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Moral Virtue, Control, and Boundaries

Aristotle argued that if life is to be worth living, it must surely be for the sake of something that is an end in itself, that is, desirable for its own sake. If there is any single thing that is the highest human good, therefore, it must be desirable for its own sake, and everything else must be desirable for the sake of it.

Most of us would agree that moral virtue, or good moral values, is desirable for its own sake. Honesty, integrity, courage, and self-control exemplify moral virtue. Moral virtue, however, is not the only kind of virtue; there is also intellectual virtue. The key intellectual virtues are wisdom and understanding. Wisdom governs ethical behaviour, and understanding is expressed in scientific study.

Most of us would also agree that people who have moral virtue, or behave in a morally virtuous way, are good people. They behave in a way that sets a good example to others, and generally benefits individuals in society and society as a whole.

However, much morally virtuous behaviour, from charitable contributions to direct assistance, is done for the sake of self-esteem; and rather than do good, these morally virtuous people may have the effect of causing harm.1 Indeed, Crocker, Lee, and Park wrote that they suspected psychological harm would be most likely to occur when help is offered to prove the moral virtue and superiority, and raise the self-esteem of, the help giver.2

Thus being morally virtuous may result in harm to others when the givers give for the sake of their own self-esteem. In these cases, the focus is on the self, not on whether the good deed is actually helpful to or appreciated by the other. Good deeds done for the sake of self-esteem may well create a sense of superiority and distance, with the helper's motive being, in fact, to feel superior to the beneficiary. Highly narcissistic people are very aware of this fact; in conversation, they routinely relay information to friends, relatives, and colleagues, ostensibly to be helpful, but in a way that 'induces a sense of distance and inferiority in the recipient of the information.'3

Morally virtuous behaviour that is destructive cannot, in truth, be described as morally virtuous. It is a contradiction of terms, although Crocker and her associates describe research that has revealed self-esteem based on internal sources, especially virtue, is related to less destructive and more constructive behaviour.4 Their research describes how college students whose self-esteem is based on virtue, for example, spend more time in volunteer activities, get higher grades, and drink less alcohol in their freshman year of college than students who base their self-worth on external factors, such as competition, or their appearance. Crocker and her associates describe how students with internal controls can self-regulate and maintain self-esteem. However, whilst moral virtue generates self-esteem internally, the others factors, such as appearance or attractiveness and competition, rely on external interaction with others to validate their worth.

St. Thomas, writing on the subject of virtue and control, classified moral virtues as either those that control 'operations' such as justice, or those that control the passions. He wrote, 'Moral virtues that control passions, such as fortitude touches fear and courage, meekness moderates anger, temperance controls desire.'5 And Gerard Manley Hopkins encapsulated the fundamental importance of boundaries as part of a person's moral values when he wrote, 'Your personal boundaries protect the inner core of your identity and your right to choices.'6

Raymond Lloyd Richmond also recognises the fundamental importance of boundaries to every human being, writing, 'To say anything about boundaries, it's necessary to understand that, in order to live a psychologically healthy life, everyone must have good boundaries.' He went on to give examples of healthy boundaries, which included, 'Refusing to betray your moral values', saying, 'Your moral values provide your own internal guidance about what is wrong to do, even if it might be legal or even if social rules permit it.'7

Moral virtue is profoundly important in helping us control our passions, such as anger and desire, and in guiding us if we are to be able to define healthy boundaries for ourselves. Unhealthy boundaries cause us considerable emotional pain that can lead to dependency, depression, anxiety, and eventually physical illness.

Any person displaying a lack of moral virtue will inevitably suffer control and boundary issues in their life, which over time will have a negative impact on their self-esteem. A contemporary problem relates to the boundaries set by parents for their children in the home, and by teachers for pupils in the classroom. Plato recognised this problem more than two thousand years ago. He explained what would happen at lower levels in society, describing with amazing accuracy what appears to be happening more and more in western society today:

'The teacher fears and panders to his pupils, who in turn despise their teachers and attendants; and the young as a whole imitate their elders, argue with them and set themselves up against them, while their elders try to avoid the reputation of being disagreeable or strict by aping the young and mixing with them on terms of easy good fellowship.'8

As Plato predicted, teachers have failed catastrophically to set the boundaries required to maintain a proper teaching environment by trying to be friends with their pupils. As a consequence, they lose control of the classroom, and the parents, by 'aping' the young, have also manifestly failed to set good, healthy boundaries for the young.

Plato was concerned with problems in ancient Greece, but the same problems are evident today in many classrooms, and also in many homes. Parents, by trying to be like their children and becoming their friends instead of adopting a proper parenting role, are patently failing to set the boundaries required by their children to facilitate their growth into morally virtuous adults. The following events in the family of Daniella and Nicole exemplify this behaviour.

Nicole was aged seventeen and was the daughter of Daniella, who also had a son, aged fifteen. Daniella was divorced from her husband and was bringing up her two children on her own, although both children still had access to their father. She had a boyfriend who had three children of his own, and was also divorced. Her boyfriend did not live at Daniella's family home, but he did stay overnight on occasions. Nicole was close to her mother but did not get on particularly well with her father, whilst the opposite was true for the son, who thought highly of his father. The son spent most of his time in his bedroom when at home, and Nicole complained that he never did any work around the house, when she was expected to do her fair share of the housework. Daniella and Nicole spent a lot of time arguing.

Daniella had married young and had her two children whilst still young. She was attractive and cared about her appearance. Her behaviour resembled that of a younger woman, although she was now middle aged. When she was with her boyfriend, they constantly held hands and kissed, both in front of their children and in public places. She had many young 'friends' on Facebook, including her daughter and some of her daughter's friends.

Nicole, who was also attractive, started going out with her first boyfriend, who, at eighteen years old, was one year older than her. Daniella was very friendly with Nicole's boyfriend from the outset, treating him more as her friend than as her daughter's boyfriend. After a few months, he went away to university. He returned at the end of the first week and went to see his girlfriend at her home. Nicole had asked her mother if it was all right for her to sleep with her boyfriend at weekends when he was back from university, and her mother agreed. Her reasoning was that if her daughter and boyfriend were going to make love, they would do so anyway, so she may as well allow them to sleep together in her house. Daniella then told her daughter's boyfriend that he did not need to consult his parents, because at eighteen years old, he was now legally able to decide for himself.

However, the parents of Nicole's boyfriend took a different view. They understood how two teenagers might want to sleep together, and they recognised that if they really wanted to, they would be able to find a place and time to do so, but they also believed that it was the parents' responsibility to take a morally virtuous position in such situations and send the right signals to their children regarding how they should behave. They considered Daniella's decision to allow the two to sleep together in her home to be neither virtuous, nor morally justifiable.

Prior to going out with her first boyfriend, Nicole had suffered with anorexia nervosa and had self-harmed. It is accepted by many professionals that family dynamics are of critical importance in understanding the root causes of a person's anorexia nervosa, and the break-up of Nicole's parents would not have helped. Many believe that all of the psychological causes of anorexia nervosa can be traced to control issues. At anorexia.me.uk it states, 'In reality, the issues in the daily life of the sufferer are too difficult for him/her to handle, resulting in a lack of control in his/her life.'9 It is also widely proposed that self-harm relates to control issues, as one self-harmer put it, 'It's a way to have control over my body because I can't control anything else in my life.'10

Nicole, therefore, appeared to have a history of problems relating to control issues. On the face of it, Daniella, by allowing her daughter to sleep with her boyfriend in the family home, appeared to give her daughter more control, but in truth, it gave Daniella more control. By being allowed to sleep with her boyfriend in the home, Nicole would never develop a clear understanding of where the boundaries lie in relation to the moral issues involved, and lack of boundaries equates to lack of control.

Daniella did not appear to have any concern for the effect of her behaviour on her daughter, or her son, who at fifteen years old was at a very impressionable age, nor did she appear to have any concern for the effect on Nicole's boyfriend or his parents. Daniella's behaviour was narcissistic to the extent that she was controlling and unaware of others' needs and of the effects of her behaviour on others; narcissists lack awareness of other people's needs, in fact they believe that others exist to meet their needs.11

As described earlier, morally virtuous behaviour, from financial contributions to charitable work, is sometimes done for the sake of self-esteem, rather than to do good.12 Daniella's behaviour may have had more to do with her self-esteem than doing what was best for her daughter, but whilst her behaviour may serve as a temporary boost to her own self-esteem, the longer-term impact on her daughter's psychological health may be very damaging.

Having an appreciation of where healthy personal boundaries lie is vital for feeling in control of one's life. It isn't possible to gain full control of an area, whether physical or psychological, if the boundaries of that area are not defined. When Nicole asked her mother if her boyfriend could sleep with her over the weekend, she was doing what all teenage girls do around her age, exploring where the boundaries lie in relation to moral behaviour. It is incumbent upon parents or carers to respond by signalling where healthy boundaries lie.

Parents or carers who fail to define healthy personal boundaries for their adolescent children create enormous difficulties for them. Teenagers need to take control of their lives as they enter adulthood. However, if they are denied appropriate moral guidance to help them achieve this aim, it will blur their personal boundaries, reduce their feeling of being in control, and ultimately lower their self-esteem. The outcome will be a needy, anxious adult with low moral values; the young adult is thus denied the invaluable resource of internally generated self-esteem based on moral virtue.

Daniella reasoned that her daughter's boyfriend did not need to consult his parents because he was now eighteen years old and therefore legally able to make his own decisions. However, making a decision based solely on the criterion that it is legal is an uncaring way for any parent or carer to bring up children. There are many things a person can do that are legal, but also immoral or unethical; for example, it is legal in the UK to smoke cigarettes at the age of sixteen years, but parents do not normally encourage their children to do so when they reach this age.

Parents or carers do not stop caring for their children when they reach the age of majority, the age at which they become legally responsible for their own decisions in life. As stated earlier, Raymond Lloyd Richmond pointed out that moral values provide a person's internal guidance about what is wrong to do, even if it might be legal.13 Whilst children may be physically mature at the age of seventeen or eighteen, their brains continue developing until they reach their mid-twenties, and significantly it is the part of the brain that is responsible for the development of the attributes essential for a morally virtuous person.

Laurence Steinberg described how the teenage brain continues to grow throughout the teenage years and beyond, centred on the frontal lobe. This is the control centre for 'executive functions' such as planning, impulse control, and reasoning. The development of the executive functions in the frontal lobe, along with other changes that occur during the teenage years, coalesce to create important changes in how the brain functions during adulthood. Rewarding things feel more rewarding, and these new feelings are accompanied by an increase in attentiveness to social rewards and information, and there are also changes involving the way the brain processes rewards and pleasure that can lead to risky, sensation-seeking behaviours. The increased pleasure of risk taking might seem to contradict the parallel development of higher-order thinking abilities in the frontal lobe of the brain, but Steinberg explains, 'Maturation of the brain, including the regulation of impulses, thinking ahead, planning and weighing risk and reward lead to improvements in self-regulation and can permit the individual to put the brakes on the sensation-seeking behaviours...but they occur very gradually and are not complete until the mid-twenties.'14

Steinberg went on to say, 'It's important for parents to realize that teenagers may not be as good as adults in thinking ahead, envisioning the future consequences of their actions, resisting pressure from others and forgoing immediate rewards to get a bigger payoff.... Consistent rules and guidance help adolescents stay on the right track.'

Beginning before a child is born and continuing into the mid-twenties, a process called myelination occurs in the brain. It follows a pre-set developmental pattern, whereby the neurons (brain cells) are coated with a fatty substance called myelin. This facilitates a more efficient, faster brain. The myelin insulates each neuron, enabling messages to travel much more quickly. It is only when all of the neurons in the brain are equipped with their myelin sheath, that it becomes efficient and effective in its functioning. The very last area of the brain to be coated in myelin is the prefrontal cortex, the anterior part of the frontal lobe. This takes place in the period leading up to our mid-twenties. It is these frontal lobes that, when fully developed, allow us to plan for the future, accurately assess risk, have power over our impulses, reason, set goals and priorities, make sound judgments, plan and organize multiple tasks, and exhibit emotional control.15

Thus the teenage brain is not fully developed. The area that is still developing during the late teenage and early twenties is the frontal lobe, in particular the prefrontal cortex, which is critical for the enduring mental health of the adult. It is during this time that the young adults like Nicole and her boyfriend need sound moral guidance from their parents or carers in order to develop their own sense of moral values, and consequently establish healthy personal boundaries and sound self-control, which in turn lead to an invaluable internal source of self-esteem. Failures in this crucial developmental period may lead to adults who suffer mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and narcissism in later life.

It seems that Daniella based her decision to allow the teenage couple to sleep together in her family home on the fact that they were physically mature, it was legal, and they were above the age of consent. She may have been unaware that their emotional development in relation to control, boundary issues, and regulation of self-esteem was still very much in progress. It may be that she had gone through her own teen and early-twenties period of her life without having healthy personal boundaries adequately defined for her by a parent or carer; her conduct in middle age, reminiscent of how a teenage girl might behave, supports this view. The fact that Daniella spent a lot of time arguing with Nicole also supports the view that Daniella had failed to define healthy personal boundaries for her daughter. Although neither Daniella nor Nicole would have realised it, many of the arguments may have simply been repeated attempts by Nicole to identify where the boundaries were, as she reached an age where she needed to start taking emotional control in her life.

Norman Wells, of the Family Education Trust, says, 'Parents who allow their teenagers to share a bed with their boyfriend or girlfriend may imagine they are being very open and progressive, but in reality they are helping to break down the very boundaries children need.'16 Psychologist David Spellman agreed, saying that although some teenagers may push boundaries, they still rely on their parents to make the right decisions for them. He goes on to say, 'Of course when parents say "No" their children will complain. But on some level, they also know they are being looked out for. As parents we need to have the courage sometimes to take a position and let our children know we are not OK with certain things.'17

Failure by successive generations to maintain and transfer sufficiently high moral values to their children over recent decades is probably at the root of the rise in anxiety problems in western society. This includes narcissism, where control and boundaries are major issues.18 One reason why this has occurred may be a failure by parents and care givers to recognise that the physical maturity of teenagers does not mean they are emotionally mature.

The decline in religious influences may also be a factor in the rise in anxiety levels and in narcissism. Whilst religion may be the source of much conflict in the world, due probably to a minority of extremists, the vast majority of religious people practice their religion moderately, and adopt the high moral values which are typically contained in their religious texts to pass down to the next generation.

It is the transmission of moral virtue from parents and carers to children throughout their full developmental period from birth to their mid-twenties that lays the foundation for their secure emotional health during the rest of their lives. A parent who sets the standard at a comparatively high level will enable their child to develop internally generated self-esteem, feel in control of their life, and develop good, healthy boundaries in relation to their family members, friends, and colleagues. Norman Daniels wrote, 'Children did not ask to be brought into existence',19 so it follows that it is those who brought them into the world, their parents, who have the moral responsibility to ensure that they are brought up in a morally virtuous way.

1. Pyszczynski, T., Greenberg, J., & Goldenberg, J. (2002). Freedom in the Balance: On the Defense, Growth, and Expansion of the Self. In M. Leary & J. Tangney (Eds.), Handbook of self and identity (pp. 314-343). New York: Guilford.
2. Crocker, J., Lee, S. J., & Park, L. E. (2004). The pursuit of self-esteem: Implications for good and evil. In A. G. Miller (Ed.), The social psychology of good and evil, pp. 271-302. New York: Guilford Press.
3. Thomas, David (2010), Narcissism: Behind the Mask, Book Guild, UK, p. 26.
4. Crocker, J., & Luhtanen, R. K. (2003). Level of self-esteem and contingencies of self-worth: Unique effects on academic, social, and financial problems in college students, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Vol., 29, pp. 701-712.
5. St. Thomas, Summa Theologica, [Ia IIae] Qq. 55 to 70.
6. Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844 - 1889), English poet.
7. "A Guide to Psychology and its Practice - Boundaries" by Raymond Lloyd Richmond, Ph.D., Retrieved from http://www.guidetopsychology.com/boundaries.htm (24.9.12).
8. Plato's 'Republic' by Desmond Lee (2003 - second edition), Plato: The Republic (Translation by Lee), Penguin Books, London, p. 325.
9. Retrieved from http://anorexia.me.uk/index.html (24.9.12).
10. The Growing Wave of Teenage Self-Injury, Article by Jane E. Brody, The New York Times, 6 May 2008.
11. Hotchkiss, Sandy, & Masterson, James F. (2003), Why Is It Always About You? The Seven Deadly Sins of Narcissism, Simon & Schuster Free Press, USA.
12. Pyszczynski, T., Greenberg, J., & Goldenberg, J. (2002). Freedom in the Balance: On the Defense, Growth, and Expansion of the Self. In M. Leary & J. Tangney (Eds.), Handbook of self and identity (pp. 314-343). New York: Guilford.
13. "A Guide to Psychology and its Practice - Boundaries" by Raymond Lloyd Richmond, Ph.D., Retrieved from http://www.guidetopsychology.com/boundaries.htm (24.9.12).
14. Steinberg, Laurence (2004), The Ten Basic Principles of Good Parenting, Simon & Schuster, New York, USA.
15. Segalowitz S. J., Davies P. L. (2004), Charting the maturation of the frontal lobe: An electrophysiological strategy, Brain and Cognition, Vol. 55, No. 1, pp. 116-133.
16. Carroll, Helen, Would YOU let your teenage daughter sleep with a boyfriend in your home? in MailOnline (22 June 2012), http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2091807/Would-YOU-let-teenage-daughter-sleep-boyfriend-home.html.
17. Carroll, Helen, Would YOU let your teenage daughter sleep with a boyfriend in your home? in MailOnline (22 June 2012), Retrieved from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2091807/Would-YOU-let-teenage-daughter-sleep-boyfriend-home.html.
18. Twenge, Jean M. and Campbell, W. Keith (2010), The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, Free Press, New York.
19. Daniels, N.: 1988, Am I My Parents' Keeper? Oxford University Press, Oxford, p.29.

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Book - 20 Shades of Narcissism - by David Thomas