Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Random thoughts on being good

Dear H,

David Hume once wrote that in order for something to be really felt on a moral level, it had to have three aspects.  The first is that it had to be beautiful.  This aspect has entirely to do with our instincts.  A God-thing you're born with.  As in, you see a beautiful action and you like it and that seals it, like watching a curvy woman walk, or smelling an apple pie.  Thus you see a man push a stroller out of a car's way, at great personal danger, and you just like him for it.  

The second thing about morality was that it was useful.  We had to believe, on some level, that this beautiful thing we saw also had a purpose.  Thus you could push a baby out of the way of a train, but you shouldn't risk your life for a cockroach.  You could get a black eye defending your wife but you shouldn't get a black eye stumbling into a lamp post.  The more remote the payout to someone, the less praiseworthy the action.    

The last thing was, an action was better appreciated if it was customary.  This was where everything went to hell.  It meant that we had to see it in others and look forward to seeing it again.  It also meant that we knew others would look for it in us, and this meant we had something to perform.  There were different ways of performing the same general functions -- various means of proving fidelity, and honesty, and respect.  We had to take that instinct for do-gooding and develop it like Italians love bruschetta, and Germans love a good lager -- as much an art as a tradition.  We know what it means to be a "good boy," and when the chance comes to be our flavor, we roll over like a good dog.  

A man who's lived too long in one place and never went anywhere else doesn't realize how powerful customs are.  The instincts are sound and, for the most part, are there with us at birth.  But you live too long in one place and you've never seen the other recipes for satisfying them.  You think yours are the only ones.  And you lose your flexibility for them, like an old man, even if you're young.  A moral nose has to be developed, like a taste-bud does with wine.  Everywhere you go the emphasis is different, some places better and other places worse; but you learn to see the germ in the wheat, and you enjoy it when you find it.   

People in general, and especially the religious, believe this do-gooding can be saved up somehow, in a kind of cosmic bank account.  I believe this came from our sense of custom.  We have the instincts to know when something is "good," or we never would have survived in groups.  And when a man does lots of good things we slap the label on him and call him good; as in, we can keep expecting good things out of him.  Thus, by a process of reverse engineering, we say "what is good?" and then have to imagine a picture of a "perfect" man.   We know that if you do enough good things you're a good man; but defining where that line is, in precise terms, in the real world, unless we make you "perfect," is impossible.  

The tendency to wonder if God sees us as "good" accentuated this whole process dramatically. Anyone who thought God was perfect had to wonder if, being omniscient, He knew what we'd do in different dimensions.  As in whether we'd do things if we could get away with them.  What we wanted in our hearts.  Dark things only we know for ourselves.  Thus Christ came along and told us, both fairly and unfairly, I think, that to lust after a woman was to cheat with her, and to hate a neighbor in your heart is to murder him.  A standard none of us could ever meet, and which primes us for little more than self-loathing*.  God's nose is too good for humanity.  He's been living in Heaven, where the white linen is constantly dry-cleaned by angels, and it shows.

Beyond this, the cosmic bank account can be pilfered with.  No longer judging men fairly, which is to say, according to what they do and the overall feeling they give us, Christians told us that a little poison ruins the whole batch.  If God is good, then how could He accept this hodge-podge? -- a fair question with a totally debilitating conclusion.  We thus put clothes-pins on our noses, and refused follow an earthy scent.  We leveled all of us, and pretended, unfairly, that this debased state made us equal, and that the only way we could be good was if God pulled a fast one -- on Himself.

The man who believes in this "total" goodness lacks the art to actually be wise**.  To him being good is a rule-book and little beyond it, and if he can just check off the whole list he can finally get himself the right label -- impossible in theory, and obnoxious in practice***.  I said this was religious but the reality is we meet non-religious people like this every day, and in fact today we meet more non-religious people like this than religious.  This prig can be a Methodist or a Social Justice Warrior -- in his worst form, probably both.  He's always telling you to give to the poor, or to like a certain minority just because of a skin color, or to beat your chest and admit you're a sinner -- when you're innocent; a bald-faced, self-serving, goose-stepping lie.  He's a cancer in the world of morality; not a well-developed instinct, or practical, and good at getting things to work well.  This puritan throws all his emphasis on the label, on the checklist, and if you don't follow the checklist then he'll persecute you like a heathen.  The form of morality is there but not the mind.  You have machinery but none of the spirit.  The more outlandish the morality, the smaller the payout to you personally, the bigger the blue ribbon.  

We also need to realize that everyone who follows the rules, and believes in the system, and accepts it as morally infallible -- regardless of the party he belongs to -- is a die-hard conservative****.  But conservation of a system isn't the goal of all morality; and when a guy like Jesus comes along, claiming to be God, the chance He's going to wreck your system is going to be high.  Thus Paul claimed morality was a spirit -- and that once you put it into writing, codifying it, splitting hairs, and forcing children to copy it, it's probably already long dead.  The nose and the mind are gone, and all you're left with is the label.  Which is why Calvinists and SJWs are both great at "being good" and even better at ruining movies.                

There's a counterpoint to all this Calvinist-bashing, though, and it's that we need to have customs; and beyond this we need people who are willing to live in and die for systems.  A system means expectation, and is the foundation for all progress -- an ability to calculate the world, predict how people will react to us, and use this information to improve things.  Jonathan Haidt says, in his must-read book on moral psychology, The Righteous Mind, that racially diverse communities are less trusting and happy than homogeneous communities.  And a man you can't expect things from, who views morality as breakable, and who thinks the most important thing is getting something done efficiently, is sometimes considered a genius, but most often considered a menace.  To be a pragmatist might save you, but telling everyone you're a pragmatist isn't pragmatic.   To be truly moral you have to be somewhere in between -- to live in a system well, and to know when to break from it; and even more than this, to be able to explain to others why you have to.  

Yours,

-J

*Examining our every thought and motive does prime us for self-loathing -- but wouldn't we be more loathable if we didn't loathe aspects of ourselves?  My guess is, we took the mental suffering so that we don't have to deal with the physical suffering and now we have less of both of them.  A nation of self-whippers is better to live in than a nation of traitors.

**I remind you that Solomon says, Don't be overly righteous.  Why should you kill yourself?  This from a book Christians have, since the beginning of the church, regarded as divinely inspired.

***Ben Franklin says, in his autobiography, that he tried being good and he had to give it up.  He says in some ways he was too good at it.  People began calling him an ass.  He had a checklist of the virtues and every week he would focus on one of them, say chastity or temperance or fortitude, giving himself a review at the end of each day and asking himself how he performed it.  Finally he came to the conclusion, after a long period of failure and self-loathing and driving away his friends, that there was good and good enough, and he would rather be the second.

He tells the story of a real man who went to the local blacksmith, bought an axe, and wasn't happy with it.  He wanted the whole head polished like the edge.  So the blacksmith, knowing how much trouble it would be to get the job done, agreed -- but only so long as his customer agreed to pedal the sharpening wheel.  This began in good cheer, but as the customer went on pedaling a long time and the axe head only got marginally "better," the customer realized it wasn't worth the effort and decided he liked the speckled axe best -- a fine moral for those of us who think working well with others and making our way through life well aren't as good as "saintliness."   

****Leftists like to pretend they aren't conservatives, but they're wrong.  They are, and perhaps always have been, to some degree, a part of the system; and their appeal lies largely in their pretending to be outside it; and in their most effective form, to be ground down beneath it.  But the fact of the matter is that many of our laws and institutions are squarely on their side -- so much so, that to be a business owner and not espouse their principles, loudly and proudly, is to put yourself in danger of bankruptcy.  Leftists have had this advantage, almost entirely undisputed, since the mid 1960's, and to argue against it is more personally debilitating than to denounce Jesus Christ in public, or to declare your allegiance to the state of Iran.  

They get along pretending to be the underdog because the system isn't entirely their system.  What they neglect to mention is that nobody's is.  Nobody, including probably even Kim Jong Un, has the luxury of having the entire system to themselves.  We're all born into systems we can't entirely change, into cultures we can't really control, and into zeitgeists we're much safer to ride than to fight.  Every system is thus a mixture of systems, and every side, if they have any sense, uses the parts that aren't theirs to pretend their backs are against the wall.  Especially in the world of democratic politics, it's your side's complacency that kills you.

It would probably be safer, anyway, to actually have your back against the wall.  When only part of the system is your system you can still take over the system.  You still have somewhere to go other than down.  Once the system is your system, the only thing that can happen is for someone to ruin it.    You might have the world, but you'd have lost the ability to dream well -- a bad trade, I think, in the long run.

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