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Don't Just Do the Right Thing, Act Beautifully

Don't let moral lenses distort your judgment.

By Gustavo Razzetti

May 21, 2018

The problem with moral lenses

Morality is universal, or isn’t it?

In the current political scenario, it feels that the line between right and wrong can be twisted. The same act is interpreted as both right or wrong depending on who is providing judgment. The notion of morality is being challenged as never before.

The lenses we apply distort how we judge events and other people.

When a society is having a moral standard clash, it’s time to ask ourselves: what factors do we pay attention to when making a moral judgment?

This post is an invitation to reflect on how you approach morality, not to tell you what’s right or wrong. The perfection of our soul requires acting wisely, not just doing the right thing.

Moral lenses distort our judgment

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”― Aristotle

We all experience the same reality, yet it seems that everyone is watching a different movie. That’s the problem with moral lenses — they can distort our judgment.

Do your intentions define your personal morality? Or do your actions?

Your answer to this simple, yet fundamental question, defines the kind of ‘ethical lens’ you tend to use.

For strict utilitarians, the outcome is all that matters — intentions, not so much. The problem is when people do what’s considered right, but are not internally convinced. That happens when our actions are driven by hypocrisy or political correctness rather than by our internal morality — it’s like donating money to a cause because it looks good, not because we care about it.

For deontologists, the action is all that matters — the intention or outcome are not as important as what you do. The act itself defines if you are behaving morally or not.

For virtue ethicists, we should care about one’s internal relation to the act— who you are in doing something, is more important than what you do. This approach is based on the notion that, a wise person, would know what to do — you have a natural tendency to do the right thing.

Action, intention, and outcome are interconnected. Sometimes, it can play against us. For example, if your intentions and actions are good but, the outcome is not, people will judge your actions as negative even though you were trying to do good.

The lenses you use don’t just determine your moral actions; they influence how you evaluate or judge others too.

Why we love to blame and punish

Our instincts play a significant role in our behaviors. We have an impulse to react to sad or adverse events — the mind wants to have ‘cognitive closure.’ We prefer having an answer as quickly as possible than to discover the truth.

We quickly rush into moral judgment— when an incident creates fear and anxiety, we want to find someone to blame and punish.

Research suggests we have two cognitive processes to make moral verdicts: one for outcome and another for intent. Usually, these two collide.

People believe that punishment should be based on outcomes, not intentions.

Intentions motivate blame: Did they mean to do it? Or was it an accident? And punishment is defined by outcomes: What actually happened? Who caused it to happen?

This Psychology Today piece presents an interesting challenge, who’s worst? A driver that misses a red light by accident and kills someone? Or a driver that wants to kills someone on purpose but misses?

We would undergo a conflict between accounting for the first driver’s intent and the outcome of the driver’s action. He didn’t mean to hurt anyone, but people would still want to punish him. However, people would be less willing to punish the second driver because she caused no harm — they will assign more blame though.

Social values influence our moral judgments too. What most people do is what’s the right thing to do.

Many Americans responded to last year’s Charlottesville violent incident with disbelieving horror: “This is not who we are.” However, as this Washington Post piece explains: “It is who we are.” People learn from their culture and society — if kids are raised around people who sanction racism, they will take it as socially accepted.

Which takes to the origin of violence. Is it driven by evil hearts? Or is it conditioned by our moral values and judgment?

Lessons from our violent-self

Why do people lose control and become violent?

That’s the premise of this insightful AON piece How could they?

Contrary to popular belief, very few of violent crimes are committed by ‘crazy people.’

According to a large-scale study of criminal offenders, around 10 percent were committed by those who score above the cut-off for psychopathy. Most of us would never think of committing any of the atrocities that we see on the news. However, what is even more troubling is to accept that someone ‘normal,’ like us, can turn into a perpetrator.

So, what causes ‘normal’ people to commit violent acts?

The Disinhibition theory explains that even ordinary people have violent impulses — they are under control until a particular stimulus triggers violence. Typically, it’s caused by someone who mistreats them. Imagine a man that has a rough day at work and then, suddenly, beats his wife because his boss treated him disrespectfully.

The Rational approach establishes that violence is a means to an end: a way to achieve instrumental goals. Take the example of a country invading other — regardless of the collateral damage — just to take over its natural resources.

Tage Rai concluded that both theories felt short. The author of the above-mentioned article, decided to address the root cause of violence: “Why do people disagree?”

After years of research, professor Rai determined that “violence is a way to regulate social relationships.”

Moral is in the eye of the beholder — the aggressor decides to eliminate those who are behaving immorally according to his/her standards. Throughout history, we’ve experienced many ‘Moral Cleansing’ episodes that — though initially ignited by a psychopath — were implemented and carried out by a large group of people who were previously considered ‘normal.’

The Inquisition, the Holocaust, and the Rwandan Genocide are some of the many sad examples of this justification of violence based on someone’s superior moral values.

Perpetrators use violence to create, repair, sustain or change valued relationships. The purpose of violence is to maintain one’s moral order.

As Tage Rai wraps us his explanation: “if genuine moral beliefs can motivate dangerous people, we have an issue.”

Moral absolutism is relative

“Power tends to corrupt, absolute power corrupts absolutely.” — Lord Acton

Absolutism motivates Moral cleansing — perpetrators believe morality is absolute: they know what it is, but the rest doesn’t.

McCarthyism is a classical example. Senator Joseph McCarthy said: “I decide who’s a communist and if you doubt my decisions, you’re a communist too.” The Catholic Church used a similar approach in many occasions: “In the name of Holiness, we decide.”

Some moral absolutes are clear — we all know it’s wrong to kill someone.

However, absolutists use morality as self-serving — to manage their reputation. They don’t apply moral lenses consistently and universally. Sociological studies have shown that, when exposed to violent acts, people are more accepting if those happened a long time ago or in a country or culture far away from theirs.

It’s easier to accept and assign lower moral standards to others.

Pope Benedict XVI said: “We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as definitive and has as its highest value one’s own ego and one’s own desires.”

This view creates a worrying tension: either you follow the absolute moral (from the absolutist in charge), or you are simply embracing a bad behavior. They believed, because people are flawed human beings, that we cannot make moral decisions on our own.

Absolutism determines that external moral rules —established by Government, Religion, or a corporation — must always be obeyed without any questioning.

Barbara O’Brien says it better on this Thought Co piece: “The notion that there are only two approaches to morality — you either follow the rules or you are a hedonist with no moral compass — is a false one. There are many approaches to morality, and these approaches should be judged by their fruits — whether their overall effect is beneficial or harmful.”

The author explains Buddhist ethical decision-making. There are no moral absolutes — our choices involve a complex nexus of causes and conditions.

Clearly, our natural morality is, by design, limited — rather than being fixed it’s something that we need to train.

Forget moral, act beautifully instead

“Hatreds never cease by hatred in this world; through love alone they cease. This is an eternal law.”— Buddha

Buddhist psychology believes that we are all born sane. That makes a lot of sense if we get back to the fact that psychopaths commit only 10 percent of crimes. Anyone can make a wrong turn.

I’m not justifying violent acts by any means.

However, the pressure to conform to social norms sometimes backfire. Many people were absolutely normal and perfect (to the eyes of others) and, all of a sudden they snap. So, what happened?

Repressing one’s negative side can be damaging — being a hypocrite to please others, doesn’t make you a better person. You deny a part of you. At some point, that pressure will have to be released — that’s why some people become violent all of a sudden.

The pressure to be perceived as a moral person is hard — many people will do whatever it takes to earn those bragging rights.

What if we embrace good and evil as the two sides of the same coin? Understanding that this duality lives within everyone can remove the tension that, ultimately, causes more harm.

Acknowledging the good-evil duality is not just being kind to yourself — it will help you manage internal pressure. If we deny our evil side, it’s easier for us to explode and lose control. Accepting the wild wolves that live within us, is the first step towards taming them.

As Thich Nhat Hanh says: “Right and wrong are neither moral judgments nor arbitrary standards from outside. Through our own awareness, we discover what is beneficial (“right”) and what is unbeneficial (“wrong”).”

Rather than pushing people to do something because it’s right, our society must help them become wiser. Detractors might think that this will only drive chaos. To clarify, I’m not about removing the laws, but to acknowledge that, laws by themselves won’t make people behave better.

Take the change that’s happening in the workplace as an example.

Many companies are letting go of regulations and rules. They are providing their employees with more freedom to choose — treating them as grown-ups, not children. The results are very positive: people are becoming more accountable and engaged. We must learn to trust people’s wisdom.

Aristotle associated the rightness of an act with its beauty. A virtuous act is the right thing to do, primarily because it harmonizes with the concrete elements of a situation. It drives fulfillment.

The Greek philosopher stated a clear formula. The doer of the moral deed must have a certain ‘state of mind’ in doing it. First, he must know what he is doing; secondly, he must choose it, and choose it for itself, and thirdly, the act must be the expression of a formed and stable character.”

Immanuel Kant said: “So act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your person in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as means.”

Buddhism talks about wisdom, rather than justice. It upholds the ideal of not doing to others what you would not want them to do to you. It encourages us to embrace ‘wise view,’ ‘wise speech,’ and ‘wise action.’

Kant talked about beautiful acts when it feels natural to do something — you have the inclination to act beautifully.

Beautiful action is about paying attention to the world. As a doer, you don’t feel divided — what you do is aligned with your own values, not just with external laws.

Morality is about living beautifully. Not just doing the right thing.

Making wise choices is hard and requires lifelong learning and practice. It isn’t just about obeying laws, but about becoming the best version of yourself. As Socrates said: be dedicated to the perfection of your soul.

A wise mind avoids actions that will likely cause suffering or remorse. Don’t let your actions tear you apart.

What do you think?



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