Updating your moral software

Oct 23 JDN 2459876

I’ve noticed an odd tendency among politically active people, particular social media slacktivists (a term I do not use pejoratively: slacktivism is highly cost-effective). They adopt new ideas very rapidly, trying to stay on the cutting edge of moral and political discourse—and then they denigrate and disparage anyone who fails to do the same as an irredeemable monster.

This can take many forms, such as “if you don’t buy into my specific take on Critical Race Theory, you are a racist”, “if you have any uncertainty about the widespread use of puberty blockers you are a transphobic bigot”, “if you give any credence to the medical consensus on risks of obesity you are fatphobic“, “if you think disabilities should be cured you’re an ableist”, and “if you don’t support legalizing abortion in all circumstances you are a misogynist”.

My intention here is not to evaluate any particular moral belief, though I’ll say the following: I am skeptical of Critical Race Theory, especially the 1619 project which seems to be to include substantial distortions of history. I am cautiously supportive of puberty blockers, because the medical data on their risks are ambiguous—while the sociological data on how much happier trans kids are when accepted are totally unambiguous. I am well aware of the medical data saying that the risks of obesity are overblown (but also not negligible, particular for those who are very obese). Speaking as someone with a disability that causes me frequent, agonizing pain, yes, I want disabilities to be cured, thank you very much; accommodations are nice in the meantime, but the best long-term solution is to not need accommodations. (I’ll admit to some grey areas regarding certain neurodivergences such as autism and ADHD, and I would never want to force cures on people who don’t want them; but paralysis, deafness, blindness, diabetes, depression, and migraine are all absolutely worth finding cures for—the QALY at stake here are massive—and it’s silly to say otherwise.) I think abortion should generally be legal and readily available in the first trimester (which is when most abortions happen anyway), but much more strictly regulated thereafter—but denying it to children and rape victims is a human rights violation.

What I really want to talk about today is not the details of the moral belief, but the attitude toward those who don’t share it. There are genuine racists, transphobes, fatphobes, ableists, and misogynists in the world. There are also structural institutions that can lead to discrimination despite most of the people involved having no particular intention to discriminate. It’s worthwhile to talk about these things, and to try to find ways to fix them. But does calling anyone who disagrees with you a monster accomplish that goal?

This seems particularly bad precisely when your own beliefs are so cutting-edge. If you have a really basic, well-established sort of progressive belief like “hiring based on race should be illegal”, “women should be allowed to work outside the home” or “sodomy should be legal”, then people who disagree with you pretty much are bigots. But when you’re talking about new, controversial ideas, there is bound to be some lag; people who adopted the last generation’s—or even the last year’s—progressive beliefs may not yet be ready to accept the new beliefs, and that doesn’t make them bigots.

Consider this: Were you born believing in your current moral and political beliefs?

I contend that you were not. You may have been born intelligent, open-minded, and empathetic. You may have been born into a progressive, politically-savvy family. But the fact remains that any particular belief you hold about race, or gender, or ethics was something you had to learn. And if you learned it, that means that at some point you didn’t already know it. How would you have felt back then, if, instead of calmly explaining it to you, people called you names for not believing in it?

Now, perhaps it is true that as soon as you heard your current ideas, you immediately adopted them. But that may not be the case—it may have taken you some time to learn or change your mind—and even if it was, it’s still not fair to denigrate anyone who takes a bit longer to come around. There are many reasons why someone might not be willing to change their beliefs immediately, and most of them are not indicative of bigotry or deep moral failings.

It may be helpful to think about this in terms of updating your moral software. You were born with a very minimal moral operating system (emotions such as love and guilt, the capacity for empathy), and over time you have gradually installed more and more sophisticated software on top of that OS. If someone literally wasn’t born with the right OS—we call these people psychopaths—then, yes, you have every right to hate, fear, and denigrate them. But most of the people we’re talking about do have that underlying operating system, they just haven’t updated all their software to the same version as yours. It’s both unfair and counterproductive to treat them as irredeemably defective simply because they haven’t updated to the newest version yet. They have the hardware, they have the operating system; maybe their download is just a little slower than yours.

In fact, if you are very fast to adopt new, trendy moral beliefs, you may in fact be adopting them too quickly—they haven’t been properly vetted by human experience just yet. You can think of this as like a beta version: The newest update has some great new features, but it’s also buggy and unstable. It may need to be fixed before it is really ready for widespread release. If that’s the case, then people aren’t even wrong not to adopt them yet! It isn’t necessarily bad that you have adopted the new beliefs; we need beta testers. But you should be aware of your status as a beta tester and be prepared both to revise your own beliefs if needed, and also to cut other people slack if they disagree with you.

I understand that it can be immensely frustrating to be thoroughly convinced that something is true and important and yet see so many people disagreeing with it. (I am an atheist activist after all, so I absolutely know what that feels like.) I understand that it can be immensely painful to watch innocent people suffer because they have to live in a world where other people have harmful beliefs. But you aren’t changing anyone’s mind or saving anyone from harm by calling people names. Patience, tact, and persuasion will win the long game, and the long game is really all we have.

And if it makes you feel any better, the long game may not be as long as it seems. The arc of history may have tighter curvature than we imagine. We certainly managed a complete flip of the First World consensus on gay marriage in just a single generation. We may be able to achieve similarly fast social changes in other areas too. But we haven’t accomplished the progress we have so far by being uncharitable or aggressive toward those who disagree.

I am emphatically not saying you should stop arguing for your beliefs. We need you to argue for your beliefs. We need you to argue forcefully and passionately. But when doing so, try not to attack the people who don’t yet agree with you—for they are precisely the people we need to listen to you.

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