What I offer here is a moral philosophical sketch of depression.* Or rather three kinds of depression, distinguished according to three moral emotions: remorse, guilt, and shame. At the heart of these struggles lie experiences such as a loss of connection, of selfhood, of meaning and value. Hence moral philosophy - reflection on meaning and value - is vital for understanding such depression and for working through it. Inventing names, I will speak first about remorse-based depression. I will write more about that another time, so I will move quickly to its much more widespread cousin which I call guilt-based depression. Following that I offer a sketch of a third type: shame-based depression.
Before starting I would like to anticipate and address a concern of some readers. It may strike some as odd that I explore depression from a moral philosophical perspective, given that many depressed people moralistically condemn themselves or are so condemned by others. Surely we ought to banish all talk of morality? My answer is that value-neutrality is impossible in life. This is especially the case with depression, especially the types I am exploring, where a loss of meaning and value at an emotional level, is fundamental to the problem. The problem lies not with moral reflection, but a moralistic attitude. In the same sense that we must constantly make judgments simply in order to function, but that's different to judgmentalism. Indeed, compassion is a form of judgment, a way of assessing and seeing things. Some people seem to have difficulty distinguishing moralism from morality, but that's often for emotional, defensive reasons in themselves which often they do not see. Interestingly, this is especially so with many depressed people, because many cases of depression are fundamentally pathologies of judgment, neurotic self-hate. As the psychoanalyst Lacan once said: The Christian injunction to love thy neighbour as thyself must be ironic...because people hate themselves! The most important things in life are given to distortion and corruption, and this includes morality. To run from the danger of such corruption requires running from everything that really matters. In the case of depression what people need is not a shift from distorted values to no values - that would be nihilism - but rather a moral orientation toward themselves and what life offers them, which is more true and good. And also which is nourishing - it is about how they feel and act toward themselves and their lives.
When a decent person wrongs another they tend afterwards to feel remorse. Remorse is a moral emotion: it is a pained recognition of the wrong you have done another. Hence remorse is a form of lucidity, a recognition of reality: opening your eyes to other people and the meaning of your actions toward them.
Sometimes depression arises from remorse as a catastrophic experience of this kind of recognition. Imagine a person who regularly risks the safety of others while driving, and who finally causes an accident which kills another. Or a young bully who flippantly taunts a colleague to kill herself and she does so. Or somebody who has an affair and breaks up what was a happy family. Some of these people might later find themselves claimed by a devastating or at least powerful realisation of what they have done. In response they might fall into a depression. In essence they have brought bleakness in the world, and in their later lucidity that bleakness had turned on them. (This is a case of where striving to be a good person can mean suffering more - the callous merely turn their back on reality.)
Friends may try to talk such people out of feeling this way, as if feeling so bad is in itself irrational. But if the depression is essentially powerful remorse then feeling terrible may be the rational response. In effect these friends are inviting the person to betray their moral lucidity. Of course such remorse may be mixed with irrational guilt too, with misapprehension, unjust self-condemnation, maudlin self-indulgence, and so on. But the pain of lucid remorse needs to be distinguished and answered to truthfully, and it seems perfectly reasonable to assume that such remorse-as-depression is a real part of life. In fact, one would hope that this is the case. It's the kind of depression that comes with being a decent human being.
There are many moral emotions. Remorse is one. Guilt is another. We often use the words 'guilt' and 'remorse' interchangeably, however guilt is unstable from a moral point of view. For while remorse has reality built into it - it is about opening one's eyes - guilt can blind a person. It can become uncoupled from reality, becoming maudlin, misplaced, unjust, disproportionate, irrational. When guilt is not dictated to by reality, it easily corrupts and becomes toxic. This often manifests as depression, and from a psychotherapeutic point of view it is the most common source of depression.
As I said initially, healthy morality is about meaning and value. It is not moralism or judgementalism. But in guilt-based depression morality becomes just that: harsh moralism and judgmentalism directed at the self, in the form of neurotic self-blame and self-loathing. A condition for suffering guilt-based depression is therefore the possession of a moral sense of reality. This is often obscured by the fact that the depressed person might consciously disavow morality - I have spoken with many such people who subscribe to a simplistic moral relativism. But this is a psychological defense, in effect they are arguing with themselves, contradicting themselves, because at the most basic psychological level they not believe in the objectivity of morality, they are harsh moralists. They may direct that morality at others (for example, morally shaming people who think that morality is not subjective!) of they may not, but they either way, in their depression they certainly direct it toward themselves.
There are many reasons why guilt can go rancid like this. Having a critical or guilting parent during your childhood is a common one. The child internalises the parent's critical voice toward themselves. An absent parent can also do the trick - the child draws the conclusion that "I'm not worth sticking around for."
Guilt may also become depression when a person finds themselves in a culture which fails to appreciate or even recognise the value in their particular way of being. A culture might be blind to particular strengths, and see in them only flaws and vices. In his memoir Romulus, My Father, the philosopher Raimond Gaita reflects on the suicide of his European mother in 1950's Australia:
But for someone like my mother, highly intelligent, deeply sensuous, anarchic and unstable, this emphasis on [moral] character, given an Australian accent, provided the wrong conceptual environment for her to find herself and for others to understand her. Tom Lillie's contempt for her was common. It was also emblematic of a culture whose limitations were partly the reason she could not overcome hers.
The most common conditions for the presence of guilt-based depression appear at first to need a more psychological than moral description. Attachment theorists, who claim that personality structure is rooted in early childhood experiences, have shown that early loss or abuse can lead to depression in adulthood. But even such psychological-deterministic theories contain moral elements at their very core. The philosopher Simone Weil wrote: “At the bottom of the heart of every human being, from earliest infancy until the tomb, there is something that goes on indomitably expecting, in the teeth of all experience of all crimes committed, suffered, and witnessed, that good and not evil will be done to him.” It is this human need and desire, that is very much at the level of value and meaning rather than psychology, which is at the fundamental core of our emotional problems. As I suggested above, typically a child (and later adult) will have responded to the loss of, or abuse by, a parent, by holding themselves responsible. They will instinctively blame themselves, often without recognising it. Why? Because this feels much better than feeling that the world really is this uncaring or cruel, or that the object of their love and the source of their value - their parent - really does not love them. Hence the child grows up feeling flawed and contemptible because it is the lesser evil among bad a set of options. The need to find oneself valuable, worthy of love, is at the heart of the childhood psychological processes described by attachment theory, including attachment theory's explanations of depression.
To be continued....
*Speaking in 2020, let me make clear that this is a philosophical reflection. In these early pieces I used the language that is shared across various disciplines, such as the term "depression." I now avoid such language in favour of terms like despair and despondency. Why? Well, not for conceptual reasons, but rather for prudential ones, given what I've seen over the years and where I see things going. Clinical psychology is an increasingly medicalised practice, and the words that it and psychiatry use are becoming more technical, so that somebody could argue that the word "depression" refers to a diagnosable disease. Of course those disciplines do not own the word, yet this shift puts a counsellor like me at risk when I explore a non-medical perspective. For example a client suicides and then it is said that I conveyed an improper understanding of their disease. The trouble is that over the years I've already witnessed several questionable lawsuits up close, directed at mental health professionals by unreasonable people and opportunistic lawyers, and that's not an experience I'm interested in ever having. If I were simply a philosopher, if I were not a practitioner, it would be different, but I must be wary of using the term despite its obvious multiple uses and debated nature, in today's context where things are so vague and messy and the culture is becoming so litigious. It's ridiculous, it hinders creativity and growth, and it obstructs truth-seeking, but like it or not, that's the reality we're living in. If somebody were to ask me today if I work with depression, my answer is no: but I do work with despondency, despair, demotivation, with being stuck in life, with needing more value and meaning.