My morality is simple: Never lie. Never be a hypocrite. Never be egotistical.
I understand. I hear that a lot. So how is that working for you?
I can tell when people break these rules. It’s ego.
Right, but I’m asking about you, do you follow those rules to the letter?
I’m not perfect. I should be. I’m working on it.
Mind if I ask you a few questions?
No, go ahead.
I’m sure you’ve heard examples of times when you should lie. For example, to hide victims from oppressors or even just lying to the Nazi’s in our war to defeat them.
Sure. White lies.
So there’s a difference between white and nonwhite lies?
White lies aren’t really lies.
What’s the difference?
White lies are for a good cause. They’re means to good ends.
So really, isn’t your rule that you should never lie for a bad cause?
So good ends can justify bad means?
Well, no. Never lie.
But you just said…
What I mean is you have to always have good ends and good means. We should never lie, since lying is a bad means to any end. And you should never have bad ends – no bad goals.
I see. But then how do you square that with what you said about white lies being OK for a good cause?
Well sure, there will be exceptional cases so it’s not an absolute rule. Exceptions are so rare you can ignore them.
OK, but let me ask you this: Suppose you were annoyed with your partner one day and they said, “I love you.” Might you say “I love you too,” even though you weren’t feeling it?
Sure. That would be a white lie for a good cause. To keep the partnership running smoothly.
And would you be fine if, say, your partner was chronically annoyed with you but said “I love you” like that and then one day said that they were leaving? They hadn’t been feeling love for a while?
No. A partnership must be based on total honesty.
But with exceptions, right? Like you saying I love you when you’re annoyed. My point is that lying for a good cause is not uncommon after all.
Hmmm…I don’t know. But wait…are you saying that you think lying and hypocrisy are perfectly OK?
No, but I am saying that it’s more complicated than can be solved with simple fundamental rules like never lie, never be a hypocrite.
So what do you believe?
I pay less attention to the moral ideals than the moral dilemmas and how people actually deal with them. Means and ends are complicated.
Well, I lie to keep things simple.
As simple as possible, I agree, but not more simple than is realistic.
What’s so complicated about never lie and never have bad goals, Always have good means and ends?
First, though some people say that good ends never justify bad means, no one acts like that’s true. We all compromise fundamental moral ideals when we think the ends are worth it. I mean think of the lengths you’d go to protect you and yours from a diabolical tyrant. You’d lie and cheat and do all sorts of things that violate moral ideals if you believe it’s for a good cause. You’d even pretend you’re not annoyed with your partner for the sake of the partnership. That’s what people really do, any and all of us in a pinch. In practice, ends often justify means.
So you have no fundamental moral principles like never ever use this means or that?
That’s right, but that doesn’t mean that I think that anything goes.
It’s all about whether your ends are virtuous?
Not even. It would be great if you could simply categorize ends as either good or bad. I think it’s more complicated than that too. For one thing, means and ends are nested. You know they say “can’t see the forest for the trees”? Well, every forest can be the tree to a bigger forest. Likewise, every end can be the means to a higher end.
So you have to focus on people’s ultimate end?
Again it’s not that simple. Not only are means and ends nested, but means and ends are reversible. You get these weird circular arguments. These means justifiy that end, and that end justifies that means.
You make my head spin.
Those circular arguments make all of our heads spin. Let me ask you this. Can you think of anyone who drives you crazy.
Do you find yourself wondering whether they’re naive and stupid or just jerk con artists?
Yes. I debate it with friends. Some say he’s just dumb. Others say he’s not dumb but just willing to fight dirty, pretending he’s unaware of things he ignores so he can win.
Well, that’s the loop I’m talking about. It’s no coincidence that stupid often jerk often come together. It’s a chicken and egg thing. If you think that might makes righteous and your righteousness entitles you to any dirty trick that gives you might, you’ll end up a stupid jerk. You can’t stay proudly unreceptive to reality and smart for long.
Wow. Confusing. No wonder I prefer my simple rules.
Even if you can’t live up to them.
I see that. I don’t want to but I do.
And can you see how it can be egotistical to pretend morality is simpler than it is?
How do you mean?
Well, you started by saying that you can always tell when people violate your moral fundamentals and that it’s just ego. You said you’re not perfect but you try to be good as you can.
Which makes you feel like you’re crusading for virtue.
Well, I am.
But check this: We’re all much better at spotting lies, hypocrisy, and ego in other people than in ourselves. In truth, no one is egoless and no one lives by those supposed moral ideals, even though lots of people claim they are.
What do you mean we don’t live by them?
Look, it’s a cinch to identify yourself with virtues as though you’re the champion crusader for them. Any jerk in your pantheon of jerks does it. It’s talk not walk. It’s talk, not walk. And it easily becomes talk instead of walk.
But I feel it in my heart, my bones.
Think how many people and tribes have declared themselves committed in heart and bones to pure virtues as you have, claiming moral foundations they can’t and don’t live by. Think about how the world’s sacred texts are ambiguous about how far their care extends: Thou shalt not kill, love thy neighbor? Like everyone or just the fellow members of our exceptionally virtuous tribe? It’s not clear from the texts and in practice they’re out killing others proud because it serves the higher end of promoting their fundamental values – not lying, not being hypocrites, not being egomaniacs. On average over time, they don’t really act any more virtuous than members of other tribes. Their selfless commitment to moral ideals becomes lip service. They commit to turning the other cheek but when push comes to shove they act like… well, like people.
But tell me, because you sound like you really care about morality…
…Do you come to any conclusion from your more complicated perspective?
Well, just this: Be very wary of those closed circle rationalizations, where the ends justify the means and the means justify the ends, making people feel like they’re infallible, invincible and unassailable, that Trump thing where he’s proven he’s righteous because he won and then that it’s OK for him to violate laws because he’s righteous. “I’m right because I’m winning and since I’m right I can use any trick to keep winning.”
Interesting. I’m going to have to think about that.
Thanks for answering my questions and thanks for thinking about it. I try to keep it as simple as possible, no simpler. Usually, it ends up less simple than people would like.
I’ve tried to live by simple creeds.
I get that. I’m just saying that people can make things a whole harder than they have to be by pretending that they can make things a whole lot simpler than they really are.