Monday, June 24, 2013

Complete liberty 185 NVC and Moral Relativism

In Complete Liberty podcast 185, Heiko discussed descriptive ethics and how to reframe NVC as not entailing moral relativism. It is a bit long, the discussion gets interesting about minute 50. Unfortunately I must admit I can't summarize the idea that has me so excited, just describe it. So while I found the discussion very interesting, I did not find it clear, even on the second time through. But hey, I was walking the dogs while listening, maybe I need to sit down and concentrate.
NVC labels moralistic judgements as a form of communication that blocks compassion. Because we need to give ourselves empathy, this seems to entail a moral relativism, where judging in terms of morality is just off the table. But this itself is contradictory,  at least by one reasonable interpretation, because NVC can be seen as implying ethical rules of behavior itself, and making moralistic judgements against certain forms of communication and thought. 
I think the resolution of the contradiction lies in distinguishing between what thoughts, feelings, needs, and requests a communication expresses, and whether it does so in a way that provokes the listener or not. One way of expressing a truth ( e.g. "You are an asshole")  may provoke the listener while a different expression of the same idea ("Please don't call me at 2am unless it is a dire emergency") has better chances of success. By this interpretation, Rosenberg is not embracing relativism, but pointing out that moralistic judgements tend to make people defensive, and even if they succeed in getting the other person to change their behavior, there will be a bill to be paid in the coin of resentment.


Darjeelingzen said...

I found this discussion to be very meaningful as well. I highly appreciated Marc's ability to employ active-listening... Marc's checks for understanding were very insightful in my experience of the discussion, which met my need for empathy... Heiko was deeply reflective and was doing some very deep and subtle processing of abstract concept systems, that met my need for wonder and mental stimulation. :-)

daniel said...

This is an interesting topic. I am new to NVC but know from recovery from addiction that a moral inventory of self is essential. Maybe its just not helpful in communication, or its about finding the right balance.

I know I have been called out for things and that it has been helpful to meet those rare people who can call us out with love.

I am sure that empathy brings us deeper anyways, but to throw out all morals seems like an all or nothing philosophy, when usually there are shades of gray until the ideal is reached.


Any comments welcome.

Thomas said...

Sorry for the delay in responding, somehow I overlooked this comment until now.

I'm not 100% certain I understand where Rosenberg is coming from. I think he'd say something like this: Guilt can be a motivator, but it is an inferior one. Guilt about things I did in the past, or expectation of guilty feelings I would experience after doing something I am tempted to do can work to keep me honest. But this is not actually very reliable and is costly and negative. Empathy can work much better, it is more positive, can also keep me honest but while making me feel better about myself and bringing me together with others rather than separating us. Perhaps he would say, you could indeed "throw out morals" if first you had empathy for everyone, because it seems hard to imagine a situation where you would be able to violate a moral rule with regard to someone else as a result of an empathic win-win negotiation with that person. So in some sense empathy is actually more restrictive with regard to violating others, but experienced as mentally liberatory and positive at the same time.
The discussion is pretty abstract, so depending on how you want to picture guilt vs. empathy, this will or won't make sense. I've had discussions with people who seem determined to imagine the empathic alternative as "Whack! I empathize and forgive you for punching me. Whack! I empathize and forgive you for punching me. Whack! I empathize and forgive you for punching me. Whack! I empathize and forgive you for punching me. [...]" Obviously this is not what what I have in mind.
Both guilt and empathy can fail. I suppose it is an empirical question whether one or the other is more likely to succeed in general, or under what predictable circumstances one would be superior to the other. Maybe Rosenberg's students will do the research.