I don't consider myself an immoral person. Unless you count those days when I thought there was an all seeing being in the sky watching that I didn't break the archaic rules laid out by men thousands of years ago who also thought it was ok to own slaves and commit genocide. Since then I have not given too much thought to morality other than my general rule of "Don't be a dick". A few weeks back I made a commitment to hold myself to a higher moral standard. Not only that but I laid out some experimental guidelines of rules that I would follow and a hypothesis of what I expect. Finally, I would tell people about it so they could hold me to my commitments.
A few months back I read The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris and was really challenged by the idea of using the wellbeing of sentient beings as a measure of morality. I found it not only compelling but also something concrete to measure myself against that didn't resort to mysticism. It is a brilliant read and I highly recommend it. My own life was silhouetted against the moral landscape. It is up to me decide just how bright to make it. I figured I would map out my path in the hope others might find it useful for their own wellbeing.
Moral integrity will increase my wellbeing and the wellbeing of those around me.
Is there any reason to think this is reasonable? Most people want wellbeing but we are poorly wired for it. That doesn't mean we don't want it for ourselves, our loved ones, and the human race in general. Of course there are just some people who behave like dicks and don't have the self awareness to care that they hurt others. Then of course there are sociopaths and psychopaths. This is a dysfunction compared to normal human behavior and experience so lets discount that.
Human civilization has become more and more... civilized over time. We treat each other better and care more about peoples wellbeing. I don't think it is unreasonable then that we can attribute that to a move away from violence to discourse. A move to attributing respect and equality to others. I come from South Africa and now live in The Netherlands. The differences in wellbeing I see are like night and day. And I attribute this largely to the respect and equality given to each citizen in a civil society.
I had listed a few expectations when I decided to do this:
- It would lead to some awkwardness
- I would be happier with myself
- People would like me more because I am trustworthy
The guidelines lay out some clear action plans that I can follow when situations arise. This ends up being quite an important point as it is easy to convince yourself to try take an easy way out of a difficult situation.
- I will not lie in any circumstance other than a life threatening situation.
- I will not engage in gossip.
- I will try my utmost to treat everyone respectfully at all times.
- I will not steal.
- I will try maintain my equanimity at all times.
This isn't something that I felt I engaged in a lot. Mostly it was in the context of gossip. That would lead to having to pretend you don't know something you do. Other things like being non-committal on things to avoid an uncomfortable discussions. Half-truths to save face. Platitudes to avoid hurting peoples feelings. This last one might have you wondering "Surely that is ok?!". I maintain not as it is a slippery slope. This is not to say that you should be hurtful. You can still speak the truth while being compassionate and respectful of the other persons feelings. I honestly believe feedback is good for most people (if in a really unhealthy state you might want to pull back even more). Even in the case of someone in a fragile state of mind rather than "You really could have done better at that." you could just say "Let's book some time when you are feeling better. It isn't important now."
This was the main point that really started to make me uncomfortable about my conduct. I work in a large organization and someone is always frustrated by someone else, myself included. This would often lead to complaining, mostly of the non-constructive sort. At first I thought it cathartic but the more I reflected on it, it actually seemed a toxic part of my life.
Sometimes in work or personal life talks about others is inevitable. My commitment here has been to not say or agree with anything I have not already said to someones face, or will schedule something to say to their face after these things have been said and agreed with. Knowing you will have to say things to someones face is a great way of moderating yourself and having a constant prompt of whether you want to actually be engaging in a conversation.
If the goal is wellbeing for all, treating people well is paramount. I don't have too much more to say on this. My original guideline of "Don't be a dick" works well enough for me. The only extra thing I find useful to meditate on as often as possible here is that everyone has a story and is generally just trying to do the best they can just like you. This means people are doing things for reasons that are important to themselves even if they are difficult for you (or sometimes even themselves) to articulate. Remember: you are nothing special, just like me ;)
This is a subtle one. Obviously I am not out there robbing banks. If I was I definitely would not be blogging about it! There are other ways this could be interpreted, such as taking credit for something someone else has done.
Not only that but in this digital age it is really easy to share or download media that you do not own. This is a tough one for some. Myself included.
I had actually found Sam Harris as an author through his neuroscience and mediation interests rather than his challenges against religious ideology that he is (in)famous for. I am not going to get into discussions of self here but being self aware forms a big part on following through on all the other points mentioned here not to mention it does wonders for your own wellbeing. Just observing your thoughts, learning techniques for focusing your attention, and deciding to act with intent can result in dramatic improvements in wellbeing.
Results so far
So one thing I can say for sure is this has lead to some hard conversations. I will also say it gets easier. I still mess up on these points often but I definitely believe it is having a curbing effect on my behavior in these areas.
- I am much more cognizant of what I say which I think has curtailed the amount of things I say that I later regret.
- I am more aware in difficult conversations that there is more than just my side in an argument. I think this has actually made me more effective at convincing people of the merits of my own points.
- I believe my feedback, even in difficult conversations has been appreciated. I have actually received this feedback directly.
- I seem to be perceived as trustworthy. This was said to me today which I really appreciated.
- I am starting to find the small blunt responses to questions that lead to awkwardness easier to just say and not worry about.
I will see if I can get some data on this from friends and coworkers. It would be interesting to actually be able to plot perception. I will also try post my own subjective experience of this further down the road.
- Sam Harris
- Photo by Jens Lelie on Unsplash