Is It Like Being in Love?
I got a comment from kmcleod in response to that post on Montaigne, and then I had another bout of insomnia. No cause and effect implied: but once awake I had the choice of thinking about some stuff I really don't like to think about, or keeping this topic going a little longer by responding to this interesting comment.
I believe that one does the right thing because it’s the right thing. No reward or pleasure is guaranteed, so satisfaction shouldn’t be a motivation. Of course I’m saying this because this week I’ve repeatedly done the right thing and as a result have experienced one of my lousier weeks. Opportunities to do so can’t be predicted, any more than the effects. I can’t even come into work this morn without two cars crashing together in front of me. Anyway, since the human race has its own fate in its hands, little acts of constructive behavior contribute to our survival, as if one was adding a rivet, a brick or a seed. Maybe I don’t believe in a personal karma but in a moral ecology instead. That’s what I don’t understand about Huckabee, Romney and their followers. Doing the right thing shouldn’t just be a side effect of faith. If it’s simply an act of obedience, where’s the morality?
I don't think you're in disagreement with Montaigne. He's not suggesting that the pleasure of goodness is a reward that comes along with the unpleasant act of doing the right thing, but that it is inherent in the act. Your doing the right thing didn't prevent unpleasant things from happening but if you hadn't done the right thing you would probably have felt worse. So let's set that as the baseline minimum of pleasure you get out of doing the right thing: "At least I won't wake up in the middle of the night feeling like an asshole. This time." Because I certainly miss my fair number of shots at the right thing. Montaigne's idea is that the desire for good, the appetite for it, feels like being in love: it's inspiring, it's energizing, it's empowering, it's all sorts of prospects of pleasure that change the face of the world. Montaigne is saying that you can have a vision, an idea of good, that can have that effect on you, and working your way towards acting and living it (you'll never completely get there) is itself pleasure, because the thing itself -- virtue for its own sake -- is so beautiful. I mean, when you’re in love with someone, even a little thing like when they give you their phone number on a piece of paper, or leave their voice on a voicemail, these things are precious.
Montaigne is drawing this idea from the Epicureans basically, even though he's Catholic. The idea of "rewards" for spiritual acts seems very Christian to me, by contrast, and, of course, it's ingrained in our culture, as is the idea that we ought to do right for more magnanimous reasons than the hope of a reward (here or in the afterlife). OK, and look at that comparison: between "it's the right thing" and "for a reward." You have a definite preference for "it's the right thing" and so do I. I think that preference is related to a sense of rightness: that magnanimity is uh, well, more beautiful. You know that your unpleasant experiences won't put you off doing the right thing next time, and then, not only that, you offer up this neat image of what it means to you:
ittle acts of constructive behavior contribute to our survival, as if one was adding a rivet, a brick or a seed.
Yeah. Well, Montaigne would only add to this the power of the heroic example. You know, the reason why all those smart, talented young officers stuck with George Washington as he lost battle after battle after battle. They adored him. Or why people were galvanized into action behind Martin Luther King, Jr. Love was a big part of it.
But I’ll tell you: we need another Nathaniel Hawthorne to describe to the world how the devil walks around dressed as a fundy preacher in our time, preaching degraded Calvinism that translates into “unpleasant experience is virtue for the Less Fortunate,” and offering an almost bottomless narcissism, narcissism bordering on crazy, for the Chosen. Hume wrote about it in his History of England; it really didn’t take long before the Puritans who took over the government showed a remarkable disposition for greed, corruption, vindictiveness, abuse of power, and other depravities big and small. The same attitudes, of exceptionalism based on what you believe and not on how you treat others, the sense of unrestrained entitlement that goes with it, they brought here with them and it is like Dracula, it just will not die. It’s just beaming out of Huckabee’s face, isn’t it? And he’s got all the loot to show for it, not to mention that houseful of hearty eaters. And Romney sincerely telling a different lie every week, trying to hit on the secret magical formula of words that will release all those fundy votes: it’s like watching a man trying to sell the devil his soul and the devil isn’t interested, and finally the devil looks up from cutting his toenails and says, “I’ll take it, for nothing,” and Mitt replies promptly with a handshake and a big grin, “You got a deal, Mister!” It’s a freak show, it’s a farce, and no, there is no morality there.