18 October, 2017

Moral Character vs Moral Hygiene

I recently watched a series of videos on feminism called “Why are you so Angry?”. Spoiler alert, a big crux of the answer involves the question of moral character versus moral hygiene. Morality is often defined as talking about the reason for action. So as everyday observers of other people’s actions, we take the action to infer the reason for action. A well studied psychological bias, called Fundamental Attribution Error, illustrates human’s strong preference for explaining behavior through character rather than context and environment. “Oh, he’s a bad person.” “She’s a racist.”  “John always does that.”

However, entire fields of science are dedicated to explaining human behavior outside of a person’s cognitive choice or even self-identified values. Epigenetics, behavior economics, and linguistics, all have big claims about how context and environment affects behavior. You are wrong to think that all actions are explained by conscious thought and intent.

Interpreting behavior through the moral character lens not only does you a disservice by thinking people are evil, by attributing behavior to personality, you are also giving up the possibility to changing people’s behavior. It’s much easier to change someone’s behavior than to change their personality. The angry people in “Why are you so Angry” are angry is because their moral character worldview causes any criticisms of their behavior as a criticisms of their character.

I suggest people practicing a moral hygiene viewpoint. Anecdotally, I find myself less critical of other people and hate people less. Oddly, it also lets me speak up a bit more on other people’s bad actions. Just as you would tell your friend when they have something stuck in their teeth, you would tell them when they make a racist or sexist comment that makes someone else uncomfortable. You’re doing them a favor to better themselves, not an opportunity to criticize who they are.

The graceful art of giving and receiving feedback is very delicate. I often encounter the Gorilla-Banana problem when giving or receiving feedback. The gorilla-banana problem states that “You wanted a banana but what you got was a gorilla holding the banana and the entire jungle.” You wanted feedback, but what you got was the feedback and a ton of other condescending crap. Sometimes you’ll be on the receiving end of the Gorilla-Banana problem, and it’s going to suck taking other people’s feedback. And more often than not, you’ll give feedback that’ll come off as condescending or insulting, and you’ll want to re-emphasize your intentions. I’ve had some opportunities to teach other about moral character and moral hygiene because I was in a situation in which I was giving criticisms.

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