One Thought Too Many

One Thought Too Many

Should the man save the stranger or his wife?

A man stands on the shore. In the distance, two people are drowning. One of them is a stranger, the other is his wife. He can only save one. Who should that be?

According the the philosopher Bernard Williams, the two dominant moral traditions of his day - Kantianism and utilitarianism - both gave the wrong answer to this question.

But this is not because the man should have saved X, and the theories said he should save Y. Rather, the mistake the traditions made was to think of it as a question at all.

To explain. According to Williams, both moral theories required the man to think about what morality prescribed. If he was a consequentialist, for example, he should stand there and figure out which act would have the best consequences - saving his wife or saving the stranger. If he was a Kantian, he should stand there and figure out whether the categorical imperative recommended saving his wife or saving the stranger. And then, once he had figured out what morality demanded, he could dive in and do the morally right thing.

But! But, says Williams - that’s his ****ing wife! He shouldn’t stand there thinking about what the morally right thing to do is, he should just dive in and save his wife.

In this situation, it wasn’t the mark of a morally good person to deliberate before acting. It was rather the mark of some kind of psychopath; or at least, a sign that this man hadn’t the slightest idea of love or of loving his wife.

All this is summed up in a phrase - to think about the demands of morality in order to decide whether to save your wife or the stranger is to have one thought too many.

It’s famously hard to figure out exactly what the meaning and implications of this objection are. Luckily for my purposes today, we don’t need to go down that rabbit hole. It’s enough just to have a more or less vague, intuitive sense that something has gone wrong here, that there is something objectionable about a man thinking about what morality demands before saving his wife, instead of just jumping in and saving his wife.

The reason that intuitive sense is enough is that it motivates and explains what I want to talk about now, which is something much more applicable to our daily lives (assuming your partners aren’t constantly drowning, of course).

To begin, some background. As some of you will know, one of the ways in which I now keep my family in furs and Ferraris is by providing workshops and training programs to organisations. There's a big market here for training on creating “psychological safety”. Under this rubric, people sell workshops on how to be more empathetic, how to listen better, how to create more trust and belonging, etc.

Now, I don’t know about you, but the quickest way to make me feel unsafe is to make me feel like you’re doing things because you think they will make me feel safe.

After all, if I truly was safe with you, why would you bother trying to make me feel safe? You’d just act naturally, and I would feel whatever was there, and that would make me feel safe.

Or another instance of the same sort of phenomenon is when you go on a date, and the person keeps repeating your name because they’ve clearly read somewhere that this develops bonds and empathy and whatnot (this actually happened to a friend of mine). Or when a salesman asks you questions in order to demonstrate true interest and that they truly care.

In all these sorts of cases, one way of understanding what’s going on is that people are having one thought too many. Instead of just being themselves, and being naturally interested or empathetic or trustworthy, people are thinking: what can I do to make the other person feel like I’m listening? What can I do to make the other person feel like I care? What can I do to make them like me?

And naturally we notice people are thinking that, and we think, or at least I do: No. Stop trying to practice skills on me. Just be a person instead.

Right now, for some unaccountable reason, I actually feel rather understanding and soft towards this phenomenon (other times I feel angry and judgmental, and sometimes I simply don’t care). Because what it comes from ultimately is fear.

We want to do the right thing. We want people to feel safe around us. We want people to trust us. We want to listen well. We want to empathise. And we’re too scared, or at least lack the confidence, to just trust our natural humanity and operate from that place. Instead, we want guidelines and rules because then we know that we’re doing the right thing (and if we aren’t, it isn’t our fault).

There’s actually a very deep fear here, I just realised. It’s the fear that what we are isn’t enough. It’s the fear that what we are isn’t good. The fear that what we are, at least part of it, is ugly.

And, you know, those fears may well be justified. I can only speak for myself, and for me they are justified. Part of me is incompetent. Part of me isn’t good. Part of me is ugly. So I’m not about to say: You are a precious jewel, unblemished and uniformly beautiful.

You are not. I am not. No one is.

And so I understand very well the fear that comes with giving ourselves permission to be ourselves. I understand the protection that the one thought too many gives us. To operate without that thought, to operate naturally, without guardrails, with full expression of whatever there is and whatever we are in that situation - to do that is to be naked, above all to ourselves.

The rhetorical logic of this piece demands a rousing finish. I should say something like: Try it! Be naked! It’s glorious! Etc.

But I can’t say that. Sometimes maybe it’s terrible. Maybe sometimes you should actually be someone else?

So I won’t end with a rousing finish. I will end with two things instead.

First, a hope: the hope that we allow ourselves, or are granted, moments to truly be seen, in all our humanity, beauty and ugliness alike.

And second, an acknowledgment: to allow ourselves this is dangerous.