In the course of a week, there may be at most one or two events in which we don’t know the self-morally correct decision for a given situation. In most cases, the difference between right and wrong is clear. The difficulty lies not in recognizing which of the two is is better aligned with our values and goals, but in choosing the right path.
I struggle with a certain lack of discipline in various areas of my life, and in an attempt to control and mold myself into the kind of ideal person I wish to be, I try to set up rules for myself that would take place in a future setting: when faced in the future with this exact predicament P, with presently defined right option R and presently defined wrong option W, you MUST choose R, or face the consequences. This molding and forced discipline places pressure on me to perform in a certain way in the future, but future me always overrides past or present me, and so it is unlikely that any rule I create for myself will be taken seriously at a future point. Over time, this erodes the trust I have in my self-discipline, such that it becomes pointless for me to even attempt to create boundaries for myself. What results is a sort of anarchy — a lifestyle without governance or any system of checks and balances.
I think a better way to approach self-governance is not through creating countless arbitrary rules that are hazily defined and unable to withstand the test of time, but rather through entrusting one’s self to make the obviously right decision at any given time and place. To be an “adult” in any given situation, which is to say, do the right thing at all times, and not just according to the impossibly-finite rules you’ve set for yourself. If you struggle with an ice cream addiction, this system would suggest that you not say “I will only eat ice cream once a week,” a rule that you are likely to break, but rather that you entrust yourself to only eat ice cream at times and intervals that go towards the basis and principle of why you know you shouldn’t be eating so much ice cream in the first place.
I have a friend who doesn’t smoke cigarettes habitually, but might have one late in the evening after a long day’s work. To prevent himself from getting addicted, he doesn’t try to control himself with strict limits like “I will ONLY smoke ONE cigarette a day, in the evening, only if I’ve had a hard day’s work.” This type of rhetoric is that of a pending addict. Instead, he doesn’t have any definite limitations on tobacco usage, and trusts himself to smoke at intervals that are not addicting and at times when it’s necessary and useful. This might mean that on one day, he might have two cigarettes, but on another, none. This is sane self-control. The less-sane alternative is strict rules that apply constant pressure and force you into an endless struggle with yourself, resulting in frequent disappointment when the rule is eventually broken.
Most of the petty forks in the road we encounter on a frequent basis have a clear answer to what is the right thing to do for our situation, and what is the counter-productive thing to do. For me, rather than attempting to define and control my behavior to model my ideal vision of myself, I’m going to try and give up on attempting to control everything, and instead entrust myself to behave like a well functioning adult, and do the obviously right thing for my situation at that point in time.
The right answer will always be clear. It’s just up to me to choose it.
And for those rare situations where right and wrong are not obviously clear, then we can be a little more forgiving of ourselves for making the “wrong” decision, and add it to our morality table so that the next look up is easier.