Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Robert Wright on Tiger Woods

Via Trumwill, an excellent (though uneven) Robert Wright op-ed on Tiger Woods:

Though monogamous marriage may be, on average, the best way to rear children, a lifetime of monogamous fidelity isn’t natural in our species. And extramarital affairs have a way of leading, one way or another, to the dissolution of marriages — not unfailingly, by any means, but with nontrivial frequency. And even when an affair doesn’t end a marriage, it can permanently change the marriage — and child-rearing environment — for the worse.

So we’re stuck with this unfortunate irony: the institution that seems to be, on average, the least bad means of rearing children is an institution that doesn’t naturally sustain itself in the absence of moral sanction — positive sanction for fidelity, negative sanction for infidelity. And negative sanction often involves sounding judgmental — something that, in addition to incurring the wrath of a columnist’s readers, raises genuinely thorny intellectual problems.

These problems are handily summarized via two aphorisms: 1) Let he who is without sin cast the first stone; 2) There but for the grace of God go I.

The first of these is the problem of hypocrisy. Given how many people have either cheated on their spouse or done something comparably serious, how can we dish out moral sanction — blame people for their transgressions — without being a society of hypocrites? (Maybe we can’t; as various people have argued, and as I suggested in an earlier column, maybe hypocrisy is a natural ingredient of an effective moral system.)

The second problem is the problem of moral imagination. If you can imagine yourself in Tiger’s shoes, you can see that he is exposed to a level of temptation most of us will never know. I for one don’t claim that I could withstand it.

Read the whole thing.


Professor Hale said...

It is not hypocracy to uphold a moral code, even if you fail at keeping it. It is not hypocritical for a drug addict to tell others, with heat-felt conviction, to avoid his example. Nor is it hypocritical for a habitual drunk driver to tell other people that drunk driving is wrong and should be avoided.

Similarly, a guy who cannot keep his pants on knows what he is doing is wrong, suffers the consequences of that wrongness and is not hypocritical to warn others away from it.

It is hypocritical is such a person does not really believe his actions are wrong, but tells others that it is.

Too often I have heard the hypocracy argument used as a blanket denial of Christian-based moral codes of all kinds. That almost exclusively from people with an axe to grind against Christianity.

Φ said...

Prof. Hale: Well said. The proper definition of "hypocrisy" is -- "pretending to be something that you are not." Wright is using the liberal definition -- "to violate your moral code," -- but at least he has the wit to recognize what the alternative really is: moral anarchy.

Speaking as one who believes in the Ten Commandments yet has violated them all except murder and adultery (and even then), I will say that anyone who claims he has not violated his own moral code doesn't really have one or is lying.

Peter said...

There's an interesting quote from "The Diamond Age," coming from a character from a futuristic "Neo-Victorian" enclave:

You know, when I was a young man, hypocrisy was deemed the worst of vices,” Finkle-McGraw said. “It was all because of moral relativism. You see, in that sort of a climate, you are not allowed to criticise others-after all, if there is no absolute right and wrong, then what grounds is there for criticism? … Now, this led to a good deal of general frustration, for people are naturally censorious and love nothing better than to criticise others’ shortcomings. And so it was that they seized on hypocrisy and elevated it from a ubiquitous peccadillo into the monarch of all vices. For, you see, even if there is no right and wrong, you can find grounds to criticise another person by contrasting what he has espoused with what he has actually done. In this case, you are not making any judgment whatsoever as to the correctness of his views or the morality of his behaviour-you are merely pointing out that he has said one thing and done another. Virtually all political discourse in the days of my youth was devoted to the ferreting out of hypocrisy.

We take a somewhat different view of hypocrisy,” Finkle-McGraw continued. “In the late-twentieth-century Weltanschauung, a hypocrite was someone who espoused high moral views as part of a planned campaign of deception-he never held these beliefs sincerely and routinely violated them in privacy. Of course, most hypocrites are not like that. Most of the time it’s a spirit-is-willing, flesh-is-weak sort of thing.”

“That we occasionally violate our own stated moral code,” Major Napier said, working it through, “does not imply that we are insincere in espousing that code.”

“Of course not,” Finkle-McGraw said. “It’s perfectly obvious, really. No one ever said that it was easy to hew to a strict code of conduct. Really, the difficulties involved-the missteps we make along the way-are what make it interesting. The internal, and eternal, struggle, between our base impulses and the rigorous demands of our own moral system is quintessentially human. It is how we conduct ourselves in that struggle that determines how we may in time be judged by a higher power.”

Φ said...

Peter: I'm intrigued! This book, The Diamond Age, who wrote it? Our library carries books or short stories with that title by Fitzgerald, Wells, and some guy named Neil Stephenson.

Matthew King said...

That's from the SF novel by Neal Stephenson. His greatest work is Cryptonomicon, which should be right up your alley.

Novaseeker said...

The problem Wright has, however, is that he has no real way to provide the kind of moral system he realizes is needed to curtail bad behavior that destroys socially useful institutions like marriage. The good part about Wright is that he is honest enough to realize that a free-for-all system based on perfect personal autonomy is not going to lead to good outcomes -- on that plane he swims against the most strident ideologues of the left. At the same time, however, he doesn't haver any replacement for the religious moral system that his own left has worked so diligently to overthrow. One gets the sense in reading his books that he is stretching, almost desperately, to find a new kind of secular spiritualism, or a kind of detente between secularism and religion (a detente favoring secularism, to be sure, per his last book at least), but neither of these is particularly realistic. So Wright is essentially a guy in a bind -- he realizes the importance of moral rules to support institutions, but at the same time his liberal/rationalist/enlightenment sensibilities can't really permit him to embrace the one source of such rules that has been proven to work in large societies: religion, and a religion of the robust kind, not a kind of "gap filler" religion that no-one takes seriously. Wright gets the problem of having no foundation for public morality, but he can't bring himself to admit the solution, because he can't really bring himself to believe in revealed religion. It's an almost tragic bind the guy has worked himself into, really.