In arecent article entitled “Why All Indiscretions Appear Youthful,” Benedict Carey reports on the findings of a study of of moral choices of people.
In recent years, psychologists have exposed ways that people subconsciously maintain and massage their moral self-image. They rate themselves as morally superior to the next person; overestimate the likelihood that they will act virtuously in the future; see their own good intentions as praiseworthy while dismissing others’ as inconsequential. And they soften their moral principles when doing a truly dirty job, like carrying out orders to exploit uninformed customers.
Dr. Jessica R. Escobedie says, “The main finding is that if I ask you to tell me about a positive moral memory, you’ll tell me something recent. If I ask you to tell me about a bad moral memory, you’re going to give me something from much further in the past.”
By this, the report concludes that “People honestly view their past in a morally critical light, but at the same time they tend to emphasize that they have been improving.”
Dr. Escobedo says, “The weirdest thing about reading about all these bad moral choices is that it make you kind of feel good about yourself. Just seeing how everyone makes mistakes and regrets not doing what was morally right: It makes you feel more attached to humanity.”
This seems to lead to several conclusions.
First, people are softer on themselves than they should be. By jettisoning poor moral choices to the distant past, they seem to fail to note that ten years from now, today’s moral choices will seem wrong to them, meaning that those choices are wrong now. They didn’t become wrong by ten years of reflection. They only became known as wrong by ten years of reflections.
Second, by having no external moral compass, they are left with nothing other than the passing of time to judge something as right or wrong. That is a sign of the poor moral judgment of people. It is a sign of immaturity, both to do it in the first place as well as to pretend that only things done in the past are morally wrong. Until we have an external moral compass, we will always be ten years behind in our moral evaluation.
Third, the fact that seeing other’s bad moral choices makes us feel better about ourselves reveals just how distorted the whole concept of “good self-image” really is. The pursuit of self-esteem is revealed yet again to be a poor substitute for meaningful living. The fact that I feel better because I see that everyone else is as big an idiot as I am should hardly be comforting, either to me or the people around me.
Fourth, and finally, it reveals that tagging old acts as youthful indiscretions from which we have grown only serves as an ambitious self-defense. “That was what I used to be” is not all that impressive. “I am much better than that now” does not hold a lot of water.
Personal growth is good. But asserting personal growth by means of “I did something wrong a long time ago” and “I see people around me who do the same thing” shows just how far we have come in human progress. Problem is, we have come the wrong way.