Are you a caring person? What does being a caring person even mean? We all care about some things and not others. How could we do otherwise?
Are you a giving person? We all give and take.
Are you an open person? Of course – open to some things, and closed to others.
We humans have a funny way of turning things we sometimes do into things we should always do. We turn tactics into absolute moral truths, available options into absolute optimums.
Caring is a thing we sometimes do. It’s a tactic in our repertoire, as is not caring. Think of how many ways we over-generalize from sometimes-tactics to always-truths. For example:
Always be giving, yet we each give some and take some.
Always be open, yet we are each open to some things and not others.
Always be tolerant, yet we each tolerate some things and not others.
Always be fair, yet we’re each fair to some and not others (for example, the developing world people out of sight and mind who make our lifestyle possible.)
Never be ignorant, yet we’re each aware of some things and ignorant of others. We each ignore things and are glad of it.
So why do we mistake these sometimes-tools for universal moral truths?
In part, because we use moral absolutes as correctives. For example, when we think there’s too little tolerance in society, we correct for it the way negotiators would. We ask for everything and settle for less. We don’t just ask for an adjustment toward greater tolerance. Instead, we make a pure virtue out of the extreme: absolute tolerance. We don’t have to worry about it making us too tolerant – no chance of that, given our tendency toward intolerance.
We also use these moral absolutes to our personal advantage: If you don’t tolerate me as much as I’d like, I can pretend that tolerance is the highest virtue and that you’re failing to live up to it. I can bully and morally blackmail you. If you don’t tolerate me more, I’ll declare you an “intolerant person,” whatever that means.
And why do we buckle under such moral blackmail? Because most of us are at least a little anxious about whether we’re living right, and most of us have a sense that living right is living by some simple moral rule book that would include such nonsense as always be caring or always be tolerant.
To get a sense of how anxiety breeds commitment to nonsensical moral rules, imagine that you’re very lost at a fork in the road. You decide to try the east fork and it gets you home, which is such a relief given how lost and anxious you felt. The relief becomes a revelation: Everyone should turn east always.
Our commitments to nonsense morality often takes this form. We were lost but then found by applying some technique. The relief is so immense that we decide the technique is the solution to all our problems, even to everyone’s problems always.
Many of us have had exaggerated revelations like this or at least have heard from others who have had them. Religions and spiritual doctrines are full of them.
Why don’t we live up to Jesus’s standard of universal love? Because it’s impossible. Love as more than mere lip service takes effort which we each have in limited supply. We can’t love everything. Jesus didn’t either, as is obvious when you read his many critical statements.
Why don’t we live up to Buddha’s standard of universal non-attachment? Because it’s impossible. Indeed, it makes a pure virtue out of the opposite of caring or loving. You’re attached to anyone and anything you love. Loving without attachment would be as absurd as:
A: Honey, I love you. I care about you so much. I’m grateful for the mutual love and care we show each other.
B: I’m flattered, but I’m leaving you to marry your best friend. Sorry.
A: Hey cool, no problem. I’m unattached. Bye.
Let it be a load off your mind that you can’t and needn’t try to live up to these ridiculous moral absolutes. Don’t let yourself be bullied by them. There’s no virtue in treating tactics as truths. In fact, there’s deep vice in it. Nothing breeds hypocrisy quite like pretending to try to live up to morals we couldn’t possibly apply in real life.
The real moral questions are where to care and not care, what to tolerate and not tolerate, what to love and not love, what to be open and close to, what to attend to and what to ignore, etc.
Indeed, embracing such nonsense moral “truths” stunts growth on addressing such questions. For example, if you think that love is always the answer, you’re not going to get around to the question of what to love and not love. And you’ll mangle the difference between not loving and loving. You’ll fall into doublespeak like “Oh don’t get me wrong I love the things I hate. I love everything, even the stuff I don’t love.”
Divorce this moral nonsense and you’ll quickly start making better decisions and feeling better about the decisions you make.