Monday, July 03, 2006

If You Act Nice You Are Nice

If you're lucky and live long enough you might get to act out one of William Blake's more interesting lines. Sorry, not one of the sexy ones, this one, "If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise,".

Seldom having been wise enough to just leave a futile argument and without the gift of always getting the definitive last word in, I stupidly entered in that argument about pop hedonism yesterday. While it was a waste of time, as usual, I did finally notice something new.

The argument that altruists act altruistically for reasons of their own gratification has been a prop of conservative cynicism for ages. The argument comes down to "x does y because x is the one doing it, so x is doing it for their own reasons". Conservatives can't fathom someone doing something that isn't selfish so they figure those reasons are always selfish. It's impossible to define ultimate motivation of actions so complex as those, so you can't prove otherwise. But if you take things out of the realm of Platonic ideals, where none of us happens to live, and argue out of real life things become suddenly clear.

Have you ever known someone of at least functional intelligence who can't tell the difference between a person who does something for them and someone who refuses to help them in a time of dire need? Anything other than selfishness is beyond the ken of your average conservative, but even they know that there is a complete difference in effect.

It's only when going beyond what is objectively clear in the results of the action that the pop hedonist argument gains a foothold. Ascribing hidden motives to someone who does what appears to be altruistic is unwarranted, it is conjectural, it is without foundation. While hard-hearted, it isn't hard logic. The results of the action are real, the attribution of selfishness is airy-fairy. Nastiness isn't a guarantee of realism. So take some of them apples, greed balls!

See "Incorporating the Outcome", May 19th for more on arguing out of reality instead of conjecture.

I don't know if I quite agree with your condemnation of hard-headedness, but I do agree with the point of your title (indeed, whole moral systems are based on this point): in order to be nice, you must act nice, etc. Not only is a good person one who generally acts good (we all make mistakes, of course -- but "you shall know them by their fruits" applies more often than not), but acting good provides the moral discipline that makes goodness a matter of personality and habit: as any Jew, Taoist, Muslim or even Catholic will tell you -- goodness is something that must be cultivated by acting in a discplined, moral manner.

Alas, certain people have it backwards. While it is often necessary to give someone whose previous actions identify them as good (although, as Mother always says -- "you have to earn my trust") the benefit of the doubt (maybe they've made a mistake ... or maybe their actions are correct but that cannot be apprehended yet), you cannot, pace how some people (mis)read Calvin, say that there are definable "good" and "bad" people independent of their actions and that whatever, no matter how evil, a "good" person does is good and whatever a bad person does, no matter how good, is evil. That's why the Bible refers to evildoers, not evilbeers (not to be confused, as has been pointed out when I made the point previously somewhere in blogostan, evil beers ... which might taste quite interestingly ;) ). So, as usual, GW Bush and his ilk are wrong -- you cannot look into someone's soul and judge their actions by whether you've judged them to be good or evil. Only God has that kind of power ... and even still, it is our deeds that are recorded and not some mystical morality of our souls. Certainly for us humans, the saying isn't "by judging them you shall know their fruits" but rather "by their fruits you shall know them".
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