2013-05-31

Pathological Morality, Part Two

Yesterday, I discussed how our inability to be happy about the achievements of the truly exceptional - because we are too busy feeling inadequate of our own accomplishments - creates a perverse false morality in which we must all pretend that we really are amazing, even when we're not. There is another side to this pathological morality, though, and this other side is truly the uglier of the two.

If exceptional people deserve special credit for doing amazing things, while average people are just average and deserve no special credit, but also no special detraction, then there must also exist additional points on the continuum. That is to say, some people are good enough at basketball to win the community intramural competition, but not good enough to have ever won a basketball scholarship or a career in the NBA. It's certainly fair enough to say that these folks are good basketball players, but it would be utter lunacy to suggest that they are the same kind of good at basketball as NBA players.

Developing Virtue
When it comes a skill like basketball, few would argue with that point. But what about skills like kindness, judiciousness, conscienciousness, etc.? What about those skills that are actually morals?

Being moral, virtuous, ethical, is a skill in a certain sense. It requires a mix of courage - the courage to adhere to principle even in the face of widespread criticism - and a sufficiently long cognitive time-horizon such that one can foresee the long-run benefits of moral behavior over the short-run benefits of ducking one's responsibilities. We might simply call this blend of courage and foresight honor.

Courage and foresight, like so many human attributes, can developed simply through habit. A person who regularly refuses to back down in the face of risk will eventually, upon his or her subsequent successes, grow more confident in doing so. This confidence is surely courage. Likewise, the more often one involves oneself in calculating further and more far-reaching impacts of a given action, the more one develops a habitual sense of strategy. This certainly involves some deductive logic, and the more you engage in deductive logic, the better at it you become. (There is a reason practicing chess makes one better at playing chess.)

Even if you believe that personality traits like courage, foresight, and honor are traits with which we are born, there is no question that the more risks one faces without backing down, the more courageous a person is. (And I have already dealt with foresight in my chess example.) Thus, almost by behaving as though one has positive moral attributes like honor, one meets the very conditions required of an honorable person. It's basically a tautology.

At any rate, both because some people are born with additional levels of moral fortitude, and because some people are better-habituated to moral integrity as described above, it stands to reason that there are various shades of moral character out there.

Here's The Point
What this all means is that, just as some of us are better basketball players, some of us are more courageous. Our egalitarian nature would suggest that being a better basketball player does not make one a better person. But would anyone suggest that being more courageous fails to make one a better person? No one in their right mind would say that brilliant computer programmers are "better people" than just-average computer programmers; but who on Earth would suggest that someone who is exceptionally honest is not a better person than someone who is also honest, but not exceptionally so.

We seem to be aware - at least on the gut level - that exceptional virtue is precisely that which makes the difference between a person and a "better person." The more virtues a person has to exceptional degree, the better a person is. On some level, we understand that if we were stuck on a desert island with a virtuous man and a knave, and there were only enough food for two, the knave would have to be sacrificed. Higher moral worth is more valuable than lesser moral worth, both intangibly and tangibly.

Exceptionally moral people are simply... better people than average people.

Does that statement make you feel funny? It shouldn't. On the one hand, exceptional virtue is something that anyone can achieve. Doing the right thing does not require a special level of genius, it does not require mountains of wealth, it does not require a special set of environmental circumstances. Every moment of your life is a chance to be virtuous. Virtue is exactly the best measure of a human being, the most meritocracy and entirely fair basis by which to size each other up.

One Final Bit Of Controversy
Sam is simply more honest and genuine than Steve, but on every other level, Sam and Steve are roughly equivalent. I assert that Sam is simply a better person than Steve. Steve can become as honest as Sam any time he wants to. Not being as honest as Sam is a choice that Steve makes. The moment he commits to being more honest, and actually lives out that commitment, Steve becomes Sam's moral equal.

Even so, Steve is not a particularly dishonest person. While Sam is a better person than Steve, Steve is not at all a bad person. This point relates back to yesterday's post. It is crucial that we have the ability to commend Sam's honesty without somehow "detracting from Steve."

Our egalitarian culture is averse to saying that "Sam is a better person than Steve," not because we're afraid of commending Sam, but because we are scared to make Steve mad. This is insane.

Why is it insane? Because I can pose the same problem in a different way and no one will object. Think I can't? Here I go:

Steve spent 20 years of his life living more or less as we all do. Then one day, Steve decided to commit to being exceptionally honest, and he did so for the rest of his life. While Steve was never really a bad guy, the new Steve is a much better person than the old Steve.

See what I did there?

This neurotic hyper-sensitivity to moral inequality and its implications on a person's true worth leads to stunningly bad moral conclusions.

One example is drug use: Mary smokes weed and Marion does not. Marion possesses more of the virtue of temperance than Mary does. Suddenly an army of egalitarians descends on Ryan for having the nerve to suggest that - while Mary may be a truly good person - Marion is simply a little better than Mary is. Mary could become just as good as Marion if she but gave up marijuana.

And of course, the alternate way to state this same ethical problem is as follows: Mary smoked weed for a few years when she was younger. Then one day, she decided it wasn't good for her body, because she was inhaling carcinogens; she decided it wasn't good for her mind because of the way it interacted with her brain's dopamine system; she decided it wasn't good for her reputation because it put her in regular contact with people who deal drugs; she decided it wasn't good for her career because if she were ever subjected to a random drug test, she'd fail; and, she decided it wasn't good for her long-run integrity because one day she plans on having children and doesn't want to light-up in front of them, and be forced to have an extremely difficult moral conversation with her kids. Considering all that - which can be summed-up in the virtue of Temperance - Mary decided to stop smoking marijuana. While Mary was never really a bad person, the new Mary is a better person than the old Mary.

Conclusion
The reason it's important to be comfortable saying that more virtuous behavior makes someone a better person is so that we can actually improve our moral character as our lives progress. If you're so neurotically hyper-sensitive to the suggestions like "doing drugs is intemperate," then you'll never be a better person.

This might not mean that you're a bad person, just as Mary and Steve weren't bad people. But it certainly means that you'll never be better. Achieving a state of moral integrity is its own reward. More ethical people are happier people. This much has been known for thousands of years. It need not really be proven, either, since all of us know that the happiest people in our lives are also the ones who have the best moral character.

Let's not be idiotic. Saying all this in no way implies that people who are less happy and less exceptionally moral are bad people who should go to hell or whatever else. That kind of attitude is utter lunacy.

But the fact remains, a moral life is a happy life, and a happy life is a good one. If you want to lead a better life, sooner or later you have to warm-up to the prospect that pursuing greater virtue simply makes you a better person. There's no escaping it.