suicide should challenge us to find meaning for our lives each and every day. If I’ve chosen not to kill myself today, I must have a reason. I should be aware of what it is I am living for. If it is just to feed the dog, then so be it.

But Tony isn’t so far along his journey yet. He’s engaged in a little game theory such as that discussed by Robert Nozick and other philosophers. He’s decided that being a decent person isn’t a good bet in the game of life. While it would be better if everyone were nice, that is not the case. Consequently, nice people consistently lose ground to the selfish people around them. Tony reasons it is better to be a rotten person benefiting from the kindness of a few naïve but altruistic people than to be a nice person expending energy on people and getting nothing in return.

So Tony is pretty awful to everyone around him. I don’t think there is any need for a spoiler alert here as this is all laid out in the first minutes of the first episode. Tony does some awful things that have awful consequences for people who come into his contact. Brief flashes of remorse or regret let us know an empathetic individual still lurks in there somewhere, but people risk real harm by coming into contact with Tony.

In the Parable of the Mustard Seed, Buddha tells the grieving Kisa Gotami to go to all her fellow villagers and collect a mustard seed from everyone not touched by grief. She returns empty handed, of course, as everyone is touched by grief. Like Kisa Gotami, Tony slowly learns this lesson, and it changes him.

In the end, though, I think existentialism drives the series more than Buddhism, but it is Simone de Beauvoir who gets the final say. Beauvoir believed, as did the other existentialists, that to be human is to be free if we constantly practice freedom as an act of will as Tony has decided to do. However, as we will ourselves to be free we must also recognize the freedom of others and will them to be free as well.

We must all suffer, but our suffering is shared by all those around us as both Kisa Gotami and Tony learn. Recognizing that means we will move forward with compassion and kindness, and that is the greatest freedom there is.

Ethical Codes: Moving beyond autonomy

Ethical theories can be divided in a number of ways, but one easy way is to separate the rule-based theories from theories that are not rule based. If you happen to be writing a code of ethics for your organization, you are going to drift toward rule-based theories because, in fact, you are writing a set of rules. These rules are important to ensure and protect the professionalism of your organization or profession. Ethical codes, made up of rules, establish a system of accountability for your members. Ethical codes are useful and often essential for professional organizations and vocational fields.

The rules in professional codes tend, whether stated or not, to focus on autonomy as begging devildefined by Immanuel Kant. His advice is generally interpreted somewhat loosely to say that we should only do to others what they have chosen to have done to them and use them only in ways that help them achieve their own ends. We should not use others only as a way to achieve our personal goals.

Based on this thinking, we would only provide people with treatment after receiving their fully informed consent, we would use people in our research only if they wanted to participate, and we would always be honest with clients and work in their best interest. Some would be a little shocked by the full implications of Kant’s views. For example, to have sex without the intent to procreate is to use both yourself and your partner as a mere means to pleasure. Lying to a murderer in order to save a child’s life would lead to you being charged with a crime in the event of the child’s death.

When it comes to integrating ethics into your professional practice, however, you may find rule-based systems too limiting and seek a theory that feels more inclusive of your entire professional life. It may help to look at two other groups of ethical theories: 1. Theories that focus on what kind of person to be. 2. Theories that focus on how to relate to others. This isn’t a neat division as these two types of theories overlap in significant ways, but it can be a useful starting point.

Virtue Ethics

Friedrich Nietzsche rejected rule-based systems of morality, which he referred to as forms of “slave-morality,” for morality aimed at character, which he called “master-morality.” He said, “It is obvious that moral value distinctions everywhere are first attributed to people and only later to actions.” For Nietzsche, it is the powerful who will see moral behavior as a by-product of being a great person while the weak will seek moral rules to protect their interests from others. Nietzsche suggests we should all strive to become great people rather than subjecting ourselves to the rules and will of others.

In a similar vein, Aristotle saw morality as a process of becoming a good person rather than following a set of rules, though he did say that things like theft, adultery and murder are always wrong, allowing for the existence of some moral rules. In general, though, a person becomes good, not by following rules, but by developing a virtuous disposition. This approach does emphasize activities, as it is through our actions that we develop our character. By choosing the actions a good person would choose, we become a good person, and by being a good person we tend to choose actions that are also good.

Relational Ethics

If you work with people on a regular basis, you may find a theory based on relationships conducive to moving beyond rule-based systems and ethical codes.

In the past, I didn’t really think of existentialism as a good foundation for a relational ethics as many existentialists focus on subjective experience, but Simone de Beauvoir’s “Ethics of Ambiguity” changed my mind. Beauvoir specifically tackles the problem of making ethical choices in an ambiguous world. Contrary to Immanuel Kant, she says it is not possible to arrive at certain rules to guide our behavior, but this does not mean we can shirk our obligation to act with concern for others.

Beauvoir says we experience life through our own experience by exercising our own freedom, but we do not experience it in isolation. If we do experience it in isolation, she says, “The saving of time and the conquest of leisure have no meaning if we are not moved by the laugh of a child at play. If we do not love life on our own account and through others, it is futile to seek to justify it in any way.” Our authentic self is expressed through free acts, but “[The individual] exists only by transcending himself, and his freedom can be achieved only through the freedom of others. He justifies his existence by a movement which, like freedom, springs from his heart but which leads outside of him.” Though our actions can’t be pinned down by a set of rules, we find meaning in life by seeking, willing, and nurturing the freedom of others in the world. In a sense, our affirmation of freedom is an exclamation of love.

Love may not seem an appropriate emotion to mention in a discussion of ethical relations with clients, but we don’t have to think of it in romantic or sexual terms. Love may be a matter of valuing others. Philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues that love is an essential feature of a liberal democracy. Some might quibble over how she defines love, but certainly it is a concern for others that drives both the ethics and political struggles of some of us. For example, she notes that we all live in a state of dependency at one time or another (childhood, old age if we are lucky to live long enough, and periods of impairment). Some of us live in states of dependency for our entire lives. Protecting the dignity of all requires us to recognize the value in others, and love for others is sufficient motivation to remove the shame and stigma of dependency. Our concern for others motivates our most basic moral impulses.

In this sense, both Beauvoir’s and Nussbaum’s views can be seen as forms of an ethics of care. If you are familiar with care ethics, though, you probably heard of it through the work of feminists such as Carol Gilligan and Nel Noddings. Care ethics was introduced as an alternative to theories seen to value men’s experiences over women’s. Feminists pointed out that women’s experiences have largely centered on care. Some will say caring is natural to women and others will say women have been forced into caring roles.

Over time, care ethics has become somewhat less gendered, meaning both men and women may recognize the value of care in their ethical lives. Noddings says our moral obligations arise between the “one-caring” and the “cared-for.” The response of the “cared-for” drive our actions. The most debilitating kind of existence, she says, is to care for someone who is unable or unwilling to respond to care. Controversially, she says, “We are not obliged to act as one-caring if there is no possibility of completion in the other.” This means are have no obligations to “the needy in the far regions of the earth.” Philosopher James Rachels objects, saying, “A more sensible approach might be to say that the ethical life includes both caring personal relationships and a benevolent concern for people generally.”

Some philosophers see narrative ethics as a logical extension of an ethics of care. Narrative ethics emphasizes the role of stories in our moral lives. Most of us grew up hearing “didactic stories” about foxes and wolves and so forth that left us to learn “the moral of the story.” This is an important feature of narrative ethics but stories need not be didactic to aid our moral reasoning or impulses. We may also learn from both fiction and true personal narratives.

Fiction can help us broaden our imagination of what life is like for others. It helps us to understand feelings and motivations outside our own experience. It gives us a way of testing different points of view and outlooks. Similarly, listening to or reading the accounts people give of their own lives gives us greater insight into their emotional lives and helps us to develop an empathetic response. Our moral obligations and intuitions look quite different when we are better able to “read” the minds and motivations of others. Those who work intimately with clients on a regular basis are immersed in their stories. In this sense, ethics is integral to the practice. I personally think it is helpful to think of ethics as being embedded in our work rather than a separate function that requires attention outside of our “real job.”

Again, autonomy plays an essential role in developing ethical codes of behavior. If we fail to respect the autonomy of others, we violate them in ways that are always wrong and often illegal. Still, other ethical approaches can expand the role of ethics in our practice and help us pursue ethics that really is beyond mere compliance.

Why I Am Not Your Ally

In response to injustice against members of various communities, those affected rise up, thank goodness, against the injustice accompanied by their allies from outside the community. Thus, the black community has white allies, the gay community has straight allies, women have male allies, and so on. I want to join all these communities in the struggle for justice, but I’ve never felt any connection with the word “ally.” Perhaps I over think things (I’ve certainly been told I do), and I can see why some people would see an “alliance” as a good thing, but I really think the idea of an ally preserves the concept of division and otherness.

The source of most oppression comes from this concept of otherness. Simone de Beauvoir told us, “No group ever sets itself up as the One without at once setting up the Other over against itself.” Thus, she says, “In small-town eyes all persons not belonging to the village are ‘strangers’ and suspect; to the native of a country all who inhabit other countries are ‘foreigners’; Jews are ‘different’ for the anti-Semite, Negroes are ‘inferior’ for American racists, aborigines are ‘natives’ for colonists, proletarians are the ‘lower class’ for the privileged.” It is the distinction between One and Other that is the source of the problem. If the One becomes an advocate for the Other, does this change the balance of power? I argue that it does not. The ally speaks from a position of power on behalf of the less fortunate, often with the expectation that the weaker party will feel and exhibit an overflowing gratitude. At least, that is how it feels to me.

All the same, we can’t ignore our differences from others. It is important to preserve cultural distinctions, for example. Only the Deaf community fully understands the special problems faced by deaf people. Only the Native American community can understand injustices against Native Americans. And so on. What unites us in our struggle, though, is that we all are able to understand what injustice is. Those of us who are outraged, disgusted, and revolted by injustice, will react with those feelings every time we see it, regardless of the specific circumstances or characteristics of the victim. At least this is what I hope. When I react to injustice, I don’t do it because I feel someone deserves my sympathy or respect. I do it because I am offended by injustice. The specific qualities of the victim are not the source of my outrage.

This isn’t to say the specific qualities of the victim are not relevant, especially regarding discussions of how to understand and address the injustice. We need to have conversations so that we can understand each other. As Kwame Athony Appiah put it in his book, Cosmopolitanism, “We take seriously the value not just of human life but of particular human lives, which means taking an interest in the practices and beliefs that lend them significance.” We must also understand the experiences of others. Through conversation, stories, art, music and language we can share experiences and enhance our ability to imagine the lives of others. By understanding the experiences of others, we are better able to understand that their experiences are morally inexcusable.

Affirming justice requires us to see the common humanity we have with others. Those who harbor feelings of innate superiority are easily enticed to barbarous behavior. David Hume notes that Europeans had such feelings of superiority over natives in America that it “made us throw off all restraints of justice, and even humanity, in our treatment of them.” He goes on to describe similar treatment of women, owing to the fact that men “have in all countries bodily force sufficient to maintain this severe tyranny.” Those who are able to disregard the humanity of others and have the power to force them in to submission feel entitled to exercise their power. It is my contention that the person who does not carry feelings of entitlement will be sickened by the abuse of others. When we recognize our shared experiences with others, feelings of entitlement dissolve. When we feel an innate superiority, entitlement is cemented in our psyche.

The people who are most able to recognize their common humanity are those who have experienced injustice or at least recognized the possibility that they might. I don’t mean those threatened by the loss of their own power or privilege but those who recognize that we are all inferior in someone else’s eyes. The rage against injustice against other races or citizens in other countries is a rage against injustice that could befall anyone at any time. Often marginalized and oppressed groups recognize the oppression of other groups before the privileged can see. Declaring that someone is privileged, however, has its own hazards. A person’s oppression may not be readily apparent on his or her face or skin or other aspects of personal appearance. Religious, sexual, gender, and cultural differences are not always visible on the skin, but these differences often lead to extreme oppression and violence.

Occasionally, people are unable, flawed as we all are, to recognize their common humanity allieseven with those with whom they have no discernible differences. Consider the bitter conflict between the Hutu and the Tutsi in Rwanda. In a 1996 interview with Charlayne Hunter Gault, Professor George Izangola described the lack of differences between the two groups: “In Rwanda, the Tutsi and the Hutu are the same people. They are all people–large grouping or communities which go from seven regions of Cameroon to Uganda–all the way to South Africa, in the same culture. People used to be Tutsi or Hutu, depending on the proximity to the king. If you were close to the king, you owned wealth, you owned a lot of cattle, you are a Tutsi. If you are far away from the king, you are a cultivator, you don’t own much cattle, you are a Hutu.” (I’ve taken this quote from PBS here.)

If some of us can deny the humanity of those who look almost exactly like us, then “otherness” is a phenomenon that goes beyond race and gender. We either recognize that we are part of humanity or we do not. One way leads to freedom and the other to fascism. In “The Ethics of Ambiguity,” Simone de Beauvoir declares that we are each in a subjective struggle for freedom but that we are defined in our relationship to others. Our struggle for our freedom entails a will for the freedom of others. She says the activist “exists only by transcending himself, and his freedom can be achieved only through the freedom of others. He justifies his existence by a movement which, like freedom, springs from his heart but which leads outside of him.”

For Beauvoir’s activist, the constant push for freedom is a push for humanity. In this sense, an injustice anywhere is, indeed, a threat to justice everywhere, as the saying goes. The existence of injustice itself destroys the condition of freedom. Resistance is, she says, the annihilation of injustice. In an apparent paradox, I struggle alone but alongside and in relation to others. As your struggle is yours alone, my struggle is mine alone. Rather than acting as an ally seeking justice on your behalf, we must work together to secure freedom on our own account, which requires freedom for all.

Is there a wrong way to grieve?

Over the past few months, I’ve written of several philosophers of the ancient past who taught that grief should not overwhelm us before themselves becoming overwhelmed by grief. Stoic philosophers taught that we should understand that death is nothing to fear or mourn, if only we can have the proper understanding, but the emotion of grief trumps rational explanations every time. I would conclude, then, that we should not attempt to suppress or diminish our grief but should let it unfold naturally and grieve for as long as necessary. Criticizing the grief of others seems counterproductive at best.

But this left me wondering whether there is a wrong way to grieve. What obligations can the bereaved have to others? Obligations to the dead? Does grief suspend normal obligations?

Like the rest of the world, I don’t know what caused Spc. Ivan Lopez to go on a shooting rampage at Ft. Hood. He certainly had experienced a great deal of stress in his life and had good reason to experience problems with mental health. According to a CNN article by Ray Sanchez, Lopez’s father said the recent deaths of his mother and grandmother, medical treatment, and changes related to transfer of military installations “surely affected his condition.” Grief often becomes unmanageable when it is combined with other complications, obstacles, and challenges. We do well not to ignore the impact of grief on those around us. We are part of a community, and the health of the community deals in part on how well we respond to grief.

For an example from fiction, I’m reminded of “A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner. Emily has much to grieve for: When she loses her father, she loses a loved one but also status, wealth, predictability, and honor. She responds by simply refusing to acknowledge her loss. In the beginning she denies that her father is even dead. Eventually, she relents and permits him to be buried, but continues her life as if nothing has changed. Her neighbors go along out of pity, not respect. As you probably remember, Emily eventually takes a lover from out of town, kills him, and sleeps with his body for the rest of her life.

Emily’s neighbors had tried to offer condolences to her when her father died, but she denied his death. After his death, the neighbors reacted to her with a mix of compassion, respect, suspicion, and disgust, but they also lacked the will to intervene as Emily continually pushed them away. They left Emily with her privacy and, as much as possible, a little dignity, which only led her to more extreme and destructive measures.

If I say that Emily grieved unethically, you may say that grieving wasn’t the core problem; rather, she was refusing to accept change. But grief is always a reaction to change, and all change is annihilation. The bereaved will often say the whole world changed, and that is exactly what has happened. Emily’s world changed, but she refused to accept either her father’s death or her change in fortune. By killing her lover, she tried to preserve a moment forever. Emily’s response to grief was understandable but not excusable. Then again, perhaps her neighbors did not respond ethically to Emily’s grief. The neighbors did reach out to Emily, even with follow-up visits, but failed to intervene more forcefully. Are they obligated to take matters into their own hands?

I recently had the opportunity to hear author Cheryl Strayed speak on her latest book, Wild, which is about Strayed’s own response to her mother’s death. Strayed is a talented and courageous writer and proficient speaker. As she talked about her grief journey, she only lost her composure once. She said that after her mother’s death she became the kind of daughter her mother would not have wanted her to be. She described her adultery, promiscuity, and substance abuse through tears that evaporated as she moved on to discuss how she began to manage her grief more positively (ethically?).

I ask whether there is an ethical way to grieve. We can see that people, overcome by grief, behave in ways that are certainly unethical in most contexts, but we may have such compassion for the bereaved that we soften our judgment of them. “What she did was wrong,” we may say, “But I can see why she did it. I might have reacted the same way.” But this may be true anytime someone acts unethically. In the exact same situation, I may have acted as Bernie Madoff acted. In fact, we have all acted in unethical ways. We had our reasons (grief, exhaustion, addiction, depression, or whatever), but our actions were unethical.

So what helps people behave more ethically? Jean-Paul Sartre, the famous Existentialist philosopher, says that with each of our actions we choose “the good.” He doesn’t mean we always make good choices, but given our options, we choose the one we thought was best, which means we write our ethical values for public view by the actions we choose. In this environment, other people become our hell. Nothing is more damaging to us than being trapped by the others’ perceptions of us.

When we choose an action, we are choosing the one that seems best to us at the time. The problem is that some of us have run out of good ideas for what to do. We often explain ourselves, rightly, by saying, “I didn’t know what to do!” If we had more ideas, we would have more choices and could make better decisions. Sartre claimed we have absolute freedom, but really we can increase our freedom by increasing the number of actions we have in our consciousness. Sartre saw others as our judge, jury, and executioner, but they can also become our community.

It is Sartre’s companion and lover who had a broader vision for existentialist ethics. Simone de Beauvoir was able to see the positive importance of others in our lives. Beauvoir declares “freedom can be achieved only through the freedom of others.” If we want to be free, we must seek our freedom through the freedom of our community, and our freedom grows out of our love. Beauvoir says, “If we do not love life on our own account and through others, it is futile to seek to justify it in any way.” Without valuing others, our life truly loses meaning, and we will lose all hope.

When I was in China, I once thanked someone for helping me with a problem, and she responded, beautifully, “When we help each other, we are free.” Indeed, it is the only way for us to become free. And it is the only way for us to have more good ideas of what we can do.

Why I Am Afraid To Die

Ben Jonson's Lucretius
Ben Jonson’s Lucretius (Photo credit: Catablogger)

My interest in the topic of this blog arose several years ago from a conversation with a scholar visiting from China. She had studied Christianity in China and was interested in meeting Christians in the United States and learning more about their beliefs and culture. She admitted to me that she felt some disappointment to learn that a promise of a blissful eternity did not seem to decrease the fear of death for most American Christians. If life is filled with pain and challenges, why would Christians not welcome a release to a joy of eternity?

Lucretius would not be surprised by their fear. He noted that those who boast of fearlessness in the face of death will react to death in pretty much the same way everyone else does. He says:

“These same men, exiled from their country and banished far from the sight of their countrymen, stained with some foul crime, beset with disease heralding approaching death, keep going all the same. To whatever situation they come in their misery, in spite all their talk, they sacrifice to the dead, slaughter black cattle, and lay out offerings to the gods of the dead.”

Of course, we also know some turn to suicide, which may or may not reflect a loss of fear of death. It may only mean a fear of the misery of life has overtaken a fear of death, but I will return to that idea later.

On the other side, I can remember discussions with Christians describing the attitude of suicide bombers in armed conflict. I have heard at least a few people who equate a willingness to die for a cause with a lack of respect for the value of life rather than a lack of fear in the face of death. If we value our lives, must we fear death? Is there a greater moral advantage to reducing the fear of death or to emphasizing death as a loss of something of great value, life?

Epicurus
Epicurus (Photo credit: Ian W Scott)

Epicurus, who inspired Lucretius, felt our lives would be enhanced if we could extinguish, or greatly reduce, our fear of death. Epicurus said, “Death, the most dreaded of evils, is nothing to us, because when we exist, death is not present, and when death is present, we do not exist.”  Death is a harm because it robs us of the good of life, but it is a harm that is impossible to experience. Some will say that they don’t fear being dead but fear the process of dying, but Thomas Nagel points out succinctly and convincingly that we “should not really object to dying if it were not followed by death.” Both Nagel and Epicurus argue that death is bad because it deprives us of life, but no amount of life is sufficient to eliminate the harm. No matter how long we extend life expectancy, we will view death as a harm to us.

S. Collings Boswell & Johnson 448
S. Collings Boswell & Johnson 448 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course, some of us face death with more equanimity than others. Scottish author James Boswell visited Scottish philosopher David Hume on his deathbed and was impressed by Hume’s serenity. Boswell mentioned Hume’s calm to Samuel Johnson, but Johnson refused to believe Hume was not covering his fear. In response, Boswell tells us, “The horror of death which I had always observed in Dr. Johnson, appeared strong tonight. I ventured to tell him, that I had been, for moments in my life, not afraid of death; therefore I could suppose another man in that state of mind for a considerable space of time.” Johnson responded, “The better a man is, the more afraid of death he is, having a clearer view of infinite purity.” Our fear of death may, indeed, aid our moral development.

Brush drawing of German philospher Martin Heid...
Brush drawing of German philospher Martin Heidegger, made by Herbert Wetterauer, after a photo by Fritz Eschen (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While he doesn’t have much in common with Samuel Johnson, German philosopher Martin Heidegger also sees some advantages to our uneasiness with death. When we contemplate our own annihilation, he says, we are filled with dread, which forces us to confront what is authentic. When we are projected into Nothing, we are transcendent. If we were not “projected from the start into Nothing,” we could not relate to “what-is” or have any self-relationship. Only through confronting annihilation do we have any hope for authentic existence.

It may be that our dread gives both our life and our actions meaning. Suicide, which is often seen as a failure to negotiate life, is not necessarily so. Indeed, Simone de Beauvoir sees suicide a possible way to will ourselves free, even in the most horrific situations. She says, “Freedom can always save itself, for it is realized as a disclosure of existence through its very failures, and it can again confirm itself by a death freely chosen.”  If we do not fear our own death, however, this act of defiance and control has little meaning. Willing ourselves free through suicide is only meaningful if it is a triumph over something, and this is not to be taken lightly.

Simone de Beauvoir (9 January 1908 – 14 April,...
Simone de Beauvoir (9 January 1908 – 14 April, 1986) was a French author and philosopher. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Fear of death propels us forward through life, even in the face of injury, disease, and extreme hardship, and as it propels us forward it also gives meaning to our struggle. By working to overcome our fear, we establish ourselves as free beings capable of making meaning of our own suffering. And if we will ourselves free and full of meaning, we will strive for others’ freedom as well. Indeed, Beauvoir says we extend our own freedom through the freedom of others.

As a final note, let me say that part of willing freedom for others is an effort to remove obstacles that make suicide seem like a triumph. It is for this reason we should work to promote human capabilities and, specifically, to relieve the pain and suffering of depression.