a blog by J.M. Cottle
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How to be moral, according to me

My ideas about morality are simple. In fact, they’re so simple that even though I promised you that I would write about them, I had a hard time doing it. They are obvious to me and it seems pointless to publish them. But maybe I’m just too close to them; maybe someone will stumble across this post and find it helpful. Besides, I promised, and I don’t break promises. (That’s why I rarely make them.)

As I said in that post about the metaphysics of morality, I believe that morality comes from human emotions, and we use our logic to come up with systems that help us out when our emotions get confusing. A lot of people have come up with a lot of moral systems through the ages. Which one is right? Well, in my humble, relativistic opinion, whichever system helps you make decisions that feel good to you is the right one for you.

Of course, I’ve got my own system, and I’ll tell you about it, but first I wanted to tell you about some systems that I have used while coming up with mine. Maybe one of them will work for you.

1. Utilitarianism

Utilitarian morality says that we should strive toward the greatest good for the greatest number of people. A moral act is an act that results in happiness for as many people as possible. It’s a practical, civic-minded morality, and I was something of a utilitarian once upon a time.

I like that this system tries to spread happiness around. Isn’t that a great goal? On the other hand, it also says that the moral thing to do is sacrifice an individual when it will result in happiness for a greater number of people, and that doesn’t feel right to me. Individuals can sacrifice themselves for everyone else — that’s noble — but they should never be sacrificed against their will. Individuals are more valuable than that.

I also don’t like that consequences are the ultimate determination of morality. In this system, it doesn’t matter what you intended to do; all that matters is what happens as a result of what you did. An act is moral if it results in goodness and immoral if it results in badness. This doesn’t work, because we can’t read the future and we don’t have control over everything. Things go wrong. That doesn’t make us bad people. I think that if you have good intentions and try your best, you are acting morally, even if something external messes it up and the consequences turn out to be bad.

2. The categorical imperative

Since I think that individuals are valuable and should not be sacrificed against their will for the greater good, it makes sense that I’ve also been a Kantian. Immanuel Kant thought that morality was based on logic, not emotion, and he came up with a universal principle called the categorical imperative which says that an act is moral when you would will for everyone to be required to do the same thing.

In this system, an act becomes immoral because it’s illogical. If everyone was required to steal, then the idea of personal property would become meaningless, and stealing (taking someone’s personal property) couldn’t exist, so stealing is logically inconsistent and is therefore immoral.

This system also requires that every person be treated as an end in themselves, never a means to an end, and an imaginary utopia where this idea is practiced universally is called the kingdom of ends.

The reason why I’m not a Kantian anymore is fairly obvious if you read my post about the metaphysics of morality: I think morality is emotional, not logical. The problem with rationalizing morality is that it’s hard to apply it practically. The famous example that Kant brought up himself is if a murderer comes to your door and asks you where your friend is, it’s your duty to tell him the truth because lying is immoral. That would not feel right to me. I’m sure there’s some logical way to get around this, but fundamentally I think it’s incorrect that lying is always immoral. Just like I think stealing is not always immoral. Sometimes it feels wrong and sometimes it feels right, and that’s how I decide what to do.

I do, however, agree that individuals must be treated as ends rather than means. I think every individual is valuable and that every moral system should have that as a foundation. Even those who commit the most heinous crimes are valuable and have the potential to do good things. I’ve never met anyone whom I believed did not have the potential to do good things. Have you?

3. Suffering and compassion

Buddhism explains pretty neatly why people who have the potential to do good things don’t always do them. You see, everyone is suffering. To be alive is to be dying and to experience loss, and that takes a heavy toll. The Buddhist answer to this is to minimize our desires, our attachment to the outcome of things, and our ignorance, because only when you see the world for what it is and are not swayed by it will you stop suffering.

The nonviolence and general compassion of Buddhism drew me in, though I ultimately drifted away again after discovering that I could not accept some of the metaphysical ideas that underpin the whole thing, such as karma. I still like to remind myself now and then that everyone is suffering, though. If I can keep that in mind, it’s much easier to treat people well.

In my new job I work with foster kids, and in my training we learned that a helpful thing to keep in mind is that every time the kids act out, they are trying to meet their needs. They may not know how to do it in the safest and most appropriate way, but that is their goal. When I heard this, it occurred to me that people outside the foster system are doing this as well. Whenever people hurt each other, they are trying to meet their own needs and just don’t know how else to do it. They might need to feel loved, so they create drama to see how their loved ones react. They might need to feel safe, so they declare war on another country. They might be full of anger and need to get it out somehow, so they kill someone. Let’s be compassionate and, if we can, help meet each other’s needs — or at least keep in mind what’s happening and avoid causing more suffering than is already there.

4. The Wiccan Rede

I’ve read less about the Wiccan Rede than the other systems here, but I like what I’ve read. The Wiccan Rede is this: “An it harm none, do what thou wilt.” It could be read as “As long as you’re not harming anyone, feel free to do whatever you want,” but from what I understand, there is a certain ethical imperative in there as well. It’s more like, “As long as you’re not harming anyone, you must follow your will.” I might be wrong about this, but I hope not, because I think this is a fascinating way to look at ethics.

I don’t look at ethics in the same way, though. I consider ethics and morality to be different; ethics is about how to live a good life in general, and morality is specifically about how to treat each other fairly. Morality is the bare minimum of what we must do to treat each other fairly, so in my opinion, following our will is above and beyond that and falls into the realm of ethics. I don’t think that ethics includes any imperatives. It’s more about suggestions and advice. Someone who doesn’t follow their own will is probably not going to be all that happy, but I wouldn’t consider them immoral. This is a post about morality, so my ideas about living a good life will have to wait for another time.

I adopted the Wiccan Rede for only a short time, and the reason I liked it was because of its focus on not causing harm. This makes sense to me as a moral principle. It’s the baseline, the most essential duty we all have to each other. If you do nothing else, avoid causing harm. The thing is that we also can’t just sit back and allow harm to happen, because apathy is not moral — it’s amoral. If you have the ability to alleviate harm, even if it’s not caused by you, I think it’s a moral duty to do so. Maybe this is just being nitpicky with the wording, but I’d rather come up with my own specific wording to make sure it’s exactly what I want to say.

5. The Golden Rule and the Platinum Rule

Most people have heard of this one: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” If you wouldn’t like something done to you, then don’t do it to anyone else. I used to use it because it’s a helpful guideline to imagine yourself in someone else’s place and try to think of what you would like in that situation.

I find this to be flawed, though, because it doesn’t account for individual differences. Something that makes you happy might make someone else miserable. I want to avoid making people miserable even if it’s an accident. Pace and Kyeli Smith find the same problem with the Golden Rule, so they offer the Platinum Rule, which is: “Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.”

That’s better, but I’m still not comfortable using it as my moral system when my emotions are unclear and I need some logical guidance. We can’t always know what people want, and we can’t always ask them directly, so there needs to be some rule for what to do when we can’t directly find out what that person wants.

And my system is…

Be kind.

Well, I warned you it was simple.

No, no, I’m just kidding. Here’s my system:

Keep in mind that everyone is suffering and that every individual is valuable and worthy of kindness, including yourself. Do not cause more harm. Alleviate harm wherever it is in your power. For extra credit, cause happiness wherever it is in your power.

There is one element to my system that I didn’t cover yet, and that is “including yourself”. That’s an important detail. It’s like they say in the safety information on airplanes: if the oxygen masks come down, put your own mask on first and then help other people with theirs. Because you’re no help to anyone if you pass out. In order to be kind to other people, we must first be kind to ourselves. Sometimes we do choose to sacrifice ourselves because it feels right to us, but I think it’s best to only do this as a last resort. Isn’t it better to try to find a way for everyone to be happy without sacrificing anyone?

When I’m struggling morally, I bring this system to mind and it makes my decision easier. Naturally, it doesn’t necessarily make acting upon my decision any easier. (Self-control? What’s that?) Oh well. One step at a time.

2 Responses to How to be moral, according to me

  1. Thank you for sharing (and for Niall Doherty sharing). I love this, and have been exploring my own definition. To expand on the Buddhist portion of your system, mine would include: to the greatest extent possible, assume your needs cannot be met by others, and can by yourself. Working on that has helped me significantly in interpersonal relationships where, before, I would react in a childlike way at times to get the attention I craved.

  2. I loved your summary at the end. I believe once I took this outlook on my life, I am a much better person, both with others as well as with myself. Just be nice, be kind, be positive. Eventually it turns inward as well.

    I’ve also always believed my moral system is “do no harm.” At one point I studied the basis of morality from a psychology perspective (rather than a philosophy one), and one thing that stuck in my mind is (and pardon the rough summary) two moral systems:
    – a Liberal’s morality is based on one system, the individual. As long as the individual is not harmed, they are doing the moral thing.
    – a Conservative’s morality is based on three systems: the individual, the community, and a higher power. That latter ones trump the former ones.
    This explains a lot about why some people hurt others in the name of religion, or put a lot of emphasis on “what others will think” – this is in fact part of their moral basis. And personally falling in the “Liberal” category, it helps explain why it has never made much sense to me why or how others can do certain things which in their eyes are righteous.

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