Life, for all its beauty, is a bumpy ride. Sooner or later, we are all forced to confront suffering, unnecessary death, and the darker aspects of human nature. Yet most normal people do not simply experience these things as passive observers. We are participants. Our great strength is that, upon encountering this sort of darkness, most of us will choose to stand firm and fight back. We witness morally important phenomena, we form a view that certain things are morally desirable or undesirable, and we support or oppose them.
It sounds easy but, of course, even a child could tell you that it isn’t that simple. Being good is really hard. Moral considerations exist as just one of a series of competing priorities in our decision making process. Others, such as the desire for sleep, food and romance aren’t about to step aside without a fight. And some of the time, moral considerations compete with each-other – that which is compassionate might conflict with that which is just. This article touches on the philosophy and psychology of that conflict.
We won’t be solving the fundamental factional debates of the field of moral philosophy today, so let’s leave them aside for now. We’ll try to remain agnostic on whether moral virtues, or adherence to a set of moral rules, or pursuit of certain moral consequences are the superior approach. Likewise, let’s leave for another day the question of whether morality is personal, cultural, universal or absolute. We’ve all seen people debate such things to death, so let’s set our sights on something a little more… novel.
Let’s start with a very simple model for a person’s moral development. As they grow and learn of the world, most people encounter a subset of experiences they consider, for whatever reason, to be morally significant. Armed with their experience of these phenomena a person has a starting point and an opportunity to form moral positions (whether conceptualised as virtues, rules or consequences). For example, while the theoretical frameworks might differ, most reasonable people, upon first encountering the phenomenon of murder, will agree that it is morally undesirable. From there they may move to a formal expression of that view, such as “murder is wrong”. While the specific mechanisms might be of importance to different schools of thought, this basic process doesn’t seem particularly objectionable or worrisome in the hands of someone trying to morally grapple with a difficult and confronting world.
However, if morally significant events (direct experience, description or stories) allow us to develop moral views, then it would seem to follow, ignoring for now any competing non-moral priorities, that our accumulation of moral experiences would allow us to constantly develop and improve our morality. We would over time become more familiar with the evils of the world, and assuming we have the moral capacity, we would gradually become opposed to them all, and stand for what is good and pure. Put simply, morality depends on knowledge, and if we gain more knowledge of the morally significant aspects of the world, we would theoretically develop a more complete morality. Of course, in reality, it doesn’t quite work that way. But why?
A moral hero
For the sake of exploring this idea, I wish to invite you, just for moment, to imagine a hypothetical person. This person is magically able to witness and comprehend an almost limitless quantity of human moral experiences, randomly selected from all humans that have lived up until the present day. So they have seen an immense amount of the everyday fabric of life, death, suffering and joy, experienced from the perspectives of a great variety of people. Based upon what we have discussed so far, this “moral hero” would develop a very good understanding of the morally significant phenomenon in the world. After a while, they would see many instances of murder, joy, renewal, suffering (substitute in whatever good and evil you wish here), and would have a very broad moral perspective. Over time, having “seen it all before” and having time to reflect on the relative importance of various moral problems, they would be able to refine and stabilise a very refined, thorough, complete moral view. Let’s call this hypothetical moral position “comprehensive morality“.
In our own lives, immense barriers stand in the way of comprehensive morality. The first and most obvious is that morality isn’t the only consideration present in human decision making. We face the challenges of work and survival, we get tired or bored or lazy, we fall in love, we go through trauma and grief. That need not necessarily limit our understanding of morality, even if following through is difficult, but our attention will still be constantly divided between a multitude of pressing concerns. Because of our imperfections and biases, our moral theories will probably settle somewhere in the no-man’s-land between what is right, and what hedonistically suits us.
If we consider ourselves in comparison with our hypothetical magical hero, a second rather obvious difficulty emerges. We simply don’t have access to anywhere near that sort of quantity of human moral experience. Instead, we have the experiences of just one person (ourselves). If we are open-minded and empathetic, part of that experience may include the stories and descriptions of the morally significant experiences of family, friends or perhaps our favourite authors. Still, our lives are hopelessly dependent on our social networks and personal circumstances. Considered in comparison to the vast experience of our magical example, our existence is one of sheltered, insular social cliques of very similar people, often facing fairly similar moral challenges and subject to a particular set of harms, injustices and dangers. We all read certain types of literature and articles, hang out in certain types of people, and talk about certain topics over lunch or dinner with acquaintances. With the availability of the internet, we can even limit ourselves to interacting with people with the from an obscure niche interest or ideological group. Our exposure to comprehensive moral experience is hopelessly skewed, at best.
However, there is a third, less obvious factor, one that I believe is rarely, if ever considered. Even our hypothetical moral hero might fall to its attacks.
The challenge arises from the fact that our moral experiences are not chronologically neutral. New morally significant ideas and evidence do not arrive in an empty vacuum, but instead wander into an overcrowded and occupied environment, populated by our existing moral conclusions and values. Even in the case of our magical moral champion, it becomes important to ask, “how do existing moral views interact with new moral experiences?” Here I’d like to suggest that both common sense and the limited available psychological evidence point to the following (anthropomorphised) answer: moral values take the occasional ally, but generally speaking, they are best thought of as hostile, paranoid and extremely territorial in their relation to other ideas, when in the brains of moral people.
The best representation of this process is embodied in the moral application of the adage “people believe what they wish to be true, and what they fear to be true”. The psychological evidence in this area, such as experimental exploration of cognitive bias, and well as correlation between political affiliations and biased memory and processing of ideas, has a common theme too. People seem to operate on a sort of threat heuristic. They are constantly “scanning” the horizon for threats, not just in the physical area or even their social situation, but also in the realm of ideas. So when we a new idea or piece of evidence is presented, while we may be moderately interested to know if it is true or false, our main instinctual priority is to discover whether or not it is a threat to our existing moral values. If we’re immersed in a world of conflicting moral views, its not entirely unreasonable to a apply a certain level of suspicion. Yet we seem to go much further. On a theoretical level we might recognise that if the evidence or idea is true and sound, we would probably update our moral priorities, but in practice there is a stealthy but almost irresistibly strong urge to diminish, distort or destroy the new moral content.
Imagining our moral magician now, we see the result may be somewhat less appealing than our ideal, comprehensive morality. As the hero develops more moral views, so they develop the increasing biases and moral defensiveness that go with them. On average, new moral content is more and more likely to conflict with existing values. The hero’s morality probably never starts going backwards, but moral progress becomes increasingly difficult until eventually, the whole process grinds to a halt. The end product is not the supremely refined comprehensive morality we first expected, but is instead a stunted variant that we can call constricted morality.
A moral anti-hero
As the moral hero is quite useful for understanding this concept, so I find it quite advantageous to consider their inverse, the moral anti-hero. Rather than being evil, this is a character that has strong capacity for morality, but an extremely narrow set of moral experience to draw on. This is not because they lack the experiential capacity, but because their morality has become constricted at an extremely early stage of development. So, for example, they were mercilessly teased as a child in school, and formulated the idea that all cruelty was almost infinitely evil. Consequently, even the most innocent, friendly teasing is morally punishable by unlimited retribution – in the anti-hero’s mind, arguments or evidence that murder is bad are rejected because they get in the way of solving the central moral issue of cruelty, and murderous retaliation becomes perfectly justifiable.
Choosing a path
In our hearts, most of us would prefer to be a successful version of the moral hero, imbued with comprehensive morality. Really, the moral hero is the best in us, its the self we’d all like to be. But is there hope for the moral hero? Perhaps. The first problem, the one of competing priorities, is not easily overcome. One theme detectable in many of the world’s various philosophical systems is to make life decisions that keep the sources of that kind of competition, particularly the frivolous and unnecessary ones, on a tight mental leash. Here we remember the value of people over possessions, friendships over popularity, quiet achievement over ego.
The second peril of limited experience can be partially mastered in part through the gift of modern technology and knowledge – a moral person can use the internet to educate themselves of the challenges faced by people outside their social group, using statistics to achieve objectivity and breadth, while using more personal, qualitative and empathetic investigations to add depth and autheticity of understanding.
The third problem, that of constricted morality, is chiefly an internal struggle of will. It is the challenge of appreciating that our moral views are worthwhile but imperfect, and to gather new knowledge of the world in that spirit of growth. It is never easy. But in contemplating that and reminding ourselves of our dilemma, there is hope. In the end, we all have a choice – to settle for the constricted morality of the anti-hero, or to pursue a more heroic ideal of comprehensive morality.