Moral* principles do more harm than good. We apply them self-servingly and selectively. They operate at the wrong level of abstraction, distracting us from the right level. I’m deeply committed to morality but I’ve never met a moral principle I could trust.

I can illustrate this best by example. Consider these two moral principles:

Don’t cling.

Show commitment.

What’s the difference between clinging and commitment? From what I can tell, they are indistinguishable except that clinging is bad and should never occur and commitment is good and should always occur.

Clinging and commitment both describe a preference for keeping something (a law, a policy, a belief, a system, a relationship, a habit etc.) the same rather than changing it. So far I’ve never found any way to objectively distinguish between an act of clinging and an act of commitment. I’m open to the possibility that I’m missing something so please challenge me: We’d need some litmus test by which observing a preference for keeping something the same, one could reliably sort out the bad (clinging) from the good (commitment).

A Buddhist friend suggested that the difference is that clinging is desperate and commitment isn’t. This proposed litmus test pivots on the intensity (desperateness) of desire for something to stay the same, where the more intense, the more clingy, and the more bad, and the less intense, the less clingy, and the more good.

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup

The way to kick the tires on a litmus test is by looking for counter-examples. If they come readily it can’t be a reliable litmus test. Think of the parents who desperately want to save their child from a tyrannical government’s death squad. The parents’ desperation feels neither clingy nor bad. The powerful tyrants on the other hand, could intend to kill the child while experiencing a state of calm resolve, no desperation, but not a virtuous “commitment” to the assassination either. The desperation litmus test for distinguishing clinging from commitment doesn’t hold up.

The distinctions we draw between clinging and commitment are based on subjective assessments. When we believe that keeping something is bad or will turn out bad, we call it clinging (or any of a number of other pejorative terms—attachment, stubbornness, pigheadedness, etc.) and when we believe that keeping something is good or will turn out good, we call it commitment (or any of a number of other terms with positive connotations—sticking to principle, steadfastness, tradition, etc.).

Though in practice, clinging and staying committed amount to the same thing, their connotations are absolute opposites. Since clinging is supposedly always bad and showing commitment is supposedly always good, together they amount to the self-contradictory statement that you should never and always keep things the same.

You’ve been in a partnership a long time but lately it’s not feeling good anymore. You wonder whether you should stay in the partnership. One friend says, “Leave. Trying to make it work is just clinging to the past.” Another friend says, “Stay. Just demonstrate commitment.”

Both friends imply that they’re reading the situation objectively in a way that dictates a morally principled response. The word “just,” as in “just clinging” or “just demonstrate commitment.” is a powerful word. It means, “ignore all other possibilities.” “Just” implies that the decision is a no-brainer, a decision as easy to make as “should I call this spade a spade?”

When I want you to let go of something I can say “don’t cling.” When I want you to hold onto to something, I can say, “stay committed.” I can convincingly cloak my subjective opinion in the garb of objectivity. I can give my confidence levels (my assessment of the probability that I’m right about something) a high dose of steroids.

I have yet to meet anyone who isn’t swayed at least a little by the morality implied in words like clinging and commitment. And I have yet to meet anyone who can tell me how to distinguish them other than that we hate clinging and love commitment. As a moral principle “don’t cling but do demonstrate commitment” is hollow, yet influential nonsense.

It’s also nonsense because as things change around us, it is impossible to have a pure policy of never clinging or always staying committed. Our options each entail a combination of changing some things a keeping other things the same. Change and constancy are reflexive, like triceps and biceps–to exercise one; we necessarily contract the other.

Think of how this works in warm-bloodedness (or any equilibrium seeking system). An animal’s metabolic rate changes to maintain a constant temperature in the face of changing ambient temperatures. It’s either change metabolism to keep body temperature constant or keep metabolism the same resulting in changing body temperature. Are either of those options purely pro-change or anti-change?

We only ever wonder whether to stay committed when our commitments begin to yield different consequences. We wonder whether to stay in a relationship because the relationship is leaving us less satisfied than it used to. We wonder whether to keep burning coal because it is now causing climate change.

If, for example, in relationship, you notice that “the thrill is gone,” then keeping the relationship the same necessarily means changing your thrill level. If instead, you decide to change the relationship, it is because you are committed to maintaining thrill levels even if by other means.

If as a conservative you argue from the moral principle of commitment to tradition that we should continue burning coal, by necessity you are also arguing in favor of a break from traditional weather. If you’ve ever wondered why political conservatives and environmental conservation have such divergent goals, this explains it. Conservatives want to keep certain things the same and allow changes in others, environmental conservationists want to keep and allow changes in different things.

The principle of conservatism is therefore nonsense. Saying “I hold to the moral principle of keeping everything the same” is like saying, “When it comes to breathing, I’m for the moral principle of always exhaling.” In a changing world you can’t any more keep everything the same than in the act of breathing you can always exhale.”

And the same goes for progressivism. The moral principle that change (transformation, evolution, etc.) is good and that keeping things the same (clinging, attachment, etc.) is bad is nonsense for the same reason. It’s like saying “When it comes to breathing, I’m for the moral principle of always inhaling.”

The moral virtue of commitment or change is, in practice just a rationale selectively applied after the fact. If I’m a conservative, I first decide what I want and then rationalize my decision by focusing on the things I prefer to keep the same and call it a “commitment to tradition” and ignoring all the things I’m changing in the process. If I’m a progressive I decide what I want and then rationalize my preference by focusing on what I want changed and call it “not clinging to the past,” while ignoring all the things I hold constant in the process. Applying these moral principles is at best stupid, and at worst disingenuous.

These moral principles to keep things the same or change them are red herrings, irrelevancies, impotencies masquerading as potent guides and distracting us from the real questions. They’re as bad as the such moral principles as “always give…,” or “never allow…” Give what? Allow what? Change what? Keep what the same? Those are the real questions.

I said this was an example that illustrates the larger point that moral principles do more harm than good. I’ll expand beyond the example in another article. This is an important example though. The question of what to change and what to keep the same is about as fundamental as it gets. Life adapts to an environment in which the past is usually, but not always the best guide to the future, in which, contrary to the saying that “the only constant is change,” the only real constant is an incompletely predictable mix of constancy and change. The serenity prayer captures it: what can change and what to try to change and what to let change.

Implicitly, the serenity prayer also covers the question about the reflexivity of change. If you wish I’d stop doing something you find annoyingly substandard, you have a choice between changing your standard to accept me, and holding your standard in order to change me. The serenity to accept something, by necessity entails the courage to change your standards or attitude about trying to change it, and conversely the courage to change something by necessity entails the serenity to accept your standard about it.

My sense is that there’s no more fundamental question than what to try to or allow to change. Which battles to pick? Where should one assert one’s efforts? What to resist and what to allow? When to be yang and when to be yin? When to have faith in a policy and when to reason and wonder, receptive to changing the policy? When to grieve and let go and when to deny and hold on? Indeed about our lives themselves, the unyielding tension between cultivating care now and letting go at death–no, there isn’t some simple moral principle to which this tension yields.

* Morality is such a highfaluting word that we tend to think of it as applying to the rarefied realms of virtue, but really it applies to the fundamental question we all deal with every choice we make: What should I do?” It applies not just to how to make the world a better place but how to expend and deploy your energy to have a good life.