Communion Of Dreams

“You got a license for that, bub?”
December 26, 2011, 1:28 pm
Filed under: General Musings, Humor, Mark Twain, Religion, Science, Science Fiction, Society, Writing stuff

Hold onto your hats: I’m about to say something nice about religion.

Don’t worry, I promise not to over-do it.

* * * * * * *

I don’t watch TV, but I have seen enough clips of the stand-up comic Louis C.K. online to be something of a fan of his stuff. News about his recent self-distributed, no DRM concert show raising over a million dollars in a matter or days brought him back to attention recently. And it was while reading about that massive success that I found an interesting essay that got me to thinking about some other things.

That essay is “Louis CK’s Shameful Dirty Comedy” and I recommend you read the whole thing when you get a chance. It’s an interesting exploration of this moment in our cultural history, and is quite insightful. But what in particular got me thinking along different lines was this bit about the nature of Louis C.K.’s comedy style:

Someone once asked Allen Ginsberg how one becomes a prophet, and he simply replied, “Tell your secrets.” Lewis Hyde’s done a bit of writing on shame in his book Trickster Makes This World, and he says that “Uncovering secrets is apocalyptic in the simple sense (the Greek root means ‘an uncovering’). In this case, it lifts the shame covers. It allows articulation to enter where silence once ruled.” CK’s comedy does the job of finger-placing our dirty, shameful thoughts. It doesn’t validate them, but it does recognize and identify them, and in their airing, we have to consider and deal with the lines that separate how we are expected to behave and think, and the shameful dirt of this world.

* * * * * * *

Shame. A staple of religion. Has been for the bulk of whatever passed for human civilization at any point in our history.

I don’t particularly want to write about shame. Not now, at least. But I want to touch on something related to it, which I have had kicking around in my head for a couple of years*, and which I think deserves a little attention. It’s called “moral license.”

What do I mean by “moral license”? Here’s a good discussion of the term, in light of some studies conducted a couple of years ago:

Sachdeva suggests that the choice to behave morally is a balancing act between the desire to do good and the costs of doing so – be they time, effort or (in the case of giving to charities) actual financial costs. The point at which these balance is set by our own sense of self-worth. Tip the scales by threatening our saintly personas and we become more likely to behave selflessly to cleanse our tarnished perception. Do the opposite, and our bolstered moral identity slackens our commitment, giving us a license to act immorally. Having established our persona as a do-gooder, we feel less impetus to bear the costs of future moral actions.

It’s a fascinating idea. It implies both that we have a sort of moral thermostat, and that it’s possible for us to feel “too moral”. Rather than a black-and-white world of heroes and villains, Sachdeva paints a picture of a world full of “saintly sinners and sinning saints”.

This is intuitively true to me. And, I think, to most of us. We formulate a mental “bank”, which allows us to make trade-offs: if I work out a bunch at the gym this morning, this evening I can have an extra serving of ice cream. If I scrimp by taking lunch each day rather than buying it from the corner cafe, then I can indulge myself with that new Kindle. If I spend time playing with the kids on Saturday, I can kick back and watch the game on Sunday. And so on.

Much of our whole modern culture is predicated on this kind of trade-off, this kind of license. Studies have even shown the impact it has on how we behave environmentally, or in making decisions to donate to charity, or how we interact with others.

One interesting aspect of this is the danger of praise, whether it be external or internal. From the “General Discussion” conclusion of the aforementioned study:

In three experiments, we found that priming people with positive and negative traits strongly affected moral behavior. We contend that these primes led participants to feel morally licensed or debased. To compensate for these departures from a normal state of being, they behaved either less morally (moral licensing) or more morally (moral cleansing). We measured moral behavior by soliciting donations to charities and and by looking at cooperative behavior in an environmental decision-making context. In Experiment 2, we also showed that moral behavior or the lack thereof is related to changes in how individuals perceive themselves. Participants showed the moral-cleansing or -licensing effects only when they wrote about themselves, and not when they wrote about other people.

* * * * * * *

And here is where religion enters the picture, in two ways.

The first is the “moral cleansing” aspect: doing penance for some kind of moral wrong. This can take the form of confession & saying the rosary, or going on a pilgrimage, or paying a fine, or even a literal rite of cleansing such as washing away sins in the Ganges or through baptism.

The other way gets back to where we started: shame. Many religions inculcate a belief that the individual is “not worthy” of whatever grace or blessing the religion has to offer. Promoting such a belief would tend to offset the ‘credit’ in your moral bank, and so reduce the tendency towards moral license.

* * * * * * *

Of course, you don’t have to be religious to draw this moral lesson. Mark Twain’s famous The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg story deals with this exact issue: people who think that they are moral, who have led moral lives, are willing to exercise the moral license which would allow them to claim a fortune they haven’t earned. It is only after they have had their moral failings put on display that they learn the danger of thinking of themselves incorruptible, and then seek to challenge this assumption of themselves regularly.

* * * * * * *

And I think that this insight explains a phenomenon widely recognized in association with religious leaders. It seems that often, those who have the greatest religious ‘power’ – who hold high offices within a church or other such organization, who are some kind of ‘moral authority’ for their followers – are people who have great moral failings behind the scenes. It may come directly from a rationalization: “I’m a good person, therefore while what I am doing may raise some moral questions, my intent is good.” It may come from the moral licensing effect: “I accomplish great good for others, so it’s OK if I lapse a bit in this one small way.” Or it may even come from an unconscious attitude, as noted by one of the above authors:

When I read about these effects, I can’t help but think of Jesus’ warning about giving to the needy:

Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven…But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Of course, it could work the other direction just as well – that since these people have these moral failings, they try and “do good work” to right the scales in their mind. And chances are, it’s a mixture of both – a feedback loop that encourages and reinforces both a moral failing and attempts to compensate for it.

* * * * * * *

See? I told you I wouldn’t over-do it. Gotta balance these things out, after all.

Jim Downey

*There’s actually a lot of this stuff kicking around in the undertones of Communion of Dreams, though manifest in terms of philosophical discussions of ontology and epistemology. Yeah, it’s something I have been interested in for a long time. And I guess that makes the joke on me, since the whole question of the book ‘being made manifest’ has been such a contentious one for going on five years now . . .

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