At the risk of sounding like someone who is about to disgrace his megachurch, I am an ethics guy. I think the question of how to do good is the most important subject a person can think about, and fitting our behaviour to whatever answers we find is the fundamental project of living.
Does this make me a good person? Ha ha, no, oh no. I would not argue that in print, and I hope I’m never asked to. But I do consider the question, and that mental exercise feels like resistance to the various economic and social forces that encourage us all toward amoral materialism — forces that, over the course of my lifetime, seem like they’ve been winning.
It’s an odd phenomenon, since it also feels like more and more people are preoccupied with morality lately, or at least have become more willing to talk about it, to frame their preferences as principles, to make of morality an interpretive lens. Our collective discourse has become deeply concerned with goodness.
This trend is perhaps most visible in marketing. If you go to the About page of Nike.com, you will find the company’s mission statement, which cites “building a creative and diverse global team” and “making a positive impact in communities where we live and work”, but does not mention selling shoes.
PepsiCo recently touted its commitment to “inspiring positive change for planet and people” by way of paying Megan Thee Stallion to write a song about Cheetos for the Super Bowl. A running gag on HBO’s Silicon Valley positioned “making the world a better place” as the defining canard of the tech industry.
A whole generation has learnt to talk this way, not just in corporate messaging but in ostensibly casual speech, such that moralising has become the prevalent mode on social media. Consider this viral tweet:
If you are hiking in a group and waiting for slower people to catch up, don’t start walking again when they do catch up, because then you got a rest and they didn’t.
I think about this tip a lot, in many different contexts.
What is it about this basically thoughtful sentiment that makes me want to throw my phone into the sea? It’s not the idea itself — which is in fact a useful tip that can improve your hikes with short-legged and/or indolent friends — but rather the occasion, the venue.
Social media, in this case Twitter, is a space where one can say virtually anything to an audience of strangers. This person has chosen to deliver moral instruction, an already dubious activity whose obnoxiousness is intensified by the addendum that they think about their message “a lot, in many different contexts”. It’s not for them, in other words; it’s for you, the probably benighted stranger.
Why, then, do I not feel improved? The answer may be that I am a horrible person, darkness abhors the light, et cetera, but maybe it’s something different. Maybe there are species of morality that do no one any good, and these species have come to dominate our cultural ecosystems, especially social media.
Online, we have made a collective habit of boiling everything down to the figurative rest one person got and another didn’t, a rhetoric of morality at once so simple that anyone can wield it and so convoluted that it can be bent to any argument.
The daily practice of pointing out where good is missing has become so pervasive as to feel like a form of goodness in itself, even as it nudges us insidiously toward the consensus that actually doing good is impossible. Together we have developed a morality so versatile that it can be turned against any act, a kind of anti-ethics.
My brother and I sometimes talk about this problem in terms of a dilemma we call The Black and White Cookie. Imagine you are at a bakery, trying to decide between an apricot bar and a black and white cookie (for the non-American reader, that’s a circular biscuit, frosted with vanilla on one half, and chocolate on the other). Both treats are equally delicious, and yet the longer you think about it, the more moral valences you can find.
Getting the bar would make you complicit in the apricot industry, which reportedly exploits migrant workers. The cookie, on the other hand, expresses a hopeful unity between black and white — until you realise it also maintains a strict separation between the two, evoking historical wrongs no decent person could endorse. The associations are limitless, and you can spin them out but, in the meantime, everyone in line behind you is waiting, arguably sustaining a more concrete type of harm while you worry about the perfection of your soul.
Ethics are concerned with doing good, in other words, while morality is concerned with being good. And as any Sunday-school pupil will tell you, being good is primarily a matter of not being bad. This flaw in sin-based systems of morality has been documented by wiser people than me, perhaps most prominently in the NBC sitcom The Good Place, one conceit of which is that modern life has become so fraught with diffuse responsibility for various injustices that no one has made it to heaven for hundreds of years.
Like most jokes, it’s an exaggeration. But also like most jokes, it is an exaggeration of what feels basically true: almost any action or utterance can be construed as immoral if you look at it right. Increasingly, large numbers of people are inclined or at least well-trained to look at things that way.
This practice is supposed to encourage more ethical behaviour, but as a culture-wide habit of thinking, it serves the status quo by making the idea of action itself feel inherently risky. (Except when an obvious injustice, such as the killing of George Floyd by police in 2020, captures the news cycle. Then politicians and businesses join in a kind of branded commiseration, but never in collective action.) The only unassailable position is quietism.
The mounting anxiety that all speech and action are inherently tainted is a more circumspect formulation of the “cancel culture” thesis, which is a lightning rod for stupidity whenever it comes up. The people who complain about cancel culture are almost always doing it cynically, and their complaints generally amount to “Why must I suffer consequences for saying things that are not just inaccurate but also cruel?” At the same time, the people who insist that it is all a non-phenomenon, some kind of stalking horse sent forth to revive the socially accepted bigotry of the 20th century, also seem wilfully ignorant in a way that feels dishonest.
If nothing is going on, why do thousands of people keep reporting this generalised fear of getting in trouble? Even if you accept, as I do, that we are right to be less tolerant of expressions of prejudice than we once were, there remains the question of whether we are right to have raised the cost of those transgressions from small-group embarrassment and reprimands by friends to job loss and public shaming on social media. Reasonable people can disagree about whether these changes are good or bad, but it seems obstinate to insist that everything is the same.
What’s changed is that a whole generation of college-educated people has learnt how to frame basically anything in moral terms, whether it’s their Cheetos marketing strategy or migrant labour or their date not responding to text messages. Weirdly, this phenomenon is occurring at the same time our society seems more likely to accept greed and dishonesty as not exactly good but not remarkable either, a kind of standard operating procedure in the necessary business of aggrandising ourselves and making money.
Even as we have gotten more vocally moral, we seem to have become less ethical. And we don’t need to traffic in “feels” and “seems” to support this claim; we have the evidence of dramatically increased income inequality in the US, a disinformation crisis on the internet, and a worldwide failure to contain the Covid-19 pandemic that eerily resembles our failure to do something about climate change.
What we have here is a morality that sells snacks but doesn’t feed the hungry. That’s partly because it is a fundamentally negative apparatus. By making this morality the lens through which we interpret the world, we have become intensely conscious of how things can go wrong and, by extension, less willing to try to do right. Just navigating the minefield of complicity in immoral systems seems like the most any of us can do, and so those systems abide, with any plan to collectively overthrow them replaced by individual acts of symbolic disapproval.
But there is also the problem that this morality is easy to understand — much easier than the nuances and contradictions of an ethics based in action — and, therefore, easy to use disingenuously, as an instrument. When I talk to high-school students about what they want to do in college, they talk about their desire to make the world a better place, usually by majoring in finance, economics or something related to fashion.
I have yet to meet a prospective social worker or even just someone who wants to attend business school to make money. These kids are not dishonest or even particularly selfish, not by the standards of adolescents, anyway. They just know they are talking to an adult, and they know how the game is played.
Almost everyone knows how the game is played, in this regard, and yet our mass experiment in public morality has failed to yield a more ethical society. The term for this phenomenon is hypocrisy, the public fixation on right and wrong without the accompanying impulse to do good. And the savvy position on hypocrisy is that it was ever thus. Every culture worries it has lost its way, and it is human nature to mistake for crisis the level of selfishness and dishonesty that is in fact a constant wherever people live together. “Our fathers, viler than our grandfathers, begat us even viler, and we bring forth a progeny more degenerate still,” Horace wrote, a decade or two before the birth of Christ. Things seem to have gotten better since then, so who are we to complain?
It’s a comforting thought, but what are the odds that it is true? How likely is it that in different cultures, over aeons of change and upheaval, the balance of selfishness and altruism in circulation remains the same? It would be an astonishing coincidence if it did, to say nothing of a real blow to our understanding of human agency. If I had to put money on the line, I would bet that some cultures and some eras are more ethical than others, and we really can influence the sum of good and evil we collectively do. But then I would have to confront my own responsibility in all of this. Frankly, I would rather hold still and stay out of trouble.
Dan Brooks is a writer of fiction, essays and criticism in Missoula, Montana
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