To illustrate how philosophical counselling can resolve some key issues, here are some example case studies. (From Lou Marinoff in his book Plato, Not Prozac: Applying Philosophy to Everyday Problems.)
Ted, a high school principal, had a moral dilemma. Students in his school had organised a fundraising event for a charity. To try to motivate the students some more, Ted set up a lottery with several prizes. A student received one lottery ticket for every $10 they raised. Ted’s school provided several prizes and each prize had a box that a student could choose to deposit their lottery tickets in, distributed as they chose.
At the end of the fundraising event, the prizes were drawn including the grand prize, a bicycle, and students celebrated. However, the next day a student reported to Ted that the winner of the bicycle, Tiwana, had not raised any money for the charity, but had been given the lottery ticket by another student, Clarabel, who had raised a significant amount of money.
The ethical dilemma for Ted was whether Tiwana was entitled to the bike just because she held the winning ticket, or was her right to the prize compromised because she had not participated in the fund raising.
Marinoff explains: “But Ted was stymied. He couldn’t see a just way out of the turmoil without spoiling the good feelings originally generated by the fund-raiser and prize giveaway—which were quickly wearing away under the stress of this revelation anyway. He felt so anxious he literally started losing sleep over the whole matter, so he called me for help in finding a solution he could live with personally as well as defend to others. He outlined the options he saw: Tiwana keeps the bike; Clarabel gets the bike; he conducts a new drawing for the bike, with Tiwana’s ticket returned to Clarabel; Tiwana and Clarabel work out who owns the bike between themselves and a second bike is purchased and awarded to the next ticket drawn out of the box.”
When Ted talked to Marinhoff in his philosophical counselling session, Ted had already identified his options but was then stuck. However, in discussion, a key distinction emerged between legality and morality.
Morally speaking, “the tickets were earned only by students who raised funds for the charity. It wasn’t like having a state lottery ticket bought by someone else and given to you as a gift. In this case, you personally had to take very specific actions—that is, raise money for charity—to be morally entitled to a ticket.”
Legally speaking, “a lawyer would say that since Clarabel had earned the ticket legitimately and given it freely to Tiwana, the ticket (and therefore the prize) belonged to Tiwana. A lawyer would not care about the moral offense to the other students who had worked to raise money for charity, who thereby earned entitlement to the prizes, and who therefore felt it was wrong for someone who had not raised one red cent to ride off on the grand prize.”
Marinoff continues, “Clarifying the moral point—that Tiwana had no moral entitlement to a ticket—allowed Ted to see clearly the course he wanted to take. He felt sure he could occupy the moral high ground and explain his reasoning to one and all, thereby defusing what had rapidly become a hot-button issue to a lot of people. He issued a statement that tickets were not meant to be transferable from one student to another—which included an apology for not making that clear at the outset. He explained his reasoning about rightful ownership of each ticket. He then announced that the ticket that won the bike (and therefore the bike itself) rightfully belonged to Clarabel. Clarabel would, of course, be free to keep the bike or make a gift of it to her friend. Note that no one could complain about Clarabel winning the bike: she had earned her ticket. On the other hand, no one could complain if she later gave the bike to Tiwana: it was hers to give. Whether Tiwana eventually got the bike isn’t morally relevant: it’s how she got it that counts.”
“However, once Ted’s contemplation embraced the distinction between legal and moral entitlement, he was able to make his decision and regain his equilibrium as principal...But the other lesson to learn from Ted is that you can work out an ethical solution to your problem.”
Fred had been a monk for 10 years, but had developed depression. He had fatigue, insomnia, hopelessness, helplessness and even thoughts of suicide. Pastoral counselling did not help, so he went to see a psychologist. Fred had experienced a happy childhood and was devoted to his order in adulthood, so an exploration of his past did not help either. He also tried medication but to no avail.
So, he tried philosophical counselling. He explained that the most painful part of his depression was that it robbed him of the satisfaction his monastic life had been giving him.
His counsellor then asked him to consider whether it was possible that the loss of meaning in his monastic life was not caused by his depression. Rather, could it be that loss of meaning in his monastic life was causing his depression? In other words, could his depression have a philosophical origin rather than psychological or biological?
“Fred barely paused before answering. As soon as he heard the question, he realized that he’d simply been looking through the wrong end of the telescope. He’d been so thoroughly (and, until recently, happily) entrenched in being a monk that he didn’t recognize the shift in his beliefs when it started. As the sessions continued and Fred had time to digest this new knowledge of himself, he admitted that he was no longer satisfied with a cloistered life. He’d grown, matured—changed. The path he was on was no longer the way to his true self, he feared. He had lost his sense of purpose, and along with it, his sense of meaning in everyday life. Fred had never experienced adult life without a definitive purpose. No wonder he felt depressed!
"Eventually Fred decided to leave the monastery. Renouncing religious vows is not to be undertaken lightly, of course, and it was a painful decision. But even as he struggled to build a new life in the wider community, Fred’s depression evaporated. He described a powerful sense of liberation and renewal. He remained a deeply religious person, and even brought some of the rituals of the monastery with him into his new life. He was unsure about what new purpose—or new phase of the same general purpose—would illuminate his life, but was willing to wait for that to develop.
"Finding purpose and meaning can entail a lot of work, even given religious faith. Fred’s story also demonstrates that anyone can come to a philosophical crisis—and work through it successfully, no matter how profound or complex. As with Fred, the philosophical insight that turns you around may be small. The power comes from your taking the time to absorb its full impact.”
Rita went to a philosophical counsellor because she was “devastated because her teenage sister had been raped by a boy she knew from the store she worked in on weekends. This act of violence had thrown the entire family into an uproar, trying to cope with both the emotional aftermath and more practical matters like getting the girl into therapy, pursuing legal charges against the boy, and so on. Rita herself had been missing classes, neglecting her course work, and generally feeling paralyzed by the awfulness of the situation. She was at a loss for how to help her sister or her other relatives as they tried to help.
“Rita was following her best instincts to love and support those closest to her. But she was in danger of losing herself in the process. Her counselor pointed Rita toward the Stoic philosopher Epictetus to illuminate her situation. Stoic philosophy advocates sympathy with others but not to let those feelings take over your own life. He wrote,
“When you see someone weeping in grief … take care not to be carried away…. Do not hesitate, however, to sympathize with him.”
"Rita was helping no one by derailing her own life. With her life in shambles, she had no resources to offer her sister. Rita resolved not to add her own stress or to her sister’s. Taking the time to pull herself together would be the first step toward helping her sister and the rest of her family do the same.
“Rita fastened onto one more insight from Epictetus for good measure:
“Seek not that events should happen as you wish, but wish them to happen as they do happen and you will go on well.”
"Something that has already happened cannot be undone, so it is fruitless to waste time wishing it could be otherwise. Better to forge ahead with circumstances as they are—no matter how distressing—than flounder in the past. Moving forward holds the only possibility for improvement.”
The central theme of Stoicism is that the “only things of value are those no one can take away from you. In addition to the specific tidbits Rita gleaned from Epictetus, then, she could learn from the Stoics generally. Few things are more valuable than family love, which can never be taken away by anyone else. Even a rapist does not have that power—unless you give it away yourself. Rita was right to find a way to preserve her family’s loving structure through this storm. It was more than the silver lining to the cloud they were now under; it would be the sun that relit the entire sky when the storm passed."