Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Sticking by your convictions

Leah Libresco of Unequally Yoked asks, How do you guarantee that you’re going to stick by your convictions and principles? To me, this is seems like a nonsense question. If you don't stick by it, how do you call it a conviction? A conviction is something you're convinced of, n'est pas?

I'm sure it's just an artifact of my particular personality, but I've never in my life struggled to live up to my convictions and principles. I don't worry too much about what other people think of me, but by and large I think I conform to most middle-class virtues. I show up to work on time, every day, and even if I'm doing drudge work, I do my best. I've had some non-committed, open relationships, but I've never cheated on a committed relationship. My friends seem to count me as loyal, generous and kind. None of these supposed virtues have ever been difficult for me: they're how I want to be; why would I not do what I want?

Part of the reason, perhaps, is that I was never raised to be at all hung up about sex. Sex is a natural, positive activity that provides pleasure, comfort and intimacy. To me, sex is no more "intrinsically" morally charged than eating. I don't want to hurt other people in any way, so I don't want to hurt them in a sexual context, but other than its natural intensity, there's nothing particularly special about sex in that regard. So much moral discourse seems fundamentally wrapped up in placing arbitrary controls around sexuality: not the general controls against hurting people, but against "kinkiness", non-monogamy, and non-heterosexuality. I frankly don't understand all these sexual hang-ups: if it feels good, and you're not hurting anyone, enjoy!

There are, probably, people who hurt others, want to hurt others, and for whom hurting others causes no unhappiness. But such people would not, I think, look for any kind of support, internal or external, to not hurt others. Such people would, I think, consider all our moral philosophy to be ridiculous. Hence we rely not on philosophers with arguments to control such people but police with guns and prisons with bars. But such people are, I think, rare. Most people, I think, don't really want to hurt others, or want the benefits that come from not hurting others. When they do hurt others, they seem unhappy: by hurting others, they are hurting themselves. I tend to look on this type of behavior not in a moral context but a medical context: it looks a lot less like vice and a lot more like neurosis. The problem is not that they want to hurt others, but because they have some sort of hang-up or cognitive dissonance, they hurt others to temporarily and unsatisfactorily ease the tension of the dissonance.

There is one very big area where I find social, external "moral" support to be very useful: the establishment of trust. I don't want to hurt or exploit others, but there are very real benefits to persuading them that I will not hurt or exploit them. Similarly, there are benefits to trusting that others won't hurt or exploit me. One easy way to establish trust is to voluntarily subscribe to social coercion. The shopkeeper does not have to understand my character deeply: he knows if I write him a fraudulent check, I run a substantial risk of going to jail. Similarly, I don't have to understand his character deeply: he runs a substantial risk of jail or bankruptcy if he sells me shoddy goods. It's coercion because there really are police with guns and prisons with bars backing up our promises, but it's voluntary because we are both "submitting" to promises we both see as beneficial.

Similarly, I'm in a committed relationship with my girlfriend because I want to be in a committed relationship with her. I'm going to ride through the short term rough patches because I want the long-term benefits of a committed relationship. If I didn't want the long-term benefits, I wouldn't be in a committed relationship. If I wanted the long-term benefits, but did not act according to what I really wanted, then I would be crazy, no? I don't need the external support of society to keep me committed. Similarly, my second wife and I got divorced precisely because we decided that a committed relationship with each other was not in our long-term interests; that we were legally married did not affect our decision. And we were correct: now that we're divorced, we're good friends. Indeed, we got married not to support our own convictions, but to establish trust with the government. We wanted to convince the government truthfully that we were in a legitimate, committed relationship, that we were not just two strangers exploiting the immigration system.

I just don't understand people who can conceive of their own long-term, mutual benefit, but appear unable to act to obtain those benefits. Either their conception of the benefits is insincere — the benefits are not what they want, but what they have been somehow indoctrinated to say they want — or they are just crazy, somehow unable to do what they want to do. Both are to me not manifestations of moral vice, but symptoms of mental illness. Since I am neither insincere nor crazy, I just don't have these kinds of apparently "moral" conflicts.


  1. I think I am of the same mind, but I can see the *potential* value of tying one's own hands. It has some game-theoretic value, for example in a game of chicken. Or, as you point out, it builds trust. If you find your own desires shifting significantly over time, you could end up playing a nontrivial game with your future self. So even in absence of other people, it may still be a useful strategy.

    Of course, I find this easy to speak of in the abstract, but I have trouble imagining a concrete example.

  2. You need to distinguish between short and long term desires. Short term desires may be intense and you might have trouble controlling yourself. But if it conflicts with a long term desire you should do so. So self control is a virtue even in a purely materialist sense.

    I am not sure about your convictions vs your commitments. You were committed to marriage until you were not. So convictions and commitments are things you stick to until you change your mind? Then changing your mind would be something you might do to try and indulge in the short term pleasures. Not everyone has this issue. It is like the spender and the saver. Saving comes naturally to some. For others it is work.

    Where religion comes in is knowing what is your long term good. The notion that there are some timeless principles that lead to long term good. That there is a trustworthy teacher of said principles. That we can know these principles are true even though they might be contradicted by our thinking, our impulses, and our experiences. It essentially takes the short and long term thinking and creates a super-long term thinking.

    Thinking about it, it is not always time based. Sometimes it is depth-based. We have shallow desires, deeper desires, and super-deep desires that we don't even know about ourselves. So you could draw the same distinctions in that direction as well.


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