Some Remarks on Dobsonian Determinism: A Thomistic Analysis

Dr. James Dobson needs no introduction. A psychologist and founder of Focus on the Family, he has done much to assist many pursue the integrity of a Christian existence. His books on gender relationship and parenting are found in almost every Christian bookstore, and his international radio broad cast "Focus on the family" is an item on more than two thousand stations worldwide.

In this paper, however, I wish to make a few points on what he calls tough love, which is a recurring theme in many of his works. As he says in his lifework [1], Life on the Edge,

I want to describe a principle now that could be useful to you for the rest of your life. It concerns how people relate to each other and the forces that draw them together. It also explains what drives them apart. Although our focus here will be on romantic relationships, this concept applies wherever human interests intersect, including employees and employers, friends and neighbours, or daughters and mothers-in-law. To explain this principle...let me ask you to recall an occasion when you believed you had fallen madly in love with someone in your school. You thought about that person night and day and fantasised about how wonderful and exciting they were. You plotted and schemed to make yourself attractive and interesting. Eventually, you got your wish, and the object of your obsession began to like you too. Not only did that individual return your affection, they began to chase you and demand your attention. Instead of hoping and dreaming that you might be loved in return, you quickly began to feel pressed - trapped - claustrophobic. The more you back-peddalled, the more aggressive this individual became. You wanted to escape and could hardly tolerate that person you once thought you couldn't live without. That's the way we are made, emotionally. Most of us want what we have to stretch for - what we can only dream about achieving. We are excited by a challenge - by that which is mysterious and elusive. It's called 'the lure of the unattainable', and it is a powerful force in our lives. Conversely, we don't want the doormat we can't get rid of. Mutual respect is critical. The exciting chemistry that develops between a man and a woman depends on the perception that each I fortunate to have attracted the other. The moment one begins to build a cage around the other and to proclaim, 'I own you,' the game is over. [2]

Underlying this idea is a certain hypothesis about human behaviour. Namely, that the desire of the other grows with the perception of unattainability of the other, and conversely, diminishes with the perceived attainment of the other, such that this desire even becomes disgust when the other is perceived as returning the chase. Base on this psychological assumption, Dobson then prescribes what are remedies for certain situations in relationships: namely, when the other is seen as moving away from one, not withstanding one's desire to secure the other's presence and positive emotional response. So in a case of a person whose partner feels "trapped" in a relationship, Dobson's advice is that

[r]egardless of what commonsense tells us to the contrary, [his or her] best chance of attracting and holding a suffocating lover is to pull backwards slightly, conveying freedom for [the other person] and respect for themselves in the process. Curiously, [the other person] often moves towards [himself or herself] when this occurs. We've all observed this need for 'space' in relationships. [3]

Thus, suppose I am in love with Mary, and seeing that she begins to ignore me and even behave abusive towards me, I follow Dobson's advice and pull myself back, as it were, giving her the freedom to leave me, and going about my own other business. And true enough, she begins now to pay attention to me, and even now seek me out. And again, as I now return her affections towards me, she begins again to pull away from me. And this again, using Dobson's principle, I pull away further from her. And she returns, and so on.

We recall, as Dr. Dobson says, that this principle of the 'lure of the perceived unattainable' and its converse are the foundation for the "exciting chemistry" between a man and a woman. Even if that term is used metaphorically, it remains suggestive that this principle is not an intellectual principle, but a principle which has its source in the irrational part of man. For it is neither self-evident nor justified that the unattainable is desirable. The good is desirable, that is true and sure, being the very first principles of the practical reason, but the unattainable and the good are far apart. For how shall a syllogism be so compelling as to relate the terms goodness and unattainability so to conclude that "the good is the unattainable"? If therefore there is no rational account for this principle, we admit that it is irrational. In otherwords, in applying this method to "move" Mary back to me, and to maintain such a relation, it is but some kind of control or swaying of her irrational principles on my part, given my insight of this irrational principle.

Granted that this principle is irrational, as we have assumed for the while, it is lodged in her irrational side, which extensively equates her sensitive appetites. We thus imagine her on her part being swayed by passions that escape the grasp of her reason, so to be moved here and there. It will not unoccasionally strike her thus: "I keep going back to him, but I don't know why", presumably it escaping her that such a Dobsonian technique exists, or even if she does know of it, then it will behoove her to say "I keep going back to him, apart from my reasons not to." There is, as it were, a loss of freedom on her part, a loss of self-control. In otherwords, this technique is an occasion for control, a way of imposing a certain determinism upon one's object. It is, in effect, a mild obsession on the part of the object. Since this scenario assumes a powerful determination, we will call the technique the strong determinism (SD) technique.

Now perhaps this technique works not without deliberation on the part of its object of use. Perhaps, the action of Mary is not so much determined by such irrational principles in her sensitive being as I may command and control by my stimulus-agency, but occasioned by a present deliberation. As in a game theory, she might think: now that he is leaving me, perhaps he is seeing someone else, or perhaps (based on a belief-premise that) since what is difficult to attain much be special and hence good, or etc., etc, ...ergo, I must return to him, if anything, to find out what is happening. Whatever the deliberation is, so that it is not totally deterministic, the point on my part is to keep the other person, Mary, in this case, in a sort of a mist, a veil of ignorance, so that the more suspicious she is of me the better, and insofar as I am an open book, I am lost. In short, it is a relationship which is built on somewhat a mind game, the champion such as to keep the other in a forever dark night, hankering in curiosity about a mystery. Now because it is not totally deterministic given the part of some deliberation, although there is still the element of control, we will call this scenario then the weak determinism (WD) technique.

Having analysed the principle in the above, we may thus propose two questions to our subject for reflection: firstly, normatively speaking, is it approvable, and secondly, is it to be recommended?

As regards the first we specify as follows. It means to ask if the use of this technique violates any moral norms. To speak of a moral act, whether it be good or bad, is to speak of an act of the will, for such an act as not willed is as such morally indifferent. Hence, it must be done intelligently, and not apart from reason, as in possession or obsession. [4] Hence we presuppose that we are accessing these methods as applied by someone willing it.

Given that, what further determines whether an act as such is morally good or bad is the end which we intend the act. In all morally good acts the remote intended end should always be the vision of God. Nonetheless, in the string of effects, it is difficult to judge to what extent our acts tend towards or away from the final end. Still, if we know that the violation of certain precepts will necessarily be contrary to the final end, we may use it to determine the immorality of our act. Now, any violation of the Decalogue is contrary to the final end. [5] Hence insofar as any intended proximate end violates the precepts of the Decalogue, such an intended proximate end will be contrary to the final end, with the effect that the attached act is morally bad. For our assessment, then, the morality of the act in question, the SD and WD techniques applied, is determined by the presence, insofar as we may locate them, of any intended proximate end which violates the precepts of the Decalogue. Thus, we assume an act to be moral until found otherwise. Also, since the Decalogue reduces to the two major precepts of the love of God and love of neighbor, I take it as uncontroversial that any effective destruction of love as an intended proximate end (thus making the fulfillment of these two precepts impossible) is contrary to the final end, and hence acts leading to this will be accordingly deemed morally bad. Otherwise we consider it free of moral blame.

As to the second, we ask in effect whether we would recommend it, even on practical grounds. By appreciating that morally good acts are acts which tend the agent toward the end of happiness and morally bad acts tend the agent towards the contrary, it will be evident that the answer to the second, depends substantially on the first. Since acts which are morally good confer happiness and acts morally bad do not confer happiness, insofar as we recommend acts which lead to happiness and discourage the contrary, we will recommend accordingly.

We begin with an examination of the Strong Determinism (SD) technique. SD compels the other irrationally, that is, by irrational coercion (although non-physical). Now the ideal of human love is essentially a relation between human qua persons, beings endowed with reason, as Wojtyla says, "love is always a mutual relationship between persons...based on particular attitudes towards the good." [6] Hence love is an attraction which, though constitutive of passion, is at the same time necessarily constituted by the rational cognition of a good, cognitively known. Short of this, it fails then to become a love of persons, who are rational of nature, and falls outside the genus of personalism, the essential note of which is rationality. By no means do the agents cease to be persons, but certainly, such an attraction cannot be called personal, that is, the operations issuing from persons, and hence love. If now this attraction is due to SD, it seems to me to escape the rational deliberation of the object, and hence, it is not a personal attraction, and hence, not love.

Granted, of course, that even if it is not love, it does not mean that it is against love. For example, a person who idles at work, though meant to work and not working, sins by omission, but is not so guilty as one who maliciously goes out of his way to ruin the company, perhaps by destroying files and documents, so that not merely not doing good, he goes about positively multiplying evil. Hence it might be objected thus: even if this SD does not yield love, it does not prevent it. Yet this cannot be maintained either, and this for two reasons.

Firstly, it destroys the other person's ability to operate qua person. The ability of a person to operate qua person is in his/her ability to use his/her intellectual capacities as a necessary constitutive element in practical matters. Now, the extent to which this participation of intelligence is possible in practical matters is in the mind's relative independence from matter, since "the perfect intellectual operation of man consists in an abstraction from sensible phantasms, wherefore the more a man's intellect is freed from those phantasms, the more thoroughly will it be able to consider things intelligible, and to set in order all things sensible." [7] Hence, as much as a person is sensitively overwhelmed, so is he or she cognitively material, and conversely, insofar as he or she is free from sensitive appetition, so his or her mind is more easily actualized. [8] Therefore, angels being pure form are always cognitively in act. [9] So by overwhelming the person with irrational sensations, one in effect subjects him or her to a state such that he or she is in constant cognitive potency. In the same way, lust weakens man's operation in regard to intelligible things by fixing very firmly his attention on corporeal things. [10]

Now, the mind in potency is a mind not in operation, and as such, not able to actualize the appetites, thus constituting true willing, that is, rational appetition. It goes without saying, since the mind is not in act, it cannot know, or at best has grave difficulty knowing, whether what is present before it is good or bad. In sum, both in the speculative and practical orders the intellect is numbed to a point of dullness. Yet that which has been numbed is the essential constitutive antecedent for a personal existence. Hence, the person is impeded from being and acting as person.

From this follows our second reason: it destroys the person's ability to love. Since love, as we have said, is essentially constituted by rational attraction, which is a personal act, this too is impossible, for reasons above.

Therefore, since it is such as destructive both of the person qua person, and of love, it seems inevitable that SD is an immoral method. This is clear from the fact that by imposing such personal disintegrity to the object, it tends to the violation of the 5th precept of the Decalogue, forbidding murder. In the same way it is morally wrong to injure a neighbor physically. Further, since the inability to love resulting offends against the two major precepts, acts to this effect are immoral. With this the conclusion also follows, that it is not to be recommended.

Nevertheless, it seems that SD may be applied in the following case without violation of any moral norms. That is, a person who is feeling emotionally hurt applies the SD not with the intention of bringing the other back by way of imposing the irrational principles in the other, but out of self-defense, that is, in order merely to protect himself or herself emotionally. Thus the effect of the SD is twofold - self-restoration and the imposition of the irrational principle in the other, but the intention is one: namely, self-protection, with the other beside the intention. This is covered by the principle of double effect. [11] It is nevertheless not a justification for rationalizing to oneself that one applies the SD, when one all the same intends the return of the leaving partner. Nor must the SD method be applied beyond proportion [12], so that it becomes a revengeful act of psychological torment for the other.

Coming now to WD. There is, no doubt, the element of rational deliberation, according as we have defined WD. Hence, insofar as the acts as such are concerned, on an optimistic reading, we grant that it remains possible that the person act rationally and hence personally; for we formerly argued thus: since love implies personalism, therefore modus tollens, no personalism, no love. Thus there will be not particular injury to the person, and hence no violation of the 5th precept of the Decalogue. Nevertheless, it does not as yet follow that when personalism is possible, love also present, for this would be to affirm the consequent. Hence it remains to be seen whether it hinders or not to the specific type of personal act called love. (We on are part are so willing as to concede that insofar as it does not hinder, we grant that that it conduces, although some stricter analysis might debate this leniency.)

According to our analysis of the dynamics of WD earlier, we explicated it to be such as a constant mystifying of the subject in order to put the object in curious attention. Or whatever this state may be described as, it remains undeniably true that the ever present element in this relationship is a sort of closure on the part of the subject, so to lure the object back to the subject, whatever deliberations may occur in the object. On this very point of the deliberate closure of the subject, we find it in direct contradiction with the following:

Only true knowledge of a person makes it possible to commit one's freedom to him or her. Love consists of a commitment which limits one's freedom - it is a giving of the self, and to give oneself means just that: to limit one's freedom on behalf of another. [13]

No doubt, knowledge by itself, does not constitute love, for we have said, that love is essentially is a specific kind of attraction. Indeed, "knowledge, even the most thorough knowledge...about a given person do not themselves amount to attraction" [14]. Still what that means is that knowledge is not a sufficient condition for love. Nonetheless, knowledge of a person is a necessary condition. For who would be so foolish as to entrust his or her freedom to one such as a stranger? Thus, inasmuch as knowledge is necessary for the possibility of committing one's freedom to another, which is in turn to limit one's freedom, which is the gift of self, of which is essence of love consists, we may say that whatever impedes the knowledge of the person impedes love. This is the consequence of modus tollens. Since love implies the gift of self, which implies the limiting of one's freedom on behalf of another, which implies the possibility of committing one's freedom to another, which implies the knowledge of the other, hence where there is not knowledge of the other, then, there is no love. But to impede love by way of impeding knowledge is contrary to the major precepts. Therefore it is not morally praiseworthy, and hence not to be recommended.

Again, the exception applies when it is a case of self-protection against the hurt of a leaving other, where the other effects are beside the intention. This is again, covered as before by the principle of double effect, with similar qualifications. It is to be commended that Dr. Dobson mentions "respect" [15] in his explication of his methods, and if understood as "self-respect" in this context, such a self-respect as care for one's personal emotional health, then we will recommend this method of resolution. Otherwise, in other circumstances, it seems our above objections hold.

With these remarks, let me end my assessment of Dr. Dobson's tough love techniques by adding that our assessment is not infallible, but if true, we do not at all impute any malicious intention on the part of Dr. Dobson. It is difficult, as St. Thomas admits, to know the proper conclusions of practical reason, since "neither is the truth or rectitude [of the same] the same for all, nor, where it is the same, is it equally known by all...principle[s] will be found to fail the more according as we descend into detail." [16]


[1] See backcover of his Live on the Edge, 1995:Nelson Word Ltd (UK)

[2] ibid., pp 125-6

[3] ibid., pg. 137

[4] see Brian Mullady OP, The Meaning of the Term "Moral" in St. Thomas Aquinas, 1986: Liberia Editrice Vaticana (Vatican) pp. 60-65

[5] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I-II, qu. 100, art. 6, corpus. In On Law, Morality and Politics.1998:Hackett Publishing (Cambridge, UK)

[6] Karol Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility, op. cit., pg. 73

[7] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II-II, qu. 13, art.3, 1981: Christian Classics (USA)., vol. 3, pg. 1123

[8] St. Thomas Aquinas, De ente et essentia, chapter 4, 1, Armand Maurer (trans.), 1968: Pont Institute of Medieval Studies (Canada), pg. 52

[9] ibid.

[10] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Christan Classics, op.cit.

[11] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II-II, qu. 64, art. 7, corpus., in Hackett, op. cit.

[12] ibid.

[13] Karol Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility, pg. 135

[14] ibid., pg. 75

[15] James Dobson, op. cit., pg. 130.

[16] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I-II, qu. 94, art. 4, corpus, in Hackett, op. cit.

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