Thursday, June 24, 2010

Judging People Objectively

On OGrownups, a mailing list for Objectivist parents, there has been some discussion of Kate Granju, a blogger (not an Objectivist) who recently lost her 18 year old son to drug addiction (he OD’d and was beaten and died after a month in the hospital).  Kate blogged the entire situation, as it happened.  At first, I tried to avoid reading her blog because I didn’t need any extra pain in my life, but when I read on OGrownups that her son had died, my curiosity overwhelmed me and I ended up spending 3 hours reading her blog from the time he was hospitalized until the present.

Before I go on, I need to say that I have so much sympathy for Kate and I think she is an extraordinarily brave woman for writing so honestly about her situation.  Her frankness about this taboo subject is exactly what I’ve tried to do here on my blog regarding miscarriage.  She is also an excellent writer and has many other virtues.  I like her. 

But what I want to talk about is something that came up on OGrownups that relates to something I’ve been working on in my own character.  A couple of people (whom I respect and don’t mean to pick on) made comments about Kate facing reality (a good thing) and acting selfishly (another good thing).  Read the linked posts for the full background, but basically, Kate is acknowledging that she did not fully face the reality of her son’s situation soon enough, and she is choosing to have an early, scheduled C-section with her current pregnancy because she can’t cope with the uncertainty of when a natural labor will occur (something that might be considered selfish).

I think it is a mistake to attribute to Kate the virtues of facing reality and of selfishness.  It’s the kind of mistake I used to make all the time—well, I’m sure I still do, but I’m working on it.  I am only speaking for myself here, but I have a long standing error of psychologizing others based on my own motivations.  I am not objective in my view of other people.  More concretely, I see others’ actions and words in terms of my own character, and since my own character is pretty damn good(!), this means I end up being much too generous in my judgments.  (Occasionally I make the revserse mistake, too, though.)  If I could see myself saying or doing the same thing, then I attribute my own reasons to the other person, even when there is no evidence for it.  So when someone is, say, afraid to drive a car, instead of asking myself if that person has a pattern of acting fearfully or if they have something in their past which could explain it, I ask myself, “Have I ever been afraid of something for good reason?” and then I assume that they have as good a reason as I would have.  It seems ridiculous when I write it out, but I’ve used this pattern of judging people for my whole life!  It is very difficult to change, but I believe it explains a lot about my difficulties in judging and dealing with people.

So I’ve been working hard at being more objective in my evaluation of others, and the comments about Kate Granju set off my red flags.  I don’t mean to make my usual mistake here and assume that the comments on OGrownups were made based on the same problem I have, but I did have to think through the evidence to figure out if I agreed that Kate Granju acted selfishly and was focused on reality, espcially since I already do like her and want to believe that.  Here is a sample of my thought-process:

I don't think Kate is really facing reality in her self-condemnation regarding her son's drug problem.  She blames herself for not seeing it as a disease sooner.  It may be true that she made mistakes and did not face reality in the past, and it’s good if she can see that.  But I note that on her blog she is more and more often calling her son’s addiction a "disease" and saying he was "sick."  I think this is a new evasion, not a recognition of reality.  Calling addiction a disease is a way of evading the choice involved in using the substance or engaging in the behavior one is addicted to.  I do not accept the "disease" label of addiction, and I can’t overlook Kate’s use of it as irrelevant.  (I’m not going to make an argument here for that position – the point is just that I hold that principle and I can’t overlook it and assume it has no bearing on my judgment of her.) 

I also don't think that the idea that "this could happen to anyone" (an idea Kate seems to be really pushing) is valid in the case of addiction.  That is the same as saying, "becoming a wife-beater could happen to anyone."  Becoming addicted ultimately rests on a series of choices, even if there are huge physiological factors involved.  (Again, I’m not making a full argument here, but stating the principle I hold which applies.)  There is an element of truth here, though, which is that parents cannot directly control their children’s behavior.  Maybe Kate doesn’t mean that “addiction can happen to anyone” but that “anyone’s children could become addicts.”  No matter how well you parent, your child has free-will and could indeed become an addict.  But, paired with the “disease” theory, I can’t assume that Kate means it this way.  And my hackles are raised just with the phrase itself.  Cancer can happen to anyone and car accidents can happen to anyone, but we all know this so we get checkups and wear seatbelts and move on with our lives.  We also teach our children the facts about drugs.  Kate’s insistence upon this point sounds to me like she is looking for another way to evade awareness of the choices that were involved for her son, as if it were mere bad luck that he was an addict.

As for the C-section, Kate questions whether her decision might be “selfish,” (which she seems to define as better for her than for the baby) but I don’t think that means that she is acting selfishly, in the proper sense.  Kate is religious and has lauded altruistic principles many times in her blog.  There is no reason to think that she is acting out of selfishness, even if it appears so in some ways.  In the past, I would think how I might make the same decision for selfish reasons and assume that she is doing the same (and I do, in fact, think it is a good decision).  But there is no evidence that this is the case with Kate because of what I already know about her beliefs.  This seems to be an instance of inconsistency, and as we Objectivists know, the bad/evil/immoral requires inconsistency since it is incompatible with life.  Kate’s decision to have a C-section to satisfy her own needs looks to me exactly like those mothers who talk about how it’s ok to have “me-time.”  They are not acting selfishly, but granting themselves an exception to the rule of altruism.  Often, they will justify their “me-time” by claiming that it makes them better mothers, and it’s true – it does.  For me, that would be an instance of “no conflicts of interest” but for them, it’s a rationalization.  That is not selfishness, and neither is a choice like Kate's.

Again, I don't mean to denigrate Kate.  I do think that she is virtuous in many ways, and I love her writing, and I certainly don't think her son's problem was her fault.  Despite my views, I don't think her son was necessarily a bad person because of his addiction.  The whole thing is tragic and horrifying.  And even though Kate Granju is not an Objectivist and is not just like me, I can still like her for what she is.  And I’m starting to see how wonderfully clarifying it is to see people for what they are, instead of just through Amy-colored lenses.  Now, that's facing reality, if I do say so myself!


  1. You make some excellent points, particularly about the idea of addiction as a disease. I agree 100% with that.

    Perhaps I ought to have been more clear about what I think Katie was facing reality about. I was thinking only about the fact that she was realizing, tragically too late, that she had not been objective about her son's problems, believing him to be somehow destined for specialness, as she wrote about in the post. I took her post as a warning to other parents, to look at our children objectively, warts and all.

    I'm sorry for her that she discovered her error too late. In that respect, she IS finally facing reality, and regretting that she did not earlier. She is realizing that she held a bad premise--that everything would be perfectly rosy in the life of her "special" child. She realized it before he died and was working to correct it, and that is commendable even though things did not work out the way she wanted.

    We can not really know if she is being 100% rational and objective. Only she can know that (and her close friends and family maybe). The same applies to her decision to have a c-section. However, even given the context of her other bad premises, I think that she can still be judged as facing reality (in the context as described above) and for being selfish in her c-section decision.

    Does she hold good and bad premises? Certainly. I don't think you need to hold only good premises to be acting out of rational selfishness. Her main issue now is not that she is acting selfishly, but in holding the wrong premise that it's somehow wrong to do so. And that's why she feels guilty about it. I was happy to chime in on her blog, because I think people who are confused on this issue ought to be encouraged in their decision. The more people understand and hear that it's okay to be selfish, the better. It might not change her mind ever, but I think it will help her to hear it, and others might see it, too.

    Anyway, hope that clarifies my thoughts a bit. I'd love it if you posted a link to your post on OG. :)

  2. I know the point of this post was not to argue against drug addiction as disease, but I think it's important to Katie's discussion of facing reality. I believe the point is that addiction is a mental disorder. It is brought about by wrong choices, but I still think addiction is a disease. It may be a self inflicted one, but it is not so simple that you can just walk away from it. It has real effects on the mind and body that can't be ignored.

    You said "Calling addiction a disease is a way of evading the choice involved in using the substance or engaging in the behavior one is addicted to."

    By this, would you not consider AIDS a disease? Or lung cancer? Addiction is a secondary effect of a wrong choice, but I do not think Katie is evading by calling it a disease. I think her point was more that she was evading the seriousness of her son's condition. It wasn't just harmless experimentation. He couldn't just stop.

    Regarding your view of Katie's "selfishness"- The way I interpreted it, Katie is absolutely right to make this decision. It is selfish. I do not think Katie fully believes selfish behavior can be virtuous, but recognizing that she needs to act in this manner despite the negative connotation that word can have to non-Objectivists is certainly not rationalizing. She is feeling guilt, because this choice is not one an altruist would make. It seems to me that she is being honest. She isn't claiming that this is just an exception to the rule. She is saying that she needs this for her own sake.

  3. To clarify my last comment:
    I think that addiction can be classified as a disease, but it can not be used as an excuse. A person can't say "It's not my fault I'm addicted, I have a disease" and be evading their choice, but they can say "I made bad choices. I am dealing with the disease of addiction that is the repercussion of those choices" while taking full responsibility for the actions, just as they can say "I made bad choices. I am dealing with the disease of AIDS/Lung Cancer that is the repercussion of those choices"

  4. Alyssa, Yes, if you disagree with the disease issue, you won't agree with my conclusion, but that wasn't really the point of my post and I don't want to get into it here.

    For Jenn and Alyssa - My point is that I would not hold up these two posts of Kate's as examples of either facing reality or of selfishness. I guess my point is not really about HER so much as it is about ME not jumping to conclusions about her overall character based on these posts. If you don't have the same thinking problems that I do, it might not make so much sense, but in my old way of thinking, I would have had to peg her in my mind as either a good guy or a bad guy and it would have led me to ignore important evidence of exactly what she is saying. Maybe it's easy for you to see her as mixed, but it is new and difficult for me to do so.

  5. Another aspect of objective evaluation of people is to not judge their character or psychology based on one (or even two) interactions. It is tempting to make generalizations about someone's parenting style based on a single observation on a train or an airplane and think that you've got them pegged, but realistically you may have caught them in a bad moment—traveling with kids will certainly bring that out of even the best parent—or there may be a perfectly reasonable explanation that isn't obvious to you.