Before I launch into today’s indulgence in sententiousness, allow me a few prefatory words. Several Gentle Readers have written to ask why I’ve been writing so much about subjects in moral-ethical thought. I expected to be asked about it, and have been thinking about the answer for my own benefit as well as that of the askers. Here are the best short answers I can give:
- I feel moved to do so.
- Damned near no one else in the Blogosphere is doing so.
- Just as “Politics is downstream from culture” (Andrew Breitbart), culture is downstream from our moral-ethical conceptions.
Any objections to those answers? I thought not. So on with the show.
Have an old gag with which many Gentle Readers will already be familiar:
“To be is to do.” – Socrates.
“To do is to be.” – Sartre
“Do be do be do.” – Sinatra
And with that out of the way, today’s moral-ethical question, which follows directly from the previous piece on the virtues and “virtue:”
Being good or doing good?
The question is non-trivial, not because the answer is hard to find, but because of its inherent linearity. Linear thought is useful, even indispensable, when addressing problems susceptible to logical analysis and that are therefore potentially soluble. It’s less so when the subject is the human psyche or soul. Indeed, it can be something of an obstruction.
As Loren Lomasky has told us, Man is the Project Pursuer. He selects a goal, considers how to achieve it, and pursues the plan he concocts until he discovers that:
- He’s getting nowhere;
- He’s reached his goal.
I once summarized this in a semi-humorous fashion as “The Algorithm:”
- Select a technique that you think will get you what you think you want.
- Will this technique require you to lose body parts, go to jail, or burn in Hell?
- If so, return to step 1.
- If not, proceed to step 3.
- Do a little of it.
- Are you at your goal, approaching it, or receding from it?
- If at your goal, stop.
- If approaching, return to step 3.
- If receding, return to step 1.
[And remember always that selecting your goal – “what you think you want” – is not covered by The Algorithm.]
This is the essence of linear thinking – and for problems soluble by such thinking, it works well. But there are questions that require an approach of a different kind.
Consider wealth for a moment. It’s an old bit of wisdom that money cannot be sought directly. Rather, it must be pursued by an intermediate method: making or providing something to others that they’re willing to pay for. Yet if one were to apply direct methods to the pursuit of wealth, what would he most likely select? Theft, fraud, or counterfeiting!
(Granted that Step 2 would invalidate the approach, but that’s a side issue.)
So! You say you want to become a good person? Well, start by doing what good people do! But wait…what do good people do? Well, you could start by studying a few good people…but it soon becomes clear that even the very best people don’t always “do good.” Sometimes – hopefully because of a mistake or a misperception rather than an exercise of malice – they “do bad.” You wouldn’t want to emulate them in that, would you?
This sort of thing can get the resolutely linear thinker wrapped around his own cerebral axle.
If there’s a significant misdirecting force in this scenario, it might be the notion that we can measure someone’s “goodness.” That would make it possible to use The Algorithm, or something like it, to determine one’s progress toward “100% goodness.” (It would also make comparisons possible…and I don’t think I want to pursue that line of thought any further.) But it should be clear that the notion is absurd.
Personal improvement is only measurable in activities which are themselves measurable – and “goodness” is not one such. The passage of time, changes in one’s circumstances and context, and the presence or absence of significant temptation all play a part in invalidating any imaginable metric.
What remains are only personal desire and personal resolve. Those things are no more measurable than “goodness.” Yet they wax and wane. We’re not always aware that it’s happening within ourselves.
So the obvious answer to the “question” “Which must come first, being good or doing good?” is that the question itself is misconceived. There’s a Zen Buddhist koan that’s illuminating here:
A monk once asked Master Joshu,
“Has a dog the Buddha Nature or not?”
Joshu said, “Mu!”
Joshu’s “Mu!” rejects the question, demanding, as Douglas Hofstadter said, that it be “unasked.” By the rules (so to speak) of Zen, whose holism rejects the reduction of a living creature into separable components, the question is badly conceived. What else, after all, could one reply to a badly conceived question? (“Don’t be an asshole” is considered impolitic among Zen Buddhist monks.)
While it is clear that persons we generally esteem as good generally do good things, it is equally clear that good people do bad things as well. Additionally, other persons, including many we would call “bad,” also do good things, though perhaps not exclusively.
You are neither entirely what you intend nor entirely what you do. You are both at once, a solution of deeds in intentions…or intentions in deeds. Remember that snippet from John Ringo’s novel in yesterday’s tirade. It has more to say to us than even its author might suspect.
(And for those of you who were wondering about the relevance of the “old gag” in the second segment: Sinatra, like Chicken Little, was right. Think about it! ?)