Fr. Gregory Jensen: The Moral Limits of Psychology

Source: Acton Institute

By Fr. Gregory Jensen

Defenders of the free market insist that virtue is essential to a just and thriving economy. If morality is relevant to economics, it is equally so to allied fields of social science, all of which have as their object of investigation the human person. Indifference to the moral dimension distorts the study of human action in economics; so too does it deform the discipline that reaches behind that action to the human mind: psychology.

Built on a sound anthropological foundation and guided by an equally sound morality that is clear on the proper goals of human life, the empirical findings and practical techniques of psychology can foster the flourishing of both persons and communities. Unfortunately, as Theodore Dalrymple argues in his most recent book Admirable Evasions: How Psychology Undermines Morality, contemporary psychology has long been not only hostile to traditional morality but also indifferent to and dismissive of the larger context of Western culture within which it arose. As a result contemporary psychology, according to Dalrymple, “is not a key to self-understanding but a cultural barrier to such understanding as we can achieve.”

Operating within its own limits, psychology can be helpful. Too often however we appeal to psychology for assistance without a proper understanding of the empirical and moral limits of the discipline. Like all social sciences, psychology’s findings are expressed in probabilities that are narrowly defined by the researcher. In other words, given a specific set of variables (which ignore others for the sake of the research), in a given percentage of cases this or that is likely true. Like all sciences, psychology knows the general but it does so at the expense of the particular about which it knows only probabilities.

Dalrymple’s observation about behavioral psychology is true of the whole discipline (and as Hayek reminds us, economics as well): “What started as methodology became ontology.” Rather than situating itself modestly within the larger context of the Western intellectual tradition, psychology set itself up as a critic of the culture. This isn’t limited to the deformative aspects of culture and personal behavior that have been the concern of critics since Socrates and the Old Testament prophets. No like Freud’s Oedipus, psychologists and psychology have increasingly sought to undermine the culture itself.

And so, Dalrymple says, “the overall effect of psychological thought on human culture and society … has been overwhelmingly negative.” Why? Because, he says, “it gives the false impression of greatly increased human self-understanding where none has been achieved, it encourages the evasion of responsibility by turning subjects into objects where it supposedly takes account of or interests itself in subjective experience, and it makes shallow the human character because it discourages genuine self-examination and self-knowledge.” Unmoored from the Western Christian tradition as canonical, contemporary psychology “is ultimately sentimental and promotes the grossest self-pity, for it makes everyone (apart from scapegoats) victims of their own behavior.”

Nevertheless, used “sparingly and with discretion” psychology can “be very useful to carefully selected individuals.” Though narrowly defined, we ought not to minimize or reject the real insights and benefits of psychology.  That said, Dalrymple warns that we must be mindful of “the self-aggrandizing nature of most modern ‘caring’ professions that alleged competence in and sovereignty over matters which are beyond the reach of technical understanding or solution undermine any residual modesty, realism, or judgment that they might otherwise still have had.”

Human flourishing is never simply a technical matter but requires “appreciation of the tragic dimension.” Without this “all is shallowness; and those without it are destined for a life that is nasty and brutish, if not necessarily short.” Whether, as Dalrymple concludes, “it is psychology’s vocation to deny and hide” all this “from view with a thin veneer of science” is for me an open question. That said, he makes a good case for the proposition that, psychology “is a watered-down secular version of Christian redemption, with Man in the place of God.”

Dalrymple’s critique is a salutary reminder that, while our efforts to build the Kingdom of God benefit from the scientific knowledge provided by the methods of economics and psychology, we are still more dependent on the wisdom supplied by Christian revelation and moral philosophy. 

Fr. Gregory Jensen

Fr. Gregory Jensen

The Rev. Gregory Jensen is a social scientist specializing in religion and personality theory. Currently he is the interim pastor of St Ignatius Orthodox Church in Madison, WI and Orthodox Chaplain at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He blogs at Koinonia and the American Orthodox Institute. In 2013, he was a Lone Mountain Fellow with the Bozeman, Mont.-based Property and Environmental Research Center (PERC).


  1. Michael Bauman says

    I would also add that the sort of psychology being critiqued here that the combination of such an anti-human approach when combined with computer technology sets the foundation for an unprecedented attack on humanity itself. AI people going back at least 35 years have made the claim that AI machines will be the next dominant life form on the planet. The swallow and wrong anthropology/ontology of modern psychology gives credence to the idea the robots can and should replace we humans.

    There does not seem to be any serious consideration of anything even as rudimentary as Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics to protect humanity:
    1.A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
    2.A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
    3.A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

    Elon Musk, not exactly a Luddite, has recently warned against the dangers of AI

    A new book by Martin Ford: Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future also points out that major changes are neither science fiction nor far off “in the future” but are happening right now.

    Oh, and if you want to buy the book, please don’t order on Amazon with its robotic algorithms meant to mimic human behavior and with contributions from money they receive going to such things as promoting homosexual marriage.

    I am sure Eighth Day Books would get it for you. It is a truly human book store.

    Given the fact that Fortune Magazine and other on-line content providers are using computers to write many of their stories (according to Mr. Ford), I for one am suspicious of the “reviews” on Amazon.

    Here is a partial list of the jobs Mr. Ford says are already being significantly impacted by computers:
    Middle Mangers in Business
    Anything that involves the analysis of data
    Many health professions (nursing being the lone exception)
    Fast food.

    The question I would like to see addressed from an Orthodox perspective is the value and nature of human work. That, it would seem to me, would encompass and go more deeply to the heart of the intersect between economics, psychology, politics and technology.

  2. James Bradshaw says

    Psychiatry is beneficial in that it encourages introspection and self evaluation as opposed to simply reacting blindly to life. Sometimes there are biological imbalances that benefit from medication such as severe depression, Tourettes and social anxiety. As someone who suffered the bizarre affliction of panic attacks at one point, I can attest to how medication in the right dosage and use can allow one to function and live a relatively happy, normal life.

    I dont think it’s an exact science though. What constitutes a psychologically healthy individual is difficult to define, and sometimes the treatment may cause more problems than the disease.

  3. M. Stankovich says

    My, My. I can’t imagine what was contained in my first response here that resulted in it being canned, but… Anyway, Mr. Bradshaw, in it’s modern incarnation, psychiatry is not “beneficial in that it encourages introspection and self evaluation as opposed to simply reacting blindly to life.” If you are a psychiatrist in the US who is reimbursed by healthcare insurance – commercial or government funded – you are being reimbursed for diagnostic, initial medication provision, and medication management services only. The only psychiatrists I know who are being paid to provide psychotherapy are those who are paid out-of-pocket by their patients. They are older and they are from the days when medical schools actually taught the theories and practice of psychotherapy (meaning that any graduating social worker is generally considerably more skilled and practiced and experienced in the actual modalities of therapy – individual, group, and family – than any psychiatry resident). Psychiatry, with few exceptions, is the business of medicine, not therapy, which leads me to say that, to this day, the specific mechanisms by which common aspirin exerts its analgesic & anti-inflammatory effects are unknown. I am not a pharmacologist, but it is my experience that this a similar fact – generally worded, “it is thought that that the mechanism of action is…” – of most familiar medications. This, for the sake of comparison, would make Pharmacology an equally inexact science. I believe I provided a definition of a “psychologically healthy individual” common to the field of mental health, but Fr. Hans deleted my post. I do not intend to retype my post, but if you leave your email address at my website, I will send it to you.

    Michael Bauman: There is a wonderful essay by Fr. Florovsky, “Empire and Desert: Antinomies of Christian History” (or
    Antinomies of Christian History: Empire and Desert, I can’t recall) in his Collected Works (I’ve seen it on Google) where he discusses St. Basil the Great’s “Theology of Work.” It may be helpful to you.

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