Tuesday, December 1, 2009

My Goodness

There are two kinds of people in this world.  A first sentence like this one, as everyone knows, can go in many different directions.  Here's where this one goes:  When lanes converge on a highway, there are those people who stay in the petering out lane till the last possible moment (sometimes past even the endpoint of the lane) just to pull in as close as possible to the front of traffic, and there are those people who move to the continuing lane as quickly as possible.  Of the latter, there's a further division: those who benignly let the deliberate horners-in ahead of them and those who competitively close ranks to shut the horners-in out.

You know what category you belong to.  The question is what, if anything, the category says about you ... ethically.  Are people who quickly move into the slow-moving lane more considerate, more cooperative, or more sheeplike?  Are people who horn in to the lane at the last minute more individualistic, more aggressive, or more assholish?  Are people who deliberately cut off intruders more just, or just more passive-aggressive?

I am continuing a line of thought begun in my previous posting, in which I discussed recent discussions with my ENG 111 students, as we sort out matters of personal values and ethics in preparation for their final examination (a two-and-a-half-hour essay-writing session) in two weeks.  The issue this time has to do with what role temperament plays in morality.  In other ways, how do innate qualities (disposition) and outward circumstances (class, education, situation) affect one's sense of right and wrong?

Take me, for instance.  I can honestly say that stealing has never been a particular temptation of mine.  I suppose I have stolen little things from time to time, but I have no recollection of having ever done so.  It's not in my temperament to be a thief.  Also, I have seldom been in a situation in life when I felt compelled to steal or, frankly, found myself in many situations where stealing seemed like a desirable possibility.  So I might say proudly that I am a good person because I don't steal.  But is it really goodness if the reason I don't steal is that I have no desire to steal?

Another example, one I did not bring up in class:  I'm gay (most of my students know this, by the way, though it's something I don't usually bring up because I don't think of myself as the proper subject of the courses I teach).  It's a proclivity I act on whenever I feel the urge and spot an opportunity.  I'm not a slut, but I'm not a prude either.  I have met straight people, though, who are very proud of the fact that they do not engage in homosexual acts ... and are quick to point out that I and others are homosexual by "choice," i.e. we have made an ethically indefensible decision to be attracted to men (of course, whether to fuck or not to fuck is a choice, as is the determination to be honest with others about my sexual orientation, but usually these people mean that the desire itself is a choice).  The question is whether these people are good because they choose to avoid sex with people to whom (theoretically) they are not attracted.  Or to put it another way, way back when I still dated females, in denial of my true sexual nature, I was often credited with being a "gentleman" because I did not force myself on my dates.  But if the truth of the matter was that sex with these women was nothing I desired, was I really being gentlemanly or restrained in my behavior?

One reason I think it's best not to judge other people is that people have different proclivities and life situations.  Your struggles and temptations are not mine; they may not even be comparable to mine.  Morality, then, my goodness, is based on how I handle the unique set of conditions I find myself in from one moment to the next.  You can create a checklist of do's and don'ts if you like and reach a statistical conclusion that I do only 24% of the things I should do and 58% of the things I shouldn't do.  Is morality reducible to such a rubric?  What if I simply don't get many opportunities to do bad things?  Am I still to be credited with maintaining a high standard of morality?

My immediate thought is that doing easy or pleasant good deeds is less moral than doing what is difficult or tedious.  One student this morning offered the opinion that if you feel good about yourself for acting in a selfless way, you have negated any good you might have done.  But there's another complication.  Is it then wrong to take pleasure in doing what is right?  Should good deeds be essentially odious?  Why should difficult and tedious hold higher moral ground than easy and pleasant?

I can't take it that far.  I don't believe that there's anything intrinsically wrong with ease or pleasure.  I like to give gifts.  The act gives me great pleasure.  Am I a worse person for enjoying my generosity than I would be if I gave generously against my nature?  To be sure, I would give credit to the person who exhibits generosity even though he finds it personally uncomfortable.  But is that person really better than I am?  Maybe.  But why?  Do we really think goodness has to be unpleasant?  Or do we really distrust the pleasure principle that much?

I am the type of person who gets in the continuing lane as quickly as possible.  It's part of my temperament, I guess, and I see no moral component in the action whatsoever.  I am also the type of person who would like to squeeze out the horners-in to teach them a lesson, but I do not, reasoning with myself that (1) my decision is intrinsically no nobler than theirs, (2) their motives for waiting till the last minute to squeeze into my lane are unknowable to me, and (3) given the choice of being magnanimous or petty, I prefer to be magnanimous.  And in this case, letting the interloper slip in ahead of me makes me feel like the mature, reasonable adult that I like to imagine myself to be and the feeling gives me a certain fleeting satisfaction.  Yes, I think it makes me a better person ... not necessarily better than the interloper, but better than the mean, pinched, bitter, self-righteous prude I'd be if I took pleasure in punishing people whose scruples differ from my own.

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