Moral psychology is the branch of ethics concerned with the psychology of what happens when a person acts morally. For example, moral psychology asks what kind of actions are possible, what motivates certain actions, what emotions and cognitive mechanism that leads to certain actions and so forth.
I thought of this when I was re-reading David Foster Wallace’s (DFW) commencement speech This Is Water, I thought whether it places itself within moral psychology.
In the speech, he claims that what he says is not moral, but the truth as he knows it so far. Perhaps, he is just being ironic, at least he seems moralistic, but in a less moralistic way.
First, DFW says that the really significant education that people are supposed to get in a college is not the capacity to think. Rather, the choice of what to think about. It is a fresh change.
Also, I treasure his little didactic story with the two fish (I quote):
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and say, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?”
And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”
The problem is that the two young fish are not paying attention to what’s going on right in front of them. So, how does one become aware?
The answer that DFW gives is: “Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think.” He continues: “It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.”
It has something to do with exposing oneself to what happens. Basically, allowing oneself to be affected. Yet, I am bit skeptical whether one actually can choose. Based on what criteria’s does one choose? What motivates one to choose a positive versus a pessimistic approach? Rather than being free to choose, I think that one blends or mix with the world. One happens.
Nevertheless, I share his point about being attentive as an ethical practice even though I can’t control it. If one chooses, then he or she becomes moralistic, because how does one choose beforehand?
A little text that made me think sitting on the bench while waiting for my kids to finish school.