Ideals, moral issues and psychology

Ideals are tricky things: on the one hand they help us aspire to being something better than we are, which is a good thing. On the other hand, when we can’t live up to them the result is not so good.
Because, if you don’t live up to your ideals you start feeling guilty, beating yourself up about it and that doesn’t make you any better as a person. Just a more bitter one, which in turn makes you probably less fun to be around.

I’ve seen people go from lively and fun to defensive and cramped. I think it was ideals that did it and it was a sad process to watch. What she got in return was community. I wonder: where is the line between a healthy devotion to a common cause and an unhealthy situation?

Don’t get me wrong: one of the things that I’ve always found oppressive about our current society, or rather the slice of Dutch society I grew up in, was the lack of idealism. I don’t know where I got it from, but in my teenage years I thought it was normal to shoplift. That illusion didn’t last long – in the end I reasoned that the shops would go bankrupt if everybody shoplifted, so I stopped. Helped by a friend who definitely did NOT think it was a normal thing to shoplift even something small.

Perhaps what I wanted were guidelines, some clarity and structure. Of course, as a teenager, I was also trying out the boundaries and I think I was disappointed at how hard it was to find where the boundaries were.

But I guess I’ve grown up a bit and now at 37 I’m finally starting to understand what made my Christian grandmother feel what was so oppressive about Christian Moralist attitudes. To explain: my grandmother, a minister’s wife, loves the church. She loves playing a prominent part in the community and did that well. She loves the stories and contributed her own only vaguely moral children’s stories to a liberal Dutch Sunday school magazine.

The problem with morals is that they take psychology totally out of the equation. On the other hand, moral relativism ignores the effects of what we do on other people.

I don’t smoke. I don’t eat meat. I don’t drink alcohol. But on none of these issues do I feel the slightest inclination to proselytize. Please let everybody do what they feel is best.

I wonder – is that a testimony to my self-confidence or to my lack of caring about other people? I don’t know.

7 thoughts on “Ideals, moral issues and psychology”

  1. Hello Katinka,

    Stumbled onto you blog as I was googling “spiritual blog list” and I’m glad I did. I look forward to reading more of your writings. I also have a blog on spirituality/New Age that is a passion of mine.

    Good day,

    Mark Andrew

  2. Our universe is transformation, says Marcus Aurelius. Absolutism can only be temporary in a relative universe.
    For every truth there is a deeper truth, should have said Zeno. Are we there yet? Morals are a construct in the absence of the divine. If you seek the divine then a “moral” code manifests – that which takes you closer is healthy for you… You can adopt a moral code, e.g. Buddhist code, etc, or develop your own code and that too can work for you – I.e. Act like Buddha on the outside and allow the outer to mould the inner, but personally an interior focus, that leads to exterior set of behaviors, is my preference.

  3. Good morning Katinka !

    After touring few bhuddist places, I started asking myself how it is that westerners, when coming across asian spiritual and philosophical schools, have this strange attitude and behaviour as if they had just discovered a new continent ?

    Best regards,


  4. Hello Katinka,

    Your articles are great. I am loving this blog. I agree with you “let everybody do what they feel is best”. This is a right for everyone to live on their own way.

  5. I think there is middle ground. Sure, it is possible to say that morals remove psychology from the equation, but at the same time, morality is more of a guideline–or as Aristotle put it, shoot for the mean. If the dictate is “You must do X or Y” regardless of your predispositions, that’s probably a bit too legalistic and doesn’t really take into account where you “are”. If I’m an alcoholic and I say I shouldn’t drink, that’s not really all that helpful. A better question is why I feel like I SHOULD DRINK, and start from there and figure out what I believe.

  6. Tonight I stumbled upon your blog and some of the articles are really interesting to read. I am really enjoying reading them. But then some of them like this one made me think that why look at the simple things of life through constructs and models that are not only not universal but also complex, rigid, and limited by human experience. Isn’t imposing and glorifying such constructs of ideals and morals by us the real underlying cause of increasing fragmentation and confusion not only internally in individual minds but also externally in the society? Looking at these concepts further through the lens of Religion or Psychology doesn’t help either because there is no one-fit-all solution. Everyone is unique and being selfish is built into us because of the natural survival instinct. For the mind it is natural to desire, compare and try to influence oneself or others. What effect evolution and experience will have on anyone can’t be predicted. With all these unknowns, to feel guilty or sadness due to the failures in leading our life according to these constructs or by not being able to help others every time someone needed help, really seems absurd. But again that sadness or guilt too is natural so it is no use resisting it. With time our minds might learn to acknowledge things as they are and not feel perturbed. Until then we flow as paper boats on the river of life, sometimes resisting the current but mostly flowing with it.


  7. I believe by now, that nearly everyone has shoplifted once in his/her lifetime, given the golden exception that may confirm the rule. / As to say anything respectful about “grandma”, she probably was the right calvinist girl to marry, that is for yr “grandpa”?……………………………………….
    Jean CALVIN and John KNOX probably were then in those days of the XVIth Century, the most radical ones when it comes down to Doctrine Interpretation related aspect.
    Lets just remember what Calvin did before burning live Dr. Michaël SERVET in Geneva, he reported him to the nearest Catholic Inquisitor, located in Vienne (France)
    And if I may bother a bit about yr privacy, I’ll say you’re the rignt chick to marry.

    Best regards,


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