The Devil does not persuade us to make the wrong choice. We are responsible for our own actions (within limits) and we make our own choices (consciously or unconsciously). When we deliberately choose to harm another person or let them be harmed by our inaction, we are not under supernatural attack. We make a bad choice, usually for selfish reasons. That choice might be small or large, casual or deliberate, reluctant or eager--but it is a choice and we make millions of them in our lifetimes. Very often we don't know the consequence of our choices but the consequences occur nonetheless, so we can only try to make the right choice, trusting that doing the right thing for the right reason will do no harm. We are small creatures who live only for an instant, and sometimes we must just trust ourselves and leave the rest to fate.
A person who trusts himself and tries to be true to himself has been taught that the pain of others is just as real and important as his own pain and therefore he has developed empathy. He has been given unconditional love and therefore he believes he has worth and is a good person. He wants to keep those extremely gratifying feelings of self-worth so he makes choices that will ensure he does not lose them. He does good because it makes him feel good.
It's difficult to control someone with a strong sense of self-worth and self-esteem. It is difficult to play on his fears and weaknesses because does not try to hide from them, he accepts responsibility for making the right decision despite his fears and failings. He does not looking to anyone else for approval or instruction and he does not dismiss his own judgement when it is questioned. If he makes the wrong decision he faces the consequences of his actions and does not blame anyone else for his own choices.
It's not easy being anti-authoritarian but since obedience to authority leads to a lifetime of guilt, fear and confusion, it sure beats the alternative.
Case in point: Mr. Ross Douthat, spiritual and political advisor to the erudite masses.
Bad and mediocre people are tempted to sin by their own habitual weaknesses. The earlier lies or thefts or adulteries make the next one that much easier to contemplate. Having already cut so many corners, the thinking goes, what’s one more here or there? Why even aspire to virtues that you probably won’t achieve, when it’s easier to remain the sinner that you already know yourself to be?
But good people, heroic people, are led into temptation by their very goodness — by the illusion, common to those who have done important deeds, that they have higher responsibilities than the ordinary run of humankind. It’s precisely in the service to these supposed higher responsibilities that they often let more basic ones slip away.
I believe that Joe Paterno is a good man. I believe Joe Posnanski of Sports Illustrated, the brilliant sportswriter who is working on a Paterno biography, when he writes that Paterno has “lived a profoundly decent life” and “improved the lives of countless people” with his efforts and example.
I also believe that most of the clerics who covered up abuse in my own Catholic Church were in many ways good men. Of course there were wicked ones as well — bishops in love with their own prerogatives, priests for whom the ministry was about self-aggrandizement rather than service. But there were more who had given their lives to their fellow believers, sacrificing the possibility of family and fortune in order to say Mass and hear confessions, to steward hospitals and charities, to visit the sick and comfort the dying.
They believed in their church. They believed in their mission. And out of the temptation that comes only to the virtuous, they somehow persuaded themselves that protecting their institution’s various good works mattered more than justice for the children they were supposed to shepherd and protect.
We are only as good as the decisions we make but Douthat has a very different point of view. He believes we are either good people or bad people and that bad people do bad things because they are weak and know that they are bad. But good people are virtuous and heroic, and if they do a bad thing it is only because they were trying to hard to do good things. "Somehow" they ignored their inner goodness to make the wrong choices.
Douthat does not explain how this strange thing happened because it is impossible to reconcile a person of empathy and goodness with someone who will pass around a pedophile priest like an appetizer at a cocktail party. Someone hard and cold enough to ignore child rape makes decisions based on self-interest. To make others act in your self-interest and not their own you need power, and to maintain power you need an authoritarian hierarchies. And you need flunkies who will tell the masses that they have no power, they are bad and helpless and must be controlled.
The loathsome David Brooks is less overtly religious than Douthat but bases his decisions on the same type of belief system.
People are really good at self-deception. We attend to the facts we like and suppress the ones we don’t. We inflate our own virtues and predict we will behave more nobly than we actually do.
David Brooks is very fond of telling people that they are bad. He tells us that self-esteem leads to vanity which leads to immorality which leads to sin. It is vain to think that you are a good person; you are bad and must be told what to think and do, according to the value system you are given by your elite.
As Max H. Bazerman and Ann E. Tenbrunsel write in their book, “Blind Spots,” “When it comes time to make a decision, our thoughts are dominated by thoughts of how we want to behave; thoughts of how we should behave disappear.”And yet despite the fact that the elite gave us moral systems to tell right and what is wrong and punished us when we disobeyed, people still did bad things--often while enforcing those very moral systems. Since one of the ways the elite maintain their power over people is through the enforcement of moral systems, they certainly are not going to tell everyone that the elite are at fault. No, it's the fault of the little people, who are vain and think they are so wonderful when David Brooks knows for a fact they are not.
In centuries past, people built moral systems that acknowledged this weakness. These systems emphasized our sinfulness. They reminded people of the evil within themselves. Life was seen as an inner struggle against the selfish forces inside. These vocabularies made people aware of how their weaknesses manifested themselves and how to exercise discipline over them. These systems gave people categories with which to process savagery and scripts to follow when they confronted it. They helped people make moral judgments and hold people responsible amidst our frailties.
But we’re not Puritans anymore. We live in a society oriented around our inner wonderfulness. So when something atrocious happens, people look for some artificial, outside force that must have caused it — like the culture of college football, or some other favorite bogey. People look for laws that can be changed so it never happens again.
Commentators ruthlessly vilify all involved from the island of their own innocence. Everyone gets to proudly ask: “How could they have let this happen?”
The proper question is: How can we ourselves overcome our natural tendency to evade and self-deceive. That was the proper question after Abu Ghraib, Madoff, the Wall Street follies and a thousand other scandals. But it’s a question this society has a hard time asking because the most seductive evasion is the one that leads us to deny the underside of our own nature.
Brooks depends on our ability to evade responsibility for our actions, which authoritarian followers hand over to the elite, and deceive ourselves when the elite tell us to commit immoral acts. He would be powerless without it, and he would be a much, much poorer man. So would Ross Douthat and Megan McArdle and all the rest of their wretched lot, and that is why our elite is currently telling us that we would never, ever make the obvious, moral decision when its consequences would threaten an established power structure.