Saturday, January 27, 2007

You knew it was wrong, so why did you do it?
This question is loaded with ideas and directions to take conversation. The image implies we are more likely to engage in wrong acts under the condition of anonymity or privacy. It also reminds me that some moral lapses are socially acceptable, some are joked about in friendly company, and some, a person will be shunned for. But regardless of the act and which social mores it offends or agrees with, each individual has personal convictions as to what is right to do and what is wrong. So, why would anyone choose to do wrong?

To get a simple, straightforward approach to the question, I asked my two sons, ages 12 and 10, to respond to it. Son Number One said, “If I know something is wrong, I don’t do it”. That's an incredible answer. If I didn't know my son, I might think he was being smart or trying to please me with his answer. But he is telling the truth. Son Number Two, who my family fondly (I hope) says is the male version of me, had this to say: “Because doing it feels better than not doing it”.

Both of my sons desire something good. However, the older one is able to stand above his immediate situation and determine that obedience is a higher good than pleasure; his younger brother is stuck in the pleasure spectrum and sees only that one pleasure is greater than another—eating a candy bar (his example) feels better than going without; and apparently also feels better than pleasing his mother, who asked him to save the chocolate for after dinner.

Socrates claimed, rather provocatively, that “no one errs willingly”. In this view of things, my younger son simply does not have sufficient knowledge to direct his will toward the right thing. And this may be true, depending on how we define “knowledge”. However, from a practical point of view, most of us experience a sense of divided desire which sometimes leads to our choosing against our own knowledge of what is right.

Why do we do this? Looking back on times I chose to do what I knew was wrong, I would have to say, "I did it because I wanted to”. Cornelius Plantinga, Jr., in his book, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin, answers this question essentially the same way I did, when he quotes Woody Allen’s justification of his affair with the daughter of Mia Farrow, his then romantic partner. Allen said, simply, “The heart wants what it wants”.

And that is really the final answer. But it’s complicated, because my passion extends to things other than my own pleasure. In fact, I care very little for my own pleasure, in the grand scheme of things. I would lay it aside for many nobler virtues; including truth, justice, compassion, beauty, and love. I would tell you my passion for these things is much greater than my passion for pleasure or safety or comfort. So why am I sometimes willing to cast them aside for momentary and incomplete satisfaction?

My mother says I was a “strong-willed child”. Parents often say this with a chuckle, as if it is an exasperating but endearing quality in their child. I wonder: Can a little girl who does only what she pleases be said to have a strong will? Isn’t her will actually weak? Isn’t she enslaved to her passions and unable to command her body with her will? What is the human will and what role does it/ should it play in our choices? Can we strengthen our will? Can we weaken it? And what makes it so difficult for some of us to put the candy bar away until after dinner?


Rachael King said...

Some more thoughts on the question: Moral living depends on our ability to subject our appetites to our will, whether that means being willing to accept delayed but more complete gratification over a smaller, more immediate one; or the ability to suppress an appetite altogether, for a greater good.

I think the real work of appetite control comes in long before those climactic moments when good and evil hang in the balance. The only way to ensure I don't drink too much at a party I need to drive home from, is to habitually control my drinking. The best way to become a mother who doesn't yell at her kids is to regularly control my temper before I have kids. In other words, our lives run in habits. When the pressure is on and we don't have time to work out a plan, we are going to fall to that habit track every time.

Once we are in the habit of say, fudging on the truth, it becomes much easier to tell a real whopper. In turn, that big lie ties us into a specific course of behavior; this is where we start to feel as if our will is bound. And we are right. We have limited our choices through bad habits and the acts that habit birthed.

I once made a very bad decision, and had a hell of a time coming to grips with it, until I realized that I couldn't have made a better one--I had worked myself into an impossible situation, owing to past errors stemming from bad habits I allowed myself to form. This doesn't mean I'm not to blame. If anything, my guilt is deeper, rather than shallower. But it does give me at least some hope that I can avoid putting myself in that position, again.

If we want to choose good, we need to implement proper habits. the good news is that the brain responds well to conditioning. If you aren't in control of your appetites, you can at least begin forming a new habit. The trick is being patient. When you plant a seed, it doesn't bear fruit, overnight.

peter downton said...

Rachael, your last comment reminds me of a saying that many readers will have heard before, but which always impresses me with its wisdom:

If you sow a thought, you reap an action;
If you sow an action, you reap a habit;
If you sow a habit, you reap a character.

Of course, this works both ways - for good or ill. The trouble is that we don't see where each individual choice is taking us. I tell my boys that they need to learn courage today - by facing their battles today - if they are to be ready for the time when they need to be really heroic.

And yet, all too often, in my own choices I succumb to lethargy. This relates very much to what we discussed in the last post. It does matter what I do in this world, but I have trouble seeing why, or rather/even how - how does the decision not (as in this week's Qube question) to view the pornography that is only a click away affect the way I view (and perhaps further down the line) treat women? Or what difference to anyone else does it make if I have another beer or not? It's there to be drunk and no one is counting - why not?

Lately I've stopped being quite so conscientious with the recycling, and pretty much altogether given up with composting (it's so gross!). (What is this, a confessional?!) Interestingly though, after getting the electricity bill, I've suddenly become a whole lot more careful of switching of the lamp lights!

It does come down to the will, but how susceptible it proves to be both to passion and desire, to bodily weakness, to mental lethargy - one could go on.

Some encouragement though: I'm hearing the message from all over that her and now choices - be they what, where and how I buy, how I use energy, or what I take into my body - matter. They matter both for me, for those around me, and for those aways off, who I'll never meet.

Thanks for your thoughts on the blog - always lots to think about.

lithereed said...

"Moral living depends on our ability to subject our appetites to our will, whether that means being willing to accept delayed but more complete gratification over a smaller, more immediate one: or the ability to suppress an appetite altogether, for a greater good."

Rachael, your elaboration on this statement clarifies its meaning. I agree with much of what you said about the importance of forming better habits and patterns. But that first sentence is so harsh. As I was reading it, I felt as if I were being pushed back into the patriarchy and suppression that was preached to me in my youth. Subjecting or suppressing my appetites with my will makes it seem as if I am divided. Apparently my natural desires are wild and slightly dangerous. These wayward desires must be suppressed by my will so that I may lead a moral life. The implication that my desires are base and separate from my will is nothing new. Yet, I do not think this is an accurate reflection of how the two interact. I think that what we lack more than willpower is knowledge of our true desires.

For instance, let us say I get home from a long day at work, sit down in front of the TV, and eat a large bowl of ice cream.* Should I feel guilty because I did not suppress my appetite for mindless entertainment and empty calories? Or should I stop to contemplate why I chose to indulge? Let us say I stop to think and discover that I my work exhausts me to the point where I have very little energy to do anything else but sit on the couch once I get home. My true desire is not to spend the weeknights alone in my living room. What I really want is to have enough energy to read, write, and hang out with my friends. In other words, my true desire or appetite is to make meaningful connections with people as well as spend time doing that which is personally fulfilling. This is where the discussion of the development of habits comes into play.

Perhaps the distinction I am making is a matter of semantics. But, I doubt it. There is a huge difference between the act of suppressing our appetites and the pursuit of our true desires. I do not think that life must consist of a constant battle between our desires and our will. I think that our desires (if fully acknowledged and understood) may lead us in the pursuit of that which is fulfilling and good.

*Examples used are hypothetical. Any resemblance to actual events, habits, or persons (living or dead) is purely coincidental.

Rachael King said...

Lithereed: Thanks for commenting. Hmm. I can see how you read it that way. Lets see if I can explain myself:

I think desire is a wonderful thing, not something to be beaten down until it no longer whimpers. When I say "subject our appetites to our will" all I really mean is that our appetites are guided or filtered through our will. Moral living depends on this because without it, we would be no different than a dog that bites when it is attacked or gobbles up food when it's presented. We can, for example, choose not to fight back or not to eat the food. Suppressing those appetites would not be the right thing to do in every circumstance, but it would sometimes be right.

The ability to follow appetite, divert it or delay it is a presupposition of societal law and morality.If I didn't have the ability to follow the more distant desire of arriving home safely over the immediate desire to speed(and feel like I'm getting there fast), laws would be pointless.

Appetite itself is healthy and good, but is sometimes misguided in its direction--just as your fictional character initially wants to eat ice cream instead of seeking out a long-term plan to increase her energy or decrease work burnout. I think every one of us, deep down, wants good. But there are so many placebos that leave us unfulfilled, and some diversions that are actually harmful to ourselves or others.

What you are talking about--seeking knowledge of our true desires--is an act of the will;we are willing to search for the deeper or truer desire rather than embrace, without questioning, the first suggestion desire makes. In fact, I would define "will", as I am using it here, as "the impetus for pursuit of what is good, which is the object of true desire".

I don't mean to separate mind and body; I think we are whole persons. I think we would do well to listen to our bodies and our appetites a whole lot more than we do. What I don't advocate, and what I was trying to lay out habit as a remedy for, is letting a whole string of desires, one after another, jump up to steer the ship; this is when I am likely to have another drink just because I feel like it or yell at my kids because I'm irritated that I don't have anything to wear.

I don't think moral life has to be a battle between desire and will, either. I think we can pursue the true ends of our desires, when we find them and can align stray appetites with these true ends. But it takes a lot of practice. Or, it takes habit.

Rachael King said...

Lithereed: Even though I do think a good part of our disagreement was semantics, you make a great point re: the two approaches to life. The focus of my comments was avoidance of wrong, whereas yours was on how to find out and follow good.

Peter: I appreciate your example of encouraging your boys to choose courage now so they'll be ready when it's required later. Instead of telling them to focus on all the ways in which they might be cowardly and then avoid those, you are pointing them toward virtue; inspiring them rather than discouraging them.

It's good for me to ponder this. Truth be known, I do have a teensy weensy tendency to see the glass half empty (especially if there's wine in it).

peter downton said...

Lithereed: I think you were right to suggest, if I have understood correctly, that Rachael's conception of the will prevailing was initially not expressed in as nuanced a way as it might have been (and indeed was later). You say in reply that our real poverty is not our lack of will-power, but our want of knowledge of our true desires.

But I'm not sure your following example does this statement justice?

I think we have to be able to recognise and affirm our true yearnings, while at the same time remaining appropriately suspicious even of those.

Take your own example of good or right desire in the ice-cream example. While I do think that the desire for meaningful connection with people is a truly human desire, I'm also aware of how loaded up with presuppositions about what sort of conversation or intercourse or shared activity is truly meaningful this quickly becomes. Are only those relationships that are forged from deep and probing and revelatory conversation truly 'meaningful'. I know of several people whose relational attitude suggests that relationships that are not developing in this direction are not worth having. I like to think, to the contrary, that my relationship with the lady who passes my house straining to control her energetic whippet dogs each afternoon, and that which my wife and I enjoy with our good natured postman, with whom we joke about the ever-increasing volume of EBay deliveries, and a host of others - familiar faces with whom I exchange a smile or a passing greeting - are, in their own way, as meaningful or important as the former. Every human interaction is in some way a sacrament - there is a presence there, in the eyes, in the face, that goes beyond the material form - call it soul, or personaility, or what you will - the transcendent dimension of human being. It is this otherness, that reaches out and touches me, that makes every human meeting meaningful.

To tease this out a little further,
the conception of 'personally fulfilling activity' would seem quite obnoxiously 'bourgouis' and romantic to some people wouldn't it? Reading, writing and hanging out with friends - these can be healthy recreations - restorative and fruitful - but they can be horribly narcissistic activities also, can't they?

So I guess what I am saying is that we can't assume that our true desires - which seem more noble that their short-term substitutes - are themselves rightly ordered or directed even. The more I have reflected on this discussion, the more I've felt desire and appetite to carry equal potential for being both righly and wrongly directed, and come to feel that will is more often than not tangled up in both.

So, the will is free, and yet strangely not fully so, or perhaps just at a more profound level, not so.

Truly, I don't understand my desires - they are in conflict - but then so is my will. I can't find an angle to come at this that doesn't leave me in the same confusion. I don't know what I really want - I want so many things and these are all too often in opposition to one another. Even when I can see that an attitude or behaviour is wrong, I don't always have what it takes to overcome it - or perhaps I can but I just don't want to ...

Edd said...

You might be interested to know that Plato looks at this subjec in The Republic. He talks about the balance of appetite with reason and also spirit; that reason should rule over the other two (he then goes on to apply this to his model of the state). He describes this balance as justice, rather than morality, but it's almost exactly along the same lines.