Here is an exercise for your imagination.
Imagine you are holding a popsicle stick. Now take that popsicle stick by the ends and bend it a little. By bending it you are putting it under stress. Feel the pressure it takes to hold it there under stress.
That’s not hard to imagine is it? If you had a real popsicle stick you could get it and do that for real. But we don't need to because we know that the real experience would be more or less as we imagine it. You might find that the stick was either harder or easier to bend than you imagined but you’d get the experience right.
Now I want you to go further. Put it under even more stress but not so much that it breaks. You can do that can’t you? You could do it with a real popsicle stick.
Okay, final step, snap the popsicle stick with your fingers.
Now think of how easily we apply the idea of “stress” to ourselves. We say, “I’m under a lot of stress right now.” We might even say, “He was under a lot of stress and one day he just snapped.”
There is obviously something right about that image. When we talk about stress, everyone knows what we mean. But there is also something wrong about it.
What is wrong?
Well, consider this. Take a box of 1000 popsicle sticks and take them to a lab. With the right equipment we can bend those sticks and measure how much pressure we are using each time. If we do so, we will discover that all popsicle sticks bend about the same amount when a certain amount of pressure is applied. Push them further and we will discover that they all snap at about the same amount of pressure. There will be a little variance but not much.
Now think of how different human beings are. Some people can deal with very little mental stress some can deal with large amounts of it.
And here’s another thing. If you stress a popsicle stick until it bends you make it weaker. The next time you apply stress to it that popsicle stick will be less able to withstand stress. People aren’t like that. Some people get better at dealing with mental stress as time goes on. Others get worse.
When a human being snaps, therefore, it’s not at all like a popsicle stick snapping. Stress is not something that happens to us as is the case for the popsicle stick. As a famous formulation has it, “Stress is not the car that cuts you off on the highway, it’s your reaction to it.”
And you can control your reaction. You can learn how to deal with stress more effectively. And it is reasonable to judge people based on how well they have learned to handle stress. We might say, “Joe only snapped because he has always run away from problems all his life and when he ran into one he couldn’t run away from, he couldn’t deal with it.”
We can blame Joe for snapping even though we can see he had no control over his reactions at the moment he snapped. We blame him for that reaction even though we know he couldn’t control because we know he has been moral weakling for his entire life. If he had not been, he would have been able to deal with it.
My point is this: think of how misleading the language of stress can be. We take this concept from physics where it means something very clear and apply it to our moral lives and it doesn’t quite fit.
The same considerations apply to our use of moral perspective and I’ll get to that in a later post.