On the counterproductivity of motivating people with guilt and blame — aka moralizing

May 5, 2012 by Joshua
in Awareness, Blog, Freedom, Leadership, Tips

I liked Michael Pollan‘s Omnivore’s Dilemma, which people have suggested I read for years. I like his perspective on food and “food.” I don’t intend for the following to detract from his overall message, but his chapter 17, “The Ethics of Eating Animals,” makes a great example for leadership.

Leadership means motivating others, which means changing their emotions. Few of us like when others motivate us with guilt or blame, so I find using leading through those emotions counterproductive. Claiming to appeal to absolute measures of right, wrong, good, bad, or evil tend to polarize.

Motivating through guilt or blame with appeal to absolutes has a name: moralizing. Morality, ethics, meddling, being holier-than-thou, self-righteousness, and so on work to some degree, but risking alienating, polarizing, and losing your credibility. After all, everyone believes what they do is right, or at least the best option, when they do it. Plus people argue with you a lot and dig in their heels — achieving the opposite of leadership.

I prefer to motivate people other ways. I don’t believe anyone has better access to any absolute than anyone else — even if they do, others who don’t won’t believe they do. So I believe people discussing ethics and morality thinly veils their attempts to get you to do what they want.

As we’ll see, his moralizing will not likely change anyone’s opinion. It only justifies for himself, and people who already agreed, his behavior. He’ll feel better, but then we’ll see whom he alienates.

Morality in Omnivore’s Dilemma

Pollan’s chapter talks a bunch on morality and ethics. As I see it, he uses them as a straw man to “defeat” to justify his current habits.

Eating meat has become morally problematic, at least for people who take the trouble to think about it. Vegetarianism is more popular than it has ever been, and animal rights, the fringiest of fringe movements until just a few years ago, is rapidly finding its way into the cultural mainstream.

[Paraphrasing:] In recent years philosophers and organizations have given us new reasons to doubt meat is good for our souls or our moral self-regard.

It may be that as a civilization we’re groping toward a higher plane of consciousness. It may be that our moral enlightenment has advanced to the point where the practice of eating animals — like our former practices of keeping slaves or treating women as inferior — can now be seen for the barbarity it is, a relic of an ignorant past that very soon will fill us with shame.

This perspective begs the question, why does he consider eating meat a moral issue? If he had no problem with eating meat, why talk about it? If he had a problem with it, why talk about others’ perspectives instead of dealing with his internal inconsistencies?

He’s talking not about fact, but about belief, which you don’t have to justify, but he acts like it’s fact. But why choose this of all issues as a place to justify behavior? If you believe something is right, why do you have to justify your belief to anyone else?

If he were discussing legality, I’d understand. If you differ on something’s legality you can present your case to a judge, but judges interpret consistency with laws, not personal belief. Even then, judges and juries discount witnesses’ facts, evidence, and biases.

Arguing morality on facts misunderstands where motivation comes from: belief and emotions. Unless you’re trying to obscure your intents to motivate others (or assuage your own guilty feelings), which, we’ll see, seems his intent. But if you feel wrong or conflicted, no amount of attacking others’ beliefs will undo your feelings of wrong or internal conflict. You’ll provoke arguments, though, among people who disagree with you, and surround yourself in an echo chamber of people who agree with you. Counterproductive.

Why not just believe what you believe and live accordingly?

He describes how he “experimented” with not eating meat — experimented in quotes because he seemed obviously intending to find ways to reinforce his previous beliefs — clearly (to me, at least) hoping to assuage his obvious feelings of guilt. I suspect in the process he annoyed his son, who didn’t eat meat, presumably for personal beliefs as opposed to an “experiment” for a book, yet whose beliefs he treats as whimsical.

I found something ironic about a patronizing father, but I doubt the linguistic irony decreased the annoyance for the son. Just because he considers his temporary dalliance of going through the motions of not eating meat seeking ammunition to attack the practice, doesn’t mean his son’s beliefs are equally superficial and insincere.

You can probably tell that his not eating meat and reading on the ethics of eating meat led him to conclude his longtime practice eating it was, drumroll please, right all along.

He continues, later,

Even if the vegetarian is a more highly evolved human being, it seems to me he has lost something along the way, something I’m not prepared to dismiss as trivial. Healthy and virtuous as I feel these days , I also feel alienated from traditions I value.

Highly evolved? Please. He’s implying the other side — I suspect the part of his conscience conflicting with his behavior — claimed some moral high ground, an untenable position, so he could knock it down. He did it before with that “higher plane of consciousness” and “enlightenment” talk. If you feel not eating meat is better, don’t eat it. But don’t act like the better or worseness of it is universal.

It begs the question — why wonder if what you do is wrong unless you personally think it’s wrong? You could say because other people, such as the people and organization he reads and quotes, say so. But you can find people moralizing about any behavior. You can find people to say you shouldn’t have kids, but he doesn’t write a chapter justifying the morality of having kids.

He would only bring up the others if they stated something he agreed with — in which case he doesn’t need to bring them up. He’d probably come across as more authentic and genuine if he directly stated his internal conflict and either resolved it or stated his challenge of living with this conflict. We all have them. Most of us would see him as more human. Instead he looks like a moralizer.

He then lists traditions based in meat, as if the list were comprehensive or he were powerless to change them. Everyone used to use buggy whips, but that tradition changed pretty quickly.

He concludes that because he was raised eating meat he should continue eating meat. He said it in many more words, but that’s the essence. Meaning he hasn’t concluded anything. He justified his behavior based on his beliefs. If you agreed before you’ll feel better. If you didn’t, I bet you’ll feel annoyed and moralized to.

Of course everybody justifies their behavior based on their beliefs. I don’t see a problem with that. Or I wouldn’t if he were more open and honest about it.

He wasn’t open or honest in implying he had some justification that applied to anyone but himself. People do that when they talk about morality. In his case he overstated other people’s morality to appear to undermine it — the straw man fallacy.

What about this post? Is it moralizing?

Am I not doing the same thing — talking about his morality to undermine it?

Talking about morality is not moralizing. I’m definitely communicating my opinion, but I’m evaluating what he wrote based on a goal — influencing others — which I doubt he had. I’m using it as an example if he wanted to achieve that goal since we often do have the goal of influencing others and we don’t want to torpedo our efforts by motivating them to stick to their positions and resent us.

In most of his book you could question him, but he backs up his claims with sources justifying him. Or he talks about personal tastes in food, which are obviously personal. In this part, he opens himself up to criticism he can’t justify and implies they apply to others.

My point?

I am pointing out that avoiding talking about the ethics and morality of your behavior, you get in fewer arguments, undermine your credibility less, and, by surrounding yourself less with an echo chamber, bury yourself less in groupthink.

If instead you talk about the consequences of your actions without judgment — that is, without calling it right, wrong, good, bad, or evil — you invite more thoughtful responses, more potential to learn, and more potential to influence others.

By favoring examining consequences over claiming being right, you gain learning and growth and give up feeling self-righteous or justification for feeling indignant. Again, I don’t call learning and growth better than self-righteousness and indignation. People can draw on the emotions they want.

As for one’s own life and leading oneself, in my experience I find learning and growth improve my life and I like having people in my life who learn and grow. People who create self-righteousness and indignation in their lives, for all I know, create more happiness and reward for themselves. That’s their business. I’ve had that in my life and didn’t find it improved it so I avoid creating those emotions or spending time with people who fill their lives with them.

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1 response to “On the counterproductivity of motivating people with guilt and blame — aka moralizing

  1. Pingback: The New York Times had a contest about my post » Joshua Spodek

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