Virtues: The How, not the What

Best Practices

Moral self-criticism doesn’t need to be deeply painful, not if you interpret virtues as telling you how to be happy, not what kind of person you are.


I’m not saying moral self-criticism is going to be pleasant.

If someone gets pleasure from seeing himself acting dishonestly or hypocritically, he has a serious psychological problem that could only have been created from a history of immorality. Such a person is bad and you should avoid any dealings with him.

But that’s not the people who read my articles! A moral person is always going to feel some guilt and concern if the thought goes through his head, “I’m not being honest” or “I’m not doing what I should be doing.” It will be unpleasant, at least.

What I’m saying is that it doesn’t have to be deeply painful. It is not a whip to punish yourself for misdeeds. It is not a call for self-flagellation. It is an obsession over the moral failings that causes the deep pain. It is the conclusion that you are immoral based on a particular incident; that if you notice yourself being hypocritical, you are a hypocrite; that if you notice yourself sliding off the truth, you are not an honest person.

This is the error of judging character rather than action.

My husband, Harry Binswanger, likes to tell an anecdote that clarifies the distinction. He was visiting Ayn Rand at her apartment one day, and her cat started scratching the furniture. Harry said, “Bad cat.” Ayn Rand corrected him: “No, a good cat who took a bad action.”

It’s important to make this distinction when judging others, but it is even more crucial to make this distinction when judging yourself. You know you are a good cat. This should make you curious about why you’ve taken or are tempted to take a bad action.

Moral self-criticism as a call to raise the level of your thinking

Most people are not curious about self-critical thoughts. They interpret moral self-criticism as a direct call to action. If they thought, “What I just did is unjust,” they would believe morality would say, “Go fix that!” Or, “I’m being unproductive” would mean “Get your act together and start working!” After all, to slightly paraphrase Ayn Rand, “virtue” is the action by which one gains and keeps one’s values. Morality is supposed to guide your actions. It is to ensure you do the right thing, not the wrong thing.

Sometimes you don’t have time to be curious. If you are in an emergency, this is the right way to look at it. But the advice is expressed with a rules-based approach to morality rather than a principled approach. Most situations are not emergencies. Most questions are not either-or. There are multiple moral ways forward. But if you interpret moral principles as concrete injunctions to act in a particular way, you never look for and discover the best of the moral alternatives open to you. You never actually figure out what is in your rational self-interest.

It’s much better to get a little curious about what’s going on. The truth is that if you (a moral person) are criticizing yourself morally, you are in inner conflict, which means you are somewhat mentally overloaded and at least a bit confused about what action is in your rational self-interest. Moreover, this is a dysfunctional state. In this state, you literally cannot judge accurately what action is in your rational self-interest.

In these moments, what you need to do is to take the mental reins and raise the level of your awareness by looking at the situation a little more abstractly. Realize that the self-criticism that is occurring to you may or may not be true. Realize that the options you see may or may not be the only options. Remind yourself that it is a little surprising that you would have a moral conflict. It is likely that there is some mistaken thinking underlying the conflict and that you need to analyze the situation further.

A bit of thinking is usually what you need at the moment, not emergency action.

The virtues tell you how to move forward, not what exactly to do

What should you think about? The virtue that’s involved in the criticism gives you a lead for where to look.

Independence is “a focus on reality, not other people.” If you are criticizing yourself for being sucked into approval, or victimhood, or trying to control others, it suggests, “Look to see how you can meet your own needs by acting in reality instead of trying to meet them through another person.”

Integrity is “loyalty in action to one’s convictions and values.” If you are criticizing yourself for being a hypocrite or a coward, it suggests you need to see how you can fight for your values in action.

Honesty is “the refusal to fake reality.” If you are criticizing yourself for being dishonest, it suggests that there are some painful facts here that need embracing so you can figure out what really is going on.

Justice is the virtue of treating others as they deserve. If you are criticizing yourself for betraying someone or for not calling them out, it suggests that you need to better understand the value of this person to you and why it is in your rational self-interest to preserve this relationship — or end it.

Productiveness is the virtue of creating the material values that sustain life. If you are criticizing yourself for lazing around, it suggests you need to better understand your goals and priorities so you can unleash your creativity because your life is a precious, irreplaceable value.

Pride is “moral ambitiousness.” If you are criticizing yourself for being “no good” and giving up on your goals, it suggests you need to better understand your strengths and weaknesses, and how to build on the one and work around the other.

Rationality is the virtue of going by reason. If you are criticizing yourself for being pulled by emotions, it suggests you need to better understand all of your values that are at stake in this moment. Emotions may be very misleading, but they always are created by values you actually hold. When emotions conflict and the conflict can’t be quickly resolved, it means there is some distortion in your value hierarchy that you need to understand and sort out so you can figure out what is in your rational self-interest.

A non-moralistic approach to morality

As Ayn Rand says, “The purpose of morality is to teach you, not to suffer and die, but to enjoy yourself and live.” When you criticize yourself morally, don’t be moralistic. Recognize that there is something for you to figure out, and the virtue involved will help point you to where to look.

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