I am a professional philosopher who, since late childhood, has suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Fortunately, I suffer relatively mildly, though it was worse in adolescence, when it was associated with the doubts and fears that often assail reflective adolescents. It is probably not noticeable except to people who know me well. Sufferers from this condition experience intrusive thoughts (obsessions) to which great meaning is attached and engage in compulsions – whether physical or purely ‘mental’ to neutralise the thoughts.
Physical compulsions might consist in time-consuming checking – for example, that gas or electrical appliances are safe. Mental compulsions may consist in trying to ‘undo’ unwelcome and intrusive thoughts or urges by the use of neutralising mental rituals, which might involve the inner voicing of thoughts designed to counteract the unwelcome ones. Very often, these compulsions are not done ‘properly’, which leads to time-consuming ‘redoing’ of them. Succumbing to the compulsions reinforces the obsessions, which in turn generate more compulsions – locking sufferers in a vicious spiral. The gold standard of treatment is exposure and response prevention (ERP) which requires sufferers to live with the obsessions but refuse to do the compulsions. Easier said than done, of course.
Is there any connection between these quirks of mine and my taking an interest in philosophy since my teens? Although I know of no evidence that professional philosophers are any more disposed to the condition that the general population, I suspect that there are ways in which the two bear on each other.
One is that OCD, and loosely related phenomena such as self-deception, addiction, and weakness of will, give rise to tantalising philosophical questions. For example, since most people with OCD know that the obsessions are usually not based on reality and that the compulsions are a huge waste of time, there is a mystery of why the behaviour persists. If you believe that gas is almost certainly not leaking from the cooker, why don’t you just refuse to do the checking? In this, the problem is similar to the ancient philosophical problem of why people who seemingly know that they ought not to do something, often do it anyway – and there is no consensus on the answer.
The other connection between philosophical enquiry and OCD is to do with doubt: in fact, OCD has been called ‘the doubting disease’. Philosophers are known for questioning things that we almost all take for granted, such as that the external world exists, or that other people are not zombies. Although few, if any philosophers actually doubt these things, many consider it philosophically reasonable to ask whether, or how, we know them. This quest involves high-level theorizing and analysis. Notoriously, competent philosophers disagree about the right conclusions to draw. Perhaps, in my case, there is a causal relation between my theoretical bent and my OCD, especially since I am not confident of many philosophical positions and am a better critic than advocate.
People with OCD, of course, doubt things that non-sufferers do not. They might ruminate about whether the door has been locked properly or whether they have put others in danger. Or, perhaps more accurately, although they know the truth, they lack confidence that they know it. They know that they are very unlikely to harm anyone but cannot stop ruminating about whether they really do know this. So, they manifest ‘harm OCD’.
Interestingly, there is a counterpart to this in practical ethics, which might make us whether some philosophical thinking is a kind of OCD by another name. Take the much-debated question of the scope of our responsibilities towards others. Do I have greater duties towards distant strangers in dire need than towards family members who live comfortably?
Ought I to go on doing good to others, until the cost of me is greater than the gain to those others? Once these questions are posed, they are remarkably hard to answer. The Australian philosopher Peter Singer is well known for advocating far-reaching duties towards strangers in great need: for him, most people’s failure to donate what they can afford to famine relief is as bad as walking past a pond where a child is drowning. This is a little similar to one of my own quirks: if I see something in my fridge that just might be a sentient insect, I feel compelled to go on checking to see whether it is, and if so, to rescue it from the cold of the fridge. What are a few minutes of my time compared with possible suffering?
Most people would see my quirk as a little odd. But they would also think Singer’s views on our duties to needy strangers as perverse, even if he is cleverer than them in debating the issue. Don’t we ‘just know’ that we should not worry much about the possible suffering of insects? Don’t we ‘just know’, even if we cannot argue the point, that someone who fails to send most of his spare money to a worthy cause is not as guilty as someone who ignores a drowning child when he could easily save her?
Many philosophers, like Singer, are not satisfied with ordinary ethical common sense; they think that rational scrutiny often goes against commonly held opinions. Similarly, people with OCD are not satisfied with answers like ‘that worry is just OCD – it isn’t real’. They want to be sure, and they ruminate – sometimes very cleverly – on how they can be sure.
There may be some overlap between philosophical preoccupations and OCD. But there are some important differences. OCD is arbitrary in its preoccupations; people who are worried about the gas leaking may not be bothered about equivalent danger from electricity. And there is a peculiar insatiability about OCD – compulsions only reinforce the doubts. Philosophical thinking, on the other hand, is systematic, and though conclusions may never seem certain, theoretical methods can make some progress and do not reinforce doubt in the same way.
We all have to live with doubt – this is a lesson to be learned both by people seeking to recover from OCD and people investigating difficult theoretical problems. The trick is to integrate reasonable doubt with our reasoning processes, rather than let unreasonable doubt hijack those processes and turn them to its own ends. The OCD cycle aims to remove doubt but can only increase it. Theoretical reasoning, however, has the resources to lessen doubt – even if the process is demanding.
Piers Benn, PhD is a visiting lecturer at the University of Roehampton. You can connect with him on Twitter @PiersBenn.
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