Tuesday, July 26, 2016

That Feeling Of Moral Superiority


Here is one of my first world problems. Sometimes in the course of my day, I find myself at coffee places that have only paper cups. Using a paper cup seems wasteful and bad for the environment. I know I could address this by carrying a mug around. But frankly, I'm already carrying a lot of stuff around. With a laptop, gym clothes, sneakers, a water bottle, and the wallet-keys-phone stuff that guys put in their pockets already in my laptop, there isn't room for a coffee cup. Especially not one of those giant heavy ones everyone seems to favor nowadays.

A couple of weeks ago, I had an idea. At some of these places, they make espresso. I like espresso. Espresso cups are tiny! I bought an espresso cup -- a sharp little Apilco number. That's my cup in the photo at the top. I wasn't sure what the reaction would be to I-brought-my-own-espresso-cup, but so far it's been very positive. The staff at my main library Starbucks not only gave me the reusable-cup-discount, they even cooed over how "cute" my cup is.

Once I started being more conscientious about having my cup with me, I noticed that I started looking down on all those paper cup people. Oh -- you couldn't get it together to bring your cup, eh?! Well, well. So wasteful. Me, I have my cup. That is to say: I immediately started having a slight feeling of moral superiority.

In this case, the feeling was particularly absurd. I often forget my cup, or decide to have some other kind of drink. Even now, I'm often the dope with the paper cup. Other times, I forget my water bottle. Or I'm too lazy to go find a fountain, and there's someone selling bottled water right there, so I buy bottled water. Since I'm often out and about, I'm often using plastic cutlery. On the whole reusability thing, I'm ... trying. But I am uneven.

Amazingly, the unevenness of my success doesn't seem to really get in the way of the feeling of moral superiority. Just having my stupid cup with me on a given day, I can feel myself getting a bit smug about it -- even if I didn't have it just the day before.

When it comes to having a slight feeling of moral superiority about the little things I can sort of get it together to do in a day, I do not think I am alone. There's a lot of that mood out there. Especially on the internet, people kind of lord it over other people when they get it together to do something that other people aren't doing. Even if they're hit-and-miss about it, or even if they're falling down in other areas. It's a thing.


The feeling of moral superiority gets a really bad rap -- being associated with smugness, and elitism, and people thinking they're better than someone else -- but why can't it be a force for good? Doing good things is sometimes hard or annoying or time-consuming or whatever. People need help with motivation.

Somehow I feel like parts of our modern culture converged on this idea that good actions are only good when they're done in this completely disinterested way -- like, it only counts if you expect no gratitude or recognition, if you get nothing out of it, if it's a wholly "selfless" act. In philosophy you can find this in the theory of Immanuel Kant. In culture at large, I don't know where it came from, but maybe it has to do with the outsized lingering effects of Protestantism.

But this idea that you get "full moral points" only for acts of total selflessness holds no resonance for me personally. It conflicts with a lot of things I believe about how people are and about how we live together. I think we do good things because of the web of social interconnections we're in, because we care about what happens in that web of social interconnections, because we want to engage with other people in certain kinds of ways and feel a certain way about ourselves. The pleasure of goodness, and even the graceful reception of gratitude, are important things. 


In some areas of life, there aren't that many built in rewards for doing a good thing. Sure, if you're nice to someone they might perk up and be made happy -- nice! But if you're just carrying your stupid cup around all the time there's not a lot in the way of direct positive reinforcement. If a little feeling of moral superiority, a little bit of internal self-congratulatory "Hey you paper-cup losers, I did it! I've got my cup!" works for you, well -- why the hell not?

Let me emphasize, however, that this recommendation for internal positive reinforcement is just that -- a recommendation for internal positive reinforcement. It is not a hall-pass for going around being a judgmental asshole about everything.

That feeling of moral superiority? Sometimes a force for good, but best enjoyed inside your own head.

1 comment:

Emer Farquharson said...

So in summary, the smugness or moral superiority feeling you get when doing something good for the environment/world is justifiable insofar as it helps you keep on doing that good, as long as you don't let it deter others from doing it as well. (?)