On good and evil and head-mounted zapper canons

Right and wrong

Morality, good and bad, right and wrong, are made-up ideas that only exist in the minds of human beings, and furthermore the human beings have proved themselves incapable of agreeing with each-other about what these made-up ideas mean. Given that people don’t agree on what is “good” and what is “bad”, what are these ideas good for?

Some people base their understanding of the world on ideas about good and evil. It’s pretty simplistic: some people are good, some people are bad. From this starting point most things can be explained: when something good happens, it’s because the person who did it is good (or wise / hardworking / reliable / honest) and when something bad happens, it’s because the person who did it was lazy / stupid / dishonest / bad. This is sometimes called the Just World Fallacy because there are some serious problems with it: if you think that people who commit crimes do so because they are bad, you end up thinking that on average poor people are far more likely to be bad than rich people. Of course child abusers are evil, if anyone is, but it’s often the case that abusers were themselves victims of abuse.

Furthermore, the “Good and Evil” worldview is pretty rubbish at providing constructive ways of solving problems. It always offers the same solution to every problem: “Don’t be evil”.

However there is a situation in which ideas of right and wrong can be extremely useful: when you want to influence, manipulate, or control people. When a parent tells a child it’s good to use the potty and bad to pee in their trousers. Then even as adults it seems that we are always looking out of the corners of our eyes to see what other people think of us. We want very badly for other people see them us as good, and we want to think that ourselves as well. It seems completely illogical: why should it matter to me what other people think about me, or say about me? But there it is.

I find this really fascinating. What keeps people from behaving in anti-social ways, and keeps society functioning? The usual answer is the police and the law, but I think what’s even more important is the way we use social acceptance and social rejection to control each-other. It’s why people mostly don’t jump queues; they aren’t worried about being arrested for queue-jumping, they’re worried about being given dirty looks and grumbled about by the other people in the queue.

This power of social coersion is often used in ways that don’t make a whole lot of sense. When someone says “You really should not wear that skirt with those shoes” the topic has nothing to do with morality. There is no reason why the speaker should care about another person’s fashion choices. And yet the social rejection being communicated is just as strong.

The really weird thing is that most of the time we don’t seem to be aware that we wield this power at all. It’s as if we all had taser guns strapped to our heads, and we walked around giving each-other painful electric shocks, but no-one noticed.

I think recognizing that we exert this moral authority over each-other is very important, in part because we need to recognize when it is being misused. Bullying is the extreme form of heaping social rejection on a person, and it’s so powerful that it sometimes drives people to suicide.

We sometimes use this power responsibly. When a man catcalls at a woman walking by, and the man’s friends tell him, “stop it, that’s not cool”, they are very clearly and directly using social coersion to get the man to change his behaviour. I think that if we became more aware of this power and how we wield it, we would be able to wield it more effectively and responsibly.

Maybe this is something to do with the way this culture can sometimes make people feel very small and unimportant. You’re not a film actor or a model. You’re not a politician. You’re not the CEO of a multinational corporation, you’re small and powerless, so why would anything you do even matter? It’s a lie: we’re not powerless, and the things we do in our day to day lives do matter.

Beware of my extremely volatile head-mounted morality canon. Do not approach. Use extreme caution.

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