Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Difficulty of Sainthood

I imagine very few of us are really moral, in the sense that we are making rational decisions about our lives based on what is always right.

Peter Singer's thought experiment on sacrifice illustrates this well: we in the first world make daily decisions that favor our own small benefit over less fortunate others who would experience vastly greater benefit, even though were we to face these individuals we would make the sacrifice in an instant. For those unfamiliar with his point, he asks you to imagine yourself witness to an ice-skating child falling through an icy pond, whose rescue would then depend upon you ruining your $100 fur coat.

I think the really moral thing for us all to do is to take vows of poverty and donate all our free time to charity work. The obvious response to this is that our pleasures serve as a reward, thus generating more overall behavioral efficacy. I think this argument is mostly lazy, and serves nicely as a convenient justification for immoral behavior. After all, losing our shoes and jumping into ice water would just as well diminish our reward-stimulus yet the moral imperative is as strong.

So then why are we not all more like Saints? What is it about them that allows them to possess such vigorous discipline and moral courage? And then, maybe, what is it about us that keeps us from acting saintly?

It seems very difficult to answer this question at the individual level. But at the larger, social level I think we can more reliably find structural trends, and possibly apply universal human behavioral patterns. I may not be able to see why right now, up until this point in my life I have rarely acted saintly. But I can find patterns in others with similar life experiences.

I know that the more comfortable and satisfied I am in my life, the more appealing the idea of sacrificing for others becomes. And much of my position in life is owed to the fortunate experiences I have had over the years. I have been able to learn sets of behaviors that generate for me the life results I desire. At the broader social level, similar experiences are predictive of similar capacities for self-efficacy. (Of course, sorting out causal relationships is enormously challenging. And any causal hypothesis, after identifying clean correlations, is dependent upon continued predictive strength.)

Yet getting structural factors involved in group compassion is complex. Determining social outcomes that support individual satisfaction in order to promote efficacy is part of it. There are also the cultural institutions that act as mechanisms for stimulating the compassionate response. Foremost among these would be the media as a way to deliver information. Then there would be the actual delivery of care, facilitated by NGOs and governments.

Depending on political persuasion, one might be more of an advocate for taxation as a way of embedding compassionate sacrifice into a governmental-social framework. This is dependent upon a choice of ultimate efficacy - broken both into belief in governmental efficacy and emphasis on a social contract specifically designating compassion by all member citizens. Others may opt for an emphasis on private delivery of services, either out of mistrust in government's efficacy or a de-emphasis on inserting compassionate sacrifice into any social contract.

In the end, we will all determine what is a comfortable level of sacrifice, even if, except for the saints among us, it is never quite moral enough. That sacrifice might look different for different people. It may take many forms, from the simplest act as smiling at a stranger, or volunteering at a soup kitchen. In our social behavior though, it is through our interactions that we experience compassion - as we communicate, then place ourselves in the minds and hearts of others, and then choose how to act towards them.

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