Moral Disarmament

What I am calling “moral disarmament” refers to the idea that a person can’t stop being a cheater, a liar, a thief, a thug, a flatterer, a glutton, a philanderer, until everyone else has done so as well.

Perhaps that position sounds ridiculous (it is), but then again, it’s also shockingly common. Perhaps on reflectionit will be clear to some why this idea can seem so compelling.

Let’s suppose many people around us are regularly and casually lying to enrich or protect themselves. To tell the truth would be a great disadvantage in such a situation. In such a case, we might hear “I’d love not to lie, but if I don’t then everyone else still will and I’ll be the one who ends up getting punished! I don’t want to be punished for doing the right thing while everyone else goes unpunished for doing what is wrong.”

Suddenly, it’s not so hard to imagine feeling that way.

Suppose that it’s possible to cheat the system, and that there’s a small number of people who do so, taking scarce resources that others should have access to. “If I don’t cheat and get someone else’s share, then someone else will cheat and get my share. How would that be right? I don’t have a choice. I don’t want to blow my chance and come out of this looking like a fool.”

One person is on a diet, trying to eat in a way that is healthy and reasonable, while it seems like everyone else eats whatever they feel like with no care for the consequences. “It’s awkward for me not to eat like them. It makes them think I’m judging them, and it makes me think they’re judging me. Plus it makes me so sad not to be included in the things they enjoy together and to share in the conversations inspired by their enjoyment.”

There are many different situations which can bring about the condition that I’m calling moral disarmament. (I know it’s not at all a precise phrase, by the way, but it captures something of the dynamic I’m trying to describe.)

I’m willing to try to be better, we might say, but not until everyone else is ready to try as well.

It seems sensible. After all, why should I deliberately choose to be worse off?

The solution to this problem has to do with a complete inversion of how we see the world and what we care about.

We have to see as most precious, beyond anything else, our moral maturity, our interior strength, our integrity, our virtue. We need to learn to see these things as far more desirable than material goods or reputation or superficial friendships.

Once we start to make that switch, we can catch glimpses of the truth: that those who do the right thing, even without reward or praise or recognition, already have their reward because of who they already are, and because of who they are becoming and will soon be.

It is challenging to see the world in that way. We will need to be constantly fighting against how we are naturally inclined to perceive things, especially at first. But I can hardly think of a more worthwhile endeavour.

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