The good, the bad, and the guilty

A wonderfully good and decent man, who happens to be my sister’s husband, has come to a moment of pain.  For reasons beyond counting, I consider him a superior person.  Recently, I told my sister just that.

“He doesn’t see himself that way at all,” she replied.

My eldest son, the Sophistpundit, wise beyond his years, overheard her remark.  He commented, “That’s because he’s a good person.”

Which is correct but deeply puzzling.  A jerk will take it for granted that he’s a gift to the human race, admired by all; it takes a good man to regret his failings.  How can that be?  What does it say about the accuracy — and thus the usefulness — of our mechanism for moral self-judgment?

Some reflection on this subject is called for.

Most Americans call the faculty for moral self-judgment conscience.  A Google search of the word will return 71 million hits, many of then “appeals to conscience” on various public issues such as the war in Iraq.  Such appeals aim at some internal tribunal within every human being where decisions are made about right and wrong conduct, in private life even more frequently than in public affairs.

The concept of conscience originated in Christian doctrine, and has been recognized by Federal law.  The latter allows individuals holding certain beliefs to become “conscientious objectors” and avoid military service.

The Catholic Church for centuries has required an examination of conscience before confession.  And the Protestant Reformation, in a sense, was the elevation of conscience to ultimate religious authority:  only the individual believer, consulting his inner tribunal with Bible in hand, could arrive at salvation.  American individualism descends directly from this line of thought.

Secular and Christian versions of conscience vary in some respects, but agree on two important points.  First, searching one’s conscience is primarily a matter of intellectual reflection — of weighing an act against the demands of morality or God’s commandments.  Second, ignoring the voice of conscience exacts a heavy emotional price:  the transgressor will suffer feelings of guilt and shame.

Is any of this true?  Here’s a confession:  I’m an unbeliever in conscience.  I can’t find any such tribunal inside myself.  Feelings of guilt and shame I have experienced in abundance, but they are far more likely to be derived from wounded vanity than moral transgression — the result of saying the wrong thing to an important person, for example, or wearing inappropriate attire at an important gathering.

It may be argued that such trivial sufferings reflect poorly on my moral condition.  But that’s precisely the question at issue:  if people are good because their inner tribunal is harsh and bad because the tribunal is lenient — if only the good suffer guilt, while the bad enjoy peace of mind — of what use is conscience, either in self-judgment or in regulating behavior?

I suppose my insufficiencies can be used as evidence that conscience must be trained — that, in truth, the moral life is identical with the struggle to educate the inner tribunal in the right principles of conduct.  But this claim quickly leads to a dead end.  Either conscience is the final judge of good and evil, or it isn’t.  If it is, talk of training involves a contradiction, a higher court that plays the trainer; if it isn’t, then the importance of conscience is diminished to practically nothing.

The usual image of wrestling with one’s conscience involves deep reflection:  pretentious movies show the protagonist walking by the ocean’s edge, gazing at the horizon, lost in thought.  This is charming, but utterly false.  Moral decisions aren’t intellectual puzzles.  The Socratic method — as anyone who has read Plato can attest — would require years to arrive at the simplest decision.

Moral problems are immediate.  The drowning man, the sexual temptation, the possibility of a profitable lie — these can’t await the outcome of a Socratic dialogue.  In fact, the best research shows that moral decisions are arrived at instantly, driven by powerful emotions.

Neurologists and cognitive scientists who have studied this emotive moral mechanism no longer speak of conscience, but of a moral sense.  Like our other senses, the moral sense works reflexively, to assist quick action:  we don’t need long reflection to get out of the way of a speeding truck, or to know that the drowning man needs help.

We understand imperfectly the biology behind the moral sense, but it appears that, like many human capabilities such as speech, our moral judgments can be trained — or rather, tuned to a specific environment.  No one is born speaking English or preferring monogamy to a harem.  But normal people are born with the capacity to speak and make moral judgments, and the social environment takes care of the rest.

Moral education means tagging specific situations with strong emotions of pleasure or repugnance.  These emotions, when disregarded, storm back to torment the transgressor with guilt and shame.  Because it is a biological endowment, moral sensitivity varies widely among individuals.  Moral monsters like Hitler and Stalin could murder millions and feel the warm glow of righteousness.  Moral exemplars like St. Francis and the Buddha made human misery their own.

Truly good people, like my brother-in-law, have a keener sensitivity than the rest of us to guilt and shame.  They are like athletes, who must pay for their achievements in sweat and pain.  But unlike athletes, there are no stopwatches or tape measurements to give evidence of success.  In fact, as the Sophistpundit observed, good people often feel like moral failures.

What, then, of moral self-judgment?  Conscience won’t get us there.  It applies reason to a domain controlled by emotion.  But the moral sense can’t help either, precisely because it is subjective and prone to bias — normally ruling in our favor, though ruling against the very best among us.

Here’s another confession:  I think the importance of self-judgment, so conceived, is vastly overblown.  What matters in morality is behavior, which the moral sense commands with a minimum of reflection and a maximum of success.

The point of moral judgment — of oneself or others, there is no difference — is to help steer future behavior.  To achieve this goal, one must be clear about what is being judged, and by whom.  What is being judged is the actor, not the act:  for perfectly practical reasons, we are after an estimate of character, not an accounting of deeds.

This has been obscured by Christian practice, with its insistence on confession and categorization of sins, but secular thinkers have been even more simple-minded (and wrongheaded) in this respect.  We can take J.S. Mill as representative of the latter:  his fatuous formulas assume that actions rather than persons lie at the heart of morality, and that judgment is a kind of mathematical equation — an error that would leave a Christian theologian like Thomas Aquinas aghast.

I suspect that confusion over the moral standing of actions lies behind the current mania for apology.  The pertinent fact, again, isn’t whether a transgressor claims to feel sorry for a particular act, but the degree to which his character may be flawed.

Character is a pattern of behavior projected into the future.  Because they look to a pattern, judgments on character can be remarkably forgiving.  Good people, we know, are prone to moments of weakness and failure:  that doesn’t make them bad, just human.  By the same token, judgment can be merciless:  Hitler was kind to his dogs and thoughtful with his secretaries, but he remained a moral monster.

Who does the judging?  Since the individual is trapped in subjectivity, the only alternative is the community.  A vague, overused word, but in this context it includes every level of human association from family and friends to one’s country.  Thus my friends and coworkers can portray my character far more accurately than I can.  If my brother-in-law were to ask, he would learn from his extended family how good he truly is.

The public knowledge of a person’s character used to be called his reputation.  Not too long ago, people went to inordinate lengths to protect their reputations; none more so than George Washington, the greatest of the Founding Fathers exactly because of his obsessive concern with reputation and character.  So let me close with a bit from Gordon Wood’s new book on the Founders, depicting Washington as he tried to decide whether to accept, as a private citizen, a gift of 150 shares from the canal companies:

Few decisions in Washington’s career caused more distress than this one.  He wrote to everyone he knew. . . seeking “the best information and advice” on the disposition of the shares.  “How would this matter then be viewed by the eyes of the world?” he asked.  Would not his reputation for virtue be harmed?  Would not accepting the shares “deprive me of the principal thing which is laudable in my conduct?” — that is, his disinterestedness.

The story would be comic if Washington had not been so deadly earnest. . . In letter after letter he expressed real anguish.

Of course, he refused the shares.  But I find this portrait of the wealthy Washington agonizing over a few shares of stock strangely moving, and far removed from our time and place.


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