Sunday, August 24, 2008

Why is it hard to be good?

Getting into his stride, productivity guru David Allen asks his $595/head audience, “How many of you have fallen off the wagon?” That is: how many, after having already forked out money at least once for his Getting Things Done regimen, have relapsed into their old bad habits? Many of them sheepishly raise their hands [1].

Something similar happens every week in churches, temples, synagogues, mosques and meeting houses around the world, though it’s usually cheaper and less glitzy: people go to be reminded, again and again and again, to practice virtue, and quit their vices.

Why is it so hard to be good, and so easy to be bad? Nobody needs a motivational speaker to remind them to sin. The goal is not to be virtuous for the sake of it, of course. Virtue is necessary for salvation. But the question still stands: Why is the path to salvation the difficult one?

If the virtues were adaptive, one could be sure that evolution would have made them pleasurable. We don’t have to be reminded to eat and procreate; it’s stopping ourselves eating and coupling in “inappropriate” ways that takes effort [2]. Perhaps salvation is a goal of the mind, not the body.

Morality comes to the fore when evolution by culture starts to outstrip human evolution by nature – times when the selection of memes becomes more important than the selection of genes.

The Axial Age was such a tipping point. Around 500 BCE, the function of major religions shifted from cosmic maintenance to personal transformation [3]. This was a time when urbanization and mobility was increasing. Literacy and technology moved into the cultural mainstream. There was a decisive change in people’s sense of individuality: a growing consciousness of humans as moral agents responsible for their own actions, an increasing awareness of the experience of death, and a preoccupation with what lay beyond.

Our struggle with virtue might be the clash between what it takes to be happy in an urbanized, technological society, vs. what’s required in a pre-literate life closer to unmediated nature.

The puzzle of the dark triad is instructive. The triad is a complex of anti-social behaviors that has serious social downsides: people who are narcissistic, sociopathic or Machiavellian risk being shunned by others, leaving them vulnerable to all the risks of being a loner outside the social circle. And yet, those behaviors persist; they must be adaptive. It seems that the dark triad helps you get laid (if you’re male). Such people are also useful as wartime leaders.

The dark triad, and other immoral behavior, is sometimes adaptive. Morality could be the way that complex societies compensate for their down sides. The struggle for virtue is the price our minds pay for the benefits our genes get from immoral behavior.

----- Notes -----

[1] This is a paraphrase of reporting in “Getting Serious About Getting Things Done,” Business Week, August 14, 2008

[2] Big sins, unlike the menial ones, usually do require persuasion, as in the pep talks that sellers of shady financial products get before they hit the phone banks. And we do occasionally commit acts of kindness without having to force ourselves – thought that’s rare enough to deserve being remarked. Those good behaviors that do “come naturally”, like caring for our own children, scarcely count as virtues.

[3] John Hick, An Interpretation of Religion, 1989, pp. 22-29

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