Creating a Moral Habit
This article is a meditation on what constitutes moral character when assuming that empathy should guide our decisions rather than religion. Of course, the relationship between morality and religion is complex. Still, no one should have to believe in a supernatural agent watching them, accept any dogma, participate in rituals, or divide people up into opposing camps. We don't need any of that to care about people, try to practice fairness, be loyal, be respectful, or live a life that shows care and empathy for themselves, others, and the environment.
Aristotle teaches us that character derives from what we do when we aren't deciding what we should do: the innate response we have in a given situation. We do it when we've made our plans, and now they don't work. We make choices from moment to moment when we don't have time to think about the second- or third-order consequences. When we can't treat life like a chess game, it's what we do based on our gut feel.
In Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell explores how experts can make the right decisions without overthinking everything. This ability comes from deep experience that has shaped the expert's subconscious mind. Our minds like to find patterns, so when we see a problem that matches problems we've solved before, we can quickly come to a solution that might work.
In the Christian gospels, we have the story of Jesus telling his followers of a judgment day in which he would examine everyone and divide them into a group of good and a group of evil.
He would say to some that he accepted them because of the things they did without thinking. He was thirsty, and they gave him water. He was naked, and they clothed him. But, of course, they wouldn't remember any of that because they had done it without thinking, without a conscious decision.
Jesus would tell others that he rejected them because they had not clothed him or given him water. They would reply that they always had. But they remembered the times they did because they had to make an effort. There was never a time that they did without thinking.
In this story, a person is a good Christian because they do good without thinking. They do it because of who they are and not how they want others to see them. Our moral character is shown by what we do when we're not looking and when no one else is looking. It's what we do in "secret," even in public.
If we want to become an expert in empathy and show empathy without thinking, we must practice it until we become experts. It's not about supporting popular charities. There are plenty of people doing that, so we don't need to worry about them. It's not about calling attention to yourself or following everyone else. It's about understanding the need that might not be filled and finding ways to make a difference, even if it's a slight difference.
Doing something for someone we might not like will make us more likely to like them. Doing something for someone who doesn't look like how we imagine ourselves will help us our sense of self to include them. When we do something for someone, our brain figures that there must be some redeeming quality, or we wouldn't have done that. So we slowly move from not liking someone to liking them. We move from seeing them as "other" to seeing them as one of us.
When deciding what to do, consider how it helps you care about people or practice fairness, be loyal, respectful, or show care and empathy for ourselves, others, and the environment. If it's unfair, disloyal, disrespectful, or uncaring, don't do it.
Doing something good on purpose day after day is the first step on the road to gaining empathy for people who aren't like us. It's the first step towards having an empathetic character and empathetic morality. So don't worry about sometimes having to think about what to do. That's part of learning. As long as we can look back and see growth in ourselves, we are on the right path. And as we gain experience over the days and years, we will naturally be more empathetic without thinking about it.