People worry that moral arguments are losing power in modern society. They might be, but at least as worrisome is our increased reliance or moral arguments to get what we want. Moral fixation-the mesmerizing effect of an argument from high moral ground is one of our greatest and most dangerous vulnerabilities.

The most effective method for getting our way is to imply that our preferences are officially endorsed by an overwhelming moral imperative. Listen to everyday rhetoric and you’ll notice how rich it is in subtle translations of ‘please’ into ‘you ought;’ ‘ouch’ into ‘how could you?’

‘I deserve it.’ ‘It’s only fair.’ ‘You really should.’ ‘It’s not right that I should be without.’

Preference backed by moral authority is so much more powerful than ‘I want,’ ‘May I have?, or ‘I would like. . .’ When those don’t work, morality is the lever of choice, whether justified or not.

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup


Our interest in morals is therefore twofold. First, we really do care about the difference between right and wrong, and there are real moral issues. Second, since moral suasion is so effective, many of us can’t help but reach for it whenever we want to strengthen our hand in a negotiation. The second reason follows from the first. The rhetoric of specious morality works precisely because we care about right and wrong.

If specious moral suasion is such a popular weapon, we would do well to wonder how it spread, who has got it, and how it can be regulated.

The weapon or moral suasion used to be in the hands of the few. It spread through deregulation actually. Our culture has broken with a lot of traditional moral imperatives and the authorities that issued them. That leaves us with fewer decisive rules and rule- makers. Moralists fear a loss of morality but that’s not what we’re getting. We’re getting a diffusion and proliferation. Now anyone can be a moralist. Everyone is potentially armed with powerful moral arguments customized to justify their preferences. We live in a moral Dodge City. We suffer a moral suasion inflation. Morality is relied upon to settle disputes where it has no business.

We treat morality as black and white. ‘Kind of moral’ sounds as odd as kind of pregnant. We don’t have a word for un-moral matters—matters that simply can’t be parsed morally. We should. Some deeds are just immoral, and some are decidedly moral. Most, however are somewhere in between.

All deeds have multiple causes and effects. We never do anything with just one motive and nothing we do has just one consequence. The motives and effects aren’t all premeditated, known or even knowable and therefore they’re impossible to array on a continuum from immoral to moral. Even if we could array them, it would be hard to weigh them in order to figure out their aggregate effect on moral questions-of which, of course there’s not just one but many.

Moral relativity is a greater engineering problem than we care to notice. It’s not just that different cultures have different standards. It’s that every deed is a swill of consequences whose relative moral weights are impossible to calculate.

For those of us living in relative comfort and safety, what we want is easier to calculate than what is our moral right. But since wanting something doesn’t guarantee getting it, we pretend that what we deserve is the more decisive and determinate signal.

How can we tell who should be allowed to wield moral guns? First, there are the people who have a relative right to make a moral claim. Our society has set for itself appropriately high moral standards. True, they could be higher if we were more ambitious or lower if we were more realistic. Our standards are higher than some societies and lower than others. They need work, of course. Always. But they’re ours. People whose rights are violated to a greater or lesser extent are justified to a greater or lesser extent in making moral claims. If there weren’t real moral issues we wouldn’t be having this problem with pretend ones.

Who wields the pretend ones? There are two key dimensions to this question-how readily we reach for the guns, and how vulnerable we are to their power. Some people are hair-trigger, reaching for the big guns of morality anytime they want something. Some people are much slower on the draw.

And some of us are easier targets than others. With some people, the slightest hint that they could be violating a moral imperative throws them into doubt and distraction. One minute they’re negotiating preferences, the next they’re defending themselves in moral high court. And best of all, for the moral gun-slingers, they don’t know what hit them. Others are nearly invulnerable. They never question their morality even when they should.

There are people who are both hair-trigger and vulnerable. They hold no double standard on the currency of morality. To their credit (and perhaps their ruin) they take it in as easily as they dish it out. Indeed if one can be cast into doubt easily, one might compensate by becoming a moral gun-slinger. A partnership between two people who are both hair- trigger and vulnerable often degenerates into an incessant and tedious moral debate—never a clean negotiation between two people who have put their equally honorable preferences on the table, but rather a reciprocal litany of ‘you shoulds.’

Some people are vulnerable but not hair-trigger. They’re the easy marks.

And some people are hair-trigger but invulnerable. Beware of people who can’t be caused to doubt their own morality but wield the moral cudgel with easy grace. If you’re decent enough to consider your own morality, they’ll have their way with you.

How can the weapon of moral suasion be regulated so it remains in the hands of those who need it but is kept out of the hands of those who don’t? There are ways. Awareness of moral dynamics is helpful. Another is compensating for our lapses into moral excess by focusing on preferences. If a relationship feels like an endless game of moral high ground king of the hill, try banning the moral bomb. Restrict conversation to ‘strictly-business’ negotiation over preferences in which every preference from need to want to fancy is treated as justified, and the only question is how to make everyone as happy as possible.

There was an attempt at moral-gun control back in the seventies called the ‘I message.’ The argument went that whenever you’re airing a grievance or opinion it’s best to do it in first-person singular. Don’t say, ‘You are being unkind,’ say ‘I feel hurt.’ The ‘I message’ concept doesn’t go far enough to close the loopholes. It’s easy to smuggle morality into first- person declarations of preference.

I feel unfairly treated. I feel worried about whether you’re a good person. I feel oppressed. I feel bullied.

A more effective but challenging rule to live by is a ban on morality. First, look around, see if you and the people you are negotiating with are among the society’s most oppressed. If not, hold yourself and your loved ones to a standard of negotiating by preference alone. Use ‘I messages”; use ‘You messages.” Whatever. But stick to wants. They’re cleaner.