Carl Rogers and Viktor Frankl on values

Today I had an epiphany. I have been asking the wrong question and juxtaposing the wrong texts.

Before I asked the question: What are values?

To answer this I juxtaposed Carl Rogers saying values are a matter of personal preference with Frankl saying values are a mission or meaningful task. The following two quotes can illustrate this:

“[Values are] the tendency of any living beings to show preference, in their actions, for one kind of object or objective rather than another…” [The infant] prefers some things and experiences, and rejects others. We can infer from studying his behavior that he prefers those experiences which maintain, enhance or actualize his organism, and rejects those which do not serve this end…(Freedom to Learn, Carl Rogers)

It is my conviction that man should not, indeed cannot, struggle for identity in a direct way; he rather finds identity to the extent to which he commits himself to something beyond himself, to a cause greater than himself…It makes no sense to confront man with values which are seen merely as a form of self-expression…The meaning which a being has to fulfill is something beyond himself, it is never just himself. (Psychotherapy and Existentialism, Frankl, p. 9-11)

Based on this we could simplistically say that Rogers is only concerned with personal preference, which is an immature perspective on life, while Frankl is concerned with “the right” choice. The answers cannot be found within but are found by commitment to something beyond one’s self.

I still believe this last statement about Rogers and Frankl yet something is “off” in my previous juxtaposition. Instead the question should be: Can values be defined by “what I want”?

If this is the question I would juxtapose that same quote by Rogers with the following different quote by Frankl:

“Charlotte Buhler “conceives of man as living with intentionality, which means living with purpose. The purpose is to give meaning to life…The individual…wants to create values.” Even more, “the human being” has “a primary, or native orientation, in the direction of creating and of values.” (Will to Meaning, Viktor Frankl)

Leaving aside for a minute the problematic nature of the need for quotes to be short while at the same time this brevity not allowing for the possibility of quoting the author in full, as a result of which we can’t get the full meaning out of it, let me say what I think and I leave it to you to delve into their respective writings more thoroughly.

Rogers talks about the infant knowing what it wants. Somewhere along the way it learns that it must not trust this inner knowing but must listen instead to what other people think. Frankl talks about how we lose touch with our inner knowing (what Frankl calls “conscience”) and instead follow super-ego voices dictated by those around us. We need to learn again to listen to (or actually “through”) our conscience.

On the face of Rogers seems overly simplistic. He talks about values as if they are merely individual preference. I believe this has gotten us into a great deal of trouble in today’s world. Values are seen as relative and subjective and so is morality.

But what Rogers means by preference is not substantively different from what Frankl means by conscience. Rogers is saying that the infant knows, before everyone starts confusing him, what he really wants deep down. Similarly Frankl says we know what we want deep down. The human will to meaning is the most primary motivating force in a person.

Yet they part ways in the means of accessing this deep-down, “true-value – want.” It’s not a value merely because I want it.

In answer to the question “Can values be defined by ‘what I want’? Rogers is saying we’ve lost sight of what we really want. To find it we reflect the person’s feelings back to him, and by so doing we will discover the value.

For Frankl reflecting back to the person does not go far enough because paradoxically the answer to the question “What do I want deep down?” cannot come from within. Values are fulfilled only through doing things in response to situations presented to us where we discern what is right and what is wrong. We are not only confused by others telling us what we should do. We are confused by our inner impulses telling us what to do.

If all we do is ask ourselves how we feel and how reality seems from our limited perspective, we will only get as far as our limited perspective and we won’t get to deep inner knowing. Those values are not a value only because this is our preference. This is our preference because the value recognition has been implanted within us.

It’s only by evaluating the situation in front of us and bringing its meaning to our awareness and then choosing the right response in the face of it that we get in touch with this deep inner knowledge and not confuse the inner knowledge with either super-ego demands or the demands of psychological impulses.

Next time I will write about what sparked this epiphany.

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