It’s a mistake to make things into a moral issue unless it is absolutely necessary. If you do it will lead to a lot of unnecessary anxiety and distress. It is the archetypal form of emotional resistance.
When we make something into an ethical issue we are trying to control the behaviours of others. We want to impose our Will onto theirs. In doing so we place our own happiness and wellbeing in the hands of other people. If they bend to our will and behave as we want, then we will be happy. If they refuse, we will be sad. This is a risky situation to put yourself in, because whilst you can control your own thoughts, feelings and actions, you have no control over the thoughts, feelings and behaviour of other people. You are therefore leaving your happiness to chance. You are transferring power over your wellbeing to somebody else.
Moralising is by in large an unhelpful thing to do, and puts your own happiness, as well as that of others, in serious jeopardy. When we turn an issue into a moral one, we inevitably create some misery in the universe, either our own, when our demands are not met, or the other persons, when their Will is curtailed.
Humans hate to be told what to do. It is a fundamental part of our nature. It is the cause of the “terrible twos”, when children first realise that they have very limited power or freedom from the dominion of their parents, and they fricking hate it, resulting in constant temper tantrums and general screaming. As we grow older, we learn to be peaceful with giving up some of our freedom, but all of us have that terrible two-year-old lurking, surfacing if someone cuts into the que in front of us, tells us to move our car, or burgles our house.
Of course, there are situations where the net balance of happiness in the universe means that we have to make moral issues out of certain things. We must harness some control over the Will of others, and allow some curtailment of our own, if we are going to lead fruitful social lives. This is the basis of the “10 commandment” type moral rules, which are consistent across all civilisations. Don’t steal, kill ect, ect. They are the basis of the laws of our society and are basically there to ensure that we can more or less get along together. Without them human existence would be pretty miserable. A society in which we were constantly stealing from and killing one another would not be that conducive to wellbeing and happiness.
However, most people, probably everybody, to a greater or lesser degree, are guilty of “moralising” over issues that don’t need to be ethical; to great detriment to themselves and everyone else. Not only do we impose these “moral commands” onto other people, we also cast them upon ourselves. We make situations or circumstances “mean something” about ourselves, and then beat ourselves up about it. If you’ve listened to this series from the beginning, you will have frequently heard me saying that this or that “isn’t a moral issue”.
What do I mean by this and how do we know what is or isn’t a moral issue? Well actually anything can be a moral issue if we let it. Whenever we say a person is good or bad, right or wrong; whenever we aim to change somebody’s behaviour, use the words “should” or “should not”, we are creating a moral issue.
There are no absolute rules about what is moral and what is not, it is a purely human construct, created by human thoughts. If somebody cares about something then it becomes a moral issue for them, by virtue of the fact that they care about it. What is a moral issue for one person may not be a moral issue for somebody else. You get to choose for yourself what is important to you; what you want to create a moral issue over, and what you don’t. Although I don’t believe there is a “right or wrong” answer to this (that would be unnecessary moralising in itself) , there are certain times when it is generally helpful to personal happiness, and to humanity at large, to moralise, and certain situations when it is not. Mostly it is not helpful, and my advice, for what its worth, is to keep your moralising to an absolute minimum. In general, most of us overshoot by a mile, making moral issues far more often than is necessary or helpful.
Let’s try to demonstrate this principle with some examples.
A good place to start is with personal preferences. Most things that we consider to be a personal preference are not moral issues, but people frequently make them into one. Taste in music, for example, is not a moral issue. People can like or dislike any kind of music and we shouldn’t judge.
Some people however, base part of their identity on musical taste. They will dislike or like others based on what type of music they enjoy. They are basically saying “If you listen to the same type of music as me you are a good person, and I will like you, and want to spend time with you, if not, you are bad, and I will treat you with hate”.
Alternatively, people may single out a particular genre which they hate, saying if you listen to pop, or country, or death metal you are a bad person. This is not a moral issue, and if you are guilty of this thought process it is probably not helping your spiritual growth and is probably limiting your access to a happy life.
This doesn’t mean to say that you are not entitled to dislike or like music. It is fine to hate country music. The mistake is to by extension hate people who happen to enjoy country music. The mistake is judging other people based on their tastes and personal preferences. To do so implies that you think they should change their tastes to align with your own. You are trying to exercise your Will over theirs. The result will be a net increase in misery in the world. You will be miserable because no matter what you think there will continue to be people in the world who like country music, and they will feel miserable because nobody likes being hated. Probably they will hate you for your hate.
Now, most of us have not switched on our self-loathing yet, and are still sitting comfortably in quiet self-smugness, our running commentaries in the background congratulating us on how tolerant we are of all musical creeds. Of course we are comfortable, very strong musical moralising isn’t that common, most of us just don’t really care that much. Also, what music other people are listening to doesn’t really affect us very much. But let’s turn up the heat a little. What if they are playing their music on speaker phone on the train? What if they are playing it at full volume at 3am? Now surely that’s a moral issue? Now does it serve us to fly into a rage? To emotionally resist, to try to change the behaviour? Maybe, probably not, you might do better to get some ear plugs.
People moralise about all sorts of things. Different sports or hobbies. Walkers can’t abide mountain bikers, mountain bikers dislike motocross riders. Outdoor types believe their way of life is morally superior to sedentary ones, whilst pro-gamers won’t hesitate to teabag a Bambi. Even within love of the same sport there can be hatred, simply through supporting the wrong team.
People moralise about where they are born. I have a Scottish friend who can’t abide the English. He is intelligent and educated, he lives in England is married to an English woman and counts many Englishmen amongst his friends. Yet he will still tell you in all seriousness that he hates the English, and he means it. He believes himself to be morally superior by virtue of his place of birth, over which he had no control, being 100 miles to the North of his Geordie counterparts.
People judge each on their social class, income, or profession. What they eat, or don’t eat. Vegetarians are offended by those that eat meat, strangely many people who eat meat are offended by vegetarians, and don’t get them started on vegans! The language we speak, down to the very words that we use. Swearing, for example, is deeply offensive to some people. What about swearing in front of children? We judge people for being rich, or for being poor, for being a Rah or a Chav. We judge political values, right wing, left wing, Brexit or remain.
We go around moralising all day every day, constantly forming opinions about everything that is happening around us, categorising everything and everyone as good or bad, right or wrong. Emotionally resisting and resenting the behaviours, even the very existence, of others that are different from ourselves. Every time we do this, we make the world slightly more unpleasant.
None of these examples need to be moral issues, we simply choose to make them so. To demonstrate this try to focus on two examples. Choose one that seems trivial to you, and another that stops you, where you might think, yes well, maybe that one is a moral issue.
An example for me is boxing. After years of treating head injuries in A+E, I can’t get behind boxing. Watching two people punch each other in the face until one of them becomes unconscious, for the sake of gambling and entertainment, just doesn’t seem like a very savoury pastime. I am instinctively suspicious of anyone who enjoys it.
What is the difference between these two examples? The trivial one and the one we “care” about? How is me moralising over people who enjoy boxing different from someone else moralising over supporting the wrong football team, or listening to the wrong kind of music?
Fundamentally there is no difference. I simply don’t like boxing. I find it distasteful. In the same way other people simply don’t like Liverpool supporters, or Englishmen, and find them distasteful. Other people’s trivial moralising only seems ridiculous to us because we just don’t really care about it. But what we care about and what we don’t is different from person to person. To someone who enjoys boxing my objection to it will seem equally trivial, they just don’t care that much. There is no absolute right or wrong, there is no debate to be had. They enjoy violence and I don’t, and that’s the end of it. It’s no different from liking or disliking a particular colour or genre of music. The same is true for basically everything. Even things we really care about like stealing and murder. Some people might enjoy a spot of murdering, and see nothing wrong with it. They are not wrong in this, they are just different from the prevailing view of our current society. During war killing people is considered OK, and we may honour and celebrate great killers.
Now, before you get outraged and report me to the GMC, remember how you felt about the musical moralisers. How we mocked them for their narrow mindedness. How it seemed so obvious that they had chosen a path that restricted love and increased hate. How their moralising had introduced negativity into the world for both themselves and others. Outrage against boxing, against vegans, eating meat, sexism, stealing and murder is exactly the same. Through turning them into a moral issue we create unpleasant feelings in ourselves and in others. If we are going to make something into a moral issue, we should do it with the utmost gravity, because we know that doing so will inevitably cause distress.
Now this doesn’t mean that you should never make a moral issue out of anything. Of course, I don’t think theft or murder should be legalized. But maybe we could change our approach to deciding what we want to make into a moral issue and what we don’t. Instead of thinking about what is right and wrong, as though it is an absolute truth, we can consider whether or not it serves us to moralise. Does turning it into a moral issue increase or decrease our happiness and wellbeing. Does the inevitable distress that results from trying to prevent the behaviour outweigh the distress of allowing it to continue? With things like theft and murder; musical preferences or hobbies it is quite clear. But some other issues are less clear cut. Maybe I can let go of boxing. OK, I don’t want to box – I don’t like hitting people, and I don’t like being hit. And I don’t have to watch boxing. But maybe I can allow other people to enjoy it. Maybe I can choose not to think negative thoughts about them for their choice of entertainment. Maybe on balance, given that I am not able to pass a law preventing boxing, since people are going to continue to box whether or not I emotionally resist it, I can just choose to let it go. Not to moralise, not to argue the toss. Perhaps there will be more happiness in the world, more peace and balance if I just leave it be, if I choose to allow them their love of violence, just as I expect them to allow me my love of country music. Maybe I can allow the kids on the train to play their music on speaker, or the neighbours to have a party a few times a year without emotionally resisting it. Without believing that they shouldn’t be disturbing my peace.
Have a think about the things you do and don’t care about. Think if there are things that you are making into a moral issue that you don’t absolutely have to. Think about if you have any power to influence or change the behaviour you detest. Even if you did have such a power, would the world really be a better place after you exercised it, allowing for inevitable harm that comes from enforcing your will on others, and the reciprocal risk of them forcing theirs on you?
Moralising is one of the key thought processes that creates anxiety and upset in our lives. If we can keep it to the absolute minimum, we will increase our peace, balance and happiness. All of us are guilty of moralising and judging all the time. We turn things into an ethical issue when we really don’t need to. Observe your own thought patterns and try to recognise your own prejudices and opinions. Catch yourself and ask yourself if that opinion is serving you. Is it making your world a better or worse place? Since you know it is not true or absolute, ask yourself if you want to continue to believe it and hold on to it, or does it serve you better to simply let it go.
What is right and wrong, good or bad is not true, it is just a personal taste or preference. We get to choose what we care about, and what we want to turn into a moral issue. The less you moralise the happier you will be.
Let sleeping dogs lie, Live and Let Live.