Objective Morality

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Of course, the unfortunate reality is that not everyone in the world is a perfect utilitarian – so problems like mass hunger and disease remain unsolved. That means that if you want to do the most moral thing by trying to help with these problems as much as possible, you’ll have to shoulder a lot more of the burden yourself, and the amount of material wealth you’ll have to give up really will be (though maybe not totally impoverishing) significant. Having to face such a morally demanding reality can be dispiriting; as Jia Tolentino writes, it can often feel like “the choice of this era is to be destroyed or to morally compromise ourselves in order to be functional – to be wrecked, or to be functional for reasons that contribute to the wreck.” For a lot of people, it can feel like the expectation is simply more than they can live up to. And if we’re talking about behaving perfectly morally at all times, well, that’s an expectation that none of us can live up to.

So what does it mean if we don’t behave perfectly morally? Does that make us bad people? If we don’t meet our moral obligations to the fullest possible extent, do we forfeit the right to call ourselves good? I think this is actually the question that people are most concerned with when it comes to morality – not necessarily “Am I doing as much good as I can?” but simply “Am I a good person?” And it’s for this reason that a lot of people reject utilitarianism out of hand – because they assume that if they’re not doing everything that utilitarianism says is good, then that means that, by its standards, they must be bad people. They reflexively reject this judgment, naturally – and as a result, they end up seeking reassurance from some alternative moral system that tells them they aren’t doing anything wrong at all if they ignore the less fortunate.

But is their understanding of utilitarianism actually true? Is anyone who falls short of perfection, according to utilitarian logic, necessarily a bad person? Of course not. As I’ve been saying this whole time, goodness and badness are a continuum, not two distinct all-or-nothing categories. Failing to meet 100% of your moral obligations doesn’t automatically make you a bad person; it simply makes you an imperfect person – and no one is morally perfect. We’re all somewhere in the gray area between “perfectly good” and “perfectly bad” – and while some of us do better than others, that doesn’t mean that anyone who does something bad is automatically evil; it just means that they’ve moved somewhat down the continuum of moral goodness. Here’s Alexander again:

[Q]: It seems impossible to ever be a good person. Not only do I have to avoid harming others, but I also have to do everything in my power to help others. Doesn’t that mean I’m immoral unless I donate 100% of my money (maybe minus living expenses) to charity?

In utilitarianism, calling people “moral” or “immoral” borders on a category error. Utilitarianism is only formally able to say that certain actions are more moral than other actions. If you want to expand that and say that people who do more moral actions are more moral people, that seems reasonable, but it’s not a formal implication of utilitarian theory.

Utilitarianism can tell you that you would be acting morally if you donated [practically] 100% of your money to charity, but you already knew that. I mean, Jesus said the same thing two thousand years ago (Matthew 19:21 – “If you want to be perfect, go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor”).

Most people don’t want to be perfect, and so they don’t sell all their possessions and give the money to the poor. You’ll have to live with the knowledge of being imperfect, but Jeremy Bentham’s not going to climb through your window at night and kill you in your sleep or anything. And since no one else is perfect, you’ll have a lot of company.

The important thing here is just to note that while doing something immoral doesn’t automatically make you a bad person, you shouldn’t use that as an excuse to neglect your moral obligations; any immoral action you take is still in fact bad, and does still in fact make you less good than you could otherwise be. Ignoring the poor and turning away from those who need help isn’t something that you can do and still call yourself morally perfect – it’s still a moral failing – and that’s why you should try your best to avoid it, even if you don’t succeed 100% of the time. In other words, you should be able to recognize that being morally imperfect doesn’t make you bad, while also recognizing which of your actions are the ones making you morally imperfect, and acknowledging them as bad. That’s how you can be as good as you can be – which, in the end, is what we should all be striving for.

That last line, by the way, might sound like just a trite platitude, but as Zephyr Teachout and Toby Buckle discuss near the end of this podcast conversation (starting at around the 1:00:25 mark), it actually gets at an important point. It seems like nowadays there’s a kind of tacit consensus among academics, political commentators, and other intellectuals that the thing lying at the heart of all of human behavior is a kind of narrow self-interest – that the forces driving people can be boiled down to things like incentives and self-maximization and so on. (Economists call it the Homo economicus model of human behavior.) And to be sure, this “everyone for themselves” way of seeing things can often be useful as a descriptive tool (I’ve been using it a lot here myself); but it has become so popular in recent years that it seems to have almost imperceptibly turned into a prescriptive worldview – an unstated presumption that people should act only according to narrow calculations of what’s best for themselves alone – as if all of life were one big Prisoner’s Dilemma. The implicit assumption seems to be that if you act unselfishly, that makes you irrational. And I think that this way of viewing the world can lead to subtly (and sometimes not-so-subtly) toxic results, because it has the effect of crowding out certain deep ideals like compassion and selflessness and courage and integrity, and making it so that instead of being revered as honorable values, they now come across as sounding old-fashioned, almost quaint – like a relic of our grandparents’ time. It creates a kind of invisible underlying social norm which says that, although such virtues might still be admirable, they aren’t expected of people anymore. Everyone is expected to see the world through a lens of self-interest rather than virtue – to be focusing first and foremost on their own personal fulfillment, their own accomplishments, their own self-betterment, and so on, even at the expense of other important considerations. And I think that this can be a genuinely harmful norm – not only because it causes people to neglect others’ needs, but because so much of the time it frankly doesn’t even work on its own terms. After all, when you spend all your time obsessing over whether you’re successfully achieving happiness and fulfillment for yourself, there’s no better way of ensuring that you’ll end up feeling anxious and unfulfilled. The best way to actually feel happy and fulfilled, in most cases, is to become so engrossed in something you find meaningful and valuable that you forget about yourself altogether – and one of the best ways to do that (as mentioned earlier) is to help others, and to focus on their needs rather than just your own.

(As a case in point, think about people who are part of a military unit or some similar organization, and how clear and strong their sense of purpose is when their entire focus is on serving that group and being part of something bigger than themselves – and then compare that to how acutely they can feel a sudden loss of that sense of purpose after they leave the group and are no longer part of it. Veterans often say that they’ve never felt such a well-defined sense of identity and necessity as they did when they were serving; and leaving active duty causes many of them to feel utterly lost and without passion. And the same is true of people who have left other organizations like religious groups or cults, where all their energy was poured into serving the cause, and it gave them a stronger sense of identity and purpose than anything they’ve experienced before or since. It might not necessarily be a good thing that they were ever part of that specific kind of organization, of course – I’m obviously not recommending going out and joining a cult here – but the point is just that being able to serve others and feel like you’re part of something greater than yourself clearly seems to fulfill a very real and fundamental human need. To quote a line from the old movie I Take This Woman, it’s very hard to feel useful and unhappy at the same time.)

I think that a large part (though certainly not all) of the dissatisfaction that has become so widespread and oppressive these days is the result of a popular culture that causes us to lose sight of that ideal. We spend so much time and energy trying to optimize our own lives that we forget about everything else – and then, because nobody can ever really attain a truly perfectly optimal life, we feel like failures when we’re unable to achieve that impossible level of perfection. Maybe we try to act selflessly where we can, but even when we do that, we still tend to frame it in self-oriented terms; we fixate on the question of “Am I a good person?” rather than “How can I help?” – and that inevitably leads to the kind of self-judgment that focuses only on the failures and makes us feel even worse about our inability to be perfect. It seems to me, then, that when we find ourselves becoming overly preoccupied with such thoughts, a better frame of mind to try and get into is one that’s more oriented toward others – which asks not “How good am I?” but simply “I see that others are suffering and need help; how can I be there for them?” In other words, instead of thinking of helping others as something we have to do in order to improve our own status – which makes it feel like a chore – we should try to get ourselves into the frame of mind where we want to help the less fortunate, simply because we care about them innately, in the same way that a loving parent cares about their children and wants them to be happy for their own sake.

Just think about the last time you saw someone being unfairly bullied or abused or neglected, for instance, and felt an overpowering urge to do whatever you could to help them – not because you thought it would reflect better on you as a person, but simply because you had an uncontrolled gut reaction, and your heart went out to them, and you wanted them to be in less pain and distress. Imagine your reaction if you saw, say, a child crying because no one came to their birthday party, or a terrified fawn trapped under a fallen tree limb. Would you see that situation as something that you’d grudgingly feel obligated to address just in order to preserve your status as a good person? Or would you actually want to help? I think for most people, it would be the latter. (To take another example, think about all the people who see the aftermath of a natural disaster on TV and feel compelled to donate to the relief effort.) That feeling of actively wanting to help – of seeing the chance to help the less fortunate not just as an obligation, but as an opportunity to make things better for someone who’s suffering – is one that’s worth cultivating – not only because of how much it can help those in need, but also because of how much more meaningful and gratifying it can make our own lives when we lean into it. As William MacAskill writes:

Imagine saving a single person’s life: you pass a burning building, kick the door down, rush through the smoke and flames, and drag a young child to safety. If you did that, it would stay with you for the rest of your life. [In fact, I’m betting you’d consider it one of the top two or three greatest and most defining moments of your life.] If you saved several people’s lives – running into a burning building one week, rescuing someone from drowning the next week, and diving in front of a bullet the week after – you’d think your life was really special. You’d be in the news. You’d be a hero.

But we can do far more than that.

According to the most rigorous estimates, the cost to save a life in the developing world [defined as extending someone’s life expectancy by 30 healthy years] is about $3,400 (or $100 for one [healthy year of life]). This is a small enough amount that most of us in affluent countries could donate that amount every year while maintaining about the same quality of life. Rather than just saving one life, we could save a life every working year of our lives. Donating to charity is not nearly as glamorous as kicking down the door of a burning building, but the benefits are just as great. Through the simple act of donating to the most effective charities, we have the power to save dozens of lives. That’s pretty amazing.

Now, admittedly, just typing your credit card information into a charity website and clicking “donate” isn’t exactly a super-fulfilling experience in itself – at least not compared to rescuing someone from a burning building – so for a lot of people, it may be that making such donations just isn’t intrinsically rewarding enough for them to feel compelled to keep doing it. In such cases, it may be that the best way for them to do the most good is to find some alternative way of helping others which, while maybe less impactful in absolute terms, feels more gratifying (because it’s more personal or more hands-on or what have you) and is therefore easier to keep up. But then again, knowing that you’re helping others not because it gratifies you personally, but simply because it’s the right thing to do, can bring an almost defiant kind of satisfaction all its own, if you’re the kind of person who’s able to take pride in that kind of thing. So if you are such a person, then the ideal thing to do would be to devote your resources not just to whichever cause gives you the most “warm fuzzy feelings” of immediate personal satisfaction, or to whichever one makes you feel like a particularly good person, but to whichever one actually does the most good in the world. Figuring out the absolute best way to do the most good can, of course, be a bit tricky; it might very well turn out, for instance, that the best way to spend a few thousand dollars helping a particular cause isn’t actually to donate that money to the cause directly, but instead to spend it hiring a lobbyist to bring the issue to the attention of Congress (since Congress controls trillions of dollars), or hiring a famous YouTuber to bring the issue to the attention of the voting public, or something like that. There are always a lot of possibilities, and the answer won’t always be immediately clear. But one thing that is clear is that the more money you have to spend, the more it’s worth taking the time to figure out which of those possibilities will have the highest expected utility value, and then to act accordingly.

(And even if you don’t have much to give, the fact that you can’t save the entire world all by yourself shouldn’t stop you from wanting to help, or from feeling good about helping – because this whole human endeavor is a group effort, and the job of each of us is just to play our own partial role in that effort, not to feel disappointed that we don’t get to be the sole hero of the story who fixes everything single-handedly. John Green’s video here provides one of the best insights I’ve ever heard on this subject (despite ostensibly being about something else entirely) and should in my opinion be required viewing for everyone.)

Like I said, the most important takeaway here is that we should try to focus not so much on how our moral achievements reflect on us as individuals, but instead on how those actions are benefiting others. Having said that, though, I understand that our tendency to wonder about our own status isn’t always so easy to overcome. Just in terms of our own psychological well-being, it’s important for us to feel like we can answer the “Am I a good person?” question positively, and that this answer actually be true – or at least attainable. (I guess I should technically be saying “moral person” instead of “good person” here, given how I’ve been distinguishing between goodness and morality, but you get what I mean.) How can we do so, then, if we’re always falling short of perfection? I think Alexander offers a good answer in his post here. I recommend reading the whole thing, but his basic idea in a nutshell is that we can consider a “good person” simply to be anyone whose behavior is above average. More specifically, we can say that a good person is anyone whose choices lead to a better universe than what the average person’s choices would have led to if they’d been put in those same circumstances (and had the same resources to work with and so on). So if you had the chance to heroically sacrifice yourself to save two other people, for instance, then although you would be morally obligated to do so, you wouldn’t necessarily be a bad person (with regard to that situation) if you failed to meet your obligation, assuming that most other people would have similarly failed. By that same token, if you made the tough choice to give up something of significant personal value in order to help another person, you might be considered a better person than a billionaire philanthropist who wouldn’t have been willing to do the same, even if that billionaire was actually helping more people and doing more good in absolute terms (without ever having to make any real sacrifice in their quality of life). And likewise for all the other moral dilemmas you might encounter: The only way you’d be considered a bad person overall would be if you lived your whole life in a way that was altogether less moral than how the average person would have lived it if they’d been in your shoes – but if you actually exceeded that standard, then you’d be considered a good person even if you weren’t accomplishing major world-changing moral feats in absolute terms.

This standard makes perfect sense for a moral system that regards goodness and badness as existing along a continuum; it seems entirely reasonable and appropriate to regard anything above the midpoint of that continuum as being good overall, and anything below it as bad overall, while still recognizing that it’s possible to have degrees of goodness and badness ranging from mild to extreme at either end of the scale. (Although I should clarify an important point here: When I talk about someone being a good person or a bad person morally, that’s not the same as saying that their existence itself is good or bad. Even if someone happened to be a bad person morally, it’s still entirely possible that their impact on the world might be positive overall (imagine someone who was cruel and selfish but came up with an important invention, for instance); and conversely, even if someone had a net negative impact on the world, that wouldn’t automatically mean that they were a bad person in terms of their moral behavior (imagine someone who involuntarily spread a deadly disease everywhere they went, for instance, despite only ever wanting the best for others). Neither of these factors in itself determines someone’s “innate value as a person” – because this framework simply doesn’t conceptualize things in that way. It only conceptualizes things in terms of whether someone’s behavior is good or bad, and whether their effect on the world is good or bad – which I consider to be a big point in its favor.)

Aside from the philosophical appeal, though, this “above average” standard also has more practical benefits. For one thing, it’s a lot more attainable than a standard of absolute perfection, so it’s more likely that people will actually be willing to try and meet it – as opposed to just throwing up their hands and giving up because they know they’ll never be able to even come close. In the end, then, adopting it can actually end up producing more global utility than a higher standard might produce. Alexander recounts his own experience with this counterintuitive effect:

When I was younger, I determined that I had an ethical obligation to donate more money to charity, and that I was a bad person for giving as little as I did. But I also knew that if I donated more, I would be a bad person for not donating even more than that. Given that there was no solution to my infinite moral obligation, I just donated the same small amount.

Then I met a committed group of people who had all agreed to donate 10%. They all agreed that if you donated that amount you were doing good work and should feel proud of yourself. And if you donated less than that, then they would question your choice and encourage you to donate more. I immediately pledged to donate 10%, which was much more than I had been doing until then.

[If you consider moral peace of mind to be like a product that you can sell, then] selling the “you can feel good about the amount you’re donating to charity” product for 10% produces higher profits for the charity industry than selling it for 100%, at least if many people are like me.

What’s more, even though adopting a simple “above average” standard is relatively easy to meet, the fact that more people will actually be willing to try and meet it means that it can have a self-reinforcing ratchet effect, whereby the more morally people act, the more their choices will continue improving in order to keep up with the ever-rising standard of what the new average has become. As Alexander writes:

This [“above average” standard] is a very low bar. I think you might beat the average person on animal rights activism just by not stomping on anthills. The yoke here is really mild.

But if you believe in something like universalizability or the categorical imperative, “act in such a way that you are morally better than average” is a really interesting maxim! If everyone is just trying to be in the moral upper half of the population, the population average morality goes up. And up. And up. There’s no equilibrium other than universal sainthood.

This sounds silly, but I think it might have been going on over the past few hundred years in areas like racism and sexism. The anti-racism crusaders of yesteryear were, by our own standards, horrendously racist. But they were the good guys, fighting people even more racist than they were, and they won. Iterate that process over ten or so generations, and you reach the point where you’ve got to run your Halloween costume past your Chief Diversity Officer.

I think he hits the nail on the head here; it seems to me that what he’s describing is the fundamental process by which moral progress happens within societies. The more that people try to distinguish themselves as good by acting more moral than average, the more it pulls up the standard of what actually constitutes above-average moral behavior. And the happy result is that, in simply trying to be good people ourselves, we all end up making each other better – quite literally a virtuous cycle. Of course, when it’s implemented in the wrong context, this kind of self-reinforcing process can easily have the opposite effect and become a vicious cycle; in subcultures with flawed definitions of morality (like those dominated by religious fundamentalism), it can promote ever-more extreme forms of that flawed morality, which can obviously lead to terrible results. But luckily, such subcultures seem to be a shrinking minority. As far as humanity as a whole, it does seem like the arc of history has continually bent toward ever-more moral behavior – not only in terms of people treating each other more humanely, but in terms of people expanding their definitions of whom they consider to be entitled to moral treatment in the first place. And it’s this last point that I want to turn to now.

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