“If everyone cared and nobody cried
If everyone loved and nobody lied
If everyone shared and swallowed their pride
Then we'd see the day when nobody died”
- I have officially sunk to quoting Nickelback
Intuitively, humans tend to think that bad things happen because of bad people. If only everyone were caring and loving and humble and shared with each other, then cancer would be magically cured. Apparently technical issues ranging from cytokine signals to senescence-autophagy choice to drug specificity can all easily be resolved by sufficient loving and sharing.
Of course, it sounds completely stupid when you put it like that, but Nickelback just takes the usual stupidity and stretches it into hyperbole. Ever notice how people think marching in the street will somehow make it easier to cure cancer?
I call this sort of thinking morality projection. People think of the world in terms of Good and Bad: doing Good things will cause everybody to be happier and healthier and generally better off, while doing Bad things will cause everybody to be sadder and die sooner and be generally worse off. Conversely, if people are unhappy, it must be because of Bad People doing Bad things, or at least not enough Good People doing Good things.
This post is about how to avoid morality projection in your own thinking.
A few years ago, I decided to taboo all moralizing terms in my own head, just as an experiment for a week. If I caught myself thinking “X is good”, then I had to cross out that thought and replace it with “I would like X” or “X would result in Y, which I would like” or “X would result in Y, which lots of people would like”. Similarly with “X is bad”, or right/wrong, or “should”. Especially “should” - that one was particularly insidious. The goal was not simply to replace morally-flavored words, but to reduce moral concepts down to peoples’ preferences wherever they appeared.
I was shocked by the extent of morality projection in my own head. I was expecting political thoughts to be the main offender, but there was so much more - choices of food, clothing, social interaction, work habits, sleep schedule, financial habits... moralization was hiding everywhere. Everywhere were long-since-absorbed social lessons on the “right” thing to eat or to wear, “good” habits, all the little things one “should” do. All these lessons, absorbed when I was too young to question them, were suddenly thrust back into my awareness and re-examined.
Of course, I also started to notice morality projection in others - and I started to notice myself projecting on others as well. I caught myself thinking of others as “bad” when they engaged in “bad” habits, or ate the “wrong” foods, or didn’t act as they “should”. Even after recognizing the flaws in many of society’s lessons, it’s still hard to adjust your standards of others accordingly.
Halfway through the week, I knew this experiment had to become permanent. Turns out, a large chunk of the little things society teaches us are either pointless, situational, or just plain counterproductive.
I’m not going to write out a long list here, because people will just argue with it. When you’ve been trained from childhood to view some foods as good and others as bad, some habits as good and others as bad, and so forth, challenges to that worldview just trigger cached responses. I bet most of the people reading this got fired up when I criticized marching for cancer, for instance.
So I’ll just say this: try it. Just try it for a week. Taboo all the little “good” and “bad” and “should” thoughts, ask yourself whether each little thing actually achieves something you want.
Here are some examples to start off:
- “X is a good idea” -> “X would make it easier to achieve goal Y”
- “X is bad” -> “X would make lots of people unhappy”
- “I should do X” -> “X would make it easier to achieve goal Y”
- “I should do X” -> “X would make it easier to achieve lots of my goals”
- “I should do X” -> “If I don’t do X, lots of people will be angry at me”
- “They should do X” -> “If they do X, it will make it easier to achieve goal Y”
- “They should do X” -> “X needs to be done in order to achieve Y, and it will be easiest for them”
- “X is healthy” -> “X has high vitamin content”
- “X is polite” -> “X avoids confrontation”
- “X would be a nice thing to do” -> “X would make someone feel happy, which is something I want”
In general, replace anything that conveys a positive feeling without a specific physical interpretation. Words like “good”, “should”, “healthy”, “polite”, “nice”, etc all feel positive, but don’t mean anything specific. Phrases like “I want” or “they want” are fine, emotions are fine, anything with a specific physical meaning is fine.
One final note. Some clever person is bound to say “Why don’t we just define ‘good’ as whatever makes people happier/live longer/generally better off?” That is a perfectly decent definition of “good”, but it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with any of the things we usually consider “good” or otherwise virtuous. So you’re welcome to define good that way, but you’ll still need to go through and check that all the things we usually think of as “good” meet the new definition… and that’s going to be a lot harder with an overloaded word floating around.