Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Department of Lost Things: Moral Disappointment

We here in the DoD continue our efforts to pick up the shards of our curiosity following the unhappy discovery that indeed we did not, and do not, want to know all the things.  Worried that this discovery could prompt others equally unhappy, we decided instead to focus on something we would like to know:  How to get good at moral disappointment.  This seems to us an understudied area in need of urgent attention.

See, what strikes us here in the DoD is that the world is presently full of provocations to rage.  Well, to be fair, moral outrage.  There is much to inspire anger and a lot of it would be righteous moral outrage.  But the problems with this are several.  Rage, and its better-groomed cousin, moral outrage, can get pretty indiscriminate.  It’s hard sometimes to attach them to the right targets and we note in ourselves a vulnerability to making one target the symbolic stand-in for many.  Which is to say pity the poor hapless creature that encounters us in that moment long accumulated outrage must at long last erupt.  Rage and outrage resist our efforts at measure, though we fancifully sometimes imagine how delightful it would be to host a dinner party of rage, one in which we invite all our enemies and serve each just his allotted portion.  Alas, we do know ourselves well enough to realize it could never be so.  We might start decorously, allotting a teaspoon here and a ladle there, but in the end, ‘twould be but a food fight.    

Not only are we bad at keeping things in measure with our targets, we also note about ourselves a certain inconstancy with rage.  What sets us off can be unpredictable and a little arbitrary.  This is nothing so simple as getting mad at the wrong things for the wrong reasons, but about how fractious and unreliable our attention is.  We’re never sure we’re noticing all the things we ought, and so have to grant that we might well be raging at one while legions pass by without note.  We’re a little worried that we’re sounding like Seneca, that endearing old hypocrite, but he did know how to turn a phrase so let’s go ahead and imitate him to say plainly:  Why get angry at parts of life when all of it calls for your rage?  That may be a bit too far – surely we can summon enough optimism not to write off all of life – but the point is that rage arrives when it does, not always when it ought.  And if it did arrive when it ought, it would have to set up house with us.

Noticing all of this, we decided that the better course than raging would be to address ourselves to resisting it.  So we engaged in one of our more reliable strategies for building equanimity.  To wit, the Buddhist injunction to greet rage with the mental recitation:  “We here are struggling.”  Alas, times are tough and we are weak, and our efforts to quell enmity this way produced but pain. For it turns out that, at least for us unenlightened sorts in the DoD, a good thing can go bad if overused.  Like an overtaxed racehorse, we pulled up lame with the massive effort at answering so much of life this way:  “We here are struggling.   We here are struggling.  We here are struggling!  We here are GODDAMN FUCKING STRUGGLING! AUGH!  That’s a more entertaining way of saying something radically disappointing about ourselves:  We find that peaceful strategies for containing rage sometimes just piss us right off.

In light of this, we have had to resort to more elaborate strategies of managing ourselves.  If the Buddha could not help, perhaps a little judicious navel-gazing could.  What, we asked ourselves, is it about us that so tempts us to rage?  Not wanting to get derailed by the easy misanthropic thought that it is the awfulness of other people that so provokes us, we looked elsewhere.  What we found is that, at root, it comes out of a rather optimistic longing: We really want to think well of other people.  We like liking other people.  This is not to say that liking them is easy, but to say that it is nice.  Nicer still is when they make it easy to like them – like by not fucking up, doing awful shit, and being mean.  One way to think about our rage, then, is to see it as hooked in to disappointed hope, a way of saying:  You are making it really hard for me to like you.  And maybe in the worst cases, making it hard not to hate all of humanity.  But if that’s the case at least some of the time, then what we need most is a way to register all of this without resorting to rage.  Enter moral disappointment.

Compared to moral disappointment, rage seems easy.  We’re not entirely sure what all a philosophy of moral disappointment would need to include, but it would have a heady dose of longing:  longing to want to think well of others, longing to have relationships with them stay fruitful and meaningful, longing to take both moral challenges and the people who stumble through them seriously.  It would avidly partition and parcel rather than totalize, seeking to hold out for hard thoughts, that good people can still be good even when they let us down.  It would avidly resist contempt and humiliation in favor of cultivating a capacity to tarry in the knotty mess of human complexity and incompleteness.

We thus find ourselves wishing that somewhere along the way philosophy had swerved into close study of this, into the phenomenology of moral disappointment.  All of the usual stuff that moral philosophers natter on about – moral evaluation, judgment, accountability, responsibility – can obscure this far less abstract human side of it all.  Assuming all those things are in the right place and you did morally mess up, the more experientially salient thing might just be this:  I wanted you to be better than that precisely because I want to like you and want powerfully not to despair of you or of humanity as a whole.  (Not to mention that when we ourselves mess up, it would be nice to have others feel this way about us.) Because of that, what we need is not some way to justify outrage and attach it to you, but instead a rich emotional language of moral disappointment, a way to feel our way through the contradictions and complexities of human relational hopes.  That would be nice.


  1. Maybe some of that language could come in cartoon form, as it does here: