In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker writes, “people consider the harms they inflict to be justified and forgettable, and the harms they suffer to be unprovoked and grievous.”
This last week I was watering a spot of seed on my front yard when I noticed that someone did not clean up after their dog. I was pretty unhappy about it and my first impulse was to be indignant. But as I thought about it, I realized how unreasonable it would be for me to get worked up over the fact that someone didn’t clean up after their dog. Upon further reflection, I can see that my initial impulse was in line with Pinker’s quote above about the Moralization Gap.
We perceive harms that we suffer as being much worse than they actually are. At the same time, we discount the harms we inflict on others. I have a dog and have had some walks where I don’t realize until too late that I don’t have bags that I can use to clean up after the dog. There have been a few situations where I haven’t been able to pick up after the dog and in my mind I feel bad but ultimately find a way to justify leaving the dog’s mess behind. I rationalize the situation by telling myself that I’m a good person, that this was just one unfortunate situation, and that I almost always pick up after my dog.
But my first reaction when someone didn’t pick up after their dog was to think that they were a terrible and inconsiderate person. I couldn’t exactly remember how many times I had failed to pick up after my dog (a convenient forgetting), but I am clearly going to remember this instance where someone didn’t pick up after theirs. I’m experiencing the harm another person inflicted on me much more severely than the exact same harm I may inflict on another.
Ultimately, I paused, thought about my reaction, and realized that the owner of the dog may have been in a situation I have found myself in. Perhaps they also forgot bags this one time. Perhaps this dog had gotten off leash and was wondering around lost. Perhaps the person had gotten into a conversation with someone and had honestly not even realized their dog pooped on my lawn. I was quick to forgive myself for similar situations, but had to think and work to forgive another. This is what we call the Moralization Gap, and it is a cognitive fallacy that makes us feel better about ourselves than we deserve and worse about other people than they deserve. It is important to recognize and overcome, even if it requires slow thinking, so that we can behave better ourselves and treat others better, especially if we or others inadvertently inflict harm on another.