Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Some thoughts on Monty Hall-style morality.

Among all human foibles, if there's a single trait that astonishes and, really, amuses me more than any other, it's the tendency to rationalize and excuse whatever degree of sinfulness we find in our own hearts, while pointing an accusing finger at someone else whose own degree of sinfulness slightly differs from, or extends one iota beyond, our own. Of course, in most cases we don't even recognize our own behavior as sinful (or, if we prefer to avoid the use of a word freighted with religious overtones, wrong). Sins occur only when someone else crosses a line that we ourselves would not cross.

A man who treats all of his employees in a belittling, dehumanizing fashion, draining them of their pride and
their very zest for life, becomes outraged reading the story of the fun-loving, generally nice-guy boss at another company who's accused of groping a female employee.

A woman who has two children and then has an abortion next time around for the sake of convenience ("I didn't want to be raising more kids
at this stage of life") demands justice after a gang member kills one of the first two kids during a drive-by shooting.

A man who has had affairs in the past (or is having an affair with you at that very moment) is enraged when his paramour sneaks off to enjoy an evening with another man.

A woman who finesses her income taxes gets furious at her son for being kicked out of school after cheating on an important exam.

A jury gets even on society's behalf by imposing the death penalty on a teenager who got even with a bully who'd taunted him.

A venal corporate executive who sacks his company by implementing dubious executive-compensation policies that allow him and his cronies to skim off the top feels no qualms about prosecuting the "young punk" who broke into his house to steal his big-screen TV.

A Pope who kept silent about Nazi atrocities during World War II now tells millions of Catholics how they must take a stand against evil wherever and whenever they encounter it. Related: A so-called "cafeteria Catholic" who breaks his religion's law by practicing birth control bitterly denounces a fellow Catholic who uses the N word in describing blacks.


My point being: Really, who decides what's worse than what else? And isn't it interesting that, left to our own devices, we tend to decide that the things we do
our own unique flaws and vicesare "OK" in the grand scheme of things?

It's always the other guy who's "crossing the line."

We often call this hypocrisy, and it's easy to spot when the transgressions are parallel: that is, when
the rest of us catch you indicting someone else for doing the same thing you've been doing in secret. But what about when the transgressions aren't parallel?

Is it worse to rape a woman...or shoot a bison grazing peacefully in a field for the pure thrill of it?

To rob a bank...or chronically intimidate your wife/kids?

Is it worse to tell a lie that you think is small (keeping in mind that we seldom see the end-term consequences that a lie may set in motion, which can be catastrophic, even when the lie is a little white one) or to kill one person without whom the world would be better off (though the world may not know it at the time the killing takes place)?
We're also inclined to discount sins of omission: The wealthy woman who wears a $5000 designer gown to a social event where she'll be greeted like royalty has almost surely had a hand in ending human lives by doing so; she just doesn't realize it. She could've worn an inexpensive frock and donated the rest to prevent African children from starving. (So maybe there's gun death...and gown death?) For that matter, she could've passed up the event entirely, dismissing it as a worthless frill. In that context, is what she did—wearing a pretty gown to a nice social event—better or worse than the genuinely poor teenager who mugs an elderly woman for her handbag so that he himself can avoid starving? As the foregoing illustrates, we also tend to label it "sin" only when we can see a straight line of causation: the direct impact. If we can interpose several layers of complexity and confusion between cause and effect, we can tell ourselves no harm, no foul.

In truth, I suspect that all sins
perhaps even all behaviors, whether we're wont to adjudge them good or bad here on earthmay be somehow analogous. Perhaps all behavior is created equal. We each have degrees of (self-defined) sin we can live with. We have "bargains" we makewith God (if we choose to acknowledge Him), with ourselves, with the people who like us just the way we are. It's one unending run of the old quiz show, Let's make a deal.

31 comments:

roger o'keefe said...

This is one of those times when I don't even know where to begin or what to say. Except maybe WOW. And you really believe this? Or are you just being provocative again. This reads like a perfect definition of the moral relativism you took to task, certainly by implication, in major sections of your book.

In fact, where is the Steve that wrote that book? Please send him back. I for one miss him.

Steve Salerno said...

Roger, I'm not going to have much time for individualized replies today, but all I ask of readers is that they read the content, give it a fair shot (ideally without prejudging it), and think about the point(s) I'm trying to make. It does not seem possible to me that anyone who complied with that request on my part could've issued such a sweeping, pat condemnation of the material. You see no merit to any of the questions I raise here?

Anonymous said...

I actually agree with you here Steve, we all make s**t up as we go along and always think our own deoesn't stink, we do what we have to get through life.
--Carl

Steve Salerno said...

Carl, welcome back. And thank you for the poetic imagery. :)

Anonymous said...

Roger, which part of the post didn't you agree with? Try and break it down cause I don't understand what you don't understand.

I just want to say Steve, that any action produces both winners and losers. So for example the lady in the fancy dress - starving africans lose but illegal underage hispanics sewing the dress for the designer win as they get money to eat. Its just that we never know how many of each do we?

Londoner

Anonymous said...

After a lifetime of cogitating these and similar questions, I have come to the conclusion that moral codes--all of them--are arbitrary rules imposed by the powerful on the less powerful with the express purpose of keeping the less powerful in line and well away from seizing power for themselves.

It would be great if we all observed these codes but the imposers never intended to observe them and never will.

Any sane, intelligent human being who wants the limited freedom available in this life would ignore all these moral strictures.

Unfortunately the fear of transgression is deeply implanted and the non-powerful transgressor is savagely punished (usually by his non-powerful peers who do it from 'love' or 'righteousness') if caught.

There is a very catholic tinge to your article so I have a question: What was Jesus if not a rabble-rousing revolutionary undermining the power of the time?
(Marxists can frame that as 'a freedom fighter leading his people against the opressor')

And wasn't Pontius Pilate's response of washing his hands and passing the buck to the baying mob a masterpiece of power politics?

Machiavelli gave the game away when he published 'The Prince'

RevRon's Rants said...

When it comes right down to it, all any of us can do is follow what our heart tells us is right, and hope for the best for all concerned.

I've probably shared this fable before, but for those who haven't heard it, please grant me a bit of patience (and hopefully, no flames!)...

A merchant was on the way to market one morning, his wares piled on his ox-drawn cart. As he plodded along, he spied a turtle in the middle of the road. Fearing that the creature would be killed by another cart, he stopped, got down from his cart, lifted the turtle, and placed him at the edge of the road, out of harm's way.

That evening, as he was returning from his day's labors, he spotted the turtle in the road, crushed. The merchant wept for the creature, and lamented that, had he merely left it to cross at its own pace, it might not have been on the road at the instant that another cart passed, and might have lived.

At that moment, the Buddha appeared, and told the merchant to hold his tears. "You acted with love, and you acted well. Whatever befell the turtle afterward was his karma, and beyond your doing."

Of course, at the time of this fable, there weren't nearly so many lawyers. :-)

Steve Salerno said...

Ron: ta-da-DUM. What a great parting shot.

Anonymous said...

"A Pope who kept silent about Nazi atrocities during World War II now tells millions of Catholics how they must take a stand against evil wherever and whenever they encounter it"

Steve - Pope Pius Xii did remain silent about Nazi atrocities. That's a bunch of BS cooked up by the KGB back in 1962.

I am saddened that you have not done your homework on this - you are supposed to uncover shams and scams, not perpetuate them.

Allow me to point you in the right direction: http://www.forbes.com/2008/10/27/pope-pius-jews-oped-cx_mk_1028kaylan.html

Two Hail Marys and one printed retraction will be your penance...

Anonymous said...

While I don't begrudge RevRon his comforting little fable, it is most certainly a little morality tale that was constructed to keep the faithful quiet and content with the status quo.

There is currently an exhibition of Buddhist sculpture in London. The earliest piece, made in Mathura, India shows an empty throne, suggesting a prohibition on the worship of idols. The Buddha was not depicted in human form until 300 years after his death, following trade with Rome and exposure to Greco-Roman art.

Religion is not immune to the lure of the manipulation of imagery, fable and myth to foster the required, compliant mindset in the believer.

Steve Salerno said...

Anon 9:06: Ahh, the perils of the offhand assumptions we make. First of all, many of the examples were intended to be hypothetical, not read for their literal relevance to any real-life people. But as it happens, the passage you dispute was the one example at least indirectly inspired by real-life events--and the Pope whose real life inspired it was the current one, Ratzinger. Of course, when he entered the Nazi Youth Ministry and later the Nazi Army, he was "just following orders," right?

Anonymous said...

'Of course, when he entered the Nazi Youth Ministry and later the Nazi Army, he was "just following orders," right?'

I should imagine that, at the time, the young and impressionable Ratzinger was doing 'his patriotic duty.' Had Nazism triumphed, the Hitler Youth would be the heroic warriors rather than the GIs and Tommys--as my Hitler Jugend mother-in-law pointed out.
An Italian/Brit friend of mine confessed that his father was in Mussolini's Blackshirts and said that his father had no choice, if you didn't join, you didn't eat.

History is written by the victors. Another of the perks of power is the ability to write and rewrite the official line.

RevRon's Rants said...

"While I don't begrudge RevRon his comforting little fable, it is most certainly a little morality tale that was constructed to keep the faithful quiet and content with the status quo."

In your rush to condescension, you've apparently missed the point entirely. Then again, I guess I tend to forgive the "manipulation" in a parable that encourages me to act from a place of pragmatic compassion, even toward myself.

While most - if not all - religions (including Buddhism) are fundamentally control mechanisms, the principles upon which those mechanisms were originally founded do offer some degree of wisdom to those who take the time to look beyond the machine, as the original sages advised.

Rational Thinking said...

A very thought-provoking post Steve. Is it, perhaps, the righteous indignation expressed with such fervour by the miscreants in your post, in actual fact is provoked by relief that somebody else is worse than we are? Or conversely, is it that subconsciously we recognise our misdeeds reflected in those of others, and this becomes distorted into focusing on another rather than ourselves, because it's so uncomfortable to face our own shortcomings? I don't know. But it makes me wonder :-)

I love Ron's fable, and that it ties in so well with Steve's comment about that little, 'harmless' lie. As we cannot know the full ramifications of our actions, the best abiding principle seems to be to act from love. I wonder why it seems so much easier to act out of self-interest? Presumably because we've practiced it so much;-)

Anonymous said...

Just noticed Joseph Conrad's most apposite (to this article) Quote of the Day.

Steve Salerno said...

Anon 6:06: Well, but your point goes to my point: We excuse/rationalize what we do, or what the people we wish to defend do. "I had no choice, I was just following orders, it wasn't really that bad, I got out as soon as I could, my heart was never in it," and on and on and on...

Anonymous said...

'Anon 6:06: Well, but your point goes to my point:'

Not really. My point is that Ratzinger (for whom I hold neither respect nor affection, at all) was fighting for HIS country in a time of war. That should require neither rationalisation nor excuses, given our world of competing nations, either then or now.

Similarly, I totally accept the reasoning of my Italian friend's father, given the dire depression- era poverty of the time and Mussolini's promise to relieve that poverty.

My point is that after the fact, when history has been written and comprehensively spun by the victors, the vanquished have then little choice but to rationalise and excuse their actions. Shame is accrued after the act that may not have been justified at the time and in the context of the act.

This is by no means an apology for Nazism or any other political system, I am simply using these as examples since you introduced them as an example.

Steve Salerno said...

Yeah, but I still say, it goes to my point: that we define the world (and constantly redefine its morality, and whether or not we're toeing the mark) based on the degree to which it suits our needs, who's in power at the time, etc.

Anonymous said...

'do offer some degree of wisdom to those who take the time to look beyond the machine, as the original sages advised.'

Which, I would suggest, is the symbolism of the empty throne.

Fables are for children, scared of the dark, and certainly a large part of the machine of myth and manipulation.
As human's we have thinking capacity, brains as well as 'hearts', (the latter a euphemism for feelings/emotion), the use of one does not preclude the use of the other.
I have both, so I use both.

Steve Salerno said...

Anon 10:10, let me preface this by saying that this is not to be received or evaluated as a personal attack; I am looking more at the substance of what you just said.

I have long been intrigued by people who claim that they use "their heads and their hearts," as if they have perfect self-awareness of when one kicks in and the other butts out. How do you know that a belief you think you're forming with your head isn't really a byproduct of a more visceral reaction from the heart? This to me is analogous to the claim from some people that they've achieved a neat and perfect separation between their objective and subjective selves. We all strive for that (well, OK some of us do), but how do we even know that we're striving for it with true purity, since it could be argued (and is likely true) that even perceptions of objectivity are highly subjective?

RevRon's Rants said...

"Fables are for children, scared of the dark, and certainly a large part of the machine of myth and manipulation."

I am grateful, then, to be a child. The only "darkness" I fear is the ignorance that dismisses opportunities to learn and grow, which is a core element of the ignorance itself.

In truth, the imposition of external moral imperatives is a key element in the very manipulation you describe. Encouraging an individual to assume responsibility for their behavior, while recognizing the limits of the scope of that responsibility, is the antithesis of the imposition of control exercised by religions. If one is aided in understanding and accepting such personal responsibility by means of a quaint little fable, I'd question the need to dismiss such a fable as being irrelevant or - worse - malevolent.

"As human's we have thinking capacity, brains as well as 'hearts', (the latter a euphemism for feelings/emotion), the use of one does not preclude the use of the other. I have both, so I use both."

Were this statement universally true, this argument wouldn't be taking place.

Anonymous said...

I take it as a given that my 'perceptions of objectivity are highly subjective.' They cannot be otherwise. And I don't claim perfect self-awareness.

To the extent, however, that I am aware of the human inability to hold other than subjective perceptions (my own inability as well as everyone elses) I employ both feeling and thinking capacity. The dichotomy between the two is false.

I, being an animal, am at the mercy of my instinctual drives and emotions. I, being a thinking human adult with vast trial and error experience and accrued knowledge, have learned to temper my instinctual impulses at times when I consider it prudent and am no longer ruled by emotion. I consider myself to have a choice of allowing my head to rule my heart or vice versa, according to circumstances.
I would not expect the same of a teenager or young person who is feeling the full, turbulent forces of instinct and emotion.

I no longer make excuses to myself for my own behaviour, though I reserve the right to come up with a thousand excuses for my accusers, who are generally only seeking to project their own unexamined and disowned drives and instincts onto any likely scapegoat.

This also is not personally directed at anyone here, I don't have sufficient interest in the unknown people behind the opinions posted here to make personal attacks.
These are ideas, not beliefs that I would defend to the death. There is no belief in the history of mankind worth dying for or even getting upset over.

Anonymous said...

'this argument wouldn't be taking place.'

Who's arguing? You put your point, I respond. I don't require you to agree, convert or move one iota from your position.
You have your interpretation, I have given you one of mine--I have a hundred others I could proffer--this is a conversation from my POV.

RevRon's Rants said...

"Who's arguing? You put your point, I respond. I don't require you to agree, convert or move one iota from your position."

I'd suggest that if your responses were a bit less condescending and dismissive, that statement might have more credibility. If someone's being inspired or guided by a simple parable renders them a frightened child and the target of successful manipulation, that truth would out of its own accord. Your apparent need to categorize and expose them as such speaks less to the shortcomings of these "children" than to your own need to reinforce (and impose upon others) your own perspective, and moves from the realm of conversation to that of the very manipulation you decry. Just a thought...

Anonymous said...

'I'd suggest that if your responses were a bit less condescending and dismissive, that statement might have more credibility.'

What makes you so certain I am aiming for credibility? I have nothing to prove. I'd suggest that any condescension and dismissal is your subjective interpretation and of course, that is your perogative to interpret it so.

Steve Salerno said...

Anon 12:52 (and before): On at least two occasions now that I recall, I have asked you--rather nicely, I thought--to withdraw from the forum if all you're going to do is be artful and "clever" (to your ear, that is). In all seriousness, I thought we'd all had enough of these pointless, Jabberwockian "nothing is everything and I am what I am (unless I'm not!) and my sky is your earth" word games back in high school AP "introduction to philosophy" classes.

What you put before us here is not "intelligence" or "a higher level of meaning." It is nonsensical diversion masquerading as intelligence--and it has no meaning, and (worse) it is often framed in an I-don't-give-a-shit-what-you-think way that is frankly insulting to other participants. Please find another blog to pollute with this silly palaver of yours. Thank you.

RevRon's Rants said...

"What makes you so certain I am aiming for credibility? I have nothing to prove."

Ah, then... Allow me to congratulate you on having successfully achieved your goal, not to mention on the absolute precision of that last statement. :-)

roger o'keefe said...

Amen, Steve! I may take issue with what you say, sometimes strongly. But at least what you say makes sense each time. I never had much patience for the head in the clouds types who say things you can't possibly argue with because you can't even pin down what they mean. Related to that, I once knew a guy who used to insist that debating was "beneath him", but then whenever some topic came up he'd just give you 100 different reasons why you're wrong and walk away.

Dimension Skipper said...

As Earl Pomerantz's occasional guest blogger, "Uncle Grumpy" seems to get the SHAM concept.

Steve, off-topic but I gotta ask what you mean with your jazz corner "Groovin' High" comment: ...Expand it to full-screen mode and check out the background. Geez. They know how to do it up right over in the Netherlands, I guess.I checked out the first 30 seconds or so and it looks like a wall-sized window looking over a road/highway with some buildings nearby and an occasional pedestrian walking. It's not just a smoky barroom or any confined space like that, but to me the view is not all that spectacular either. Then again I'm more of a "country" person. Am I missing something? If so, what? Thanks. Was just wondering...

Steve Salerno said...

DS: I suppose what we've got here is a one-man's meat problem. I love the way that studio is situated: floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking a highway (or maybe it's a train station, or both, but it doesn't really matter). I'm just drawn to the riffing-above-the-hubbub-of-the-city motif.

You, OTOH, would probably find more to like in a (cultishly) famous album cover by trumpeter Bobby Shew. The album was called Outstanding in his Field. And the cover art, of course, depicted Shew, with his trumpet...standing in a field.

Sarsabu said...

"Times change people change hairstyles change"