Monday, September 13, 2010

Moral Rumble Strips

In 1965, Eric Burden of The Animals mournfully pleaded, "I'm just a soul whose intentions are good, Oh Lord, please don't let me be misunderstood."  It's an apt plea and an old one: the 12th century French abbot, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, is credited with originating the aphorism, "the road to hell is paved with good intentions"--ironic testimony to the fact that "meaning well" is all-too-often an immoral asshole's brand of asphalt, designed to cover a multitude of sins.  

Historian and political theorist Hannah Arendt coined the phrase the "banality of evil" in 1963, while reporting on the trial of Adolf Eichmann for The New Yorker.  In effect, Arendt confronts the notion that--Hollywood and fiction aside--people who commit actions that most of us would consider "evil" don't wear black and hide in corners, don't rub their hands together gleefully while chuckling grimly, and don't have a tell-tale gleam of malice in their eyes.  They walk, talk, look, sound, and even think just like you and me--except that they somehow end up doing terrible things.

This bothers us because, in our own eyes at least, we're always souls whose intentions are good (the many misunderstandings of others notwithstanding).  And yet, our actions may not always bear up quite so well under a moral microscope.  We typically don't think of "bad" behavior as a series of small-scale decisions, some of which may seem trivial and nearly microscopic at the time that we make them.  As a result, we often don't accurately assess the overall direction of our lives, thoughts and intentions until it is too late--until someone else has branded us "bad" or, even worse, "evil."

In "Random Thoughts On American Beauty," I wrote about the phenomenon of "sedation" in American society, and in "Dostoevsky's The House of the Dead," I considered the role of intention in human action.  I think there exists a kind of "moral sedation"--in effect, a merger of the two ideas.  All too often, we do bad things without realizing they're "bad," per se, because we see our actions solely through the distorting lens of our own intentions.  We know, in our own minds, what was supposed to happen--what we thought would happen and what we wanted to happen--and this exerts a powerful influence over our ability to see what has happened, what is happening, what will happen.  

Over the course of a lifetime, we morally sedate ourselves, in a sense, because whenever we are confronted with our own sketchy behavior by someone who necessarily views our actions from a perspective other than that of our own intentions, our first impulse is to defensively innoculate ourselves.  We insist, "But I never meant to...", even as friends or strangers continue screaming at us in ever-increasing anger. 

It is extremely painful to realize that we've hurt someone, particularly if it's someone we care about; the tendency to invoke our own good intentions effectively numbs the pain that accompanies that realization.  Over time, good intentions can become a form of moral sedation, rendering us unable to accurately assess the pain that we're causing others because we no longer register what has--in someone else's mind at least--"actually" happened. 

What we need, really, are moral rumble strips.  On the highway, rumble strips alert inattentive drivers that they've crossed the lane markers and are headed for the shoulder (and, by extension, for potential disaster).  They're effective, because although most of us pride ourselves on our excellent driving abilities, all of us make mistakes, big and small.  Rumble strips ensure that a small, innocent mistake, committed in a moment of inattention or distraction, can be corrected before it turns into a fatal, five-car pileup.

Rumble strips only work, of course, if the shoulder is wide enough to accommodate them.  Putting a rumble strip on the shoulder of the highway that runs along the Amalfi Coast isn't going to do anyone much good--a driver obviously has to have enough room to correct his or her error, and some roads just don't leave that kind of margin.

I think it is the same with the moral pathways of our lives: sometimes, we can't really afford to screw up, and if we do, we may be faced with consequences that we don't enjoy or we may end up having to pay hugely for mistakes that simply can't be fixed. 

Most of the time, however, we can correct our behavior and get ourselves back on track pretty early on.  The problem is, if we don't have moral rumble strips in place, we don't realize how far over the line we've slowly drifted.  All too often, even when we're headed straight for the moral equivalent of a jersey barrier, our impulse is to floor it: we insist that we're still in control and capable of getting back up on the high road, but really, we need to just hit the brakes before it's too late.

What are these moral rumble strips, you ask?  Well, humility, for one.  We live in a culture of self-esteem that values (and perhaps overvalues) assertion and self-validation. Don't get me wrong: I'm a confident, assertive person, and I think those are definitely positive attributes.  But sometimes, I think we've lost sight of the virtue of humility.  In Dostoevsky's novel, The Brothers Karamazov, the Russian monk Father Zosima repeatedly asks, "Who am I that others should wait on me?" and insists, "Everyone is responsible for everyone else."

We don't like such ideas, because we only want to be responsible for ourselves and we'd prefer to take responsibility only for the things in our lives that are going well.  Instead of the reflexive reaction of "I meant well," humility compels us to think, "Maybe I'm wrong," and to follow up on this possibility with a willingness to listen to and think through the situation from another perspective.

Which brings us to a second moral rumble strip: empathy.  As I mentioned in a previous posting ("Some Unfinished Thoughts on Happiness"), we don't like to defer to the judgment of others when it comes to determining the paths of our own lives.  If we practice empathy, we retain the right to make our own decisions about where we're headed, but we consciously opt to look at the world from someone else's perspective for a period of time.  As the old, pre-automotive adage has it, we show our willingness to "walk a mile" in someone else's shoes when we empathize with them. 

Rather than finding ourselves "long regretting/ Some foolish thing, some little simple thing" we've done, consciously installing moral rumble strips along the pathways of our lives is an overt acknowledgment that "no one alive/ Can always be an angel."  If we check our thoughts and behavior through the practice of humility and empathy, we may find that, in the end, we're not misunderstood.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."