Who cares? Why we should stop giving in to weakness of will

For most people ‘let’s go get a bacon-sandwich’ is very different from ‘let’s go drown a litter of fluffy kittens.’ No one (in his right mind) would want to hurt those little balls of fur. It is no secret however, that to make bacon animals are hurt too. People who believe hurting animals is wrong shouldn’t eat bacon then. But people often don’t act as they think they should. So what is happening between making a moral judgement and acting morally? 

By Silke Mast 

Imagine you wake up one morning feeling a strong urge to kidnap seven people, tie five of them to a train track, put the other two persons next to the train track and let one of those trolley trains ride towards the tied-up people full speed, to see whether one of the people next to train track will push the other one (who happens to be wearing a ridiculous amount of those lead belts divers wear) to stop the trolley train. You would probably think you have good reason not to give in to this urge. It would be a rather expensive undertaking, and those trolley trains are notoriously difficult to come by. This is not a problem however, since the International Trolleyology Foundation is willing to provide a generous donation and the city of San Francisco is happy to provide you with one of its unused trolley trains (with an irreparable brake-defect). Moreover, your friends at the International Trolleyology Foundation have somehow gotten permission for you to perform this experiment, so you won’t be charged with kidnapping or murder or abusing the train tracks. Chances are that you would still feel you have good reason to resist your desire to create a real life trolley problem. Your reason for resisting is most likely something along the lines of: ‘Creating real life trolley problems because you feel like it is morally wrong.’ But even if you see no reason to refrain from being the first person to create a real life trolley problem, you will no doubt have some kind of intuition about the moral value of creating real life trolley problems (i.e. you will feel it isn’t morally wrong, or morally right even). If you are disposed to feel and believe that kidnapping people and tying them to train tracks is a really bad thing to do, then you have good reason not to engage in kidnapping and track-tying. So far, no earthshattering claims, except of course if you’re a meta-ethicist because then there’s all these things with motivational internalism, categorical imperatives and that lovely Scotsman David Hume.

Now, if we have intuitions about what is morally right and wrong and these intuitions give us good reason to act or refrain from acting, then why is it that we so often act in a way contrary to our moral beliefs? To give an example, many people genuinely believe that it’s wrong to hurt animals. They, for instance, think it is wrong to kick dogs or drown kittens. However, a majority of these individuals eat meat multiple times a week and use products that have been tested on animals. Perhaps these people are amoralists that have learned that some moral transgressions are more acceptable than others, or maybe they are simply hypocrites. Since this would be true of most persons, neither of these options appears compatible with retaining a positive image of mankind.

Fortunately, there is an alternative explanation that does not incite as much hopelessness about the current state of humanity. Instead of conceiving people who act contrary to their genuinely held moral beliefs as amoralist or hypocrites, we may conceive them as being akratic, that is as suffering from ‘moral weakness of will.’ Admittedly, the idea that large groups of people lack the will power to act morally doesn’t make us humans look that good either. Akrasia is only part of the explanation, however, so we mustn’t be too quick to judge. The second part has to do with a psychological mechanism called cognitive dissonance. This mechanism sets in when our beliefs, or our acts and beliefs, are incompatible. This incompatibility causes us to experience tension (dissonance) which we resolve by ‘rationalising away’ the incompatibility. Take for example, eating cake when you are on a diet. You believe you shouldn’t eat cake because you want to lose weight (belief), but you do fancy a piece and you have some anyway (incompatible act). This makes you feel bad (dissonance) so you tell yourself you had a very light breakfast and your body needed the calories (rationalisation).

There are many possible rationalisations that could explain akrasia, but I think there is one misconception about morality that lends itself particularly well for this purpose: The belief that acting morally shouldn’t be difficult. When our moral intuitions tell us we need to do something that causes great personal sacrifice or that is in another way inconvenient to us, we appeal to supererogatory nature of this particular moral act. That is, we tell ourselves that no one could reasonably expect us to do something that is so demanding. Borrowing an example from our favourite external moral compass Peter Singer, many people believe that it’s bad when people are deprived of food, shelter and medical care. Still, few people would conclude from this that they are morally required to donate large sums of money to charitable organisations ‘because no one could reasonable expect them to do something that is so demanding.’ Thus, we evade our moral responsibility by convincing ourselves that matters that we believe are morally required, are actually better understood as ‘morally commendable.’

The good news is that this isn’t an unsurmountable problem, so we needn’t be too disappointed in mankind. Sadly, this concludes the good news. Even though evading our moral responsibility isn’t right, it is understandable. The moral high ground is not as glamorous as it sounds. Doing the right thing can require great personal sacrifice, with very little pay-off. Since people do not generally enjoy being confronted with their personal shortcomings – it is much harder to rationalise away cognitive dissonance when someone keeps giving objections to your rationalisations – you shouldn’t expect them to praise you for your ‘morally commendable behaviour.’ Instead, you should be prepared for annoyance, ignorance, and people trying to convince you ‘to let go a little.’ You will probably have to give up some things you really enjoy too. Then again, you may really enjoy creating real life trolley problems (or kicking dogs and drowning kittens for that matter), and the International Foundation for Trolleyology may really want you to give in to this desire. But if you believe that it would be wrong to do so, you shouldn’t try to deceive yourself into thinking that it is right. Because it isn’t, no matter how elaborate or creative your rationalisations might be. Like it or not, you have a moral responsibility. So stand up straight and face it.


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