Filosofy on Friday – Moral imperatives

Moral Imperatives:

I should have started to write this post a lot sooner, rather than leaving it to the last minute.

There is something I must share with you today.

Professor Malaberry ought not to have been so critical of me last week.

These are examples of moral imperatives. Statements that contain words such as ought, must and should (moral prescriptions), or their negatives (moral proscriptions) are part of everyday language. My interest here is in relation to cognitive-behavioral therapy. Moral imperatives are part of the taxonomy of thinking errors or biases in information processing that contribute to emotional distress.

I have spoken before of morality and the extent to which it is universal. Here we are focusing on personal morality, our own codes of conduct that we have developed over the years in line with our life experiences. These beliefs are very important, they contribute to us living harmoniously in society, and they form part of our self-identity. We tend to feel good if we behave in ways that we believe to be right (after Aristotle). However, sometimes these beliefs can be extreme or inflexible, such that people become distressed when they fall short of the high standards they are setting for themselves, or when those around them violate the rules, causing anger.

If I believe 100% that I should have started this post earlier, it is clear that I have failed to live by my moral code. If I believe that I should behave honestly at all times and on leaving the supermarket I notice that I have been under-charged for an item, I should immediately return to rectify the mistake. But I’m also running late for an important meeting, and I believe 100% that I must always be on time. Quelle dilemma! The pointer in my moral compass is spinning round.

I suggest that most people would be able to deal with the dilemma, deciding which course of action is best for them. If honesty is the most important consideration, then they can cope with being a bit late. If punctuality is the most important, they could probably live with a lapse in honesty. However, for some people this could cause a great deal of distress. They may feel that their failure to live up to their standards means they are bad, morally defective, sinful, and deserving of punishment. These thoughts can lead to feelings of anxiety and depression.

It is down to the skill of the cognitive-behavioral therapist to help clients identify the extent to which moral imperatives contribute to their emotional difficulties. The task then is to introduce a bit of flexibility in their rigid, demanding and unrealistic belief system. We can start to question where these moral imperatives came from. Are they written on slabs of stone? (some are, of course, such as The Ten Commandments, and poor Ed Milliband’s election promises!). Often they are internalised rules inherited from parents.

The next step is to try to soften the language. For example, rather than saying “I should…”, encourage the person to experiment with “It would be good if…”. This introduces the idea that life is not always straightforward (see earlier post on Dichotomous Thinking) and there are times when we all fall short of the standards we want to live our lives by. Rather than use these lapses as a reason to engage in self-blame and self-derogation, they should be seen as opportunities to learn.


Commentary by Professor Eugene Malaberry, B.Sc., M.Phil., Ph.3 [Chair of Cynical Psychology, University of Assidity]

I feel I must, ought and should comment on another of my learned friend’s weekly treatises on all things filosofical. That’s all I wanted to say really. Oh, and if I was going on a long journey, I would not borrow Dr Lee’s moral compass. Thank you.


4 thoughts on “Filosofy on Friday – Moral imperatives

  1. (Are you guys friends? o_O )

    You got in my head, didn’t you! I can see myself so clearly in what you’re talking about. I made a vow to myself that my kids would NOT be latchkey kids when I had children. Consequently, as soon as my son was born, I quit work to be a stay at home mom. Lord Drollery and I have speculated on what our life would be like had I not had to deal with that stuck needle. It wouldn’t budge one way or the other. Had I gone back to work things might be very different. Who knows? But I found it impossible to violate my own moral code where children were concerned. Just one example.

    It has been such a blessing for me to run into Plato on here. He has done exactly as you suggested above, challenged some of my deeply held personal moral codes. Great post, Derek!

    1. Your beliefs appear to be perfectly sound and laudable, I wouldn’t challenge them at all. It would only be a problem if you beat yourself up if you fell short. Regarding friends, me and my alter ego get on well! Thank you for your enthusiastic endorsement.

  2. Your alter ego? Are you talking to yourself? 😀 Or is that a real person?

    And yes, had I violated my vow I would have beat the crud out of myself mercilessly. I’m learning as I get older to be a lot kinder to myself… Makes me a lot kinder toward others as well, of course…

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