Whenever moral evaluations take place, the two models I’ve frequently seen employed in discussion are these:
- a status-oriented, “being”-centered morality of personal characteristics and fixed natures (that which takes for granted the existence of “bad people”, as a division from the rest of the population, which commentators then use to sort people on the basis of whether or not they go in that category)
- and, less frequently, an adaption of the former that emphasizes “shades of gray” and that “everyone has some good and bad in them” (which always devolves into a rather frustrating and defeatist brand of moral relativism that, in attempting to acknowledge complexity, prevents acknowledgement of anything by undermining any productive discourse, deeming the whole discussion a pointless exercise and thinking itself enlightened for it).
Neither of these models jive with my understanding of reality and human nature, and out of frustration with their ubiquity, I want to share with y’all an alternate model that I find far more useful in practice.
This post was brought to you in part by the encouraging comments on this post and in part by sheer bitterness. Enjoy.
The observations mobilized in this post about how moral philosophies have been employed originated with patterns I noticed within fandoms (the evaluations of fictional characters that started from a status-oriented premise, i.e., “is [character x] good or bad?”) and I believe could also be of use in multiple other arenas where I’ve seen the same basic construction arise — because too often, I see people struggling to reconcile a firm set of ethics (ex. [x thing] is bad, no two ways about it) with an understanding that everyone has their flaws (human beings are and will always be imperfect). These two understandings do not have to be in conflict, obviously, and I get frustrated when people don’t realize how easy this is to solve, so this post will be my attempt to explain.
The Status-Oriented Model of Morality
Just so we’re clear, what this model holds is as follows:
|Judging the Morality of People|
What specific attributes get people classed as “bad people”, and what treatment bad people deserve, will be outside the scope of this discussion, because for now I’m just going to focus on what this, by itself, means for us. In order to characterize people according to its logic, the model presumes evil as a state of being. To clarify my precise meaning here, consider this in terms of two different understandings of the word “being”. In Spanish, there are two words for “to be”: ser and estar. Estar is more temporary, a description of a transient condition, something that could change or come and go; ex. to be sick (or feel unwell), estar mal. Ser describes essential characteristics, what you inherently and irrevocably are; ex. to be intrinsically awful, ser mal.
In the status-oriented model, mala gente es mala — bad people are bad, in the same way that people are short or tall or redheaded.
Put that way, it sounds a little determinist, doesn’t it? As if, once you’re a bad person, there’s nothing you can do about it. For the sake of argument, let’s presume that being a “bad person” isn’t that fixed, but is still a status one can enter into.
Given the assumption of such a category, how bad does someone have to “be” in order to be a “bad person”? Setting aside the question of what counts as immoral in the first place, how do we sort individual, complex, multifaceted persons within this is-or-isn’t dichotomy that classes their whole being as bad or not? How do we assess badness in quantitative terms? Is there one singular, particular action where the line is drawn — which, once crossed, you can never come back from? Or are there multiple paths to it? Is it accumulative? Do we keep a tally? Is each bad decision a single demerit, or do some count more than others? Where do we set the threshold?
I’ve come to the conclusion that such a scoring system doesn’t work, at least not for my own purposes. Some knowable formula could be possible, sure, but I’ve long given up on it in favor of a more pragmatic approach.
Plus, even aside from how unworkable it is, the model also in effect 1) creates safe zone where some people can say, “well, I make mistakes but at least I’m not a bad person” and cultivates the otherization of “bad people” which distances them and their badness from the self (impeding critical self-reflection), 2) inspires a nebulous and unproductive anxiety for people with low self-esteem that they, themselves, might be “bad people” beyond repair 3) enables a rather useless and obstructive mode of defending people (“okay, that’s true, but he’s not a bad person“), and, in terms of calculating someone’s badness rating in relation to the arbitrary threshold, can even create the impression of “redeeming qualities” that “make up for” badness and save someone from classification as a bad person (therefore excusing their behavior).
Combined, these are the reasons why I’ve abandoned the whole endeavor for a better framework.
The Deed-Oriented Model of Morality
This model is intrinsic to my understanding of Christianity, but it’d be fairly easy for anyone to apply a secular version
in a way that would make it a “worthwhile” contribution from my religion, thank you very much.
Note: for judging works of media and non-person entities, swap out the word “people” for whatever you have in mind.
|Judging Morality||Judging People|
There are further subcategories within these, of course, and it gets messier from here on out, but regardless of what particular actions or criteria you put in each slot, the model is widely applicable. It is entirely possible to judge people’s actions — sorting some as bad and some as not — and use this as a basis of an aggregate opinion of that person without creating a fixed division between “bad people” and the rest of us.
There are no “bad people”. Or, more precisely — we are all bad people, and so any effort at division becomes a moot point. If you want nothing to do with a person, you don’t have to worry about whether they really are a bad person or not. You don’t have to agonize over whether you’re judging their soul fairly or not if you don’t make the judgement of their whole person a prerequisite in the first place. When a cost-benefit analysis says that being around them is worse for you than not, cut them out of your life. It’s simple as that.
The model allows for staunch condemnation of evil while removing the burden of all-encompassing judgement of an entire human being present in the former, and in that way, I find it not just efficient but liberating.
Are they a bad person? Maybe, maybe not, but it doesn’t matter — I don’t need to figure that out in order to decide not to put my trust in them. I don’t make it my responsibility to judge people; I just judge what people do, and occasionally make inferences about them relevant to precise practical matters such as whether and how to continue interacting with them. The difference can be thought of as the difference between saying someone is a noun and saying someone verbs or is being adjective.
Admittedly, I understand the gravitational pull and appeal of the status-oriented model, and I still incorporate it in some ways. The act of judging entire people, judging their entire souls, as bad (people) or not, is functionally equivalent to deciding whether or not they deserve to go to Hell. And I can accept/agree that this is true of some people. But I make that acknowledgement without appointing myself the one to make that call.
And, for the reasons I’ve laid out here, I think that allows for our moral judgements be that much more precise, pragmatic, and expedient — in terms of accuracy and usefulness both.