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Engage in Ethical Reflection Rather than Moralizing

Moralizing is rarely the wise ethical choice.

Key points

  • Some philosophers make an important distinction between ethics and morals.
  • Emphasizing morals can easily lead to moralizing, which involves judging or proclaiming others to be bad or immoral.
  • Moralizing is rarely wise; people should aim to be guided by reflective ethical decision making.

In the United States, ethics and morals are closely related concepts, and many people use them interchangeably. An ethical issue is a moral issue, both are concerned with reflecting on and moving toward valued states of being. However, in some philosophical circles, especially in Europe, there is an important difference between them. Consider, for example, the comment from my friend, the philosopher Alexander Bard, who told me bluntly, “I don’t do morals, Henriques. I do ethical decision-making. Morals lead to moralizing, which tends to produce bad ethical decision-making.”

Although I still find value in framing morals and ethics as related but distinct concepts, I also find much wisdom in Bard’s comment. The difference between ethical decision-making and proclaiming proper morals brings into high relief the problem of moralizing. Moralizing is the process of pronouncing the correct or right view and then proceeding to judge anyone who fails to see the light as foolish, boorish, or downright immoral. Moralizing is everywhere these days. Indeed, it is arguably a defining feature of our hyper-polarized, angst-ridden culture. In this age of uncertainty, many are struggling to grab a hold of the correct identity and be assured that they are in the morally right camp and proceed to cancel those who are not.

As these essays by the Consilience Project (here and here), and this interview with Dr. Zak Stein makes clear, this is a profound problem in our society. According to Stein, we are living in the context of a massive information war, and propaganda is being deployed to brainwash us into political and national positions that support people in power. And moralizing is key to this process. That is because a central goal of propaganda is to get people to believe that they have the “correct” view on the world and then get them to believe that others who fail to have this view are wrong and bad. This ingroup tribal tendency gives rise to political polarities that turn people into puppets of the extreme left or right, in the case of the US. We need new ways of being, and the Consilience Project offers one such example.

The bottom line is that moralizing, especially via social media or other outlets that enable people to shout out opinions and proclaim their superiority over others, is rarely a wise idea. It virtually never changes anyone’s position. Rather, it just adds to the polarizing righteousness and large-scale cultural confusion and divisiveness. As such, next time you are about to bash someone over the head with a moralizing claim about what the right way to be is, I invite you to pause and ethically reflect on whether you are making a wise choice.

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