I think I inherited it from my father’s side. Nothing makes me lose my mind more than when I’m walking through the mall and somebody steps out of a store right in front of me and walks slowly. Why didn’t they look? I would have looked. I do look.
It might only take less than two seconds for me to skirt around and resume my regular mall-cruising speed, but that’s enough time to make my eyes harden and my teeth clench. It’s enough for my mind to start getting self-righteous.
If I’m not careful, I end up in an internal dialogue about certain basic courtesies people should uphold in public, or maybe a half-daydream about how the oblivious lady in front of me must live a life of total obliviousness, wandering into busy streets or onto active construction sites, all without a clue that she may be affecting people’s lives with her deplorable lack of awareness. In either case, I end up feeling agitated, and slightly better than her.
The basis of my internal rant always seems to surround how people ought to behave in public. In other words, I make a moral issue out of it.
In a situation like that, my distress seems to be that I am simply yearning for a world in which people don’t stand in the way on sidewalks or step out in front of people at the mall. But it’s really a clever self-deception; what I am really yearning for in those moments is a slightly easier version of my present moment — one in which there is nothing in my way.
Though I’m not always aware of it, my own personal inconvenience is what I’m reallyrailing against, not some worldwide epidemic of rudeness. My objection is purely selfish, under the guise of a noble appeal for a better world. But I’m not really looking for a better world, only a moment that contains no difficulty for me — no oversight I must excuse, no mistake I must forgive.
If nobody had been in my way, I probably wouldn’t have had a reason to contemplate the ethics of proper mall-walking. If I saw the same thing happen to someone else, it wouldn’t seem nearly as important. Certainly not enough to get angry about.
Morality as a tool for dodging responsibility
I think this happens often. We use morality to justify our resentment of what happens to us.
Most people, when they are inconvenienced, will feel at least a bit of resentment, most of the time. It isn’t always toward a person. You can hate the “stupid” attic beam when you hit your head on it, or the stupid stair when you stub your toe on it. You can resent a situation.
But when other people enter the picture, when a person can somehow be blamed for something unpleasant we experience, our resentment seems to take on a heightened momentum. It is much easier to resent a person than a situation, (especially a stranger) because we can make moral arguments for why this person should have (or should not have) done this or that.
You see, a moral argument finally gives us what we hapless human beings have always wanted: a way of arguing with what is.
Morality is the only way we can rationalize arguing with reality itself.
It is the only way we can look at reality and say, “this shouldn’t be!” and believe that we are right. We can’t reasonably say “It is wrong that it’s raining!” but we can (and often do say) “He shouldn’t have done that.” Moralizing is an extremely common reaction to being inconvenienced. I do it all the time, and didn’t realize it most of my life.
We usually (though not always) recognize the absurdity in blaming animals, inanimate objects, or the weather for the annoyances they cause us. Shit happens, and most reasonable people can accept that. But somehow, if we can in any way pin the inconveniences in our lives on a failing of another human being, we are quick to do it.
When I argue to myself that “He shouldn’t have done that,” I’m really just saying “It’s his fault that I’m pissed off right now.” That way, I don’t have to be responsible for my state of mind. I can pin my cranky reaction on somebody else’s shoddy morals, instead of my shoddy skills for dealing with inconvenience and disappointment. That way I don’t have any responsibilities in the situation.
What do you do when inconvenience strikes?
When inconvenience strikes, the behavior of others is a tempting target for resentment, because we can always make an argument that humans have moral responsibilities, and therefore our annoyance is justified, and we are not responsible for it.
But annoyance is never anything but a dysfunctional relationship between you and what you experience. Refusing to take responsibility for your reaction to the present moment is what keeps it bad, and morality is the primary tool most people use for justifying that shirking of responsibility.
It’s no secret that quality of life is all about how you come to terms with the present moment, and resentment is a woefully unskillful way to do that. It makes for a rotten moment that stays rotten, as you wait for somebody else’s moral sense to kick in and fix it for you.
Every time I notice I’m resentful of someone else, there is always some moral argument I’m trying to make for why this shouldn’t be happening to me. Every moral accusation takes the form of “He/she/they/people shouldn’t do that.” The unstated reason they shouldn’t is that it makes life a little harder for me. If it makes my life harder, I find a way to suggest to myself that it is immoral. It’s a terrible habit I have, and you probably have it too.
The plane isn’t ready for boarding yet, and I have a connection to make. “How hard is it to make a plane take off on time?”
Someone pushes their cart slowly down the middle of the cereal aisle. “I always walk to the side of aisles so people can get by.”
The greater the inconvenience to me, the more serious their moral violation becomes in my mind. When I had to sprint through the enormous Hong Kong airport to catch my connection, I was positively furious that the first plane had been late and that they didn’t leave me enough time to make the connection. I caught the plane with what ended up being plenty of time, boiling in my seat over how much of an atrocity it was that they (the flight-schedule-makers?) had done this to me.
Had I not had a tight connection to make, it would have only cost me the same fifteen minutes of standing in line at the gate — no big deal at all. But because it ended up really stressing me out, I framed it in my mind as a horrendous moral oversight on their part. How could they do this to me?! What kind of people are they?!
We use morality to justify our resentment against people all the time. It is compelling for us to do so because then we don’t have to take responsiblity for the problems we find ourselves experiencing. There is nearly always somebody whom you can finger as having created this problem in your life, even if it’s just some vague, unseen “them.” The people who made the stupid cheap packaging you can’t get open. The guy in front of you who is driving the speed limit, when you want to go 10 over. What an asshole.
Now don’t get me wrong. I wish people wouldn’t leave their shopping carts in the middle of the aisle either. I never do, and I do think the world would be a better place if nobody did. But that isn’t the world I live in, and in the moments that I do encounter those inconveniences, my quality of life always comes down to what I do. What “they” should have done differently is irrelevant.
How you respond to your moments is up to you, and the moral argument reaction is a dumb one. Who cares if I can assemble a graduate-level dissertation about why it is ethically reprehensible to park diagonally across two stalls? It will not improve the quality of my moment. Forgiveness will. Patience will. Gratitude will.
What you’re really saying when you make an internal moral argument is this: “This moment should be a different one. A better, easier one. And it’s that guy’s fault.”
All the moral approach does is gives you a little buzz of self-righteousness, and lets you off the hook for taking responsibility for your state of mind.
In Freakonomics, the authors define morality as “How we’d like the world to work.” I think they’re right on the money.