For my last post I want to speculate about how to conceive well of our actions. So the question is: how can we become better persons by adopting certain strategies for thinking of our actions? We have all admonished ourselves saying things like “I should be kinder”, “I should be less selfish” or, even better, “I should try harder to be a good person”. What is striking about such exercises is how comparatively useless they seem to be. So what to do?
The problem that we face in our attempts at ethical self-improvement is the gap between the abstract characterization of our ideal self and the more concrete level at which we typically conceive of our thoughts and actions. To figure out whether an action counts as inconsiderate, for instance, requires some reflection. Suppose you’re running late to meet your friend. You had previously wanted to pick up your shirts at the drycleaners on the way. Now, it will make you even more late, thus keeping your friend, who is also a busy person, waiting. But you reason that your friend will wait, and so you drop by to pick up your shirts anyway, making you half an hour late. That is inconsiderate. Perhaps the thought did occur to you, but it was pushed to the side in consideration of the greater urgency of being efficient. After all, that drycleaner was almost on the way. Often moral shortcomings are of this sort: the thought that we are doing something inconsiderate, selfish, or unkind does occur to us, but somehow it is not accorded the importance that it may later seem to have. In a lot of these cases what helps—and you can try this out at home—is simply to pause and give yourself a brief moment to reconsider your actions.
For many of us, the bigger problem facing us is not that we do not accord the right importance to moral considerations, but the fact that we fail to see our actions as falling under a relevant moral description. Omission is often more of a problem than commission. How do we deal with that? Here it may be useful to set up a practice of self-reflection. I am reminded of the Stoics. Seneca says that he would meditate on his day every night before going to sleep. “What was well done” he would think, “what was poorly done”? Such nightly exercises get us in to the habit of seeing the actions that we perform under descriptions of moral importance. For instance, we may come to realize that there were some very good ideas in that paper we just rejected, because we were preoccupied with the faults that we found with it. Instead of pointing to these good parts in our report, we focused only on the negative. This is a failure of kindness, at the very least.
It is, of course, true that it can often be hard to look for moral shortcomings in our actions that we do not think we are subject to. It is unclear that taking a different perspective on our actions will invariably put us on the right track. Moral improvement, then, might require that we have some idea of our most likely shortcomings. We might sometimes catch ourselves thinking only of how what others do affect us. We might then make it a practice for a while to turn things around.
The more difficult cases are those where we experience what psychoanalysts would call ‘resistance’. Resistance might be the result of personal factors; we find some pattern of behavior particularly abhorrent and therefore refuse to see it in ourselves. It might also be the combined result of a cultural shift where certain attitudes are now regarded as highly unacceptable, and we are very sensitive about being “good”. We therefore ‘see’ the unacceptable behavior in others and not ourselves (projection), and so on. My hunch is that this is a common problem when it comes to sexism, racism, and other implicit biases. It is so obvious when others are racist, sexist, or elitist, but rarely do we catch ourselves being so.
Getting to the bottom of such failings is particularly difficult. And it is here that I think the greatest problem lies in being zero-tolerance type policies. The more unacceptable you make a certain type of thinking or pattern of behavior, the more likely ‘decent’ people are to resist seeing themselves as being involved in it. And so we will see no real change. Conversely, the more understanding you are, the less people are likely to try to change. Indeed, I suspect that an important element of implicit bias is resistance. If you minimize the severity of sexism or sexual harassment, we won’t see change, but if you maximize it you drive it underground. It is still there, but people deny engaging in it; even to themselves. And so we must navigate the Scylla and Charybdis of these two extremes. Part of the answer must be that we hold on to the good intention of reducing or eliminating behavior that is damaging to others, while at the same time being compassionate with ourselves. Some people find that certain meditative practices help towards that goal. I wish I had more time to explore these issues, but my month as guest blogger is up in an hour. I would welcome discussion on this point, however. But for now, thanks for the comments and discussion!