The Dispersion of Moral Energies

Humans have long been, and remain, deeply attached to morality. Even confirmed criminals, for example, routinely say things like, “That ain’t right,” which is purely a moral judgment.

This focus on morality holds firm across the panorama of human of life. Examine any workplace and you’ll find a long stream of moral judgments: “He didn’t treat me right,” “She’s arrogant,” “That’s a man you can respect,” and so on.

This moral focus of ours is a good thing, and says a great deal good about us. But there are down-sides, since our species still has a lot of development left in front of it.

In particular, humans have learned to recast moral concerns as moral judgments: binary determinations of right/wrong., good/evil, and so on. We are far too fast to seize upon such conclusions, then argue about degrees of wrongness.

Frequently, we listen to an argument only long enough to find some reason for a moral judgment; then we close our ears, declaring that the other person is a “fill-in the blank.”

Worse, all of this relates to abstracts. Rather than centering on the actual damage done by someone, we prefer saying, “He’s a liar.” or “a fraudster,” and so on. Notice that these are conclusions: names for things rather than real things. We leap to judgmental conclusions rather than examining direct benefits or harms.

Over time, we can become as Ben Hecht noted in A Child of The Century:

They are unable to think, except in homage to other thoughts.


What we’ve described above is a mis-use of our moral impulses, turning them into weapons we wield at each other. If we focused on actual benefits and harms, and on what each of us actually needs, we could solve most of our problems far easier and with far less animus.

That, however, is not dispersion, it is mis-use. Dispersion is different, and that’s what I want most to explain today.

Humans have limited amounts of energy, and that includes energies for willpower and moral concern. Spread them out wildly and there is simply not enough fuel to sustain them. And this is precisely what has been happening to us, and especially to people who spend time on outrage-centered social media.

I’ll have to be blunt to make my point here, but it’s an important point: Their are large systems in this world that can endure only if insulated from moral scrutiny. There are many ways that’s accomplished, of course, but the one I’m focusing on today, the dispersion of moral energies, is a central one, and one that isn’t well understood.

Here’s a very basic statement of fact:

People and systems that would lose legitimacy if compared to clear moral standards (like the Golden Rule) need to redirect the moral energies of the populace into non-threatening directions.

If what you want requires that people don’t turn a moral eye toward you, it’s best to spread their moral energies every which way, so that they don’t have much left in reserve.

The internal energies of a mainstream couple, for example, are almost fully directed away from serious moral issues. This couple likely devotes their emotional and moral strength toward harmless diversions: to whatever terror is in the news that day, to sports teams, to hating one or the other political party, to complains about all the small moral failures they saw that day, and so on.

These are dispersions of moral energy, from which little or no civilizational improvement results.

To understand the power of this, please spend a moment of meditation on the opening image of this post, which I’ve reproduced larger below.


It’s important to understand that we – all humans, as best I can tell – were born with vulnerabilities to these things. We are, to put it simply, easy marks for anyone who uses our attachment to morality as a tool.

We need to recognize this. Our moral energies are precious; we need to use them where they really matter, and not be tricked into throwing them every which way… and especially not at each other, as pawns in someone else’s game.

Here’s that enlarged image. Please spend a moment with it:


Paul Rosenberg