In a world of crooks, it's necessary to retain scepticism towards those who think they can make things straight.

Is it possible to be too moral? When stated bluntly, the idea appears contradictory. The idea that “no one desires the bad” goes back at least to Plato. Given morality is usually understood to be about “goodness” or “rightness”, surely it is incoherent or at least confused to disapprove of it? However, this is precisely what is implicitly conveyed by many common pejoratives. Think of ‘virtue signalling’, ‘do-gooder’, ‘judgemental’, ‘moralising’, ‘goody two shoes’, ‘social justice warrior’, ‘puritan’, or ‘martyr’.

Admittedly, such insults are often used to express disagreement about what is moral and how to achieve it. The virtue signaller is condemned for being more concerned with being seen to care than actually accomplishing anything. The puritan is repugnant to those who do not believe that enforced asceticism is ethical. Opponents of ‘SJWs’ either reject the idea of social justice or else are concerned that excess zeal does more harm than good to the cause.

Still, there seems to something more to some of these terms. This is a, perhaps unintended, implication of a recent blog post by philosopher Michael Huemer defending vegans from the charge of being ‘preachy’. Huemer points out that it would be bizarre for vegans to not actively promote veganism, given that they view eating meat as (extremely) morally wrong. If your complaint is with the proselytising part (rather than the ‘eating meat is wrong’ part), Huemer suggests that it is because you are “failing to take morality at all seriously” and are not differentiating between personal preference and principled behaviour.

This may not be the best example. Disdain for “moralising” can stem from suspicions of self-righteousness. Or arrogance. It is not necessarily unreasonable to be cautious of those who claim to have special access to moral knowledge. Even if you are generally committed to promoting moral ends, you may want to take any specific moral position (even highly plausible ones) with a pinch of salt and you could take some issue with those making (loud) universal prescriptions. As an aside, it is worth noting that even the sorts of people who are widely held up as paragons of virtue are in fact flawed (Gandhi) or outright repugnant (Mother Teresa).

Nevertheless, it could also be correct that (many) people are indeed often simply unmotivated by the idea that something is “right” or “wrong”. Hence, moralising can very easily become and/or be perceived as hectoring. Going further, disparaging someone as a “do-gooder” may not always imply an accusation of hypocrisy or vapidity. It could also be a sincere rejection of their example. You may simply consider the degree of self-sacrifice or ethical commitment they employ to be unattractive.

Is this reasonable? The idea that ‘no one desires the bad’ probably fails to take us very far. ‘Good’ could be a subjective or relative concept. Indeed, it can be argued that all moral claims are simply false and that people simply have (sometimes competing, sometimes common) interests and preferences. If so, “right” and “wrong” could be seen as baseless standards that people with conflicting interests could reject. Therefore, a “do-gooder” could simply be dismissed as either deluded or else trying to dress up their “ordinary” preferences as having special status.

Nevertheless, it seems plausible that (most) people do not (and would not want to) at least act as if they were utterly unconcerned about ethics. In addition to desiring laws and political institutions to adjudicate conflicts and maintain order, very few people are devoid of (perhaps unprincipled and limited) concern for others or an interest in upholding norms. In general (and, maybe, cross-culturally) people approve of traits such as generosity or bravery and condemn behaviour such as brutality or cheating.

Equally, this does leave room for scepticism about absolute or demanding moral obligations.  In particular, it is not unreasonable (or unethical) to refuse to allow moral concerns to trump other things that “matter” for individuals living their own lives. In fact, there may be something “off” about people who do disregard their own personal projects or their special relationships (say, with their children) in favour of abstract ideals.

As argued by philosopher Susan Wolf, such “moral saints” can be over-focused on an overly narrow conception of what it means to live well, not to mention what it means to be good company. Excess concern with higher ideals or the purely altruistic can leave you deficient in non-moral virtues, such as having a sense of humour or artistic ability. It can also leave you (disturbingly) incapable of genuinely investing in being a good friend or parent (imagine the sort of person who gives to charity at the expense of buying gifts for their children). It’s not a wild leap to say this is not a vision of life that it is desirable to emulate.

It may not just be reasonable but actually desirable that do-gooders can be (somewhat) checked by disparagement. This is not to say that ethical behaviour should never be rewarded or that it is somehow a bad thing that particularly altruistic or idealistic people exist. It is just that there is nothing surprising or perverse about socially sanctioning people for being monomaniacal, demanding, or po-faced. Indeed, even if they are actually “in the right” and are genuinely motivated, it is not contradictory to maintain a measure of sighing disdain for the over-active do-gooder. 

This is, of course, enhanced by the fact that moralists (and especially moralisers) are very often not in the right. This may be even truer of genuine zealots than of hypocrites and bandwagon riders. At the extreme end of the scale, people absolutely convinced they were in the right have committed a litany of atrocities throughout history. It may seem easy to dismiss such cases as irrelevant to the discussion of plausible or reasonable ethical views. This understates the degree to which the burning, unchecked desire to do the right thing is at the heart of the most dangerous ideologies. Mao’s Red Guards and the 9/11 hijackers were nothing if not intensely assured of the righteousness of their cause.

Obviously there is a huge gulf between the somewhat obnoxious and the outright monstrous. Nevertheless, both are examples of how, counter-intuitive as it might seem, you can have too much of people trying to do a good thing. In a world of crooked timbers, it may be necessary to retain some scepticism towards those who think they can make things straight.

Illustration by Greg Kletsel