Feeling Like a Moral Failure

Taking responsibility for what’s not yours can be disastrous.

Posted Jul 31, 2014

Why is it so easy for some of us to feel like a moral failure? We can feel like a moral failure about the most common ordinary things. Anything has the potential to elicit this judgment. It may be liking the “wrong” kind of music or books, dieting and not keeping the weight off, having a medical condition, considering drinking after years of sobriety, or not being able to stop someone else from making bad choices. 

It is a harsh and debilitating judgment. Why do we do this to ourselves? 

Feeling like a moral failure has at least four possible and related sources: embarrassment, lack of self-trust, shame, and an inability to recognize the proper scope of responsibility each person has. 

Embarrassment is a sense of being caught or exposed involving something that makes you feel different from or inferior to others. There’s often a strong undertow of guilt. A Shakespeare scholar who secretly devours romance novels may feel as if someone with her education really ought to have better taste. She doesn’t, so she is a moral failure. 

Lack of self-trust is a condition that many people experience. A person starts not to trust her knowledge, commitments, or abilities in one area of life. The dieter who struggles to maintain her weight may not trust herself in certain food situations. In other areas of her life, she is confident and secure. But the one area where she isn’t becomes emblematic for what’s wrong with her. She’s a moral failure. 

Shame is a global attitude that one has about herself. The lack of self-trust spreads to more and more areas of a person’s life, mushrooming into a sense of unworthiness. The person with long-term sobriety who begins to think about using when everything is going so well in life wonders what is wrong with him. A total loser like him doesn’t deserve all that he has. He’s a moral failure. 

An inability to recognize the proper scope of responsibility is an important but not fully recognized source of the feeling of being a moral failure. Too many of us attempt to extend our responsibility in the wrong directions or to the wrong degree. We tend to make some issues into moral matters where they are not. We also tend to assume responsibility for matters that are not ours. 

Two examples will help to demonstrate how misguided responsibility contributes to a person’s sense that she is a moral failure.   

Example 1: A person has asthma that is well-managed through medications, a strict exercise regimen, and prudent avoidance of triggers. There is nothing she could have done to prevent its development. Yet when the asthma flares up, she cannot help thinking that she should have been able to prevent it. Had she only done this or that, she would not be in this asthmatic distress. No amount of knowledge about asthma shakes her from this conviction. She is a moral failure. 

Example 2: A person is unable to stop her friend from making a really bad decision. The decision leaves her friend in a world of pain. Let’s imagine she did everything we might expect a best friend to do. She spoke to her friend in loving and compassionate ways. In a non-judgmental way, she pointed out the pros and cons of different ways of proceeding. She enlisted others who also have the friend’s best interests at heart. She supported her friend in a similar situation earlier. She did everything right, and it wasn’t enough. She judges herself to be a moral failure. 

What’s the appropriate scope of responsibility in these cases? The first step is to identify what is a moral matter or concern. The second is identifying where a person’s reach and control begins and ends.   

The asthmatic makes her medical condition into a moral condition. Allergies are not usually taken to be moral matters. Molds and pollens and one’s physiological reactions to them generally fall outside the scope of things for which we expect people to take responsibility because they are caused by things well beyond our control. The asthmatic operates with the assumption that if something is in her control, she is responsible. 

The problem is that the asthmatic gets it wrong about what’s in her control. She believes that she should have been able to at least control her reactions. This is impossible, yet she believes that she is still responsible for doing it. Her inability to control what cannot be controlled and her failure to meet her responsibilities quickly lead to the conclusion that she is a moral failure. 

In the case of the two friends, their relationship clearly is a moral matter. The issue here is identifying how far the responsibilities of each of the two friends extends and where they intersect. Here, too, it is necessary to identify what is in a person’s control and what is not. The well-intentioned friend makes the huge leap of assuming that she is responsible for both her friend’s making the bad decision and all of its consequences.   

It is impossible for the well-intentioned friend to control the consequences of her friend’s act, yet that is what she thinks she should do. The friend made her choice, and bears responsibility for the consequences. A person who assumes she can and must do the impossible will always be in the position of feeling like a moral failure. 

The asthmatic and the well-intentioned friend make different versions of the same mistake. By treating factors that are well beyond their control the same as the ones within their control, they end up with a very misguided sense of their responsibilities. Each seriously misses the mark because she has assumed or adopted responsibilities that are not appropriately hers. 

There is a cruel irony here, I think. It is people who are so concerned with "Doing the Right Thing" and meeting all their moral responsibilities who are most likely to feel like moral failures. Many will then try even harder, which creates more opportunities to feel like a failure. 

There are also deeply gendered dimensions to this judgment of moral failure, I believe. My strong sense is that women are more likely to feel like moral failures than men. This is a story for another day.