Sunday, June 27, 2004

Good and temptation

Recently den Beste wrote an essay in which he attempted to prove that temptation was good for morality, in that those who resisted were stronger and better people. I oversimplify somewhat, but that's the gist of it.

I conclude that den Beste is not a parent. Raising children will leave you with the intuitive understanding that something is wrong with that argument somewhere: the conclusion is wrong. (In science and engineering, experience leads to what we call "physical intuition:" an ability to estimate what the result of some operation will be without having to run the numbers. Parent can gain a similar intuitive understanding of human nature.)

The flaw in his argument is that he thinks of good in terms of being not-evil, or resisting evil. But good is a positive thing in its own right. Marital fidelity (his example) over years produces changes in the person and in the character of the relationship. Infidelity damages these or prevents them from forming at all. His hypothetical wife who has never been tempted will have built a good thing in her life and her husband's life. So will the wife who was tempted but faithful. Perhaps the one who was never tempted will be more likely to stray than the one who has been tempted and resisted. Perhaps not: the fact of the changes in character produced by years of exercise of virtue must have some impact on her power to resist.

So with children: you don't throw all kinds of temptations at them gratuitously: the world is full enough of them. First you try to teach and model what good is, and then warn them about the bad. If you leave your children in front of the TV, don't be surprised if they come away with all sorts of new desires for toys. They'll be tempted enough from seeing their friend's new goodies. Why expose them to that most efficient delivery system for temptations to greed, kid's TV? We did our best to teach our kids about sharing, and to avoid greed, and how to detect the psychological manipulations of the advertisers. As they go out into the world they are at least partly armored against being manipulated.

Adults are usually less vulnerable than children, but unless you think carefully about what goes on around you, it will shape your attitudes. I remember reading reports and viewing footage of people protesting the Little Rock Central High desegregation. Project Tiger was a LRCHS student project to make a movie about the events and compare with today. Great fun. What is the difference between the people then and the people today? Some were convinced that what they thought then was wrong, but most followed the fashions in attitudes; and just never think about it. Most people today seem to think such discrimination is wrong (at least if you're white), and so you conform.

Another example is attitudes towards homosexuality. I'm old enough to remember when it was thought of with revulsion, or at best bemusement. Now it is fashionable, and (on the basis of no solid evidence) it is considered normal. Don't bother pointing out various studies: I know about them, and I also know about how to properly set up and interpret studies, and what they can and cannot prove. I stand by my evaluation.

It seems to make sense that, just as you filter what you give to your young children in order to help them grow to be virtuous, so you should filter what adults are immersed in to help them stay virtuous. Unfortunately, experience shows that you can't trust any particular set of guardians of public morality. At best they only promote their favorite virtues and ignore the rest. At worst they cover up their misdeeds and disguise evil as good (the Nazis being a classic example).

We are discovering that having no filtering at all, coupled with an educational philosophy that there are no universal standards of goodness, is having a very ugly effect on public and private virtue. But what can we do about it? I wouldn't trust Chomsky with a soft rubber ball, much less custody of the nation's morality. He wouldn't trust me (and I don't want the job).

The short answer: somehow moral filtering has to come from the below, and not be imposed from above. How do we get there from here? I suspect that it has to be a side effect, but I'll think about this some more.

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