Moral Acrobatics: How We Avoid Ethical Ambiguity by Thinking in Black and White

Here are some highlights from this 2021 book by psychologist Philippe Rochat:

* Rare are the ultrastrict law abiders. The fact is that in all countries giving as little as possible to the taxman is a national sport. We tend to preserve and defend our privileges with little to no restrains and hold on to our inherited wealth and privileges as if we were naturally entitled to them. In our head, we are all monarchs chosen from above.

* Unlike most characters in Shakespeare’s plays or Dostoevsky’s novels, we are not inclined to acknowledge the unsettling fact that we are all made of a bundle of conflicting values. Monsters only exist in our simplifying head.

* We talk about Chinese, Russians, or Arabs with no nuances or any obvious awareness of the multiplicity of cultures and languages represented by such grouping.

* Criminals are never just criminals; good people are never just good people. This state of things is deeply incompatible with the either/ or, black or white, good or bad contrasts driving our moral intuitions and righteous

* So, how do we cope with such a self- reflective curse? We do so mainly by faking reality and tricking ourselves. We simplify, create order in our head where there is none, give ourselves illusions of control, reduce unmanageable complexities by building shortcuts, staging and challenging ourselves, dramatizing, and representing situations to enhance our embodied experience of being. We are ceaselessly creating comfort values for ourselves and for those we identify as extension of ourselves, namely in- group “family” allies.

* There is the awareness of our own mortality and that everything we experience is transient and essentially doomed to disappear from the surface of this earth. This existential truth is the natural source of human deep, unsettling existential angst and despair, the inescapable sense of absurdity. It is also the human universal struggle to find meanings allowing us to transcend the realization of our doom on earth. This struggle is the main existential framing of our morals.

* Last but not least, self-reflective rumination makes us realize how dependent we are on others, how elusive our own freedom is because most of what we do is to please others to get their validation and how much we depend on how others perceive and evaluate us on our own reputation. This self- reflective rumination leads us toward the constant preoccupation with our own social place and situation, how we compare with others. Social emotions like guilt and shame, but also hubris, pride, and contempt, shape human morals. These emotions are presumably unique to human selfconscious psychology. All arise from our self- reflective propensity, framing and motivating our moral decisions. These emotions are linked to the deepseated existential realization that without others, we are nothing. The curse of such realization is the deepest fear of being rejected and, as a consequence, a fear that makes all of us desperate for social recognition and validation, obsessed with how we are perceived and evaluated by others. Above all, we care about our own reputation. We literally exist through our good relations and cares from others, without which we deteriorate and die, both physically and psychologically. At a deep motivational level, what drives human selfconscious psychology and shapes human morals is our basic affiliation need (BAN), with the necessary association of the deep, universal fear of being rejected by others. This is the basic foundation of our insatiable need and struggle for social recognition, the human care for reputation, and our universal quest for positive evaluation from others.

* The main moral rule, psychologically speaking, is the fact that our moral compass is instantly recalibrated depending on people and situations. We hold different standards in our moral decisions whether people are in- group (same family, same social class, same language, same party, etc.) or out-group (legal or illegal
immigrants, foreigners, stranger to the family, different skin color or body weight, etc.).

* …terrorists and serial killers love their parents and children. They worship their God and, in most instances, show extreme devotion to others that can lead to horrendous self- sacrifices like suicide bombings. As much as they kill, they also reciprocate affections and dedication from family members, neighbors, or close ideological allies. Pure monsters do not exist, and this is difficult, if not impossible for us to either fathom or digest.
High- ranking Nazis were often cultured. They had a coherent romantic cult of Nature and narrative regarding the cult of their own mythical origins as part of a “pure” Aryan species, a narrative powerful enough to rationalize
the eradication of millions of “impure” individuals following strict and wellarticulated fetishist blood lineage law. They also loved Mozart, had strong views on aesthetics, and many of them were accomplished musicians. Whether we like it or not, Nazis had “morals” and hence were not pure irrational monsters. They were also parents, children, and friends. If not pure monsters proper, they expressed a most extreme moral ambiguity and hypocrisy,
a hideous exaggeration of what we actually all are. We have to own up to this if we want to grow wiser.

* We are the only species that tortures; exploits; ostracizes; and engages in ethnic purification, ideological crusades, and other imperialist conquests, in addition to being carnivores like many other creatures, eating meat and killing other animals. We are unique in our cultivation of war as “art,” a perennial human source of affiliation and pleasure, elevating intraspecific conflicts as symbolic sources of honors, heroism, and enhanced individual as well as group reputation.

* “I’d like to thank my family for loving me and taking care of me, and the rest of the world can kiss my ass.”1 These are the last words of Johnny Garrett before being executed by lethal injection in Texas for the 1981 rape and murder of a 76- year- old nun. He was only 18 at the time of the crime, 28 when he died in 1992. These last words epitomize the cleavage between proximal in-group and distal out- group value systems and moral codes for which radically different moral standards apply. Extreme as it might be in this particular case, what Garrett’s last words exemplify is what is universally experienced: the well- separated moral spheres we live in, specifically delimited by context and people. These spheres call for different moral biases and codes. They are typically well compartmentalized and we develop a remarkable ability to switch moral codes depending on people and circumstances…

* How can a guy like Castro be affectionate with his mother after raping one of his victims, take his child to
church after treating the mother as a sex slave, looking at her in the eyes, showing love and tenderness, switching modes with not much blinking. How does one manage to keep self- unity as moral agent while enacting blatant moral disconnects across alliances, something we all do to some degree, not just psychopaths?

* Why does our infatuations with others always tend to be associated with the systematic rejection of others and, hence, always to the detriment of others? Why are exclusion and compartmentalization the necessary corollaries of social bonding? In other words, why is love typically exclusive?

* Inscribed into our psychic system are affective imprinting processes. These processes are the original source of differential investment and quick binding toward certain things over others. It always takes place in favor of a selected few.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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