My life is an onion…

I was talking with Katie earlier today about life, what we do, what we don’t do, and why we don’t do so much we could… It turns out that life is like an onion made up of three layers…

First of all, there’s the set of things we think are OK or good to do and which actually are. This includes a a bunch of obvious things like separating recyclables from non-recyclables and helping old ladies cross the street. Similarly, there is a large set of actions which are not OK, like armed robbery or lying on your CV. In all of these cases the answer is blindingly obvious, and there is no doubt in any reasonable person’s mind mind or inconsistency between their words and actions.


It turns out that there’s an even larger set of actions, probably larger than both of the above combined, and that’s the set of actions a person thinks aren’t OK, but which actually are. Some of these will be morally complex issues like economic conflict that betters your nation in a net-negative game or allowing psychologically effective marketing which manipulates consumers. Leaving aside these morally complex issues though, there is also a huge number of other day to day decisions which might seem moral and grey, but which actually aren’t. I’m talking about simple things: Is it OK to complain in a restaurant if they’ve overcooked your steak? Is it OK to tell a friend you think their outfit is terrible? That their girlfriend is terrible?

To me, the obvious answer to all of the questions I just suggested is “yes”. Tact and diplomacy are important, but the obvious answer is still yes. On the other hand,  there are things which I’m not comfortable with, but which aren’t really in the orange circle, things like being the beggar on a street asking for change, or walking around San Francisco naked. I wouldn’t do it, but really… is it not OK?

Thinking about it more, it seems to me that actually it is OK, and just because I wouldn’t do it doesn’t mean others can’t. More importantly, just because I wouldn’t do X now doesn’t mean I shouldn’t or couldn’t do it in the future… And that’s been a key insight for me today, a reminder to think more critically and carefully about the things I don’t think I should do. Because maybe I could, if I wanted to, and in so doing I would let my life grow to fill both of the green circles and not just the smaller inner one. I want a life as large and spacious as possible, so this onion and what I think it means is very encouraging.

[for the record, I don’t want to walk naked around San Francisco, even thought it’s probably OK for other people to]

4 thoughts on “My life is an onion…

    • Christo Fogelberg says:

      Good point, maybe a better diagram would look more like a classic Venn diagram – I will update the post and explore that as soon as I get a better connection and a chance to. That said, I think the third group would be pretty small because our communal social antenna are pretty good at sniffing them out and communicating them to everyone. Were you thinking of any (sort of) thing in particular? Just thinking out loud, I guess one potential example could be eating meat – e.g. that could be the case if our scientific knowledge about animal consciousness grew and we realised it was on par with eating people?

      • Well this it is going to depend a lot on the person, but there are plenty of cases where different people (and indeed different societies) disagree about what is right and wrong. An easy historical example would be something like slavery, where presumably there were plenty of people who honestly thought that it was a perfectly reasonable part of the world (perhaps because they believed certain people to be less human than others) but we now consider to be wrong. But there will certainly be other cases, perhaps even things which you and I currently think are okay which are not really.

        (And I meant to say fourth, apparently I cannot count.)

  1. Christo Fogelberg says:

    Agree it will depend on the person! In any case, my main point is not that morality is intrinsically progressive but that we often stop ourselves from doing things that are not wrong out of misplaced concerns. Doesn’t mean we don’t also do any of the other three logical options as well though!

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