How Values Can Become Pathologies

We all have values and beliefs to which we hold. Some of us believe readers are leaders, while others of us believe utilitarianism is essential. But what none of us usually believe is that our version of those beliefs or values are pathological versions; that our belief in performing our duties, that our belief in following the rules, or that our belief in living a healthy life is pathological, undoubtedly, occurs to few who hold such beliefs.

The more valued and highly regarded something is within society, the less we are able to see its true nature. When we praise something so fervently, we are blinded by its radiance and therefore fail to see it’s dark sides. The law abiding citizen is regarded as respectable, yet such a citizen fails to notice when they follow immoral laws; the worker who performs their duty in the most stringent manner possible is an excellent worker, yet such a worker fails to see any hidden inefficiencies or oppression within their duties.

In other words, those things we take to be most preferable in society, such as morals, civility, freedom, and so on and so forth, indeed have a dark side to them. Only in utopias will there exist things that are intrinsically good and cannot bear any evil or harm to us or the world; and as far as I can tell, utopias are synonymous with fairytales: stories told about the world which never bear direct resemblance to the world as is. Thus, pathologies do not discriminate. To see how that is so, let us explain pathology.

A pathology, in the broad sense, and in the field of psychology, is:

“any departure from what is considered healthy or adaptive.” – APA dictionary

And a departure from adaptive, in this case, is meant to communicate an impediment to an ordinary or healthy life, as well as survival. According to that definition, a pathology can take nearly any form conceivable.

Consider adaptive behavior; adaptive behavior is that which helps someone live a healthy and fulfilling life, whereas a maladaptive behavior is one which impedes upon someone’s health or ability to live a fulfilling life. For example, going to work from Monday to Friday in order to afford housing and food is adaptive behavior; maladaptive behavior would be ignoring work to instead stay home, eat chips, and watch netflix. The first contributes to your wellbeing, the other negatively impacts your ability to live. So, behaviors can be either adaptive or maladaptive.

As well, emotions can be adaptive or maladaptive. If we are constantly angry over minute incidents, and thus yell or scream at everyone in our perimeter; or, if we become incredibly depressed from small shortcomings, and thus ignore our duties and relationships as a result of apathy; then, our emotions would be maladaptive. They are the source of much dysfunction in our life, in those cases. Whereas, in strong contrast, many of us who endure happiness whilst working are much more likely to continue to work, and so we arguably have an adaptive emotion.

The same holds true for beliefs and values. We can have adaptive or maladaptive beliefs and values. And as said before, some of our seemingly adaptive beliefs and values can actually be maladaptive: pathological. Those double-dealing beliefs and values, of which we praise and worship, are what I seek to focus on herein.

Examples of Good Beliefs and Values Becoming Pathological

Freedom, loyalty, and generosity are all values we admire. All of us want the freedom to speak, all of us want loyalty from our peers, and all of us appreciate generosity in some way or another. Yet each of those values, despite what we ordinarily think, comes with pathological versions, versions that not only harm us but also others. 

For starters, freedom, especially in America, is praised as the premium virtue. Without freedom, we have nothing. And while there is some truth in that, there is likewise some dysfunction in that as well.

As an example, take freedom of movement. Someone who believes they should be absolutely free in their ability to move can actually harm others either directly or indirectly. In the extreme, we can see someone who thinks that their movement is so unhindered by laws that they outrightly disobey traffic laws, resulting in the direct harm of others. In the less extreme, we have lockdowns. When a deadly virus spreads through a population, someone who believes they should not be subject to lockdowns and mandatory quarantines can indirectly harm others by spreading the virus. So, freedom of movement can become a pathological value insofar as adhering to it becomes incredibly maladaptive.

Another terrific example of pathological freedom comes from those who are entirely unwilling to submit to authority. In the extreme case, we would have an anarchist who wants to abolish all forms of control over themselves and others. And although anarchism isn’t inherently pathological, it is very easy to see how it can quickly become pathological when leadership and authority are demanded. If, for example, we are running an emergency room, and in that emergency room there are shortages of supplies to treat our many patients, then we need an executive body to make decisions about supply distribution. Why? Because in this case, we do not have time to debate with 10+ people about how supplies should be distributed. Instead, we need someone who can bind our actions through their quick, quasi-educated choices. And in that case, if we take anarchism to the extreme, we would not obey the authority figure who binds our actions. However, that is only an extreme, and arguably not common.

What is common, however, can be found in those who disregard information spread through official channels. When a doctor cites a thorough study as to why smoking is bad, or why being overweight is bad, or even why eating meat is bad, people instead say things like, “you believe your doctor, I will continue to smoke as is my God given freedom”. In other words, some people are so against authority that they will, without much justification, disagree with experts who lay claim to authority. A distrust in authority figures because of a pathological, toxic love for freedom is another unfortunate consequence of freedom.

Now I am far from anti-freedom myself, I love freedom as much as everyone else, but we are wise to see the above examples as evidence to the possibility that freedom can become pathological; not only in the extreme cases, but even in more common, everyday cases where we choose between freedom and authority, or freedom and expertise. Pathology does limit itself to bad values, and that holds true not only for freedom but also loyalty.

Loyalty is a wonderful value that can develop incredibly strong bonds between people. When we have loyal friends, we are better off because we know we have people who we can depend on. Few are those who do not want loyalty in their life.

Yet loyalty can become incredibly pathological. As much as loyalty can keep good friends together, loyalty can also keep dysfunctional groups together as well.

Violent groups that preach the importance of loyalty can keep someone binded to the group if they likewise value loyalty. And that is unfortunate, because in some cases a person might only agree with the aims of the group but not the violent behaviors used to reach those aims; and instead of leaving, the person becomes stuck due to the significance they place on loyalty. In other words, someone is unable to put themselves in better circumstances due to a pathological commitment to the value of loyalty.

We see the same kind of dynamic happen in bad romantic relationships. One partner refuses to leave the other, despite the other being incredibly abusive. Why? Because loyalty reigns supreme over all choices, no choice can show even a hint of betraying the value of loyalty.

So, far from being inherently good, loyalty can make us beholden to violent groups, to dysfunctional relationships, and even to terrible forms of authority. Loyalty for loyalty sake can become pathological rather quickly.

Likewise, generosity is another value which can become pathological rather quickly. We all know someone, most likely, who has some kind of pathological generosity. Those who fail to set boundaries, those who fail to control their empathy, and those who do not check where their generosity goes are all people who risk pathological generosity. When someone fails to set boundaries, they are too generous with their time and efforts. Many of us know a friend who spends too much time helping others, and not enough time helping themselves. When someone fails to control their empathy, they are too caring for those who harm them. Many of us know someone who helps, repeatedly, the same person who then proceeds to harm them. And when someone fails to check where their generosity goes, they can as a result cause more harm than good. Undoubtedly, many of us have seen bad charities take advantage of generous donors. So, generosity can become pathological and we should, therefore, avoid the notion that it is inherently good.

Conclusion on Pathology, Value, and Beliefs

As we have seen, values and beliefs which appear to be inherently good and adaptive can quickly become pathological and maladaptive. Though philosophers have given many abstract arguments as to why something like freedom, charity, or loyalty are virtuous and preferable, it remains nonetheless true that implementations of those things matters to a far greater degree. Humans have the incredible gift of taking that which seems inherently good and using it for incredibly bad things; so we are wise to look at behaviors more so than statements.

I would also add, before concluding, that what is common in all of our examples is both black-and-white thinking and rigidity. To view a value in binary terms as either all good or all bad leads to a lack of sophistication, and it is that sophistication which is needed for the nuance of circumstances. Without that grasp of nuance, our behaviors become rigid; we are unwilling to alter course because doing so goes against the values we adopt: for example, refusing to accept the authority of a medical doctor because we refuse to forgo any degree of freedom. We should at all times monitor our beliefs for black-and-white thinking, as well as check the rigidity of our behaviors; both can lead us to pathology.

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Ideasinhat is a business development analyst and longtime reader of academic literature. He writes books and essays on science and philosophy, and posts them to this website. The essays, as with the books, cover topics from psychology, philosophy, and cognitive science to economics, politics, and law.

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