Moral Exhaustion is a Thing, Just Not a New Thing

We just finished reading How to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question by Michael Schur. This extremely entertaining book is a layman’s guide to morality. Schur is not an academic, but he is smart, thoughtful, well-read, and curious. Most important, he is also humble (he sought the guidance of several philosophy professors), sincere, and very, very funny. Schur is a comedy writer and creator of “The Good Place,” a television comedy that thoughtfully explores moral issues. The book is worth reading just for the jokes (largely contained in footnotes), but it does much more than tickle the reader’s funny bone.

The average layperson who, like Schur, has a sincere interest in being a good person, will inevitably profit from this book. Schur emphasizes, first, that what we do affects others and the world. What we do matters and we should do our best to get it right. Second, it is impossible to be perfect, so we shouldn’t worry too much about our imperfections or judge other imperfect people too harshly. Finally, what matters is that we care, that we try to do the right thing and try our best to improve when we stumble. Okay, there are no huge insights there, but these are points worth remembering.

In this blog post we do not have space to do justice to the entire book, but wish to focus upon Schur’s claimed invention of the concept of Moral Exhaustion. He explains (tongue-in-cheek) that all the great philosophers have cool-sounding terms associated with them (like Kant’s categorical imperative and Aristotle’s golden mean) and Schur wants Moral Exhaustion (which he capitalizes because he really hopes it will become a thing attributable to him, so we capitalize it also) to be his legacy.

The idea writ large is that we humans face so many moral challenges as we go through life that it can be exhausting to try diligently to do every single thing right. To be completely moral in our roles as family members, friends, neighbors, employees, consumers, investors, etc. can be overwhelming:

There’s an environmentally “best” toothpaste we should buy, an “ideal” length of time we should leave the water running when we shower, a “most ethical” car to drive, and a “better” option than driving at all. There’s a “most responsible” way to shop for groceries, a “worst” social media company we definitely shouldn’t use, a “most reprehensible” pro sports franchise owner we shouldn’t support, and a “most labor-friendly clothing company” we should. There are expensive solar panels we should put on our roofs, low-flow toilets we should install, and media outlets we shouldn’t patronize because they stiff their journalists.

Facing all these challenges, Schur writes, “we often fail miserably despite our best intentions” due to this Moral Exhaustion. It’s the classic case of “good people doing bad things” that behavioral ethics research constantly attempts to explain.

A small problem with Schur’s plan to secure philosophical immortality is that he explains Moral Exhaustion in a couple of different ways, neither of which is new.

Moral Exhaustion as Moral Equilibrium.

In one passage Schur writes:

not doing the “right” thing once in a while feels like a little present we can give ourselves, saving us the time and effort we know it would require to research and act and change and improve. It might also feel like a luxury we’ve earned through other good actions.

As described, Moral Exhaustion sounds exactly like Moral Compensation. As we explain in our video on Moral Equilibrium, most of us keep a running scoreboard in our heads on which we compare our mental image of ourselves as good people with our actual actions. If we believe we’ve done something that didn’t exactly live up to our self-image, we often seek out an opportunity to do something good so that we can remove the deficit on our moral scoreboard. This is called Moral Compensation. On the other hand, if we’ve done something good, we may feel that we have a surplus on our mental moral scoreboard and may give ourselves permission to, just this once, not live up to our own moral standards. This is called Moral Licensing. Moral Licensing + Moral Compensation = Moral Equilibrium.

In the passage quoted above, because Schur explains that we feel we have earned the right not to do the right thing in this instance, it’s a classic case of Moral Licensing. In this setting, the notion of Moral Exhaustion adds nothing new. To his credit, Schur realizes that there is “no real logical or ethical basis” for Moral Licensing. Therefore, as we warn in our video, we must guard against it if we wish to be good people.

Moral Exhaustion as Moral Fatigue/Compassion Fatigue/Self-control Exhaustion

In other passages, Schur explains Moral Exhaustion not as our having earned the right to take a moral misstep, but as our having been overwhelmed by so many moral obligations that we just don’t have the energy to do every single thing right. The term Moral Exhaustion seems to fit this description more directly than the first, but it still adds little new. Rather, it is old wine in a new bottle labeled “Moral Exhaustion.”

As Schur explains in one of his footnotes, his primary philosopher/adviser, Dr. Todd May of Clemson University, pointed out to him that Moral Exhaustion sounds a lot like Compassion Fatigue. The American Psychological Association states that Compassion Fatigue “occurs when psychologists or others take on the suffering of patients who have experienced extreme stress or trauma” and often suffer stress or trauma themselves.” We think that Compassion Fatigue fits as a narrow example of Moral Exhaustion, but there are others.

Moral Exhaustion in this second sense seems to also overlap with Moral Fatigue, which has been written about in conjunction with the pandemic. As Fordham University philosopher Michael Baur explained, in the pandemic previously routine decisions (“Should I visit relatives?” “Should I go out to eat?”) suddenly had potentially significant health consequences for others and therefore became freighted with moral considerations that had not previously existed. This can create Moral Fatigue (Baur’s term) or Moral Exhaustion.

Additionally, there’s the notion of Self-control Exhaustion (or Self-control Depletion). The underlying idea here is that it takes self-control to resist temptations we face to unethically advantage ourselves. We may have opportunities to sleep with attractive people who are not our spouses, or to take credit for accomplishments at work that are not our own, or to cheat on an examination in school. If we have depleted our self-control by working very hard, training for a marathon, following a very strict diet, or resisting other temptations to act unethically, we may not have enough self-control left to resist new moral temptations.

The evidence for the existence of Self-control Exhaustion in the psychology literature is mixed, but it is supported by significant evidence that people are more likely to screw up if they are tired or hungry or stressed.

 

So, Moral Exhaustion is a thing, it’s just not a new thing. It should be distinguished from Moral Licensing, which is a different thing.

Moral Exhaustion can also be called Moral Fatigue and both can serve as umbrella terms encompassing a range of narrower concepts, including Compassion Fatigue and Self-control Exhaustion.

Despite our quibbles with Schur’s unsuccessful attempt to join Aristotle, Kant, and Mill in the Philosophers’ Hall of Fame via his flawed invention of Moral Exhaustion, we strongly recommend his book to the layperson who is interested in leading a more ethical life, as we all should be.

 

Sources:

Roy Baumeister et al., “The Strength Model of Self-Control,” Current Directions in Psychological Research, 16(6): 351-355 (2007).

Cara Biasucci & Robert Prentice, Behavioral Ethics in Practice: Why We Sometimes Make the Wrong Decisions (2021).

Michael Christian & Aleksander Ellis, “Examining the Effects of Sleep Deprivation on Workplace Deviance: A Self-regulatory Perspective,” Academy of Management Journal 54(5): 912-934 (2001).

Shai Danziger et al., “Extraneous Factors in Judicial Decisions,” PNAS 108(17): 6889-6892 (2011).

Nathan DeWall et al., “Depletion Makes the Heart Grow Less Helpful: Helping as a Function of Self-Regulatory Energy and Genetic Relatedness,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 34(12): 1653-1662 (2008).

Asmae Fahmy, “Ask an Expert: Why Am I Still Experiencing ‘Moral Fatigue,’ Even After Vaccination?, VeryWell Health, July 7, 2021, at https://www.verywellhealth.com/moral-fatigue-ask-an-expert-covid-5191361.

Francesca Gino et al., “Unable to Resist Temptation: How Self-Control Depletion Promotes Unethical Behavior,” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 115(2): 191-203 (2011).

Kathleen Ledoux, “Understanding Compassion Fatigue: Understanding Compassion,” JAN, 71(9): 2041-2050 (Sept. 2015).

Nicole Mead et al., “Too Tired to Tell the Truth: Self-Control Resource Depletion and Dishonesty,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 45(3): 594-597 (2009).

Mark Muraven et al., “Self-Control Depletion and the General Theory of Crime,” Journal of Quantitative Criminology 22(3): 263-277 (2006).

Priscilla Brandao Bacci Pegoraro et al., “Psychic and Moral Exhaustion in Primary Care Workers,” Revist Da Escola de Enfermage (2017), at http://dx.doi.org/10.1590/S1980-220X2016035203257.

Patricia Potter et al., “Compassion Fatigue and Burnout: Prevalence Among Oncology Nurses,” Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing 14(5): E56-E62 (Oct. 2010).

Michael Schur, How to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question (2022).

Elizabeth Yuko, “The Reason You’re Exhausted Is ‘Moral Fatigue,’” Rolling Stone, March 27, 2020, at https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-features/corona-exhausted-moral-fatigue-974311/.

 

Videos

Moral Equilibrium:  https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/moral-equilibrium .

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