In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius wrote the following self-exhortation: “When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil.”
For Marcus Aurelius, this was part of a broader project of cultivating a rational attitude to life. But even if stoicism is not your thing, it can be an efficient method of self-protection. By keeping our expectations low, we minimise the disappointment we are liable to experience when people – work colleagues, shopkeepers, romantic partners – behave in selfish, rude, inconsiderate, unfair or disloyal ways. If we find ourselves thinking that so-and-so should have known better or been more caring, we can just remind ourselves that this is what people are often like – it is our expectations that are at fault.
But might we be inviting bad behaviour by taking that view? Work by psychologists such as Philip Zimbardo suggests that people tend to act differently depending on how we label them. Zimbardo, who has been at the forefront of investigating why people behave well or badly, gives the example that if we praise someone’s generosity they are more likely to give blood next time there is a blood drive.
So if we expect decency and treat people accordingly, they might oblige. On the other hand, treating people as if they are going to let us down might encourage them to do just that. Being too cynical about others may set in motion the wrong kind of self-fulfilling prophecies. Still, being nice to people doesn’t guarantee they’ll be nice back. A pinch of scepticism is in order.
The trick, if you can manage it, is to treat people as you’d wish to be treated while avoiding a rose-tinted image of human nature. It’s not easy: if you get kicked in the teeth enough times this balancing act may become precarious. But the alternative – a nihilistic cynicism that corrodes trust and openness – is best avoided.
The idea that humans share some kind of universal moral sense is supported by the fact that various cultures and moral theories advance versions of the same golden rule: “Do as you would be done by.”
How different our world would be if this “would” were interpreted as a prediction rather than a desire: “Do as you think you would be done by.”
Morality is built on aspirations not expectations. Treating someone well is not conditional on the assumption that they would reciprocate if the roles were reversed, simply on the belief that it would be good if they did. If this were not the case, morality as we know it would not exist.
This is important because the belief has widely taken hold that morality is really nothing more than reciprocal altruism: you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. This behaviour has evolved because co-operation provides a win-win opportunity. But since we know it’s only a win-win when people scratch back, shouldn’t we make sure we are only “good” when goodness is likely to be rewarded? Otherwise, morality becomes a mug’s charter.
It’s true that we shouldn’t continue to be nice to others no matter how they respond. But there are two reasons why we shouldn’t allow our treatment of others to depend entirely on our expectations of what they would do. First of all, even if you see ethics as no more than a strategy for co-operation, it ceases to work if mutual suspicion becomes the norm and the implicit assumption of reciprocity comes to dominate our explicit decision making. Co-operation requires an assumption of trust, which is only revoked if that trust is betrayed.
Even if morality first evolved as no more than a practical solution, we should not confuse the origins of a practice with what now gives it value. To be able to treat people well not merely because we want to be treated well back is what elevates human beings above any other species.
To be a moral animal is to have higher expectations of ourselves than we do of others, not by behaving as we fear others would.
The Shrink & The Sage live together in south-west England