0451 – the moral failure fixation is a red herring

I’ve been thinking and talking and writing for some time about how I’ve needed to experience some sort of rebirth or revival, some sort of transition from boyhood or adolescence to adulthood or “true” adulthood.

I struggled to be precise about what exactly was wrong or what exactly needed to happen; what I knew was that I was experiencing a general sense of uneasiness. It was making me feel really uncomfortable. I felt like I didn’t quite fit in my skin. I was going through everyday life in a bit of a blurry stupor. I was sometimes angry, sometimes ashamed, sometimes frustrated, sometimes sorrowful, sometimes empty. I struggled to be happy, to be calm, to be present, satisfied, appreciative, grateful. [1]

Somewhere along the way since then, I’ve found myself feeling less trapped and limited. I don’t want to use words like “breakthrough” or “leap”, because it doesn’t feel that way. It feels more like a gentle-but-messy transition that was almost imperceptible day-to-day. The things that have gone into helping me make this shift are hard to pin down. My boss’s calm, thoughtful and judgement-free questioning has a big role to play in it. So does me having my own home. So do friends who are thoughtful and kind. And I’ve had mentor-figures help me indirectly– writers (long dead), YouTube personalities, all sorts of folks.

So what’s changed, exactly?

I’m probably oversimplifying it, but the biggest and most important change is my attitude towards moral failure. I’ve come to believe that there’s something called the Moral Failure Fallacy. (I don’t know if there’s a better name for it, or if somebody’s already written about this.)

I’ve arrived at this from several different trains of thought. The first thread which is closest to my heart is the moral failing of Laziness, or sloth. I’ve written about this more extensively in earlier vomits when trying to reflect on my own adolescence. It’s been a bit too long for me to have super-accurate memories, but I do feel like it was implied to me that I was a lazy person. Even if nobody ever said “You are lazy”, there would be questions like “why are you so lazy?” or exhortations like “don’t be so lazy”. Laziness is a moral failure, and if you are lazy, you are a bad person. You are not doing what you’re supposed to be doing. You’re a lousy human being. Laziness is sinful, and there is no need to ask “why is that person being lazy?” Man is considered to be intrinsically sinful.

But I found that hard to swallow, because I’ve always felt like I care a lot about some things, and that I work really hard at some things, and that I had big dreams and big visions.

Since doing more reading about these things, I find that similar attitudes prevail across all other supposed moral failings. A person with a high sex drive is lustful, which is a moral failing. (We’re especially judgemental towards women who enjoy sex.) I once wrote a series of posts about how the 7 deadly sins really ought to be thought of as the 7 fundamental drives, and that they’re only sinful when expressed suboptimally. This is turning out to be more true and more important than I might have conceived of when I was starting out.

Why do people overeat? Why do people under-exercise? Why do people become drug addicts, alcoholics, cheat on their spouses? “People are bastard coated bastards with bastard filling”, “everybody lies”– why? I am not satisfied with “because humans are morally flawed” as an axiomatic truth. It merits further examination. Laziness is task-aversion, and there are many reasons why a person might be averse to a particular task that have little to nothing to do with their intrinsic goodness as a person. In fact, phrases like “intrinsic goodness” are distracting and problematic. One of the worst things about the moral gameshow is that we pretend it’s not a game.

And just… continue to think about all the ways the world tells us that we’re shitty people. If you don’t have a great romantic relationship and a great sex life and great career success something’s kinda wrong with you. Why aren’t you seizing the moment? Why aren’t you taking advantage of this opportunity you’ve been given? When I look back on my old writing, I see so much guilt. So much subtle stress, a sense that I had to live up to something. To what? To what, actually?

It’s startling. When I was younger, I thought I was “philosophical” and curious and inquisitive, and would be happy and willing to ask all sorts of questions about life, the universe and everything. I expected that deeper psychological satisfaction would come from exploring ‘higher’ concepts, more complex ideas about the meaning of meaning and what have you.

And those things are still really interesting, but I’ve found myself instead primarily focused on examining my own reality. Observing myself. What do I want? What do I care about? Why do I write these word vomits? What am I trying to prove? What am I trying to achieve? What am I afraid of? What am I chasing after? What am I looking forward to? What am I excited about? What am I ashamed of? And what are all these thoughts and ideas grounded in, how are those things constructed? I find myself suddenly curious about nutrition because I realize it has an incredible impact on the quality of my conscious experience. I have some intellectual curiosity about how the human body works, but it becomes so much more compelling when I realize that it has a direct effect on my experience. I get to design my own reality.

But beyond nutrition, I’m also now curious about moral judgement, and our seemingly intrinsic notions of good and bad. I’m not curious about this the same way I might’ve been as a kid– to win arguments, to sound impressive and intellectual, and to feel good about myself for going after such lofty topics. No.

I’m now concerned about living the remainder of my life without debilitating amounts of guilt, shame, fear, anger, resentment and so on– and I’ve been trying to examine where all of those things come from. And that examination is proving to lead (quite unsurprisingly, on hindsight) to really old places.

I haven’t done all the reading (endless task), and I don’t have all the answers, but I feel like I have a new way of confronting the delightful mess that is my life: it is what it is, it’s not my fault (but it IS my responsibility), it’s full of imperfections (both inherited and self-created), and feeling chronically, cripplingly ashamed or guilty about the way things are is profoundly suboptimal.

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[1] I’d like to believe that there was a sense of certainty underneath all of the doubt and psychological contortions. But that’s actually kind of irrelevant– comforting at best, self-delusional at worst. In reality, unverifiable.

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