By Dan Tippens
Should we ever moralize to others? An interesting question, if you consider how many people seem to think so. Indeed, beyond the question of whether this sort of behavior is permissible in some way, people increasingly speak as if it is their duty to tell others what they ought to do. This is evident from the fact that they moralize despite what would seem like obvious overriding factors, such as potentially damaging their relationships or even just flat out annoying people. It’s certainly plausible to me that the reason why they are not sensitive to consequences like these is that they think they are acting on an overriding obligation. (If you don’t find this immediately persuasive, I invite you to think about the times people have moralized to you, and decide for yourself.)
What could motivate the idea that one has an obligation to moralize? The following line of thought comes to mind: People have moral obligations; when they fail to meet their moral obligations, they become blameworthy; if someone is blameworthy, one ought to blame them; consequently, one ought to moralize to others.
The trouble is that from the fact that a person deserves to be moralized to, it doesn’t follow that you should be the one to do it. Consider an analogous – though somewhat extreme – case. Herbert is someone you’ve never met and is a mass-murderer, whom we’ll stipulate deserves to die. Does it follow that you should drive to his house and kill him? It doesn’t seem so – the situation is not one of, say, self-defense, in which you are faced with an imminent threat to your life – and the same would seem to be true with regard to moralizing. Should you moralize to a stranger for tossing a cigarette butt onto the street or failing to recycle a can? Even if we stipulate that such a person is blameworthy, does it follow that you ought to be the one to take it up with him, despite the fact that he has done nothing to harm or even affect you at all (except for maybe causing you to bristle). Moralizing would only seem obligatory, then, when the moralizer and the moralized to are in certain kinds of relationships with one another.
Perhaps one might say that while we are not always obligated to moralize to someone who is blameworthy, we are always justified in doing so; that moralizing in such circumstances is at least permissible. But as I suggested earlier, even if I am justified in moralizing to someone, I might really want to think twice about it. That something is permissible does not in itself recommend it or render it prudent or wise. Perhaps I shouldn’t moralize to my friend, because it would damage our relationship. Moralizing may even undermine my desired end, by annoying the other person so much that he decides to do the opposite of what I’d hoped he’d do.
(Very) loose thoughts on an alternative approach to moralizing
My girlfriend recently suggested that she and I refrain from using plastic bags and instead purchase our own grocery bags, which we could reuse. In a less tactful moment, I turned this into an opportunity to debate the topic of moralizing and our moral obligations to the environment. As we descended into the weeds of the discussion, I noticed that we were talking about what our obligations are, what failing to re-use bags indicated about our character, as well as the relevant consequences. After we parted, I thought a lot about how we had ended up in a fight … over plastic bags!
I eventually realized that when she had first proposed the idea, her reasons really weren’t moral at all. The conversation had ended up in that territory because I had steered it there. She wasn’t trying to turn me into a better person or make me sensitive to the moral reasons for re-using plastic bags. Rather, I think she was trying to pick a simple activity for us to engage in together, as a couple, like taking yoga classes, rock climbing, or traveling. Friends and couples like to do things together, and this is in large part because shared activities strengthen relationships in different ways, by creating new bonds. Maybe moral projects should be thought of in this way, alongside rock climbing or ballroom dancing. Instead of seeing moral projects as things people have to do for morality’s sake, we should instead see them as a way for us to bond as people.
I actually suspect that moralizing today is already a somewhat distorted version of this. We create moral fads and clubs, and in order to gain membership, one must perform the relevant moral duties. Vegans, vegetarians, and recyclers frequently bond more with other members of these groups, but where they go wrong is to focus too strongly on the moral dimension of their preferred activity, which leads to chauvinism about their club, and thus, motivates them to moralize to others for not trying to “gain membership.”
If we dropped this obsession with morality and focused more on the social dimension of moral projects, we wouldn’t have so much of the rancor that moralizing induces. People may recommend rock climbing as something that is good for couples to do, but it would be weird to suggest that you ought to do it or to try to make you feel guilty for deciding not to or to pose as being somehow superior, because one does it oneself. Of course there are those who are recreationally snobby, and might behave this way nonetheless, but our fixation on the moral dimension of these activities would seem to breed this kind of snobbery, as opposed to just providing an outlet for it.
When we view moral projects like other shared activities, we focus on the people around us and on how we can tighten our bonds with them. In doing so, we affirm the greater significance of people over abstract principles, and this, it seems to me, can only be a good thing. It is worth noting that when I thought about what my girlfriend had proposed in this way, I found myself, for the first time, actually moved to do it. Though we had tossed around every possible moral reason, in the end, it turned out that the most compelling reason to act was so that we might get a little bit closer, as a couple.