Virtue requires constant exercise — and Big Government leaves us morally flabby

Don Quixote and I got together for lunch today, and the conversation drifted to innate human goodness.  Neither of us believes in it.  We both noted that, if people are rich and powerful enough to do so, significant numbers of them readily abandon ordinary morality, with sexual debauchery usually heading the list of their moral collapses.

Monogamy (or even four wife polygamy) is good for the “little people,” but if you’re a president or a movie star or a ridiculously rich person, why limit yourself?  Unless you’re as unlucky as Tiger Woods was, your money and power will insulate you from exposure, and you can abandon middle class virtue with impunity.  Virtue, apparently, isn’t hard wired.  Instead, not only is it learned, but it’s kept in place by constant external pressure and constant internal vigilance.

The same holds true for kindness.  Anyone who has ever raised children knows that children are innately selfish and brutal.  (Red of tooth and claw, if you will.)  Only arduous socialization, put into place using carrots and sticks, and operating both within the house and outside of it, shapes children into civilized beings who can engage in the minimal altruistic behavior that makes society function.

Don Quxiote and I both commented on the fact that even now, in our middle age, we must constantly work to be “nice.”  I mean, really, why should I stand in line or pay for things I want or be constrained by speed limits or speak politely to idiots or hold a job (which includes being pleasant and responsible), or do any of the other thousands of other things that I daily do against my instincts?

Why do I do all that?  I’ll tell you why.  Because I have to eat.  If I revert to my two year old monster self — that is, if I don’t make the effort to conform my behavior to normal societal constraints — I will lose my job, I will lose my family, I will lose my home, and I will lose my food.  In a moderate climate, one can manage marginally well without shelter, but once you start betraying your food sources, you’re really screwed.

There are rewards for good behavior other than food, of course.  Living in a society that promotes individual virtue, morality and altruism means that you’re living in a very good society indeed.  Everyone is on his best behavior, because there are fundamental survival rewards for that:  Food, shelter and, if you’ve got some free time on your hands, procreation.

What happens, though, when people in a socialist society get food, shelter and sex (but no babies) without having to make the effort?  I’d posit that these people lose their incentive to be moral, virtuous and altruistic.  On a vast scale, their sociability reverts to a toddler/lizard brain behavior level.  Look at Hollywood, look at JFK, look at Bill Clinton, look at England — absent the hardcore morality police in, say Iran or North Korea, if there is no benefit to morality and altruism, people abandon those behaviors.  They are not hardwired, they are learned, and we must practice them constantly to maintain them.

In other words, absent morality police armed with acids and the threat of concentration camp, socialism destroys morality and altruism by removing the external pressures that force people to practice these virtues.  Do you agree?  If so, speak up!  And if not, please explain why not.

Cross-posted at Right Wing News

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  • e-girl

    Absolutely.  Here in Australia there is a big push for more censorship.  The current government wants mandatory internet filtering and there are religious groups pushing for all works of art to be given a rating:  it seems that Michelangelo’s ‘David’ would be refused classification for full frontal nudity (seriously).  Naturally, so-called hate speech will end up being included in the internet censorship proposal.
    The people trying to do those things are trying to do to our minds what the current obsession with anti-bacterial everything will do to our immune systems.  We know that kids who are allowed to play and get dirty develop their immune systems because their bodies become practiced in recognising harmful things and so develop protective responses.
    It’s the same with our minds.  Unless we can see examples of what is repulsive, such as the views of neo-nazi groups, we won’t develop appropriate tools to deal with them.  Part of developing that response is examining ideas and images and developing the ability to deduce why those things are inappropriate for a free society.  Yes, early on, a “no, that’s bad” might suffice, as it does in the case of a toddler attempting to jab a fork into a power socket.
    However, as people grow older, they need to know why.  Merely saying “bad” is a little like putting a “wet paint” sign on something:  people will touch it nonetheless.  Or, it could be like the days in which the state of Queensland banned movies that were allowed in other states.  “Banned in Queensland” became our teenage mark of approval, no matter how pathetically b-grade the movie was.  A culture of explanation, discussion and debate is vital to developing people who have immunity to arbitrary rule and bad ideas.  Such a culture develops a moral immune system.
    It’s not just moral capacity either.  Having done some lecturing and tutoring in engineering at university, it is alarming that younger people now have too high a propensity to merely regurgitate what is taught.  It’s a joy to find those students who can figure things out and extend what is taught by themselves.

  • David Foster

    e-girl…”The people trying to do those things are trying to do to our minds what the current obsession with anti-bacterial everything will do to our immune systems”
    That is a very good analogy.

  • Charles Martel

    “A culture of explanation, discussion and debate is vital to developing people who have immunity to arbitrary rule and bad ideas.”

    Very true, but also very hard to find nowadays, especially in the academy and the public schools.

  • jj

    Philosophical question: it always struck me as somewhat odd that so much of what we call morality seems to consist in damping down – or shutting off – normal, hard-wired, expected human behavior.  I wonder what might be the long-term effect of not letting the human animal be the human animal it’s obviously (look at the kids, red in tooth and claw) pre-wired to be.  The strong chicks shove the weak ones out of the nest, so those are the genes that survive to breed and strengthen the flock, except – we keep saving the weak ones and letting them breed, too.
    I have no answers.  I just wonder why it is that such a large percentage of the aim of morality, religion – all religions – ethical systems, etc. all seemed squarely aimed at not allowing humans to be human.  Or at least damping down, or “taming,” or somehow turning aside or altering the impulse to be so.
    I guess the differences between the average human being and the average Tyrannosaur are not great.

  • Charles Martel

    jj, one difference between humans and T-Rexes is that we are also hard-wired to be analytical, including self-analytical. The most successful societies in history have been the ones that have tamped down on tooth-and-claw behavior because it stopped progress.

    Look at the Arabs, steeped in tribalism and bloodlust—their dedication to “allowing humans to be human” has won them the distinction of having contributed nothing to humanity, except for immense misery and borderline insanity, for the past thousand years. Societies like the United States, where cooperation, delayed gratification and impulse control were once considered virtuous, have lifted the human race to considerable heights, at least materially and civilly.

    But not to worry: We are in an era when the basest part of ourselves—the human being human—has been given free rein. That Bookworm’s blog exists to lament it, and that you and I come here often, is proof to me that maybe being true to our natures is backfiring.

  • Ymarsakar

    Human civilizations has gained and lost a lot of knowledge. Entire centuries worth in terms of human years.

    Much of what is passed down in oral tradition is fragmentary and not exactly conducive to good scientific debate or philosophical argument. Try conducting an argument via a grapevine or telephone chain test. See how well that works. Well, that’s human oral tradition for ya. Regardless of what society knew about sex when they first formulated social rules, the moment the next generation came on the scene, it would get distorted. And then as more and more generations came on, the rules became distorted more and more until all people could rely upon was obeying tradition. The reasons for it they had lost in the echoes of time. Until some guy asking too many questions rediscovers the original issue and makes a new and better rule to accommodate it.