Letting go of guilt and shame is an important part of being a confident man. But how do you do that without becoming an asshole?
Aaron was standing by the bar in an upscale pub in Toronto, it was 10:30 and he still hadn’t approached a girl yet. He was sipping a vodka soda (I tell students they can’t drink until they’ve done three sets, but they don’t have to listen to me), staring off into the distance and absent-mindedly wringing his hands.
I’ve seen it a hundred times, so I can recognize it immediately – this was a student who was in the process of psyching himself out. His head was spinning with thoughts and doubts, and as he sat and ruminated on them, they were just getting worse and worse.
As a coach, my job is to unwind him – to help him address the thoughts that are bouncing around his head, and deal with them. Step one is to get him to share what’s bothering him.
“What’s going on man? What are you thinking about?” I asked.
“I don’t know man… I don’t know if this is right. It just feels wrong to hit on women”.
We went over things in a kind of Socratic manner: Do you think it’s wrong to chat with people? No. Do you think it’s wrong to be attracted to women? No. Do you think it’s wrong to express your attraction? No.
Finally, we got to the bottom of it: “I guess I was just taught that it’s wrong to talk to strangers”.
Breakthrough. We talked about it a bit, and Aaron agreed that this belief he had been carrying around with him was counterproductive, and it was holding him back from enjoying his life, without making him a better person in any way. He still felt a bit weird chatting up strangers, but he did it and started feeling more comfortable.
What’s interesting is that for Aaron, his problems with women were ethical problems – he had subscribed, mostly subconsciously, to a rule of ethics that didn’t really make much sense. Yet, because this ethic was internalized in him, and even though it was pointless, he felt wrong breaking it.
And as the night went on, Aaron changed his attitude towards talking to strangers after he realized that – as long as he was approaching properly, with the right attitude and giving off the right vibe – people really liked talking to him. By the end of the night he felt like starting a conversation with a woman could be something enjoyable for him and her – so long as he did things right. He also learned that people were usually happy to connect with another person. And it was true.
But what I learned from dealing with Aaron, and with other students like him, is that ethics and confidence can often get in the way of one another, and that being a guy who is ethical, and confident at the same time, isn’t a simple matter.
The state of confidence is when we don’t have any internal emotional conflicts, and so we know what we want, we know how to get it, and we’re not getting in our own way. It is the ability to turn our thoughts into effective action.
But there’s one thing that often gets in the way of taking effective action, and for good reason: ethics. But ethics, if we’re not thoughtful about them, can also paralyze us, and make us unable to make decisions, even when those decisions have very little to do with questions of right and wrong. I know people who feel “wrong” asking for a raise, or who feel guilty simply standing up for themselves. One of my friends is so concerned about being environmentally friendly that she stresses herself out simply shopping for food, to the point where she has trouble enjoying life and has developed a tendency to be snappy and rude with people around her.
There’s also evidence that people who behave ethically in certain ways are less likely to behave ethically in other ways – as if our supply of ethics were somehow limited. When we waste our energy following trivial or impossible ethical rules, we may find ourselves not just enjoying life less, but acting unethically when it comes to things that are truly important.
There’s no conflict between living a confident, satisfying life and living an ethical one, in fact, they’re one and the same. And there isn’t any conflict between being an ethical man of integrity and being an attractive guy – again, women are intrinsically attracted to men who possess integrity and ethics.
But the kind of ethics you embody matters. Women fantasize about the badboy with a heart of gold, the anti-hero who is flawed but has a deep integrity. They also fantasize about more conventional ethical heroes – the fireman, the war hero, the straight-talking journalist who writes the truth even when it hurts him.
On the other hand, women rarely express desire for the carbon-credit counting environmentalist, or the adamant pacifist who would never hurt a fly. Guys who fret over how much to tip, or who watch their words carefully so as not to say anything impolite also find themselves badly under-appreciated.
So it seems not all ethics are created equal – I’m going to go through three different perspectives on ethics and while all of them have merit, I’m going to show you that one of them is more conducive to being a confident, attractive, ethical man than the others.
#1 – Deontology
The first approach to ethics is Deontology – treating ethics as a set of rules to be followed. The most classic version of this would be the Biblical commandment “thou shall not kill”. Another version would be Aaron’s internalized commandment “Don’t talk to strangers”.
The problem with deontology is that one cannot create a set of rules that, if followed, result in ethical behaviour. Let’s take “Thou shalt not kill” which is a pretty basic moral rule. What about killing in self defense? What about killing in war? What about animals, insects, or primates? What about euthanasia, abortion or the death penalty? The commandment thou shalt not kill doesn’t resolve any of these controversies.
Is there a set of rules that – applied properly – could really give us an answer to a complicated moral question like the Zimmerman trial? I think not.
Even if we re-interpret thou shalt not kill to mean something closer to thou shalt not murder (which apparently is closer to the original Hebrew), we now have a statement that is essentially a tautology – it is wrong to kill, wrongfully. Everyone agrees that it is sometimes wrong to kill people, but the vast majority accepts that it is also justified to kill in certain circumstances (especially self-defense), but where is the line? Is there a set of rules that – applied properly – could really give us an answer to a complicated moral question like the Zimmerman trial? I think not.
Now, deontology has its uses. Laws are more or less deontological in their approach, such as thou shalt not drive over 60 mph on the interstate, and thou shalt not smoke on the airplane. But a deontological approach doesn’t really give us much useful advice on the ethical dilemmas that come up in our day to day lives.
Deontology’s weakness is that the world doesn’t organize itself neatly into moral categories. So there’s always some arbitrary element to any set of rules that seek to distinguish good from bad. Taking a purely deontological approach to personal ethics inevitably winds up resulting in absurd or perverse outcomes in difficult situations.
This is what happened to Aaron. He was following a rule he’d been conditioned with in childhood – when it probably made sense – but as an adult this rule started producing perverse outcomes and holding him back for no good reason.
#2 – Consequentialism
The second type of ethical approach is consequentialism. A consequentialist looks to consequences, rather than rules, to determine whether an act is ethical or not. The classic example of a consequentialist would be John Stuart Mill, who argues that “good” is providing the maximum amount of happiness to the maximum number of people, and causing the minimum amount of pain.
So, for a consequentialist, good deeds are those that result in good outcomes, and bad deeds are those that result in bad outcomes. Killing in self-defence is justified because the harm you prevent to yourself and others is comparable to the harm you inflict upon your attacker. War can be justified on the grounds of freeing people from slavery, oppression or other evils, and the death penalty can be justified if the benefits to society exceed the costs.
The problem with consequentialism is that we often don’t really know what the consequences of our actions are. If I buy an IPhone am I indirectly contributing to the slave-like living conditions of some person in a Chinese sweatshop? If I break up with my girlfriend and it hurts her feelings more than it improves my life, am I doing something wrong? How do you even take into consideration other people’s subjective feelings when you don’t really know how they’ll react to your actions? If it turns out my girlfriend was dying to break up with me too, is breaking up with her a more ethical act than it would have been otherwise? Is it worse to break up with an insecure, neurotic person who is going to have a breakdown than to break up with a mentally healthy person who will take it well?
At some level, consequentialism requires predicting the future, and weighing hypothetical outcomes and predicting which one will be better. Most people are not very good at this – especially when a decision needs to be made fast. This is especially true when we’re talking about other people’s feelings. If something I said offends someone, is it my fault, or theirs? If I compliment a woman and she likes it, have I done a good thing, but if I compliment her and she doesn’t like it, have I done a bad thing? If that’s the case, what do I do when I don’t know how this particular person will react?
Taking a consequentialist approach to ethics in your day to day life leads to paralysis of analysis. When the consequences of our actions are uncertain, and we don’t have time to think about things, consequentialism can cause a lot of inner conflict and doubt – things that prevent us from being confident and taking action.
#3 – Virtue Ethics
No man willingly choses evil – Socrates
The essence of virtue ethics is that people are essentially good, and that evil and wrongdoing are inevitably the result of ignorance or negative emotions. Good actions are motivated by reason, compassion, feelings of security, and a pursuit of your enlightened self interest. Bad actions are motivated by fear, hatred, feelings of insecurity, anger, contempt, neediness.
The idea of virtue ethics then, is that if you cultivate the right knowledge, character and intentions, good actions will come naturally. On the other hand, if you allow yourself to be motivated by negative emotions or ignorance, your actions will lead to wrongdoing even if you’re technically following the rules and your acts don’t immediately cause harm.
There are at least two main advantages to virtue ethics for the confident man. First, so long as you have a bit of insight, your internal mental state is always knowable too you. You can always know whether you are acting out of hatred or anger, or whether you’re acting from a more positive emotional place. That means you can be more confident your ethical decisions are correct, and you can realize your ethical mistakes faster (and correct them). Also, because emotions affect your judgment, focusing on emotional control makes you more rational.
The second advantage is that I believe that people naturally judge one another according to virtue ethics. We instinctively look to the motivation and character of a person in deciding whether an action is right or wrong. The criminal justice system does this explicitly – courts look at the mens rea or mental element of most serious crimes, and vary their punishments accordingly. Murder and manslaughter have the same consequences, but we treat them differently because we recognize that different motivations deserve different moral condemnation.
And if ethics is something that has (as I believe) evolved in human beings, it makes sense that it would be comprised of character traits – which are heritable – rather than a set of abstract rules. It should also be rational – that is, ethical behavior could only evolve if it benefitted the individual at some level.
Virtue ethics is the reason why someone like Louis CK can say a sexist joke and get away with it, while someone else gets crucified. We like Louis CK, he seems like a more or less positive guy, and not full of bitterness, so we let it pass and laugh with him. Then some asshole we don’t like repeats it, and people get offended because they sense a negativity that isn’t present when Louis CK does his bit.
Virtue ethics isn’t exactly “fair” (whatever that means), it means that confident and positive people get away with things that negative and unconfident don’t get away with. But it also reflects the reality of social interactions. The fact is, positive and confident people CAN get away with saying and doing things that negative and needy people can’t get away with. Hitting on a woman when you’re coming from a place of abundance, of confidence and strength, when you come in with the attitude that you have something to offer her will usually be welcomed, while hitting on women with the attitude that you want something will often lead to a blowout. It’s a subtle difference, but people read your intentions through your body language and tonality and judge you accordingly. And don’t get me started on how fear and hatred towards women can kill your game (and your entire social life).
Taking a virtue ethics perspective on things changes your view of morality. Sexism and racism aren’t wrong just because of their consequences, but because they are character flaws. Things like anger and hatred become unjustifiable – it doesn’t matter if you think you have a good reason to hate people, because hate itself is the source of wrongdoing. Virtue ethics means you have a responsibility to treat people with respect (something which is within your control), but you’re not ultimately responsible for their emotions or making them happy (which is out of your control anyways).
It’s not easy – you need to have your shit in order. You need to address the pain, anger, neediness, hatred or fears that can cause you to be selfish and unethical. You can’t lie to yourself, or ignore facts that you don’t like. You need to accept some difficult truths about the world that many people try to resist. You need to give up the desire to control things outside your control, and focus your energy on the things you do control.
But when you find yourself coming from the right place, coming from a place of abundance and strength, you get this kind of liberated feeling. You can do what you want – what comes naturally to you – and let go of shame and guilt. People respect and trust you more, because they sense you’re acting from your center, rather than consulting a book of rules. You can pursue your self-interest, because there’s no natural conflict between pursuing your (enlightened) self-interest, and being an ethical person.
You’re no longer a slave following other people’s rules, but you’re an independent human being who has an integrity that people and society respect.
And that’s ethical confidence.