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You Can't Win at Morality
Escaping the curses of moral perfection
In modern society, we strive to be the best. The best at sports, the best at learning, and the best at being good. It’s nice to make the world a better place, but striving for moral perfection—trying to win at morality—is a fool’s game. Moral perfection is not only impossible, but striving for perfection is the pathway to stress, to people resenting you, and—strangely—to hampering moral progress. The flaws of moral perfectionism are why people start to dislike social movements, whether the Great Awakening or the Great Awokening, and why the famous philosopher Kant is a bad life coach. Fortunately, the three of us—Will, Carlos, and Kurt—will give you the keys to understand how to let go of moral perfectionism (if only a bit), gain some humility, and then go make the world a better place. But first, a thought experiment about moral perfection…
The Ideal Life
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We all want to be better people, so let’s imagine a modern mortal (i.e., not Jesus) who is striving to live a perfect life. Call her Janet. Janet strives to never do harm and always do the most possible good. If we had to design Janet’s life to match this description, we’d have to grapple with some tough questions. How should Janet spend her time? What should her career be and how should she spend her money?
To do the most good possible, maybe Janet should try to save as many lives as possible, buying malaria bed nets to save African children from disease and death. Soon enough though, Janet would have to consider tough trade-offs between selflessness and self-preservation. Would achieving moral perfection require her to sacrifice time with family and friends to relieve the world of suffering? Might Janet end up like Gandhi – so obsessed with the suffering of the world that she becomes blind to the suffering of her own children?
Should Janet become a complete ascetic, sacrificing every moment of her time to bettering the world? How can a perfect moral person reconcile self-care and simple pleasures in a world full of suffering? Every time Janet takes a nap or sits for a quiet moment with a cappuccino and a biscotti, there is good she could be doing. From the ideal of moral perfection, every break, pause, and breather is a failure.
If you find reading about Janet stressful, you’re not alone. Just the idea of moral perfection is exhausting, paralyzing. No matter what Janet seems to choose, her road is sure to end in burnout and/or feelings of personal failure. But beyond the question of how to achieve moral perfection, there’s a deeper question about what is moral perfection.
It’s impossible to know what the exact right action is in any situation. Philosophers disagree about whether you should push a large person off a footbridge to stop a trolley careening toward five people. Political pundits debate whether there is wisdom in military intervention or isolationism. And in our everyday lives, we wonder how to spend our money charitably. Do we give to the United Way? Do we buy a sandwich for the homeless person on the street?
Janet—along with all of us—has to face the fact that you can’t win at morality. Ideals are great but the “ideal” morality is unattainable. While few of us chase these moral rabbit holes to their dead ends, idealist thinking implicitly rules our moral minds.
Most of us want to do good in the world, and follow a set of moral guidelines, or “ideals.” But the word “ideals” has dangerous roots. The etymology of the very word “ideal” implies perfection, which we authors believe is bad.
In 1796, Immanuel Kant used the word “ideal” to describe a hypothetically perfect person, thing, or state. It may have been easy for Kant to fetishize the perfect moral person, but it’s not clear that he is the best role model for us modern people (or anyone else). Kant was a weird guy. He once likened sex to sucking dry a lemon (scholars think he died a virgin), he thought you had to tell the truth even if it meant the slaughter of an innocent family, and he thought it was a good idea to get a portrait taken that highlighted his giant bald forehead and left most of his face in darkness (see picture).
Despite Kant’s questionable judgment, an ideal-driven ethics is widely promoted. Christianity’s most popular role model is Jesus, and they say he was perfect. Tony Robbins, self-help guru, says that we should become the best version of ourselves. The reasoning goes, “if our ideals are unachievable, that’s the whole point! They’re supposed to make you shoot for the moon.” This is why Kant’s idealism is so seductive. We think it’ll make us never stop improving ourselves. When it comes to role models, we don’t search for pretty good people, we search for moral perfection and emulate it to the best of our abilities.
As advocates for increasing moral understanding in the world, we are not arguing that people should stop striving to do good. But we do think that the quest for moral perfection can lead us astray. “The perfect is the enemy of the good” is a quote that’s useful in a lot of cases, but it’s especially useful when it comes to morality.
We argue that striving for moral perfection or “trying to win at morality,” has at least two main drawbacks: First, it can contribute to unhealthy thinking, and second, it can deter us from taking steps in the right direction. Instead, we propose that striving for more moral good (not the most) and practicing moral humility can help us do good in the world around us.
Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom… When Your Goal is Perfection
Achieving moral perfection is tricky because, as we saw with Janet, answers to the “most moral good” are uncertain. And this is a problem because uncertainty about big questions doesn’t feel good.
Take these big questions: Is God real? Are we living in a simulation? Why are we here and what is the meaning of life? For many, the uncertainty inherent in these questions is a background feature of life. But for others, including me (Will), it is too often an anxiety-provoking challenge. I struggle with “existential OCD,” a psychological disorder involving anxiety resulting from intrusive thoughts and discomfort about these big life questions. Not knowing why we’re all here or where we’re all going often stresses me out. But I’ve largely been able to combat this stress through therapy and renegotiating a better relationship with uncertainty.
In the midst of this self-work, I’ve learned about the various ways OCD can take shape. I discovered that other uncertainties, such as uncertainty about moral perfection, can cause a similar kind of stress. Clinical Psychologists define moral OCD as a pathological concern with what’s right and wrong and extreme guilt about slight deviations from one’s moral compass. Often, those afflicted experience hyper-responsibility, perfectionism, and intolerance of uncertainty – all hallmark symptoms of anxiety. Trying to muddle through life is stressful enough without the added unhealthy thought patterns caused by trying to win at morality.
Many people recognize that striving for moral perfection is like chasing after the wind, but there are many people who do not. There’s a whole group of people who are committed to winning at morality—they call themselves “Effective Altruists.”
Perfectly Stressed Altruists
The idea of effective altruism is that people should do “the most good possible” (Janet would certainly fit into this group). The seeds of effective altruism (the EA movement) were humble. In 2009, the Giving What We Can society was founded to fight worldwide poverty by encouraging people to donate 10% of their incomes to charity—but not just any charity. EAs want their altruism to be maximally effective, so charities should be efficient at translating donations into impact. The EA site GiveWell lists the top charities that “save or improve lives the most per dollar….Supported by 30,000+ hours of research annually.”
The EA movement focuses on tangible outcomes and not on merely feeling good. It’s nice to have a “warm glow” from giving, but what matters most to them is transforming lives. EA advocates are more likely to spend $5 on buying a mosquito net than giving it directly to a homeless person for lunch because one mosquito net can save someone’s life from malaria.
Over time, people in this and other similar movements became preoccupied with expanding the good they could do for others. Eventually, the Centre for Effective Altruism (CEA) was created to inspire a global community to do the most good that they can. Now, effective altruists have expanded their efforts past world poverty to reducing animal suffering and improving the lives of people in the long-term future.
We sympathize with effective altruism, and the desire to help others more, and not confuse the fuzzy glow within our hearts for real-world impact. However, striving for moral perfection is tough, especially because morality is plagued by uncertainty. It’s never clear what the best action is, especially if you’re considering the vast expanse of the unknowable future. Grappling with the trade-off between saving millions of people today who are dying of malaria and untold numbers in the future who might be destroyed or enslaved by super intelligence is enough to give you heart problems.
One prominent effective altruist, Holly Elmore, spoke frankly about the damaging effects of striving for moral perfection in a Flash Talk in 2019:
“I am plagued by guilty and sad thoughts about the deaths of animals in factory farms (obsession), so I keep looking for more ways to make my vegan diet 100% cruelty-free (compulsion).
I feel guilty and undeserving of my money (obsession), so I devote myself to being as frugal as possible (compulsion).”
Elmore discusses how effective altruism inadvertently endorses some of these attitudes. While these scrupulous attitudes have noble roots, they can turn unhealthy. When people with a disposition to stress over the uncertain are embedded in a community that encourages the pursuit of the most-good you can do, the result is more anxiety.
It is important to note that Effective Altruists seem not to have more OCD than the average person, perhaps because helping others confers some resilience (and maybe even some physical tenacity). So while it’s good to be wary of the impact that pursuing moral perfection might have on you, many people find the pursuit of effective altruism highly fulfilling.
But even if you’re the kind of person who loves pursuing moral perfection, we believe that overall, altruism might be more effective, if we cared a bit less about perfection. We should especially deemphasize the moral perfection of those others we hope to motivate because puritanical movements are hard to support.
The Problem with Puritanism
Part of doing good in the world is inspiring those around us to join in our efforts. But moral perfection is an impossible moral standard that might discourage others from trying to do good. Even worse, people may feel resentful and rebel against the quest for goodness.
The history of puritanical movements is full of failure. The real puritans of early America had to use theocratic oppression to get compliance with their morally demanding ethical system. In fact, the state of Rhode Island was founded because people found the Puritans in Massachusetts just too rigid. In Iran today, cities are rife with rebellion because a puritanical “morality police” set up overly stringent rules. No matter where you go, people don’t like puritanism. 20th-century social critic H. L. Mencken hit the nail on the head. “Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, might be happy.”
It may seem counterintuitive, but the way to inspire goodness in the world is to shift our aim towards doing more good and not the most good.
Veganism is another modern movement whose puritanical tendencies deter people from reducing their overall “harm footprint.” One of us authors, (Carlos) has experienced this hesitancy firsthand. “When I first became vegan in May 2020, I was evangelical about my veganism. I wanted to help others see that by eating animal products, they were complicit in the suffering and death of sentient beings. While I still believe that veganism is in most cases, an ethical responsibility, imposing such a massive demand on others has been extremely unpersuasive. To this day, I have converted zero people to veganism.”
On the other hand, more subtle nudges toward cutting back on animal consumption have been much more effective. Friends and family members are much more open to the idea of reducing their animal consumption when it is framed as a moral opportunity - not a moral requirement. Recent research supports this idea. Cameron and colleagues (2022) found that appeals to meat abstinence are more effective when people are asked to reduce meat from their diet, instead of eliminating it. These findings suggest that the “reducetarian” movement might garner more support – and in the end do more good – than the vegan idealist movement. Because of Carlos's nudges, his coauthors have started to substitute dairy milk with oat milk.
Most of us agree that we’d like for there to be less animal abuse and more donations to the poor. But movements that prescribe strict moral behavior are setting too high of a bar for most people. Instead, we need movements that focus on moral improvement and encouragement. One effective way of doing this is by using moral nudges to increase altruism. Researchers have found that asking people simple questions like, “what is the morally right thing to do here?” can increase charitable giving. In other words, allowing people to simply reflect on their own moral intuitions leads people to be more generous.
These findings reveal that if we want to see more good in the world, we don’t need to require moral perfection, we just need to inspire moral reflection.
Moral Crusades Need Moral Humility
We have suggested that aiming for more moral good is superior to aiming for the most good for two reasons. First, aiming for moral perfection can drive unhealthy, scrupulous tendencies. Secondly, expecting moral perfection from others makes it difficult for others to join your cause. Setting easier moral goals and nudging people in the right direction is more likely to yield positive change. We are not arguing that people should be apathetic when it comes to morality. Just realistic.
Moral perfection seems like a virtue, but we advocate for another virtue to replace it: moral humility.
Having moral humility means recognizing one's own moral fallibility and appreciating that most people are good people trying to do their best. It means recognizing that there are grey areas in morality and that questions of moral perfection are ambiguous. Researchers propose that an optimal level of moral humility helps people live up to their moral values, facilitates moral learning and feedback, and can increase one's circle of moral regard. Leaders demonstrating moral humility inspire followers’ prosocial behavior. Thus, by holding our moral positions with an open palm instead of a closed fist, we can live better lives and better inspire others.
Someone can still be striving to help others even if you disagree with their actions. Someone buying lunch for a homeless person is still laudable even if it is not causing the most good. And even the “morally perfect” are far from perfect. Gandhi was a terrible Dad, Dr. King was a philanderer, but they both strove to do incredible good and achieved it. Humility means accepting that human fallibility is inevitable as we work together to improve the human condition.
Striving for moral perfection is commendable. Some people find fulfillment in aiming for moral maximization, but for many others, the specter of perfection can lead to unhealthy thought patterns and deter others from joining in the effort. We suggest that aiming for more good (not the most), encouraging moral reflection (not perfection), and practicing moral humility are promising avenues for fostering more good in the world.
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