Volume > Issue > Moral Relativism & Psychotherapy

Moral Relativism & Psychotherapy


By Philip J. Scrofani | June 1996
Philip J. Scrofani is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Fort Washington, Maryland.

When someone seeks out mental health treatment, one usually experiences a sequence of events that goes roughly like this: One is screened and then directed to the properly trained professional (e.g., clinical psychologists are trained to deal with more complex conditions than school counselors; psychiatrists can give medications; neurologists can deal with mental disorders that are rooted in the nervous system, etc.). A diagnostic workup is then completed, which might result in additional referrals, and then treatments are prescribed. These can include brief psychotherapy, medication, and in some cases hospitalization. Almost invariably, the course of treatment will include some type of counseling or psychotherapy, and therein lies the dilemma for committed Christians. Caveat emptor, as they say.

In the past, this development presented very little problem because our culture largely upheld traditional Judeo-Christian values. Issues regarding marriage, family, faith, human sexuality, birth, etc., were governed by well-understood values, regardless of one’s race, ethnicity, geographical region, socioeconomic level, and so on. This is not to deny that there were differences, but the core of common values and moral beliefs greatly exceeded them. With rare exceptions, Baptists, Jews, Presbyterians, Catholics, and even atheists matched up reasonably well in terms of shared moral principles. Catholics and Episcopalians differed on transubstantiation and papal authority, but agreed mightily that sexual intercourse belonged in marriage. Baptists and Jews differed about the timing of the Messiah, but the Ten Commandments reigned supreme. Most atheists discouraged divorce, sexual activity among adolescents, and abortion. These were constants in society for centuries.

Then, during the late 1960s, it began to change. America and the Western world ushered in a sexual revolution, the likes of which had never been known, which has caused divisions in many of our churches and even won over many others. The upshot was that the culture changed. The sexual revolution radically altered our laws, what would be printed, what would be said in the electronic media, what would be taught and promoted in our schools, and what a psychotherapist might tacitly or openly condone, encourage, or direct in the course of treatment. Soon the end would justify the means, so long as the means were legal. The fruits of the Age of Enlightenment had arrived. Universal truths of right and wrong, once uniformly adhered to or at least believed, were replaced by moral relativism and situation ethics. What is right now seems determined largely by what is convenient.

So what does this all have to do with mental health, treatment, and psychotherapy? Let’s back up. You are a good citizen of the realm. One day something bothers you heartily, creating great psychological turmoil. You are directed to a mental health practitioner. The initial screen determines the diagnosis, the type of practitioner, and the treatment required. Where psychotherapy is indicated, the therapist will in most cases initially aim for two immediate goals: To relieve you of painful symptoms and to restore psychological comfort. Just down the road is the goal of establishing or restoring adequate functioning in social and occupational spheres. If the psychotherapist continues beyond these phases (as is often the case), he or she will attempt to cultivate some personal ideals that are supposed to prevent future psychological crises and maximize functioning — e.g., achieve greater independence, emotional freedom, psychological and social risk-taking, and so forth.

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