[Related: ‘Should’ considered harmful, which ought to win some sort of award for the blog post that repulsed me when I first read it and then I kept mentally poking at it until I realized it was actually deeply insightful and totally right.]
[Content warning: fitspo to criticize it, effective altruism.]
A lot of people seem to view morality as this sort of grim obligation we are forced to discharge in order to get on with the business of living our lives. This position is perhaps most eloquently laid out in Nobody Is Perfect, Everything Is Commensurable, the thesis of which is that if you feel anxious and self-loathing unless you have done enough good, we have arbitrarily decided that “enough good” is equivalent to “donating ten percent of your income”, and if you have done that then you’re done now.
But to be honest, whenever I find myself reading blog posts like that, I find myself going: why?
I mean, I know that we keep doing this shit. I spend so much time feeling anxious, self-loathing, and ashamed because I’m a bad person that sometimes it seems like my most fundamental personality trait. I have spent approximately half my life low-key hating myself for falling down under the crushing burden of moral obligation.
But saying “if you donate ten percent of your income, then you don’t have to feel the grim burden of moral obligation anymore” doesn’t actually help me. It’s just playing Grim-Burden-Of-Moral-Obligation Whack-A-Mole. I’m donating ten percent, but I’ve also spent my entire life unemployed or underemployed, and so now I’m going to feel crippling anxiety and self-loathing about that. Wait, it’s because I’m mentally ill, so that’s probably okay– except that now I have to feel crippling anxiety and self-loathing about how slowly I’m recovering and whether I’m working hard enough on getting better. And if by some miracle I managed to get a well-paid job, I’d be freaking out all the time that I had managed to self-sabotage getting a promotion and wouldn’t be able to make a donation.
Even worse, I’ve found it creates this nasty crabs-in-a-bucket tendency in me. Instead of admiring people who are better than me, I find myself hating them. Every time I see someone who’s a vegan, or who’s donating twenty percent of their income, or who donates blood regularly, it’s not just them being good people, it’s another thing I need to do before I get to stop hating myself. This emotion is not just personally unpleasant but has bad consequences: I do not want to contribute to a community where people think “oh, I want to do $GoodThing, but I don’t want to trigger anybody’s self-hate, and I definitely don’t want to be a subject of seething resentment.”
And then recently I asked myself: why am I doing this?
Who put this burden of moral obligation on me? I think morality is a thing human brains do, an adaptation for living in groups, which I turn for my own uses just as I turn the adaptation for recombining DNA into enjoyable afternoons looking at gifs of large-breasted women taking their shirts off. There is nothing out there in the universe that says I have to feel guilty. And other people didn’t do this to me: not only is it true that approximately everyone I interact with wants me to stop hating myself, but if someone said to me “hey, Ozy, I think you should be curled in a ball of guilt and self-loathing” my answer would consist of the words “fuck” and “off”.
In short, the only possible answer to “who did this to me?” is “I did.”
Sometimes it is justified to cause yourself to feel unpleasant things. I am scared shitless of calling people on the phone, but I do it anyway, because some people refuse to use email like civilized people. So maybe there’s some kind of benefit from this crushing burden I have lain on myself.
If I give up the feeling of guilt and moral obligation, will I kill anyone or assault anyone or steal anything? Well, no. I don’t have the slightest desire to commit murder. It would probably make me really unhappy to have murdered someone.
Maybe that’s not a very fair example. After all, I feel no particular temptation to kill anyone; we should talk about something I do feel tempted to do. What about, say, responding to a friend setting a boundary with me by breaking into tears and telling them they don’t love me? That certainly seems very tempting in the moment, but I can’t imagine it’d be particularly good for our friendship. Besides, I’m friends with people because I care about them and want them to be happy; if I make setting boundaries around me dreadfully unpleasant, they’ll never set any boundaries, and then I’ll be hurting them all the time without knowing. So I don’t particularly want to do that either.
What about buying malaria nets for the Against Malaria Foundation? Of course I want to do that! I think it’s sad that people are dying of malaria, and I’d like to help. So I’ll donate, and I’ll work on being able to earn money in the future so I can donate more.
How about eating that delicious cookie that I know has eggs in it? Well, in the moment, it certainly smells wonderful, but I don’t really want chickens to be debeaked either. That sounds like it hurts! Those poor chickens! So nothing but Oreos for me.
What about my relationship with my parents? Well, I spent a whole lot of time feeling like it was my moral duty to continue to have a relationship with them, and it made me really miserable. And then I got angry and set a couple of reasonable boundaries and suddenly my experience of talking to my parents was infinitely more pleasant and, at least on my end, our relationship was much better. So, score one for doing-things-I-want-to-do-based decision-making procedures.
On the other hand, that terrible goddamn Moral Saints essay that makes me rock and shake and sob every time I read it? I don’t give a fuck about whether you think being a moral saint is a good idea, Susan Wolf. Nobody gave you input. I am not a moral saint (yet), but I would take a Moral Saint Pill in a heartbeat, because I want to.
But I don’t have to be a moral saint either! If you make an argument like “oh, from a utilitarian perspective, Ozy, you should at least have a minimum-wage job so you can donate money to charity”… well, I don’t want to? I am lucky enough to be in a privileged position where I can focus on my mental health and my writing, and I’m going to do that, because I want to and I can.
I mean! That is a terrifying thing to type! I am expecting a bunch of people to be like “Ozy, haven’t you noticed you’re a TERRIBLE PERSON? You don’t just get to do things because you WANT TO DO THEM! And if you do do that you don’t get to admit it! If you aren’t going to make yourself miserable, at the very least you need to self-flagellate about how horrible it is that you have class privilege when other people don’t.”
Fortunately, I don’t want to care about the opinion of imaginary people in my head.
And, you know, I think a lot of effective altruists struggling with moral obligation are in the same boat. There’s already a consensus about what you have to do not to feel guilty. You can’t do anything really glaringly evil, like being a Nazi or killing people or robbing banks. You should take care of your family, stay loyal to your friends, and take pride in your work. And around Christmas time, you should drop a couple dollars in the Salvation Army cup.
The fact that effective altruists have moved away from this consensus implies that our crushing sense of moral obligation isn’t doing a hell of a lot. If we didn’t want to be effective altruists, we wouldn’t be effective altruists. Most people aren’t. I mean, check it inside your own head: if you didn’t feel guilty about the suffering of animals and the global poor, would you still want to do something about it?
And, Christ, now that I’m thinking about it, it seems like there are crushing senses of moral obligation everywhere.
There’s a whole genre of fitspo like this:
Which implies that exercise is a boring, painful duty that we struggle through in order to prevent the horrible fate of being fat.
But… I actually like exercising? The ache in my muscles feels nice! I feel great afterward! I can do handstands against a wall, and maybe someday I will be able to walk around on my hands like Ty Lee! Exercise isn’t always enjoyable– sometimes the last thing I want to do is get off the couch and do a pushup– but all things considered I want to exercise. And in my experience, weightlifters love making their numbers go up, runners are passionate about the runner’s high, people who play sports appreciate the competition and camaraderie, and yogis won’t shut up about how everyone needs to do yoga. This whole “exercise is a grim horrible duty!” business just seems like it makes it harder for people to figure out what kind of exercise they enjoy, and therefore to feel motivated to actually exercise. (And in the event that you don’t enjoy any exercise, even going on a walk while listening to an audiobook, it seems to me that you have much better things to do with your life.)
Similarly, there are a whole bunch of traditionalists who won’t shut up about how marriage comes with certain obligations, and it’s a commitment, and it is your duty to do this, that, and the other thing. While one could disagree about their idea of what obligations marriage imposes on the spouses– and I do– it is striking to read essays about marriage that seem to completely miss the idea that spouses might love each other, and want to build their lives together, and choose to stay together and work on the relationship even when they are facing conflict or wish they’d chosen someone else, because fundamentally, on a very basic level, they want to be married to each other. And the thing is… all the couples I’ve met that were actually happily married don’t base their relationships on obligation or on self-sacrifice; they base it on the understanding that, no matter what happens, they are on Team Us.
Guys. It’s okay. Nobody is putting these yokes of moral obligation on us. No one is making us be skinny, or stay married, or give money to charity, or talk to your parents, or anything. We don’t have to hate ourselves or feel guilty or ashamed or anxious. It’s all made up.
If it’s something that actually matters to you– something that you genuinely care about– you’ll still do it, because it matters to you and you care about it. You don’t actually have to worry about not doing things you want to do. You might do less stupid shit that you don’t care about, but why are you doing stupid shit you don’t care about in the first place?
If you’re crushed under the burden of moral obligation, you can put it down.