What Would Aristotle Do?

The power of reason.

Logic-Based Therapy to Go

A step-by-step primer on how LBT can work for you

Albert Ellis started a revolution in psychotherapy by introducing the world to a form of therapy founded on a profoundly helpful insight of the ancient Stoic philosopher, Epictetus. It goes like this: It is not the events in your life that upset you; it is rather the way you interpret or think about these events that can upset you. So, it is YOU who upsets you, not the events themselves. This is the foundation of all forms of Cognitive-Behavior Therapy (CBT), especially the original one invented by Albert Ellis, namely Rational-Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT). 

For many years I collaborated with Dr. Ellis. I was one of his philosophers on call. I reviewed some of his work when he needed the perspective of a philosopher and he was always there for me when I wanted his expertise or his endorsement. Just before he died in 2007, I vowed to him that I would continue to devote my life to building on REBT, infusing it with further, useful philosophical insights gleaned from the great philosophers. (See, for example, What Would Aristotle Do?, the namesake of the present blog!)

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This is the platform of Logic-Based Therapy (LBT), a highly philosophical form of REBT and a leading modality of philosophical counseling, which I began developing in the mid 1980s. LBT adds some logic to the idea that you, not the events in your life themselves, upset you. It holds that you upset yourself by constructing “practical syllogisms” that prescribe your own unhappiness. This sort of reasoning, first examined by Aristotle, tells you how to feel or act rather than simply telling you what is true. For example, the following is a practical syllogism:

If I have been rejected by my friends, then I’m a reject.

Well, I have been rejected by my friends.

So, I must be a reject.

As you can see, based on the two premises in your reasoning, you deduce your own worthlessness (“I must be a reject”) and accordingly feel worthless, and this may lead you to act worthlessly. “What’s the point in trying; nobody will even give a damn!”

More specifically, here are the six steps of the LBT process, concisely stated:

THE SIX STEPS OF LBT

  1. Formulate the emotional reasoning (practical syllogism) you are using to make yourself feel and act in self-defeating ways;

  2. Identify any Cardinal Fallacies in your premises, that is, any of the eleven faulty thinking errors recognized by LBT, which have a major propensity to mess up your personal and/or interpersonal happiness;

  3. Refute the fallacy identified by proving it is, indeed, a fallacy (that is, irrational);

  4. identify a guiding virtue or ideal toward which you can aspire to offset your fallacy and live more happily;

  5. Adopt a philosophy that promotes your guiding virtue;

  6. Construct a concrete plan of action to put your philosophy into practice.

To formulate your emotional reasoning (Step 1), which is your practical syllogism, you need to ask two basic questions? First, what are you upset about? And second, how are you rating it? When you are upset, you are always upset about something. So, you should ask yourself what this emotional object of yours is. In the present example, you are upset about having been rejected by your friends. So this would be your emotional object—what you are upset about.

But you wouldn’t be upset about being rejected by your friends unless you were negatively rating or evaluating being rejected by them. The rating question, accordingly, asks you for your rating of your emotional object or some element of it—for example, “my friends are assholes,” “being rejected is horrible,” “I’m a reject.” Notice that the rating uses strong language. When your emotion is negative, your rating will usually contain strong negative language. So, in the present case you are telling yourself that you are a reject. Notice too, that you could have hung a different rating on this same emotional object. For example, you could have said that your friends are assholes. Then you would have been angry at your friends instead of at yourself.

When you know your emotional object and your rating, you have enough information to formulate your practical syllogism. Here is a template you can use to formulate your practical syllogism:

First Premise: If [enter your emotional object here] then [enter your rating here]

Second Premise: [enter your emotional object again here]

Conclusion: So, [enter your rating again here]

Using this template you can always formulate your practice syllogism just be plugging in your emotional object and rating as directed. In the present case, you would then get:

First Premise: If I have been rejected by my friends then I am a reject.

Second Premise: I have been rejected by my friends.

Conclusion: So, I am a reject.

This practical syllogism is your emotional reasoning. It is what (cognitively) drives your strong negative emotion about yourself.

Now you are ready for Step 2, which is looking for fallacies in your two premises. In the present case, the first premise of your practical syllogism, “If I have been rejected by my friends then I’m a reject,” commits the fallacy of Self-Damnation, which is one of LBT’s eleven “Cardinal Fallacies.” (Here again are all eleven.) Indeed, if one’s self-worth depended on someone else’s approval, then we’d all be “rejects” (which is absurd!) since all of us have been rejected by others. So, “Self-Damnation” can definitely be refuted (Step 3). The refutation allows you to prove to yourself that there really is something irrational about your idea. Every fallacy has at least one (but usually a lot more than one) clear refutation. 

Fallacies typically either lead to absurd, inconsistency, or undesirable consequences; or they are false to fact. For example, why is it a fallacy to jump on the bandwagon, that is, do something just because everyone else is doing it? Because if everyone did this, then none of us would know what we were doing! Thus, the old saw: if everyone were jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge, does that mean that you should too!? Another example: Why is it a fallacy to demand perfection? Because it is false to fact that there is anything that is truly perfect; and, anyway, if the world were perfect, it would be really boring, because there would be nothing we could do to improve the world—no discoveries, no courageous overcoming of obstacles, no challenging risks! Indeed, as William James expressed it, “Freedom in a perfect world could only mean freedom to be worse.”

Once you have a refutation of your fallacy under your belt, you are ready to find your guiding virtue (Step 4). This is a virtue that offsets your fallacy and sets you on the “straight and narrow.” It gives you a rational end or goal to aim at that points you away from your self-defeating idea and, instead, toward a self-fulfilling one. According to LBT, the guiding virtue that offsets Self-Damnation is Self-Respect; so, if you have a tendency to damn yourself, you should set yourself the goal of becoming self-respecting. As you can see, LBT automatically aligns each Cardinal Fallacy with a specific “transcendent” or guiding virtue that offsets it. Here are all of LBT’s cardinal fallacies and their corresponding offsetting virtues. 

Once you know your guiding virtue, you can then work on finding a philosophy that you can use to promote your virtue (Step 5). So, in the present example, what philosophical ideas could lead you toward becoming more self-respecting?

In finding a suitable philosophy, LBT will work within your own belief system. So, if you are religious, then you can find a comfortable religious philosophy that might work to promote self-respect. For example, Saint Thomas Aquinas would tell you that, as a creature made in God’s image, you participate in the Divine light of reason, which obviously gives you considerable inherent worth. On the other hand, if you are an atheist or agnostic, you might find the existential ideas of Jean-Paul Sartre more useful, as when he reminds you that you are not a moss or a cauliflower but instead a conscious, free, and responsible being, with the capacity to become what you will yourself to be through your actions. As such a free, responsible, and self-aware being, you have great latitude to define yourself through your actions and thus to determine your own dignity and self-worth. And, philosopher Immanuel Kant admonishes that you are not a mere object or thing whose worth depends on the desires of others; but, instead, a rational, self-determining being who, as such, possesses value regardless of whether others like or approve of you.

Indeed, there are countless philosophies that you can draw from to find a self-respecting philosophy (or set of philosophies) that suits you. An LBT therapist will have studied many of these ideas and can therefore help suit you up with a comfortable philosophy, or can give you some reading assignments (philosophical bibliotherapy) to help you find one. However, self-help is also available for this purpose. (See, for example, my book, The New Rational Therapy, which provides several different virtue-promoting philosophies for each of LBT’s guiding virtues.)

Once you have a comfortable philosophy, you are ready to rock and roll! That is, you are ready to put your philosophy into practice by applying it to your own life (Step 6). Suppose you have settled on Kant. Then your task is to live as Kant prescribes, even though you will probably still feel worthless. So you would then give yourself some behavioral directives to affirm your worth and dignity as a rational, self-determining person by doing what is rational rather than allowing yourself to be led about by your fallacy as though you were some sort of non-rational thing or object. For example, instead of staying home on a Saturday evening ruminating about “not having any friends,” you might spruce yourself up and go out to a social and mingle. Here, LBT stresses the importance of building up your “willpower muscle” by flexing it. Like all muscles, you need to exercise it in order to make it stronger. So, sitting around and devaluing yourself is not going to make your willpower muscle stronger; but picking yourself up and doing whatever you think would support your intrinsic dignity as a rational self-determining being will. In this way, you live your philosophy, not just recite it. And you need to keep applying your philosophy to your life. Practice won't make you perfect but it will almost invariably help you to improve the equality of your life.

So, LBT can help you to live more happily through the use of a little logic and a dose of applied philosophy. This is what philosophical counseling is supposed to do. But, in calling LBT “philosophical,” this does not mean that it isn’t also “psychological.” Indeed, LBT grows out of one of the most influential psychological approaches in the history of psychology, namely, Albert Ellis’s Rational-Emotive Behavior Therapy. LBT adds more philosophy and logic to Albert’s engine. I know he would want you to try it out!

Elliot D. Cohen, Ph.D., is President of the Institute of Critical Thinking and one of the principal founders of philosophical counseling in the United States.

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