Sunday, September 26, 2010

Knowing Right; Choosing Wrong Anyway

There's a memorable scene in a very good film called Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, Spring where a young boy who is being raised by a monk goes off exploring one day when he is about 7-years old. Although the boy doesn't realize it, the monk follows him to a shallow inlet at the edge of a glassy pond. There the boy traps a fish, and with some string he had brought along, ties a knot around the fish's mid-section, and ties a rock to the other end of the string--and then "frees" the fish. Oh, well look!: it's available on YouTube:

Certainly, the scene shows the novice "learning about Karma," but that's not what the scene does best for me. The scene stings me to the moral core not because of what the aging monk teaches the boy about Karma, but because I know from experience that the boy knew such action was wrong, and did it anyway. I know because once, when I was a boy, I smashed a frog into bits with a 4-iron for no reason except because I knew it was wrong.

Edgar Allan Poe speaks clearly about this phenomenon, and gives it a name, Perverseness--first in "Imp of the Perverse," and then in "The Black Cat":
  • Through its promptings we act without comprehensible object; or, if this shall be understood as a contradiction in terms, we may so far modify the proposition as to say, that through its promptings we act, for the reason that we should not. In theory, no reason can be more unreasonable; but, in fact, there is none more strong. With certain minds, under certain conditions, it becomes absolutely irresistible.
  • ...the spirit of PERVERSENESS. Of this spirit philosophy takes no account. Yet I am not more sure that my soul lives, than I am that perverseness is one of the primitive impulses of the human heart - one of the indivisible primary faculties, or sentiments, which give direction to the character of Man. Who has not, a hundred times, found himself committing a vile or a silly action, for no other reason than because he knows he should not? Have we not a perpetual inclination, in the teeth of our best judgment, to violate that which is Law , merely because we understand it to be such? This spirit of perverseness, I say, came to my final overthrow. It was this unfathomable longing of the soul to vex itself - to offer violence to its own nature - to do wrong for the wrong's sake only - that urged me to continue and finally to consummate the injury I had inflicted upon the unoffending brute.
So this discussion happens in a context where the definition of "Good" or "goodness" is not at issue; instead, the acting agent knows precisely what is wrong, but acts wrongly anyway. This is the phenomenon that interests me--interests me so much more than the question of what constitutes Good. I know that part. That part doesn't trouble me. What troubles me is my inability to act in accordance. Perhaps the best expression of this problem comes from in Romans 7:7-24. Here's the most direct excerpt:
I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?
So this is precisely the kind of thing I want to work on at this new blog. Some of my readers may still be wondering what G-d is, or what Goodness is, or what Right-action is -- but I am satisfied on all of those points. It is my own ethical rebellion that is so troubling. I know I am not alone in this question. Jonathan Edwards seems to have walked this path: process of time, my convictions and affections wore off; and I entirely lost all those affections and delights and left off secret prayer, at least as to any constant performance of it; and returned like a dog to his vomit, and went on in the ways of sin.
Any ideas here? Any good strategies for staying committed?


  1. Casey,
    I really like the direction you're going here.

    First: as you may or may not know, there is an enormous related literature in analytic philosophy on the problem of 'akrasia'--or what has come to be called 'weakness of will'. That is, how is it that we ACCEPT we have indefeasable reason to do act A, but don't do it? This is particularly problematic for those naturalizers who posit a causal relation between reason and action (if reasons are causes, the trouble is, how can causes fail to cause?). I like your problem even better, but these have to be relatd.

    Second: My inclination is to say that the 'reason' for 'perverseness' is, loosely speaking, biblical--is the most basic form of rebellion possible--a rebellion not based on the CONTENT of the law, but THAT IT RULES. It is not an objection to A government, but to being governed as merely one of many. I'm going to blog this soon, but recall the end of 'The Man Who Was Thursday', where the devil says this in his accusation of the assembled saints: "We in revolt talk all kind of nonsense...about this or that crime of the Government. It is all folly! The only crime of the Government is that it governs. The unpardonable sin of the supreme power is that it is supreme!" This rebellion is, one might say, a meta-objection to the unnaccountable and person-indifferent authority of law. It stands above--always above!--and addresses us--not qua person, but as an interchangeable member of a genus. Insult!And only by railing against it, like Milton's devil, can I appear to bring it down a notch, and force it to reckon, not with Mankind, but with ME. Only by rebellion can I (literally) dis-tinguish my self. The law's loftiness and indifference to our concerns seems a sin of sorts; and our rebellion against it seems the only kind of vengeance we can inflict upon it for its inherent and eternal deafness to personal concerns. The law refuses to address individual faces--until those individuals refuse the law. Laws are general. But in violation, my individuality becomes relevant, and I force it to face ME.

    I'll keep thinking about this though. Really interesting.

  2. Kevin!--once again, thanks for hearing me so clearly! Our avenues to this point of focus, and our sources, seem different: I haven't read Thursday, and always struggle with Milton, and knew nothing of "akrasia," but nevertheless you're speaking my language: I think I was channeling Camus (The Rebel) and Dostoevsky's chapter in Karamazov called "Rebellion," but even those I was channeling unconsciously.

    I'll track down your sources, and I am excited to read your blog when you get to this topic. I love what you're saying about "my individuality" at the end there--again, I hadn't conceived it along those lines myself, but I certainly recognize that as part of the dynamic I'm trying to define/express.

    Exciting. Are we ultimately going to slip into speaking about "sin" again? Is that avoidable? I feel like even at this moment of exciting conception I can foresee a problem with our phraseology, which, if it "goes Biblical," will fall on deaf ears within academia--and if it eschews that language, it may come up short in terms of communicating the "stakes."