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Judging Others and Judging Ourselves: Moral Myopia?

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“As we pull down controversial statues and reassess historical figures” let’s also examine our own moral blind spots, urges Nicholas Kristof. Although our moral failings may not be on the horrific scale of those who enslaved their fellow humans, we likely still have what Kristof calls “moral myopia.” Kristof suggests three possible contenders for such blind spots: the animal cruelty of factory farming, indifference to suffering in impoverished countries, and climate change. He anticipates that a century from now, future generations may judge our actions in these areas as “bewilderingly immoral.”

Many of us can already look back on events in our own lives with embarrassment.  I recall reveling, with other Pacific Northwesterners 55 years ago, in the first killer whale captures. Today we understand those captures as a brutal separation of orcas from their family and a contribution to the endangered status of our region’s beloved 72 Southern Resident orcas. And might morally enlightened future people want to remove my name from something for attitudes or actions I have more recently embraced—perhaps for eating the flesh of factory-farmed animals, or for flying on climate-destroying flights? Perhaps even for attitudes and behaviors I am now too short-sighted to imagine as problematic to my descendants? When judging the speck in someone else’s eye, do I fail to notice what is in my own?

An oft-demonstrated truth is that most of us have a great reputation with ourselves and therefore may miss the large specks in our own lives. Psychologists call this the self-serving bias. We accept more responsibility for our good deeds than for our bad. And we tend to see ourselves as better than average—as, for example, better-than-average drivers, voters, and employees.

The better-than-average phenomenon extends to people’s feelings of moral superiority:

  • Virtues. In the Netherlands, most high school students have rated themselves as more honest, persistent, original, friendly, and reliable than the average high school student.
  • Prosocial behavior. Most people report that they are more likely than others to give to a charity, donate blood, and give up their bus seat to a pregnant woman.
  • Ethics. Most businesspeople perceive themselves as more ethical than the average businessperson.
  • Morals and values. When asked in a national survey, “How would you rate your own morals and values on a scale from 1 to 100 (100 being perfect)?” 50 percent rated themselves at 90 or above.

This self-serving bias can lead us to view ourselves as morally superior to others, including our ancestors. We presume that, had we stood in their shoes, we would have behaved differently. We are like the people who—when told about experiments in which people have conformed to falsehoods, followed orders to administer painful shocks, or failed to help someone—predict that they would have acted more truthfully and courageously. But psychology’s experiments have indicated otherwise.

Princeton legal scholar Robert George recently tweeted that he sometimes asks students “what their position on slavery would have been had they been White and living in the South before abolition. Guess what? They all would have been abolitionists! They all would have bravely spoken out against slavery, and worked tirelessly against it.” But this is “nonsense,” he adds. Had we been White Southerners, embedded in that time and culture’s systemic racism, most of us would likely have been, to a lesser or greater extent, complicit. He challenges those who think they would have been the exception to tell him how they have, in their current life, done something similarly unpopular with their peers, causing them to be abandoned by friends and “loathed and ridiculed by powerful, influential individuals and institutions.”

Of course, a brave minority in the South did join the abolitionist cause and enabled the underground railway. Under Hitler a few brave souls did protest and suffer, including Pastor Martin Niemöller, who, after seven years in Nazi concentration camps, famously spoke for many: “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

But such heroes are heroes because they are the exception. Experiments (here and here) show that most people do err when confidently predicting that they would intervene where others have not if witnessing a sexist or racist slur. T. S. Elliot anticipated as much: “Between the idea and the reality . . . Falls the Shadow.”

So, should we and can we advocate for a more just world while also being mindful that we may similarly be judged by our descendants? As Steven Pinker documents in Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, we have made moral progress. Wars, genocide, murders, blatant racism, homophobia, and sexism, as well as illiteracy, ignorance, and lethal diseases, have all, over time, been on the decline.

So, amid today’s hatreds and chaos, there is hope for continued progress. Perhaps the ancient prophetic admonition can be our guide: Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly.

(For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com.)

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About the Author
David Myers has spent his entire teaching career at Hope College, Michigan, where he has been voted “outstanding professor” and has been selected by students to deliver the commencement address. His award-winning research and writings have appeared in over three dozen scientific periodicals and numerous publications for the general public. He also has authored five general audience books, including The Pursuit of Happiness and Intuition: Its Powers and Perils. David Myers has chaired his city's Human Relations Commission, helped found a thriving assistance center for families in poverty, and spoken to hundreds of college and community groups. Drawing on his experience, he also has written articles and a book (A Quiet World) about hearing loss, and he is advocating a transformation in American assistive listening technology (see www.hearingloop.org).