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. Of course, I am not speaking for all form of depressions, such as those which are based primarily on trauma or a purely organic / chemical disorder, which are better understood through a mainly psychological or medical lens.
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 when it comes to this malady? My answer first of all is that value-neutrality is impossible in life, it is a fantasy. This is particularly the case with depression, especially the types I am exploring, where the loss of a feeling of meaning and value is a vital part of the problem. The problem lies not with moral reflection, but rather with a moralistic attitude, with judgemantalism. We must constantly make judgments in order to move through the world and relate to others, but judging is different to being judgmental. For example, as a therapist I am constantly making judgments about my clients, which mostly amount to recognising how they are being unjust toward themselves or failing to see their potential (this - bad self-esteem - is the most common problem). Depressed people in particular are often the first to object to morality by suggesting that it amounts to moralism, but this is often a defensive response on their part to feeling judged and condemned. Depression if often a pathology of self-hate, a form of judgementalism and moralism toward one's self. To feel that way about yourself is to be in a state of alarm, and in such a state things become conflated; a person cannot tell the difference between the good and bad version of something, they have to space for such subtlety: it's all bad. What depressed people need is not a shift from distorted values to no values - that would be nihilism - but rather a moral orientation toward themselves that is more wise and compassionate, that is more true and good for them. Moral reflection is vital for understanding the psychology of (much) depression, and along with other solutions it is vital for finding a path out.
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 classmate to kill herself and she does so. Or somebody who has an affair and deeply hurts their partner and children. Not everybody recognises or takes responsibility for the wrongs they've done, but among those who do, we can imagine that they might fall into a depression. In essence they have brought bleakness in the world through their actions, and through their remorse that bleakness now enters into them.
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 truthfulness. Of course, such remorse may be mixed with less lucid, more pathological emotions too, such as a maudlin or self-indulgent guilt. Nonetheless, the two are different, and it makes sense to see remorse-as-depression as a real part of life. In fact, one would hope that this is the case, for in a world that it increasingly callous and narcissistic, this is the kind of depression that arises from being a decent human being. Handled right, it contains the seeds of its own healing.
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 be uncoupled from reality: maudlin, misplaced, unjust, disproportionate, irrational. When guilt stops being lucid and enters into fantasy, 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 that malady.
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. 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." Absence can be physical or emotional, and it can also be temporary: your mother may have been depressed or overwhelmed when you were one to four years old, but was fine after that and became the ideal parent - nevertheless, the neurological damage is done, you feel abandoned, and that manifests psychologically by you blaming and hating yourself. And of course, neither you nor your parents remember or recognise the source of the damage.
(As an aside, an implication of what I just said, is that the cause of depression is often the presense of a psychological defense - instinctively, it feels safer to be rejected because your bad (you can do something about that) than because quite simply nobody cares, which is a more helpless and terrifying feeling).)
This is just one of many scenerios which can lead to guilt-based depression.
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 values or 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.
Despite the many sources of this kind of depression, I believe that the most common conditions for the presence of it are rooted in the early family experiences, even though they are now hard to see, and involved parents who were otherwise good and kind. Human nature, with its subtle flaws, gets passed down through each generation despites the parent's best intentions. 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 as much as it is about the brain and attachment, which is at the fundamental core of our emotional problems. So much of the work I do with this kind of depression centres around helping the person accept these facts about life, and about their life, so that they can grieve these deep losses and reconnect with life, rather than endlessly blaming themselves and becoming disconnected from all that it is good to live for.
To be continued....