Moral Courage

“We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their behavior.”

-Stephen Covey

Just about everybody thinks of themselves as good people. There are very few people who will admit that they themselves are just bad. Even people whose sole motivation is selfish behavior will often justify their actions, saying something to the effect of “hey, if he didn’t want me to take advantage of him, he should have read the fine print.” That is, its ok to take advantage of somebody who isn’t on his guard – our proverbial speaker has a moral code. It’s not one that the speaker actually follows mind you, I suspect that in most cases it’s one the speaker modifies after the fact in order to justify his actions. But it remains, the speaker at least feels the need to justify himself. Other such justifications are simple, “The world never did anything for me, why should I help out anyone else.” Something that a selfish person would say, but it still reveals a moral code, presumably if the world actually did something for him, he would be bound to do things for other people.

We all have moral codes, some people will use theirs as a guide, some as an excuse, but its very rare to find somebody with no moral dimensions whatsoever. Just about everybody likes to feel that they are inherently good.

There are two main ways to do this; the first is to be inherently good. This is hard for many reasons, it requires sacrifice, discipline, patience, humility and deep introspection. And if the goal is to feel better about yourself, well the first three conditions are hard, and the second two work against feeling good about one’s self.

The second way is much simpler; compare yourself to others! But this is also hard, sometimes people are better than you. In fact, it doesn’t seem to work too well in other fields. Take income or education, for instance. When comparing ourselves against others, we frequently (or at least I do), compare ourselves against the most successful person in a group. “Ugh, why does this person make more money than I do?” Same for education “ugh, that person went to Yale, aren’t I as good as he is?”

Yet it works wonders for our sense of moral superiority. While financially, vocationally, and educationally we always compare ourselves to the best, yet in a bizarre method we tend to compare ourselves to the worst people morally. Part of the reason is that “We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their behavior.” We hold our moral beliefs to be the evidence of our virtue, even when we fall short of these beliefs. This to me is amazing, the loftier our goals, the more we fall short of them, yet the better we feel about ourselves because of it?

Thus, so long as we mean well, we are excused and even rewarded, but when others act unfairly, we seize upon the example to remind ourselves that we are better than they are, as their actions must be a reflection of their beliefs, and therefore their beliefs aren’t as good as ours.

But it gets worse. We choose sides on controversial issues, and then believe ourselves better for taking whatever side we take. We feel good about ourselves just for supporting (or opposing) gay marriage, even if it requires no personal sacrifice or courage or risk of ostracism┬áto support (or oppose) it. (I’m not saying that nobody ever faces these things for their opinions on gay marriage or whatever else, I am merely saying people hold themselves up as good merely for holding opinions). There are people who sacrifice things for their beliefs, and there are people who have labored for years on causes and, when they finally win, feel a sense of triumph and vindication. However, my guess is that the majority of people who changed their facebook icon to become a rainbow weren’t facing any real risk retaliation for doing so.

Going along with the crowd in any one instance may occasionally (or even often) be the right thing to do. But its virtually never a courageous thing to do. So if you’d like to advertise on facebook how much you dislike the fact that Cecil the lion was killed, by all means do so. But if you’ve never sacrificed anything to prevent poaching or preserve habitats or save the lions, you don’t really have anything to brag about.

Now while I could go on talking about morals or politics here, and one can seriously argue that what I’ve described is benign or even beneficial. After all, choosing sides is a political activity, and political activity is one way things can change. Take, for example abolitionists in pre-civil war America. If they really all had the courage of their convictions, they would have helped organize the underground railroad and help escape fugitive slaves; yet only a very small percentage of them actually did. Yet, if the abolitionist movement were confined to those people who were willing to break the law and face serious punishment for really enacting what the believe, slavery never would have ended.

This works for taste and art too. They want to be original, but lack that ability to be original, so they instead join a movement. They co-opt the opinions of somebody who was original, then try to impress their friends by repeating these opinions. Its most pronounced on the internet, where we, depending on where you surf, you’ll find people with whole allegiances to hating various movies; (is there any reason that so many people hate Inception or Prometheus? They’re not bad movies).

To form actual intelligent opinions about art is tough, to parrot opinions is much easier. If part of your identity is to talk a lot about culture on the internet or even in person, its a lot easier just to repeat things than it is to think for yourself, especially if you’re trying to impress others.

Its easier to appear sophisticated than to actually be sophisticated. Likewise, its easier to appear moral than to be moral. This is true even if you’re only trying to appear moral or sophisticated to yourself.