On Hermits and Morality

I’m very concerned about the morality of being a hermit.

I’m not sure why exactly I am so absorbed by this topic, but I find it deeply distressing to imagine that hermits might not be moral.

In case this concern has never crossed your mind, I’ll start with some simplified arguments that being a hermit is indeed not moral.

Perhaps it is every person’s moral obligation to care for and support others. You can’t care for and support others when you’re a hermit, so it is not moral to be a hermit.

Perhaps it is every person’s moral obligation to be the best person they can be. Hermitage may have some benefit in this regard – time for silent, isolated meditation is well regarded as a tool for self improvement.

It is only because Siddhārtha Gautama meditated in isolation for 49 days and 49 nights that he reached enlightenment. Jesus wandered the desert for 40 days.

But this isolation of spiritual discovery is a temporary state. A deep breath rather than a permanent state of being.

After achieving enlightenment, the Buddha dedicated his life to traveling and educating. He had an obligation to share what he had learned.

Thoreau returned from the woods.

A temporary removal from society might be beneficial, but a permanent removal means never learning from another person. It means never being told you’re wrong. It means never having that creative tension between others that makes everyone better in the end.

And here we come back to concern of caring for others. Even if you frame that in the negative – a person’s moral obligation is to do no harm – by removing yourself from society you are doing harm. You are depriving others of your voice, your ideas, your perspectives.

The best solutions come from many voices. And every voice in unique.

Removing your voice from the dialogue not only degrades yourself, it degrades  the whole. In this sense, choosing a life of solitude is not moral in two ways – you lose out on the opportunity to improve through the work of others, and they lose out on the opportunity to improve through the works of you.

Thus, in many senses, an intentional choice to remove yourself from society is not moral. It causes too much damage to yourself and those around you.

There’s a lot about these arguments I appreciate. I believe everyone is a special snowflake. I believe that every voice matters. I believe that learning from others can make us our best selves and I believe that sharing our voice can help others, too.

But does it then follow that being a hermit is not moral? That interacting with others is the moral path?

I have trouble making that leap.

Morality implies judgement. Morality implies a Right and Wrong. But I am not prepared to judge those who isolate themselves – physically, socially, or emotionally – from society.

For myself, I am particularly interested in those last two pieces. It may sound odd at first, but anyone whose every felt alone in a crowded room can attest that the latter is indeed possible.

A common reaction to trauma is a sort of emotional isolation – a certain detachment that gives you just enough light to see the world, but enough protection not to face it.

For most of us, this is a temporary condition – the loss of a loved one can invoke an emotional shock which leaves you incapacitated and temporarily unable to process human interaction. You are not so much sad as dead inside.

This is normal.

And it is difficult. But for most of us, this shock fades. These wounds heal.

But I’m not sure the process is so simple – if you’ll forgive that word – for those who have faced deep, lasting traumatic experiences.

If there reaction is to shut themselves off as a result of this trauma. If they find the world and their reality too much to bear, who am I to judge them? Who am I to tell them they are wrong.

Arguably, social integration is the healthiest thing for them, but that’s a far cry from saying it is the moral thing for them.

That feels like to heavy a demand, too high an expectation, too much to ask from someone to whom we should be showing nothing but support.

Everyone has their different paths. Everyone has their different journeys. Life is hard, and I don’t know what’s moral.

I only know we do the best we can.


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