Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Categorical Imperative and Conscientiousness

The categorical imperative operates on the principle that one should act according to how one desires everyone else to act. Deontological in its application, the categorical imperative is a moral philosophy, but also a tenet of optimism and hope, for it sees the best in everyone and hopes for that to be a reality.
Treating people as though they are valuable in themselves and not as a means to some end (like getting that position on the Board or using your neighbor's hot tub) is both the goal and the process of this ethical standard.

The widely acknowledged achilles heel of the categorical imperative is its a' priori assumption that all agents (us thinking, feeling, acting sentients) operate rationally and use logic to guide our actions. Naive at best, preposterous at worst, I still love the notion of the categorical imperative and have since the days of my youth sitting in halls at the University of California at Berkeley, and now I talk about why herein.

What is so wrong with wanting to treat others the way you want to be treated?

People scoff at the notion. Pollyannaism. Foolish idealist fantasy-landalism.
People judge and scowl and scorn and dismiss.
People are scared and fearful and easily miss the fact that acting in loving, caring, kind, compassionate, conscientious, and thoughtful ways can make them feel safer, more fulfilled, happier, more powerful, cooler, neater, sexier, stronger, and better.

It's true.
What you think about before you do can greatly impact your overall experience of reality.

I often do this when I interact with people. Before I talk or make an action I analyze it and feel out the appropriateness of it. I ask myself if this is the best way to say what I mean and the best way to deliver this information to the recipient of said communication. Often, I'll find that I reword it before speaking or writing. I fine tune the message content to match the situation, my intention, and the recipient's overall personality, demeanor, and my interpretation of their needs at the time of communication.

For instance, a friend might be talking about how her job isn't what she really wants. She talks about it all the time and seems to run a tape when she talks about it, so that I hear the same words every time this is the subject of her talking.
Instead of saying, well, gee, you always talk about how much you hate your job but you aren't doing anything to change it, so shut the heck up because I'm tired of hearing it.

No. Instead, I breathe in and think of my friend in a compassionate way. I delve within myself to find what she most needs from me at that given moment. What she needs is understanding, compassion, moral support, and a friend. She does not need me to fix her. Nothing needs fixed, as my friend Barbara likes to say.

So in my moment of conscientiousness about my friend and her job issue, I stop and think what would I want to hear from my friend if this were a challenging issue for me, if I had an unhappy job experience that I desperately needed to shift?

I know what I'd need. I'd need to feel that the person I was speaking to about the issue heard me,really heard what I was saying. So, I mirror back to my friend what she says. I repeat some of her words, and I paraphrase and ask if I'm understanding what she's saying. She breathes in deeply and smiles. Thank you for understanding this, she says. I smile. Yes, of course, I do. Because I put myself in her shoes, and grew a heart for her. In my moment of conscientious compassion, I mirrored her pain in articulated description so that she no longer felt alone and burdened by this stress. At least for the moment.

And that's all we can do: be present for the moment. The moment is always happening, it's eternal. It is always right now. So, showing up in the moment to be there for my friend in compassion and understanding is the best thing I can do. It's better than telling her to shut the f up and stop complaining or do something about it.
Perhaps in reality she will greatly benefit from acting on her job issue rather than complaining about it.
But clearly, the complaining is her attempt to change the situation.
And a compassionate friend who acts on the categorical imperative that if I act the way I want people to treat me and I act for the good, then I add good to the world, and in so doing, I increase the quantity of goodness and help ease human suffering. Ah, pollyanna sounding again!

If I told her to shut up then I'm projecting that as an appropriate way to act and am validating that it's okay for people to talk to me that way. And, it's not.
It's not okay for people to treat me with disrespect.
I want to be understood, honored, respected, valued, and grokked.
And to that extent I must strive to understand, honor, respect, value, and grok others.

That is how the principle of the categorical imperative is at work in my life.

While talking with my friend, I don't just mirror her words and paraphrase her statements to show her that I grok where she's coming from.

I also seek to sense what it is she's needing from her situation. Does she need to quit her job? Does she merely need to communicate something to someone so that she can keep her job and resolve the issue that's causing her suffering? Can she simply shift her perspective and feel happier with her job? Must drastic measures be taken or is there some easy quick solution?

Once I assess this information, via compassionate questions and listening to my friend, I will offer a suggestion or two. Gentle suggestions, phrased the way I'd want someone to speak to me and stated in ways that the human psyche can receive.

I might say something like, it sounds like you don't really like banking and would prefer to go back to teaching. I wait and listen to her reply or reaction to that statement. She might say, oh god, no I don't know if I can teach again, my mortgage is too high for that, and with Dan being laid off and the kids in private school, I need to keep the banking job. To that, I must react with understanding, mirroring her, paraphrasing, validating. I see, yes, teachers don't make what bankers do do they?

No. I hear her sigh.

Then, I try to address the specific issue at her job, which is, her boss never lets her finish a sentence, and she feels that she's always interrupted and not heard. This includes making suggestions for improving her performance, but then her boss interrupts and takes credit for the idea and even treats my friend as if she is incompetent. So, I suggest, if Janice does not allow you to complete sentences then perhaps what you need to do is have a one on one talk with her. Let her know that you really respect her and love working with her. Tell her that you enjoy being on her team and you are available to assist her for anything. Tell her she can count on you.

My friend hears this as if she's having a revelation.
I told her this because that's what I'd want someone to tell me. Something wise and insightful that could help me address my situation in ways I hadn't thought of...
My friend reports to me the following month that she had exactly that kind of meeting with her boss and then they went out for lunch several times since then and all the interrupting had stopped.

I'm not sure if this is making my point, but in putting myself in my friends shoes' in acting conscientiously, that is, in thinking about how I'd want to be treated, and in thinking about what would most benefit my friend in terms of what i was able to provide while she was talking/complaining to me about her job, in acting on the Categorical Imperative I helped her change her attitude and her situation so that the suffering she had earlier described disappeared!

And maybe, maybe my friend comes back a month later with the same story, complaining about her job situation and I ask her if she had a meeting with her boss and she says no. The, I go from there, I find out what is going on in her head. Why didn't she meet with her boss, and offer the most compassionate support I can.

It can often be our reaction to a complaining friend to secretly roll our eyes to ourselves while smiling and nodding or frowning if that's the seeming appropriate face to make.
But I don't think this helps our friend. If you pause and look within, look at what you would want from a friend in a situation in which you were complaining and suffering.. although you might not see it that way. To you it might be that you are describing an unfair or bad situation. Would you want your friend to just nod and go uh-huh, I see, oh really, oh that's too bad, etc..?

I don't think I would.
So I operate on the principle that what I need deep inside is my guide. And what I need deep inside is a feeling of authentic connection, of compassion, of deep trust and care, and not only a feeling of being honored, respected, and valued, but also of being deeply understood and seen. So, I strive to give this to others. I strive to give what I want to the world.

If I hear a friend complain I offer compassionate listening and authentic care, and I also actively strive to suggest a friendly, non-judgmental solution, as that is what I want. I want my friends to help me see a different perspective on my problem.I want them to hear where I'm coming from and understand all the nuances and really grok my personal suffering. And in this connection I feel more connected, more at peace, more whole.

I do think this is a matter of acting in ways that you think it's okay for everyone else to act. It's about acting conscientiously, for the good of others. It's about saying, would I want someone to do or say this to me? If not, don't do it. Rethink your approach, and strive to live a more conscientious life.

The Categorical Imperative was championed by Immanuel Kant. For more information about its history and origins, reference Kant, and other philosophers and movements, including Plato, Sartre, and Christiandom.

Thank you.

No comments: