Moral Complexity and Viktor Frankl’s ‘Logotherapy’ – Part 4 of 5

This is the fourth part of a five-part essay comparing and contrasting the moral systems of the Dalai Lama, Andre Comte-Sponville, and Viktor Frankl with regard to how well (or poorly) their respective moral systems fare against morally complex situations.


Viktor Frankl’s Moral System (based on Logotherapy)

            As far as the deontological/consequentialist debate goes, Frankl’s moral system seems to straddle the middle. Frankl’s moral system is derived from aspects of his logotherapy, a specific school of thought within modern psychiatry. Frankl believes that logotherapy is a useful tool in that “the patient is actually confronted with and reoriented toward the meaning of his[/her/their] life” (104). This meaning is the primary drive motivating conscious human beings; it is future-oriented (towards some potentiality that is, as of yet, left undone), extremely subjective (as it changes from one individual to the next), and dependent upon the responsible care and efforts of the individual for its realization.

     For one patient, that meaning may be an unfinished work of art that he/she needs to finish. For another, that meaning may come from a relationship that needs to be restored to its former status. For yet another, that meaning may come from something else entirely. What unites each instance of logotherapy is that it places significant emphasis on the will power of the individual and the realization of how internal perceptions of situations/events can change how we feel towards and think about them.

     Insofar as an individual’s meaning is internally guiding his/her moral decisions, it can be said to be a deontological aspect of his/her moral system. An individual’s meaning(s) act(s) as a kind of conceptual moral fence that allows in certain moral values and actions, labeling them as morally permissible or morally good. For example, if an individual’s existential meaning is to become the best sports figure without resorting to any unfair methods or behavior. That meaning, in and of itself, already eliminates many possibly immoral actions and values.

     Yet insofar as it emphasizes responsibility, Frankl’s moral system does not shy away from the importance of consequences when considering moral situations. Responsibility is a moral concept that makes little to no sense when removed from the realm of action. Whether we are responsible for positive consequences or negative consequences, some action is necessary. Otherwise, what are we responsible for?

     As a result, Frankl endorses both deontology and consequentialism within his moral system. He asserts that there are motivations/intentions which are utterly misguided, such as when one of his fellow prisoners was hell-bent on making non-Jews suffer following the Jewish prisoners’ liberation from the Nazi war camps. Elsewhere, however, he defends the need of actions to understand emotions and, for our purposes, morals. In discussing the relationship between love and sex, he states “love is not…a mere side-effect of sex; rather sex is a way of expressing the experience of that ultimate togetherness which is called love” (116).

     Moreover, Frankl’s moral system is slow to invoke moral judgments. At one point in his book, Frankl describes a horrifically vivid example of the moral life within the concentration camp. He recalls “One by on the prisoners approached the still warm body [of the prisoner who had just died]. One grabbed the remains of a messy meal of potatoes: another decided that the corpse’s wooden shoes were an improvement on his own and exchange them. A third man did the same with the dead man’s coat, and another was glad to be able to secure some – just imagine! – genuine string” (34). He then asks rhetorically “Who can throw a stone at a man who favors his friends under circumstances when, sooner or later, it is a question of life or death? No man should judge unless he asks himself in absolute honesty whether in a similar situation he might not have done the same” (58). The importance of this aspect of Frankl’s moral system is two-fold.

     As such, Frankl’s moral system acknowledges that dire circumstances can affect our moral judgments of certain actions. That is to say, certain situations such as the horrible treatment of prisoners in World War II concentration camps, require us to thoroughly scrutinize our moral systems to adequately account for such complexity. Frankl is asserting here that overly general moral systems are untenable. They do not help us to live but instead paralyze us with inaction, inaction that could carry as high of a price tag as death.

     Also, his moral system emphasizes empathy uniquely, more as a way of bridging the conceptual and phenomenological gap between ourselves and other individuals rather than sharing merely emotional contents. Frankl’s moral system encourages, insofar as it is feasible, reserving serious moral judgment until one has either experienced the situation or event for one’s self or has thoroughly self-reflected on it. In this regard, Frankl’s moral system neither resorts to some moral checklist to determine the moral value of an action, nor does it suffer from incoherence or inconsistency.


Some Objections to Frankl’s Moral System

     Yet Frankl’s moral system is not perfect either. For one thing, Frankl’s emphasis on personal responsibility for one’s emotional states regardless of external circumstances can, in certain lights, be seen as an example of victim-blaming. Victim-blaming occurs when a person who is the victim of a particular action/crime is seen to have been partially, mostly, or entirely responsible for their own pain and suffering. It often results in worsening the victim’s psychological trauma and delaying their recovery time. The victim often feels unworthy of others’ sympathy, they doubt what really happened, and they resort to a variety of self-destructive behaviors. Victim-blaming is responsible for needless suffering. For this reason, Frankl’s moral system can be said to suffer from, ironically, a moral defunct in which victims can suffer more than they already have.

     Conceptually speaking, the objection to victim-blaming is that Frankl’s emphasis on personal responsibility makes the efficacy and effectiveness of his logotherapy unfalsifiable. For if the lack of meaning in a person’s life following certain negative existential events is the consequence of their own actions/inactions, then only their meaningful successes count toward logotherapy’s track record. It is a kind of selective filtering mechanism that ignores failures and tracks only successes. In addition, logotherapy may be guilty of unfalsifiability. In an epistemic sense, this means that Frankl’s own research is not scientific, in a narrower sense of the word. Whether or not that detracts from Frankl’s own academic credibility is the issue of an entirely different debate. However, if the unfalsifiable objection stands, it gives us an epistemic, indeed an empirical, reason to doubt Frankl’s ultimate conclusions.

     For another thing, Frankl’s own insistence on self-reflection and empathy could actually slow down or even stop moral judgment making. For if we are not allowed to judge without having the necessary experience in question, moral discourse is greatly reduced. If you’re a drug addict, but I’ve never been one, and your addiction results in numerous negative consequences (your wife/husband leaves you, your house is foreclosed on, you lose your job), but I can’t condemn your behavior or attempt to help you to change it, what good is such a moral system? It perverts the Golden Rule by absolutizing it.

     Finally, we can analyze the success of Frankl’s moral system in handling morally complex situations. From the onset, though, Frankl’s stint as a Jewish prisoner in a Nazi war camp exposed him to a wider variety of possible moral interactions than, perhaps, the Dalai Lama or Comte-Sponville have experienced. As a result, his moral system has actually incorporated elements of moral complexity into it; at the very least, Frankl gives moral complexity due consideration.

     Tragically, we can utilize an example which likely occurred often in the Nazi concentration camps. Imagine that you and your brother are prisoners of the Nazis. One evening during ‘inspection,’ a Nazi officer enters your hovel and tells everyone to line up side by side. He turns to you and another officer grabs your brother. The first Nazi officer tells you to kill your brother or else he and the other Nazi officer are going to kill everyone else except you. Dramatically, he emphasizes that their deaths would be on your hands. What would you do?

     The strength of Frankl’s moral system is that he shows us time and again that general principles, rules, and obligations are useful in general cases only. But as moral situations become more complex, there need to be secondary and tertiary principles, rules, and obligations that help us to make moral decisions in the real world, in reality. Frankl’s moral system emphasizes this point by showing how absolute moral elements may not help in extremely negative circumstances or how even when an action is morally wrong, the seriousness of its moral wrongness is overlooked by the moral community.


Works Cited

“Animal Ethics: The Ethics of Speciesism.” BBC Ethics, BBC, 2014.

Comte-Sponville, Andre. The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality. Penguin Books, 2008.

Frankl, Viktor, Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy. Simon &      Schuster, 1984.

Gowans, Chris. “Moral Relativism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 19 Feb. 2004.

Lama, Dalai, and Rajiv Mehrotra. In My Own Words: An Introduction to My Teachings and Philosophy. Hay House Inc., 2011.

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