Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

The Moral Equivalent to the Eat-Everything Weight Loss Diet

How jerks claim moral fitness while gorging on their favorite double standards.

Take my advice. You know what you should do?

Actually, if those words make you bristle a little, there’s some history. About 400 years ago, the enlightenment began to erode the foundation of society’s religious and political fundamentalism. Ever since, people have been less willing to take dictation. It’s gotten harder to just tell people what to do. We’re growing up. We no longer allow ourselves to stay children all our lives, doing what our parents, priests, and elders tell us to do merely because they say so.

So take my advice: Think for yourself.

Of course, some folks fear that with more people thinking for themselves, society will fall apart. So there’s a backlash. Some of us are surging back toward fundamentalism because the world seems dangerously immoral without more structure.

I don’t think we’re becoming immoral in the sense of abandoning morals so much as we’re becoming diversely and divergently moral. We still use moral arguments to justify our behavior, but we tend to do it more ad hoc, pulling out whatever moral code serves our interests best in any given situation.

For example, if you’re offended by someone’s honest feedback you might retaliate with the moral argument that one should always be more diplomatic. And if you’re offended that someone didn’t give you feedback earlier you can strike back with the moral argument that one should always be honest.

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If you want people to do what you tell them to, you can employ the moral argument that one should always be cooperative. If you want to avoid doing what they tell you to do, you can employ the moral argument that people should allow each other their liberty and freedom.

I like to eat. If I’m selective, I can summon a diet to endorse any treat I want. That bacon looks good. Pritikin’s says I can have all I want. Those waffles look good. The Bread For Life diet says I can have them. That cheesecake looks good. The High-Dairy Diet says go for it.

Call it the Selective Omni-Diet (SOD) approach. With as many diets as there are to choose from there’s probably one out there that says its fine for me to eat any and everything I like. And I’m always in total compliance with a diet!

Well some diet or other. I’ve used the SOD approach for years. Strangely I haven’t lost much weight. But I’ve been very cooperative with it and I love it because it allows me my liberty and freedom.

No, not really. Me personally, I eat pretty well, a lot of tofu and greens. But you get my point and you can see the parallel: I think we’re selective omni-moralist too. Highly moral, but omni-moral so free to be you and me.

It’s different from moral relativism, which is what the backlash fundamentalists fear most. They fear that we’re saying “hey man, it’s all good, live and let live, you believe what you want; I’ll believe what I want.”

I don’t think we are moral relativists. We don’t say it’s all good. We say that a particular moral is absolutely true, but don’t hold ourselves to its moral standard any more than the Pritikin-citing, bacon-eating SOD when he switches to waffles. We can summon a moral from any of a vast library of moral codes whenever we need it and then forget it when it becomes inconvenient.

In this, the fundamentalists are at least as bad as the rest of us. See, they have a secret weapon. They join a club that claims to be the last hope for consistent moral standards and they believe that simply by joining, they become permanently consistent so there’s no reason to ever wonder ever again whether they are inconsistent.

Call a non-fundamentalist on his inconsistency, there’s a chance he’ll listen and consider your argument. Not a great chance—we all hate to be called on our inconsistencies–but still a chance. A fundamentalist of whatever brand will, in effect, pull out his membership card and say, “Impossible, I’ve been officially and permanently cleared. How could I possibly be inconsistent? I’m one of the few remaining heroes making the world safe again for consistent absolute moral principles. I’m a member of the club that is officially and permanently cleared of any potential for inconsistency ever again.”

In a way it’s nothing new. Before the enlightenment religious and political leaders all over the world employed morality in an ad hoc manner while claiming to be the sole champions of moral consistency. What has changed is that many of us have decided to stop obeying those leaders and to think for ourselves. One of the consequences is a lot of ad hoc moralizing.

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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