Moral Mistakes: Acting on Impulse

 Posted by on 8 June 2011 at 8:00 am  Ethics, Psycho-Epistemology
Jun 082011

In Sunday’s Rationally Selfish Webcast, my keynote question concerned the proper process for forgiveness if you’re the person who has done wrong. I was particularly enthused to answer this question, as it gave me an opportunity to discuss some of my new ideas on the varieties of moral errors and wrongs. Since I wanted to develop these ideas further and then solicit feedback, I thought I’d write them up for NoodleFood. (I’m going to aim to do this for at least one issue from the webcast each week.)

In Galt’s Speech in Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand distinguished between “errors of knowledge” and “breaches of morality.” She wrote:

An error of knowledge is not a moral flaw, provided you are willing to correct it; only a mystic would judge human beings by the standard of an impossible, automatic omniscience. But a breach of morality is the conscious choice of an action you know to be evil, or a willful evasion of knowledge, a suspension of sight and of thought. That which you do not know, is not a moral charge against you; but that which you refuse to know, is an account of infamy growing in your soul.

That distinction between honest error and willful evasion is crucial, but not the whole story. In particular, I don’t think they’re exhaustive categories, but rather more like end-points on a continuum of culpability. (Ayn Rand never said that they were exhaustive categories as far as I know, but I’d always assumed that.)

So what kinds of moral errors or wrongs might a person commit that don’t fall into one of those two categories? Consider the following cases:

Case #1: You’re discussing some major news story with a casual acquaintance, and in the flurry of conversation, you reveal personal information about a mutual friend that you’d promised to keep private. In so doing, you’ve violated the trust of your friend. Immediately, you wish that you could take it back, but you can’t. Instead, you attempt to mitigate the damage by telling the other person that the story was supposed to be private, and asking him to keep it to himself.

You’ve done your friend wrong, perhaps seriously so. Yet it’s not an error of knowledge: you weren’t confused about whether your friend wanted the story to remain private or not. And it’s also not a breech of morality: you didn’t willfully evade the fact of your promise of secrecy, even after you’d revealed the secret.

So what happened? You were caught up in the flow of conversation. When your friend’s story occurred to you, you didn’t pause to think about your promise to keep it private. Your memory fed you the exciting story, then reminded you of your promise to keep it secret — but too late.

Case #2: On Facebook, you make a comment that seems to all the world like you condemn a friend as irrational for her stance on some controversial topic. You don’t realize that implication until your very upset friend asks you about it. Then you connect the dots, and you realize that you’ve been unjust. Immediately, you apologize and retract the comment.

Here, you’ve not erred in your knowledge, nor evaded: you knew what you were saying, and you knew your friend’s stance. The problem was that you didn’t integrate those two items of knowledge, so you didn’t realize that to make the comment that you did meant condemning your friend, who you know to be rational, even if mistaken.

Case #3: For many years, you’ve worked diligently on your fiery temper, in order to remain calm in frustrating situations. You’ve made enormous progress, but you still struggle sometimes. Toward the end of a very long day, your children begin fighting over a broken toy. You lose your temper in a flash, screaming at them to shut up and behave before you’re fully aware of what you’re doing. In a few minutes, you calm down, only to realize that you’ve failed in a major way. So you apologize to your children, discussing what you should have done instead.

As before, you’ve not made an error of knowledge, nor a breach of morality. Your emotions took charge in a particularly trying circumstance, exciting you to action before your rational judgment could have its say. Although you’re fully committed to acting by reason in a way respectful of others, you’ve not yet been able to fully automatize that. You need more time and practice to do that every time, even in the hard cases.

Case #4: You make plans with a friend for an outing, but later realize that you must cancel them. You hate to disappoint your friend, so you decide to tell her in person, so that you can properly convey your regret. However, you don’t see her as expected for many days, so by the time you inform her, your change in plans is a pretty serious hassle and disappointment for her. You apologize in short order, after reflecting on what happened.

Once again, you’ve not made an error of knowledge, nor evaded what you know. Instead, you made a good plan, but when that plan didn’t unfold as expected, you didn’t pause to rethink whether some other plan might be better. You didn’t pay sufficient attention to the implications of the change in context.

These kinds of moral errors and wrongs are quite common. In fact, I think they’re inevitable — for the simple reason that our minds are limited. We won’t always recall and integrate every fact relevant to our actions. We can’t change our deeply-held values and emotions by a command of reason. We often cannot consider every likely effect of our actions. We don’t always notice that a change in context requires different actions from us. Most of all, life speeds along, such that we can’t always deliberate long and hard before we speaking and acting, particularly in social settings. If even if we could pause, we don’t always realize that we should do so.

Our subconscious — with its vast store of knowledge, memories, values, associations, and habits — is an indispensable assistant to our rational minds in guiding our actions. We can and must rely on it to guide our thoughts and actions. Often, a person speaks or acts based on the material fed to him by his subconscious, without much (if any) rational deliberation. Usually, that works well — provided that a person has stocked his subconscious with rational principles, life-promoting values, and efficient habits. That’s why you can enjoy the easy flow of conversation with a friend, without carefully crafting every word. That’s why you can correct your misbehaving dog in an instant, without confusing delay. That’s why you don’t need to closely follow a recipe when making a dinner that you’ve made a dozen times before. And so on.

Such actions are “impulsive,” meaning “acting or done without forethought” (according to my dictionary). That doesn’t necessarily mean acting on emotion, however. Acting on emotion is just one way of acting on impulse, but not the only way. Aristotle describes such action as “on the spur of the moment” or merely voluntary action — as contrasted with chosen voluntary action, which always involves deliberation. (See Nicomachean Ethics, Book 3, Chapter 2.)

Sometimes, however, acting on impulse goes awry in small or large ways — particularly when a person is under pressure to speak or act immediately. Sometimes, our subconscious is not as “smart” as we might like — in exactly the kinds of ways seen in the cases above. Happily, we can not only apologize and make amends for these “moral mistakes,” we can learn to catch them sooner, even before they happen, then perhaps eliminate the faulty impulse entirely. To do that consistently is an important part of practicing the virtue of pride. If we don’t do that — if we just ignore these kinds of mistakes — they will become serious moral breeches over time, sustained by ever-more evasion.

So how can we prevent ourselves from making impulsive moral mistakes? We can examine the judgments underlying an unwelcome emotional response. We can brainstorm about better ways to handle a problem in future. We can practice the right actions in easier situations. We can identify and work around our own weaknesses. We can practice pausing before speaking on touchy subjects. We can keep tabs on our emotions so that we’re not suddenly drowning in them. We can develop the habit of considering the implications of some new fact on our plans. We can ask our friends to remind us when we seem to be going off-track. And much, much more.

In essence, as Jenn Casey and Kelly Elmore have taught me, we need to adopt the attitude of “Yippee Mistakes!” These kinds of impulsive moral mistakes should be regarded as an engraved invitation to personal growth and the practice of pride. By adopting that approach — rather than ignoring or evading them, thereby allowing them to fester into genuine moral wrongs — we can grow into the people that we want to be.

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