Why Attitudes Matter

Sometimes when I am giving ethical advice to people I say things like “it’s important to think of yourself and your partner as being on the same team” or “just remember that women in short skirts are almost certainly not wearing short skirts to arouse you in particular” or “cultivate your curiosity and desire to know what’s actually going on.”

I get pushback on this. After all, I am a consequentialist. Why am I talking about people’s attitudes instead of their actions? It doesn’t matter what I think of the woman in the short skirt, as long as I refrain from being a dick to her because of her clothing choices.

An emphasis on attitudes can be really bad for some people. Some people, having been given the advice that they should cultivate their curiosity, will spend a lot of time navel-gazing about whether they’re really curious and whether this curiosity counts as curiosity and maybe they are self-deceiving and actually just want to prove themselves right Not only is this really unpleasant, but if you’re spending all your time navel-gazing about whether you’re sufficiently curious you’re never actually going to go buy a book about the Abbasid empire. It completely fails to achieve the original goal. If this is a problem you’re prone to, I think my attitude-based advice is probably not going to be helpful, although I can’t give any other advice; I personally get as much navel-gazing as I can stand trying to keep my obviously shitty attitudes in check, and don’t have any introspective energy left over for anything else.

Nevertheless, I think an attitude emphasis can be really important, for two reasons.

First, for any remotely complicated situation, it would be impossible to completely list out all the things which are okay or not okay. For instance, think about turning my “think of yourself and your partner as being on the same team” advice into a series of actions. You might say “it is wrong to insult your partner during disagreements.” But for some people, insults are part of resolving disagreements. Saying “I am not sure you’ve really thought this through” rather than “that is the stupidest fucking idea I’ve ever heard” feels artificial to them, like they’re walking on eggshells. For them, intimacy requires the ability to say exactly what you’re feeling, without softening it.

Or you might say “if you think of arguments for your partner’s side, then say it.” However, this might lead you to fall victim to what C S Lewis in the Screwtape Letters called the Generous Conflict Illusion:

Later on you can venture on what may be called the Generous Conflict Illusion. This game is best played with more than two players, in a family with grown-up children for example. Something quite trivial, like having tea in the garden, is proposed. One member takes care to make it quite clear (though not in so many words) that he would rather not but is, of course, prepared to do so out of “Unselfishness”. The others instantly withdraw their proposal, ostensibly through their “Unselfishness”, but really because they don’t want to be used as a sort of lay figure on which the first speaker practices petty altruisms. But he is not going to be done out of his debauch of Unselfishness either. He insists on doing “what the others want”. They insist on doing what he wants. Passions are roused. Soon someone is saying “Very well then, I won’t have any tea at all!”, and a real quarrel ensues with bitter resentment on both sides. You see how it is done? If each side had been frankly contending for its own real wish, they would all have kept within the bounds of reason and courtesy; but just because the contention is reversed and each side is fighting the other side’s battle, all the bitterness which really flows from thwarted self-righteousness and obstinacy and the accumulated grudges of the last ten years is concealed from them by the nominal or official “Unselfishness” of what they are doing or, at least, held to be excused by it. Each side is, indeed, quite alive to the cheap quality of the adversary’s Unselfishness and of the false position into which he is trying to force them; but each manages to feel blameless and ill-used itself, with no more dishonesty than comes natural to a human.

Or you might say “if your partner seems to be making a mistake, give them some friendly advice, without being overly critical.” But some people are naturally controlling—not abusive, just the sort of people who get upset when their partner loads the dishes a different way than they’re used to or prefers to read a map rather than using the GPS. Those people might very well decide that they shouldn’t give any friendly advice, for much the same reason that an alcoholic shouldn’t go to a bar. It never stops after one.

If you are thinking about the situations from a position of “my partner and I are both on Team Our Collective Happiness And Well-Being,” then the answer to all these thorny situations becomes clear. You should give a word of friendly advice, unless you are the sort of person who is incapable of stopping at a word of friendly advice. You should speak in a way that makes your partner and you feel more intimate and able to resolve conflicts, rather than less so. You should say “hm, I think the vacation you want to go on is cheaper” but you should not do the Generous Conflict Illusion. And so on and so forth.

Second, an attitude emphasis prevents rules-lawyering. Whenever you list a set of actions, there are a certain number of people who will figure out how to get as close as possible to breaking the rules, and then complain when you get annoyed at them, because technically they didn’t break any rules. (Rules-lawyering is particularly likely to happen in issues of sexual ethics, but it is certainly not reserved for those situations.) For example, they might say “you said I wasn’t supposed to yell at my wife or call her nasty names! You never specifically said I wasn’t supposed to respond to my wife forgetting to do the dishes by piling up all the dirty dishes onto her bed.”

But obviously if you are two people cooperating to solve the problem of the dirty dishes piling up, “stick the dishes on the other person’s bed” is not how you would respond. (Unless, I guess, they agreed ahead of time that this was a useful if disgusting way to help them remember—like I said, it’s really hard to make hard-and-fast rules.) That is a way you’d respond if you’re approaching the situation as a war between you and your partner, and the winner is whoever gets a clean sink while having to do the least dishes. This is, to put it lightly, not a good way of solving your relationship problems.

I suspect that action-based advice works best in relatively simple situations where there aren’t a lot of possible actions and where there are few situations that require a judgment call: for instance, it works great for “don’t hit people unless they started it”. Attitude-based advice works best for complicated situations where there are lots of possible ways of fucking up: for instance, it works well for intimate relationships, intellectual or artistic life, and career choice.