The Moral Sense and How it Destroys Us

Good and bad.

Evil and heroic.

Negative and positive.

Humans have a habit of black and white thinking, which is something I’ve struggled with my entire life. As I grew older I found this to be the case with many people, and as I dived more into philosophy in my teenage and adult years, I realized something important about the distinction between what it means to be human, and what it means to be — what humans view as — animals below us.

In Mark Twain’s ‘The Mysterious Stranger,’ which is one of my favorite stories he’s written, he writes about Satan as an angel, which Satan originally was. Satan gains the interest of a group of three children, and they meet regularly as Satan shows them magic and wonder. In one of many of Satan’s philosophical speeches, he mentions this:

“It is like your paltry race — always lying, always claiming virtues which it hasn’t got, always denying them to the higher animals, which alone possess them. No brute ever does a cruel thing — that is the monopoly of those with the Moral Sense. When a brute inflicts pain he does it innocently; it is not wrong; for him there is no such thing as wrong. And he does not inflict pain for the pleasure of inflicting it — only man does that. Inspired by that mongrel Moral Sense of his! A sense whose function is to distinguish between right and wrong, with liberty to choose which of them he will do. Now what advantage can he get out of that? He is always choosing, and in nine time[s] out of ten he prefers the wrong. There shouldn’t be any wrong; and without the Moral Sense there couldn’t be any. And yet he is such an unreasoning creature that he is not able to perceive that the Moral Sense degrades him to the bottom layer of animated beings and is a shameful possession.”

Mark Twain, The Mysterious Stranger

There is a lot to unpack in that quote, but the basic meaning of it is that the brute — non-human animals — are free of our judgments and moral codes, so they don’t judge what is right or wrong. Evil or Good. In the case of cats and dogs, if a human makes a mistake, like accidentally stepping on a tail or turning too quickly to stumble over the animal, they know it was a mistake and don’t think any more of it. They don’t question whether the human was meaning to hurt them or if they are a good or a bad person. They yelp to signal they are in pain, and they observe the surroundings to see that there is no real threat, and they look to the human who has moved on, and they also get on with their day, crawling into the human’s lap for a cuddle session.

Of course, this doesn’t apply in cases of abuse. People who abuse animals are the lowest kind of person, and even in a situation like that, an animal doesn’t judge the person. They learn to fear the hand that hit them, and they recoil as an act of defense. They do what is simply effective or ineffective at the time. They do feel emotions, and they do feel sadness because they do not understand why we do what we do.

On the other hand, people think in extreme black and white. You see it when someone makes a mistake or puts a toe out of line, and they are vilified and the bad moment is what defines them.

You see it in cancel culture, where people tear each other apart over a misunderstanding, a misstep, or a number of assumptions that no one wanted to ask about or fact check.

To humans, emotions are addicting. Anger and power, and even depression, can be very addicting in how they feel. Anger leads to feeling powerful or important, or righteous. As in my case, depression can feel like a familiar home, and it’s far easier to stay in a state that is familiar rather than risk the vitriol and frightening reality that people are generally judgmental and difficult to stomach sometimes. And I have also been addicted to my own anger, we all have. None of this is effective. Too much of one thing can lead to horrible real-world results.

So rather than being a boon to being human, our emotions and Moral Sense — as Twain calls it — is a shortcoming in ways that relate to living practically and successfully. In that way too, it could be argued that animals other than us are the better species, and we’re merely invasive and destructive.

That’s not to say we’re all bad. And that’s not to say we should regret our existence and hate ourselves. We can only do what we know, and we can only know what we know. And knowing is half the battle. We can learn something from our pets, and that is to be direct and honest, start thinking of things in the way that they are effective or ineffective rather than good or bad, don’t judge others for superficial reasons, and learn to enjoy the simple things and not worry about what another is doing unless there is a direct threat. Accept that there is a universal idea of kindness and there is a universal idea of cruelty, and strive to accept kindness and reject cruelty no matter who you are or what you do or don’t agree with.

I am good at none of this. Not a bit of it.

I spend a lot of time wanting to speak about philosophy and relate it to my own life, but I often refrain from it out of fear due to past trauma. I fear I will be looked down on as trying to be a know-it-all. People will see me as trying to act smarter than I am. People will think I’m trying to be some intellectual prodigy I certainly am not. Worst of all, I’ve been accused of being manipulative, and I worry people will see me using philosophical points to defend or explain myself as a form of that.

Of course, these people are wrong. I know this. I’ve been told people like that are wrong. Anyone who claims to know you better than you know yourself and your reasons for doing anything are the ones who are manipulative and, honestly, gaslighting you. No one can or should say solidly what anyone else’s intentions are but their own, and to do so is moronic because while I believe in spirituality and am spiritual, and I practice divination and other spiritual things, I don’t believe anyone can actually read anyone else’s mind with that much clarity. Or at all.

Yet, because of the human condition that affects us in various ways, some very bad, I’ve dealt with some situations throughout life that have not only made me question the validity of my own memories and feelings, but I’ve encountered people — again and again — who felt the need to make me feel like I’m the worst thing on the planet.

Throughout the amount of abuse I’ve dealt with, I’ve had to cope through therapy. The intense bullying in elementary school set me up to be agoraphobic off and on for the rest of my life, and the sexual abuse in my very first sexual relationship ensured I would have a panic attack or feel insecure every time I went into a sexual situation. And when I finally called things for what they really were instead of burying them deep inside, my symptoms exploded into a nightmare of PTSD symptoms that I am still experiencing that haven’t allowed me a restful sleep since mid-2020.

In therapy, specifically in dialectical behavioral therapy classes, I learned the importance of being aware of black and white thinking, and of replacing the words bad and good with effective and ineffective. I was taught to remove judgments and live in the moment, and how to deal with difficult people. These lessons saved my life, but as new challenges entered my life — such as digging up the reality of my PTSD and the source of my BPD diagnosis which are rooted in the same traumatic events — it was easy to forget a lot of that and fall back into the cycle of self-hatred and believing those who say negative things about me. Who tell me who I am, what my intentions are, and what they expect I’ll do.

It led me to fall back into old patterns. I dared to feel envy for those who were publicly loved by their friends and those whose lives were sailing by with good things happening. I wondered why, for my entire life, I’ve had to deal with repeated trauma, bullying, and failures. After a falling out with a group of friends who gaslit me and repeated the cycle of bullying I seem to attract, two things happened.

I went back to the previous point of realizing that few leave room for nuance or gray areas anymore. It’s all black and white. Bad or good. Conversations are no longer accepted, and many settle with demonizing and verbally abusing anyone who makes a mistake or has a bad day. They create reasons to make you look bad out of seemingly small things, and any apology you could possibly make is automatically denied because you simply can’t apologize right no matter what you do. That is the ugly side of having the Moral Sense. Miscommunication. Assumptions. Righteousness. Wanting to be the worse-off victim.

But I did a 180 from that thought process.

The self-destructive cycle started. I’ve fallen into the horrible part of the human condition where the mind is so complex it can continuously give you reasons to believe the bad things others have said about you.

I will always fail.

I’m toxic.

I can never do anything right.

I’m a bad person.

I’m a horrible person.

I’m afraid of people again and can’t date because I am afraid to welcome others into my life again only to be hurt, without so much as a single question when I make a mistake.

I have days where I write a social media post, post it, and then delete it out of insecurity. I am scared to say anything some days due to being accused of doing everything for attention. I am even more careful about how I write journal entries due to assumptions that I’ve written things about people that weren’t actually about them. I’ve essentially become a bundle of nerves that second-guesses every action I take, and I over-explain and elaborate to a greater degree than most due to wanting to be clearly understood — to not leave room for error since I’ve had trouble with communication due to being autistic. I want to get my intentions and my point clear from the get-go so I can avoid any misconceptions in my actions.

This all backfires. People have viewed my over-explaining as manipulative, malicious in nature, and attention-seeking. I have been told I am responsible for what other people say in response to me, so I must be fishing for attention. I am told I was dirty-deleting and wiping away evidence of some nefarious deed I was, apparently, supposed to be plotting when I barely have the spoons to get out of bed in the morning.

All of this not because I actually had any ill intent, but because I dared to communicate in a way that isn’t acceptable by neurotypical standards. All of this because years of trauma have made me doubt and hate myself so much, and I now exhibit the same behavior as what police note as suspicious when it simply isn’t suspicious in the slightest.

I cannot make eye contact due to the fact that it feels too intimate and is intensely uncomfortable. I post and delete because I feel I can’t say or do anything right. If someone is offended by something I do or say, I delete it to not cause any more harm, apologize, and try to work on the issue. I experience such a strong sensory experience over the fear of hurting others or being rejected, or doing something wrong, that I feel as if I’m going to die due to the intensity of the self-hatred and fear of doing something wrong again. My heart races, I don’t sleep, I lose my appetite, and I spiral until I feel as if the world would be safer without me in it. This has resulted in more than a few suicide notes and detailed plans I intended to carry out before ultimately over-dosing, slitting my wrists, or finding some means to not wake up again.

I can talk about philosophy and what it means to be human, and what it means to be without judgement and the harm of black and white thinking. I can speak all day about what we should do to be better as a species, and I can recite mindfulness exercises, meditations, and class lessons to a T. I can debate for hours about the faults of social media, how it’s killing people and changing us for the worse, and how we’re generally going downhill.

With humans, it doesn’t matter how kind we mean to be. It doesn’t matter what our true intentions are. Unlike pets who understand when a mistake is a mistake and when true harm is true harm, humans will tear each other apart for assumed intentions that may not even be true. We have narrow societal boxes that we must fit into to not be regarded with suspicion or negativity.

As humans, we need to stop caring about fitting everyone into our own comfortable idea of how we want the world to work, and focus more on the wider idea of peace we would be better with. If someone makes a mistake, consider your relationship to the person. If you know them, let them apologize and move on if they just backed into you or stepped on your tail, metaphorically speaking.

Likewise, if someone verbally abuses you, hits you, or is genuinely mean to you, protect yourself.

It’s not okay, however, to throw around words like abuser, toxic, and gaslighting when you don’t have all the facts. Words like that are serious, and they carry serious meaning. To dilute them because you’re overwhelmed by emotion rather than looking at the facts, is to diminish the true meaning of the stories of people who have actually experienced serious abuse in their lives.

We think we are enforcing morals when we take action. Morality drives us to cancel someone over something they did five years ago, that they’ve long repented for, due to a feeling of needing to enact some kind of justice. Morality causes assumptions to be made and people to jump on bandwagons because they see everyone else mad at something, so the greater hive mind doesn’t even look at the facts, but is ruled by powerful emotions and a sense of moral justice.

In the end, the Moral Sense can be used for good things, too. Random acts of kindness. Housing homeless people. Increasing minimum wage. Fighting for a universal basic income so no one is left without food and a safety net. Animal rights. Equality. Protecting LGBTQ+ people from discrimination and allowing us access to discrimination-free medical environments (or allowing us to be free from discrimination from health insurance to begin with). Pushing to allow disabled people true marriage equality. Make society more accessible for people with disabilities. These are all morals that are for a greater good that help make society a better place. Canceling someone online that you assumed was making a malicious point is not a moralistic change.

Humans are deeply flawed, but we are equally beautiful in the way we experience emotions. Our pets and wild animals can teach us how to still be beautiful and reasonable at the same time. Accept kindness. Question accidents or mistakes and allow for conversation, and block or defend yourself against those who truly mean you harm.

On the cosmic scale, our lives are short. We should make the best of them while we are here — learn to live more effectively instead of this mess that social media and society has become. Do what you will, as long as it harms none. You don’t need to know why your neighbor is able to afford that new and expensive car. You don’t have to be upset by a trans person wearing the clothes of their choice that may not fit into your accepted boxes. You don’t have to scour someone’s profile history for hours if they’ve made a mistake to find a reason to pile-on and cancel them due to a moment of anger. You don’t have to bully someone over a misconception or miscommunication issue.

You can allow people to speak for themselves. You can allow trans people to exist without their existence hurting you. You can just block someone on the internet who made you mad, and you won’t have to waste a day or two stewing in anger and hatred. It’s okay to be mindful and just live in the now. It’s okay to accept that people are imperfect, and mistakes happen. It’s okay to ask questions.

Most importantly, it’s perfectly alright to take a step back and think before you make that knee jerk decision. Find the gray area in the black and white thinking, figure out if what you have to say will be effective or ineffective, and take into consideration all the facts. If there are no solid facts on the surface, find them. If there aren’t any to support your initial reaction, take a break and go for a walk to be in nature.

We are all a part of the universe as a whole. We’re made up of the very stuff that also made cats, dogs, deer, and even bees. We can bring that simplicity into our lives, and all it takes is coming eye-to-eye with a friendly animal, and truly taking a moment to understand them, how they see us, and why it’s so ideal.

©2021 Shane Blackheart