The Modern Survival Guide #20
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone, and I really think I made the right decision in writing them out. But it’s hard to say. Anyway, in this article I want to talk a bit about moral choices and recognizing them as they fly past.
Keeping your nose clean is now, and has always been, a survival trait. Knowing when you’re about to make a moral choice is step one in that process. We are all faced with moral choices from time to time. The problem that many of us experience, however, is that sometimes we don’t recognize a moral choice until it is far enough in the past that we can look back on it, analyze it… and regret it. It is a survival skill to recognize moral choices as they come whizzing past — otherwise it is all too easy to find oneself in a bad place.
Moral choices do not come with a flashing neon sign. No angel is ever going to come down out of the sky, sit on your shoulder, and whisper in your ear that what you are about to do is right or wrong. You do not get a Jiminiy Cricket. You have to choose. And you often have to choose quickly, with fairly limited preparation.
Now, you might think that a moral choice would be fairly easy to spot. After all, if the choice is, “do I steal from this person or not?” it’s pretty obvious that this is a moral choice. But the tricky ones, the ones that really define our lives, tend to creep up on us. They come disguised as neutral choices or things that seem like a good idea at the time. They often come with rationalizations and explanations. And they slip by as a result.
A common example is quite insidious: your job. Are you totally, completely comfortable with what your job does in the world? Most of you probably are. Some of you are probably even proud of your job. But now that I’ve asked the question, some of you may be thinking… “No.”
Maybe you work for an arms manufacturer.
Maybe you work for a lobbying firm.
Maybe you work for a government agency.
Maybe you work for a multinational corporation.
A lot of people work in jobs that they may not entirely agree with, but they feel obliged to show up every day because a job is a job and money is money. But some companies do really awful things in the name of the almighty dollar, and some governments do even nastier things in the name of patriotism. At some point, their employees share the blame.¹
Let’s look at another situation that often flies under the radar: social and authoritative pressure. A lot of people put pressure on their friends, spouses, employees, family members, and neighbors to do things that those people may not want to do. You and I have both been on the receiving end of such pressure… and applied it as well. It’s often very hard to say no.
This is best exemplified in the infamous Milgram experiments, a series of psychological tests that sought to understand the nature of authority’s impact on individual motivations. If you don’t have time to read the link, I’ll sum up: about 60% of people will electrocute another person to death if an authority figure tells them to.
This is terrifying. It also leads us to an uncomfortable realization: moral choices are very hard to make under pressure. It’s much more common, and much easier, to just go along with directions — particularly when there is some sort of social or authority-backed pressure pushing a choice on you:
Maybe your boss tells you to look the other way on a shady deal for the “good of the company.”
Maybe your brother tells you to hide his drug stash.
Maybe your friends tell you that you can’t hang out with them unless you wear their colors.
Maybe your priest demands that you sign a petition because it’s God’s will.
This happens literally all the time, to almost everyone. It’s often very, very hard to say no. It’s often even personally perilous to say no. And a lot of the time, you won’t want to say no, or it won’t occur to you to say no.
My point is that a moral choice in life doesn’t often come with fanfare or a signpost. You do not gain a “chaotic evil” trait on your character sheet if you make a bad choice. You don’t grow a halo if you make a good choice. Quite frequently, you won’t even realize that you’re making a moral choice. So… how do you stay on the right path (for whatever value of “right” you’re currently operating under — I’m not judging)? I’ve only come across a couple of different ways.
The First Way
Ok, this one may not be crazy enough to warrant all-caps bold font, but here it is: know your Moral Code. Then, and only then, judge your actions by it. Then, when you’ve got the hang of that, incorporate it into your actions.
See, this is why we don’t trust teenagers. It takes literally years to figure out the nuances of even a partially developed Moral Code (capitalization intentional, this is a big deal), and kids haven’t done it yet. Hell, most adults I know operate on about half a Code. It’s more complex than it seems. First you need to know the rules of your Code. Then you need to know why they are rules. Then you can identify exceptions to the rules, and understand why there are exceptions.
This is a big deal. It requires hard things, like effort and study. You may actually have to take classes. But this is a major part of being a functioning adult, so I suggest you put in the effort. As a side note, blindly accepting what other people tell you does not constitute making an effort.
Once you have this basic understanding, it’s a matter of training yourself to look at situations in the world around you and apply your Code to them. This isn’t easy at first, but it gets easier with time as you encounter more instances that caused you to consider your actions. It also has the advantage of forcing you to think before you do things, which more people need to do in general.
This isn’t a foolproof method. It’s perfectly possible, even probable, that you will fool yourself or get something wrong in many situations. It also requires effort, and you’ll probably get sick of applying your Code to new events. But keeping a mindful attitude towards your Moral Code and its application is infinitely better than not thinking about it at all.
The Second Way
If the First Way relies on planning and mindfulness, the second way is pure intuition. Contrary to all expectation, we actually absorb a pretty decent moral education in modern society. TV morality is actually not all that bad. Good usually wins, the various traditional evils are commonly and repeatedly depicted as evil, and the various moral infractions are all represented. And that’s not even touching the average person’s religious experience and/or moral education from their parents. And on top of that, I suppose there’s the law (which is a very dodgy source of morality, unfortunately).
My point is that, while most people often don’t have a totally logically coherent moral code, they do have enough fragments to get them through their everyday lives and provide at least some base for a moral worldview. This isn’t foolproof, and it usually leaves you open to some degree of error, but it’s better than nothing.
Now let’s talk about intuition, which is generally defined as using a base of experience to rapidly identify and judge similar situations. Intuition will provide a guide to making moral decisions for most people; the trick is recognizing it. Intuitive moral choices are usually revealed by discomfort. This is very individual, but if you feel nervous, sad, anxious, angry, twitchy, or otherwise upset when making a decision… well, you might want to think about it for a moment longer. Particularly if someone else is asking you to do something.
If you never (or only very rarely) have intuitive feelings about a moral choice, congratulations, you’re probably a sociopath. Your life just got both easier and harder, because you can’t and shouldn’t rely on intuition. You need to follow a Code. If you don’t have a Code, you will eventually alienate everyone around you, and you probably won’t even understand why.
To bring this all back into context, making moral decisions is a crucial survival skill in the modern world. Being able to identify and then make correct moral choices is usually a key part of coexisting with any group — particularly in this day and age, when any hint of poor character can be blasted over the internet at the speed of light.
Let me repeat that last part in a slightly different way — if you make poor choices, you can and very well may be punished by strangers for the rest of your life. Which might also be a good deal shorter, since people who make it onto the internet’s shit list tend to have a higher rate of suicide.
There’s also the fact that making the correct moral choice most of the time will probably be good for you. You will be more likely to make friends and have influence.² You will be more likely to stay out of jail, and generally have less stress in your life. And you will probably be happier. Poor moral choices and suffering tend to go together, because societies tend to punish people they judge to be of poor morals.³ This is an in group/out group tribal thing, it’s hardwired into our group psychology, and you are not going to get away from it.
It therefore pays very good dividends to keep track of our moral choices, both the ones we see coming and the ones that sneak up on us every day. So keep thinking, listen to your intuition, and if either of those methods don’t work for you and you still find yourself making poor choices… MOVE. Take yourself out of your life situation and go somewhere else. Start over. Meet new people. You can’t make good moral decisions in toxic environments.
¹The exact point where this happens is a bit of a grey area, but in general, remember that “I was just following orders” is not a valid excuse.
²Unless you are a CEO or a politician. There’s a reason sociopaths often rise to these positions.
³Which does not mean you should blindly accept your society’s moral code.