Counting your change as you exit the local supermarket, you discover that the cashier accidentally handed you back a ten dollar bill instead of a five. You pause, debating whether to go back and correct the error or pocket your modest windfall.
What you do next may depend on how fresh the fruit smelled in the produce section. If the tomatoes were over-ripe enough to emit an unpleasant odor, that might be all it takes to set your moral compass spinning.
In a series of social science experiments, researchers observed how exposure to disgusting smells or images can influence our attitudes and behavior: the same self-protective reflex that makes us back away from an assault upon our senses can also make us recoil from offensive behavior. Needless to say, rotten tomatoes have nothing to do with personal character; but once our feelings of disgust have been activated toward repugnant pictures or noxious odors we are more likely to feel aversion toward objectionable conduct and become increasingly repelled by unethical behavior.
That’s the good news. What’s really ironic, however, is that the same stimuli that make us less tolerant of improper actions by others make us more likely to engage in those same kinds of actions ourselves.
After determining the benefits of self-protective response, the researchers then observed that individuals exposed to disgusting sensory input became more likely to lie, cheat, and steal. On the one hand, the impulse for self-preservation urges us to distance ourselves from dubious people; on the other hand, that same impulse simultaneously prods us to seek advantage over others by engaging in dubious behavior ourselves.
The silver lining is that the problem suggests its own solution. Going one step further, researchers discovered that when the subjects exposed to disgusting stimuli were then asked to evaluate cleaning products or to wash their hands, their level of ethical behavior returned to previous levels. Even the thought of cleanliness impelled people to clean up their act.
The research shows how precarious a tightrope we have to walk if we want to live moral and ethical lives. If we are accepting of everything, we lose our moral compass and leave ourselves vulnerable to unscrupulous people. If we turn up our noses too much — either literally or figuratively — we risk turning into the unscrupulous people we disdain.
Here are four strategies for negotiating the perilous course that lies before us.
Look on the bright side. Internal and external cleanliness are indeed next to Godliness. As King David says in Psalms, it is one with clean hands and a pure heart who rises to the level of holiness. By looking for the best in others and focussing on what is good in our lives and in our world, we naturally become more conscious of how to remain in a state of moral cleanliness.
People don’t complain because they’re unhappy; they’re unhappy because they complain. When we devote too much attention to all that’s wrong, our sour attitude infects our entire worldview, turning us into cynics and scoffers who see the worst in everything. No one likes to be around chronic complainers, so pity the chronic complainer who always has to be around himself.
Rather than fixating on the 1% that’s wrong, exalt in the 99% that’s right. By exuding a pleasant “fragrance,” you’ll be a happier person, and you’ll make those around you happier as well.
Rethink tolerance. The ideal of “tolerance” has been elevated to a level of religious doctrine. But too much tolerance puts us in danger of forgetting Edmund Burke’s eternal truism that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. If we aren’t repulsed by immoral behavior, we won’t take the precautions to protect ourselves from villains, much less stand against their villainy in the protection of others.
Judge every person favorably, declare the sages of the Talmud. But that does not mean we should excuse or overlook wickedness. Rather, it adjures us to try to interpret morally ambiguous actions in a favorable light, presume positive intent wherever possible, and look for reasons why another person might have strayed from the straight path. By doing so, we raise our own awareness so that we might avoid the same pitfalls.
Avoid toxicity. There is true evil in the world. But not everyone who disagrees with us is evil, just as not everyone who agrees with us is a saint. Even when we’re right, we should conduct ourselves with civility and respect towards others. Not only does this protect us from the caustic fallout of negativity; it also increases the chances we can convince others to consider our point of view.
But some people turn every disagreement into a personal crusade, indulging in shrill, ad hominem attacks rather than measured, cogent arguments. We do ourselves a favor by putting distance between them and us, even when they’re on our side.
Keep you balance. Life really is a tightrope walk. The balanced path lies somewhere between optimism and realism, someplace between the bonds that tie us to others and the distance we need to remain our unique selves.
It’s easy to forget that our attitudes are our own, that others only control our responses when we allow them to have influence over us. If we want to be upright, ethical, and happy people, we have to take great care how we relate to the unpleasant realities of the world around us: we need to get close enough to know the difference between good and evil, but keep enough distance so that we don’t get swept up in moral confusion and lose our way.
As much as we might like to see life’s choices as black and white, personal growth occurs in the gray areas. We can successfully navigate the complex paths of life by sniffing out the scent of integrity and virtue.
Rabbi Yonason Goldson, a talmudic scholar and former hitchhiker, circumnavigator, and newspaper columnist, lives with his wife in St. Louis, Missouri, where he teaches, writes, and lectures. His new book Proverbial Beauty: Secrets for Success and Happiness from the Wisdom of the Ages is available on Amazon.