Billy Foshay / Gavel Media

Morality Is the Wrong Word

I could write several articles concerning my moral beliefs and still not explain them as thoroughly as I’d like. This article is an attempt to open an exploration of morality; it’s an ongoing experience and intellectualization of concepts and realized reality. Please treat it as such.

Morality is the wrong word for us. Morality, at least in terms of virtue and vice, is not the end-all, be-all. It’s merely a portion of a more important human pursuit: an increased understanding of ourselves that is educated by experience. Ideally, morality profits from this increased understanding—morality is informed by it—but the relationship is not entirely mutual or direct. It is by foregoing and ultimately forming our own conceptions of morality that humans capitalize upon our experience-based understandings.

In some cases, morality falls short of educating our experiences; it oversimplifies interpersonal dynamics and limits our knowledge to those restricted interpretations. Most of us are familiar with the Golden Rule, in some version or another: treat others as you’d like to be treated. The aphorism implies that, once you’ve experienced victimhood, you can understand the victimhood of others and seek to avoid causing it.

I shouldn’t harm others because I already understand what it feels like to be harmed. I disagree.

The only perspective that I can understand by having been victimized is that of the victim. From this one-sided perspective, I run the risk of exaggerating the villain’s malice or vice—but I also, paradoxically, risk casting the blame entirely upon myself.

I am naturally averse to being dominated by others; I rankle against forced passivity or inferiority, and if I cannot understand the villain, I run the risk of attributing it to my own weakness or precipitation. Distanced from the understanding of what it means to cause harm to another individual, I may turn to that which I know best: myself and the insecurities that I perceive.

It is only by behaving as both villain and victim that you can understand the true implications of your actions. In the case of lying, for example, you have to experience both lying and being lied to, ideally within several different circumstances, in order to understand the full range of your actions. You need to experience the positive and negative effects, both material and immaterial, that result from lying to those whom you love in order to protect them, to those you love in order to serve selfish interests, to those you dislike in order to hurt them, and to those you dislike in order to shield them.

In this way, you can begin to appreciate some number of the infinite dynamics inherent within human interactions. I realize that acts and emotions are not simply born from love and hatred, but also boredom, selfishness, distraction, misunderstandings, misguided intentions, and seemingly irrelevant factors (amount of sleep, hunger, drug-induced differences—both positive and negative). I cease to be merely victim and villain, moral and immoral, and discover that I am—and you are—infinitely complex. I can’t dismiss the world as “fallen” or uphold it as “destined for the good.” Instead, I recognize its degrees and subtleties as they are: outside purely moral interpretations.

This is not to say that you have to experience every crime from both sides in order to understand it. Perhaps only in committing murder, and then being murdered can you understand the final crime of human existence—but I doubt it. It would seem that an event that extreme would have an opposite effect on those involved. Instead of informing their understandings, the events would create false insights that misguided them. I haven’t experienced such severe events, however, and I don’t want to presume to understand anything about them. I’m focusing my argument of experience and the understanding that it can create primarily on “smaller-scale” issues that are more applicable to the population as a whole: deception, selfishness, and minor forms of harm.

I’m not dismissing morality; my focus is on combating moral absolutism, which restricts our attempts to increase understanding. There’s a tendency within morality to claim absolutes (for example, that lying is always wrong), and then in practice, humans undermine the validity of these absolutes by continually disregarding them (lying, and doing so often). Morality informs our actions, but it doesn’t entirely govern them. Once you understand and embrace this reality, you allow yourself the freedom to think outside dichotomies.

I know, from experience, the impact of my actions, and I seek to either promote or inhibit these actions as a result. I embrace a fuller understanding of human dynamics, in turn informing my moral standards with more comprehensive and honest beliefs about human interaction.

I am large, I contain multitudes. More importantly, multitudes contain and surpass me.