Several years ago, I was browsing a business section of a bookstore when I came upon an intriguing title: Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box by the Arbinger Institute. The title intrigued me. Leadership books are a dime a dozen in the business section: business people apparently expect everyone to be a chief and no one to be a brave. So, it was the self-deception in the title that really caught my eye. While my leadership skills could without question use improvement, self-deception was something I actually thought I was probably too good at. Self-deception struck me as a subset of a problem that had intrigued me most of my adult life. The problem? Why do I do things that I know are not in my best interest? Most of us, I think, can recognize this problem, whether it involves eating and drinking too much, exercising too little, procrastination (a personal favorite), and, perhaps worst of all, mistreating those whom we care for most by impulsive and hurtful actions that we often come to regret. This is a long list!
We have pondered the problem of why we don’t do what we know we should do from the time of the early Greek philosophers, who dubbed the problem one of akrasia. In modern parlance, it’s often referred to as “weakness of will”. St. Paul put the problem succinctly when he wrote plaintively: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Romans 7:15 (NRSV). Within the Christian tradition, St. Augustine took up this problem, and he’s credited as the first thinker to identify and wrestle with the problem of the will.
Thus intrigued, I bought the book. I pondered further the subtitle “getting out of the box”. What the box was, I did not know, but that mystery was intriguing, along with the fact that the author was not an individual. I bought and read the book, and I was taken. I was taken because I recognized myself in it. Rather than being a recipe book about six steps to better leadership or a 12-step program to avoid self-deception, the book was a collection of vignettes about people and relationships. The vignettes presented problems in personal relations that were easily recognizable. The book suggests that the root of these interpersonal relationship problems come from self-deception, and self-deception puts us “in the box”. In the box, our view of others becomes distorted and leads to mistreatment of them.
That’s the book in a nutshell. This is a business book and therefore there are no footnotes. It’s a quick and easy read. In addition, it served to pique my curiosity about where this came from. It seemed quite insightful. I decided to investigate further.
In the age of the Internet, I got online and looked it up the Arbinger Institute. I discovered that they offer information about their analysis and how one can avoid the pitfalls of self-deception. (The book explains this, also). I learned that the person behind this intriguing perspective and the unassuming, but very deep thinking behind it was a man named C. Terry Warner. Checking on his background, I learned that he had a Ph.D. in philosophy from Yale, that he had spent time at Linacre College at Oxford University, and that he taught at BYU. The website also linked to a short paper by Warner that outlined his thoughts in a more analytical way than it’s set forth in Leadership and Self-Deception. While I had little doubt about the quality the insights, I did have a great deal of curiosity about how he came to his insights. The paper I read provides some hint at analytical framework that Warner developed into these insights.
Some extended quotations from the paper:
We human beings have little comprehension of what we are. The difficulty is not that we are ignorant. It’s that we are self-deceiving. We systematically keep ourselves from understanding ourselves. We don’t do this deliberately. In order to do it deliberately we would, Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote, “We’d have to know the truth very exactly in order to conceal it [from ourselves] more carefully.” Instead, we do it by means of sin – by going against our honest feelings of what’s right and wrong for us to do.
. . . .
It’s impossible to betray oneself without seeking to excuse or justify oneself.
. . . .
Whether childishly rationalizing his moral failures or self-righteously claiming to be morally superior, the self-betrayer is blaming others and excusing or justifying himself. He can consider himself in the clear only if he can successfully find fault in others for what he is thinking or doing. There is no way around this. There’s no way of betraying oneself without living a lie – no possibility of sinning in a straightforward, guileless, and open manner. This can be seen by considering the solution to a version of a puzzle well known to the ancient Greeks. The puzzle is this: immorality – what I’m calling “self-betrayal” and “sin” seems impossible. It seems impossible than anyone could know in his own mind what is morally right for him to do and yet not do it. When we experience a genuine prompting of conscience (there is such a thing as false or distorted conscience, and I’ll get to that later), way are in that moment obligated: we are requiring of ourselves the course of action it prescribes. (I’m not saying the prompting cannot originate from a source outside ourselves, but only that whatever its ultimate origin, when we experience it we recognize and accept its validity for us.) There is no room for wondering whether we ought to follow this course. In the very reception of a moral summons, we feel we ought to follow it. But if this is so, what sense can it make to say that we require this course of action of ourselves in the very moment and by the very act of refusing to comply with the requirement? What sort of self-requirement is that? None at all, the tradition has said. Either (1) we don’t really understand the requirement, or (2) we aren’t really making it of ourselves, or (3) we lack the power or opportunity to comply with it. But the fourth alternative, that we are acting immorally—requiring moral action of ourselves in and by the very act of violating the requirement—seems to make no sense at all.
Yet we do make a more requirement of ourselves in by this kind of act. We do it by carrying out the refusal in such a way that it seems to us that we are doing the very best we can under the circumstances. We make the moral requirement of ourselves by denying that we doing what we are doing. In short, we do it by hypocrisy. The hypocrisy acknowledges, in a backhanded way, the rightness of what we are not doing. Paul wrote that when we violate the law of God written in our hearts, we “consent unto the law that it is good” (ROM. 7:16). Someone who is straightforwardly doing what seems to him right has no cause to excuse or justify himself; and someone who isn’t doing what seems right to him shows that he does have such a cause. In the words of La Rochefoucauld “hypocrisy is vice’s tribute to virtue.”
We are deceived by this hypocrisy of ourselves because it and the self-betrayal are the same event. We do not first betray ourselves and then, following a moment in which we recognize that we’ve got something to hide, act as if it is someone else’s fault. If this were what happened, we could perhaps hang on to the momentary, accurate knowledge we had about ourselves and thereby keep ourselves from slipping into the lie, but that’s not what happens. The self-betrayal and the lie we live do not come in sequence. They are two sides of the same act, for as we’ve seen the betrayal wouldn’t be possible unless it were alive from the first moment. Blaming others and making it seem that were doing our best in spite of them is the way we betray ourselves.
. . . .
It is important to understand that emotions are always involved in the self-betrayers lie. It would not be the same if we merely told ourselves a lie. We would not be able to get ourselves to believe it.
. . . .
This point enables us to understand what’s really going on when individuals profess, as they sometimes do, to know full well that there what they’re doing find that they’re doing wrong and continue to do it anyway. They are “intellectually “or verbally admitting to the truth, but emotionally base are still caught up in the lie. Everyone knows this who has experienced the deep sorrow of repentance: it is an emotion that’s worlds apart from the self-betrayer’s anxiety or guilt.
Accusing others means making ourselves out to be the victim. We’re not responsible for what’s going on because we’re helpless in the face of what we’re doing. We feel unjustly used by them – wronged, threatened, or disadvantaged. Feelings of psychological and emotional victimhood are telltale signs of self-betrayal.
. . . .
One of our dominant, almost unexamined fictions is that we are not responsible for emotions. They are caused in us, we believe, by events outside of our control. Recently this dogma has been undergoing re-examination, and it is becoming increasingly clear that it is false. Accusing emotions are performances in which we engage. In the history of a particular people, patterns of emotion evolve as do patterns of rhetoric. They arise, flourish, and become extinct. Yet the metaphor dogmatically persists that such emotions are injuries because we invoke it anew whenever we compromise ourselves. (For example, if were angry with someone we cannot fail to believe that that person is making us angry.)
This dogma is the core of every self-betrayer’s self-deception.
As you can see read from the extensive quotations I’ve included, this is pretty strong stuff. It challenges us. It strikes at our normal assumptions. I don’t have to think outside the bounds my own experience to identify innumerable times when I rushed to claim the mantle of victimhood. (In addition, really, when you think about it, who the hell would rationally want to be a victim?) However, we do want to be the victim for the reasons that Warner argues. I saw way too much that was way too familiar in this paper to walk away at this point. But the paper, like the Arbinger Institute books and Warner’s book Bonds That Make Us Free (which I’m coming to) spend a limited amount of time and analysis on the background of the theory. In fact, at the end of this paper, he lists some sources that he reports influenced his line of thinking. Warner writes:
When I set out to solve certain conceptual problems that recur in the human sciences and in philosophy, I discovered, gradually, the important things I finally prepared myself to say had been said before—some in Eastern religious texts, some in Western authors such as certain Christian mystics and Shakespeare and Kierkegaard, some in the commonplace wisdom of guileless people in many communities, but all of it better and shown in the Hebrew, Christian, and Latter-Day Saints Scriptures. Without having it as a prior aim, I’ve come to feel that my work is to convey something of the power of the Scriptures to those who do not know them, and endeavored it that admittedly loses important elements in the translation.
Though I am by no means the first to make these claims, it seems worthwhile to keep repeating them: our ignoble desires are not ultimately derived from an ignoble nature, and our anxieties are not the result of being unable to make ourselves whatever we are striving to be. These desires and anxieties stem from our betrayal of what we really are, from our refusal to love, from an exercise of our agency that ties that agency in knots—in short, from sin. If we are emotionally troubled, it’s not because we were created to be that way but because we have betrayed, perverted, denied what we were created to be. The condition of our liberation from unwanted desires and anxieties is our responsiveness, in love, to what others need from us, and to the supreme loving act that makes our love possible.
Having read the paper cited from above and Leadership and Self-Deception, I was certainly hooked as a matter of intellect and, I hope, converted (if you will) to his way of thinking. Whether I reflect it in my actions is hard to say, except to the extent I’ve acted the better for it in any degree, it has been at best imperfectly. Of late, I’ve had occasion to think about my relationships and those of others, and I took up once again the book that I discovered Warner had written before the Arbinger Institute books came out. I bought a hard copy and read it, and recently (thank goodness for Kindle), I was able to re-read it and contemplate it anew. This re-reading led to this review
Bonds That Make Us Free (a wonderfully ironic title that reflects a deep truth) should first of all be described by what it is not: it is not a philosophy book or self-help book, at least in any usual sense. It is a book primarily about people and their relationships. Much of it comes from first-hand accounts of people with whom Warner has worked. He’s obviously worked with a great number of people in applying these insights. In this way, Warner is a philosopher in the deepest sense of the word in that is analytical abilities are turned to building a better way of life. He embodies what care how Pierre Hadot has called “philosophy as a way of life”. This book is full of stories of people and their relationships, with relatively little analysis and only fleeting reference to well-known figures. Tolstoy, Pascal, C.S. Lewis, T.S. Eliot, and Kierkegaard all get passing mentions or the briefest of quotes, but that’s it. This is not a philosophy book. However, there is one figure who Warner did not mention in the article cited above, but who receives repeated reference in this book (although not in any kind of philosophical explication). That thinker is Martin Buber, a German-Jewish intellectual who in 1923 wrote a book that was translated in English as I andThou. (The translation I and Thou is controversial and considered by many to be a mistranslation. For Warner’s purposes at it should be translated as I and You.) Buber’s book (which I know by reputation only—add to the list) argues that there are two ways of relating to others: either is a You or an It. Buber suggests that with others the You relationship is best. One can imagine how well this fits into Warner’s thinking. It is by treating others as an It that we can allow ourselves to sneak into self-betrayal.
The book’s many vignettes offer opportunities for Warner to elucidate his insights and to answer questions that most readers will have. Because it is not a comprehensive work of philosophy, but a practical effort to provide insight into our actions, it does not seek to extend or delimit the work as a body of theory. Nevertheless, Warner answers every easy objection to his insights that a person might initially bring forth.
This book is for anyone. Although a Mormon, Warner’s religious beliefs don’t intrude upon or limit his theories. Whether one is Mormon, Christian, or nonbeliever, I believe Warner’s insights will still prove deeply insightful. (The fact that he can quote Jean-Paul Sartre and benefit from Sartre’s insights suggests that Warner’s mind is open. Also, although treated only toward the end of the book and briefly, Warner freely acknowledges his religious background and how it ultimately roots his thinking. In the paper, he also understands that some will have a skeptical attitude because of his religious faith.
So, to whom do I recommend this book? Anyone who seeks deeper insights into his or her relationships with others. Given that we are human beings—and perhaps only truly human—when we are in relationships with others, this means everyone. It is not difficult book to read. It’s relatively easy reading. The only hard part is when you see yourself and your loved ones in the tales that others tell of themselves in the many vignettes. Some of this is hard. Hard in the way that we have to look at ourselves in the mirror in the morning. It’s not always a pretty sight, but by doing so we see ourselves as we are, and perhaps can make some improvements. I gave this book a five star rating on Amazon because I think it has the potential to change our ways of being in the world, and that’s the highest compliment you can give to a book