I’m not, like, some expert on philosophy. But I have a degree in it! I took a bunch of ethics classes in college, ethics is great. I love ethics. You can quote me on that.
Here’s a question we never studied and nobody ever asked in an ethics class: how do you become a better person?
We talked (often endlessly) about what it means to be a better person, sure. How do you know if you’re a good person or not, what is a good action, is there really such a thing as good/bad. (Philosophy is all about those italics.)
How a person actually goes about the actual process of going from an OK person to a better person along any dimension is, apparently, not a question of philosophy at all. I can’t name a single philosopher I read who says much about it at all. Maybe that’s a limitation of my reading, maybe not, I don’t know, but doesn’t that say something?
I am also a religious person and was raised religious, but I’m only interested in the secular version of this question. Of the religious texts I’ve studied there are a few that tackle the question of moral self-improvement, but it’s still pretty vague. The most explicit Jewish writing about becoming more ethical is from the mussar movement and they are…intense and weird? Though sometimes insightful?
So let’s say that you woke up one morning and realized you were a jerk. You’d been denying it for years, but it’s time to get honest. You’re mean to people, and for no reason at all. You get angry — not “murder” angry but not-nice angry, and with some frequency. You have relationships, but it’s increasingly clear that these are people who tolerate and recognize your flaws. Because you’re not all bad — but you’re mean, and a bit of a jerk.
You realize this, and make a commitment to do something about it. It’s time, gosh darn it! (You’re working on your language, too.)
What exactly would you do about it?
[Oh, by the way, please nobody mention The Good Place to me. It’s good, I like it.]
Here are the only plausible things I can think of that might help you be nicer.
- Keep a diary about your efforts. But I have no idea how that would help. Maybe it would slow down your quick thinking so your slow brain could take control…is that how people get better? Their rationality just lashes out at the emotions, until emotions grow docile and tame? Look, maybe.
- Maybe you need a role model? I’ve sometimes felt myself be nicer to others after reading a biography about a really good person. For a few days that person lives in my head, asking questions like “What would Abraham Lincoln do?” or “Can you imagine what Gandhi would think of that?” The problem is that after a few days I go back to normal. But maybe there is a way to keep their presence around? If you wanted to be nicer, maybe spend some time each morning thinking about a really really nice person? I don’t know, I’m making this up.
- Put up sticky notes everywhere? But everything eventually loses its force and fades into the background.
- Study ethical texts with regularity? Not because they’ll help you manage complicated moral issues (though maybe they will) but because it’s a way to keep things fresh and interesting while still giving you a regular reminder that you’re aiming to be better?
I have no idea. I don’t think I’m a jerk, but I’d like to be a better father/husband/son/friend/teacher/person, sure. I don’t know how much I care — probably not enough. Most of us don’t care, though we probably should, as Eric Schwitzgebel argues.
I’ve looked around, there seems to be practically no empirical work on any of these questions. Moral psychology is the name of the field to look in, but they steer clear of the developmental question. I assume there’s a good reason, it veers too closely to “in this study I started a cult”, or it’s unstudiable for some other reason.
But this seems like a shame for our jerk, and for all of us too. Don’t we want to study the actual process of moral improvement? For are we not all jerks, wishing just a bit that we were a little better?