Are My Morals too Extreme? An Examination

Lately, I have been exploring the concept of black-and-white thinking more, as it is a popular buzzword in the field of psychology. For the uninitiated, black-and-white thinking refers to seeing the world in terms that many would consider to be extreme or narrow-minded. Many psychologists argue that rigid, inflexible morality falls into the realm of black-and-white thinking.

I myself have complicated feelings about black-and-white thinking being seen as a negative and unhelpful mentality. This is partially to do with being autistic, as an inflexible mentality is considered to be one of the primary symptoms. However, the bulk of my reservations come from belonging to a family culture that actively rewarded strong moral convictions.

Both of my parents had strongly-defined beliefs in what makes actions right or wrong, although in very different ways. My father instilled in me a conservative attitude towards work and labor, and much of my moral beliefs concerning the workplace come from him. My mom, a formerly deeply-religious woman who committed to countercultural thinking later on in life, taught me to be vocal and unapologetic about my convictions no matter how strange they may seem. Example: a major part of my moral compass is the unwavering belief that polyester is of the Devil.

There is nothing wrong with having strong convictions, but there is a very fine line between conviction and rigidity.

Joking aside, I suspect that most folks of strong religious or political conviction, regardless of alignment, chafe at the thought of their morals being considered “black-and-white thinking.” There are certainly some aspects of this catchphrase that come off as condescending at best and tone-policing at worst. If someone you know was personally wronged, for example, it would be heartless to tell them the same day that wishing ill against the individual who wronged them is “being black-and-white about things,” especially if we are not a trained counselor or spiritual advisor. There is a time and a place to offer advice, but we must focus first on our own thought patterns.

It is critical to be constantly examining our beliefs and their level of extremity. There is nothing wrong with having strong convictions, but there is a very fine line between conviction and rigidity. Our moral compass must be rooted firmly in compassion and empathy, yet also stand up to detached examination, in order to avoid falling into the trap of immoderateness. As mentioned before, this is a challenging tightrope to walk, and requires both extensive personal examination on our part and guided wisdom from the morally temperate. The following series of questions can help you examine your moral beliefs, and discern if they fall into the trap of black-and-white thinking:

Are my moral beliefs inflected with violent, punitive language? Are they marked with obsessive thinking patterns?

This question is one I consistently struggle with, as many of my morals revolve around a very strong belief in punishment. At my first post-college job, many of my coworkers consistently behaved in a manner I found unprofessional. Some would loudly make statements so horrifying that I would fume at my desk for hours afterwards. I found myself thinking, “These disgusting people need to be firmly and vigorously punished by HR, and shamed for what they say and do!” (That, of course, is a very PG translation of what my actual thoughts were.) Note the violence imbedded in these thoughts?

There was nothing wrong with my feelings of disgust or revulsion. However, instead of objectively observing these sensations and moving on with my day, I allowed ill will towards my coworkers to fester to the point where it was causing me physical harm. In the last month before I left that job, I suffered from daily chest pains and suppressed rage attacks on a daily basis. Additionally, my views on what was and wasn’t appropriate behavior in a workplace became rigid to the point of dogmatic, and I feared becoming a hypocrite.

When others fail, it is difficult to not be reminded of our own failings, but this is when we must turn to self-reflection rather than pride.

The problem, as you see, was not my objection to my coworker’s words and deeds, but the violence of my ill will towards them. When we ruminate obsessively on how terrible and evil someone is, our thoughts can go from righteous anger to violent pollution that causes harm to our bodies and mental well-being. When our moral beliefs cause us physical pain and cause us to obsess over punishment, it is critical to examine them with a greater degree of detachment.

Are my moral beliefs rooted in compassion and serving my fellow human, or in hubris and proving that I am a good person?

Having a strong conscience is commendable, but the downside is a tendency to fall into hubris and excessive worry about our own morality. Whenever someone does an action that offends my moral beliefs, I frequently struggle with feeling dirty or tainted. Thus, many of my punitive thoughts (“They should receive the death sentence! They should be humiliated and dragged through the mud!”) are as much a reaction to my own sense of moral violation as that of others. When others fail, it is difficult to not be reminded of our own failings, but this is when we must turn to self-reflection rather than pride.

Practicing mindfulness on how your black-and-white thinking patterns affects others is an act of compassion, not an act of censorship.

If you struggle with misanthropy (as I often do) or feel overwhelmed by the evils of the world, take the time to reflect on the importance of compassion. Detach and reflect when the waves of your emotions have passed, and ask yourself a simple question: am I angry because this evil deed violated the values of compassion? How can I ensure that my own values are more aligned with compassion? Try not to fret or obsess over these questions, as self-examination is meant to help us, not beat us with a giant stick.

Have individuals whose judgement I value mentioned that my morals can be too extreme sometimes?

Seeking out a second opinion can be challenging, as not everyone who speaks frequently and proclaims to be wise comes from a place of humility and compassion. However, if you are someone whose relationships are as strong as your convictions, you may have at least one individual in your life whose input you trust. Don’t hesitate to ask them: Are their times when the way I express my beliefs are overly rigid, punitive, and not rooted in compassion? If they have your best interest at heart and have done the work of self-examination themselves, they may be able to point to times when you have let your convictions be ruled by dogmatism rather than love.

One individual who often held me accountable was my ex-girlfriend. When we were together, our communication skills were strong enough where she felt comfortable mentioning to me times when I was being extreme in my beliefs. She also did an excellent job of pointing out how my words would effect her, too; although I struggled with receiving advice, this helped me be more mindful of when my strongly-stated convictions can be hurtful to others.

Bringing balanced minds into the equation helps not only with objectivity, but with rooting your values in a compassionate mindset as well. When you are just spitting words out into the air or online, it’s easy to forget that rigid moral convictions can have a harmful impact on other people. Practicing mindfulness on how your black-and-white thinking patterns affects others is an act of compassion, not an act of censorship.

Above all else, remember that morality is rarely as simple as us bipedal hominids make it out to be. Black-and-white thinking exists because it can be useful in filtering an overwhelming amount of information from the outside world into a condensable worldview to take on life with. However, basing an entire moral code on inflexibility can be harmful to our physical, mental, spiritual, and relational health if left unexamined. When caught in a quandary that seems to pit compassion against conviction, always err on the side of compassion and humility.

Memento Mori, friends.

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