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Why—With Humans—It’s All So Complicated

Strange to say, people and ideas are best viewed kaleidoscopically.

Patterns, Kaleidoscopes/Pixabay
Source: Patterns, Kaleidoscopes/Pixabay

In relationships, all is relative. How could it not be when the perceptions of different people are “preordained” by so many factors? That is, the way you were brought up, the genes you inherited, the environments you were exposed to—they all determine how you’ll regard the people that cross your path.

Given these many contingencies, your personal evaluation of another may be completely at odds with someone else’s—whose biological and experiential history differs substantially from your own. Whether it’s a matter of understanding, perception, or judgment, it’s essential to realize that all of us inhabit a world where subjectivity reigns. And that the absolute certainties you may “righteously” adhere to regarding another’s motives and behavior may contrast sharply with someone else’s.

Examples of this phenomenon are inexhaustible, pivoting in every direction imaginable. And they relate not only to how you—vs. others—react specifically to a particular person but also to your viewpoints about everything under the sun. So, is sentencing a person to death, as an instance of retributive justice, sometimes warranted? Or might it never be justified, as capital punishment itself might be seen as committing a (vindictive) reactionary crime.

And such matters of what I’ll call “merciful” or “compassionate” judgment are even more complex. For if the circumstances best explaining the crime suggest that the act was far more compelled than chosen, just how ethical is it to take revenge on someone whose nefarious act may yet have been less consciously malevolent than innocently wrongheaded? What if their genetic disposition—and the seriously distorted messages they received about themselves and the world in growing up—made it practically impossible for them to restrain themselves? What if they (like all the rest of us?) were simultaneously “programmed” to choose, but also to make choices dictated by the very "machinery" of their programming?...Or, in the end, just how much free will do “choosing machines” have?

Furthermore, can we humans, so diverse in so many ways, ever reach any final accord on just what constitutes compelled (i.e., non-volitional) behavior?—let alone whether such behavior, nonetheless, deserves to be punished? Certainly, if there’s any question about the actual voluntariness of our acts because, whether outwardly or inwardly, they’ve already been “pre-designed,” it seems almost arbitrary—or inhumane—to intentionally inflict pain on someone whose behavior may be understood as more forced than free.

As I write this, I can picture many readers harshly accusing me of moral nihilism. But these difficult ethical issues are ones that have plagued me for years. And I’m still searching for viable ways that humans can better learn how to respond empathically (vs. vengefully) to others’ misconduct—especially when these others’ woeful programming have caused them, interpersonally, to be insensitive and abusive. As a psychologist, I’m at least fortunate to have the opportunity to help the people I work with become more understanding and compassionate—both to themselves and others—which is to say, to alter some of their own regrettable (but luckily, not permanently “fixed”) programming.

Multiple Colors/Deviant Art
Source: Multiple Colors/Deviant Art

But returning to the complexities of human action and the inevitable arbitrariness, or subjectivity, of judging another’s behavior, just about any example I might use to illuminate this conundrum would be—dare I say?—“value-ridden.” And they’d all demonstrate the universal problem of addressing fairly the fundamental dilemma of trying to discover an indisputably definitive stance on anything peculiarly human—when, that is, almost everything admits of a variety of perspectives or vantage points.

Even beyond this, it really doesn’t much matter whether a viewpoint is diametrically opposed to another, or complementary to it. For all points of view contain their own (subjective) validity, since each of them is personally meaningful, or “authentic.” Each is based on the individual’s experience and (“predetermined”) interpretation of that experience.

To make things even more complicated, questions of morality—or “right” behavior—are principally defined by one’s particular culture. And different cultures (all of which are predominantly human creations) differ in what’s perceived as acceptable or worthy of approval. Which raises the question of how we’re to authoritatively decide what’s virtuous, or vicious, behavior. For how much of the behavior warrants being sympathetically understood as "grounded" in one’s culture—the land and the people that one belongs to. Considering this further confounding variable, does anyone possess final authority to judge another’s behavior? It would be great to say that we need only to consider the facts of the matter, except that the facts themselves may be subject to endless interpretation.

Multiple Job Offers/Flickr
Source: Multiple Job Offers/Flickr

And (straining just about anyone’s belief!) the matter gets even more complicated. For one and the same person can appreciate something from a whole host of viewpoints. And each vantage point will dictate a different interpretation, a different assessment—morally as well as practically. Another’s behavior can, and possibly should, be seen “kaledoscopically.” With every turn the pattern shifts and what we recognize is different from what we observed before. There’s no single turn, or focal point, that enables some “defining” pattern to emerge. Rather, each pattern is equally “true,” equally descriptive—and whether one is better, or more “valid,” than another depends solely on the perceiver.

As I said at the outset, how we see others depends on our point of view—which itself relates to genetic inheritance, family upbringing, and all kinds of environmental influences. So, given how various (and indisputably subjective) all viewpoints are, what does this suggest about how best to live in the world?

I know that the great majority of individuals on this planet have turned to religion and the notion of a supreme, benevolent being to help make coherent sense of this immeasurable complicatedness—and the existential bewilderment that may well accompany it. Most people “choose” to place their faith in one who would guide them through such a morass. But as a secular humanist myself, I see this labyrinthine complexity as best resolved simply through a judicious application—and extension—of the golden rule.

. . . So perhaps you might endeavor to live a life characterized by kindness, compassion, and tolerance for others—even as you pursue what, personally, will offer you the greatest joy and fulfillment.

Note 1: Earlier posts of mine that might be seen as complementary to this one include: “9 Reasons It’s So Easy to Be Misunderstood,” “What If Your Ambivalence Can’t Be Resolved,” "One Marriage = Two Realities," and "The Arbitrariness of Blame."

Note 2: If this post made you think (always a good thing, no?!) and you think it might “positively” provoke others to do so, too, please consider forwarding them its link.

Note 3: If you’d like to check out other posts I’ve done for Psychology Today online—on a large variety of psychological subjects—click here.

© 2015 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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