Does knowing what’s right mean you end up doing wrong?

In Saturday’s Guardian Magazine, Oliver Burkeman discussed the intriguing evidence that people who study ethics turn out to behave in a less ethical way than their counterparts in other fields, as studied by US philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel. Whether it’s hypocritically holding that eating animals is wrong while simultaneously doing so, or the point that I found most curious, that “Ethics books, it turns out, are more likely to be stolen from libraries than other philosophy books.”

Burkeman hypothesises that there is a level on which people feel like they have “done good” simply by thinking about whether something is good or bad, and therefore they don’t have to do anything about their conclusions.

It’s plausible to suggest that ethicists have an unusually strong sense of what’s right and wrong; that’s what they spend their days pondering, after all. What if their overdeveloped sense of morality – their confidence that they know what’s what, ethically speaking – makes them less likely to act ethically in real life?

Burkeman gives some other examples of how this works in the general population: “if you give people a chance to condemn sexist statements, they’ll subsequently be more likely to favour hiring a man in a male-dominated profession.” – that is, again using Burkeman’s explanation, “the deep-seated human tendency that leaves us feeling entitled to do something bad because we’ve already done something good.” – or “moral licensing”.

Another thought came to me about how it works, which is related to the moral licensing concept and explanation. I considered that it might be possible that it is also a form of elitism or entitlement. Viewing oneself as superior to others, for instance, as having special knowledge that makes your decisions “better” than theirs, has a tendency to lead people to regard those others as “less important”. This often results in a curious “doublethink” situation where, for example, a person simultaneously believes that all people are equal, but because some people don’t believe that, those people are less worthy of consideration.

Thus, the emotional logic runs, it would certainly be wrong for someone else to steal the ethics book, but because I understand ethics and will use the book for the betterment of everyone else, it is okay for me to steal it. My motives and purposes are better than other people’s.

This kind of moral licensing, based on elitism or entitlement, seems to underlie many of the problems that revolutionary groups run into if they succeed in their revolution. They, by virtue of knowing about revolutionary politics and how things should be run, by their greater insight and greater involvement in the struggle, come to believe that they alone are capable of deciding what is best for everyone else and end up restricting the rights of others at the same time as championing them. Another novel idea that has to wait for me to finish the one I’m working on at the moment hinges on resolving this conflict.

I see this happening a lot in activism, and far too often I have seen articles on feminist-identified blogs where women who haven’t studied feminism or who live their lives in ways that the theory says is bad for them, are dismissed or described in disparaging terms that echo the language of the Patriarchy. It happens in BDSM communities, and I noticed elements of it in left-wing organisations. I didn’t follow closely the implosion of the SWP, but from what I heard on various blogs, I suspect that a similar problem existed there as well.

Feeling “right” about something (Burkeman uses the word “smugness”) is seductive and can lead people to believe that “being right” is in some way a quality that they possess, rather than something that needs to be maintained by continued “doing right”. I suspect that this is why a lot of men want to label themselves, or be labelled, “feminist”. It is as though that label absolves them of guilt when they act in sexist ways. (It may be possible to argue that some women who identify themselves as feminist use the label in the same way.) Similarly, feeling “I am a good person”, or “I know what is right and wrong”, leads people to interpret the wrong things that they do (and that they recognise as being wrong when others do them) as being not important, or even as being “right” when they do them.

This leads to the rather perplexing but in some ways reassuring conclusion: if you’re not sure whether you’re a good person or not, you are probably a better person than the people who are sure about themselves.


About ValeryNorth

I overthink everything.
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