Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Consolation and Meta-Ethics

I’ve recently been working through guided Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBD) exercises which, supposedly, are to help reveal the bottom layer of beliefs from which all one’s significantly disturbing emotional states can be derived. These “core beliefs” are not merely straight-forward beliefs, but also permit of fears with underlying propositional content. Beliefs of the sort as “I am shameful” in addition to “I may be shameful” are supposed to count as composing the “core.”

So, too, may things like “life may have no purpose,” or “happiness may be totally fleeting” creep into our central places of the mind. In my case, a significant portion of my stressful beliefs were classic (perhaps cliché) instances of existential angst. My behaviors (both functional and dysfunctional) derived in large part from these: the core of my identity is formed by engagement with philosophy and theology, and this devotion has been an attempt to find consolation. Significant portions of my life have been made nearly unbearable, leading to a diagnosis of depression and anxiety disorders, in large part due to these existential pangs. Many, especially those led into theological or philosophical professions, feel similarly. The eradication of these existential core-beliefs would free us from our miseries.

But should we seek to remedy these pains? Is there a way to do so? The fears themselves do not appear to be dysfunctions (read: irrationally held). Psychiatrists and psychologists have worked towards addressing these ailments, but do they do so justifiably?

Any justified remedy for the pains brought with negative-existential-thoughts must involve a rational solution to the problems they pose. A rational solution to questions such as “life may not have value,” “life may not be worth living,” and “the acts of men may not matter” will either be through answering their question forms, thereby affirming what they indicate may be true, or showing them to be false. Or, perhaps, it will one day show them to be insensible—nothing but gibberish disguised as meaningful talk. Obviously, for existential pains of this sort, to console one regarding them will be to show their falsity, or to show their meaninglessness. To console must then be the purview of philosophy (broadly considered to include theology), and the philosophically inclined psychologist.

And what if the correct view of the world is one which, upon grasping its truth, would either not console those insatiable existential dreads or, worse, encourage them? Any insistence that anxieties emerging from these sorts of fears, or any thoughts which are rationally justified, ought to be treated relies on the notion that these should be cured or lessened in intensity (their consequences improved).

So, why should our fears be treated? For, so long as we should follow rational processes, and if these are rational, the psychologist risks violating the truth. Rather, the psychologist must suggest that they are a-rational, irrational or false, in order for them to be treatable (unless we are to forsake reason). Our pains do not appear to be a-rational, nor irrational, and so to insist on their treatment, the psychologist must affirm that there are truly consoling answers to them. But then we have assumed a meta-ethical ground for consolation, purpose and value. So, we cannot insist on our prior non-consoling solution.

The clinician, and any who proscribe the treatment of often crippling existential anxieties, must affirm, in principle, the existence of a true, consoling, meta-ethical theory. It may be suggested that the clinician just seeks to remedy existential ailment without a normative means of appeal. Any normal clinician, however, will admit that they practice in order to lessen human suffering. But without a ground for the value of reducing human suffering—which would also justify consolation, since it would (it seems to me) ground human value—the clinical practice is based merely on the clinician’s preference, and so long as our existential pains are justified, these preferences are gross violations of rationality. Admit, then, that we are in need of a proper meta-ethical theory, or the abandonment of rationality, in order to properly practice psychology.

I don’t offer any attempt to give such a theory. But I will offer up what must be provided by a truly consoling theory:

      1. A grounds for the values of persons, animals and plants (perhaps also other entities)
      1. A grounds for the value of works of art
      1. A grounds for moral truths
      1. A grounds for the value of rationality and truth-seeking

I only offer up one further qualification: the insistence that all these can be grounded solely in human dispositions, values or psychology (be they individual or collective) cannot console. For all such theories offer up the claim that “x is valuable because human beings value x,” or perhaps “because we value x necessarily.” I cannot shake the intuition that these appeals are disheartening, rather than consoling. For Moore’s open-question argument seems to cast doubt when taken with the following line: what grounds the value of human valuing? The reply must be “it is grounded in itself or no further,” and this disturbs me. I sense there need be more—why should our individual or collective preferences govern us, rather than those of the capybara? There seems to be no reason aside from the unfitting nature of the rats’ valuations—they do not map perfectly onto human needs and functions. But why think that we should fit the values that govern us onto our needs or proper functions?

What a cruel, useless world we live in, if our valuing has no basis for preference over fat rodents’.


  1. Macintyre may have rightly described the cause of many of our pains—our lack of understanding moral (and aesetic) of judgements. (Macintyre, Alastair. After Virtue, Ch.1-2.)
  2. The project of showing negative, existential core-beliefs to be meaningless naturally falls out of the development of Ayer’s positivism outlined in (Ayer, AJ. Language, Truth and Logic, Ch.6).
  3. I suggest this in line with Sartre, though he ultimately grounds ethics, reluctantly, in humanity. See (Sartre, JP. Existentialism and Human Emotions.)
  4. See (Moore, GE. Principia Ethica. Bk. 1) for the open-question argument.
  5. The appeal to proper functions mentioned is a messy topic. Science divorced from meta-ethics has a difficult, if not impossible, time grounding the normativity of functional predications. A large body of work exists on the topic, but to start, one might read (Wright, Larry. 1973. “Functions.” The Philosophical Review 139-168.) and the work responding to it.

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