De-Moralizing to Reduce Conflict

No, that title is not a typo. I did not mean "demoralizing" at all. What I'm referring with the title of this post is the process of deliberately refraining from applying moral judgment to someone else's words, ideas, or behavior. It seems to me that we often moralize things (i.e., make them into moral issues) that don't need to be moralized. Moreover, I suspect we might be happier and have less conflict in the world if we could refrain from doing so quite as often.

I can pick any time of day or night, go on Twitter for 5 minutes, and be almost guaranteed to find someone saying something with which I strongly disagree. I could easily succumb to outrage, rail against it, regard it as a great moral evil, label those saying things I don't like as "part of the problem," and the like. That is, I can (and do) find it quite easy to moralize much of what I find online. Interestingly, doing this almost never seems to make me feel better for more than a brief moment, almost always fuels conflict, and often produces feelings of regret afterward. What I find more challenging but also far more rewarding is recognizing that I am encountering is a difference of opinion that is not necessarily a moral issue.

When I encounter someone insisting that Donald Trump will be the greatest president of our lifetimes, I think to myself, "I certainly hope so." While I seriously doubt that President Trump will be the greatest president in my lifetime, I see no reason to regard the person making this claim as evil or to begin insulting him. That would accomplish little more than to create conflict for no clear benefit. When I run across someone insisting that jail is too good for Kim Davis and that she should be flogged in the town square, I disagree and experience feelings of revulsion toward such attitudes. And yet, I still manage to recognize that the woman expressing such views is not necessarily an evil person. Again, I am able to refrain from insulting her.

In a public forum, I am going to encounter many ideas with which I disagree and many examples of behavior I find reprehensible. Some of these ideas and behaviors do reflect important moral issues; many do not. Most have been thoroughly moralized, so much so that many people assume moral inferiority on the part of those with whom they disagree. This is something I am unable to reconcile with freethought and something I seek to avoid. Of course, that does not mean it is always easy to do so.

I regularly encounter people online and offline who are determined to end reproductive rights for women, prevent same-sex marriage, and/or undermine the separation of church and state. I disagree with them, work against them, and promote positions contrary to theirs. Although I often feel angry upon encountering them, I can usually manage not to regard them as evil or to hate them. I believe they are wrong, and I despise the manner in which they use superstition to manipulate people into supporting their agenda. I regard them as inhibiting progress, and I believe that we all pay a price when they succeed. But none of this means I must hate them or seek to punish them.

We have moralized so many issues that we have made it very difficult to have the sort of open and honest discussions where everyone feels free to express themselves. This limits our ability to effectively resolve disagreements. It is one thing to say that we cannot discuss religion or politics in a diverse crowd where many religious and political views are represented. This has been a problem for far longer than I've been alive. But now it seems that we cannot even discuss things like racism, feminism, gun control, or ethics in gaming journalism because it has all been so thoroughly moralized that anyone who disagrees with us must be morally deficient.

This post was inspired, in part, by a brief presentation Steven Pinker gave in 2012 at The Economist's World in 2013 Festival.