Back to Prindle Institute

The Desire for Moral Impotence

photograph of hands tied behind man's back

Richard Gibson and Nicholas Kreuder recently wrote about humans’ morally troublesome desire for control. The prospect of control is, Gibson notes, “intrinsically appealing” to humans, an “incredible common desire,” concurs Kreuder. Both writers also agree we should be wary of this desire for control. Gibson argues that this desire negatively influences our relationship with nature, while Kreuder argues that it “may leave our interactions with others feeling impoverished and hollow.” I largely agree, but I think there is another equally universal and deep-seated desire that also deserves some consideration — the desire to lack control.

An oft-repeated saying in philosophical ethics is “‘ought’ implies ‘can’.” In other words, if you can’t do something, then there’s no question of whether you ought to do it. Our moral responsibilities only extend as far as our abilities.

Because of this important link between what we ought to do and what we can do, being reminded that something is under our control often also serves as a reminder that it is also our responsibility.

The discovery that one has control is often not as joyous and anxiety-relieving an experience as you might expect given the universal human desire for control Gibson and Kreuder describe. In fact, anger, resentment, and bitterness are all common reactions to being reminded that we are in control of something. We often don’t want control. We yearn for it to be nothing to do with us — someone else’s problem.

Many of our responsibilities are, of course, distinctly moral ones. The world is an imperfect place, and we all have the capacity to make it better to some degree. In fact, many of us have the power to make it significantly better. In other words, most of us actually have a morally significant level of control over how the future unfolds.

Let’s take an example. It costs significantly more than most people think to save a life by donating to the most effective charities — about $2,300. But that’s still only about half as much as the average American spends at restaurants each year.

Ask yourself honestly; could you make a few lifestyle changes and afford the $2,300 needed to save a life? If so, how often? Once in your lifetime? Once a decade? Once a year? More?

How does this make you feel? Are you excited to learn or be reminded of your morally significant amount of control over the world? To discover that you (probably) have the radical power to give another human, a person just like you, the gift of life? Speaking for myself, far from feeling elated, I feel guilty and ashamed. My conscience would be clearer if highly cost-effective charities like this simply did not exist — if they did not grant me this ability to meaningfully reshape the world (at least for that one person and their family). Because having that ability means I have that moral responsibility. In my ordinary life, I act in bad faith. I think and act as though I don’t have the power to save lives with moderate charitable donations. For self-serving reasons, I think and act as though I lack control over the world that I actually possess.

In his discussion of Nathan Fielder’s The Rehearsal, Kreuder points out the attractiveness of having more control over our interactions with others. Imagine having more ability to decide how people will respond, being sure that you’re not going to say the “wrong thing.” He suggests this kind of control would provide relief for those “wrecked with anxiety and marred with feelings of powerlessness.” This is certainly a desire I can recognize.

But I can also see the inverse: the desire of having less control in our interactions with others, in many cases.

Imagine your younger sibling is going off the rails – drinking too much and partying too hard. Their grades are suffering. Your sibling doesn’t listen to your parents but they look up to you; you know they will listen in the end. So you know that you, and only you, can intervene and make them get back on track. You can sit them down and have the difficult conversation that neither of you want to have. In other words, you have a great degree of control over your sibling.

How would you feel about having this kind of interpersonal control? Far from relieving your anxiety, you might feel deeply burdened by it, and the significant responsibility that it entails. It would be understandable to wish that you weren’t in such a potent position, and that someone else was instead. You might even be tempted to deny to yourself that you have such control over your sibling to avoid having to deal with the moral burden.

Rather than the risks that accompany greater interpersonal control, Gibson is concerned primarily with the negative effect that our desire for (often illusory) control has on our relationship with nature. It influences how we approach debates about “designer babies, personalized medicine, cloning, synthetic biology” and his focus, “gene drives.”

Gibson contends that humans actually have much less control than we like to think. In a cosmic sense, I think he is right. But, at least as a collective, humanity is surely in firm control over much of nature, perhaps even too much. Unfortunately, we control the global climate via our CO2 emissions. We control global fish stocks via modern fishing practices. And now, as Gibson explains, we also control which species we want to continue living and which we want to drive to extinction via the emerging technology of gene drives.

With respect to nature, at least the biosphere of Earth, humanity surely has much more control than most of us would think is desirable.

Our catastrophic relationship to nature seems to me less a symptom of our desire to control nature, and more a symptom of our being in a blissful state of denial about just how much control we have.

To be clear, I think Gibson is right to warn against an excessively domineering attitude toward nature, and Kreuder is right to warn against having too much control over our interactions with others. But we should also be on guard against the equally human tendency to find narratives that absolve us of our burdensome responsibilities. If Gibson is right that, fundamentally, “we’re subject to, rather than the wielders of power,” if we can’t really exercise control over the world, then there’s no reason to ask ourselves the tough question — what should we do? Avoiding this question may feel good, but it would be morally disastrous.

Debunking the Marshmallow Myth: Rationality in Scarcity

photograph of several marshmallows, the largest in the center standing upright

On May 25th, researchers published findings that altered our understanding of a classic psychological study, the marshmallow test. In the famous test, young children are offered a marshmallow now, or two marshmallows later. Then, researchers follow up with the children, and supposedly those that delayed gratification for more marshmallows did better in terms of standardized tests and other measures of success. Continue reading “Debunking the Marshmallow Myth: Rationality in Scarcity”