There’s a particular kind of morality most people seem to have, which you can call common-sense morality.
Common-sense morality works like this: there is a short list of things that you should do. If you do those things, you have earned your official Good Person Badge. You don’t have to feel guilty. In fact, if someone tries to make you feel guilty when you already have your Good Person Badge, they’re the ones violating common-sense morality. If you’ve followed common-sense morality, then you don’t have to think about morality any more or put any effort into becoming a better person.
These are some of the precepts of common-sense morality among people of my particular class background and political affiliation:
- Don’t murder, rape, or assault people.
- Don’t steal things.
- Don’t tell racist jokes or say the n-word.
- Don’t be cruel to animals you personally interact with.
- Call your parents.
- Love your children; don’t spank them; try to make sure they get into a good college; vaccinate.
- Give a little bit of money to charity when a disaster happens and around Christmastime.
You can usually tell that something is part of common-sense morality because people will reach a hysterical fever pitch of guilt-tripping whenever they think about the concept that someone doesn’t do it. Effective altruists get a bad rap for saying things that trigger scrupulosity, but they have nothing on upper-middle-class white progressives thinking about the concept that someone somewhere might vote third-party or (gasp) not vote at all.
There’s a lot of debate about what should count as common-sense morality. Some people think you should be able to tell racist jokes as long as they’re really funny; other people argue that not sending your child to a non-integrated school should be part of common sense morality. There has been a massive generational shift in the acceptability of repeatedly asking out one’s coworkers or making comments about how attractive their butts are. Some effective altruists have attempted to add “give ten percent of your income to an effective charity” to the common-sense morality list.
There are a lot of advantages to common-sense morality, which is why it is so popular. For one thing, you do a couple of easy things that pretty much everyone can do, and you’re done. That’s morality sorted. You don’t have to worry about it anymore. You get to feel better than all the people who don’t manage common-sense morality. And you can have the most guilt-based, shame-ridden relationship to morality imaginable, and it’s not a problem as long as you don’t kill anyone.
I think a lot of people’s solution to scrupulosity problems is to convince scrupulous people that they should do common-sense morality like everyone else. (Certainly, that’s the majority of the advice I’ve ever gotten about scrupulosity.) I’m not going to rule out the possibility that this works for some people, but it works abominably terribly for me, for a couple reasons.
Most obviously, it doesn’t do anything for my anxiety. I can say “okay, the standard for ethical behavior is that I can’t tell racist jokes or kill anyone and I have to give ten percent of my income to charity,” but I will continue to be anxious about whether I’m a good person. I will worry endlessly that that joke I told is maybe a racist joke, or that I might get an impulse to kill someone. I will be frightened that maybe ten percent isn’t the right number, and maybe actually we should set the number at fifteen percent, or twenty percent, or five percent. Normal people might be able to go “welp, I’ve done the common-sense morality things, time to stop worrying about morality”, but I’m not a normal person.
Common-sense morality is also really bad at handling people who have utterly failed it. Well, it’s good at handling the people who have utterly failed it from the perspective of most people, who enjoy the pleasant sensations of righteousness and moral outrage, but it’s terrible at handling the people who have utterly failed it from the perspective of a person who has done seriously morally wrong things before and expects that they may do so in the future.
If you have done something seriously morally wrong, then your Good Person Badge has been taken away. Perhaps there is an amount of self-flagellation that will cause people to agree that you’re a good person, particularly for omissions or more minor crimes. But from a lot of people’s perspective if you say the N word or hurt a puppy or shoplift makeup then you are an N Word Sayer or an Animal Abuser or a Thief for the rest of time, no matter what you do. There’s no process for making amends and having your sins forgiven; you are just a target to elicit feelings of righteousness and moral outrage in others.
Finally, following common sense morality means you cannot significantly outperform your society. Many people cherish the belief that this is not so, because right now being a slaveowner or a Nazi goes against common-sense morality, and so of course they think they wouldn’t be a slaveowner or a Nazi. But in the past you would not have had present-day common-sense morality; you would have had the past’s common-sense morality. If you were a wealthy white person in the South two hundred years ago, you would have owned slaves. If you were a non-Jewish person in Germany in the 1940s, you would not have rescued any Jews from the Nazis. If you were a Chinese mother in the 1800s, you would have broken your daughter’s feet so that she could barely walk. In all cases, these people were following the ordinary common-sense morality of their societies.
Perhaps the slaveowner or the footbinding mother or the Nazi does not need to feel guilty about what they did, and certainly they’re not going to face social opprobrium. But my primary reason for caring about ethics is not that I will feel guilty if I don’t, or that I’m afraid that people will criticize me; my primary reason for caring about ethics is that I don’t like it when people suffer. I want to oppose the needless suffering that happens in my society, the same way that I would oppose slavery or Nazism or footbinding. For that reason, I want an ethical system that lets me do that.