Humourists know that the best jokes are mined from the most serious topics. Morality is no exception.
Moses trudges down from Mt. Sinai, tablets in hand, and announces to the assembled multitudes: “I’ve got some good news and I’ve got bad news. The good news is I got Him down to ten. The bad news is ‘adultery’ is still in.”
(From Plato and a Platypus walk into a bar: page 78)
Nobody likes taking tablets at the best of times so who’s going to take kindly to swallowing tablets of stone, especially when they taste so bitter to so many palates? After all, when was the last time a great religion told us to covet our neighbour’s wife?
The humour lies partly in drawing our attention to the conflict between ‘ought’ and ‘is’ that Susan Neiman discusses so perceptively. What we should do is so often in conflict with what we would like to do yet we know we ought to like doing what we should: we just can’t seem to get to that point somehow. Commandments are forever over-riding instincts that refuse to go away.
Part of the reason for this is that we have evolved to think in the short term and be unduly influenced by concrete specifics in the here and now, including the stories people tell us as well as what we experience ourselves. We’re particularly poor with probabilities (Dan Gardner‘s book, Risk, deals with this brilliantly so I won’t go into that here).
Let’s focus on consequences and time scales. Smoking provides an easy way to illustrate this. The table gives a few pointers in each box just as examples. If I’m a smoker, the short-term costs are virtually invisible: I enjoy my addiction so it doesn’t feel like a cost and buying cigarettes looks like choosing to dispose of my income as I feel like. The habit tastes sweet for the benefits it brings which I value greatly and are very obvious to me. The distant disasters my present pleasure could well bring seem very remote and unlikely to my primate brain. So I show a callous lack of empathy for my future self whose suffering I don’t trouble myself to imagine. After all, things like that don’t happen to me.
And if that wasn’t enough to make sure that I’ll carry on smoking (or indulging in any other ‘vice’ you care to mention) the same examination of what quitting would feel like stacks the odds even further against giving up. The present becomes soured with discomforts of all kinds while future benefits fade into invisibility in the mists of distance. The gain in disposable income will probably weigh little in my mind compared with the horrible unsatisfied cravings alone, never mind the weight gain and the social costs.
In short, the long-term costs of continuing to smoke and the long-term benefits of quitting have far less impact on behaviour than the short-term costs of stopping and the immediate pleasures of continuing the habit. And this is true for almost any insistent pattern of behaviour you care to name including those which are morally loaded. Virtue goes against the grain of our animal nature in similar ways.
We are though animals with some very special powers, rational thought being one of the most obvious – well, perhaps not obvious all the time. So, we shouldn’t give up on the idea of giving up our bad habits, as Neiman explains:
You think that what failed in the past will fail in the future? Kant reminds us of how many sheer technological advances have disproved this old saw. . . . . If we don’t abandon efforts where science hopes we may create technology, how dare we abandon them where morality demands we create justice? . . . Of course ideas of reason conflict with the claims of experience. That’s what ideas are meant to do. Ideals are not measured by whether they confirm reality: reality is judged by whether it lives up to ideals. (Her emphasis.)
(Moral Clarity: page 153)
However, she does not underestimate the difficulty of acting on this realisation.
If you tell yourself that a world without injustice is a childish wish-fantasy, you have no obligation to work toward it. . . . Keeping ideals alive is much harder than dismissing them, for it guarantees a lifetime of dissatisfaction. Ideas are like horizons – goals toward which you can move but never actually attain. . . . . The abyss that separates is from ought is too deep to bridge entirely; the most we can hope to do is narrow it.
And that can seem like a bad bargain — too much immediate discomfort for too little immediate gain once more. However, reason may not be as feeble and error prone as we sometimes think and there may be more at work in the world to push towards virtue than is immediately obvious. Even if we are not convinced there is a God or that we have a soul that survives death, the way the world works should give us pause for thought.
Robert Wright‘s perceptive analysis, of how morality is essential (and perhaps inevitable) if civilisation is to progress and chaos to be avoided, deserves close attention from both the materially and the spiritually minded, as Neiman’s does also in its different way. It begins to tip the balance against the inertia of bad habits and hints that there is more to life than matter.
The same thread of thinking runs through the whole of his book, The Evolution of God, so a small sample of his argument will have to suffice. One of the most charming facets of this argument, that morality is a social cement that we ignore for long only at the risk of chaos, comes in his discussion of Philo of Alexandria.
The order at work [in the world] is the Logos, and it came originally from God. He set up the world so that mere self-interested learning – the study of cause and effect, and preference for happy effects – would steer people towards virtue. So when Proverbs reports that ‘whoever digs a pit will fall into it, and a stone will come back on the one who starts it rolling,’ we can think of God not as pushing people into pits and pushing stones back on people, but as the one who designed the social ‘gravity’ that brings these effects.
Virtue seems painful, if you accept this line of reasoning, only to those who do not understand its value. The difficult task for education and parenting is to enable developing minds to defer immediate gratification long enough to secure the benefits of self-restraint — benefits that accrue both to the individual and to society. I will return to that issue in a future post, drawing amongst other things on some useful recent material, while recognising that this delay might not help any of us deal with present temptations.
A last thought for now.
Perhaps this perspective, if they would only pause to consider it carefully, would help those who kick against moral constraints, whatever their origin, to understand the words of Bahá’u'lláh when He explains:
3. O ye peoples of the world! Know assuredly that My commandments are the lamps of My loving providence among My servants, and the keys of My mercy for My creatures. Thus hath it been sent down from the heaven of the Will of your Lord, the Lord of Revelation. Were any man to taste the sweetness of the words which the lips of the All-Merciful have willed to utter, he would, though the treasures of the earth be in his possession, renounce them one and all, that he might vindicate the truth of even one of His commandments, shining above the Dayspring of His bountiful care and loving-kindness. . . .
5. Think not that We have revealed unto you a mere code of laws. Nay, rather, We have unsealed the choice Wine with the fingers of might and power. To this beareth witness that which the Pen of Revelation hath revealed. Meditate upon this, O men of insight!