This is part two of a two-part post. Part one.
So I think we’ve made morality out to be a very simple matter, and one which most of us have nailed down pretty well. But I think it’s actually quite complicated and difficult, and most of what guides us has nothing to do with what’s right and wrong, even in our own eyes.
The prevailing opinion is that most people live morally sound lives, and the people who don’t are ruining things for everyone else. The evil CEOs, the terrorists, the English hooligans smashing storefronts right now.
We all have values. It’s easy to have values. In fact, it’s impossible not to have values. Great. But having values is not the same as living those values. Living your values is damn hard.
For example, I think child labor is wrong. You would probably say you do too.
Unfortunately, thinking something is wrong is not the same as acting morally. If I intended to act morally on that matter, I’d have to make sure I don’t pay people to exploit children by buying their products. But to be honest I have no idea how most of the things I buy are produced, and for whatever reason I haven’t taken any time to find out. On this issue, just one of a zillion, I am not acting morally, even by my own standard.
Why not? Why don’t I take some time and find out which companies engage in practices I don’t approve of? I could save some helpless people a lot of trouble if I lived my life as though it were important to me.
The honest answer is that I’m kind of busy with some other stuff right now. Maybe when I have a long weekend I’ll do some of that.
But it is still easy for me to, say, look down on anyone in jail. I am good and they are bad, as dictates my nursery-school level of morality.
This is normal.
There is a reason philosophers spent centuries filling textbooks with questions and analyses about morality. It’s complicated and takes a lot of careful thought.
People generally don’t live their values. It takes an enormous amount of work to do that, and as long as we can feel okay about how we live, we’ll probably go on doing what we’ve been doing.
Nursery school morality
“Nursery school morality” might not be much of an exaggeration. That’s the age when we learn our basic ideas about right and wrong. A toddler’s first impulse is to take what he wants, even if another kid has it. When he does, he’s told it’s wrong. He doesn’t sit and think about the moral implications. He has to go by what authority says, whether it makes sense to him or not.
So the right and wrong they learn first is what’s socially acceptable — in other words, what they can get away with. An understanding of the reasons why a person shouldn’t snatch things or hit other kids must come later.
The behavior is conditioned first, based on what others say, and reasons come after, if at all. Usually they don’t.
I should stress that sound reasoning for why we think X is right and Y is wrong never needs to enter the picture. Our toddler may never get around to making sense of it. As long as you’re reasonably comfortable with your habits, why change?
This is how most adults will operate until they die, and I’m not saying I’m unusual here.
If you truly want to be moral, then naturally you must think honestly and dispassionately about what’s right, then from that, decide how you should live.
But that’s not how humans develop at all. We do it backwards. First we learn how to live, then we come up with reasons why it’s okay that we live the way we do.
So the result is that we end up behaving however we need to in order that the people around us will accept us. And then if anyone ever suggests that our behavior is wrong, the first impulse is self-defense. We gravitate towards certain ways of life, then we come up with reasons why that’s okay.
We must convince ourselves that we’re okay. The ego runs that show, and that’s the prime directive. It is extremely hard for anyone to let go of the idea that they’re okay, and so they’ll come up with any rationale to deflect an attack on their beliefs. Reason is gone by this point. It’s entirely emotional and self-interested.
We’ve all seen this. Ask just about anyone if they live morally and they’ll say yes. Then ask them if stealing is wrong, and they’ll say yes. Then ask them if they download movies or music without paying for them. They’ll probably say yes, though without the same conviction they had for the first two questions.
Then if you ask them if that’s stealing, then instead of saying yes or no they’ll probably launch into explanations about how record companies give the artists peanuts for albums sales anyway or that they go to their concerts and buy a t-shirt or that they’re rich rock stars so what’s the big deal.
Stealing music is still a fairly socially acceptable act, and it’s hard to get busted for it, so most people do it.
Two steps to getting away with anything
Learn to live a certain way, and self-justify when pressed. That’s where humans are right now with morality, for the most part. It’s a neato idea that we occasionally put into honest use, but most of the time when we believe we are doing something because it’s right, we are either just afraid of consequences or acting out conditioning. We sure do like to call ourselves virtuous for it though, and especially to call out others on what they do that is clearly un-virtuous.
It sounds cynical, but people will really do whatever they can get away with. And I’m not just talking about used car salesmen here. I’m talking about every one of us. All we need in order to get away with any act is two things:
a) avoid physical consequences such as being attacked for it, getting arrested for it, or being ostracized for it, and
b) tell ourselves whatever story we need to in order to avoid feeling bad about it.
Those are the only motives we need to satisfy. There doesn’t need to be any philosophical analysis, nor any real consideration of the suffering imposed others (except insofar as it becomes our suffering through sympathy).
It’s not that we’re not capable of real virtue, or that we never act guided by morality. I’m committed to not exploiting animals for my pleasure any more, but I self-justified that one pretty easily for thirty years. Any injustice is easy to justify when almost everyone contributes to it.
And I’m mostly committed to not stealing, though I did watch Taxi Driver on the weekend and let’s just say Scorsese will never see a cent from that, even though I really enjoyed his work.
I still do think I’m a good person, but I can’t really say I’m not riddled with moral shortcomings. And I’m totally normal. Maybe even a little more socially responsible than normal. I think that’s probably true and if it is we’re in trouble.
“Doing the right thing” is not so simple. The first problem is that we don’t know what harm we are causing. Most people describe morality as obedience to a viscerally-tuned “compass”, but the needle’s only going to move when you have a fairly clear idea of the harm your actions cause. When you buy something you want, what kinds of activity are you rewarding? Sustainable business practices, or clearcutting? Job creation, or overseas child labor?
If you don’t know, how can you say you’re doing the right thing?
If you really wanted to do the right thing, wouldn’t the absolute minimum requirement be that you know what harm you’re causing by living the way you do? That takes some time and research, and often we have to confront ugly realities, give up things we’re accustomed to, and live in a world where everyone still thinks it’s okay to do what you know is not.
So you can see how attractive it is to simply self-justify and get on with it. That’s what’s wrong with the world, I figure.
All the atrocious behavior you see on the news, all it takes is something to cover column A, and something to cover column B. You do it and I do it and they do it.
Why get better at it?
Why even bother then, if it’s so damn hard to get it right, and if it’s so easy to just self-justify like the typical human? If we can live comfortably in this way, then why not? Why would anyone spend their years crawling uphill when they could spend most of it going for a pretty good ride?
Well, it makes for a way better experience. We’ve all seen bits of it. When you genuinely let go of something you felt you needed for yourself, to the benefit of someone else, there is a rush of freedom you could never get from a four-day weekend, a couple of pints, or even retirement. This is a moment of real selflessness, in which it is for once not you versus the world, but the whole world for itself. Bear with me for a few paragraphs if that sounds hokey.
The self-justifying mode of life comes with truckloads of suffering. It is consistent, yet unpredictable, always circumstance-dependent, and it is fatal.
To get over the attachments that keep us self-justifying, one would have to make some pretty radical changes to the way they see themselves. To see clearly what is right or wrong, without it being skewed by personal interest or addiction to gratification, takes a forfeiture of your self.
And by that I don’t mean doing “selfless” things, like giving up your seat on the bus (even to Rosa Parks.) I mean really seeing the self as a temporal bundle of changing conditions, that doesn’t need to always get what it wants or have a particular level of stature.
It’s hard to talk about this without inadvertently starting to sound religious. Images of seeds and sowing arise, and of loving enemies, giving away your last penny freely, and gaining the world by losing your soul.
Because really, in order to be loose enough with your material things that you could do the right thing without suffering for it, you have to give up your self, which is only ever your idea of yourself. Look into any spiritual tradition and that is what you invariably find at the centre: you can’t escape this cycle while you cling to a temporal self-image.
These are two clearly delineated modes of living — self-justification and the inevitable conditional mess that goes with it, and self-surrender and the freedom from suffering that goes with it.
This is Heaven and Hell we’re talking about here.
What seems so wrong about the world is just what it feels like as we begin to leave behind the old mode of self-justification, and begin to experiment with morality and find out what it can do for us.
Evolution takes a while. Help it along.
To everything there is a season
And a time to every purpose, under Heaven
A time to gain, a time to lose
A time to rend, a time to sew
A time for love, a time for hate
A time for peace, I swear it’s not too late
~Ecclesiastes 3:8, by way of The Byrds
Photo by Javi S&M
If you liked this article, get email updates for free.