Last week I launched but didn’t complete an attack on moral principles, arguing that they tend to make us dumber, not smarter. I focused on words I’ve called “synantonyms” elsewhere. Synantonyms are two words that describe the same behavior, but prescribe opposite responses to the behavior. I used “clingy” and “committed” as examples. They both describe perseverance, and yet clingy makes it sound bad and committed makes it sound good. Descriptively they’re synonyms; prescriptively they’re antonyms. That’s why a call them synantonyms. Here are some other synantonyms:
Judgmental (bad) and discernment (good)
Spineless (bad) vs. flexible (good)
Pigheaded (bad) vs steadfast (good)
Co-dependent (bad) vs. supportive (good)
Addicted (bad) vs. dedicated (good)
In denial (bad) vs. Hopeful (good)
Pessimistic (bad) vs. optimistic (good)
Unrealistic (bad) vs. Ambitious (good)
Greedy (bad) vs. Saving for a rainy day (good)
Uncaring (bad) vs. Focusing elsewhere (good)
Such terms are treated as the meat of morality. I’m arguing that they mask ambiguities at the heart of the human moral dilemma. Our greatest moral challenge is just what you would expect from a creature like us with strong emotions but modest powers to reason about a complex world: When our emotions get strong, we find whatever reasons we need in order to make virtues out of our preferences.
We turn, “I don’t like it” into “It’s morally wrong.” We turn “I want it” into “Morality demands that I should have it.” We rationalize too easily for our own long-term good. We pray, “God, grant me one good reason why I’m right,” and He generally grants it.
Think about the people you find difficult. Chances are you don’t trust the reasons they give you for what they advocate. You think they rationalize and make up self-serving excuses and reasons, claiming they are being rational when they’re being impulsive.
I think this tendency to rationalize is the most serious challenge facing us today. Now that human power has such far-reaching consequences, our margin of error is rapidly shrinking. Even unfettered, reason and science would have a hard time saving us from the trouble we’re in. We really need to find ways to constrain our natural tendency to bend reason and our interpretation of reality to our personal preferences. The harder things get the more emotional we’ll get and the more inclined we’ll be to bend reason. People don’t tend to get more rational in crises, but less.
Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup
Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup
I think about the climate crisis and the lengths people are willing to go to ignore evidence. Environmentalist Rob Watson says, “Mother Nature is just chemistry, biology and physics. That’s all she is. You cannot sweet-talk her. You cannot spin her. You cannot tell her that the oil companies say climate change is a hoax.” The good news is that almost everyone who denies the climate crisis at this late stage is going to get their comeuppance within their lifetimes. The bad news is how.
In the hands of rationalizing beings like us, synantonyms—these morally heavy-handed, yet ill-defined words–are dangerous. Synantonyms smuggle a subjective prescription into a supposedly objective description.
180-degree finger pointing: Where I have been hypocritical
Let’s turn the tables 180 degrees here and scrutinize my arguments for a change. Isn’t it hypocritical of me to argue for a moral principle that moral principles are bad? In last week’s article I said, “I never met a moral principle I could trust,” in effect “moral principles are bad.” And yet how would I describe my argument if not as a moral principle? Didn’t I trust it?
I could say, “Ah, but mine was not a moral principle (since they are bad). I was simply offering a guideline or a suggestion (which are good).”
Wouldn’t that be doing exactly what I’m claiming is wrong?
Do you see the loaded language throughout this article? Here are some pejorative terms I’ve used so far:
Swinging an uncontrolled, hard, but invisible bat
I said, “smuggle prescription into description.” I could have said “introduced” or “imported” but instead I used a rhetorical term that connotes doing something sneaky. With the use of the word “smuggle” I smuggled an accusation of sneakiness into this piece.
This article is too long for much more. I will continue this theme in other pieces. Before ending, I want to apologize for my hypocrisy, refine my argument, and hint at future topics.
First my apology:
I take it back about moral principles. I’m wrong. I obviously trust some moral principles since I’m espousing some. One writer wrote to say that while generalizations are dangerous, we obviously can’t simply go case by case. Amen to that. What I really object to is generalized principles at the wrong scale of analysis. Synantonyms tend to be sweeping generalizations. I’ll have to say more about that in the next article.
I believe in bad and good and honest debate over what is which. Honesty would include not pretending an opinion is a fact. Ideally, when making an argument we would disclose that our opinions are just opinions. We would say “I believe” before every assertion and we would steer clear of those words like “smuggle” that smuggle in the impression that we’re objectively describing when we’re really subjectively opining.
Ideally, we would cut to the chase, bypass these loaded words that let us hide at arms length from the real questions about whether a choice will turn out good or bad.
But even here, I’ve blatantly failed to live up to this ideal. I’ve deployed loaded words as though I was describing things objectively. Synantonyms aren’t likely to go away. The safe bet therefore is to cultivate a “buyer beware” approach to hearing them: Every time you hear a loaded word you should hear its synantonym opposite. When they criticize you for being clingy, also hear “showing commitment.” When they say you’re being “judgmental” also hear “discerning.” And the other way around too—when they compliment you for showing “commitment” hear also “clingy,” and when they compliment your for being discerning also hear “judgmental.” Deliberately confuse the issue in your mind.
That might sound like a complex way to interpret everyday communications, and yes, I am exaggerating a bit. But if one gets in this habit one can pass what F. Scott Fitzgerald holds as “The test of a first-rate intelligence.” He said it’s “the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”
Of course, when Fitzgerald says “first-rate intelligence” (good) I’m also hearing “squirrel-minded complixifier” (bad).