Morality is Bullshit.

Ivy HestReal Talk, Skills and Principles, Theory2 Comments

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(About 3 minutes to read)

Let’s get one thing out of the way right now.  Morality is total, utter bullshit.  Feeling scandalized?  How could I care about others and not believe in morality?  What kind of heathen am I!?  Well, step onto my carpet, and I’ll show you a whole new world.

First, let’s talk about what I mean by morality.  Morality, to me, is the belief that you inherently think that something is good or bad.  It’s part of your own being, or a way you define yourself.  We draw a line in the sand of people with good morals versus those with questionable morals. 

So what’s wrong with that?  Well, nothing, really.  It’s completely meaningless.  I may act in a way that follows my “moral character”, but that’s not why I do anything.  If it were, I’d lose myself very quickly.  My definition of myself would dissipate into a pool of diatribes and soup kitchens.  My believing that I stand for something in particular because it’s right means that I’m standing for a broad idea or feeling, not because it’s grounded in my own experiences and the values shaped because of them.

Morality is not why people do things.  I am not inherently a good or bad person.  I’m just a blob- a blob with sparkles and lots of pink.  I exist, that’s all.  But what shapes who I am are the relationships and events in my life, and the balance of how I relate to these things.  I act because something in my life has made me want to react in support or against what is happening.  I feel compelled to act because I get something out of it.  I act out of self-interest.

Let me take a moment, as I often must, to explain what self-interest is.  Self-interest (not to be confused with selfishness) is my motivation for doing something.  It is why I act.  I need to get something out of an experience in order to participate in it.  Sometimes that something is big- I get paid, I want to be associated with something, my life will be better for it.  And sometimes, it’s small.  It gives me a good feeling, my grandmother would have been proud, or it makes me uncomfortable to see others in pain.

Every single relationship you have is based in self-interest.  Your friend makes you feel good about yourself, they inspire you, they force you to take life less seriously, or they pump up your street cred (which is obviously why you’d want to be friends with me).  Those friends that you had because your mom made you didn’t last past the sandbox- unless you found commonalities that drew you to that person.

Why is this distinction important?  Because if you’re in denial of your self-interest, you run the risk of losing motivation.  If you’re doing it for others, without an understanding of how it impacts you, it’ll drop to the bottom of your to-do list.  Volunteering at a soup kitchen because it’s the right thing to do is different from volunteering because you remember your mother always cooking a little bit extra for that nice old lady that lived next door, or because that month in college where you could only afford to eat Ramen Noodles left you thinking about what it’s like for people who’s reality is that Ramen Noodles are all their family of 4 can afford.  See the difference?  One leaves you acting because it gives you a warm feeling; the others give you an understanding of why and support to keep acting.

My challenge to you is to spend some time thinking about why you act.  Really think about it.  Don’t settle for “because I was taught to” or “because the Bible says so”.  That may be true, but how do you relate to those things?  What in your life made you decide that you should listen to that voice?

Join me in calling bullshit on the personal moral high ground.  Let’s start a movement of genuinely understanding what’s important to us and why.  Maybe then, the changes we want to see will become more sustainable.

Your turn: Did you think about it?  Was there anything surprising? A memory you forgot about, or that you do actually get something out of that seemingly soul-sucking task?  How did it impact your relationship with the activity?

Your Personal “Burnout Prevention" Campaign

2 Comments on “Morality is Bullshit.”

  1. Good/evil, good/bad, right/wrong are all bullshit and are irrational. Those things simply do not exist. Guild and fear is all made up by the belief in right and wrong.

  2. The book “Out of Character” by David DeSteno and Piercarlo Valdesolo argues that our so-called “characters” are not as stable as we like to think. When we’re put in different situations, we act in different ways. We’re all capable of yielding to temptation in certain circumstances. This is another reason why it’s good to be able to articulate some justification for our principles, and not just rely on our supposed “character” or mere habit. If we can explain why we ought to take some specific action for a specific purpose, we’re more likely to live up to that standard than if we simply assume we’re “good people” (whatever that means) and that we can trust ourselves to do “the right thing” (whatever that is).

    Both emotion and reason play a role in moral understanding. Emotion is pretty critical to basic moral understanding, as studies on neuro patients have shown. If you can’t empathize with someone else at all, it’s hard to understand why you should go out of your way to help them out, and their apparent satisfaction won’t trigger any memories of your own satisfaction so it won’t have an easy tie-in to your own self-interest. As important as emotion is, though, it can be hard to force ourselves to feel any particular thing at any particular time. For many people, it’s easier to develop rational arguments, and wait for emotion to come on its own, even though we need both reason and emotion.

    I also agree that narrative is important. Narrative knits together our ideas and feelings and helps us activate the stories of who we are and who we want to be.

    Another consideration is that we can really only work on our own moral characters (limited and shadowy though our self-consciousness must be) and we can have very limited impact on anyone else’s characters. If the ultimate goal is to get a large number of people to take a certain action, the most effective strategy might be just to enable them to do it, without worrying about their internal mental states such as whether or how they understand what they’re doing. Came across this today from Shawn Blore, “The Great Divide,” in an old issue of Adbusters, June-July 2000:

    “[Gen] Xers have ‘no window to see into men’s hearts,’ nor do they need one. There is no link whatever between moral purity and ecological impact. One can lie, cheat, and steal, manipulate, prevaricate and fornicate, and still tread lightly on the planet. What’s needed aren’t better people, but simply more energy-efficient forms of housing, and more environmentally friendly forms of transit to move the liars, thieves, and hypocrites (us, that is) from one den of iniquity to another.

    By abandoning the language of a moral crusade, one can work for change without worrying about the purity of someone’s motives. Instead of reforming people — a task that even saints and deities have found a challenge — you can work on reforming institutions, redesigning infrastructure, and providing concrete solutions for the 12 billion impure souls that will soon inhabit the earth.”

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