The Exhausting Complexity of Everyday Moral Choices

everyday moral choices

In everyday situations, we are faced with moral conundrums: Is this action better than another one? Should I refrain from acting, and does that refrain make me morally implicated in the outcome? Will this action improve, alleviate, worsen, or cause suffering to others or other sentient beings? What is the appropriate or proportionate way to feel about my behaviour? 

Everyday moral choices can sometimes turn from being introspectively interesting to exhausting and frustrating in their complexity. Even if you feel assured of a particular moral theory – some type of utilitarianism, deontology, virtue ethics, or contractarianism – trying to apply this neat and tidy theory to daily situations can be tricky; seemingly impossible, even. This is because daily life is not neat and tidy. 

We are never aware of the complete web of people and sentient beings over which our actions have influence or what all the repercussions of our actions will be. As the Argentinian philosopher Julio Cabrera writes:

we live a life of permanent risk of harming and manipulating others in at least one of the many scenarios (family, work, clubs, travels, traffic, meetings) where we act, and it is very difficult to be morally correct with everyone in all circumstances; we live in a very complex network of actions in which we cannot foresee all the consequences of our actions, which can be more serious than we expected. 

Even when we just consider our immediate and palpable sphere of influence, it is still difficult to know if making one decision over another is best; in other words, if it is consonant with our pre-conceived moral beliefs. Moreover, our cherished ethical theories may come in conflict with our intuitions, which we may also believe – and naturally feel more strongly – to point us the way to what is right. Indeed, academic moral arguments have been criticised for ignoring the complexity and texture of our ordinary lives. A novel could even be more instructive in this respect than an academic treatise.

Everyday moral choices entail minutiae, particularities, and uncertainties that can make them trickier and more knotty than many of the major issues explored in applied ethics. Also, as Joshua Halberstam – the author of Everyday Ethics: Inspired Solutions to Moral Dilemmaspoints out, “Unlike moral issues that dominate our dinner conversations—legalizing abortion, preemptive war, raising the minimum wage—about which we do little more than pontificate, the problems of everyday ethics call for our own resolutions.” This is why some ethicists adopt a bottom-up perspective of ethical decision-making, whereby so-called ‘mundane’, ordinary human interactions become the heart of moral philosophy, rather than moral theories and issues that don’t reach down to our routine lives.

Halberstam adds that “in dealing with so many of our everyday moral challenges, it is difficult to see just how one would implement the principles of a moral theory.” We just don’t have time to carry out a complex utilitarian calculus or work out the details of how a categorical imperative applies to a given situation. None of this means, of course, that what we end up deciding has no moral significance.

Morally relevant daily decisions include:

  • Telling white lies
  • Refusing requests to do favours
  • Walking past homeless people
  • Trying to figure out what it means to be a ‘good’ friend and what our obligations to friends are
  • Apportioning our time to different family members or to friends over family members and vice versa
  • Trying to balance time for ourselves versus time dedicated to others
  • Deciding when and who to help (should strangers in dire situations warrant more focus than loved ones in less dire but still difficult situations?)
  • What we choose to say and working out if this positively or negatively affects others (when is gossiping, for example, positive, neutral, or negative?)

Whether we like it or not, ethics gets played out, all the time, at school, at work, at the supermarket, over the dinner table, when dating, and in romantic relationships.

I was thinking more about the taxing and convoluted nature of daily moral choices when considering the issue of flying for leisure. This is something that is a part of a normal lifestyle, as is the kind of travelling it allows: going to far-flung destinations that can enrich our lives, memories, perspectives, and attitudes. But then, in light of climate change, do the significant carbon emissions from flying justify the fact that this mode of transport makes these travel experiences convenient and affordable? 

There is no easy answer. On the one hand, air travel makes up a tiny fraction of overall carbon emissions (it is fossil fuel companies that are the most significant contributors, which arguably then deserve the most attention). Yet, on the other hand, taking one long-haul flight can use up an individual’s annual carbon allowance in one go, and even exceed it. Lifestyle decisions like how we travel are just one example of myriad everyday decisions that can make you want to land on a position and stick with it just so you don’t have to burden yourself with figuring out if the arguments for the position truly outweigh the arguments against it. 

Not too long ago, I read John Koenig’s book The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, which takes its name from the website and YouTube channel Koenig set up for defining his neologisms. Koenig’s dictionary compiles these new words for obscure emotions – extremely specific feelings that are commonplace but which we have not yet seen articulated. In thinking about how mentally taxing everyday moral choices can become (if you let this happen), I was reminded of one entry from Koenig’s dictionary: the noun achenia, defined as:

the maddening sense that the world is too complex to even begin to understand, that whenever you try to answer even the most trivial question, it quickly tangles into a thicket of complications and melts into a quicksand of nuance, leaving you flailing for something solid to hold on to, struggling to come up with anything you could say that is definitively 100 percent true. 

He adds that the word is:

From achene, the fruit that contains the seed of a flowering plant, which is often confused for the seed itself. Whenever you think you’ve arrived at the heart of something, it only ends up hidden away inside some other more complicated structure. Pronounced “uh-kee-nee-uh.”

In light of this discussion, I would like to suggest a modification or variation of achenia, which I’ll call ethicenia, which is the maddening sense that our moral lives, like the world, are exhaustingly complex, causing us to struggle to come up with any decision that we can say is definitively 100 percent right or wrong. But maybe there’s nothing wrong with that. As Halberstam states:

Other philosophers are uneasy with the moral ideal posited in mainstream theories; not only is the theoretical idea of moral perfection unattainable, it’s not even desirable. After all, who wants to hang out and grab a beer with a moral saint? Indeed, who wants to be the kind of person who never hangs out and has a beer because of more pressing moral tasks?

It is unlikely that any decision is purely morally right; the German philosopher Julius Bahnsen actually makes this kind of argument, albeit pessimistically, when he says that the world is inevitably tragic because “the individual has to choose between conflicting duties or incommensurable values” and that “he or she obeys one duty or honours one value at the expense of another.” 

When confronted with everyday moral dilemmas, Halberstam recommends we keep three motivations in mind: (1) being clear about which values are at play, especially being clear about whether we are acting morally or selfishly; (2) being intellectually honest: this means knowing when we are trying to rationalise away unvirtuous behaviour and seeking to avoid such rationalisations; and (3) giving people slack who we disagree with, especially since everyday ethical dilemmas don’t allow the luxury of lengthy, careful analysis.

If we cannot rely on moral theories or our biological dispositions to tell us what is the best ethical judgement in everyday situations, how then should we morally navigate them? According to Halberstam, “we have to confront the integrity of our character, our honed intuitions, our developed sense of fairness and honesty.” All of these approaches, however, will also end in a thicket of complications (what do integrity, intuition, and fairness really mean?). But at the very least, beginning with the mindset of caring – and being thoughtful – about everyday ethics, seeking to apply ethical judgements in our daily lives and reflecting on these scenarios, is necessary for any moral improvements to take place.

At the same time, there is a risk of becoming ruminative with respect to everyday ethics: constantly thinking about, questioning, and doubting the morality of one’s decisions can become a source of stress, anxiety, shame, guilt, and self-recrimination, as well as indecisiveness and inaction (you could spend hours going back and forth about whether it’s ultimately right or wrong to take one action over another). As I outlined in an essay on the links between philosophy and poor mental health, some people experience moral scrupulosity: the unhealthy obsession with ethics, with negative effects on one’s mental well-being and relationships. 

If anything, the exhausting complexity of everyday moral choices should make us go easier on ourselves. We may want to believe that it should be easy to navigate the morality of ordinary interactions, but doing so is actually so unclear and multifaceted that it is understandable to constantly make mistakes that, upon later reflection, we wish we had avoided. Morality is not, cannot be, and should not be about perfection. It is, instead, a process – a lifetime project – that no one ever completes but which nevertheless can entail progress that enhances the meaning of our lives.

Leave a Reply