Sunday, December 31, 2017

Reasons: A New Year’s Eve Reflection

     “Reflection, rumination, regurgitation...what’s the difference?” I hear you cry. Well, there’s a difference in my mind, at least: I ruminate when pondering some involute abstract question that might not have been applicable to anything in my past. I reflect when some element of my past causes me to wonder how I could have been quite so blind.

     (I regurgitate when compelled to read the ravings of some leftist lunatic who in earlier days would have walked the streets in sackcloth and ashes while toting a sign that says “REPENT, THE END IS NEAR.” Which is why I try to stay clear of such persons.)

     After reading The Pursuit of Goodness, Sarah Hoyt’s piece of yesterday, I got to thinking furiously about a problem that few persons address and even fewer apply to their own decision making. The part that started my mental cascade was simple and brief:

     The problem is most people want to be good. They want to fit whatever the society admires.

     My first reaction was that those two sentences don’t necessarily apply to the same groups of people. I’d have written something more like this:

     Many people strive to be good. Many others want to fit whatever their society admires.

     “Goodness,” of course, implies a standard for individual conduct which the individual has chosen to accept. But “what society admires” has no necessary connection to it. These days, standards of goodness don’t seem to have much to do with what society admires.

     What of the man who falls into both groups? He wants to be good, but he also wants to be admired by others. What if the two desiderata are irremediably opposed?

     There’s an obvious tug-of-war effect inside such a man. Depending on how he chooses to resolve it, it could torment him lifelong. But that tug-of-war is merely the microscale version of the larger phenomenon afflicting his society.

     Further progress into the thing requires an examination of where a standard of goodness must originate.

     How does a society arrive at a standard of goodness? Surely there’s no Goodness Steering Committee to examine proposals and choose among them according to the current context. At least, no such has ever solicited me for my opinion...or my tax-deductible contribution.

     In contrast, many organizations have asked me for money to serve some end that’s widely if not universally deemed good. I’m sure your experiences have been comparable. But the good, as a conception, precedes the organization, its operations, and its pleas. If it were otherwise, there would be no basis for it.

     Time was, conceptions of good were regarded as the proper domain of clerics and philosophers. Nineteenth-Century writers on social theory struggled over this, for they understood, not always consciously, that without a conception of good agreed to by nearly all its members no society can endure. However, they also understood, consciously this time, that “the good” cannot be prescribed in an authoritarian fashion. John Stuart Mill noted that were we to arrive at a provably correct conception of “the good,” our polity would have a moral obligation to impose it by force on all of us. He regarded that as a reason to be grateful that no provable conception of “the good” had emerged. Most of his colleagues agreed.

     They were brilliant men, all of them: men with powerful intellects and wide, strong bases of knowledge. Many of them were also regarded as moral paragons, though in some cases the disclosures of later years altered those evaluations. But on this subject they had their hats on backward.

     The key insight that makes it possible to grapple constructively with “the good,” with moral systems, and with their relevance to the societies that adopt or reject them eluded Mill and the great majority of his contemporaries. Indeed, it eludes most thinkers of today.

No mortal agency is responsible for determining “the good.”

     “The good” is revealed to us by the consequences of our decisions and actions (or inactions). “The good,” if determined with fair accuracy and granted a high degree of “buy-in,” produces a stable, prosperous, and happy society. However, this is not a permanent, guaranteed never to tarnish state of grace. It depends upon the preservation of the standard: the maintenance of “the good” as “the good,” and the persistent allegiance to it by the overwhelming majority. Should those conditions fail, so will that society.

     While I’ll allow that “the good” varies among individuals in its finest particulars, I maintain that the overarching precepts that constitute “the good” are absolute, universal, and well verified by the experiences of Man’s societies – all of them. And just in case you were wondering about them, here they are:

     And behold one came and said to him: Good master, what good shall I do that I may have life everlasting? Who said to him: Why asketh thou me concerning good? One is good, God. But if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments. He said to him: Which? And Jesus said: Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness. Honour thy father and thy mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. [Matthew 19:16-19]

     If those precepts are strictly observed by 98% or more of a society – this is my empirical estimate, though the percent of compliance required might be even higher – without weasel-wording to create exceptions or chiseling around the edges to serve some supposed “need,” that society will flourish. Individual decisions within the moral-ethical envelope thus created are (and should be) free, though not from their consequences.

     But societies whose members don’t accept Christ’s authority to pronounce those precepts must acquire them by another method: the method of trial and error. Unfortunately, under that procedure, the errors are fatal more often than not.

     Now comes the part you’ve been waiting for: the linkage of this interminable ramble with its title and opening sections. Generically, there are only two possible reasons for doing anything:

  • Teleological: “It will get me something I want.”
  • Moral-Ethical: “It’s the right and proper thing to do.”

     Tragedy of a singularly painful sort can arise when one makes a decision on teleological grounds when the subject belongs in the moral-ethical category. Moreover, it matters less that it’s “the right decision” than that it was made for a bad reason.

     For one last time in this Year of Our Lord 2017, let’s confront our old friend Smith. Let’s imagine that Smith faces a moral-ethical decision: the sort that is properly addressed from one of the precepts Christ stated. Maybe it’s whether or not to try steal some tempting item. If Smith is familiar with the precept Thou shalt not steal, and holds to it, he’ll pass the temptation by for the right reason. But let’s imagine that whether or not Smith is familiar with the precept, his priority is teleological. What possible courses radiate from the temptation he faces?

  1. He could attempt the theft and be caught.
  2. He could attempt the theft and be successful.
  3. He could pass the temptation by.

     Those courses will have different weights according to circumstances, Smith’s desire for the item in question, his desire for the admiration of others, and what those others admire.

     If Smith’s immediate society – i.e., “his fellows,” the aggregate of persons whose good opinion he values most – admire a successful thief, he’ll choose either Course 1 or Course 2. However, if Smith’s fellows hold to the moral-ethical precept Thou shalt not steal, he faces a different value set:

  • If he desires the item more than social acceptance, he will attempt the theft.
  • If he desires acceptance more than the item, he will refrain from the theft and then let everyone know that he could have gotten away with it.

     That’s a unique kind of moral hazard: the temptation to “do the right thing for the wrong reason.” Over time, “the right thing” and the context around it will change in unpredictable ways, for “time and chance happeneth to us all.” So will the opinions of the persons whose good opinion we desire. If we set being admired above other priorities, we have surrendered our wills to the whims of others; we have willingly become slaves of fad and fashion. As there are always persons who seek to set the current fashion according to their own priorities, the odds are good that we will find our wills subordinated to those of the very worst men among us.

     The desire for the admiration of others, including others who despise us, can be a powerful attractant. In a society of “individuals” who prefer conformity to “what society admires” over other considerations, the moral-ethical precepts that support a healthy, prosperous society are doomed to fall by the wayside.

     “Come in,” said Dimble in his rooms at Northumberland. “Oh, it’s you, Studdock,” he added as the door opened. “Come in.”
     “I’ve come to ask about Jane,” said Mark. “Do you know where she is ?”
     “I can’t give you her address, I’m afraid,” said Dimble.
     “Do you mean you don’t know it? “
     “I can’t give it,” said Dimble.
     According to Mark’s programme this was the point at which he should have begun to take a strong line. But he did not feel the same now that he was in the room. Dimble had always treated him with scrupulous politeness, and Mark had always felt that Dimble disliked him. This had not made him dislike Dimble. It had only made him uneasily talkative in Dimble’s presence and anxious to please. Vindictiveness was by no means one of Mark’s vices. For Mark liked to be liked. A snub sent him away dreaming not of revenge but of brilliant jokes or achievements which would one day conquer the good will of the man who had snubbed him. If he were ever cruel it would be downwards, to inferiors and outsiders who solicited his regard, not upwards to those who rejected it. There was a good deal of the spaniel in him.

     (C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength)

     In a book filled with innumerable insights and wisdoms, here lies one of the most powerful. Mark Studdock is in trouble of several kinds. A great part of it proceeds from his entry into the N.I.C.E., an evil conspiracy that marches behind a veneer of “science” in the name of “progress.” He was drawn ever deeper into that morass by his desire for the admiration and acceptance of its Inner Ring. Yet it becomes ever clearer as the story goes on that they hold him in contempt: an instrument to be used to further their ends, and otherwise of little or no value. His enslavement to them is no less binding for that; in that state they could get him to do anything they might imagine, and they know it.

     Yet in the subsequent passage, Mark’s desire for Dimble’s good opinion begins to provide a counterweight. He learns from Dimble that the N.I.C.E. has abused his wife and that Dimble identifies Mark with Jane’s torturers, and the dynamic in the room changes:

     “This is fantastic,” said Mark. “Even if I do happen to hold a job in the N.I.C.E. for the moment, you know me.
     “I do not know you,” said Dimble. “I have no conception of your aims or motives.”
     He seemed to Mark to be looking at him not with anger or contempt but with that degree of loathing which produces in those who feel it a kind of embarrassment. In reality Dimble was simply trying very hard not to hate, not to despise, and he had no idea of the fixed severity which this effort gave to his face.
     “There has been some ridiculous mistake,” said Mark. “I'll make a row. I suppose some newly enrolled policeman got drunk or something. Well, he'll be broken. I—”
     “It was the chief of your police, Miss Hardcastle herself, who did it.”
     “Very well. I'll break her then. Did you suppose I was going to take it lying down? But there must be some mistake. It can’t...”      “Do you know Miss Hardcastle well?” asked Dimble. Mark thought that Dimble was reading his mind to the bottom and seeing there his certainty that Miss Hardcastle had done this very thing and that he had no more power of calling Miss Hardcastle to account than of stopping the revolution of the Earth.
     Suddenly the immobility of Dimble's face changed, and he spoke in a new voice. “Have you the means to bring her to book?” he said. “Are you already as near the centre of Belbury as that? If so, then you have consented to the murder of Hingest, the murder of Compton. If so, it was by your orders that Mary Prescott was raped and battered to death in the sheds behind the station. It is with your approval that criminals—honest criminals whose hands you are unfit to touch—are being taken from the jails to which British judges sent them and packed off to Belbury to undergo for an indefinite period, out of reach of the law, whatever tortures and assaults on personal identity you call Remedial Treatment. It is you who have driven two thousand families from their homes to die of exposure in every ditch from here to Birmingham or Worcester. It is you who can tell us why Place and Rowley and Cunningham (at eighty years of age) have been arrested, and where they are. And if you are as deeply in it as that, not only will I not deliver Jane into your hands, but I would not deliver my dog.”
     “Really—really,” said Mark. “This is absurd. I know one or two high-handed things have been done. You always get some of the wrong sort in a police force—specially at first. But—I mean to say—what have I ever done that you should make me responsible for every action that any N.I.C.E. official has taken—or is said to have taken in the gutter press?”
     “Gutter press!” thundered Dimble, who seemed to Mark to be even physically larger than he was a few minutes before. “What nonsense is this ? Do you suppose I don't know that you have control of every paper in the country except one? And that one has not appeared this morning. Its printers have gone on strike. The poor dupes say they will not print articles attacking the people’s Institute. Where the lies in all other papers come from you know better than I.”
     It may seem strange to say that Mark, having long lived in a world without charity, had nevertheless seldom met anger. Malice in plenty he had encountered, but it all operated by snubs and sneers and stabbing in the back. The forehead and eyes and voice of this elderly man had an effect on him which was stifling and unnerving. At Belbury one used the words “whining” and “yapping” to describe any opposition which Belbury aroused in the outer world. And Mark had never had enough imagination to realise what the whining would really be like if you met it face to face.
     “I tell you I knew nothing about it,” he shouted. “Damn it, I’m the injured party. The way you talk, anyone would think it was your wife who’d been ill-treated.” “So it might have been. So it may be. It may be any man or woman in England. It was a woman and a citizen. What does it matter whose wife it was?” “But I tell you I'll raise hell about it. I'll break the infernal bitch who did it, if it means breaking the whole N.I.C.E.”
     He knew that Dimble knew that he was now talking nonsense. Yet Mark could not stop. If he did not bluster, he would not know what to say.
     “Sooner than put up with this,” he shouted, “I'll leave the N.I.C.E.”
     “Do you mean that?” asked Dimble with a sharp glance. To Mark, whose ideas were all one fluid confusion of wounded vanity and jostling fears and shames, this glance once more appeared accusing and intolerable. In reality, it had been a glance of awakened hope: for charity hopes all things. But there was caution in it; and between hope and caution Dimble found himself once more reduced to silence.
     “I see you don't trust me,” said Mark, instinctively summoning to his face the manly and injured expression which had often served him well in headmasters’ studies..
     Dimble was a truthful man. “No,” he said after a longish pause. “I don't quite.”

     Mark pleads for an hour to “think it over.” Once out of Dimble’s immediate presence he begins to sway back toward his earlier association with the N.I.C.E. and its Inner Ring of power-brokers. And to his mind absolutely nothing is his fault:

     Mark had said he wanted to think: in reality he wanted alcohol and tobacco. He had thoughts in plenty—more than he desired. One thought prompted him to cling to Dimble as a lost child clings to a grown-up. Another whispered to him, “Madness. Don’t break with the N.I.C.E. They’ll be after you. How can Dimble save you? You’ll be killed.” A third implored him not, even now, to write off as a total loss his hard won position in the Inner Ring at Belbury; there must, must be some middle course. A fourth recoiled from the idea of ever seeing Dimble again: the memory of every tone Dimble had used caused horrible discomfort. And he wanted Jane, and he wanted to punish Jane for being a friend of Dimble, and he wanted never to see Wither again, and he wanted to creep back and patch things up with Wither somehow. He wanted to be perfectly safe and also very nonchalant and daring—to be admired for manly honesty among the Dimbles and yet also for realism and knowingness at Belbury—to have two more large whiskies and also to think out everything very clearly and collectedly. And it was beginning to rain and his head was beginning to ache again. Damn the whole thing! Why had he such a rotten heredity? Why had his education been so ineffective? Why was the system of society so irrational? Why was his luck so bad?

     A man is no less a slave for being unable to name his master.

     I’ve gone on for quite a while here, including a set of lengthy citations from Lewis’s best novel. But the point is an important one: it can be severely damaging, even fatal, to make a moral-ethical decision for a teleological reason.

     He who is conscious of the real reasons for his decisions is in little danger of this. But few of us are always perfectly aware of our reasons for our decisions. For my part, I discovered quite recently that I’d been doing something others deem admirable specifically for that reason, rather than because it was the right thing to do – which it was. I’m not sure what course to take now: not because my desire for others’ good opinion has waned, but because having entered that course of action for the wrong reason has already had deleterious effects, and my need is to determine whether they’d be best mitigated by pulling back or by “staying the course.” It’s a tougher choice than you might imagine.

     Which is the reason for my one and only resolution for the Year of Our Lord 2018: Always strive to know with maximum clarity in which category – moral-ethical or teleological – a choice belongs, and once ascertained, make the choice on that basis and no other.

     Gnothi seauton, the Greek philosophers liked to say. Know yourself. It’s a great gift that we have the capacity for it. It’s a tragedy how often we fail to use it.

     May you all have a Happy and Blessed New Year. Go easy on the junk food tonight. Salt hangovers are even worse than the alcohol kind. Take it from one who knows.

1 comment:

furball said...

Well said!

I hope you and yours have a good year.

Tim Turner