Fashionable Nonsense Pt3: Albert Ellis

When I picked up Albert Ellis’ “The Myth of Self-Esteem” I naively thought that I would find therein an attack on the mushy-minded nonsense advocating universal, unconditional self-love and self-esteem; love contingent on nothing but a heartbeat. What I found was quite the opposite. Ellis’ tortured reasoning and shallow sampling from eastern and western philosophical traditions to justify his points caused my right hemisphere devil’s advocate module to blare its sirens so loudly that this author requires a brief intuition-purge in order to think straight on the topic again. For the reader’s convenience, Ellis’ theory is best summarized as being the exact antithesis to the following Oscar Wilde quote:

The only thing that sustains one through life is the consciousness of the immense inferiority of everyone else, and this is a feeling that I’ve always cultivated.

The Core Problem With Ellis

There is so much wrong with Ellis’ reasoning that I scarcely know where to begin. However, the most fundamental problem involves his assumption that a global assessment of one’s self is the true source of depression, anxiety, and so forth, as contrasted with “healthy” assessments of one’s individual traits, behaviors, or competencies, which he argues should have no bearing on self-worth, that glorious byproduct of the human pulse. Ellis summarizes his therapy thus:

Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy…is a system of therapy based on the hypothesis that people become emotionally disturbed by foolishly rating or giving report cards to their selves as well as their deeds.

According to Ellis the judgment “I have failed every time I have tried to ask a girl out on a date” is infinitely more healthy than the judgment “I am worthless at landing dates.” This point initially seems plausible as we can all easily recall many instances of overgeneralizing in our judgments of others and our selves. But ask yourself if you really meant what you said. Did you really mean that you are for all time an abysmal failure at getting a date, or did you just say that as a despairing shorthand for the fact that you appear to have persistent traits or behaviors that impede your landing dates now and presumably for as long as you display them? Ellis simply fails to peer beyond what people appear to say literally and what they actually mean on a deeper level. If I say “that guy over there is a worthless scumbag,” this is just a condemnation of certain traits of his that persistently show themselves. It is exactly the same as saying “this otherwise valuable fellow over here persistently squanders all that is valuable in him to regularly indulge in selfish and self-destructive behaviors that appear unlikely to abate.”  Stating that someone is “worthless” just means “worthless to me; worthless for my purposes.” I can’t think of a much healthier ability than that of being able to truly turn away those who are toxic to your existence, who are “worthless” in the sense not only of bringing nothing of value to your life, but also in the sense of actively stripping you of worth.

Other Problems & Half-Truths

The above is the central problem with Ellis’ book, but certainly not the only. Before moving on, however, I should make the conciliatory note that Carl Rogers rule of treating his clients with unconditional acceptance and love seems to be a rather good preliminary procedure for a therapist, and likewise, treating yourself generously, giving yourself the benefit of the doubt, and setting realizable goals for yourself seems wise. This is not what Ellis has in mind. He recommends that we practice Universal Self-Acceptance (USA), Universal Other-Acceptance (UOA), and Universal Life Acceptance (ULA), all of which require us never to judge a person’s objective worth or make global assessments or statements about their totality, their whole organism.

As the book is mainly dealing with USA, let me first deal with ULA and UOA. Regarding Universal Life Acceptance, I agree that we should aim towards something like this, if it is possible, but I categorically deny this principle as an absolute. Along with Hume, Schopenhauer, and others, I reserve the right to deem my own life unfit for living and to quit it with haste. That is, I reserve the right to suicide and with it must reject ULA. Ellis seems to think that nobody has a right to suicide despite whatever constant torment their life promises to be because you can never judge a movie with total accuracy if you walk out half-way through. This childishly concrete, black-or-white thinking will I’m sure be of little value to any terminal patient who knows with utter certainty what his final scene will look and feel like. That being said, my beef with ULA ends there. My objection to UOA is, however, more striking and more important.

Ellis reasons that “Self-appraisal almost inevitably leads to one-upmanship and one-downmanship,” adding that “Persistent individual, group and international conflicts easily stem from this kind of thinking and feeling; and love, cooperation, and other forms of fellow-feeling are minimized.” Ellis needs to be a little more discerning here. World Cup soccer, for example, dramatically increases fellow-feeling, love, and cooperation at the local and national level while encouraging conflict at the international level; conflict that existed already and is being exorcised through sport. Ellis thinks we should just stop keeping score and celebrating wins without realizing that this would weaken national/tribal identity and thus increase the very conflict and violence that Ellis claims started with such competitive appraisals.

Ellis appears to believe that we can do without these sorts of judgments when in fact such judgments of others are a necessity. We have to choose a mate, for example, and this requires not simply judging this or that trait as if they didn’t add to form a single entity, but instead, judging every trait we have witnessed in a single gestalt that includes a global emotional valence indicating their worth to us. We have to say things like “she is no good for me, while that other girl is a goddess whom I cannot live without.” Even if unspoken, these sentences are apt descriptions of what it feels like to look upon an unsuitable mate right next to an ideal mate. For Ellis, however, our deification leads to neurosis instead of parsimonious discrimination, violence instead of love and healthy pair-bonding. His point is false, but on top of that it is moot, for we cannot help but make models of a person’s “essence,” even though strictly speaking nothing like this exists. He thinks that we can look at each other as behaviorists do, if only we try hard enough! We cannot. Part of falling in love involves building an essentialist model of the other person, a model upon which you can base certain inferences and guesses as to how that person will behave in the future. On the whole, our models are extremely good! Notice how we rarely fall madly in love with a person and the next morning fall out of love and into love with another person, and so on. This is because human personalities, though they change over time, still display great stability and predictability. Ellis has clearly grappled with Buddhist metaphysics for so long that he cannot reason well anymore, despite his attempts to reject most of Buddhism. He keeps the juicy bits that fit nicely with his professional ambitions, bases much of his argument on Buddhist philosophy as if this was some kind of acceptable “proof,” but then jettisons all of the inconvenient Buddhist practice and doctrine, especially its asceticism, which is the only rational strategy if you actually accept the four noble truths. This would be like me using the tenets of rational empiricism to backup my arguments only to mention at the end of the argument that all perception is illusion and only ideas are ultimately real.

The problem with valuing people or appraising them does not come from making such appraisals, nor from these being “absolute” or “objective.” The problems only arise when one has further beliefs about these appraisals, beliefs about what these appraisals entitle him to. You deserve to feel “superior” if you become an exquisite ball player, story teller, or artist; specifically in exactly that capacity and no other. Further, you deserve to feel objectively more valuable than your less-skilled past self; that is, you deserve higher self-esteem. Even if you erroneously think that you are objectively more valuable than every person on the planet because of your ball-playing abilities, this still does not lead to depression, anxiety, or violence. Some deranged ego-maniac convinced of his ultimate superiority does not have to also believe that this entitles him to unlimited forced labor from the rest of mankind. Note the trivial fact that the more sure anyone really becomes about any given competency, the less desperation, impotence, and powerlessness they are assaulted with. A truly superior man might believe that his powers oblige him to be a good shepherd to his less-fortunate flock.

Almost Profound…Almost

This is not to say that I found Ellis to be entirely worthless, despite my apparently unambiguous dismissal of his therapeutic program and philosophical views. There were little glimmers of insight in his book, but most often they were tarnished with nonsense and false inference:

  • Ellis claims that quite often “your need for self-esteem makes you less likely to achieve it and more anxious when you do.” This is nearly correct. When you are playing tennis, your goal should be winning the tennis match, not being a godly tennis player, as even godly players have their off days and your concern is your performance today. In this sense, worrying about a global evaluation of you as a tennis god will produce counter-productive anxiety and hurt your performance. However, your need for self-esteem is why you are on the tennis court in the first place! That is, without a need for self-esteem, you will be way “less likely to achieve it,” while Ellis implicitly encourages us not to need self-esteem at all, as if this were a viable option for a self-conscious being.
  • Similarly, I agree with Ellis when he quotes Alfred Korzybski over and over simply to back up his point, which is trivially true, that “part of you can never equal the whole.” But this is irrelevant because all of your parts do equal your whole! Thus, if every one of my parts is dysfunctional, my whole is dysfunctional! Even if I am not dysfunctional for all time, I must at least acknowledge the truth of this global assessment now.
  • Another example of Ellis’ thinking that is quite nearly correct is the familiar Epicurean and Stoic point that we have great control over our reaction to or our interpretation of events. “I made me angry and depressed by demanding that you (and others) act fairly,” Ellis reminds us. While this is true and it gives a slight amount of control to the angry party, Ellis seems to be missing the rather glaring problem that each of us actually does have the right to demand that others treat us fairly! What is more healthy than a response of anger to injustice? In fact, Rollo May reminds us that it is only when true depression and despair set in that someone becomes incapable of anger: that basic reflex to value and protect the self. Does Ellis seriously think that it is advantageous for the recently slighted person to shift the responsibility for the feelings of depression and anger from the perpetrator of the injustice to the himself? Sure, we can take responsibility for indulging our feelings and say choosing to sulk, for example, but we cannot choose to be angry or tranquil in the face of an intentional injustice. We can only be responsible for that which is under our control, though we can often take responsibility after the fact if features of the situation have since surrendered to our control. A true pedophile should not feel responsible for having his lust, but only for how he responds to this lust. It would be a crime, in my opinion, to convince a pedophile that his lust is really of his own creation and is within his psychological control, which it clearly is not: only his subsequent actions of indulging or squelching that lust are within the jurisdiction of his personal autonomy and sense of responsibility.
  • Ellis, to his credit, does list some advantages of Egoism or self-rating: “It may motivate you to produce notable works of art, science, or invention. It can enable you to feel superior to others–at times, even to feel godlike…” adding that “We cannot justifiably say that it brings no gains, produces no social or individual good.” But here Reason abandons Ellis and he concludes that despite such benefits, they are not worth it! He argues that “although self-rating occasionally may help you pursue creative activities, it frequently has the opposite result. For example, you may become so hung up on success and superiority that you uncreatively and obsessively-compulsively go for those goals rather than that of creative participation in art, music, science, invention, or other pursuits.” While he is trying to make a clear distinction between an “obsession” and a “passion,” Ellis fails to see that the definition hinges on whether that preoccupation helps the person and society on the whole. Ellis assumes that Egoism or self-rating have nothing to do with healthy creative pursuits without realizing that this is their reason for being. Again, Ellis uses arguments from some Existentialists, claims to be heavily influenced by Existential Psychoanalysis, but then simply abandons the very core of this philosophy. To see how far from Existentialism and how far towards Buddhism Ellis has strayed, tease apart this little statement literally advocating that one not build a deep and beautiful soul: “Self-evaluation…is usually ruminative and absorbs enormous amounts of time and energy. By it you may possibly cultivate your ‘soul’ but hardly your garden!” Any therapist that discourages rumination and cultivation of your soul while allying himself with Existentialism is an intellectual eunuch. This is no small misstep, as Ellis adds further that: “I would better not define myself entirely by my behavior, by others’ opinions, or by anything else under the sun.” This sounds like building a shallow soul or perhaps none at all. If you do not attempt to define yourself, you are not following the most basic call to self-consciousness: “know thyself.” Ellis thinks that “I can itemize my weaknesses, disadvantages, and failures without judging or defining myself by them.” If you do not include these features of your self in your definition, then whose weaknesses and failures are we itemizing here? This is psychologically impossible unless you have seriously dissociated from your self, which Ellis, ever the unwitting, insurgent Buddhist, seems to encourage.
  • The best that Ellis has to offer is his shame-desensitization strategies, which I wholeheartedly agree with. Ellis encourages you to do silly things like yell out some nonsense in public to slowly dilute the sting of shame and, according to Ellis, increase USA. Ellis encourages you to think “I am not a silly person, just a person doing silly things right now.” Fine. But why not see the truth of the situation in its entirety? Why not think to yourself “I am not a silly person, even as I do these seemingly silly actions, because they have a greater goal than simple amusement. In fact, because these acts are not fun or amusing but shaming and painful, they require great courage and fortitude. Therefore, I can rate or evaluate myself as strong, courageous, and free.” That strategy might actually produce self-esteem, instead of merely diluting self-disesteem.
  • Lastly, Ellis mentions a point that has some merit, but fails to draw the right inferences from it. He relates that ” Whether or not Karyl really loved me, I didn’t need her love, I only wanted it,” adding that “Wanting and not needing changed me forever.” Ellis doesn’t want people’s self-acceptance to be in any way based on whether or not they receive love. Fine. But he is sweeping under the rug the fact that we all do actually need love. The healthy attitude is this: “I deserve love for various objective reasons. I need love. If I don’t get the love that my attributes warrant, I will not question my worth, but will simply find someone who sees this worth. Thus, my self-worth is not dependent on that awesome woman loving me, but on some awesome woman loving me. If I fail to find said woman, I might need to re-evaluate the basis of my deserving love or seriously question my strategies for finding the right woman.” You must be able and willing to leave a relationship for that relationship to truly be alive, as May reminds us, but this should not be conflated, as Ellis does, with the statement that I don’t need the love and respect of others. Ellis thinks that we can feel the “rational consequences (RC) of displeasure, disappointment, sorrow, regret, annoyance, or feelings of frustration,” without feeling the “irrational consequences (IC) of depression.” He fails to see that depression is simply feeling hopeless or powerless about all of those rational consequences, which often times is completely justified. What is regret without self-evaluation anyway? Ellis just cannot promise us freedom from depression if only we stop all self-evaluation.

More Objections

Additional Objection 1: Ellis seems determined to strip humanity of its godlike qualities so as to protect people lacking many of them from thinking about human worth at all. Ellis writes that to call someone like Einstein or Michelangelo “a genius is to indulge in slipshod thinking. Leonardo, admittedly, had aspects of genius. That is, in certain respects and for a specific era of history he did remarkably well.” To the rejoinder that this is precisely what a genius is, Ellis replies that “That’s what we carelessly say. But, actually, using the noun genius clearly implies that a person to whom this title is given is generally  an outstanding performer; and of course no one, including Leonardo, is. In fact, he did many silly, asinine things.” This is deplorable reasoning. The “certain aspects” in question here are artistic competencies, the performances in question being artistic ones. Leonardo has these competencies in spades and is generally an outstanding performer in the arts. Leonardo did not do many “silly, asinine things” with his artistic competencies in artistic performances. This is pure deception on Ellis’ part. For him, there are no real geniuses….”nor are there any heroes or heroines, any great people. These are fiction, myths which we fallible humans seem determined to believe.” He continues: “So if we want to be sensible, we’d better honestly admit that there are no geniuses or extraordinary people; there are merely individuals with exceptional deeds. And we’d better sensibly evaluate their acts rather than deifying…their personhoods. People are always human, not gods or devils.” My central objection above is relevant here, as Ellis gives us no reason to think that we will feel any better about ourselves if we view Leonardo as having “aspects of genius” instead of being “a genius,” as being a generally brilliant performer instead of an always brilliant performer. But beyond this, Ellis fails to see that man is not always human, but that he sometimes reaches beyond himself, beyond man, and touches something divine. To strip him of his status as demigod is to strip him of the best in him, but this is all besides the point because we are still stuck in the existential dilemma of feeling half god, half animal; of experiencing mind-body dualism, which Ellis has done nothing to ameliorate.

Additional Objection 2: Despite all of his pedantic quote-mining from various well-known philosophers, Ellis actually bases his entire case on the philosophy of Robert Hartman, which I had never before encountered, for extremely good reasons it seems. Pointing out every flaw in Hartman’s thinking would cause me to have a massive coronary, so I will simply point out the most egregious problems. According to Hartman “value is the degree in which a thing fulfills its concept,” adding that “a thing is good if it fulfills the definition of its concept. A ‘good’ man, therefore, is a person who fulfills the definition of a man–that is, one who is alive, etc.” Pure silliness. A man could not possibly fail to fulfill the definition of the concept ‘man’ and thus there could not possibly be a “bad” man. By Hartman’s reasoning, there could not possibly be any “bad” thing or process, as whatever a thing or process is, it is that by definition. If “good” is a property of “being,” then all that is qualifies as “good.” Thus, Hartman seems to think that “all is good” or some other Panglossian nonsense. Hartman thinks that “to be sincere, honest, or authentic in whatever one does is infinitely more important than what one does.” He has apparently failed to think of the example of the sincere, honest, and authentic rapist or pedophile, whose sincerity, honesty, and authenticity are more important vis a vis value than his actions, according to Hartman’s thinking. Lastly, Hartman claims that “the more, therefore, I am conscious of myself, the more, and the more clearly, I define myself–the more I am a good person.” Though I don’t disagree entirely with Hartman, Ellis seems to miss the fact that this is the exact antithesis of his entire therapeutic regime of emphatically not defining yourself, ever! I will leave the rest of Hartman’s sloppy reasoning for others to point out, except for one last thing. Hartman writes that “This world is nothing compared to the intrinsic value of one person,” but fails to see that “this world” includes all persons, and thus could not be of less value than a single one of them. Does Ellis not see that Hartman, Korzybski, and the Buddhists are not compatible? The Buddhist says there are no separate, definable “things,” Korzybski says you cannot define any separate thing because it is a process and not a static “thing,” and Hartman claims that “things” are “good” by definition! Later, Ellis quotes Paul Hauck, whom he recommends reading, but fails to see that Hauck and Hartman are entirely incompatible. The former says “I would better not define myself,” while the latter says you are only a good person to the extent to which you know and thus define yourself!

Additional Objection 3: Ellis writes that “if educators and psychotherapists can teach people to give up all ‘ego’ concepts and to have no ‘self-images’ whatever, they may considerably help the human dilemma and enable men and women to be much less emotionally disturbed than the now tend to be.” Does Ellis not see that this directly contradicts Hartman’s definition of a good person? How can Ellis in one breath preach a philosophy of no self-images, no self-evaluation, no defining who you are, while in the next breath throwing his lot in with Hartman who implores us to be ever more conscious of ourselves, defining ourselves more and more clearly? Hartman’s 8th axiom ends with the statement that “the development of your inner self…is not a luxury. It is a necessity for your own being yourself in all three dimensions.” Does Ellis not see how this contradicts his statement (p53) that you cultivate your soul at the expense of your garden (implying that it is a practical impediment)? How can we define ourselves, grow an inner self, etc, without forming any “self-images” whatever? He is so thoroughly confused as to suggest that self-evaluation and the formation of such self-images actually narrows the range of one’s interests. Then he admits that these same things can lead to artistic pursuits. Either striving for self-worth expands my interests, along with both fulfillment and suffering, or it narrows my interests, along with my fulfillment. Which is it? As much as Ellis is committed to the view that “bigotry and lack of respect for individuals in their own right are consequences of self- and other-evaluation,” he fails to see that he too is evaluating everyone’s “selves;” he just concludes that they are all of equivalent value. To say that we all deserve love and respect and that we are all valuable is a damned evaluation! His evaluation just leaves any given human with infinite worth, but worth equivalent with everyone else’s infinite worth.

Final Objection: Ellis writes that “anxiety and self-rating do not merely stem form human existence in a world of probability but in people’s insistence that they have certainty and perfect safety which they cannot have in a non-absolutistic, uncertain, and futuristic world.” So just convince yourself that you don’t need anything resembling certainty or safety and you will be free from anxiety and self-rating! How delightfully simple! Again, Ellis fails to be very discerning with the degrees of the things he speaks of. Am I really much less anxious or judgmental if I require lots of certainty and safety as opposed to requiring absolute certainty and safety? Of course not. Furthermore, anxiety and safety-seeking, to say nothing of self-rating, are profoundly natural things for a self-conscious being to do; in fact, he cannot help but do them if he is to keep his self-awareness. As Kierkegaard, Camus, and Schopenhauer, among others, have pointed out, anxiety is proportional to awareness: the more possibilities we are aware of the more possibilities we must inevitably say “NO” to in each decision. The more potential selves we see in our future, the more anxiety we feel about choosing one of them. If Ellis thinks that he can cure human anxiety by removing awareness, I simply do not care to see if he is right, for this would sacrifice the best in me to the point where no “me” exists at all. The drive for certainty is not only natural, but it is quite indispensable and helpful. What else is curiosity or the desire for wisdom if not that same drive for certainty that Ellis believes to be a contingent feature of self-conscious humans?

In conclusion, Ellis draws from dozens of philosophers but fails to resolve the disputes between these thinkers or plot a consistent course through this quagmire of contradiction. Instead, he just cherry-picks totally inconsistent pieces from each of the philosophers that he thinks he has understood and then tells us that these pieces add to make a coherent whole that would advocate Universal Self-Acceptance. It doesn’t occur to him that Buddhism couldn’t possibly support his position of ULA, as it is the most life-denying of any religion that I am aware of. Instead of pointing out each inconsistency, one-by-one, let me simply remark on some of Ellis’ more egregious lapses of wisdom and perspective.

Generally Poor Reasoning

  • p57: “Conformism, which is one of the worst products of self-rating…” Do I really need to point out that “self-rating” and individualism are precisely the things that allowed a break with the herd-mentality of early tribal man? Is Ellis really so deluded as to see individualist societies as more conformist that group-think cultures that discourage individual distinction?
  • p59: “Man is not a thing or an object, but a process. How can an ever-changing process be precisely measured and rated?” This is hilarious. By this reasoning we could not possible measure anything, as there are no static, unchanging, separate “things” out there, only processes. In the next paragraph he states that “traits which are highly honored in one social group are roundly condemned in another. A murderer may be seen as a horrible criminal by a judge but as a marvelous soldier by a general.” First of all, his cultural relativism thesis is full of holes. I am not aware of a single culture that does not value courage, for example, in the sense that Tillich defines it: “the readiness to take on the acceptance of want, toil, insecurity, pain, possible destruction.” But that is neither here nor there. The more insidious part is when Ellis subtly inserts the judgmental word “murder” into his example instead of using kill, or some other word that would have preserved the integrity that does exist both within each culture, and between cultures. The general in this example would condemn the murderous soldier just like the judge, because soldiers are not allowed to murder non-combatants, and so forth. Sneaky, Mr. Ellis…sneaky.
  • p86: The first argument in favor of USA, according to Ellis, the first reason why you should unconditionally accept yourself as a good person, is “because you are you (and no one else).” This reasoning is preposterous, especially that part about you being unique, for why would that matter when all other people are equally valuable and deserving of unconditional respect? What does my being uniquely me “and no one else” have to do with it? How could I be unique if there is no essential ‘me’? Since my features, attributes, properties and behaviors cannot be summed to equal “me,” then what does it matter if some of these are unique to me?
  • p87: Speaking of USA: “You can have it because you merely decide to have it.” If it were only this easy, eh? Ellis doesn’t see that humans need to prove themselves, that if they have any standards of value or virtue whatsoever, they will need to prove themselves by those very standards. Humans cannot simply choose to love themselves this way any more than they can choose to require no certainty or safety.
  • p218: “Seeking self-esteem or self-worth leads to self-judgments and eventually to self-blame. Self-acceptance avoids these self-ratings.” As I pointed out earlier, USA does not avoid self-rating: it just arbitrarily rates any self as worthy and acceptable.
  • p116: Ellis criticizes Spinoza’s definition of self-love which goes as follows: “Joy arising from considering ourselves is called self-love or self-esteem.” This is of course enjoying yourself, in the literal sense of enjoying you as an object. Ellis writes that Spinoza “fails to point out that honest self-inefficacy leads to self-disesteem and hence to anxiety.” Ellis misses the fact that anxiety is there from the start and that various self-esteem strategies are attempts at grappling with anxiety: they do not produce anxiety. His causality is totally backwards.
  • p144: Heidegger writes that “That which enduringly remains, is.” Ellis then asks if “An apparition or an illusion may enduringly remain. Is it?” He is implying that an illusion doesn’t exist, but he fails to see that whatever was producing that illusion, whatever we mistook to be something else, doesn’t vanish when we are disabused of the illusion. So even if the self is an illusion, whatever is behind that illusion most definitely is! 
  • p144: “Desire says, ‘If I don’t get what I want or do get what I don’t want, too bad! I don’t need it.'” Nonsense. This is not what “Desire” says. In fact, desire is quite grasping and desperate, violent and demanding. Ellis is making too much of this ‘desire versus need’ point. If I am dieing of thirst in the desert, the desire for thirst makes no distinction between ‘need’ and ‘contingent want.’ If I don’t drink, not only will I lose my self to hallucinations and delirium, which is ultimately what anxiety is about (fear of self-dissolution), but I will also lose my self in imminent death! Later on page 175 Ellis writes that “You desire what you want, but don’t need it. Even if it is food and you are starving, you need the food to stop from starving–but you don’t need it to live!” Ellis is an imbecile. He is, perhaps unwittingly?, claiming that we do not need food to live!
  • p153: “You never have to feel ashamed of yourself even when you acknowledge your immoral acts and see that they needlessly harm others.” Ellis confuses shame and guilt here, as shame is unavoidable whereas guilt might be expiated or otherwise circumvented. He is so terribly confused. Shame deals with my failing in the eyes of others! Therefore, I feel it even if I haven’t failed in my own eyes. This would be like Ellis claiming that we don’t have to feel sexual attraction, because our desires are not necessarily oriented towards a soul or essentialist “self.” Nonsense. We cannot help but experience shame as “our” shame just as we experience lust as “our” lust.
  • p157: Ellis tells us that there are no certainties, only “high degrees of probability. You could be mistaken, deluded, psychotic, and so forth, in thinking you exist.” There are tons of criticisms to be leveled at Descartes cogito, Neitzsche’s being one of the best, but Ellis misunderstands all of them and tries to undermine the only thing that is generally recognized today to be Descartes accomplishment in his cogito: proving that it is impossible that you are mistaken that you (whatever you are) exist!
  • p157: Ellis asks us to live with the following attitude: “I’ll live as best I can with probability, and no certainty. I have the courage to accept, even if I don’t like, uncertainty.” I simply must point out here that this “courage to accept” is a virtue, and one that could easily form the basis of Conditional Self-Acceptance. Thus, you could scrap the entirety of Ellis’ book, along with his dubious philosophical amalgam, along with USA, and you would get essentially the same outcomes that Ellis is hoping for. If only he had heard of virtue ethics!
  • p158: “Maybe somewhere in the universe a being exists without a there –or could exist in the future. Probably not. But it could independently exist–for example, a pure soul.” What? Pure soul? Ellis goes on to ask “Couldn’t it possibly create an (immortal) soul without a there? Most improbably–but possible.” Possible? Really? In his attempt to undermine all certainty, and thus to get away with whatever argument he wants to, Ellis seems to think that anything is possible, even the logically incompatible.
  • p174: “Moral even means, essentially, roles that work in a social group. Therefore, you bring your morality in to create UOA and USA. You start there.” This definition of “moral” is quite immoral. There are plenty of roles that have worked in social groups in the past (absolute dictator or monarch-god, for example) that are not especially moral.
  • p203: “Accept without liking your failing and incompetence. But try, try again!” Why? Why try again? What possible motive would you have for trying to change the things you dislike about yourself if you have already accepted yourself? You have already accepted these failures and can live with them? So why change? “Accept your self, your being, your aliveness but do your best to change some of your inept and immoral behaviors.” Again, why? They do not affect my worth, either to me or others. They are only “likes” and not “needs.” What possible motive could I have for changing an inept behavior if I don’t care whether my behaviors are inept or not? He then writes “Accept the fact that you are a social creature and can live without the goodwill and cooperation of others–but pretty badly.” Pretty badly? He contradicts himself by first claiming that we are social creatures (and thus have social needs), but then claiming that we don’t need these things; they only make it more agreeable to live. Furthermore, we are “social creatures,” meaning that this is part of what it is to be a man, and therefore, by Hartman’s definition, living “pretty badly” or living out of line with the concept or definition of man, would be living a “bad” human life!
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9 Responses to Fashionable Nonsense Pt3: Albert Ellis

  1. My cousin recommended this blog and she was totally right keep up the fantastic work!

  2. Bret Stedler says:

    Albert Ellis writes books for people with psychological issues who don’t think the way you think. Yes, there are people out there who do say and believe they’re worthless for not landing dates … this book was written for those people. You just wasted an incredible amount of time writing this review, I’m afraid.

    Funny, though, that you consider this author to be 99.9999% wrong, but you missed the whole point of the thing. Like, zooom! over the head, seriously. If Ellis has a book called “Overcoming Narcissism!”, you might want to check it out…

    • Bret, thanks for the comment. Your criticism is premised on my having no issues with low self-esteem, but instead, an inflated Narcissism…ahhh, if you only knew me. I’ll start by undermining your backhanded compliment by simply admitting that I am far from immune to such “psychological issues”. I have left plenty of dates thinking to myself “god, you are totally fucking worthless!” In fact, I suck at dating, and especially at dancing…two damned left feet! However, if I have successfully moved past these issues, perhaps I have something to say about the proper way to do this. Far from missing the point, I was trying to say that the point was blatantly wrong! You can never repair low self-esteem by ignoring the feeling or intuition that prompted the self-condemnation…that feeling is real. Neither can you change that feeling by simply updating your self-script to be slightly less dramatic in its evaluation or condemnation. This is just magical thinking. Your animal self really does care that much about successful pair-bonding…you can’t just tell yourself “oh, I really didn’t care that much about the date..it wasn’t really that important to me…I’m really an ok guy whatever happens…even if my next 10 dates are equally unfruitful.” Ellis is promoting delusional thinking here. If Ellis wrote a book called “Overcoming Narcissism!” he would presumably have to remain true to his general theory of self-esteem, so he would advise the narcissist to not take so much joy in his accomplishments, for they really amount to nothing, and to temper his self-evaluations down a bit to incorporate Ellis’ idea that there are no values, there are no stable ideals, everything is just beyond evaluation and we should just accept every last part of ourselves, unthinkingly, uncritically, and thus push past the “myth of self-esteem” by establishing our self-worth on the myth that nobody is any more valuable than anybody else. Nonsense. Einstein is way more valuable than Ted Bundy, case closed. Ellis is completely denying man’s need for hero-systems with a naivety that borders on the retarded.

      That being said, I fully own the fact that a rant of that length is self-indulgent and narcissistic, but your use of the term betrays the fact that you really don’t know its history. Look up the term “thumos” or “thymos” or read some Kohut. Why the hell would anyone want to overcome the state of thinking that they are awesome? Did it ever occur to you that there is a healthy level of narcissism that one should never try to undermine or “overcome”? Every man at his core is thymos, the energy of spirited honor, and he seeks battles to fight, women to rescue, and achievements to be proud of. Ellis is trying to take away man’s heroism in an attempt to reduce his suffering, without realizing that this will also remove his will-to-live. His pedantic christian/buddhist musings sound like the death-rattle of Nietzsche’s “last man.” This will not do. We must teach courage.

      • desires1989 says:

        Very poor reasoning, you need to read Ellis material again. Good Luck.

      • I wish you would explain the faults in my reasoning, really (I’m not being snarky). This is the only book of Ellis’ I have picked up, and likely the only I’ll ever, for it seemed to recommend the fashioning of a worldview far more delusional than one mired with countless over-generalizations that add up to paint a less-than-generous picture of ones self. Perhaps you could recommend a work of his that might be a little more of a serious work and less self-helpy? Otherwise, I’ll need more than luck to ever spend time on this author, sorry. Thanks for reading!

    • catoant says:

      Agree with Brett. Ellis is a master of elegant thought and you are not. Hope you start trying though; there does seem to be motivation there. (“Motivation”, not “movitation”, by the way! :). My hunch is also that narcissism is the block preventing you going with the flow of his logic.

      You say: ““Accept your self, your being, your aliveness but do your best to change some of your inept and immoral behaviors.” Again, why? They do not affect my worth, either to me or others [according to Albert Ellis].”

      The “or other’s” is your addition and misinterpretation, I think, isn’t it? Ellis doesn’t at any stage assume that others will accept you unconditionally, regardless of whether you accept yourself or not. Rather he knows many will bestow you with a global label of “inept” or “immoral” and take action against you as they see fit and are able. Its for that reason – the annoyances that come from incurring other people’s disfavor – that he recommends trying to change inept/immoral behaviors. If you feel like it.

      The main point Ellis is making is you don’t have to feel at all bad about yourself if you do nothing about these behaviors. Nor need you feel bad about them while you are working to rid yourself of these failures of behaviour or should you give up trying, after you finally fail to overcome these failures. Nor for that matter should you feel bad looking back at your past lousy behaviour after succeeding in permanently changing an aspect of yourself for the better (in yours and other’s eyes). Sounds a nice state to be in to me.

      Removing this “stick” of self-contempt might slow people down some in doing difficult things. Turn them into happy little pigs in a trough who just want to wallow full-bellied in the muck all day. But really, is there any paradisical trough for we human pigs to play in long in this life?! Every state of earthly existence has it’s comforts and discomforts. Hence if we stopped creating arbitrary and notional “sticks” like “self-contempt” and carrots like “self-love” the naturally occurring “sticks” of this imperfect world would keep us striving for better things. Some of the time at least. Don’t you think?

      Really, it does seem to me the world does actually conform to Ellis’s world view; you can’t apply global ratings of the “I am/it is/they are (totally) wonderful” or “I am/it is/they are (totally) awful” sort to most situations and hold them as more than arbitrary personal opinions. Fine if believing them turn you on, but don’t waste time and emotional energy, buying into many of them too seriously. There are too many variables involved and too much flux to come to any full and final judgement of the “true” value of anything – even for a sliver of time. (Mathematicians, Economists, and Scientists and other expert testers of the real-world will tell you the same thing I think you’ll find. Their testing and resulting judgments are all bounded by acknowledged “all-things-being-equal”/for-the-sake-of-argument”/”assuming-x-is-true” constraints. This imperfect method leads to wonderful outcomes at the aggregate level and sometimes for special individual cases. But I don’t think anyone would claim Scientific methods very applicable to a making a global rating of single real individual human being based upon all his or her activities throughout his or her life.)

      No. In terms of rating things as desirable, almost nothing is wholly preferable or completely terrible. That’s goes for the World, other people, and ourselves. So why not live – and think – in accordance with that apparent reality?? That’s what Ellis appears to me to do, or at least recommend. Jolly good, I say. 🙂

      By the way, why do you have a need to be overweeningly superior to others? I’d be interested to know….

      • I might respond to this when I get more time, but let me briefly take up your last question. Why do I need to be superior to others? Human nature. You are no different. Notice you start with stating that Ellis is a master of elegant thought, and that I am not. This is a matter of superiority, no? You feel that I am overweening, where presumably you are not. This is a matter of superiority, no? I have a “block” of narcissism, and you presumably do not. These are all normative claims. I side with Ernest Becker on this question: we are all bidding for superiority. Every culture is a hero-system. The Christian is trying to be superior by being more humble: humility is his superiority. Some of these value systems are better than others IMO.

        “in terms of rating things as desirable, almost nothing is wholly preferable or completely terrible.” I don’t know what to say to this. I can’t just turn off the faculty of Judgement and stop preferring some things to others or preferring to be a certain type of person. For instance, I want to be the type of person that doesn’t cheat on his girlfriend–something that I think is “wholly preferable.” Should I just throw up my hands and say “ah, hell…nothing is perfect. I’ll just love myself regardless of what I do”? Or should I avoid cheating just to avoid my girlfriends “disfavor”? I don’t think I can just wish away the disfavor I’d have for myself if I were habitually cheating. If I turn into that cheater, should I not judge myself harshly? Would I not deserve contempt? It is fully within my power to stop from cheating, so why not demand that of myself?

  3. Chiko is Lord says:

    Most retarded uncharitable shit I’ve read in ages. It Empirically works you Christian tard.

    • Lol, I’m not a Christian, but empirically, Christianity works too! The religious are far happier, science tells us. Does this mean Christian theory is correct? Science also tells us that placebos work, empirically…does this mean that they truly are partially curing people? I’ll agree that my post is “uncharitable,” but I’m just as uncharitable with Christian theory (“universal love,” etc), if you will notice.

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