With Moral Do's and Don'ts, the Don'ts are Better

How to be an ideal person? No! How not to skate on thin ice into jerkdom.

Posted Jan 31, 2018

I think we’ve been going about morality back-asswards. So much of moral thinking is about defining the ideal way to live. I think it should be about how not to live. As a researcher in evolution, I’m devoted to what I’ll call constraint-based morality.

In a free society, you don’t want to tell folks what to do but you still have to put a leash on jerk behavior.

I ground this assumption in how evolution works. Natural selection is not survival of the fittest, but the survival of the fit enough. It’s not as though only the absolute fittest survive. Rather evolution is whatever works within limitations – constraints. Nature doesn’t dictate how to live but it does limit what will. It’s constraint-based.

Think of it like skating on a frozen lake. You can skate anywhere but watch out for those thin spots where you’d fall in and die. 

Morality is like that too. Beware of skating on thin ice. The real moral questions are about where that thin ice is.

And here’s the paradox that I’ve arrived at after 20 years thinking about constraint-based morality: Embracing the conventional moral-ideal approach to morality is skating on thin ice.

It’s moral perfectionism, the idea that you’ve finally found the One True Way to live. Armed with that ideal, you join an idealistic morality police force. You go around the world enforcing the One True Way, ticketing and punishing those who fall short of your ideal.

Until recently, I’ve thought of moral idealism as like drawing a wild, trump card. See, the ideal is often the product of revelation, the truth revealed to you in some flash of insight or epiphany that gives you access to some supernatural source of moral truth, a source beyond the known reality, or at least beyond human values. The moral ideal is, therefore, a wild card, since it’s revealed, not based on reality as we know it but an ideal we can imagine and therefore can be about anything and never can never be proven wrong. And since it comes from some other spiritual or supernatural realm, it's super. It trumps all other morality. It’s the One True Way that no one can ever prove wrong.

One doesn’t have to be religious or spiritual to draw one of these cards. Plato, the founder of idealism didn’t ground his ideals in God but in some unseen realm of perfection. He thought you could discover the ideal by reason, though his most famous story suggests that it can come to you by revelation:

You’re trapped in the world of illusion – Plato’s cave. You break free and escape out into the harsh sunshine of absolute ideal truth.

“I once was lost but now I’m found, was blind but now can see.”

You’re now a philosopher king. Your mission is to return to the cave and free the deluded and smite the deluders. Dictators resonate with this interpretation of Plato’s cave, which has nothing to do with Gods or the supernatural.

Trump is not a religious man though he gives lip service to religion to pander to the Evangelicals. Still, he acts as though he has drawn a wild, trump card, as though he is the moral police chief. His antics show exemplify how thin the ice gets when you claim a wild, trump card.

Pretending to be the enforcer of the ideal is a recipe for thin-ice hypocrisy since of course, you don’t live up to your claimed ideal. What you do instead is act as though you have internalized the ideal and that therefore you can trust your gut on who to ticket and punish. You translate every subjective dissatisfaction into an accusation. If you’re disappointed, they must have violated the moral ideal that you claim to embody.

The moral ideal can be anything. It doesn’t matter what you believe, but how you identify with it as though you’re the supreme court, the impartial judge deciding what’s moral. Idealism is the path to that horrid, jerk, sweet spot of projection, hypocrisy and feigned authority:

“If there’s a problem it’s them, not me. I know, because I’m the neutral moral authority. I could never be a hypocrite. I hate hypocrites. I police them. So moi?! A hypocrite?! Impossible!”

Trump is our thin-ice skater in chief. If he doesn’t get us all killed, he’ll prove our best lesson in how to corrupt through moral idealism. But he’s not alone. I know leftists, Buddhists, spiritualists and philosophers who are drawn to the same moral idealism, wild, trump cards.

Last night, reading a long history of evangelicals, I realized that I had a card missing. Moral idealism comes from picking up wild, trump, get out of jail free cards.

Constraint-based morality generates doubt. We can skate anywhere but always wary about whether we'll end up on thin ice. If you don’t want to be a jerk, expect some anxiety.

Moral idealism frees you from anxiety about whether you’re skating near thin ice. With it, you get out of the anxiety-jail free.

What unifies the wild diversity of Evangelicalism today and throughout history is the belief that one can be born again and with very little effort. Evangelicalism (originally the “Good news”) began with revivals, speaking in tongues and being “saved.” Once you’re saved, you can do no wrong except if your faith is insincere, in other words, if you return to doubt and anxiety.

You are destined to end up in heaven, but into the bargain (and perhaps the main draw) you get heaven on earth, freedom from doubt, anxiety and worry about whether you’re living right. Drawing a wild, trump, get out of jail anxiety-free card is therefore quite the draw.

To mark the new card I added, I wrote this limerick last night:*

Wild, trump, get out of jail free card

My faith was revealed – you can't test it.
It trumps all, so you lose, you can't best it.
It freed me from doubt
liberation I tout.
Your only way out is to quest it.

Earlier in the day I wrote:*

BREAKING NEWS: Researchers have discovered that all organizations are collections of fallible humans. As a result, experts conclude that degrees of fallibility matter and, further warn against people and organizations feigning infallibility by scorning the fallibility of other people and organizations.

People who think they can do no wrong can do lots of wrong. wild, trump, get of of jail cardholders are like local dictators. They’ll gaslight, engage in hypocrisy, magical thinking, abuse, pretzel-logic – anything to sustain their faith. Their faith is only secondarily faith in some moral ideal; it’s primarily faith in oneself. They skate on and break through thin ice, often taking others down with them.

The alternative I urge is constraint-based morality. In a free society that you want to keep free, live and let live with the people you don’t have to live with. Negotiate and duke it out with those you have to live with, but based on preferences, not some false claim to represent the ideal. Watch out lifelong for that thin ice.  If you don’t want to be a jerk expect some inescapable anxiety.

Constraint-based morality represents another interpretation of Plato’s cave. You realize that you were deceived. Your revelation is that you can be deceived. You don’t buy into the dictator’s philosopher king attitude that you had the epiphany that gave you the One True Way (an approach I’ll call “I once was lost but now I’m blind”) Instead, you work on yourself and with others, committed to the anxious lifelong work to avoid the thin ice.

* I use FB as my idea notepad writing several one-liners like these on my wall every day. Friend me on FB if you’d like to check them out.