I’m not a fan or moralism. Morality, yes. What’s the difference? Morality, which seems inarguably worthwhile, is about being committed to engaging in a struggle over who we want to be, as human beings. It’s the grappling with the questions, large and small, in and among the many relationships in which we exist, about what is the most just way forward. It’s more like writing a poem than looking a word up in the dictionary.
Moralism, on the other hand, is an often rigid commitment to a pre-existing set of guidelines about how one’s life should be led, often delivered in a heavy-handed, unforgiving manner. Moralism reflects a commitment to dogma. It requires little thought.
Examples of moralism?
“I’m so lazy. I didn’t go to the gym all week.”
“She’s a bitch.”
“Do your share.”
In each of these examples, there’s an abstract moral formulation being applied:
Not going to the gym = lazy.
People (women in this case) who act a particular way are bitches. The person in question is one thing only, a bitch.
There’s a preordained amount of work that constitutes a share. An equal share is the right amount.
Most of us are most moral with ourselves
We’re toughest on ourselves. Many of us have internalized a moralism that we developed in our childhoods, from school, our parents (well intentioned as it may have been) and from (let’s be honest) religion. What’s destructive is that we mistakenly believe there’s some value in the moralism. While few would put it in such terms, so many of us believe that giving ourselves a hard time around, say, going to the gym is the thing we need to get ourselves in shape.
Moralism is about as useful as complaining or worrying. Which is to say, not much at all.
And, if we give it up, we won’t all turn into amoral scoundrels. In fact, I think we’re likely to be a whole lot more decent–not to mention more successful and productive. When we’re free of the preexisting, categorical, off-the-shelf notions of what’s right and wrong, we are in a much better position to grapple with these questions in a way that’s much more likely to produce kindness and decency as a result.
I do think moralism has a worthy replacement:
So you’ve been trying to go to the gym. Or get along better with your sister. Or improve how you and your roommates divvy up the work around the apartment. Great! Only usually conversations about this stuff end up sounding pretty moral, filled with shoulds and oughts and how could yous.
What we’ve got to do instead is get creative. When we give up the judging and assuming and beating ourselves and each other up, this path becomes much more clear. Instead of the nagging and feeling bad around going to the gym, you can begin to talk about finding a gym buddy, or trying different kinds of exercise, or take a serious look at what’s getting in the way emotionally. As an alternative to name calling you could get to know your sister’s position, and get some help on how to strengthen the relationship. You and your roommates could dress up as clowns to clean the house, or hire a monkey to clean. What matters here isn’t the particular strategy but rather the possibilities that can get opened up if we’re willing to embrace creating a new way forward.
The point is, if you let go of the damn moralism, you’ve got a way better shot of figuring it out (and being much more decent to one another in the process)!