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Ok, here’s what’s wrong with the world (Pt. 2)

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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

Vilx- August 11, 2011 at 5:05 am

Here’s one more problem with doing the right thing – the law of unintended consequences. Although you might think that you are doing good by giving a $10 bill to a homeless guy, perhaps you only bought his booze for tonight and reassured him that this is the way to live. So you didn’t support the company which uses child labor in a 3rd world country. Nice, but because of people like you that company went out of business, and over a hundred children became unemployed. Some of them were the only source of income for their families, who now face starvation, and even death. What’s worse – an exploited child, or a dead child? And so on and so forth. The only thing to avoid it would be to be fully informed about everything and anything, but clearly that’s impossible. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

I’m afraid I don’t know what is the right thing to do. As they say – the only way not to lose is not to play the game. But in the above context this solution has its own set of problems…

I guess one should sitll act as you suggest, because there is nothing better. But I think even that would not fix the world, just maybe make it a little better place. Maybe.

David August 11, 2011 at 6:47 am

Yes, that’s exactly what I’m getting at. Doing the right thing isn’t a simple matter. It takes a lot of knowledge and care.

Lisis August 15, 2011 at 12:24 pm

Hmm… I have very little care, and almost no knowledge whatsoever… does that mean I’m exempted from doing the right thing? “Nothing is true, everything is permitted,” as Ivan Karamazov liked to say. Yay for me! :)

David August 16, 2011 at 6:40 am

Exempted by whom? If you don’t believe in a moral authority figure (I don’t, and I take it you don’t) then your morality points only to you and you are only accountable to yourself. The less you know about the suffering of others, the easier it is to do things that cause suffering, and the more you can get away with yourself. If you know nothing about fair trade, for example, then you will feel free to buy whatever you like, because you won’t know what causes suffering and what doesn’t, in the moment that you do it. But you probably would never feel free to kick a dog, because you can’t escape the knowledge of the harm it causes.

So yes, ignorance comes with a certain freedom from morality. But living in a way that causes harm to others will invariably cause harm to you. Some people will eventually connect the trouble they are experiencing in life to the consequences their actions have on others. So they become less ignorant than they were, and they change how they behave. This is morality.

Roderic August 18, 2011 at 9:22 am

There are multiple laws. Laws of man (enforced by police and judges), laws of the universe (stepping off a cliff is a fast ride to the pavement) and laws of God (insert morality, goodness or whatever you like). Breaking laws carries consequences. Since at LEAST Hammurabi’s code, it was understood that ignorance of the law is no excuse.

Trisha Rainsford August 11, 2011 at 5:22 am

This is a great post. And true. Most people really are good people but even so in experiment after experiment (Stanford Prison Experiment, Milgram Obedience experiments etc) and in thousands of real life situations, at least two-thirds of us will stand by and watch as bad stuff happens and some of us will even take part. And I don’t mean we’ll just vaguely not know if a small child made our shoes but we’ll actually allow ourselves to be part of situations of true horror that happens right in front of us.

This doesn’t happen because we are intrinsically bad but because we haven’t made this goodness or morality or ethics conscious so that when life unexpectedly drops us into something awful we just obey our amygdala and our unconscious instinct to survive. Adaptive instincts are pretty strong – that’s why we’re still here as a species!

If we actively thought about our morality – not just took on some outside moral code but truly looked at it for ourselves as individuals – irrespective of our religions or beliefs or lack thereof – then we might have a better chance of engaging our human brain and making judgements about what is going on when awful things begin to happen.

As the famous quotation goes – ‘All that is necessary for evil to succeed is for good people to do nothing’ – they say Edmund Spencer didn’t say this but whoever said it, it’s still true.

We – the ‘good’ people – don’t need to work much on not perpetrating evil but we do need to look at why we let it happen – we are culpable in that.

David August 11, 2011 at 6:49 am

If we actively thought about our morality – not just took on some outside moral code but truly looked at it for ourselves as individuals – irrespective of our religions or beliefs or lack thereof – then we might have a better chance of engaging our human brain and making judgements about what is going on when awful things begin to happen.

^^That’s it

Suzanne Schiavoni August 11, 2011 at 5:51 am

Wow, this was tough stuff for me… probably because I’m a teacher at the elementary level and my mind has been turned to mush this summer. Even the two comments previous to mine are thought-provoking. I don’t have a lot to add other than my wonder of how guilt plays into what I sometimes do. For example, (and at a very basic level), I don’t love spending time with my brother and his family, but I haven’t seen them all summer so I (out of guilt) invited them to dinner next week. It is NOT something I look forward to, but I did it because I thought it was the right thing to do, and I would feel guilty otherwise. I’m embarrassed to say, guilt dictates a lot of my goodness. I wish my goodness came from somewhere more spiritual and genuine. Sometimes it does, but not always. (Oh, and I don’t consider myself to be “good.” I’m one of those people who never feel like I’ve done enough. Did I buy enough for a birthday gift? Maybe if I buy my students treats they will like me more…? It’s shameful, I know, and I struggle wiith this on a daily basis).

So, what is wrong with the world??? We’re all imperfect with me at the head of the class.

(Hope I didn’t get too off topic).


David August 11, 2011 at 6:52 am

Thanks for the candid example. It’s a perfect example actually. Guilt prompts us to do “good” things sometimes, but what is really happening is that we’re evading a particular feeling. So the action often isn’t done out of a careful examination of its effect on the experience of another person, but it’s done out of a fairly thoughtless reaction to its effect on you. I do this a lot too. It’s complicated isn’t it?

Fons August 11, 2011 at 5:53 am

Hey Dave,

I really enjoyed these two posts and I haven’t completely been able to grasp everything as I was interrupted halfway through, so I will come back to read it again until I completely understand it all. But I wanted to say that, so far, it’s amazing how right what you say sounds. I think you nailed what’s wrong and even more important: how to change it.

Also wanted to tell you I like the lay-out change. It took a bit of getting used to but I really like it, especially the “recent comments” section on the right!

David August 11, 2011 at 6:54 am

Thanks Fons. I might change the comments section a little bit, because right now it shows every word of every comment, and some of them are pretty long

James Riddett August 11, 2011 at 7:07 am

Morality is only needed because we’re all living in our heads — as you say, through the filter of our egos. The ego wants to feel good, to feel alive and that often causes pain for others. So the mental concept of morality — of what’s “right” and “wrong” — is required only to maintain order. Otherwise we’d be living in anarchy.

But if everyone felt good all the time, we’d have no need for morality. Love and compassion would be our natural way. This is why health and peace of mind are the answers, for all of us.

When you have health and peace of mind, you simply feel good. There’s no sense of lack and there’s no mental concept of being “better” or “more successful” than your fellow man.

You don’t NEED anything except the basics, because you ALREADY feel good. I think this is very hard to imagine for a lot of people. When you have health and peace of mind, everything is a joy, and you automatically bring calm, patience, compassion to people and situations.

If everyone on the planet felt good, there would be no need for morality. There’d be no sense of lack, and therefore no greed. We would simply LOVE helping and being around each other — for the sheer joy of it.

So if we want the world to be a happier place, we need to show everyone how to be happy on an individual level. That means living a lifestyle that puts the causes of happiness in place.

Vilx- August 11, 2011 at 12:26 pm

Drugs are bad, mmmmkey? :)

David August 11, 2011 at 9:35 pm

If everyone on the planet felt good, there would be no need for morality. There’d be no sense of lack, and therefore no greed. We would simply LOVE helping and being around each other — for the sheer joy of it.

I agree. Morality seems to be a way to get to a place where we do not suffer. I think that’s what all religions developed as: mythologies that teach us how to end suffering, by way of morality. It’s all about learning how to live in a way that allows you to transcend suffering.

Crys August 11, 2011 at 7:10 am

We would all do better if we knew better. No single person can change the world but we can all do little things in our little corner, and there are others who can do more and do. They set a good example for us and we can support them. It is what it is, but that doesn’t mean I can’t pick up trash when I see it or offer a sandwich to a homeless person. It’s not up to me to judge why he chooses to live that way. If I can help him from where I sit, I will. It’s the little things we all do. Think how much worse the world would be if we weren’t all out here doing little things everyday. I don’t mean to sound defensive, just look at the flip side. Change does happen.
I do what I can and so do you. Morality and good positive things happen everyday and hopefully enlightenment such as this post will allow for more and more. This is such a good post Dave, it makes us all think and I believe that is what you hoped to accomplish here. I don’t feel scolded or advised. I feel like a curtain has just been pulled aside and the formerly narrow view just became wider and clearer. Thank you.

David August 11, 2011 at 9:49 pm

“We would all do better if we knew better.”

I really believe this and I know it’s not always a popular opinion. I think we do wrong only when we don’t have the skills or understanding to do right. The most common view of morality is that when people do harmful things, it’s because they’re just *bad*. They choose to do the wrong thing, because of “weakness of character”, whatever that means. I don’t think it’s really a choice. Real choices are conscious.

Ellen August 11, 2011 at 9:07 am

Two things I’m reminded of by this post, and might be of interest:

This comic:
I definitely need that word

and this book:
which I use all the time, because it’s a fantastic shortcut to what companies should get my money. I’m trying to be a good world citizen as a first world consumer, and all that research I couldn’t find the time to do is captured in the ranking guides in this book. Sometimes I can’t afford the A+ brands, but I can almost always chose something better than a B-. There’s also an iPhone app for the truly speedy buying decisions: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/better-world-shopper/id318369598?mt=8

Ali of Spinner's End August 11, 2011 at 11:30 am

It’s funny that the older I get, the less I believe in “right” and “wrong” as concepts that can even be defined in the simplest terms. It’s definitely hard to make the “right” choices in this world, when in our interconnected world it seems that there is a down-side to every option. And I love your definition of “nursery school” morality. It’s attitudes like that which lead to Qu’ran burnings by people who would never allow a Bible burning demonstration. The best thing you can do is try to let go of your own personal stakes and to stop judging others. I’m definitely struggling right now with shedding my self-image and letting go of my ego. Its a concept that my rational mind understands and that I’m able to tap into, but in any moment of stress or anxiety, or even in moments of perceived stress and anxiety, I lose all sense of rationality and allow myself to slip back into old selfish habits. Do you have any suggestions on how to continue down this path and replace selfish habits with self-less habits?

Vilx- August 11, 2011 at 12:30 pm

There’s also a dark side. It’s not that hard to become completely selfless – but then everyone would just walk over you and leave you in the dust. Absolute selflessness might be good for everyone around you, but it will quickly be the end of you. The real trick is to find the right balance between selflessness and selfishness – but that’s something few people have mastered.

David August 11, 2011 at 9:44 pm

That struggle that you talk about, between letting go of your self-image and your conditioning, is really The Big Problem with humanity. I cannot think of a problem I have ever had that is not an offshoot of that problem.

CJ August 11, 2011 at 12:06 pm

“First we learn how to live, then we come up with reasons why it’s okay that we live the way we do.”

This is such a tremendously important insight…Not only in terms of understanding why people’s actions can be inconsistent with their morals, but in showing us the proper way to create change.

Too often people try to enact change by appealing to reason or fear. It doesn’t work.

I don’t put on my seat belt every time I get the car because I’m thinking about saving my life. Obviously, I understand that’s why I do it, but at this point it’s just a habit. The justification only came after I was taught the habit.

You can’t create change by telling people what they ought to do, and yet that’s what our schools, government, and doctors try to do every day. People are told to eat right and exercise, but almost every aspect of modern society is engineered in direct opposition to those two habits. We tell kids to eat their veggies and then serve them prepackaged, processed chicken fingers and fries in the cafeteria. Environmentalists wonder why people who nominally agree with them continue to act in unsustainable ways all the time. It’s because society is engineered to encourage disposability and thoughtlessness, and that’s how we’ve all been brought up.

I think it’s worth considering that sometimes it can be easier to change someone’s mind through changing their behavior than to do the opposite.

It’s like that study showing that making a smiling expression lifted peoples’ subjective moods….

People think that cognition comes before behavior, but it’s not that simple. I think more often than we realize, we act first and cognition catches up.

Vilx- August 11, 2011 at 12:40 pm

An interesting though about selflessness – what is it, really? If you give $10 to a homeless beggar, you’re being selfless, right? But you do get the feeling of “having done something good”, and in fact, that was what prompted you to do this action in the first place. If you think about it, most “selfless” acts are really committed in pursuit of these “righteousness highs”. Can it be really called selfless then? A true selfless action would bring no benefit whatsoever to yourself. If you want to be selfless, then you have to give that $10 without thought, and forget about it immediately afterwards.

In truth, I think the secret is not to be selfless, but to keep your selfishness in check and make sure that your actions are not only beneficial to yourself, but to others as well.

This actually brings to mind “Allegro ma non troppo” by Carlo Maria Cipolla: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carlo_Maria_Cipolla#Allegro_ma_non_troppo

Brad August 11, 2011 at 4:41 pm

this raises an interesting question to me, how do we really know where we stand morally? Isn’t it just as easy to justify bad things as good things? We can say we are acting a certain way because we are “supposed” to but as said in the article, alot of times that is the fear of getting caught or rejected talking. We are all exposed to certain circumstances and those circumstances if exposed often enought become “acceptable”. I like the idea of limiting your selfishness so that it doesn’t negatively effect others but one could just as easily say that our own negative experiances from others have been helpfull for growth and thus our negative selfish behaviors toward others HELPS their growth..that would be justifying, but justifying is justifying either way..at it’s core your just really trying to make yourself feel better about your actions and as you said, sometimes selflessness at it’s core is done for selfish reasons. So this poses my question, do we strive for pure selflessness, or do we rather just not judge others or ourselves and live as the flawed imperfect people we are?

Vilx- August 11, 2011 at 6:17 pm

What I’m trying to say is that pure selflessness is virtually impossible for a human being. We will always be selfish, no matter what. The only way to become truly selfless would be… I don’t know, become The Borg from Star Trek maybe. They don’t have individual wills, they only listen to what the Hive Mind says, and obey as if it was their own thought and wish. Hence they are truly selfless.

As for helping others grow – it’s a nice idea, but I disagree to the old saying “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. Quite often it can also permanently damage you, making you a lot weaker. And so it can be with so-called helping the growth of others by hurting them. No doubt it can be done, but there will be damage to the person as well, and one has to be very careful to ensure that the damage is acceptable (both physical and psychological).

Brad Robbins August 11, 2011 at 8:09 pm

I agree with you totally on those examples I used, I was just giving an example of how one COULD justify such things. I disagree that pure selflessness is impossible, but that all depends on what you put your faith in. And also I think your ultimate point was to take baby steps, and not beat yourself u about how fast your going as long as your moving forward. Which I also agree with.

vaevictus August 11, 2011 at 12:41 pm

From my personal experience, whenever I did the “bad” thing, it rarely came from a “let me see how I can exploit this person for my own benefit” point of view. Rather, I did the “right” thing so often while my own needs or wants were still being unfulfilled, so I just gave up trying and allowed myself to fall. Its getting back up, recommitting yourself to what you feel you stand for, then pushing your ass to do so. Over and Over and Over and Over. A losing battle isn’t it?

[email protected] August 11, 2011 at 7:00 pm

“but people will really do whatever they can get away with”

yarr~ but not everyone and not all the time~ which I assume you meant based on what I know of you ~:-)

e.g., If I can get away with pinching a cookie or a cuppa where I clean offices twice a week~ occasionally I will.


If I can take advantage of an opportunity to ‘get back’ at another~ I will not. Ever.

Even (as my current situation will account for) when I am standing up for myself, and I have information that could really change the course of things, and manage the situation much more quickly as well as in my favor, it is the dignity of the other I continue to respect despite my disgust at their choices in behaviours.

David August 11, 2011 at 9:38 pm

e.g., If I can get away with pinching a cookie or a cuppa where I clean offices twice a week~ occasionally I will.


If I can take advantage of an opportunity to ‘get back’ at another~ I will not. Ever.

Then I would say that’s something you know you can’t get away with, because it would violate your values. I could get away with shoplifting certain things, I’m sure, if it was only external forces that could stop me. But I would feel rotten about it and I would be afraid of what I might become if I did it. So I can’t really get away with it.

Erin August 13, 2011 at 5:07 am

You right when you say that living your values is damn hard, we already know that we are all connected in this way or another and we should live by this value- if I act in a certain way to a person and I know that if it was the other way around I recognize it as bad, than its bad action and I must reconsider it in different way

Mark Reid August 13, 2011 at 5:34 pm

Some of the things you touch upon towards then end of this post (and in several of your others) remind me of sentiments expressed by David Foster Wallace. He was also concerned with trying to step out of life’s everyday habits, paying attention, and avoiding easy answers. He touches on these topics in his commencement speech, _This Is Water_:


There is a recording of Wallace reading it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M5THXa_H_N8 (Part 1) ;
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uSAzbSQqals (Part 2)

I’m sure you’ve probably read his work but, just in the off chance you haven’t I really recommend you read his _Infinite Jest_. It’s a long, sprawling, difficult book but also one of the most engrossing and sincere pieces of literature I’ve read.

Keep up the great posts. I always find something thought-provoking in them.

David August 14, 2011 at 9:43 pm

Since you posted this I’ve really been into David Foster Wallace. I didn’t really know who he was. Thanks Mark.

Kylie August 14, 2011 at 3:43 am

Great post David – you have such a talent for making the big stuff clear. I have been thinking a lot lately about what the impetus is for us humans to act well and I think you’ve nailed it. For a better world we need to surrender our ego-selves and get a bigger picture view of life. I glimpse this sometimes when I meditate, and at the risk of sounding a bit New Agey it’s when I feel that life is really all just the one thing, and that our separate sense of self is a kind of illusion.

Maia August 14, 2011 at 12:04 pm

Great piece David. Yes being moral is hard work, everything we do do and don’t do, purchase and eat has to be examined. It is really tough to be moral and do everything how we think it should be done. As the Prophet of Islam Muhammad said: “Whoever among you sees an evil action, then let him change it with his hand; if he cannot, then with his tongue; and if he cannot, then with his heart – and that is the weakest of faith.”

To be moral like this would mean to get actively involved in all the world’s problems and stand up to authorities and let our lives be overtaken by our fight for what we think is right and moral.

Indeed most of us, just want to live in happily in oblivion and not stress ourselves out about these things, because we want peace, no trouble and we don’t want to be stressed. Besides we can’t change it anyway, can we?

Standing up to what we believe in really takes passion, courage and commitment and most people just can’t be bothered to sacrifice their lives for an ideal. Sad but true as that may be. Those that do have my utmost respect.

Mary Jane August 14, 2011 at 4:55 pm

Excellent thoughts, David. I think that by cultivating mindfulness in our daily lives, we give ourselves the spaciousness to take a step back to reflect on our true values and make better choices. I believe that true morality is based on compassion, and that genuine compassion begins with ourselves, and then radiates out to others. Always easier said than done!

Vilx- August 14, 2011 at 9:02 pm

Here’s one thing I could never quite nail down. When starting to think about right and wrong it always eventually comes down to suffering and it’s opposite (bliss?) We should avoid doing things that cause suffering, and we should do things that feel good. That’s the basics of human psychology, it’s been hardwired in our brain since the dawn of time.

But the problem with this is that it’s very easy to feel good. Just do drugs. There’s plenty to choose from. So can all of the worlds problems be solved by giving everyone enough heroin? Somehow that doesn’t seem right either. Apparently “feeling good” isn’t a very good criteria for distinguishing between right and wrong.

Unfortunately that’s as far as I’ve got myself. What are better criteria – I don’t know. Does anyone around here have any ideas?

David August 14, 2011 at 9:37 pm

Feeling good is not really the opposite of suffering. It is possible to do something that creates a good feeling but also creates suffering, like drinking too much or telling someone off. Clearly there are things we can do that give us immediate gratification with the cost of future suffering or suffering to others. Morality is not the pursuit of good feelings, it is the pursuit of freedom from suffering, and we can’t really call those two things the same thing.

So the only criterion is really how much or how little suffering an action creates. Happiness or good feelings can arise freely in the absence of suffering, but we don’t need to use them as any kind of criteria for morality.

Vilx- August 15, 2011 at 2:38 am

Well, why don’t people spend half their lives gathering enough money so that when they retire they could have a steady supply of [insert the drug of your choice here] for the rest of their days, which they would spend happily doped up. Nobody suffers from this, except maybe a few relatives that don’t get to talk to their grandpa so much anymore, but even then – if it was a widespread and accepted practice, nobody would mind. So why aren’t people doing this?

David August 15, 2011 at 5:55 am

Recreational drugs don’t work like that. There is a point of diminishing returns that comes quickly.

Antony August 15, 2011 at 1:55 pm

David, I still think that this is fitting a square peg into a round hole.
Morality is a social dictate – it is imposed on us and as such, like most rules of life, it is a poor fit and has us contorted into uncomfortable shapes.
I tend to agree with “Ali of Spinner’s End” that “right” and “wrong” are judgements and as such are effectively made up on the spur of the moment by our minds – which (believe me) is a hard task master and would have us either wrong or having to justify every thing we do.
Individually we don’t have rules, we don’t have religion, we don’t have the drama of right and wrong – we just have a (selfish?) desire to want to be us at our best.

David August 16, 2011 at 6:44 am

I don’t think morality is entirely a social dictate. Non-sociopathic people are able to recognize suffering when it is immediately apparent, and can’t help but respond to it in some way. Suffering is self-evident, and all morality is is changing your behavior in response to the recognition of suffering.

Check this out:

“Who says science has nothing to say about morality?”


Derek D. August 15, 2011 at 3:02 pm

Have you read Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning”? It may provide some interesting perspective to these ideas.

Murali August 16, 2011 at 12:09 pm

Well said David. Keep it up.

Andreas August 20, 2011 at 4:26 pm

Boycotting products made by child labor may have very negative effects as well. The world is not always so simple..


Emily April 30, 2013 at 5:06 am

Going to a college with an overwhelmingly liberal population, I find that with the lack of differing opinions makes people fairly close-minded. This is a topic I have been struggling with for the past year; actually, since bin-Laden was killed; yet I haven’t been able to bring it up in conversation here without getting shot down by things like “How can you justify people who condemn homosexuality???” Anyway, my point is that I really appreciate this post. It says so many things that I’ve been trying to say.

Emily April 30, 2013 at 5:12 am

Also, this reminded me of Plato’s story about the Ring of Gyges with the whole we’ll do whatever we can get away with concept. I just mention this as something you might want to read about if you haven’t already.

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