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2012 Fall Issue 7 (November 2, 2012)

Habits & the Difficulty of Morality

November 4, 2012
By Michael Goodgame

Morality is difficult because it is almost never immediately relevant.

Ethics are great to talk about.  Everybody seems to have some kind of opinion on ethical matters, a point of view that they either live by, strive to live by, or wish they could live by if they weren’t so powerless. 

These kinds of discussions are wonderful, producing the essential moments of realization and reckoning that drive intellectual life for all of us.  And while we’re young, we must think about these issues as much as possible, because whether we like it or not our thoughts on them will end up forming our conceptions of ourselves as adults.

But morality is easier in theory than it is in the open.  Resolving to be a better person lying in bed late at night is great and represents an important internal movement, but actually working to be moral in the face of real life is a daunting task. 

So many things lie in the way of everyday morality: our own busy schedules, the risk of being judged by those around us, the fact that we often get no immediate reward from doing so, and, importantly, our deeply engrained habits.

I contend that habits play a larger role than expected here.  Habits form a huge portion of what we do during the day, which makes sense – the brain tries to use as little energy as possible, so it collapses regular activities into habits, thus burning less energy every time we, say, brush our teeth or get ready to go to sleep.  This allows us to spend ample energy on things that really matter to us, like critical thought. 

Habits tend to breach far and wide, though, and this can have an impact on everyday morality.  Whether or not your first reaction is to stop and help the man struggling with his bag caught on a doorframe is most likely dictated by habit and whether that sort of action is normal for you.  Helping the man when you usually wouldn’t expends energy, which the brain does not like to do unless it is forced to.  Learning to do this without expending energy takes time and effort.

While it is unsurprising that our actions are governed by what we are accustomed to doing, it is meaningful that something as important as our ethical behavior can be controlled by something as seemingly banal as daily routine.

This brings me back to the main point: morality is hard to change because all of our actions are hard to change.  When we make a proposition to ourselves, swearing to be kinder or cheat less or whatever it may be, this is a movement for change, no different than switching dining halls in the morning would be a movement for change.  Both are difficult simply because they aren’t normal. 

When given the opportunity to fall back to the usual, we almost certainly will.  It is so much easier, so much more comfortable, that we will forget about the long-term consequences and do what feels right at the risk of doing the wrong thing, every single day for years on end. 
Acting ethically is hard, then, because it never matters more in the moment than saving energy and taking the easy way out.  So unless we push ourselves to change, force ourselves to consistently go the right way, no progress will be made.

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