Why I’m Sitting in this Chair
by Robert Gressis
A couple of months ago, I had a diavlog with our host, Dan Kaufman. In that discussion, we debated what Dan has usefully called the “morality everywhere” approach; roughly, this is the idea not only that just about all of our behavior is morally evaluable, but also that it is evaluable according to very demanding moral standards. In short, for most of what you’re doing, you can do better, so you should do better.
Since I defended that idea, Dan asked me, “why are you sitting in that chair?” What he meant was this: Rob, if you truly believe that you can and should be doing a lot better than you’re doing, then why aren’t you doing it? In other words, why are you sitting in your chair instead of helping the poor?
My answer was that I was weak of will: I believe I should be helping the poor (or whatever) instead of talking to Dan, but it’s more fun to talk to Dan, so I do it.
Dan didn’t buy it. Weakness of will wasn’t a good explanation for what’s really going on with me. His point was this: if a neutral observer were to look at how I lived my life and asked to come up with an explanation of my beliefs and values based on my statements, behaviors, and reactions, what explanation would she come up with? Would she conclude, “oh, Rob really does value morality over most things, it’s just that he’s chronically weak”? Or would she say, “Rob says he values morality over most things, but he actually doesn’t. Instead, though he values being moral to some degree, he values his happiness more”? Surely, the second explanation is more plausible than the first.
I think Dan is right: the best explanation for what I do is one according to which I don’t accept morality everywhere—even though I think I do!
For the last couple of months, I’ve been thinking about this, because it raises a psychologically — and perhaps even philosophically — interesting question: given that I think the arguments for morality everywhere are compelling, but given that my behavior shows that I don’t accept them, what is happening with me?
Let me elaborate: I think the Singerian argument for the claim that we have very strong moral obligations is sound. And yet I don’t do what its conclusion recommends. I don’t even come close. And I agree with Dan that the fact of my not doing it is explained by the idea that I don’t believe it. So, we have this puzzling situation: I think I believe morality everywhere, but my actions belie it. Thus, not only am I wrong about what I believe, I know I’m wrong about what I believe.
It’s this last part that’s so strange: it would be one thing if I thought I believed morality everywhere, but was self-deceived. Yet this isn’t self-deception; for self-deception to happen, you have to end up being deceived. But I’m not! I find morality everywhere compelling, but thanks to Dan, I now know I don’t believe it.
Now, one way of making sense of this is by adverting to what Tamar Szabó Gendler has dubbed “alief” (see Tamar Szabó Gendler, “Alief and Belief”). In her paper introducing the notion, she doesn’t give a pithy definition of it, but an example will help make sense of the idea.
Apparently, there was a psychological study done where people were given bedpans. These bedpans were clearly new – they were wrapped in cellophane – and they were unwrapped in front of the people, and water was poured in them. The people were asked, “do you think that this water is impure?” and they answered that they thought not. Then, they were asked to drink it, and were reluctant. In other words, though they believed that drinking from a new bedpan was no more unsanitary than drinking from a clean glass, their behavior seemed to indicate that they didn’t believe this.
Because Gendler thinks that the people were sincere about their proclaimed belief, she resists saying that they didn’t believe what they’re saying. After all, given their situations, they had no reason to believe that the bedpans were dirty. It seemed instead that they had a felt association of bedpans with waste. So, instead of saying that the people thought they believed that the bedpans were clean but really believed the bedpans were filthy, she concluded that the people did believe that the bedpans were clean but alieved that they were dirty. In other words, an alief is something like a disposition to react and act in certain ways in certain situations, independent of your beliefs about those situations.
Perhaps Gendler’s belief/alief account explains what’s happening with me: when it comes to morality, I alieve eudaimonism but believe morality everywhere.
However, saying this leaves one huge question unanswered: if I believe morality everywhere, then why don’t I do it? With the bedpan case, matters are straightforward: although you judge that there’s nothing insalubrious about drinking from a bedpan, your past associations make you feel disgust, which, in turn, weakens your desire to drink.
Is this same thing happening with morality everywhere? To answer this, we should think about what someone is like whose beliefs mirror his aliefs.
Someone whose beliefs aligned with her aliefs would, upon judging the bedpan to be clean, feel no disgust about drinking it. Now, for most of us, aligning our belief and alief in this way couldn’t be immediate – such associated disgust is cultivated deeply, so overcoming it would take a few trials of drinking from the bedpan. That said, I’m confident that you could train yourself into no longer being grossed out by drinking from the pan. (The mixed martial artist and Army Ranger Tim Kennedy once said in an interview that Army Rangers train themselves to the point where, when they hear gunfire, their first reaction becomes to run toward it. If people can reform their self-preservation instinct to this level, I’m confident they can similarly reform their disgust reaction.)
So what would a genuine morality everywhere adherent — from here on out, a “moral saint” — look like? Assuming that such a person came to morality everywhere accepting eudaimonism, then, upon giving that up and accepting morality everywhere, he may feel guilt for his past life and feel conviction about changing himself. He would also set about changing himself, perhaps giving up going to expensive dinners and buying fashionable clothing, and instead researching what he should devote his time and money to, and then, upon finding that out, doing it. To keep things simple, he would be drawn to doing moral things, averse to doing immoral things (and there would be many such things on a morality everywhere view), guilty about failing to live up his standard, and proud of himself (or at least not guilty) when he made moral progress.
So what happens with me? Occasionally, I find myself drawn to moral things, and sometimes I find myself repelled by doing immoral things, and a lot of the time, I just feel guilty. But the overwhelming majority of the time, I just feel nothing. I don’t think about it, or, if I do, I guiltlessly shrug off my inaction. It doesn’t register with me. It’s like Dan said, when I asked him why he doesn’t refrain from eating meat: he just doesn’t care about chickens very much. Similarly, not only do I not care about chickens, I guess I just don’t care about morality.
And yet, it really seems to me as though I shouldn’t eat factory-farmed chickens, and it really seems to me as though the arguments for morality everywhere are right. It’s just that these realizations send no electricity through my body. The conclusions are museum pieces, beautiful and cold and I’m not allowed to touch them. They’re real, but they don’t fit with me.
This isn’t weakness of will; this is something else. What, though?
I’ll start by being very honest: besides the guilt I feel for not living up to my ideal, I also feel pleasure for having the ideal. I think I have convinced myself that I am morally ahead of others just in accepting the very demanding standards of morality everywhere. In Collins’s notes on Kant’s 1774-77 lectures on ethics, what Collins reports Kant saying captures well what I have in mind:
Moral philautia [self-love], where a man has a high opinion of himself in regard to his moral perfections … arises when a man holds his dispositions to be good ones, and thinks by empty wishes and romantic ideas to promote the welfare of the world; he loves the Tartar, and would like to practice kindness towards him, but gives no thought to his closest neighbors. That whereby the heart only becomes flabby, is the philautia that consists in mere wishes, and is otherwise inactive. The lovers of self are weaklings, who are neither brave nor active; arrogance, however, is at least still active.
Perhaps, then, what I have done is this: in the past, I read Singer (and, truth be told, Kant) and intellectually assented to it. But I never really did anything about it. At first, I didn’t beat myself up about it because I was a graduate student, and didn’t have the time or money to make much difference anyway. I had a good excuse! But this means I got used to accepting morality everywhere while doing nothing about it. In time, this became second-nature. Whenever the issue of morality everywhere would come up – in discussion or in teaching – I would realize that I still hadn’t come close to living up to my ideal. But most of the time it operated as one part of the elaborate tapestry of my background beliefs. The longer this went on, the more I despaired of ever reaching it whenever I remembered it. At the same time, I comforted myself by telling myself, “well, at least I still have the ideal – unlike almost everyone else. So I’ve got that going for me.” And I also noticed that most of those other people who espoused the morality everywhere ideal were rather like me: deeply critical of how most people (including themselves) lived their lives, but not doing much to change things. So, I was better than non-philosophers, and as good as most of my peers. In the end, morality everywhere became a petrified intellectual artifact: something I would show people on special occasions, but most of the time gathering cobwebs in my attic.
This is why I think I don’t believe morality everywhere: it didn’t serve the purpose of a belief. It was an adornment, an intellectual jewel. It allowed me to virtue-signal to myself. But it didn’t help me to get along in the world or make much sense of things.
I still find myself assenting to morality everywhere when I consider it. Yet it is not a belief, because I haven’t done what I need to do to make it function as one. I have not trained my flesh to go where my spirit wills, and that’s because of character flaws—sloth, conformity, and timorousness. So, consider this confession also a resolution: I’ve messed up, and I have to make some changes.
Whether or not I actually make the changes, though, depends on whether this confession is done just to curry more favor with myself. The jury is still out.
One addendum: throughout this essay, I have acted as though I accept Singer’s version of morality everywhere. In point of fact, I don’t. His is too extreme. Indeed, about Singer’s morality, I accept a kind of inverse of Susan Wolf’s criticism: it’s not that it’s undesirable to be a moral saint because of all the important goods in life they’re missing, it’s that it’s impossible to be a moral saint because of how everyone else lives their lives and because of how we are — or at least how I am — constituted. Let me explain.
Above, I wrote that the moral saint whose beliefs aligned with his aliefs would be drawn to morally good things, averse to morally bad things, guilty for failing to do the good, and proud for refraining from the bad. This, however, is far too simple of a picture of such a person.
First, to become a moral saint, he would have to resist familial love, or at least regularly consider doing so. Whenever he devoted considerable time to his children, not just meeting their needs, but actively improving them, he would have to consider, “is this OK?” (Witness the case of Harry Brighouse and Adam Swift, who fretted that well-off people reading to their kids gave them unfair social advantages; in the end, they conclude that it’s permissible to read to your kids, because the benefits of close familial relationships can sometimes outweigh social justice. But there is something profoundly disturbing to me about grudgingly permitting parents to satisfy their strong desire to love their children in this way.)
Second, being a moral saint would make it more difficult to have friends. Some of your friends would defensively condemn you as a do-gooder, out of resentment; some of them would be reluctant to spend time with you, as you would inspire feelings of guilt in them owing to your moral superiority; and some of them, I assume, would be good people.
Third, and perhaps worst, becoming a moral saint could make you alienated from the rest of the world and despairing of any hope for progress. Let me give you an example: for a brief, five-month period, I went on the Atkins Diet. It was quite difficult at first, but it had very positive results for my weight and sense of well-being. But a surprising result was that I became quite judgmental: I would see people buying huge boxes of cereal at Costco, and shaking my head in disappointment. “I can’t believe that people are filling themselves with carbs like that!” I would think.
As is commonly noted, though, morality is bigger than the Atkins diet. Almost every choice everyone makes, almost every way everyone lives, would disappoint you. Especially if you managed to succeed in your moral aims. “If I can do this, why can’t they?”, you might think. And what other answer would you give, other than “because they’re bad people”?
Moreover, you would likely look at the way society is structured and despair of improvement. When I was on the Atkins diet, it seemed like society was an organized conspiracy of carbohydrate-peddlers. No matter where you went, people were enticing you with bread and candy. Surely the same would apply to moral saints: how could you look at contemporary, consumer society and not conclude, “society is designed to get us to value ourselves over others”?
This makes me worry that Singerian-style morality everywhere is self-undermining: even if you succeed in reaching moral sainthood, your arrival there will be short-lived: you will become a morally worse person in how you think of others, you will distance yourself from society, and you may eventually find yourself succumbing to the pull of self.
The kind of morality everywhere I can get behind is one that makes allowances for our desire to fit in, to love our family, and to look at our flawed fellows with respect and understanding. I think of this as the ethical equivalent of tithing. You should give ten per cent of your income: it’s hard, but it’s doable. You may give more, but not if it causes the problems of Singerian moral sainthood. This allows for what Kant called “Spielraum,” a sphere of permissible enjoyment free from moral criticism. There’s a lot more I would have to say to really respond to Singer to my own satisfaction, but I can’t do that right now. Instead, I think I’ll go play with my son.