Sunday, June 10, 2012

"We have done those things which we ought not to have done"

In the late '60s at the college I attended some professors adopted the then faddish practice of allowing students to grade themselves. I doubt that very many "D" students gave themselves "A"s, but I doubt that there were many "D"s either. David Brooks writing about "The Moral Diet" reminded me of that practice. When we grade ourselves the temptation is to be generous:
.... For the past several centuries, most Westerners would have identified themselves fundamentally as Depraved Sinners. In this construct, sin is something you fight like a recurring cancer — part of a daily battle against evil.

But these days, people are more likely to believe in their essential goodness. People who live by the Good Person Construct try to balance their virtuous self-image with their selfish desires. They try to manage the moral plusses and minuses and keep their overall record in positive territory. In this construct, moral life is more like dieting: I give myself permission to have a few cookies because I had salads for lunch and dinner. I give myself permission to cheat a little because, when I look at my overall life, I see that I’m still a good person.

The Good Person isn’t shooting for perfection any more than most dieters are following their diet 100 percent. It’s enough to be workably suboptimal, a tolerant, harmless sinner and a generally good guy.

Obviously, though, there’s a measurement problem. You can buy a weight scale to get an objective measure of your diet. But you can’t buy a scale of virtues to put on the bathroom floor. And given our awesome capacities for rationalization and self-deception, most of us are going to measure ourselves leniently

...[Y]ou really shouldn’t shoot for goodness, which is so vague and forgiving. You should shoot for rectitude. We’re mostly unqualified to judge our own moral performances, so attach yourself to some exterior or social standards.

.... As we go about doing our Good Person moral calculations, it might be worth asking: Is this good enough? Is this life of minor transgressions refreshingly realistic, given our natures, or is it settling for mediocrity? [more]
From the Book of Common Prayer, representing that earlier standard of behavior:
ALMIGHTY and most merciful Father; We have erred, and strayed from Thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against Thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us.  But Thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. Spare Thou those, O God, who confess their faults. Restore Thou those who are penitent; According to Thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesus our Lord.  And grant, O most merciful Father, for His sake; That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of Thy holy Name. Amen.
The Moral Diet - NYTimes.com