For all the benefits of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, can it ever fully escape the trap of subjectivism and moral relativism?
Cognitive defusion is a great tool, but where do we stop? If I keep defusing from every thought I find in my head, what is left?
This article realises this, but is unable to offer a complete philosophical solution:
4. If the concept of defusion is misunderstood or taken to an extreme, it can lead to a sense of meaninglessness.
If thoughts are not absolute truths, perhaps there is no absolute meaning, no right or wrong, and no point of reference for determining what matters. A client may say that they want to be kind, behave in a fair and compassionate manner, and connect deeply with others. But when they begin to consider that thoughts are not absolute truths, they may begin to doubt whether this value truly matters to them or if it is “just a thought,” devoid of any real substance or meaning. A values statement is a string of words, after all, and words cannot capture absolute truth.
If you find that a client is headed toward this extreme, try to evoke a different way of understanding what matters: the kind of experiential knowing we have when doing things a particular way simply feels right and vital, and matters greatly at a personal level. The client’s values and direct experience of what is meaningful and important to them counterbalance the seeming meaninglessness of life. When clients realize that their minds are not exactly their most trustworthy friends, they can begin to appreciate the importance of relying on this experiential knowing to understand what matters to them. Words can be helpful in assisting those realizations, but they should not be allowed to negate them.
Further, this paper states:
Although in no way arguing against the existence of an independent reality to the world, ACT’s pragmatic philosophy chooses instead to focus on the study of behavior-in-context using a more inductive scientific approach that ultimately views what is “true” as what “works” in the service of ACT’s stated goals. What differentiates functional contextualism from other philosophies with postmodern tendencies (e.g., hermeneutics) and keeps it from an anti-scientific stance of extreme relativism is its explicit goal of the “prediction-and-influence of psychological events.” This goal permits ACT to employ common scientific methods and principles to develop a body of research that is open to correction and refinement using many of the normal methods of scientific inquiry (e.g., publicly verifiable knowledge, systematic observation, statistical inference). As with any philosophy, Hayes and colleagues acknowledge that these underlying assumptions cannot be fully justified, but should always be explicitly stated.
However, Russ Harris in Reality Slap does come down heavily on the side of what seems to be moral relativism, or at least, moral agnosticism.
[Quote to be inserted soon]
The frequently aluded-to "Chessboard Metaphor" does have its profundity and its uses, but who wants to be a chessboard? The chessboard does nothing. It is a tool in the hands of players, to be put away once the game is done.
Is this a direct result from the Buddhist roots of ACT, or is it due to a misunderstanding of the actual meaning of those roots by the devisers of the therapy? Unlikey, given their high intellectual and professional standard.
So where does this leave us? (Work in Progress)