It's Not Hard to Be Morally Excellent; You Just Choose Not To Be

by Aaron Gertler5 min read24th Aug 202011 comments

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EA MessagingMoral Philosophy
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Originally written by Eric Schwitzgebel. (Even if you include a link in your post, it's good practice to include the author's name so that it comes up in searches.)

I'm crossposting this because I found it interesting, and because I wonder how a forum with an unusual number of morally excellent users (I hope!) might interpret it.

Also, it seems to me like some version of this framing could be useful for EA messaging not so much "you aren't excellent," but "being excellent takes effort and doesn't happen automatically, but could be an achievable goal for you. Some aspects of morality are more about convenience than major sacrifice." (People often seem willing to give up convenience in order to better themselves; many advertisements hinge on this, e.g. for fitness equipment.)

My favorite excerpt:

Just consider a few of the morally best people you personally know, people you admire for their integrity, their generosity, their kindness.  Just ordinary people, though ones you recognize to be somewhat morally better than you are -- not unreachable saints [...]

You could be like those morally excellent ordinary people if you wanted to be, just like you could walk ten miles to the next town a few times a week if you wanted to.  You just choose not to be as morally good as that, because you prefer other things.

The original post

In my chat last week with Ray Briggs and Joshua Landy at Philosophy Talk (on the "ethical jerk"), I mentioned in passing that I think it isn't hard to be morally excellent, if we want to be.  Most of us simply choose not to be.  I've said this in passing in blog posts and published works (e.g., in my article "Aiming for Moral Mediocrity"), but I don't think I've ever made it the central topic of a post.

In this line of thinking, I have been influenced by ancient Chinese Confucianism.

Is goodness really so far away?  If I simply desire goodness, I will find that it is already here (Kongzi, Analects, 7.30, Slingerland, trans., capitalization revised).

"Pick up Mount Tai and leap over the North Sea."  If you say, "I cannot," this is truly not being able.  "Massage the stiff joints of an elderly person."  If you say, "I cannot," this is not acting; it is not a case of not being able.  So Your Majesty's not being a [good] king is not in the category of picking up Mount Tai and leaping over the North Sea.  Your Majesty's not being a [good] king is in the category of massaging the stiff joints of an elderly person." (Mengzi, 1A7, Van Norden, trans., brackets added).

I find it surprising that so many people seem to disagree.  Maybe we're primed to disagree because it's a convenient excuse for our moral mediocrity.  "Gosh," you say, "I do sure wish I could be morally excellent.  But it's so hard!  So see, I'm not really to blame for being morally so-so."

I think most of us can agree that giving time or money to a worthy cause would be morally good.  And most of you, my readers, I assume, are affluent by global standards in the sense that you can afford luxuries like paying $8 for a lunch or subscribing to multiple video or music streaming services.  Even if you really don't have a few spare dollars for a good cause -- or even if you are (conveniently!) suspicious about finding any worthy charities -- unless you are on the very precipice of ruin or spread very thin with caretaking duties, you could probably find some ways to be more helpful to others.  Surely there is some person or organization you know that could really benefit from your help, or from some small or large kindness.

You want to be morally better?  Easy!  Donate some money, skipping a luxury or two if necessary.  Or find a little time to help someone who needs it.  And that's the just the start -- two easy things right off the top of my head that almost anyone can do.  With a little thought, I'm sure you could think of lots of morally good things to do that you aren't doing.

Instead, if you're like most of us, you choose to do other things.  You watch videos or play computer games or scroll through Twitter.  You spend some extra time and money having yourself a delicious instead of a simple lunch.  You save your money for some luxury you want -- a beautiful shirt, a hardback novel, or just the pleasure and security of having a large bank account.  You flake, you run late, you disappoint someone, you don't quite carry your load in something today, because it's not convenient.  You buy products from companies with bad practices, supporting those practices, simply because you like the products better or they're a little less expensive.

What's actually hard?  Well, many people find advanced calculus hard.  They try and try, but they just can't get the knack.  Also, many people find it hard to climb steep boulder faces.  They can't stretch their toes to the right spots, keep their finger grip on the little ridges, and pull themselves up.  I will never scale El Capitan, and no doggedness of will is going to change that.

Morality isn't hard like calculus and rock climbing are hard.  In fact, it's almost the opposite.  Just trying to do it typically gets you at least halfway there!  ("Is goodness really so far away?")  You might try and fail to be helpful; but even if you try, that's already (usually) morally better than not trying at all.  You might try to give money to a good cause and get scammed instead, doing more harm that good -- but that's not so common, I think, and again even the trying is admirable.  It's not that we try and fail to be morally excellent.  Not usually.  It's that we don't try.

Many people find dieting hard.  Dieting is hard in a somewhat different way than rock climbing and advanced calculus.  If you really try not to eat that chocolate bar, it's not going to jump into your mouth.  Gravity won't pull it into you the same way gravity will pull you off the face of El Capitan.  Still, there's something painful about resisting that chocolate bar, as it's calling to you.  And more generally there's something painful about the slow, steady hunger of dieting.  For most of us (not all of us), although we could lose a few pounds if we set to it, in a way that we could not climb El Capitan, there nonetheless a sense in which dieting is difficult.

But morality isn't even hard like dieting is hard -- not usually.  If you're a real miser or if you are genuinely impoverished, donating $25 to save the sight of someone with trachoma might feel as emotionally painful as resisting your favorite dish when you are acutely hungry.  Or if you're bursting with anger at someone, it might be emotionally hard to swallow that anger and act kindly.  But moderate moral improvement doesn't typically require such uncomfortable choices.  Unless your situation is unusual, it wouldn't ache your gut to be more helpful to your elderly parents, or to pause to express appreciation to a secretary, or to drive a somewhat less expensive car and give the money to your favorite good cause.  It might even feel good.

Not being morally excellent is more like choosing not to walk ten miles down the road to the next town (if you are someone with typical walking ability and decent shoes).  You could walk that ten miles.  It would take a few hours, but it wouldn't be difficult.  It's just that you don't want to do it, because you have other priorities for your time and resources.


To be clear: When I say it's not hard to be morally excellent, I'm not thinking of extreme of self-sacrificial sainthood. Just consider a few of the morally best people you personally know, people you admire for their integrity, their generosity, their kindness.  Just ordinary people, though ones you recognize to be somewhat morally better than you are -- not unreachable saints.  My father-in-law is one such person.  (Or are you already the morally best person you know?)

You could be like those morally excellent ordinary people if you wanted to be, just like you could walk ten miles to the next town a few times a week if you wanted to.  You just choose not to be as morally good as that, because you prefer other things.

You might still want to be morally excellent in the following thin sense.  You'd like to be morally excellent if you could be morally excellent without paying the costs of moral excellence.  This is the same sense of wanting in which the lackadaisical student might want an A, if she could have one with no effort.  Of course all students want As in that sense!  Such half-hearted wanting is cheap.  There's little moral worth in the desiring of free goods and virtues for yourself.  "I'd love to be honest, if I could be so without losing the benefits that come with lying."  Sure, same for all of us.  That's not seriously wanting something.  Serious wanting involves willingness to prioritize that thing over other things you also care about.

It is not hard to be morally excellent.  It's as simple and easy as massaging an elder's joints.  You simply prefer not to.

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