I don’t have a breakthrough ethical system to present. I cut my teeth on Kant and Mills, and I haven’t come much further since. I prefer utilitarianism when working out difficult moral quandaries, and I try to make sound ethical choices in my everyday life. In one respect, however, I have been neglectful, and that has been in my behavior toward myself.
I am a sentient being who feels pleasure and pain; my happiness should carry as much moral weight as anyone else’s. Unfortunately, my moral intuition tells me something very different- that it is virtuous to treat myself badly.
It is altruistic to deprive yourself of pleasure to ease the pain of others, or to suffer pain in someone else’s stead. However, my moral intuitions do not seem capable of honestly judging when my pain or lack of pleasure will really help others. It feels as though, by always putting myself last, everyone around me should benefit, but that is far from the case.
Imagine living your whole life like this.
To show where my intuition is failing, consider the following scenario- Bridgett decides to go on a drive through her happy town one sunny day. She stops at a four-way stop, and there is a truck that rolls to a stop there as well. Bridgett knows she has the right-of-way, but she is feeling humble and deferential, and decides the nice thing to do would be to wave the truck on. She doesn’t lose much time that way, and the driver of the truck may be in a hurry.
Unfortunately, Bridgett failed to check her rear-view mirror, and misses the car that has stopped behind her. This car will also be inconvenienced by her act. In addition, the rules of the road have been muddied a little, and the more Bridgett adopts this behavior- the more everyone adopts this behavior- the more awkward pause-and-wave exchanges will happen at four-way stops.
Bridgett and the car behind her were mildly inconvenienced in this scenario, but let us move her off of the sleepy exurban street and onto a freeway. Bridgett usually avoids freeways, especially in cities, because she does terribly on them. In the dark corners of her mind, she has acted in a deferential manner so often that the state of Texas handbook might as well state “Bridgett never gets the right-of-way.” Bridgett knows that she has to get onto the ramp, speed up, and merge with freeway traffic, but her ingrained instincts are screaming at her to slow down and let everyone else go ahead.
Today there is a lot of traffic, and a zipper merge is required. Bridgett wants to let everyone ahead, but it seems there is a wall of cars without end. Bridgett hesitates on the gas- the merge lane will soon end, and she isn’t up to speed. Cars are whizzing past. The situation has become dangerous, and traffic is piling up behind her. This can result in a traffic jam in the best case, and an accident in the worst case.
There are unending situations in everyday life in which deferential habits can cause more harm than good. It’s a popular fact that depriving oneself may make one unable to help others at all- “put on your own oxygen mask first.” But in addition to this, when you lower yourself on the social hierarchy, you create a disparity that the unscrupulous are tempted to exploit. In a sense, you unbalance a social order that requires a good deal of fairness to operate. Zipper merges prevent accidents and traffic jams only if you are willing to go ahead when it is your turn.
Truth is something that exists outside of our notions of social hierarchy. Fire burns, and it will burn the hand of king and peasant alike, even if the king decrees that he alone is allowed to touch the flame.
Unfortunately, my intuition is unwilling to consider this in its reckonings. I have an unfortunate habit of apologizing for being right when I am shown to be correct in a factual disagreement, and sometimes I will even stay silent when I have knowledge that I should share.
My spouse is an uncommonly intelligent person who has the ability to notice and remember far more details than I can. I space out, and my memory is inconsistent. However, after a lot of introspection I’ve finally concluded that, though my brain may be quirky, I’m not actually stupid. I can keep up with my spouse on an intellectual level at least enough to carry on very interesting conversations, to banter point and counterpoint with him on complex topics, and to be an interesting and entertaining companion to him.
Even so, I still have a hard time stepping out of my self-appointed deferential role. To give a fairly mundane example- not too long ago my spouse was returning a product to the manufacturer, and we went to the UPS store to get a box and label for shipping. The manufacturer requested that the product code be written on the box, so my spouse wrote it on the side in sharpie. He was filling out the label when I noticed a missing digit on the product code he had written.
It took me a few moments to work up the courage to point it out, and even then, I did so in a little faltering voice- “um, I think the five is missing?” I had no reason to add the question mark- I knew the five was missing- but I added the question mark to the end of my sentence anyway.
My spouse, being the reasonable human he is, checked the number and corrected it. I apologized for correcting him as we left the UPS store, but he insisted that he was of glad I had pointed out the error, and thanked me for my help.
Had he not been so understanding- if instead of being a nice person he’d been an arrogant jerk- he might have sneered at my correction. He might have insisted he was right, and pointed out both my astigmatism and my short attention span as evidence that I must be wrong. In fact- he might have just insisted he was smarter than me, and therefore I should shut my mouth. After all, why would a smart person deign to check the number on the box per the mere word of a bespectacled goofball?
If he had acted so, would his arrogance have been the opposite of the mistake I almost made when I hesitated to point out the product code error? In other words, if the jerk version of my spouse had felt less sure of himself, would be have been more willing to check the number? Or would he have fought to maintain the status differential between us, and been less willing to check? From what I’ve seen in arguments between people who view themselves that differently, I believe the latter- a person of very high status, and who finds their high status to be important, is less willing to check an error pointed out by someone of a very low social status.
Conversely, if I had been the one to write the number on the box, and someone else had pointed out an error to me, I would have instantly re-written the number without checking what I’d written. I assume I am wrong, and do not seek to justify myself before altering my behavior to suit others.
I propose that the evil version of my spouse and the current version of me are two sides of the same coin- that we are actually making two versions of the same mistake instead of different mistakes altogether. We are using our sense of relative status as the standard to determine the reliability of information instead of making an analysis of the information itself.
You might argue that relative status can be used as a heuristic to analyze the source of information, but such a heuristic can actually blind one to making an honest examination of the information source- and an excuse to ignore it altogether. If the evil version of my spouse cared more about knowledge than status, he might have considered the fact that, while I do have an astigmatism, my glasses were clean and my prescription up-to-date. He might have considered that, while I usually walk around in a fog, the very fact that I pointed out the error was an indication that I was paying more attention than usual. If the evil version of my spouse had thought about the matter further, he might have realized that product codes are generally long and confusing strings of characters, and that it would be helpful to have a general policy of double-checking them, just in case.
In other words, status hierarchy is an inadequate and outdated technology for analyzing anything truly complicated. It is more useful to ulitise caution instead of humility- to check for mistakes in one’s self regularly not because you think that you are stupid, but because you know that you are a buggy system who deals with complex information.
If I am a buggy system, does that necessarily make me a bad system? If I am, does thinking I am ‘bad’ tell me where I am going wrong? Will calling myself a fool fix my errors? No, it won’t. In fact, this kind of self-flagellation tends to increase my errors. Feeling humble and deferential has held me back, kept me quiet, and made me hesitate to contribute to a society I could otherwise help. At the very least, it has caused me to neglect my own moral worth. Reminding myself that automatic deference will not help anyone is an effective way of countering it. I imagine that thinking overconfidence will not help one’s self may be similarly helpful in overcoming that error.