Are people with high moral beliefs more likely to act them out?

sin

It has always been a bit of a strange thing to me how followers of Jesus came to be seen as collectively ‘holier than thou’. How over the millennia we serially get caught up in elaborate morality systems, measuring others by how much they share the same code and punishing those who do not.

It is not as though this was the model for life that Jesus gave us. As far as we are able to understand his way of teaching, way of living, he seemed to react against those in his time who lived this kind of religious life. Remember all those exchanges with the Pharisees, who had a rigid rule to measure everything against. By total contrast, Jesus seemed much keener for his disciples to live deeply and fully, opening themselves up to the wild ways of the Spirit and subjugating all sorts of rules to the overarching principle called love.

Having said that, let us not pretend that morality has no place within the life of faith. It is not as if anything goes. Choices we make in life have consequences – even passive choices. But those outside the holy huddles will often accuse those inside of rank hypocrisy, suggesting that we do not live according to our principles, let alone live up to the life of Jesus. Remember these words attributed to Ghandi?

I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ. The materialism of affluent Christian countries appears to contradict the claims of Jesus Christ that says it’s not possible to worship both Mammon and God at the same time.

Or these, which he wrote in his autobiography;

 I heard of a well known Hindu having been converted to Christianity. It was the talk of the town that, when he was baptized, he had to eat beef and drink liquor, that he also had to change his clothes, and that thenceforth he began to go about in European costume including a hat. These things got on my nerves. Surely, thought I, a religion that compelled one to eat beef, drink liquor, and change one’s own clothes did not deserve the name. I also heard that the new convert had already begun abusing the religion of his ancestors, their customs and their country. All these things created in me a dislike for Christianity.

All of this starts for me to highlight the fact that although shaping our souls towards love may involve a constant processions of moral choices, morality itself should not be the starting point.

There was a story in The Guardian yesterday that made a rather different point about morality- suggesting that there might be an inverse relationship between highly developed ethical/moral belief and ethical/moral action. In other words, perhaps those who have rigid moral belief might be LESS likely to act on these beliefs.

Ethical philosophy isn’t the most scintillating of subjects, but it has its moments. Take, for example, the work of the US philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel, who’s spent a large chunk of his career confirming the entertaining finding that ethicists aren’t very ethical. Ethics books, it turns out, are more likely to be stolen from libraries than other philosophy books. Ethics professors are more likely to believe that eating animals is wrong, but no less likely to eat meat. They’re also more likely to say giving to charity is a moral obligation, but they were less likely than other philosophers to return a questionnaire when researchers promised to donate to charity if they did. Back when the American Philosophical Association charged for some meetings using an honesty system, ethicists were no less likely to freeload.

One take on this is that ethicists are terrible hypocrites. As Schwitzgebel points out, that’s not necessarily as bad as it sounds: if philosophers were obliged to live by their findings, that might exert a “distortive pressure” on their work, tempting them to reach more self-indulgent conclusions about the moral life. (And there’s a case to be made, after all, that it’s better for people to preach the right thing but not practise it than to do neither.) But another possibility bears thinking about. It’s plausible to suggest that ethicists have an unusually strong sense of what’s right and wrong; that’s what they spend their days pondering, after all. What if their overdeveloped sense of morality – their confidence that they know what’s what, ethically speaking – makes them less likely to act ethically in real life?

Hmmm, what if our churches carry a similar kind of ethical corruption? Later the article describes something called  “moral licensing”, the deep-seated human tendency that leaves us feeling entitled to do something bad because we’ve already done something good. It explains why people give up plastic bags, then feel justified in taking a long-haul flight, obliterating the carbon savings. It’s also why, if you give people a chance to condemn sexist statements, they’ll subsequently be more likely to favour hiring a man in a male-dominated profession.

How might this play out in our religion? A focus on those parts of us that are good so we can blind ourselves to those parts of us that are not? A compartmentalism that means we can live externally moral religious lives whilst compromising on some of the most basic ways of loving our neighbours.

One reaction to this (a very common one in our churches) is the call from the pulpit to be MORE moral. The call to purify, to get our moral codes sorted and organised. The degree to which this ever works is rather doubtful, to my mind at least. We are all of us a complex mess of aspiration and failure at the surface and subliminal levels; old sinful habits die hard in me.

What we need to do then, we followers of Jesus, is to return to trying to understand his relationship with morality. We have to remember that the moral leaders of his day clearly regarded him as immoral. He drank, he mixed with the unclean and ungodly, he broke religious rules, he disrupted churchyness, smashed up tables, upset good people and seemed to prefer low-lifes.

Morality was something to be challenged, to be tested, to be subjugated towards love. Morality was not to be seen as the goal, or the most valid measure, not even of righteousness.

Just as well, otherwise we are all screwed.

Capitalism, Durkheim and Rev. Billy.

Laurie Taylor on Radio 4 has set me thinking again, on his programme ‘Thinking allowed’- which looks at social scientific research. You can listen again here.

This time, he took me back to my ‘A’ level sociology days, and to the French 19th C philosopher Emile Durkheim, and his great work ‘Suicide’.

Durkheim wrote about a kind of existential crisis that people could experience in a time of economic crisis- when the norms and structures people have been used to living by break down, and people find themselves in a state that he called ‘anomie’.

Durkeim suggested that people need to be part of something bigger- to be integrated and linked, and when this begins to break down, the end result is anomie, which in turn, leads to a time when the anchors and moorings that hold us together are gone.

Durkheim thought that this was one of the three main reasons why people committed suicide- a breakdown of what made them human, and held them in community.

He suggested that the way to overcome this was through ‘moral education’, or ‘moral regulation’- and these things would be managed through the function of the institutions of society.

So, how does this relate to the current economic crisis?

Taylor made these fascinating comments. He sited a review of 2300 major research papers- looking at business research and training. The study concluded that the focus had been almost exclusively on minor techincal problems to do with the operation of markets, rather than the larger political and ethical considerations. Here is a quote from the researcher;

‘We have failed to teach our students the kind of social conscience and ethics and concern for the world and the environment and the poor that might have had an effect on the selfish exuberance of the finance markets’ Dr Harni.

I have heard a lot of economic ‘experts’ being interviewed giving opinion an comments as the economic crisis unfolds. They are often made to look fools by the events of the next day. It has often occurred to me that these are the same movers and shakers who moved and shook us into the current predicament, now being wise after the event…

But even from them, you hear some talk of ethics, and regulation. REGULATION- in the free market?

Almost like Dr Frankenstein wanting to cage the beast.

So is it too late? Will anomie, or whatever, result in a change to the way that we are? It remains to be seen. But the system we have in not sustainable.

Check this out, it made me smile.