Mental Exercise Practiced By Many People Is Immoral
Humanity is a social species. We form attachment to those we see as close to us, and feel at least some small affection for every human who hasn’t given us some specific reason not to value them. We have an instinct to reflexively protect one another, and to make an effort to help other people who are in need or danger. This encourages pro social behavior and is a large part of why our species has been so successful.
When bad things happen to other people, most humans generally feel an instinctive urge to do something to help. Obviously, you can’t help everyone so most times you have to ignore the needs of these people and just go on with your life. Naturaly, this makes you feel uncomfortable, even a little guilty. This conflicted feeling lingers for a long time, and builds a little each time you refuse to help a fellow human in need. Eventually the percieved internal pressure builds to the point that you would prefer to help rather than attend to your own immediate needs. This works out reasonably well for humanity collectively, and is a crucial part of the metaphorical social glue that allows human civilization to exist. When someone is in need there is usually some person near by who is at that point where they are ready to put them selves forward and put the needs of a stranger or neighbour temporarily above their own. Except for when there isn’t, of course. This is, after all, only a statistical relationship.
There are two effective ways to alleviate the cumulative guilty feeling induced by failing to help needy people as well as many less effective actions. The natural response and a consistently successful strategy, is simply to come to the rescue of a person in need. This more or less resets the guilt meter to zero, and leaves the good samaritan feeling very good about themselves for a while. The other useful technique is. a sophisticated mental tool, a kind of meditation, which pretty reliably clears away the guilt without the need for the risk and expense of taking pro social action. This might seem like a good thing, but I will argue that it is not.
There are two kinds of vices. An act that satisfies the actor in the short term but does net harm to the actor in the long term, such as consumption of alcohol, is a personal vice. An act that satisfies the actor but does net harm to the world at large by causing harm to others, such as polluting public water, is a social vice. Some actions fulfill both definitions. Even in cases where people disagree on what is or is not a vice, this hinges on the consequences of the act, not the definition of what a vice is. For example, some people in the past may have believed that failing to kill an innocent in sacrifice to a god at the vernal equinox would be a social vice because that would bring a poor harvest in the autumn which would cause even more innocent deaths. Surely, if those people believed that human sacrifice would not predictably improve crop yield, they would see the act itself as a vice. ( If you wonder how anyone could believe such a thing, you should read up on confirmation bias and regression to the mean. ) I will ignore personal vice for the remainder of this post and focus only on social vice to which I will also refer as antisocial behavior.
The guilt suppressing technique mentioned above makes it’s practitioners feel good about themselves by inducing the very realistic sense that the practitioner has done something to help needy or endangered people even while they actually have done nothing of consequence for the victims at all. People who use this mental trick generally believe that it is harmless, and just makes them feel good. They often insist that they still help people when they can, but just use the trick as something extra, just in case it helps a little too. It has been shown though, that people who use the coping strategy I am discussing more frequently are in fact less likely to take on the role of the Good Samaritan in general, even accounting for their increased likelihood of behaving altruistically toward people who they see as members of their own in group, such as members of their family and coreligionists.
The upshot is that the use of this mental tool causes people to be harmed because, on occasion no one is available to help them when, if no one used this technique, someone would be. I believe that, for this reason, it is immoral and antisocial to use it. I suggest that people who want to actually help the helpless should take the time they might otherwise have spent in the self-comforting activity in question and instead use it to consider how they could have helped, what suffering might result if no one else took the time to help either, and why they chose not to help. This will, I think, encourage people to engage in more helpful, pro social, behavior in the future.
The mind trick that I have been so coyly refusing to name thus far is prayer. Prayer is a social vice. It makes the person praying feel better about them self when they don’t deserve relief. They haven’t done anything commensurate to earn that relief. Praying in addition to other charity is not harmless because it inevitably replaces at least some of that charity, even when that person is sure it doesn’t in their case. I urge people to use their prayer time instead to remind themselves of recent times when they could have helped someone but chose not to, and how they benefited personally from that refusal.