“Live and Let Live”: So Easy to Say, So Hard to Do

Why is this moral precept so imperative yet so precarious?

Posted May 15, 2019

Pixabay Free Image
Source: Pixabay Free Image

One of the things that makes the dictum “live and let live” so popular is its extraordinary brevity. In just four words (and as many syllables), it’s an almost irrefutable edict on how we might best conduct our lives. But because this idiom of humane mutuality is so concise, writers have typically felt required to interpret—or expand upon—its meaning. And inevitably, some have gone out on a limb, elaborating on this celebrated expression in ideological ways not really implied by its literal meaning.

To be sure, given the maxim’s elegant simplicity, such biased (partisan?) explications have been pretty much unavoidable. For the mandate doesn’t really say anything about how, specifically, one ought to live—how, ideally, one should think, feel, and act, as regards not only one’s personal preferences, but others’ as well.

The Varied Meanings Attributed to “Live and Let Live”

What different writers have had to say about this seminal directive definitely transcends its dictionary definition. The Cambridge English Dictionary, for example, simply states that it denotes that “people should accept the way other people live and behave, especially if they do things in a different way.” Augmenting this elemental definition, writers have employed or implied such words or phrases as virtuous; open-minded, permissive, cooperative and compromising; respectful, tolerant, and accepting; living in harmony with others; non-judgmental, non-critical, and non-condemning; non-competitive, non-aggressive, and non-controlling—and, especially, non-violent.

Here are some examples (unless otherwise noted, from researchgate.net) of how writers have endeavored to elucidate the existential ideal so memorably encapsulated in this pithy behavioral edict:

  • [To me, it means] working decently and honestly, not lying, not stealing, not killing, not exploiting, not cheating others and not harming the biosphere . . . [and] to give others the same rights I can have and to expect the same demands and obligations. (András Bozsik, Univ. of Debrecen)
  • [It] expresses the idea that all should be able to live their lives in the manner they want to, regardless of what other[s] may think of them. (Ali hadi Ghawl (Univ. of Al-Qadisiyah)
  • [It defines] how we [should] behave toward others, whether we believe or not believe in [their] religion, doctrine or thought. (Isam Issa Omran, Al-Furat Al-Awsat Technical Univ.)
  • [And, more bluntly] it means to mind your own business and not interfere in someone [else’s] life. Everybody is free to act on [their] own will. (Violeta Janusheva, Univ. “St. Kliment Ohridski” - Bitola)
  • At any moment we make choices, and making [an] intelligent choice [my emphasis here to stress that many authors add this crucial caveat] implies causing minimal damage to people, animals, plants, and other aspects of the environment. [And also] this means cultivating the ability to predict the consequences of our actions. (David Charles Wright-Carr, Univ. of Guanajuato)
  • You should tolerate the opinions and behavior of others so that they will similarly tolerate your own. [And here I’d like to add that tolerate may be a poor word choice in explicating this universally lauded precept, for the word (paradoxically, to be distinguished from its more benign noun form, tolerance) connotes a kind of begrudging acquiescence with all the residual tension, or friction, that term implies—vs, the attitude of acceptance, which would enable the individual to relinquish any feelings of acrimony, antagonism, resentment, or estrangement that another’s differing thoughts and actions might otherwise induce.]  (Wright-Carr again)
  • [Taking, as do many other authors, a more political stance in expounding this axiom]: They [varied opinions] are the essence of democratic thinking. Regimentation, uniformity and similarity are the attributes of a dictatorial and fascist attitude. (Isha Jain, medium.com, 02/27/2016)
  • [And finally]: It is human nature to consider what we know and understand to be better than what is unfamiliar to us. Unfortunately, the more we judge and compare, the further behind we fall in acceptance and the journey toward being our own person [vs. defining ourselves solely on the basis of our group norms, which we assume are superior to those of other individuals adhering to substantially different codes of conduct]. (Kate Marino, teenink.com)

Why Acting in Accord With This Mandate Is So Difficult

Archaeologists, anthropologists, evolutionary psychologists, and historians have repeatedly found evidence that our abiding by the fundamentally cooperative edict of “live and let live” has challenged us since the advent of our species. Presumably, competing with others must somehow be in our bones—or genes. After all, it’s only natural that our most primitive ancestors would have been predisposed to confront one another in situations where natural resources vital to survival were in short supply. Whenever their lives felt threatened, their most primal instincts would have driven them toward combat with whatever animals, or humans from another tribe, were perceived as endangering it.   

In such instances, cooperation would have been experienced as an exorbitant luxury. For putting others’ needs on a par with their own could be fatal—it could lead to death by starvation, over-exposure to the elements, or abject surrender to those more belligerent than themselves. And, with animals, it could frankly determine who had whom for dinner.

True, our highly developed brains made us more adaptable and better fit for survival than our sub-human relatives. But being nonetheless part of the animal kingdom, we’d have been all-too-susceptible to acting in “pre-ethical” ways which, while understandable, aren’t particularly admirable. Innate survival mechanisms, whether or not they’re exaggerated, certainly don’t reflect our capacity for generosity, empathy, compassion, or altruism. When someone possesses that which we require—or desire—we may from deep within feel compelled to “hunt” them down and take it away from them. For then we can enjoy the heady “spoils of victory.” (And might this possibly be something akin to the dubiously ethical expression: “All’s fair in love and  war”?)

Consider this sobering quotation:

     "There have been great cruelties and persecutions in the world in the name of religion, nation, race, and caste. Innocent people have been tortured and maimed. Even little children and women have not been spared." (Jasvir Singh)

That is to say, failing to follow the humane, or humanistic, doctrine of “live and let live” doesn’t simply relate to survival (as generally it does with other animals), but something intrinsic to our nature—something that makes us vulnerable to behaviors we ourselves would designate as inconsiderate, irresponsible, or downright shameful.

As a psychologist, I’m tempted to blame almost all of this on human ego. And what that’s about is needing to see ourselves as separate from, and better than, others—and so allow us to feel entitled to fulfill our desires independent and (at least relatively) neglectful of another’s wants and needs. This self-interested trait seems to be one that, time and again, has compromised our ability to carry out our lives on the basis of ideals which, consciously, we universally applaud.

But the stratagems of ego go far beyond that. If virtually all of us need something outside ourselves to make us feel better from within, what needs to be understood is that we continue to be burdened by feelings of insecurity originating when we were children, that significant emotional residue yet remains from our ancient self-doubts. Never fully able to convince ourselves back then that we were totally okay, when we’re older we still experience an internal pull to prove ourselves, to compare ourselves favorably to others—especially when who they are is different from how we need to see ourselves. In such instances, we unconsciously feel obliged to put them down, to perceive their difference as somehow making them less than us.

Similarly, we can feel threatened in circumstances where those from the outside world seem to be giving us the message that it’s we who aren’t making the grade (implicitly, that they’re the better ones). The reason that we can be made so uncomfortable by criticism is that, at a level we may only be dimly aware of, such an “attack” feels destabilizing—not to say, degrading.

To put it a bit differently, being criticized feels as though our ego is under siege, triggering the urge to fight back, go into defensive mode, or exit the scene entirely. And these tendencies all too frequently overrule our (also built-in) instincts to comply and cooperate. In many instances, cooperating just seems less self-protective than competing or assessing negatively all that undermines our sense of being good enough.

So, note how I’m characterizing human nature. Although there’s recent literature showing how we’re primed at birth to be empathic (e.g., see D. Keltner, Born to Be Good, 2009), our “interpersonal” DNA would also appear designed to attack and defend others as a way of safeguarding a self-image more fragile than we’d like to admit, whether to ourselves or others.

In America today, the individualistic, materialistic culture that predominates doesn’t really promote cooperation so much as it does competition. Achieving higher social status, acquiring more goods than our neighbors, seeking to demonstrate our worth by focusing on our financial worth, are all goals commonly equated with success. And such success is routinely linked to happiness—which, as so many disillusioned individuals have discovered, represents a distorted equivalence.

Ironically, the Dalai Lama states that the ultimate purpose of life is happiness—but immediately adds that achieving this state doesn’t come from successfully competing with others, but from serving them, making their desires at least as important as our own. If ever an ethical approach bypassed the preferences of human ego, this viewpoint must surely be the one.

Contrast this perspective with that of all too many Americans, who base their lives on following their personal preferences, while contending with others who wish only to do the same. Letting others live as they please, as long as they don’t disrupt our own predilections, may be something we can do only begrudgingly, because others’ differing inclinations make us uncomfortable. On a societal (vs. personal) level, our discomfort simply mirrors how our culture has conditioned us. For, unawares, we struggle with not subordinating others’ desires to our own. Without conscious malice, too many of us have surrendered to a dog-eat-dog view of the world, which renders a “let live” orientation unrealistic—hardly “natural” at all.

It’s similar to the golden rule. In principle, almost everyone agrees with it. In fact, it’s a moral prerequisite in virtually every religion (e.g., see J. Wattles, The Golden Rule, 1996). But on a day-to-day basis, how many of us actually conform to it? And the same could be said about the edict to “live and let live.” It’s wonderful that so many of us do aspire to live this way. Yet all too often, it’s beyond our capacity—or self-control—to realize it.

And no doubt the reason why dystopian novels and films so far outnumber their utopian counterparts is that far fewer writers can envision the reality of such a favorable human evolution—as compared, that is, to those who have no difficulty forecasting its opposite.

NOTE: Complementary to this post is a multi-part post I wrote on the golden rule.

  1. Don’t Take It Literally!
  2. What Is It Missing?
  3. Its Uncanny Resilience
  4. Dreams of Utopia

© 2019 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D.  All Rights Reserved.