ISO: Legitimacy

A philosophy professor of mine recently summed up human nature this way:

Human beings are legitimacy seeking creatures.  We want to know what the right thing to do is, and we will move heaven and earth to persuade ourselves that whatever we’ve done is somehow justifiable.

This came up after a couple of hours of our class discussing the ethics of cannibalism at sea, so you can imagine we had struggled through some weighty life and death problems in a short time span.  Our heads were swimming with issues and questions, and when our prof dropped the concept above you could hear in the room’s silence each person’s recognition on some level of this reality.

It’s a fascinating idea.

We all have a need to articulate our decisions in an ethical framework, but the drama creeps — or barrels — in when our frameworks are different.  Slightly different, a little bit of drama.  Very different?  War.

That is how we are, and it is hard to deny or ignore once it gets into your mind.  I find myself thinking, “Should I do this?  Should I do that?”  and quite often it matters not one whit to anyone but me.  There can be nearly nonexistent consequences beyond myself, and yet somehow I go through the right/wrong process whether it be an enormous decision affecting others or simply a choice affecting me.

Ethical decision-making is incredibly complex if you take it seriously.  The world is full of black-and-white moralists who want us all to believe along with them that the world and people in it are simple things.  Just follow this law, or that rule, or what that spiritual authority is believed to have said, and everything will be fine.  What evidence there is to support this idea, especially in the context of occasionally conflicting laws/rules/texts is not clear to me, but that does not stop it from being incredibly popular.

To be quite frank I’ve dropped a lot of handwringing over the years compared to how I used to be.  I once heard someone say, “Guilt is a useless emotion” and I’ve never forgotten it.  It changed my life.  Agonizing over things I cannot undo is pointless.  But attempting to resolve the decisions I have made into an ethical framework that works for me is important and ongoing in my life.  Naturally this begs the question, what the heck kind of person retrofits his or her ethics to assuage a fevered conscience?

Apparently, every kind.

Image credit: Follow Steph

9 thoughts on “ISO: Legitimacy

  1. I once heard “60% of the things you worry about have either already happened or will never happen.” That really stuck with me, too. Better to spend the time on the 40% that you really need to think about fitting into the ethical framework. And, yes, retrofitting is certainly going on, but maybe guilt is somewhat useful in determining future decisions. Next time I’m not gonna eat the guy on the boat ’cause I felt really bad about it last time.

    • I think we are getting into the difference between guilt and remorse. And let’s face it, all of either in the world won’t help the guy who was dinner last time! I think that is the point of the saying, that you have to let very specific feelings of heavy burden over a specific thing go, or as you say Katharine learn what you can from it and make life better in a new scenario going forward.

      I had a feeling this idea would prompt some discussion……

  2. Of course we seek legitimacy…we are inherently social creatures, so our ethics and our very perception of reality depends on others and requires social agreement.

  3. I hope Lara will come back and continue her thoughts, but in the meantime I wanted to follow up on my own thinking there. An interesting element is where our “social animal” nature intersects with the need for legitimacy and actually can contribute to some degree of actual separation from the ‘herd.’ When we have a drive to justify ourselves, it seems to often be a stumbling block to connection and reconnection with other people.

    Certainly where we can all get together around a shared idea, it helps build community. And as she seems to imply, having that shared sense of community is what makes social animals happy and content. Most of the time! 🙂 (Come back, Lara!)

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