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Wednesday, November 23, 2022

You Can't Win at Morality

Kurt Gray, Will Blakey, and Carlos Rebollar
Moral Understanding Substack
Originally posted 26 OCT 22

Here is an excerpt:

Moral Ideals

Most of us want to do good in the world, and follow a set of moral guidelines, or “ideals.” But the word “ideals” has dangerous roots. The etymology of the very word “ideal” implies perfection, which we authors believe is bad.

 In 1796, Immanuel Kant used the word “ideal” to describe a hypothetically perfect person, thing, or state. It may have been easy for Kant to fetishize the perfect moral person, but it’s not clear that he is the best role model for us modern people (or anyone else). Kant was a weird guy. He once likened sex to sucking dry a lemon (scholars think he died a virgin), he thought you had to tell the truth even if it meant the slaughter of an innocent family, and he thought it was a good idea to get a portrait taken that highlighted his giant bald forehead and left most of his face in darkness (see picture).

Despite Kant’s questionable judgment, an ideal-driven ethics is widely promoted. Christianity’s most popular role model is Jesus, and they say he was perfect. Tony Robbins, self-help guru, says that we should become the best version of ourselves. The reasoning goes, “if our ideals are unachievable, that’s the whole point! They’re supposed to make you shoot for the moon.” This is why Kant’s idealism is so seductive. We think it’ll make us never stop improving ourselves. When it comes to role models, we don’t search for pretty good people, we search for moral perfection and emulate it to the best of our abilities.

As advocates for increasing moral understanding in the world, we are not arguing that people should stop striving to do good. But we do think that the quest for moral perfection can lead us astray. “The perfect is the enemy of the good” is a quote that’s useful in a lot of cases, but it’s especially useful when it comes to morality.

We argue that striving for moral perfection or “trying to win at morality,” has at least two main drawbacks: First, it can contribute to unhealthy thinking, and second, it can deter us from taking steps in the right direction. Instead, we propose that striving for more moral good (not the most) and practicing moral humility can help us do good in the world around us.

Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom… When Your Goal is Perfection

Achieving moral perfection is tricky because, as we saw with Janet, answers to the “most moral good” are uncertain. And this is a problem because uncertainty about big questions doesn’t feel good.

Take these big questions: Is God real? Are we living in a simulation? Why are we here and what is the meaning of life? For many, the uncertainty inherent in these questions is a background feature of life. But for others, including me (Will), it is too often an anxiety-provoking challenge. I struggle with “existential OCD,” a psychological disorder involving anxiety resulting from intrusive thoughts and discomfort about these big life questions. Not knowing why we’re all here or where we’re all going often stresses me out. But I’ve largely been able to combat this stress through therapy and renegotiating a better relationship with uncertainty.