Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Doing the Right Deed for the Wrong Reason (22 Jan. 2013)

         One of my favorite couplets is from T.S. Eliot's verse drama, Murder in the Cathedral, Thomas Becket's crucial insight into his impending martyrdom, "The last temptation is the greatest treason: / To do the right deed, for the wrong reason."

         For Thomas to seek martyrdom, to choose martyrdom as a personal goal, would be for him — given who he is, given his historical context, given his place in a Christian world — it would be for him a strong spiritual temptation and, for him, the greatest treason.

         In more mundane contexts, though, the "last temptation" idea is pretty much sentimental bullshit.

         I mean the "sentimental" here in an old-fashioned and fairly literal way: "sentimental" as in sentiments, as in having the right ones; "sentimental" in the set of ideas that includes the line, "I don't like your attitude."

         There are places where I respect sentimentality, two anyway, where it's at the core of works that are rigorously, even savagely logical and ethical. Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal" (1729) depends on our visceral rejection of the idea that eating babies — even Irish babies, even babies of poor Irish who are economically worthless — on our revulsion at the image of literally eating babies, as opposed, say, to our complicity in letting them starve. And William Shakespeare's King Lear (ca. 1605) presents a vision of the world, a true vision I think, where ethics and morality start with feeling, start with compassion — including the "visceral" reaction of most people that blinding a helpless old man is wrong. In a universe in which there may be no God or gods, or in which the gods may be bratty little boys torturing humans for sport, in a universe where Nature may be thoroughly "red in tooth and claw" and where social norms go along with the whims of the powerful — in a Machiavellian universe, one starts ethical thinking with feeling; and if such appeals have little philosophical respectability or practical power among the hard-assed, well, that is still where we have to start.

         Most of the time, though, stick to the cliché and extend it: don't do too detailed a dental examine on a free horse, and don't question too hard the deep motives of people doing the right thing.

         Indeed, hypocrisy is widespread and pretty disgusting, but if some politician hypocritically and cynically pushes a program in the public interest, just say "Thank you" and stay alert. Hypocrisy is "on the one hand"; on the other hand is the simple fact that human motivation is complex, even for saints less problematic than Thomas Becket, St. Thomas of Canterbury.  (Thomas died opposing the principle of one law for all people in a country and in other ways defending the privileges of an overprivileged Church. His causes weren't so good; his integrity was and remains admirable.)

         In a climactic trial scene in Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s first novel, Player Piano (1952), the protagonist is most seriously accused of fomenting revolution, with the most damning part of the accusation that his motive was to get back at his father. Similar accusations were repeated against radicals in the 1960s: our rebellion was based in our psyches, adolescent rebellion against authority taken to the streets.

         Part of the lesson of Player Piano and of the debates of the 1960s is, "So what?" In Player Piano, the revolution was doomed but justified and necessary. That's what counts, not the motives of its titular leader. Similarly of the Movements of the long 1960s: were the political analyses, on balance, right or wrong? Were the various causes generally just? If Civil Rights and ending the Vietnam War were just stupid goals, okay, then one might get curious about what sort of psychopathologies or arrested developments got people thinking such weird thoughts, and acting on them. If the political analyses were at least arguable, then argue about them. If the causes might have been just, argue the issues and how they might have been pursued better at the time and perhaps still better today.

         What's going on in people's "hearts and minds" — brains and hormone systems or whatever — isn't easily knowable and generally no one's business except those people and their families and close friends.

         If you don't like someone's attitude, say so, and then move the conversation on or move on yourself. If people are doing the right thing, you've definitely got the right to try to determine if they will continue to do so. But on social issues that's a political analysis, where people's sentiments and attitudes are usually less important than their situations.

         If you don't trust someone's motives for doing "the right deed," try to make sure that the pressures on him are such that he'll continuing doing so; in terms of his soul, those pressures may be "the wrong reason," but his soul isn’t your business. 

No comments:

Post a Comment