Our Moral Obsession

July 2, 2024   |   Tags:

Humans are moral obsessives. Anywhere you go, you’ll find people speaking in moral terms: “He didn’t treat me right,” “She’s arrogant,” “That’s a man you can respect,” and so on. All of these are moral judgments. Even confirmed criminals will routinely say things like, “That ain’t right,” which is, again, a purely moral judgment.

On top of that, moral judgments vary fairly little between individuals. There are exceptions, of course, but nearly all of us will agree on the majority of moral judgments, staying close to the model of the golden rule.

Academic ethics are incomprehensible and “lifeboat” scenarios are distractions: They fail to illuminate much, while clouding what is useful. And so most of us listen to them for a moment, then go back to, “He wouldn’t like it if I did that to him.”

This obsession of ours holds firm across almost the whole of human of life. Examine any workplace and you’ll find a long stream of moral judgments. Examine any home and you’ll find a long string of moral judgments.

So, What’s The Problem?

Given that nearly everyone is a moral obsessive, and given that we all refer, more or less, to the golden rule as a point of reference, how come there’s still so much immorality in the world?

The answer is that there really isn’t.

First of all, people focus hard on the things that are wrong, but massively ignore the things that go right. When driving, for example, they flatly ignore hundreds of reasonable drivers and expend their venom on the one bad driver. The fact is that 90-some percent of everyday life is morally acceptable.

Secondly, people often tie morality to dogma: They describe deviations from their political or religious doctrines as immoral, even when they’re not substantial violations of the golden rule. Political and religious dogmas shouldn’t be confused with morality.

So, while there are always moral failings, they aren't nearly as many as advertised.

The real problem with human morality is simply that it’s focused every which way. Moral concerns, to put it simply, are scattered and wasted.

The internal energies of a mainstream couple, for example, are almost fully directed away from any effective use. They devote their moral strength to whatever terror (real or imagined) is in the news that day, to a sports team, to hating a political party, and so on. All of these are wastes of moral energy.

We Can Easily Turn This Around

We’ve been expending oceans of moral energy, to very little positive effect, but it doesn’t have to stay that way: We could, if we wanted, focus our energies to create improvements in the world.

Yeah, really, we could. And at some point people will. I think that should be us, and it requires just one thing of us:

We must focus on what we want, instead of what we fear.

It really is that simple, although “simple” and “easy” don't always travel together. In particular, progress requires us to give up on gathering all the bad news in the world. The dark obsession leaves us with a giant lump of darkness filling our field of view, which negates our forward momentum.

Some generation is going to walk away from this mania of negativity, and it may as well be ours.

Last Words

There can be endless quibbles and distractions from this point. Changing our focus would threaten everything from emotional crutches to nation-state power, and so all of them will fight against it. But I won’t waste our time on those things today. Rather, I’ll say this:

If we focus on the things we want, instead of what we fear, it will be only a short time before we start getting them.

By changing our moral focus from dark to light – focusing our imaginations on what we love, instead of what we hate – we will renovate ourselves (beginning immediately) and the world shortly thereafter.

And again: Some generation is going to see how reasonable this is, and how retrograde the old way was. It may as well be ours.


Paul Rosenberg



Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x