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"Do as thou wilt" ... up to a point ... considered as an approach to building character

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Feb. 24th, 2013 | 04:25 pm
location: Marshall, NC
mood: contemplativecontemplative

My last post, "Do as thou wilt", ended with a couple of questions.  Sorry to leave you hanging so long.

To paraphrase the first question: is there more than one thought pattern that might serve to remind a person to consider the effects of her actions on others?  A way other than being trained to think
that to fail to do so is wrong?

I think there is.  Let's continue with the example that I was using.  And let's make it more specific. 

Suppose, then, that you've been on a hike with a friend, you're both hungry, and you stop somewhere for something to eat: something in the range of a big snack, or a small meal.  You order a small pizza, to share.  It's small enough that it's divided into only four slices.

And suppose that the two of you are on a tight budget: ordering more food would not be a decision to be taken lightly.

You each eat a slice, and then your friend excuses herself to use the restroom.  While she's absent, you eat another slice.  And you find yourself tempted to eat the fourth, and last, slice.

You have every reason to believe that your friend is still hungry, also.  But (he said rhetorically) so what?  How, or why, does this keep you from following your impulse, and taking the last slice before she gets back?

It could be because you feel that it would be wrong, or unfair.  It could also be because of a fear of consequences: she'll complain when she comes back, and/or it could damage your friendship, etc. 

But here's another possibility.  Perhaps you know that this friend, for one reason or another, is accustomed to giving you a lot of slack, and is unlikely to complain about being left still hungry over the next couple of hours.  But she will feel it: she'll be less comfortable, less satisfied, just as you would have been if you'd had only one slice of pizza, when you had room for two (or three).

Might you not, then, forgo taking the last slice, simply because you care about this person, and don't want to subject her to that?

Sometimes we don't have to be pushed, or bullied, or shamed, into caring about another person, and acting accordingly.  Sometimes we just do: it comes naturally.

That answers the first question that I asked at the end of the previous post: no, conscience, or a sense of fairness, is not the only mental process that can lead to unselfish behavior.  The second question was whether (given that there are alternative mechanisms) one of them might, in some sense, be preferable to the promptings of conscience.

My experience suggests that the answer to this is yes.  It feels better to give something up freely, out of caring, than to do so out of a sense that you "ought to."

I further suggest if you develop the habit of behaving unselfishly for this sort of reason, then (other things being equal) you will behave more unselfishly than if you only ever did so at as a result of the promptings of conscience.

If you are an adult participating in the raising of a child, you will have various opportunities to point out consequences of the child's actions, and thus to encourage unselfish behavior.  Each such opportunity is also a choice: you can raise the issue as an authority figure, saying that the child "ought to" behave less selfishly; or you can "just" call attention to how the child would feel if another behaved selfishly toward him.  (It may be rare to see this as a conscious choice, at the time; but the choice is there, for all that.)

Thus the suggestion with which the previous post began: that we place less emphasis on the concepts of right and wrong.  It's simply more effective, in the long run, I believe: I think that appeals to right and wrong always carry at least of a whiff of external authority: of external compulsion, even.  Therefore, to the extent that we are able to encourage a child's inner (and, I will claim, innate) tendency to care about others, we will help to build a character that acts unselfishly out of freedom, not out of any sense of compulsion ... and that, as a result of that, acts unselfishly in a more consistent way.

You may have noticed that the last sentence introduced a qualifier: to the extent that we are able to encourage an inner tendency ....  It doesn't always work; whether it works or not probably depends on age, among many other things.  Sometimes, the exertion of authority is the only thing that works in a situation.

In the light of this, my suggestion should be understood in relative terms: that what happens in our society depends on the appeal to authority, and indeed to right and wrong, more of the time than it needs to.

A rhetorical infelicity (mild, I hope) in what I have written: I ended up talking specifically about child-rearing, and thus, my conclusion may seem not to match the original suggestion at the beginning of the previous post.  I made that transition because I think that the issues in question are somewhat more straightforward when child-rearing is in focus, since it's relatively clear that the adults who raise children have an influence on the development of the characters of those children.

I will claim, though, that similar things are true about the influences that adults have on each other ... more or less equivalently, about the influences that society has on all (well, most) of its members, regardless of age.  I won't offer any concrete evidence for this claim (at least, not in this blog post); call it a suggestion, as indeed I called the whole thing from the beginning.

To sum up: if you act on the assumption that it's in people's natures to be nice ... to the extent that it's realistic to do so ... you end up with nicer people.

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