treatment, the moment-to-momentphenomenology of the patient’s ethi-cal experience or of the psychothera-peutic session as a context for ethicaldevelopment, are often passed overcursorily almost shamefacedly.
The Ethics of Attention
The place to work validly in thearea of psychotherapy patients’ ethi-cal development is rarely in terms of specific values and beliefs, rarely interms of behavioral outcomes, butoften in terms of the psychologicalprocesses of attention. How the pa-tient attends, rather than what thepatient intends, becomes a key focusof psychotherapeutic intervention.While a description of the technicalaspects of this field is not possible inso brief a format, we hope to pointout some of its primary conceptualfeatures. It is not the individual tech-niques, which will vary with the prac-titioner’s style,- school, and skill, butrather their aim that interests us here.Some ethical theorists, Iris Mur-doch and Simone Weil in particular,have already given special weight tothe psychological category of
as a foundation for ethical conduct.Their works provide a starting pointfor psychotherapy’s potential to ad-dress attentional style as an aspect of adult ethical development. That is,rather than focus on the content of moral beliefs, on this or that substance of moral reasoning, they con-sider the neglected area of the mo-ment-to-moment placement of a per-son’s attention. “Attention” here hasno technical definition distinct fromfamiliar usage: it refers to directingone’s awareness to specific objects.We must emphasize at the start thatthe kind of development to whichWeil and Murdoch (and we) refer isexplicitly normative, not descriptive.It is not “developmental,” then, in thesense in which this term is currentlyused in psychology. Rather, it rec-ognizes the possibility, for patientswho desire to exercise it, of increas-ing the frequency and changing thetone of certain kinds of psychologi-cal acts of attention. Along with Weiland Murdoch, we understand thiskind of transformation of attentionalcapacity to be a development in
Hastings Center Report, January-February 1996
Weil and Murdoch argue for an“inner” ideal of goodness. In contrastto a behaviorist ethics in the positivisttradition, Murdoch has appealed tocommon sense conceptions of mentalacts.
Among these is the view thatattention immersed in its object car-ries a higher moral value than atten-tion directed toward the subject. ForMurdoch, the attention given to theRussian language when studying it,for example, represents a moral actIt is not the content of the attentionalfocus (Russian) but only the act of attending that is morally effective. AsMurdoch writes, “Moral changecomes from an
to the worldwhose natural result is a decrease inegoism through an increased senseof the reality of, primarily of courseother people, but also other things.”
Murdoch’s argument is that “good-ness” inheres not in works but infaith, not in faith but in purpose, notin purpose but in mental devotednessto something other than the self. Thisdevotedness is what she means by at-tention. As a standard of morality, ittends to make all ethics situational,in the sense that good acts are theoutcome of a willed mental respon-siveness, neither applications of uni-versal rules nor inner promptings of the solitary reasoner. It also tends tomake ethics a matter of consciousnessfirst and behavior second. She em-phasizes this aspect of moral reason-ing, and champions its advocates(Weil, Rainer Maria Rilke).We may reasonably doubt that themere other-directedness of attentionis sufficient to qualify it as ethical. Nodoubt it is “good” for us in the senseof mental exercise and cultural en-richment to learn a difficult foreignlanguage. But is it really “good” inan ethical sense? Can we not arrangethe details of a deception, even of amurder, with terrific attentional fo-cus? Murdoch never engages thesequestions in detail, but elements of her implicit argument will emerge inwhat follows.The bridge between attention andmorality can most easily be seen byreflecting on “selfishness” as an at-tentional style. In acts of self-interest,attention tends to revert from the ob- ject to the subject Consider this ex-ample: I am learning an irregularverb, then I think how well I am doing, then I continue and note a par-
ticular use of the verb. It is the middle
term here, the rebound from ab-
sorbed study to self-concern, that rep-
resents an attentional and, in Mur-doch’s view, a
lapse. RalphWaldo Emerson worked the sametheme: “I have done well, I see thatI have done well, and lo, it is thebeginning of ill.” (It is of course ir-relevant whether one’s attention tothe task recoils to a self-orientationof positive or negative valuation: “Ihave done well” and “I have donebadly” are ethically equivalent in thissense.)The rebound to one’s own self, therecoil of attention from object to sub- ject, is not a matter only of whereattention is directed. It coincides withthe sense that the object of attentionis
in a finalizing sense—thatis, fixed or finished. In contrast, theethically devoted attention is not benton the sameness of its object frommoment to moment.Here we have a partial answer tothe apparent problem of the “atten-tive criminal.” The murderer, thoughterribly intent on his object (theplanned murder), is failing to mani-fest a moral attentiveness precisely be-cause the object cannot be freshly un-derstood. Murderers
have mur-der take place (that is, in their mo-ments of doubt they are not quitemurderers). Moral agents, as they as-cend to the Good, maintain a pro-gressively looser grip on the proteanobject of their regard The supplenessof object-oriented attention allows theobject itself the freedom to change,while also reducing the frequency of attentional recoil to the attendingsubject. Martha Nussbaum, in her dis-cussion of Henry James’s novels, de-scribes this tendency of moral atten-tion to present us with what is newto us, variously referring to it as “per-ception”and “imagination.” Onesees, and the moral landscape is onlywell-seen when, like a well-seen physi-cal landscape, it is full of surprises.Nussbaum’s view of attention, alongwith the other terms she uses for it,belong to her general project of bal-ancing duty, rules, and universals withsensitivity to the unique facts of agiven case. Her discussions of Jamesaim in part at showing the need tograsp particular details and imagine
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