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[Attention conservation notice: Navel-gaze-y.]
[Content warning: brief discussion of eating disorders.]


This essay is very personal. On scrupulosity, even more so than on other issues, I am acutely aware of the reality that different things work for different people, and that the advice that saves and soothes me is poison to someone else. We do not have best practices for dealing with scrupulosity yet. And for scrupulous people even more than for other groups, advice may be easily taken as orders; if the things that work for me don’t work for you, you can conclude that you are evil because they don’t work for you. This is not my intention. If my strategies work for you, excellent; if they do not, try something else. Write about it. We need more people who deal with scrupulosity talking about the techniques that work for them.


I recently read an essay by Peter Singer, Ethics Beyond Species and Beyond Instincts, in which he defined the moral as that which is universalizable, in this sense: “We can distinguish the moral from the nonmoral by appeal to the idea that when we think, judge, or act within the realm of the moral, we do so in a manner that we are prepared to apply to all others who are similarly placed.”

I read that, sat back, and said to myself: “I cannot do morality.”

I cannot do it in the same sense that an alcoholic cannot drink, and a person with an eating disorder cannot go on a diet. I am incapable of engaging with universalizable morality in a way that does not cause me severe mental harm. While I can reject a universalizable moral claim on an intellectual level, I am incapable of rejecting them– no matter how absurd or contradictory to other things I accept– on an emotional level. If I fail to live up to such a claim, I will hate myself and curl in a ball and be utterly nonfunctional for a few hours, causing harm to both myself and those who have to put up with me.

So (with much backsliding) I have started to make an effort to weed out the universalizable morality from my brain. I do things I want to do, and I don’t do things I don’t want to do. I do not mean a simplistic sense of ‘want’ here. If a person is trying to kick the caffeine habit, they may deeply crave a cup of coffee, but they can still be said to “really want” to not drink caffeine. Notably, this does not require that we create a universalizable moral rule that no one ought to drink caffeinated beverages.

This resolution may prompt the question of why I’m an effective altruist. Well, I want to. It is nowhere written that I am not allowed to have preferences about states of the world, and as it happens I prefer worlds in which fewer people die horrible painful deaths to worlds in which more people do. I do not care about it as the most important thing in my life, but as one of perhaps half a dozen equally important goals. I would, of course, prefer that more people become effective altruists, and I will act in such a way that more people become effective altruists, but that does not require any justification other than my own preferences.

This is the reason, I think, that I am triggered by so much discourse around scrupulosity. It is not engaged in the project of stepping away from universalizable morality and learning to live without it; instead, it is engaged in the project of coming up with a form of universalizable morality that most people can achieve, and (often) of criticizing other systems as unrealistic and inhuman. (See that fucking Moral Saints essay.) For me, this is sort of like going up to an anorexic and saying “look, that diet you’re on is very unrealistic! You need to get on Weight Watchers instead.” If the anorexic could get on Weight Watchers and not have this predictably result in eating-disordered behavior, they wouldn’t fucking have anorexia anymore.

(People actually do give that advice, because people are the worst at putting themselves in other people’s shoes.)

Also, like, what if I want to be more morally saintly than Susan Wolf prefers? At least utilitarianism has the advantage that when it’s telling me to do shit I don’t want to do, it’s telling me to prevent children dying horrible deaths, rather than telling me to be someone Susan Wolf wants to hang out with. Why do I care whom you want to hang out with, Susan Wolf? I have literally never met you!


One of the most useful techniques for me in coping with my scrupulosity is training myself to respond to universalizable moral claims by adopting the attitude in this picture:

BDSM is disrespectful to the dignity of the human person? Literally no one asked for your opinion!

Effective altruism is wrong because we should help people in our own neighborhoods first? Remind me again why I care?

Promiscuous women are being unfair to men because they only have sex with attractive men and not with the unattractive ones? Uh, who asked you?

Being fat is morally wrong because of the burden on our healthcare system and because people should be physically fit? I don’t recall asking for your input!

I am working on trying to parse universalizable moral claims as people having opinions about their own preferences which they then choose to extend to me. “I want there not to be any promiscuous women, therefore you have to want there not to be any promiscuous women!” No, I don’t. In fact, I am generally in favor of the existence of promiscuous women. It is an argument as absurd as saying that because you like dark chocolate therefore I must like dark chocolate.

(I know this isn’t actually true– universalizable moral claims are actually different than statements of preferences– but it’s sure as hell useful.)

A notable exception to this technique is moral philosophy, where I simply extended my eyes-glazed-over “why does anyone care about this bullshit?” attitude to metaphysics to normative ethics as well.


Part of my problem, I think, is that I don’t feel guilty enough.

This is an odd problem for a scrupulous person to have, but I think it’s true. An observation that comes up a lot in dialectical behavioral therapy is that for people with severely dysregulated emotions, an emotion that you have too much of is often a result of using that emotion to cope with another emotion you’re afraid to feel. For instance, a person who feels angry all the time might be shutting down their natural feelings of sadness at a loss, because they feel like if they start crying they might never stop.

Whenever I’m in a situation that should logically prompt guilt, instead I feel shame. I do not recognize that I have done something that goes against my long-term desires and acknowledge that I want to do better in the future. Instead, I think that I am a bad person, that others will hate me, that I am inherently evil and nothing I can do will wash the impurities away, that I will never be approved of or praised…

Of course, this is not right. The usefulness of guilt is in pointing out when I have violated my own standards; the approval or disapproval of other people does not particularly matter, except that they have an outside view and might be able to tell when I am being too hard or easy on myself. But, like I said, I care about my own preferences; while I do care about other people’s happiness, I do not give a flying fuck about their thoughts on whether parents should sacrifice everything for their kids or whatthefuckever.

But my brain slides, so subtly that I don’t even notice it, from the question of “did I do something that I don’t really want to do?” to the question of “does everyone hate me? am I inherently evil?” That first question is scary. It involves things like ‘taking responsibility’ and ‘making amends’ and ‘self-improvement’. All of that sounds like work. On the other hand, if you’re inherently evil, you don’t have to try to get better; you just have to try to stop existing, which is much easier. And if most people don’t care about me failing my own standards (which they don’t, because they don’t even know me, and also my standards are higher than most people care about), then I can determine that they don’t hate me, and never address the question of whether I’m failing to reach my goals. Because, you know, that would be hard. Self-flagellation is easy.


Recently, I was having a conversation with an acquaintance who’s a negative utilitarian. He asked what my particular brand of morality was, and I began my usual “well, it’s kind of handwavey, but…” spiel, bracing myself for an argument about why I cared about things other than suffering and didn’t I realize that suffering was the most important issue and blah blah. Part of the way through, he interrupted me, smiled, and said “oh! You have complex values!” and the conversation moved on.

This made me feel really nice. Part of the reason, I think, is that I didn’t have to defend my position. He was a negative utilitarian. I was not. There were ways in which we could benefit each other: after all, I don’t particularly like suffering either, and so we could help each other on the common project of making there be less suffering in the world. Agreement on normative ethics or on ultimate goals was not necessary.

It felt freeing. He had his own morals, but (at least in that conversation) they didn’t have to be universalizable; he was comfortable with me believing differently from him. I didn’t have to be ashamed. It was great.