Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy

, Volume 12, Issue 2, pp 169–178 | Cite as

The ethics of self-change: becoming oneself by way of antidepressants or psychotherapy?

Scientific Contribution


This paper explores the differences between bringing about self-change by way of antidepressants versus psychotherapy from an ethical point of view, taking its starting point in the concept of authenticity. Given that the new antidepressants (SSRIs) are able not only to cure psychiatric disorders but also to bring about changes in the basic temperament structure of the person—changes in self-feeling—does it matter if one brings about such changes of the self by way of antidepressants or by way of psychotherapy? Are antidepressants a less good alternative than psychotherapy because antidepressants are in some way less authentic than psychotherapy? And, if so, what does this mean exactly? In this paper I try to show that the self-change brought about by way of antidepressants challenges basic assumptions of authentic self-change that are deeply ingrained in our Western culture: that changes in self should be brought about by laborious ‘self-work’ in which one explores the deep layers of the self (the unconscious) and comes to realise who one really is and should become. To become oneself has been held to presuppose such a journey. While the assumed importance of self-work appears to be badly founded on closer inspection, the notions of exploring and knowing oneself appear to be more promising in fleshing out an ethical distinction between psychopharmacological and psychotherapeutic practice with the help of the concept of authenticity. Psychotherapy, to a much greater extent than psychopharmacological interventions, involves the whole profile of the self in its attempts to effect a change, not only in the temperament but also in the character of the person in question, and this is important from an ethical point of view. In the article, the concepts of self-change, authenticity, temperament and character are presented and used in order to understand and flesh out the relevant ethical differences between the practice of psychotherapy and the use of antidepressants. Looping, collective effects of psychopharmacological self-change in a cultural context are also considered in this context.


Antidepressants Authenticity Enhancement ethics SSRIs Phenomenology Self Peter Kramer Psychotherapy 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Philosophy, Centre for Studies in Practical KnowledgeSödertörn University CollegeHuddingeSweden

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