What a coincidence. The day after my long post on the counterproductivity of moralizing for leading people, using the example of deciding for others whether they should eat meat or not, the New York Times published the results of a contest to do exactly what I described as counterproductive.
No contradiction here — the New York Times’s goal is not to lead people, but to sell newspapers and what works against leaders’ interests (depending on how you want to lead) — polarization and argumentation — works for news media.
- Here is the statement of the contest
- Here are the submissions with the most votes
- Here is the winning submission
This difference in interests illustrates a glaring bias inherent to news reports. Promoting division and argument sells more ads for them — partly answering why we can’t all just get along: news media profits from us not getting along.
By holding a contest, the Times avoids the other major risk of moralizing — loss of credibility. The contestants risk their credibility, but gain a huge voice. The contest helps the Times, but won’t help resolve the issue.
The contest reinforces that people should decide for others what is right, wrong, good, bad, or evil. For this reason, I don’t like it.
Anyway, I didn’t know about the contest until today. If I had I would have submitted something with the main ideas from two days ago.
What I would have submitted
Had I known about the contest before it ended I would have submitted something along the following lines.
- For any act or behavior, you can find someone somewhere who will call it ethically or morally wrong.
- You can find people who would call having children ethically or morally wrong.
- You can find people who would call how a mother raises her child ethically or morally wrong.
- The people at the receiving end of the moralizing not only disagree, they act and behave as they do without feeling any need to justify it.
- We have all been on the receiving end of others moralizing about things we felt so normal they didn’t even seem to warrant ethical or moral consideration. I’ll come back to this point.
- Everyone believes what they do is normal, right, or at least the best option they know of when they do it.
- Their reasons, however logical they sound to themselves, are based in their beliefs and personal preferences.
- Those beliefs and preferences are not based in logic, nor on any universal or absolute truth, no matter how much they think they are.
- Everyone either agrees on some points or has unique beliefs and preferences. (Note that I don’t say we don’t all agree on some points. We may. The points that follow only apply to imposing beliefs and preferences on others who disagree.)
- You don’t have to justify your beliefs or preferences to anyone, nor does anybody else.
- Labeling something moral or ethical only means it is consistent with your beliefs and preferences, which may or may not coincide with anyone else’s.
- Imposing your beliefs and preferences on someone else is either redundant if you agree or counterproductive if you don’t.
- Why counterproductive 1: Appealing to universals, higher powers, or absolutes also only works if you agree what you appeal to is universal, a higher power, or absolute, and generates disagreement if you don’t.
- Why counterproductive 2: Appealing to blame and guilt tends to motivate resentment. Even if it works it risks alienating and creating resentment.
- Asking if something is moral or ethical presupposes everyone shares the same beliefs and preferences or, if not, that others should adopt yours. We call this moralizing, meddling, being self-righteous, being holier-than-thou, etc.
- If others behave differently, they obviously don’t share your beliefs and preferences. Imposing yours on them doesn’t make your position ethical or moral, it only makes you a meddler.
- If you succeed in causing them to act as you want against their beliefs, that doesn’t make you right, it only means you were stronger.
- Returning to my point about if you consider something an ethical or moral issue, if you do, examine your beliefs on the matter. If your beliefs contradict each other (beliefs often do, even within a person), declaring an absolute position misrepresents yourself. You would be more honest to declare your being torn, concluding you don’t know of any absolutely right answer, you just do the best you can given contradictory beliefs. You might also add everybody else does the same.
- People who eat meat who consider eating meat a moral or ethical choice likely consider some of their behavior right and some wrong. They can accept their internal conflict, behave as best they can for themselves, and, accepting their own internal conflict, not try to impose some, but not all, of their beliefs on others, even to say they are acting morally or ethically. Simply saying they are behaving according to their beliefs as best they can communicates themselves honestly, genuinely, and authentically.
- The previous point follows for people who don’t eat meat too.
- I don’t see how anyone can fault another for behaving and communicating honestly, genuinely, and authentically.
- None of the above says you can’t decide what is ethically or morally right for yourself, but the contest is not asking about personal beliefs.
- None of the above applies to legality, such as how people agree to respond when someone’s behavior conflicts with someone else’s. Legality is a different issue.
- In conclusion: we all want to improve our lives. Examining and understanding our personal beliefs and living accordingly tends to achieve that goal. Moralizing to others, which this contest asks us to do, tends to achieve the opposite. I suggest that trying to understand ourselves, recognizing our contradictions, and stop moralizing or getting others to, as this contest was designed to, achieves our goals and avoids the opposite.
I might add that since these points don’t depend on the particular issue — eating meat — they apply to any so-called ethical or moral issue.
Read my weekly newsletter
On initiative, leadership, the environment, and burpees