Wednesday, April 25, 2018

From "Virtues Morality" To "Boundaries Morality"

Trees in a forest, with big obvious channel-like gaps between the leaves of one tree and the leaves of the neighboring tree. This is called "crown shyness." Image source.
When I was a little kid, I remember watching a commercial for a local car dealership, which boasted that they sold more cars than any other local car dealership. And I was SO CONFUSED about why that was something they would put in their ads. Aren't ads supposed to be about making people WANT to buy their product? When people hear that this company sold more cars than the other companies, won't they feel sorry for the other companies and go buy cars from them instead?

I was so incredibly confused, so I asked my parents about it. They said that the point of the ad is that based on the fact that they sold the most cars, one would assume that their cars are the best, or their prices are the lowest, or generally something is good about the experience of buying cars there. If you believe their company is the best place to buy a car, then you will buy a car there, so the logic goes.

In other words, customers are motivated by their own desire to get good products at low prices. They don't make purchasing decisions based on some higher-level principle of "helping" the seller. (Sure, sometimes people choose to boycott a business for ideological reasons, and sometimes people purposely seek out companies that are local/ sustainable/ fair-trade because they want to support [what they consider to be] ethical business practices. And that's all fine, but it's a separate issue from what I'm talking about here- the vast majority of the time that people buy something, they only care that they get their money's worth. They don't care AT ALL about how their purchasing decisions affect the companies they buy from.)

You may have noticed that I'm on a mission to watch all the VeggieTales movies and analyze the morality lessons therein. So I've been thinking about the way morality was taught to me in Christian culture- through VeggieTales and similar media, through Sunday school and VBS, etc- and how I don't believe in that kind of morality anymore. How I've discovered that the world doesn't work that way. People are interested in getting the best car for themselves- they're not interested in showing compassion toward the struggling car dealerships that aren't #1 in sales. And that's not a bad thing.

I'm going to be discussing two different frameworks for morality here. I've decided to call them "virtues morality" and "boundaries morality," and I'm defining them as follows:
  • Virtues morality: Teaches about abstract qualities that you should strive to embody, or about certain actions that are good and you should do them, or sinful and you should not do them. Be loyal, be courageous, be obedient, be honest, be compassionate, help others. Don't lie, don't steal, don't be selfish.
  • Boundaries morality: Examining a conflict to see which parts of the situation belong to whom. (For example: time, money, one's own body, personal space, living space, emotions, emotional labor, resources, belongings, needs, desires, responsibilities.) You don't have the right to interfere with other people's actions concerning the parts that belong to them- but you do have the right to protect yourself and the parts that belong to you.
When I was a good evangelical, I believed in virtues morality. Now I believe in boundaries morality. One source that I learned about boundaries morality from was the book "Boundaries in Dating", which I blogged about in 2016.

Another source was the site A Practical Wedding, which is a feminist site about weddings and marriage, which I read regularly during our 18-month engagement. A Practical Wedding has some posts where they answer questions about interpersonal conflicts surrounding weddings and such. I remember there was a post with a question that went something like this:
I am having a problem with one of my bridesmaids because she hasn't bought her dress yet. I found some websites that sell nice dresses that she could wear, and I sent her links, and I told her she should order it soon so she can get free shipping. If she waits too long and tries to order a dress right before the wedding, there are extra costs for the expedited shipping. I keep reminding her but she still hasn't bought her dress yet. I have so many things to do to plan my wedding and I just wish I could check this off my list so I wouldn't have to think about it anymore. What should I do?
And the answer went something like this:
It's so nice of you to send her the links and the information about getting free shipping. It's very nice that you want to help her save money. You have already done more than you're required to do- now she is responsible for getting the dress. If she waits too long and has to pay extra for shipping, that's her own problem, not yours. You already sent her all the information she needs- go ahead and check this item off your list and don't worry about it any more. It's her responsibility, not yours.
See? Boundaries. You can't force a person to buy a dress according to your idea of the most optimal timeline. (In fact, boundaries morality says you can't really "make" anybody do anything.) So that means you need to manage your own emotions and be okay with it if your friend ends up overpaying for shipping. It's her problem, not yours.

Yes, in boundaries morality, "that's not my problem" is a very important idea.

There was another question on A Practical Wedding that went like this:
My girlfriend is very jealous when I talk to other women. She always wants to know where I am and who I'm with, and she doesn't want me to have friends who are women. She is paranoid because she was cheated on in the past. I love her and I don't want her to be worried, but she is smothering me and I can't live like this. What should I do?
In response, the writer (on A Practical Wedding) talked about how this man's girlfriend (it was a man who wrote the above question) does not have the right to police his interactions with women. It's not okay for her to forbid him from having friends who are women. But. At the same time, her feelings are real. She truly is scared he will cheat on her, because someone cheated on her in the past. Those feelings are real and they matter, but they have nothing to do with her current boyfriend. It is her responsibility to manage those feelings- and maybe it would be good for her to go to therapy.

In boundaries morality, emotions matter. Emotions are treated as real. But that doesn't mean that feeling a certain emotion means you're allowed to mistreat other people. Your emotions are real, so it's important to find a healthy way to handle them.

Let's take a moment and contrast this advice with the advice one would get under virtues morality. I'm imagining myself, back when I was a good evangelical, facing the situation with the bridesmaid who hasn't bought her dress. What would I have done back then?

Well see, here's the trouble with virtues morality: How do you figure out which virtue applies to your situation? Is this a "be patient" sort of situation? Is it a "trust God" situation? Is it a "help others" situation? All the virtues we learned were so big and vague. The real difficulty was figuring out which one to use when.

The answer to this dilemma was "pray about it." Yes, back then I believed that people are too sinful to "lean on our own understanding"- we're not capable of figuring these things out on our own. We need to pray about it. Pray about everything.

So here's how it might have gone: I pray "God what should I do about Harriet who hasn't bought her dress yet even though I reminded her a bunch of times?" And then I sit quietly and wait, try to "listen to God." And as I sit there, waiting, praying, I have many different thoughts, and I try to figure out if any of them are "God speaking to me." Perhaps a specific bible passage comes to mind, and I think about whether it could apply to my situation. Perhaps, as I sit there praying, I reason that "I already sent her the information, so now it's her responsibility," and as I consider that idea and pray over it, I become more and more confident that it makes sense, and therefore it must be from God. Or maybe I keep thinking of the bible verse "do not worry," and I realize that I have "sinned" by worrying so much about Harriet's dress instead of trusting God. Or maybe I feel like God wants me to "let go", maybe I "give it over to God", and then I "feel a sense of peace."

Basically, there are a lot of ways it could go. Notice that "I already sent her the information, so now it's her responsibility" is the same as the answer that boundaries morality gave. However, if this was the answer I received "from God" under virtues morality, I wouldn't think to generalize it into a larger principle that I could apply to other situations. No, in virtues morality, each situation needs to get prayed over by itself if it's unclear which "virtue" to apply. And "I already did my part, the rest is not my responsibility" is SO NOT considered a "virtue." Quite the opposite.

(As for the second question, about what to do with one's jealous girlfriend, well purity culture teaches that it's perfectly good and normal to be that jealous. So. I can't tell you how I would have addressed it back when I believed in virtues morality, because I wouldn't have considered it a problem.)

Another source that has taught me about boundaries morality is the Workplace section of Stack Exchange. Stack Exchange is a forum where people ask questions and give advice, and the Workplace section of the site is specifically for work-related questions. I remember reading one question that went like this:
I'm working at a small start-up with only 3 employees: the two owners and me. It's a company that makes an app, and I am responsible for all the coding and handling problems that the customers have. I work 10 hours a day and I don't get paid enough. I told the owners that we need to hire another person, and that we need a better system for handling customer service issues, but they won't listen to me. I want to leave this job, but I know that the company will fail if I leave- I am the only one who knows how the software works, I am constantly fixing bugs, and the owners haven't bothered to learn anything about it. I feel like I can't leave, but the job is so much stress for too little pay. What should I do?
People answered by saying that it's not your problem if the company fails. That's the owners' fault. They should have hired more employees who could learn how the code works. It's the company's responsibility to deal with it when people leave; it's not your responsibility to worry about that. If the job isn't good for you, then go find a new job. You don't owe this company your eternal loyalty- they're not valuing your work anyway. The only real issue you might have reason to care about is the customers- it's not fair to them that they paid for an app and suddenly it stops working because the company doesn't know how to do anything after you leave. Still, though, that's not your responsibility- but if you really want to help the customers, here are some ideas [and then they gave some ideas on that].

Boundaries. The employee's responsibility is to do their job well, and give two weeks' notice if they are leaving the company. They don't need to care about how their leaving will affect the company. They don't have to stay in a bad job because they want to "help" the company.

Under virtues morality, though, the virtues "help others" and "put others' needs before your own" would be the obvious ones to apply to this situation. Virtues morality isn't able to diagnose situations where it's not worth your time and effort to "help others" because you already tried to help but they refused to cooperate, or where your attempts to "help" aren't going to work anyway, or where people aren't treating you right and therefore they don't deserve your help, or where it comes at such a huge personal cost to you that it's not healthy.

And another example from Workplace Stack Exchange:
How do I ask for a lower salary? I got a job offer but then I asked them for a lower salary because [some bizarre explanation about it being easier to change jobs if your salary is low?????] and they took back the offer.
The answers to this one were all like, NO, DON'T DO THAT. Don't ask for a lower salary, because the employer will think that's incredibly weird, it's a big red flag, they'll wonder if there's something wrong with you, maybe they will revoke the offer.

However, when I believed in virtues morality, I would have thought of it like this: This candidate had a job offer, then they made this extremely weird request for a lower salary- is it fair for the company to respond by taking back the offer? Admittedly, it is weird to ask for a lower salary and I have no idea why someone would do that, but do they really deserve to be "punished" so harshly for it? It's not like they did anything wrong.

No no no. The company does not owe you a job. They don't owe you anything until the contract is signed. This is NOT a situation where they are taking something from you as a punishment- no, the job offer belongs to the company and it's their right to take it back if there's some red flag or they feel suspicious about something. They don't need to have proof that there's something wrong with you. It's their decision.

(Note that this can actually get a bit more complicated because of anti-discrimination laws- it's not 100% true that a company can choose not to hire someone for any reason.)

Similarly, I now believe it's okay for me to unfriend people on social media even if they didn't do anything bad to me. Being friends on social media isn't something I "owe" to people, that I can only revoke if they did something really really bad. No. It's my decision. Maybe they are an acquaintance that I never talk to, from a church I used to go to, and I don't want to be reminded about that church. Unfriending them doesn't mean I think they're a bad person. It doesn't mean they did anything bad to me. It's not a punishment. It's my right to choose to not have that person in my life, and I don't need to present a "good reason" for it. (Note, though, that this can get a little more complicated if that person was an actual real friend rather than an acquaintance I never talk to.)

Boundaries. It's about being aware of what's mine. I'm not required to give it to anyone, and I'm not required to give anyone an explanation of how I use it. (Note, however, that you might not want to actually say that directly- it's better to use polite, indirect language when refusing to let someone cross your boundaries. Unless you already tried that and they didn't listen.) And similarly, I respect what belongs to other people.

Here's another story about boundaries morality: Sometimes when I travel to the US, people living in China ask me to buy stuff for them in the US. Things that aren't available in China, or that are much cheaper in the US than in China. And Hendrix and I have always been happy to do this for our friends/family/coworkers.

Until this one time, when Hendrix's cousin sent him a MASSIVE list of all these things she "needed" from the United States. Probably around 10 to 20 different products. Several bottles of vitamins, lotion, various types of plastic containers for food storage, etc. I have no idea why she needed these specific containers, why she can't just buy other containers in China. Anyway, maybe there are some cultural aspects I'm missing, but to me it felt like she was treating us like her own personal delivery service. Like we're obligated to buy all this stuff for her because she's family. Even though she doesn't really do anything for us.

I didn't want to spend my vacation time trekking around to different stores to find the specific brands she wanted. I didn't want to use all my luggage space for packing a multitude of empty plastic containers. Those things belong to me and I'm not obligated to give them up for other people. (Though for people I have a friendly relationship with, it's reasonable for them to expect that I would maybe help them buy one or two things, as a favor, if it's not too much trouble for me.)

So here's what we did: I decided I would order the stuff on Amazon for her, and have it shipped to my parents' house before I went back to the US. Yes, on Amazon there are shipping costs, and really ideally I could have gotten a better price by shopping around at various stores in my hometown, but guess what, I'm not willing to spend my time on that. And if there are things she wants that I can't find on Amazon, well TOO BAD. And I'm not buying her 4 sets of this or that, I'm buying 1. And I'm charging her an extra 20 bucks as a handling fee for myself.

I got everything into my cart on Amazon, and Hendrix sent his cousin a message saying "We were able to find these things on Amazon but not these others, we are ordering them in these quantities, the final price is X, is that okay?" And she confirmed she was okay with that price (she said it was still less than what the price would be in China) so we ordered the stuff. Packed it all in my luggage when I was at my parents' house, brought it back to China, she paid us for it, everything went well.

I did a good thing for her. I helped her. She was very happy to be able to get a lower price on that stuff than what she would have gotten in China. But. I could have helped her more. I could have found a way to buy every single thing on her list and pack it all in my luggage. (I've been living in China for 5 years, I have MAD SKILLS packing luggage.) I could have avoided the shipping fees if I had gone to a real store instead of Amazon, and passed the savings on to her. I could have not charged her a $20 "handling fee." (That was mostly a passive-aggressive way to show my displeasure at being treated like an international delivery service.)

Boundaries morality says it's good to help people, but that doesn't mean you give them every single last bit of help you are able to give. Help people to the extent that you're willing to help them. And that's good enough. In fact, it's more than just "good enough"- it's good! You helped them! You weren't required to help them at all, but you did! Don't ever feel like you "sinned" by not helping them more.

Please also notice that enforcing my boundaries helped me not be angry with her. If I was following virtues morality, I would have been angry when she dumped that giant list on us, because I would have felt like I really needed to get all those things. If I bought them in a less convenient way than Amazon, I would have been angry about how much time and energy I spent to get her a low price, and feeling like she didn't appreciate it. From her end, she sees it as giving me a list and then receiving all the items she wanted for a really good price- she would have no sense of how much trouble it caused me. (In contrast, boundaries morality says that if someone is doing something that causes problems for you, you should structure the situation such that it causes problems for them- otherwise it's unlikely they'll be motivated to actually stop doing the thing. For example, when Hendrix puts a huge empty milk jug in the trash can so that the trash can is full and I can't put stuff in, and then leaves it like that for several days, even though I TOLD HIM he needs to take out the trash if he fills it up, I don't "enable" it by taking out the trash for him. Instead, when I have trash I'm not able to throw away because the trash is full, I hand it to Hendrix so he has to figure out what to do with it. Make it his problem.)

But instead of being angry about it, under boundaries morality I would determine the extent to which I'm willing to help her, and communicate with her about it and make sure she's okay with the price and other details, and I wouldn't get emotional about it because I wouldn't feel like she's forcing me to do anything. Instead, I am in control, I am choosing what I want to do for her, and we come to an arrangement that all parties are happy with.

The moral of the story is, just because someone asks you to do something and you're able to do it, doesn't mean you should do it. It's good to help people, but it's not good to help people in a way that's going to be a HUGE MASSIVE inconvenience for you, and they don't even appreciate it. That's not fair to you, and you'll probably end up resenting them.


I only learned about boundaries morality within the past few years. Now you may be thinking, "Perfect Number, how can that be? Didn't you see people prioritizing their own needs and desires over an abstract sense of 'helping everyone'? Haven't you heard people say 'that's not my problem' or 'I don't want to get involved' or 'what's in it for me'? Haven't you noticed it's normal for people to just use common sense instead of trying to literally apply those 'virtues' all the time?"

Yes. Of course I knew that normal human behavior did not follow virtues morality. But here's the key: Just because everyone does it doesn't mean it's okay. In my mind I've always kept a clear distinction between what I was taught and what I observed people doing- and I think this could be an autistic trait (I'm autistic). If a trusted (probably had to be Christian) authority figure explicitly taught something, then I believed it. If I saw everyone acting in a certain way but nobody ever explicitly told me "it is right to act in this way because of these reasons" then I remained skeptical- just because everyone does it doesn't mean it's right.

For example: When people greet each other, they often ask "How are you?" and they answer "good" regardless of whether they're "good" or not. Even complete strangers will do this- like a cashier at a grocery store would ask a customer "how are you?" Now, in Sunday school I learned we should always be honest (this is virtues morality), so I always used to answer "good" if I was good and "okay" if I was not good, because to me "okay" meant "not really that good, but I'm trying to put a positive spin on it for the purposes of this interaction." I wasn't comfortable telling my actual negative emotions to people I didn't know very well- and I sort of felt bad about that, felt a little guilty for how I was being "dishonest."

I remember one time I even told this big long story about my sad day to some guy I vaguely knew in the cafeteria in college. That makes me cringe now, thinking about it. I didn't really want to share that much information, and it put him in an awkward position where he suddenly had to listen to this whole thing and try to figure out what to say to show sympathy- all because he said "how are you?"

Anyway, my point is, for my whole entire life I have witnessed people answering "how are you" with "good" even if they were not feeling good. And instead of concluding "it is totally fine to answer 'good' instead of saying how you really feel", I was constantly bothered by everyone's lack of "honesty" and felt guilt over my own failure to rise above that.

Another example is my own adherence to purity culture. I've mentioned before that I didn't learn purity culture from my parents- they actually disagree with a lot of it. Sure, they believe it's a sin to have sex outside of marriage, and you shouldn't kiss someone before getting to know them, and my mom makes judgmental comments about women who wear "inappropriate" clothes or middle-school girls with "too much makeup," but they don't believe in all that "guard your heart" nonsense about how dating is BAD and DANGEROUS. They don't believe you should "save your first kiss for your wedding day."

Mostly I learned purity culture from Brio magazine, not from my parents or other Christian authority figures in my life.

And then in church youth group there were kids who were dating. Sitting together and holding hands. And I was very confused- the only way I could explain it was, they shouldn't be doing that but they're so overwhelmed with "temptation" that they "just can't help it." Seeing church kids dating definitely did NOT make me think "oh, dating is okay." Ha. Nope.

My point is, you might say we don't need to really talk about boundaries because it's "common sense." Or because it's normal for people to behave in a way that's too selfish, so we have to give lessons and sermons that push them in the less-selfish direction. We don't need to tell people to care about themselves, because the problem is that they already care about themselves too much.

Yeah, no. That did not work for me, because I never considered normal human behavior to be something I should learn morals from- I only followed the morals I was taught in the form of explicit rules. Probably an autistic trait. But it's not just me and it's not about autism- I have met lots of people who talk about how they were never taught good boundaries. They feel like they should always try to please everyone. Or they were told that it's rude to say no. Or they internalized the message that being a good wife/mother means not having any ambitions of your own, but only caring about what's good for your family. Etc.

Perhaps it's difficult to teach boundaries morality to children because they are so dependent on their parents, and in a practical sense they're not able to make good choices about their personal lives yet. But. Sure, children aren't able to have boundaries in all areas of their lives, for practical reasons- but to whatever extent it is possible to let them have control over what belongs to them, they should be given that. We should teach children that their body belongs to them, and they aren't required to hug their relatives (but that they should communicate this in a polite way and substitute some other friendly gesture like a wave). We should teach them that their emotions are real and they matter, but that doesn't mean they're allowed to mistreat other people when they get upset about something- learn healthy ways to handle those emotions. And so on.

Basically, absolute 100% ownership over everything that belongs to them, total unquestioned right to make decisions on those things that belong to them- BUT covered in a friendly exterior. With the understanding that in order to have friends, you need to give a little (time, emotions, sharing your possessions, etc)- and you can choose what you're willing to give. And be polite and respectful when saying no to someone who is trying to cross your boundaries. Unless you already tried that and they didn't back off- then be as rude as you want; that person does not deserve your politeness.

In church, the morality lessons I was taught were always structured around virtues- things like "be honest", "be brave", "don't be selfish." They never said I should protect myself and the things that belong to me. They only talked about how to say "no" in a situation where somebody is asking you to do something that's obviously sinful, or maybe saying "no" to taking on a task because you're already so busy with other things and if you get "burned out" then you can't serve others very well. And as for how to handle our emotions, well, some emotions are sinful so if you find yourself having them then STOP. No teaching about asking yourself why you feel that way and what you actually want, and the best way to handle your desires/goals/expectations. Just STOP because those desires are BAD.

But now I've reworked my entire concept of morality so it's based on boundaries. What's mine belongs to me, and I look out for myself first. Of course it's also important to help other people, but I help them to the extent that I choose to help them. I need to respect other people's boundaries, and they need to respect mine.

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