Taking Responsibility For Your Life, One Apple Box at a Time

Taking Responsibility For Your Life, One Apple Box at a Time

Do you have a right to be happy? A right to be satisfied at your job? A right to friendship? 

Stop and really think about it for a moment. Think about what it takes to get those things in your life. Are you entitled to them simply because you exist?

Your first instinct is probably to say yes, of course you have a right to happiness and friendship. On some level you might be right, but I’m here to make the opposite case.

You’re not entitled to happiness, friendship, or anything like that. Furthermore, if you genuinely think you are, you have the same mindset as a kid in the toy store who stamps their feet until mom buys them everything they want.

Wrestling with Responsibility

Young children aren’t responsible for anything. They don’t have to work, do dishes, or buy snow tires. If they need something, then theoretically their parents provide it. This happens with such regularity that some children throw a fit when they don’t get what they want. They expect their desires to be automatically met, almost as if they have a right to that bag of candy from the store.

As we mature, we learn that fulfilling our wants and needs isn’t as simple as waiting for someone else to take care of them. If we want something, we have to put in the effort and exchange something for it, such as time or money. Meals don’t just magically appear on our table; they have to be purchased and prepared. Growing up is the slow process of realizing we have to shoulder these burdens ourselves.

This makes perfect sense to most adults, especially when it comes to tangible things like finding a home. We don’t expect to live rent-free in the apartment of our choosing.

Strangely, though, this doesn’t translate to some other concepts, like happiness or friendship which we mentioned above. There are many things people think they are owed even though they refuse to put in the effort to obtain them.

Health is a good example of this. We all know that eating fast food and candy bars every day is a bad idea. When we gain a bunch of weight, though, we want to say it’s genetics or society or some kind of stealth calories companies hide in our meals.

We think we’re entitled to a thin and healthy body, but it’s being denied to us by forces outside of our control. The reality is we simply need to accept responsibility for our situation and eat a salad once in a while.

Teaching Obedience instead of Responsibility

The modern educational system is guilty of perpetuating this concept of entitlement. Instead of teaching young adults to take action and be responsible, they encourage us to be passive and wait for life to be delivered on a plate.

One of the biggest benefits of getting a degree, we’re told, is that it proves to the world how responsible we are. Anyone who turns in their homework on time, does every assignment from the syllabus, and aces all of their tests must be responsible, right?

Following a list of instructions doesn’t prove responsibility, though. It really just proves obedience, which you could argue is the opposite of responsibility.

Think about it this way: if you train a dog to sit on command, who is responsible for the trick? The dog is the one that actually carries out the action, but it’s you who made the choices and put in the effort to teach it. The dog wouldn’t have done all of this itself.

In the case of universities, you pay mountains of money to get a list of chores handed to you at the beginning of each semester. If you complete those chores, you prove you can follow instructions. The university trained you to do a trick and you get a degree as a reward.

When you graduate you retain that same mindset: “I got a job, now society has to bend over backwards to make me happy.” Life doesn’t owe you that, though, and you shouldn’t sit and wait for it to deliver. It’s your responsibility to actively ensure your own happiness, not everyone else’s.

After graduation, you suddenly have to write your own chores list. The university didn’t prepare you for that, and neither did being a kid. Now’s the time to get rid of that childish mindset and take control of your own life.

Taking Responsibility Changed My Life

For most of our young lives we’re shuffled from group activity to group activity. Playdates as toddlers, birthday parties with neighborhood kids, 13 or more years sitting in classrooms with our peers. That has value when we’re still figuring out how life works, but what about when we’re older and more capable? Should we still expect friendships to drop in our lap?

I certainly did. After graduation I moved out on my own, far from the town I grew up in. Months passed and I had yet to make any new friends. Something was clearly wrong, and I knew it had nothing to do with me. The people here were obviously flawed.

In the past, friendships always sort of happened. I was in a class with a few decent people, we hung out a few times, and that’s it, BFFs. But how was I supposed to connect with people when we aren’t trapped in a room together day after day?

It took some time, but I eventually figured out that the problem really was me. I thought the way to make friends was to wait for it to happen. Friendship and happiness are just supposed to be there. When friends didn’t show up, I simply waited more.

When we feel like we’re entitled to or have a right to something, what we’re actually saying is we want someone else to do the work for us. By maintaining my thinking pattern of “other people will befriend me,” I was no different from the child waiting for his parents to put dinner on the table.

By the time I arrived at this conclusion, I had already made a few casual friends. (Or, more accurately, they made friends with me.)  But I realized they were completely wrong for me. They were friends of proximity and convenience, not of shared interests or compatibility. I took what was given to me and thought that was the best I could hope for.

One ordinary summer day, I did a full 180 on that passive attitude. I ditched my friends, every single one of them. I went from friendful to friendless in a matter of seconds, all by conscious choice.

And you know what? It felt great. I took control, I became responsible, I stopped waiting for other people to give me the things I needed. That act filled me with energy, confidence, and courage, and all it took was me making that single decision.

ABCs of Responsibility

We’re not entitled to have happiness, friendship, or a satisfying career, but we are entitled to pursue those things. There’s a world of difference between these mindsets, and it all comes down to responsibility.

Refusing responsibility is to embrace inertia. When you look at your life with an attitude of “I have a right to something,” you’re really saying you don’t want to put in the work to get that thing, you just want to have it, and you want someone else to get it for you.

At the other extreme we have an excess of responsibility. Just because you can influence something in your life doesn’t mean you’re required to. This would lead to a level of self-policing that makes a domineering parent seem mild by comparison.

If you overdo it with responsibility you risk shifting attention from yourself to the things you’re trying to be responsible for. After that it’s just a few quick steps to becoming a tyrant. I’ve fallen into this trap many times in my own life. It leads to anxiety, anger, and many other unsavory emotions.

There is a healthy balance somewhere between micromanaging our responsibilities and being completely apathetic. We all have to find that on our own, but it always starts with an honest examination of your life and a careful noting of the things you are actually capable of influencing.

Biting off Bits of Responsibility

My journey started with the rather large gesture of ditching unhealthy friends. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that everyone begin there, as it’s a bit of a wild leap. A better starting point would be the changes I made shortly afterwards.

I could talk about the usual stuff people do when they make a positive shift in their life. I bought less junk food, for example, which led to healthier eating patterns. But instead, I want to talk about something far less obvious: cleaning out my closet.

At the back of my home office was a small closet filled with eight identical apple boxes. Inside of those boxes were knicknacks from childhood, old clothes, miscellaneous memorabilia, you name it. I don’t know why I had been holding onto these things, but I knew I hated how full that closet was, and that I could take responsibility for that mess.

Cleaning out the closet isn’t a single action; it’s a series of tiny actions that fit into a larger whole. It starts by pulling out one box. I open that box and I pick through individual items inside. Do I need this 20-year-old toy? How about those empty Nintendo 64 game boxes or the purple shirt I literally never want to wear again?

Each item I examined was a small bite of responsibility. Those bites quickly added up to a full meal. I wasn’t a slave to that cluttered closet, just like I wasn’t a slave to other people’s desire to befriend me. Moving from passive entitlement to active responsibility is as easy as taking those steps. In fact, you can start right now.

Look at your surroundings, think about a conversation you had yesterday, examine your desk, check out the dust on top of your laptop. Is there anything you can do at this moment to improve these things? 

Of course there is. It’s easy to dust your PC or tidy your desk. It’s even easy to bring up an argument you had with your parents the other day and start a genuine conversation about it. You don’t have to drag every single apple box out of the closet right now and create another huge mess. Just take one, look at a few things inside, and make a decision. That’s progress, and it’s surprisingly energizing.

You are in charge of the things in your life; they are not in charge of you. Don’t just understand that passively: put it into action by taking that first step.

John Bardinelli writes philosophy content at Universal Owl and edits both psychology and finance articles. He has worked as a professional writer and author for nearly two decades.

His main areas of interest include philosophy, technology, science fiction, and history. When John isn’t writing, he’s either exploring quiet corners of the natural world or sitting behind a cup of coffee in a cafe.


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How Universities Infantilize Teens, and How Parents Can Fight Back

How Universities Infantilize Teens, and How Parents Can Fight Back

The time between the ages of 16 and 25 can be a period of fast-tracked emotional, intellectual and spiritual growth for many young people. They may look like fully capable adults, but their cognitive reasoning skills are still very much tied to the outside world, especially to parents and educational environments. 

Just like anyone, young people in this age group can make mistakes and they can get hurt. As parents, it’s hard for us to sit back and let that happen, no matter how big or small those mistakes might be.

A university shouldn’t have that problem, though. These institutions are supposedly preparing our teens to lead successful adult lives. Instead, they infantilize students more than most parents, encouraging an attitude of helplessness and fear instead of strength and independence.

It’s Easy for Parents to Infantilize Their Kids

Parents often infantilize their children by telling them they have choices, then subverting those choices when children try to exercise them. “You can choose any toy you want at the store. Oh, except the one you just pointed at, that one’s too noisy.”

There are right times and wrong times in a child’s development to be a watchful and cautious parent. It’s during the teen years that these efforts often come across as infantilizing, leading to terms like helicopter dad, tiger mom, and snowplow parents.

For me, as a single parent of three, it was critical to our survival as a family that I provided guidance and safe spaces for my kids to become as self-aware and self-reliant as possible. I quickly learned there was no one-size-fits-all method for doing this. 

Every person has a unique learning language, including our own kids. I had to tailor my approach to each child in order to provide instruction without needlessly infantilizing them.

How Universities Promote Infantilization

Children receive instruction from outside the family, too. The most common sources are daycares and schools. We expect a certain amount of this external instruction when our kids are younger, but by the time they’re old enough to go to university, parents know we have to start cutting the cord.

Unfortunately, it seems universities haven’t gotten this message. They continue to teach obedience and avoidance of adversity instead of promoting strength and autonomy. Not only is that counter to what parents try to do with their children, it’s also harmful to students themselves.

Schools systematically infantilize students by monitoring and controlling their every waking moment. Denying them the ability to set their own schedules or form their own study plans is only the beginning.

Many schools force students to surrender their cell phones at the start of class, yet teachers are free to use their devices all day. Some even require students to ask permission to use the restroom, denying them control over their own bodily functions.

One of my children struggled with not being allowed to leave her desk without permission from the teacher. A simple request to get her jacket felt like a ridiculous restriction to her, especially since she was raised at home to be more autonomous in accomplishing simple tasks.

It’s through situations like these that universities preach empowerment and human rights while simultaneously denying the same to their students. This is perhaps the result of overcrowded schools or overworked teachers, but the damage is still being done to our young people’s sense of independence.

Kids and Teens Can Be Capable, If We Let Them

As a single parent of three children, I had to prepare myself early on for the arrival of teenage rebellion. This was going to be different from the terrible twos rebellion. I would be dealing with complex young adults, each with different styles for receiving, processing, and delivering information.

I found success using the most direct method I could think of: actions create consequences. By working with my teens and showing them the ins and outs of cause and effect in the real world, I realized I could curb a fair amount of rebellion before it started.

I encouraged my kids early on to be self-aware and self-sufficient in as many ways as possible. This presented problems when they went through the public school system. The environment there promotes a herd mentality, which was precisely the opposite of what I was teaching.

To offset this, I encouraged my kids to be accountable at home and let them know that this attitude should continue everywhere in the world, including at school. It’s this sapling level of self-sufficiency that I think had the most impact on my kids, both when they were young and as they grew up.

Thoughtfulness, autonomy, and a good understanding of how the world works, it all adds up to a stronger young adult, even when they’re faced with the infantilizing environment of universities.

Encouraging Individuation

Our job as parents seems pretty clear: support our kids, give them the tools they need to be self-sufficient, and be mindful of infantilizing them as they grow older. Our job isn’t to protect them from adversity, it’s to give them the tools they need to face it and grow from it.

Universities should also encourage this attitude. After all, that’s what we want from adults, right? Strong and thoughtful and autonomous. Heroic, even. Teens can handle this if we give them the chance, but right now, the second most abundant influence in a young adult’s life — their time spent at school — actively tries to destroy individuation.

We need to start lessons in autonomy young, long before our kids consider going to university. It’s only natural that teens and young adults will often lack impulse control. They may say or do things and don’t grasp the ramifications immediately. They may lack the ability to see the end game in their words or actions. But that’s ok. It’s part of the learning process.

As a parent or educator, it’s important to remember not to swoop in and rescue, deflect, or deny this behavior, but to model appropriate behavior and guide young adults with respect. Eventually, they’ll be flying on their own. 

If we teach our children how to behave, then let them practice, eventually they will manage life’s ups and downs. Create controlled environments at home where kids can voice their opinions and engage in responsible behaviors. Once these habits are in place, encourage them to practice their independence outside of the home, with friends, and at school. More importantly, provide open channels for communication and offer feedback as necessary.

Ultimately, it’s far more advantageous to find that balance between treating kids like adults and helping them reach that level of maturity than it is to keep them oppressed.

Shannon Llewellyn is the health writer for Universal Owl. A Cordon Bleu chef who always enjoyed writing on the side, she recently made the transition into writing full-time.

Her spare time is mostly taken up with running, meditating, yoga, and being grandma to Sammy.


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Self-Esteem is an Unhelpful Concept – You Need Self-Efficacy Instead

Self-Esteem is an Unhelpful Concept – You Need Self-Efficacy Instead

You’ve no doubt heard teachers, parents, or coaches talking about the importance of self-esteem. Maybe you’ve even had a professor tell your class that you are all special.

This kind of thinking comes from a good place — wanting to ensure that young people have high self-esteem and feel good about themselves.

But self-esteem is an unhelpful concept with no practical value. Accepting empty platitudes does nothing and leads nowhere. You’re far better off putting in the effort to learn real skills to build self-esteem from the inside out.

Let me explain.

Why We Talk About Self-Esteem Today

In the 1980s, researchers in education noticed that children who were more successful also had higher self-esteem, meaning they agreed with statements like “I am special” and “I can do anything I put my mind to.” So, the researchers thought, if we could only boost the self-esteem of all children, then they’d be more successful.

The idea became popular in schools, self help books, and parenting guides, and it’s still common today. It became so prevalent that people think they’re entitled to that empty praise, no matter what they do.

Here’s the problem: the fact that children had high self-esteem was the result of their success, not the cause of it. Trying to boost self-esteem doesn’t necessarily result in people being more successful. It might make them puff up and feel good, but that sensation is fleeting.

What is Self-Esteem, Anyway?

One problem with projects that try to boost self-esteem is they fail to adequately define what the concept is in the first place. Self-esteem is vague and covers a whole range of different ideas, including:

  • Self-confidence: the feeling that you are capable of taking on new things and doing well at them.
  • Self-worth: the idea that all humans have inherent value which should be respected and appreciated.
  • Ego boosting:  bigging yourself up to make yourself feel better.

These concepts have their place in our lives, but mixing them up only serves to confuse people. If you want to feel self-confident, for example, pursuing bravado or boosting your ego will not help you.

Self-Efficacy is More Important

If self-esteem isn’t helpful, then what is? In both my personal experience and based on the evidence from psychology research, what really makes a difference to people’s state of mind and the way they approach life is confidence.

When I say confidence, I don’t mean bragging or hollow swagger. I don’t mean faking or pretending that you have abilities that you don’t. And I don’t mean putting other people down in order to make yourself feel better.

Real confidence is the result of competence. It comes from having faced challenges in the past which you have overcome, and from feeling that you are capable of facing new challenges in the future.

Do you remember learning how to ride a bike? Figuring out how to swim? How to do long division for the first time? Before you learned these skills they seemed scary, like something you’d never be able to do. But with practice you were able to manage them.

Once you mastered those skills, they seemed easy. You felt confident doing them. You increased your level of self-efficacy in these areas and earned self-esteem as a result.

How to Build Self-Efficacy

Self-esteem isn’t something to strive towards or look for in life, it’s the result of building self-efficacy. So, what do you do to become a more capable, more confident person? There are a few key ways to build yourself up, and they have nothing to do with empty platitudes or flat praise from teachers.

Commit to a Long-Term Process

One of the reasons that building self-esteem became so popular in schools is that it’s seemingly a quick fix that can be applied to groups of people. If you build self-esteem, there’s no need to change teaching methods or purchase expensive new equipment, no need to look at how confidence develops over years. Teachers only need to say complimentary things to their students, then they’ll do better.

The truth is that building self-efficacy takes a long time, especially if you don’t feel sure of your abilities. Building confidence is a process that takes years and requires a lot of commitment.

Learn New Skills

There’s no better way to improve your confidence than to try out a new skill. Whether it’s learning a language, trying your hand at a craft, or taking up a creative hobby, there’s immense psychological value in acquiring a new skill. When there is something you start off not knowing how to do, then practise and overcome that challenge, you feel more capable of doing new things in the future.

I have always thought of myself as someone who was good at academic tasks, but bad at physical ones. I was always terrible at sports and hated being forced to exercise as a kid. When I was an adult, though, I found myself enjoying cycling, running, and lifting weights. These skills weren’t beyond me — they were just things I hadn’t learned before. Learning them and growing my skills made me feel not only physically better, but also like a more capable person.

Learning a new skill also requires that you accept your failures. You aren’t going to be good at everything straight away. You’ll learn to see that something you’re doing isn’t working, then change your approach to something different. When you are able to accept this try-fail-retry cycle, you’ll be less intimidated by new challenges and more satisfied by your successes.

Acknowledge Weaknesses

Finally, there’s one aspect of confidence which is highly underrated, and that is acknowledging your weaknesses. This might sound counter-intuitive, as most people think those who are confident only talk about what they’re good at and don’t have any areas of weakness. In reality, that simply isn’t the case.

No one is skilled at everything. Pretending that you have strengths or skills you don’t possess won’t benefit you in the long run. If you don’t know what your weaknesses are, you can’t learn to overcome them to become more competent.

True confidence includes honest acknowledgement of both your abilities and your limitations. It involves knowing that just because you’re not good at everything doesn’t mean you can’t improve. It also doesn’t mean you have nothing useful to offer the world.

You Don’t Need Ego, You Need Competence

Building self-esteem has to be done from within. Bathing in the empty praise of others does nothing to improve you as a person, nor does it build self-confidence or self-efficacy. Feeling like you’re entitled to self-esteem is essentially saying you want people to tell you you’re great without earning those compliments.

Do you really want that? Do you really want to be told you’re talented, intelligent, and successful, or do you want to be those things through and through?

To be more successful in life, being told that you’re great won’t cut it. You need to go out in the world and learn skills, whether it’s food preparation or effective communication. That’s how you gain self-efficacy, that’s how you build self-esteem, and that’s how you improve your life in the long run.

Georgina Torbet writes for Universal Owl on a variety of topics related to psychology. She is a former academic, having done a PhD in psychology and a masters in cognitive neuroscience before deciding to pursue a career in science writing.

She is passionate about educating the public about scientific topics and believes it is never too late in life to start learning. When not writing about science, she is usually to be found tinkering with PC hardware or reading comics.


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Universities Charge High Tuition Because They Can, Not Because They Must

Universities Charge High Tuition Because They Can, Not Because They Must

Going to university is expensive. Most people assume it’s because institutions have to pay professors and maintain large campus grounds, but it turns out this has little to do with tuition rates.

High tuition is the result of easily obtainable student funding in the form of loans and grants. Young people can borrow virtually any amount of money to attend school, and they don’t have to think about paying it back for years. This creates a false sense of financial security that starts to collapse the moment they get their degree.

Universities aren’t afraid to take advantage of these easily available funds by raising the price of tuition year after year. The more money potential students think they can access, the more universities will charge. This places people under an increasing burden of debt they will likely never recover from.

Rising Cost of Getting a Degree

The average tuition for private universities in the U.S. has more than tripled since 1987. Even public universities, which usually cost about two thirds less, have followed this trend. The situation is similar in the UK, where yearly fees rose sharply until they were capped at £9,250 ($11,836) in 2017.

Source: BBC

High tuition translates to high debt after graduation. The U.S. College Board calculates the average cumulative student debt balance for graduates of public four-year schools was $26,900 (£21,047) in 2017, and $32,600 (£25,507) for private non-profit four-year schools. It’s no better in the UK where the average student graduates with over £50,000 of loan debt.

Universities claim these increases are necessary. If we compare post-graduate degree fees with similar undergraduate courses, though, we see there is an unusual cost disparity. Around 80% of UK universities charge the maximum in tuition fees. Those same universities charge thousands less for post-grad courses in the same subjects. These programs are more competitive than undergraduate programs and should cost more as a result. The price difference shows that tuition rates do not necessarily parallel the cost of providing the education.

Easy Money for Universities, Hard Debt for Students

There is no driving will from universities to reduce costs or lower tuition fees, and there hasn’t been for decades. Two key factors have contributed to this: more students applying to university, and easy access to student loan funds.

Author and professor of economics Richard Vedder says universities will continue to raise prices, safe in the knowledge that students can always access loan funds to pay fees. Universities don’t have to worry about repeat customers, after all. They simply send graduates on their way and welcome a new crop of freshly indebted students the next year.

This financial cycle isn’t new. Universities have been called out many times for perpetuating it. A 1987 op-ed titled “Our Greedy Colleges” slams universities for taking advantage of federal aid policies to increase their bottom line. Over 30 years later the Foundation for Economic Education echoed the statement in a piece titled “Why College Tuition is So Expensive”, pointing out that the loan program offers what feels like “free money” to young people and encourages economically irrational behaviour.

Could university tuition fees be lowered without impacting education? It seems likely. Are universities willing to lower fees? Not as long as they can get easy money from students loaded with loans.

Degrees are Consumer Goods

The UK company All Car Leasing says its top five best-selling vehicles in 2018 included two Mercedes-Benz models and a BMW. These brands were once considered luxury vehicles, yet now they’re at the top of the most-leased list. What happened?

Those cars didn’t get cheaper; the initial financial barrier to get them simply lowered. People buy those cars on credit. We see this same economic model in the smartphone market where consumers get high-end phones in exchange for monthly payments. This allowed Apple to release $1,000+ iPhone models that pushed the company’s value above $1 trillion in 2019, despite a drop in overall sales growth. People are reluctant to pay $1,000 upfront for a phone. But $120 per month? Sign me up!

This same model is playing out with student loans and universities. Because there is no upfront cost to get a degree, young adults take the investment lightly, often seeing it as just a piece of paper to sign before matriculation.

We tend to think of going to university as a universally “good thing”, an investment in our future happiness and financial security. We need to stop thinking this way. Degrees actually have more in common with an ordinary consumer product that’s marketed and sold for profit.

In the TedX talk above, Sajay Samuel argues that a degree falls into the category of consumer goods. By engaging this shift in thinking, we can finally see that going into debt to get a degree isn’t always a sound investment. Most of the time it’s precisely the opposite.

Borrowed Money isn’t Free Money

When asked if the financial benefits of their degree outweighed the costs, just 51% of millennial graduates with student loan debt said yes.

What products would you use if the satisfaction rate was only 51%? If it was a smartphone or a TV, you probably wouldn’t bother, and you certainly wouldn’t go into debt to use it. Why, then, do we justify investing tens of thousands of pounds and years of our lives to get a degree that, by and large, doesn’t deliver the benefits it promises?

There is a fundamental error in the way we view the economics of going to university. We don’t look at our finances and calmly evaluate the cost of getting a degree weighed against real world benefits. We pick a university and borrow as much as it takes to pay tuition. It’s easy to spend money when it doesn’t come out of our own pocket. That spending will catch up to us, though. The majority of graduates are not prepared for that reality, and neither their university education nor their degree will help them out.

As I wrote in a previous article, degrees are not magic bullets that make life better for everyone. Degrees are a consumer product, packaged and marketed to teens, and we should treat them as such.

Thinking Like a Consumer

Before deciding to attend university, ask yourself the same questions you would ask before buying an expensive product:

  • What are the main benefits you will receive in exchange for the investment?
  • What will you be able to do with the degree once you have it in hand?
  • What are the alternatives, and how does their price to quality ratio stack up?

Don’t just ask these questions and accept an off-the-cuff answer from your family. Do the research. Look at data, find candid testimonies, search for both positive and negative opinions so you can be well-informed. Student loans often seem like free money that will be easy to pay back after graduation. There is an overwhelming amount of evidence that this is rarely the case.

The smart consumer looks beyond the marketing when making buying decisions. Potential university students should do the same. Don’t let easy funds from loans trick you into making a financially unsound decision.

John Alexander Adam writes for Universal Owl on topics relating to finance. An entrepreneur, he has one successful exit behind him. John has almost 10 years of experience as a writer and editor on consumer finance, investment and tech topics.

He currently writes and consults while studying for his purple belt in SEO and conversion science. In his spare time, he enthusiastically pursues hobbies he’s not very good at, such as football, squash and raising a small child.


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Why Young People Should Reject Moral Relativism To Lead a Better Life

Why Young People Should Reject Moral Relativism To Lead a Better Life

What makes something good or bad? How do we determine right from wrong when there are so many different opinions on the topic? Philosophers, religious leaders, and everyone in between have been trying to figure this out for thousands of years. 

One attempt at answering this question is moral relativism. The theory goes a bit like this:

“There is no such thing as universal right or wrong. People and cultures are free to form their own moral truths, and those truths are always correct, as there are no objective truths to compare them to.”

A lot of people today subscribe to moral relativism, but I believe it’s a dangerous concept that encourages individuals and entire societies to abandon the quest for betterment. Let me explain.

Adding Relativism to Morality

The concept of relativism stretches back thousands of years. 

A classic example of moral relativism comes to us from the ancient historian Herodotus. He describes an encounter between the Callatians, a tribe who ate their dead, and the ancient Greeks, who practised cremation. Each group thought their own practice was “right” and the other’s was “wrong.”

A moral relativist would say that both the ancient Greeks and the Callatians were in the right. There is no universally correct way to dispose of the dead, no rules dealt out by the universe that dictate what we’re supposed to do. And besides, who are we to judge what another culture does?

This sounds like a harmonious outlook towards life, especially in our modern society with its emphasis on tolerating others. The reality is that it’s a fundamentally broken theory. 

Moral Relativism is Logically Inconsistent

Consider the core statement of moral relativism, that all truths are relative. 

The problem is this: “all truths are relative” is itself a universal claim about moral truths. You can’t simultaneously claim there’s no such thing as universal truth AND then make a universal statement like that about all truths

This is logically self-contradictory and serves as the first sign that the theory is broken.

Moral Relativism Ignores Reality

There is a real world out there and we can use that to inform many of the moral decisions we make. Consider this nice picture of the Eiffel Tower:

Let’s say that Sally believes the Eiffel Tower is made of cheese. Roger believes it’s made of soap. Should we conclude that because these two disagree there is no universally correct answer to the question? Of course not. There are ways to objectively determine what the Eiffel Tower is composed of (it’s iron, by the way). This remains true no matter what Sally or Roger believe.

Morals are less tangible than towers, but there are still cases when they can be informed by objective data. To return to the ancient Greek example from earlier, we now know there are health hazards associated with cannibalism. Practising cannibalism carries those risks, no matter what our beliefs are.

By studying the real world, we can find information about what our morals point to and make well-reasoned decisions that are good for both ourselves and for society.

Moral Relativism as an Excuse for Evil

Still think moral relativism is okay? Sure, it’s logically inconsistent, but who cares? Let me challenge you a bit further.

Here’s a sobering fact: moral relativism requires us to accept the worst parts of human nature as morally permissible

  • Thomas enjoys raping babies in his spare time. But who are we to judge whether this is good or bad?
  • David keeps a slave who he forces to work for 20 hours a day without stopping. If the slave wants a break, David beats him with a stick. Oh well, David is entitled to his own beliefs.
  • Elizabeth burns her husband with a lighter whenever she is angry. After all, it’s what her mum did to her, so it’s fine. To each their own, right?

It doesn’t take much empathy to realise that the behaviour in these examples is morally unacceptable. Regardless of the moral standards of the time, behaviour like this has been objectively wrong across all cultures for all of human history, and will continue to be so in the future. 

But here’s the problem: if you believe in moral relativism, you have no logical basis for calling out behaviour like this. Morality is relative, so everything is fine. It’s just a matter of opinion.

Frankly, this is lazy reasoning that is used to justify cowardly behaviour — like not calling examples like these evil.

Moral Relativism Leads to Individual and Cultural Stagnation

To be clear, I don’t think that most of the people who believe in moral relativism would support the sort of sociopathic behaviour described above. 

Rather, my main reason for speaking out against moral relativism is that it discourages reflection and self-improvement. If everything is relative, there is nothing to strive for. 

If a moral relativist were to live consistently with their theory, they would do nothing but sit around in bed all day watching Netflix. After all, what’s the point in taking action to live a better life if everything is relative anyway? 

Starting an exercise routine, going to therapy, or founding a business are all a waste of time, because someone who’s doing those things is neither better nor worse off than someone who is not. 

Even science itself and the pursuit of objective knowledge would become pointless. It’s just a matter of opinion, say the relativists. Who are we to judge? Why bother forging our own path if everything we believe is already correct? 

This is a cowardly way to live and a terrible way to set up a society. 

My Journey From Moral Relativism to Self-Improvement

Over the last 10 years, I have observed a number of dysfunctional behaviours in myself and the people around me. Here are just a few examples:

  • I was given to manipulating people to get approval from them, especially women. I previously wrote about this here.
  • I used to eat poorly and had energy issues as a result. Now I meal prep once a week and have a great diet. 
  • I have been to therapy multiple times and identified a lot of dysfunction in my family environment.
  • I used to feel a lot of anxiety about spending money on anything that was non-essential. I needed to learn about financial abundance and rethink my mindset.

If I had no objective moral standard to compare my own behaviour against, none of this growth would have been possible. Yes, seeing my own flaws has been painful, but that pain has been so worthwhile. 

My intention for Universal Owl is to help young people embark on their own journey of self-betterment. It is my belief that this is how we improve society: by encouraging each individual to accept responsibility for their own inadequacies from a young age and work through their own issues. 

There are objectively healthy behaviours in the realms of relationships, communication, diet, sleep, finances and more. It is the mission of Universal Owl to uncover these behaviours and teach them to as many young people as possible.

Becoming a Better Person

The path to self-betterment begins with comparing ourselves against an objective moral standard and realising that we can improve ourselves. 

There are ways to objectively measure what is good, especially in the areas of life that come into direct contact with the real world. It’s a gradual process of analysing your inner world, comparing it to the external world, searching for an action you can take that would bring about change for good, then finding the best way to implement that change.

Sometimes this change is as simple as removing harmful habits or starting up new ones, like creating an exercise routine. That might sound like an insignificant move, but it’s objectively better than not exercising, and can lead to improvements across your entire life.

Other times, change for the better means learning a new skill, something that’s useful no matter where you live or what you do. Writing and speaking skills can help you better articulate your ideas to the world. That holds true no matter what you do for a living, making it an incredibly useful meta-skill to work on, one that is universally good.

But self-betterment can’t happen if we ignore objective facts. Not every idea, opinion, or moral outlook is correct, let alone good for individuals or good for the world. And that is why we must dispense with moral relativism. 

By looking at objective reality as often as possible, and by considering our actions in terms of their broader implication, we can take huge strides in the direction of living healthier, more functional, and more conscious lives.

Geoff Walters is a six-time entrepreneur and founder of Universal Owl. He has been fascinated by the subject of personal development for ten years, and enjoys passing lessons from his own life experience to younger people.

Areas of interest include wealth creation, nutrition, chess, classical music, psychology, communication and languages.


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