The Psychology of Moral Safety

I’ve had a question for a while now: Why do people who crusade against a particular “moral evil” so often struggle against it personally and fall prey to it, sometimes very publicly? In my opinion, it happens too often to be mere coincidence — I really think there’s a correlation.

Well, the Boston Globe published an article this week by Drake Bennett on The Nature of Temptation, which talks about that tie. It explains the dangers of overconfidence in one’s own willpower:

… people with the most favorable opinion of their own moral fortitude seem to have the widest empathy gaps. In one study, Nordgren looked at a group of people trying to quit smoking and found that it was those who rated their willpower particularly highly who were most likely to end up smoking again within a few months. The reason, Nordgren argues, is that they were more cavalier about exposing themselves to situations where they might be tempted to smoke. It’s a tendency that he argues extends far beyond smokers. Mark Sanford’s admission this week that in the lead-up to his affair he had flirtatious extramarital relationships that “didn’t cross the sex line” with multiple women suggests, perhaps, a similarly reckless faith in his own willpower.

Beyond willpower is a sense of one’s own inherent moral goodness — if you’re a “good guy”, you don’t need to prove it by actually doing good things:

A paper published this spring … at Northwestern University found that, if people were primed to think of themselves as good, caring people, they were actually less generous with donations, and less likely to advocate spending money on costly environmental protection measures, than people primed to think of themselves as selfish and cruel.

The article quotes Benoit Monin, a Stanford University professor, “People feel like they have a free pass because they’ve amassed those moral credits as a good person.” It goes on to cite a suggestion by Sonya Sachdeva, a graduate student who was an author of the Northwestern paper:

… for those who worry about the complacency that moral self-satisfaction can bring, the key may lie in seeing our good deeds as individually unimportant. Rather than thinking of moral acts as accomplishments – thereby triggering the cooling effect on our inner moral thermostat – we should strive to make them habitual, almost rote, so they’re not competing with all of our other goals. Writing of “moral habits” two millennia ago, Aristotle argued for something similar.

This line of reasoning also might help illuminate why the Baha’i Long Obligatory Prayer includes such an emphasis on our own weakness and moral limitations.

Thou dost perceive my tears and the sighs I utter, and hearest my groaning, and my wailing, and the lamentation of my heart. By Thy might! My trespasses have kept me back from drawing nigh unto Thee; and my sins have held me far from the court of Thy holiness. Thy love, O my Lord, hath enriched me, and separation from Thee hath destroyed me, and remoteness from Thee hath consumed me.

The Long Obligatory Prayer has always seemed to me to be particularly powerful. Baha’u’llah is quoted as saying, “In truth, it hath been revealed in such wise that if it be recited to a rock, that rock would stir and speak forth.” I’ve wondered, though, why it puts so much emphasis on humility and unworthiness. Perhaps comparing one’s moral standard to God’s is a sure way to keep perspective, and help avoid the “cooling effect on our moral thermostat” that Sachdeva describes. From the prayer:

Thy forgiveness hath emboldened me, and Thy mercy hath strengthened me and Thy call hath awakened me, and Thy grace hath raised me up and led me unto Thee. Who, otherwise, am I that I should dare to stand at the gate of the city of Thy nearness, or set my face toward the lights that are shining from the heaven of Thy will? Thou seest, O my Lord, this wretched creature knocking at the door of Thy grace, and this evanescent soul seeking the river of everlasting life from the hands of Thy bounty. Thine is the command at all times, O Thou Who art the Lord of all names; and mine is resignation and willing submission to Thy will, O Creator of the heavens!

There’s much more in the Globe article. I heartily recommend it to anyone interested in current psychological research on personal moral integrity.

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