What is the meaning of moral pain ?

11 juin 2021 par jerome lecoq


When we refer to psychological pain, we generally mean negative feelings, painful feelings which, as Spinoza nicely put it "reduce the power of existing" of the Subject.



The first and most obvious is sadness, as when we suffer the loss of a loved one. The sad person suffers from a loss: the loved one has died, and they have no object for their love anymore. They miss the person: they suffer, with physical signs like crying and loss of appetite, from the irremediable loss of the person with whom they used to share a great deal of experiences, good and bad but most of them pleasant in general. These moments are lost forever and will only survive in their memory. With loss, they experience the radical finitude of their being and the silence in return of their desperate call for an answer from their loved one. Their heart is heavy, their energy is drained out, they lose their appetite for living, they see the missing person at every corner of the streets, they resist admitting the nothingness which will replace their object of love from now on. This can be like a kind of vertigo where the mind is paralysed. They feel that their world has shrunk dramatically and that they will never be able to expand it again. They might even want to die as a means of escaping their suffering.  Every small task looks enormous to them, as if they had lead-made clothes which firmly ground them. Nothing they liked before seems to have any taste or interest in comparison with the weight of the loss they suffer. 

This means that they were highly, probably too overly attached to their loved one and they did not enough meditate on the ephemeral, passing, flowing nature of things. They had essentialised a being which is by nature relative to its time window. They knew it but they could not help it. Reality strikes as a boomerang, right into their forehead: it reminds them of their own mortality, which can also be a blessing, in case they thought they were immortal. They are not immortal, although they like to behave as they were. With grieving they also cry on their own naivety, their own hubris, illusion, and wishful thinking. They liked to tell themselves stories and avoided thinking about death but there it is, coldly knocking at their door. Their sadness might be mixed with guilt for being so naive, so inconsistent, the cause of their present suffering. Had they known how to keep their distances, how to die beforehand like Montaigne told us to, suffering would have been much lighter.


The second type of pain is the global category of frustration and powerlessness, when reality opposes my desire, my will, my expectations. It can take the form of deception, whether self-deception or from the others, failure of a project, a test, an exam, a competition of all sorts. I did not get what I expected, and I am frustrated about it. Now the question is: was I entitled to expect anything? Did I put enough effort, means, dedication to my project? If not, it means that I have really no reason to be disappointed since failure was the most reasonable outcome. However, some people are really upset to fail when it is obvious that they did not really want to succeed, as if they were lying to themselves about their real motivation. But if I fail and have nothing to reproach myself, failure can be really discouraging for pursuing further experiments, leading to a loss of self-confidence. However, failure is also an opportunity for learning about our mistakes, about our strengths and weaknesses: the problem is that pain makes it more difficult to learn a lesson, since to learn you first need to coldly analyse the situation, you're in. 

The other problem is of our desires: very often, we desire too much, we are greedy and want several things at the same time, even contradictory things, like children who want both candies and toys at the supermarket in spite of their parents’ refusal. If they were not taught frustration at a young age, then they will likely behave as spoiled adults later and will not stand the slightest frustration which will make them impossible to live around. Frustration is indeed a pain but when you learn how to deal with it, it also can be a drive for further improvement. A tenacious research scientist may face many frustrations before making any breakthrough discovery in his field, as an investigation police officer will also follow a lot of dead-end leads before catching the criminal. In a lot of professions, frustration is a pain you do not want to be too sensitive about since it is part of the job. When frustration is not worked through, when this is the result of unfair counterforces which impede you from doing your job even with the best intentions and efforts, then it risks turning into deep resentment which is an engine for outbursts of rage and mean revenge. This kind of pain is like a poison which slowly infects the soul. So, working on making our desires more reasonable would be a sound strategy to avoid intense frustration. But how can I master such a blind and almost physical force as desire?

Diversion could be one strategy: you try to find an ersatz for your unrealistic desire. For example, instead of wanting to take over my boss, I will commit to a baseball team both as a player and a coach, thus diverting my energy and preventing myself from aggressively showing my boss that I deserve being the boss more than him. Or I will meditate or paint. 


The third moral pain is worry. Worrying is an uncomfortable physical and psychological state in which you constantly ask yourself useless questions about an improbable event (“will he call me?”) the outcome of which you do not control. Worrying has powerlessness and the desire to control the environment at its source. I worry because I want something to happen, but I have no way of knowing if my desire will be met or not, nor do I have any impact on the event itself. Worrying functions a bit like an obsession but with less clear a purpose: we do not always know why we worry. Therefore, the first step in this kind of pain is to clearly formulate the reason for our worry. Worry keeps you self-centred and poorly able to focus on something other than your worry, which can be a real danger for some professions as it creates a "loss of chance". For example, we are driving and worry about the fact that we correctly locked the house, and this causes distraction and we run into the car in front of us. Worry keeps you awake at night, which makes you tired and even more prone to worrying. 

Heidegger said that "worry is the most fundamental modality of the here-being (Dasein)" because as soon as man realizes his freedom, he worries about what to do with it, in a world full of potentialities to develop. Worry is the sign of a lack of confidence in the way things are ordered in the world, together with a strong attachment to things and beings. Worry pushes you to speculate, to calculate, to build scenario, to look for reassurance from people around you. It leads to illusional constructions of the world, to paranoid worldviews.

Like for the phenomenon of jealousy, worrying is highly contagious. Worried people make other people around them nervous and worried. In the eighties, worried populations built personal anti-nuclear shelters in their garden, in the anticipation that the Soviets would drop nuclear bombs on western Europe. When you are worried, you are easily manipulated by people whose speech confirms your worries and find a way to comfort you, therefore gaining your trust. For example, voters who worry about their personal security in their neighbourhood will tend to read these articles which deal with aggressions by immigrants which will confirm their belief. They will then be an easy target for populist politicians who want to toughen the laws on immigrants and who blame immigrants for a large part of society's problems. Worrying makes us lose our critical thinking and distrust novelty and strangers. When we worry, we search security from people who look like us, who behave, believe and think like us. 


If worry is the pain related to the future, guilt and regret, the fourth type of moral pain, is the one of the past. I feel guilty, remorseful, when my actions or even my thinking has trespassed my code of conduct, when I estimate that I somehow, consciously, or not, violated some rule of my personal system of values. Typical examples are found in literature like in Lord Jim where the hero feels guilty of having, as a captain, abandoned his ship in distress in the middle of a storm, with all her passengers aboard. Guilt and shame continuously follow him and guide his future actions: he tries to redeem his past shameful behavior by acting heroically in various perilous situations which he places himself into, until he finally gets killed in what one would call a suicidal mission.

The guilt only affects the moral subject who imposes himself principles under which he submits his existence. Guilt is an extremely popular feeling in the Catholic Church since the fall of Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden was caused by the original sin: Adam disobeyed God's command and must therefore err on the surface of the earth, sweating to earth his living. Where worrying can be put on hold while the future actualizes itself, bringing relief or trouble, therefore confirming the worry, guilt might be incurable since the past cannot be undone. Actually, some people seem affected by the guilt of the very fact of existing: they spend their energy apologizing for everything they do. They do not dare occupying the breathing space they need and want to hide in a small hole. They might not even realize that they behaved as if they were constantly guilty of having done something wrong. The guilty person sees a painful hiatus between what he did, his behavior, and what he was supposed to do or think according to his own morals. Usually, what impedes the subject to conduct according to his own moral standards is: inertia, laziness, ignorance, greed, complacency, pride, cowardice, or anger. But it can also happen that the Subject only realises afterwards that he acted or thought wrongly. In other cases, guilt follows strange paths: for example, survivors of a plane crash or of a massacre feel guilty to be alive contrary to the ones who were killed, as if they unfairly were chosen to survive against others. 

The guilty person hates himself for what he did, he would like to go into the past to change the cause of events which led to his reprehensible behavior but of course he is powerless which doubles his pain. He needs to reconcile with himself: receiving absolution for one’s sins during the confession is what the catholic church invented to smoothen the pain felt by regular sinners. One must admit that you quite easily cross the line in the catholic religion: even thoughts can be sinful and therefore be subject to guilt. For example, it is a sin of having felt desire for another woman while you are married. Guilt is a heavy burden to carry for the believer so the confession acts as a purifying ritual between the believer and the priest.

Guilt-ridden people want to compensate their burden by being overly nice to others, making them unnecessary favours, please them more than is expected or by being overly generous. Guilt burns the Subject from inside and profoundly affects the Subject's behaviour. Even forgiveness of the victim of "our crime" cannot make us get rid of our guilt since the damage done was primarily to our inner self-representation: we failed to act according to our own standards, therefore losing our self-esteem, becoming resentful first towards ourselves. It often has physical consequences like in the movie "the machinist" where the guilt-ridden hero cannot sleep and eat anymore, being close to a living skeleton because he caused a car accident which killed a child on the street. It is even worse in the situation where the damaged person cannot forgive you since she is dead. It is also frequent that people show us our own defaults by mirroring our behavior: we feel guilty seeing this image and become wrongfully angry at the person who sent us the unpleasant reflect: we hope that by symbolically killing the person it will make guilt disappear, but of course it only worsens the problem.

For people subject to guilt, a good cure might be reading Spinoza. Denying that any freedom or free will exists, he thinks that everything we do at every moment is necessary, that it is impossible that we had done any other action at that time. Thus, no guilt is possible since guilt is only made possible by free will. You trade freedom for peace of mind: not such a bad deal after all.


The last psychological pain, but not the least, is shame. Shame is the very unpleasant feeling of wanting to disappear from everybody's eyes, including oneselve's accompanied with obvious physical manifestations like blushing, stammering, looking at one's feet etc. Unlike guilt, shame is not necessarily linked to moral trespassing: we may be ashamed by showing our fat belly or by our accent from the south of France. Shame is connected to our self-image, to the image we want to present to the others, making it a social emotion, even a powerful social regulatory emotion. We teach young children to be ashamed to perform certain actions so that they can develop a form of self-censorship: a very convenient and powerful tool of social individual control indeed. Shame happens when we think the other penetrates our intimacy, which means that most human beings want to keep a part of themselves hidden to the knowledge of others, even when everybody does it. There is a social hypocrisy in the shame phenomenon, which is to preserve a safe appearance, making society look like a fool’s game.

Shame is powerful amongst societies or groups in which conformism is high: the more we expose our singularity and peculiarity to the norm-abiding group, the more we are exposed to shame. The shameful subject naturally subtracts himself from the group, thinking he in a way lost his dignity. In the Japanese samurai honour code, the Bushido, a shameful conduct was only redeemable by committing public suicide with a sword, the seppuku ritual aka hara kiri in the western world. Shame is only subjective and has no objective side: contrarily to guilt which can be proven by the objective breaking of the law, there is no prove of objective shame. As a result, shame is contextual and influenced by "zeitgeist”: men are not ashamed anymore of showing vulnerability in public, of earning less money than their wife or of taking care of the children. As society evolves, so do the rules of shaming. Shame is tightly linked to prejudice, unexamined and conditioned beliefs. As one starts to reason on why he is ashamed of something, let's say for example, to make a public presentation at work, one might find a majority of irrational reasons: fear of being judged as stupid when 1) the person is obviously intelligent 2) most people don't care of the one making the presentation but rather think about what they're going to have for dinner tonight. 

When reasons of shame are rationally exposed the subject understands that nothing is substantial in his reaction but can nonetheless not refrain himself from feeling ashamed, from wanting to disappear to everyone's eyes. What mostly desires the shameful person is to dissolve in nothingness to escape the weight of outside eyes.

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