Updated on 8th February 2021
The Amoralism of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT):
The mishandling of self-acceptance and unfairness issues by Albert Ellis
By Dr Jim Byrne
This book is an extensive, detailed critique of two of the central ideas of REBT: (1) The concept of ‘unconditional self-acceptance’; and (2) The idea of life as being fundamentally unfair, and that it should be accepted as such, and never complained about. In the process we also deal with Albert Ellis’s idea that people should never be blamed for anything; that praise and blame are bad; that guilt and shame are to be eliminated, and never taken to be indicators that we’ve done something wrong. Along the way we have a debate with Dr Michael Edelstein about the role of fairness in couple relationships.
Part 1 is concerned with the task of distinguishing the concept of good from the concept of evil, so we know what we are looking for.
Part 2 explores the concepts of justice and fairness, including defining objective terms for judging fairness in practice.
Part 3 looks at what is wrong with the ideas of ‘unconditional positive regard’ and ‘unconditional self-acceptance’; and the importance of teaching morality: in particular the importance of praise and blame, and the moral emotions of guilt and shame.
Jim Byrne is a doctor of counselling with more than twenty years’ experience in private practice. He was originally trained as an REBT therapist, and went on to study more than a dozen systems of counselling and therapy. He doctoral studies concerned ethical research in counselling and therapy.
“It was a hopeless thing, he thought, this obsession of his to present the people of the Earth as good and reasonable. For in many ways they were neither good nor reasonable; perhaps because they had not as yet entirely grown up. They were smart and quick and at times compassionate and even understanding, but they failed lamentably in many other ways.”
Clifford D. Simak, Way Station.
Unlike the speaker in Clifford Simak’s novel, quoted above, Albert Ellis and Carl Rogers were perfectly happy to present their individual clients as ‘good and reasonable’, even when they’d done terrible things; and grossly immoral things.
Even Anthony Burgess – whose film, A Clockwork Orange, had to be withdrawn from public viewing because of the large spate of copycat crimes committed by young men who saw the film – was clear that we live in a world of good and evil:
“The important thing is moral choice. Evil has to exist along with good, in order that moral choice may operate. Life is sustained by the grinding opposition of moral entities.”
Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange
And, moving from novelists to clinical psychologists, I can report that Dr Philip Zimbardo (2009), having designed and directed an experiment in cruelty and evil, at Stanford University, in August 1971, became an expert on evil – and especially how situational pressures can turn a person from being good to being evil. He divided a group of ordinary, middle class American students into two groups: one to play the role of prison guards; and the other to play the role of prisoners. Within a short while, the guards had become seriously sadistic in their treatment of the prisoners; and the prisoners had become docile, compliant and depressed. The guards had been given permission, by Zimbardo, to do whatever was necessary to maintain order in the ‘prison’ – which was simulated in the basement of the psychology faculty at Stanford University. And what they did was so cruel and evil that the experiment had to be halted on the sixth day!
A similar transformation of human character occurred in Germany, during the Third Reich, (1932-1945), when otherwise good people performed the most extremely evil acts – given that they had permission from the state, and that they were subjected to social pressure from peers, to conform to the ‘need’ to persecute particular minorities.
And we can find many examples, all over the world, from the Roman Empire to the British Empire, the Russian Empire, and the American Empire, of evil erupting in the name of self-interest and group interest. No part of the human race is exempt from the emergence of evil, if good is not actively promoted and policed!
There is a popular theory of “universal egoism” – (Dovidio, 1995, in Gross, 2001) – which claims that humans are fundamentally selfish, and that altruism “is an impossibility”.[i] This appears to be a prominent view in some mainstream psychology. And any act of “apparent altruism” is seen as “selfishness in disguise” by the sociobiologists. (This is not quite the position of Richard Dawkins who, in The Selfish Gene, had this to say:
“Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have a chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to do”. [Chapter 1].
So for Dawkins, there can at least be “learned altruism”, whereas for me there is an innate tendency towards altruism, and an innate tendency towards selfishness, both of which can have survival value, and both of which can be enhanced or inhibited by the social environment of the individual’s childhood. (I take this view in part from Sigmund Freud’s theory of Eros and Thanatos, the innate love urge, and the death urge. And I also take it from the Native American Cherokee people).
The concepts of good and evil are explored in Part 1, below.
Counsellors and psychotherapists should be aware of the importance of moral philosophy – the process of reasoning about good and evil. This book will help any reader to understand a range of issues to do with culpability, praise and blame, and the terms under which one can accept oneself, as a member of a society or community. I will explore the moral emotions of guilt and shame. And also the importance of justice and fairness, as the heart of morality.
…End of extract.
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