No more virtuous but a little less sinful

No more virtuous but a little less sinful

Looking back over 2017, in preparation for starting the new year, I decided that if I could not be especially good in 2018  perhaps at least I could try to be less bad. Perhaps in 2018 I could make less errors than usual and become a little better by altering the balance sheet, not by gaining more plus marks but by loosing less negative marks.  I good place to start, I thought,  might be the Seven Deadly Sins. If I could not be virtuous hopefully I can be less sinful.

There is not one of the seven deadly sins that I have not committed. Perhaps not often nor repetitively for many, but there is a clear theme in the seven sins which applies to me and my failings.

  • 800px-Tableau_de_mission_-François-Marie_Balanant_tableau_1-Lust
  • Gluttony
  • Greed
  • Envy
  • Wrath
  • Sloth
  • Pride

When listed in this order, the warnings about desire and want are very easy to see. The first four sins all take this theme :-

  • Lust – the desire for pleasures of the flesh
  • Gluttony – the desire for the pleasures of food an drink
  • Greed – the love for material possessions
  • Envy – the desire for things rightly possessed by others.

The christian church is clearly of the opinion that avarice and greed are dangers that we must avoid. Indeed it holds that greed “is the root of all evil and a sure path to corruption“. Islamic teachings share this concern as revealed in the Hadith saying “Watch out for greed because the people before you perished from it. Greed led them to be miserly so they became misers. Greed led them to break the ties (of kinship) so they broke them. Greed led them to sins so they committed sins” (Abu Dawud). One of the three poisons of Buddism is Raga or greed, and in the Hindu theology lobh (greed) and kama (lust) are the passions of the mind which prevent one from finding salvation.

Leaving the major religions and looking at the views of the ancients the same advice comes clearly to the fore. Plato detested greed and the accumulation of wealth as did the cynics and stoics who saw that the purpose of life was live a virtuous life. This virtuous life  would lead to happiness and, to be virtuous, necessitated the avoidance of greed and materialistic desire. The more recent philosophers concur; David Hume felt greed was one of the most destructive of vices.  Despite the protestations of Gordon Geko that “Greed is good” Adam Smith did not believe so. Though he felt that self-interest was a valuable human trait he deplored the application of this if it were to the detriment of others; cooperative self interest was good, that which tried to obtain more than a fair share (greed) was viewed in a very poor light. As he wrote :-

“To be anxious, or to be laying a plot either to gain or to save a single shilling, would degrade the most vulgar tradesman in the opinion of all his neighbors”

Adam Smith championed the view of voluntary self-restraint, the avoidance of greed, and held that this underpinned the healthy operation of a market economy and society as a whole.

Therefore it would appear that the consensus of religious and philosophical thought form the ancients until now is that greed is one of the major sins and problems to which mankind is heir. Certainly in our modern affluent, post-scarcity society, many of our problems do appear to relate to greed and avarice rather then need and lack. In terms of health, in the west, conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke and obesity all seem to be markers of excess consumption.  Looking at mental health services these seem to be drowning under the dual tides of people damaged by substance abuse and those dissatisfied and disillusioned by life not meeting their desires.In social terms our family structures, which helped us develop a successful caring society, are being jettisoned in preference for satisfaction of our erotic desires. In politics greed drives increasing sequestration of wealth and increasing inequality between rich and poor. In global terms our greed rapes our natural resources and threatens our continued existence. Unless we all tackle greed our future looks increasingly bleak. Everything has to start somewhere and I am going to start with me and my own problems with greed.

So, while I may not be able to be much better in 2018 (I am not going to give myself targets to which I will never adhere) I am going to have the low aim of being less bad. I am going to pay attention to my desires, curb my tendencies to want things I don’t need, consider giving things to others rather than holding them for myself.Generally I am going to consume and want less.  Perhaps if I do all of this, perhaps if I am just a little less bad, it will be almost like being good.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The bookseller’s depressing warning

Perhaps the best reason to join a book club asne_seierstad_the_bookseller_of_kabulis that it will encourage you to read books which otherwise you would have missed. This was certainly the case with the “Bookseller of Kabul” which I ignored since its release in 2003 despite having garnered a considerable degree of praise. For some reason it never captured my attention sufficiently to get to get around to reading it. It was clearly an important book but one which passed me.

It passed me by, that is, until our book club decided to have a year avoiding European and American literature in an attempt to broaden our horizons. This was the second foray further afield, Israel having been our first. Am I glad that I have read this book ? Certainly, it was an interesting and educative read. Did the book deserve the praise it has received ? I am not convinced, it is a rather patchy offering, a rather strange hybrid of fiction and non-fiction.

This book is the result of a Norwegian journalist’s four months spent living with a family in Afghanistan. She has taken the interviews she had with the family members and turned them into a readable family saga. The book is well written and well translated, it is easy to read and she creates good character portraits of the family members. She has managed to convey a sense of life in modern Afghanistan which is revealing.

However, it is because it is this hybrid form that it also disappoints. Had it been non-fiction then supporting information about the historical events would have been valuable as well as some analysis of their relevance. As it is the occupation by the Russians and the Taliban are described as nothing more than scenery as the backdrop to this family story. Had this been a novel then there may have been more emotion. The author has tried to be non-judgemental and simply describe the lives of the participants. There are no heroes here, there is no attempt by anyone to change things, there is no questioning of the rightness of the situation. Like the women in the story, everything is passively accepted.

These snippets of daily life are so depressing, no-one fights or rails against their lot. Nobody has any vision of a better life. The lives of these women in a middle-class afghan household is that of servitude and bondage. Even the members who were older, and able to remember better and freer times, do nothing to try for significant change. The way this life, more suited to the medieval era, is accepted as reasonable leaves the reader with a feeling of hopelessness for the future of Afghanistan and especially its women. So, although this book does open a window to let us see an aspect of life which is often hidden to us, it also hides any causes or solutions (if there are any) from us.

I recommend the book therefore to anyone who doubts the dreadful position that women have in this part of the world; they need the distress of reading this. If you already know this sorry state of affairs it might be better using your reading to search for an explanation or, even better, the start of a solution.

 

Listen up folk !

Listen up folk !

Listen up folk ! Zog our tribal leader has kept us safe from harm these last months. he has protected us from wild animals who wanted to devour us. He has protected us from other tribes who wanted to kill us. He even protected us from ourselves when he lead us away from mistakes and disasters we would have made. Let us give our young women and food to the great Zog so he continues to protect us.

Listen up folk ! Our King Albert has kept us, his loyal subjects, safe for another year. He has protected us from King Zog who surely wished to invade and kill us. He has wisely guided us and avoided many a disaster that would otherwise certainly occurred without his wise council.  Without King Albert the barbarians at the gate would surely have entered our lands; killing our men, raping our women, and butchering our babies. So let us give thanks as we give our labour and produce to our monarch and prepare for another year.

Listen up folk ! The church has again saved us;  not just our bodies but also our souls. Our priests have guided us well in ensuring we do not fall prey to heathens at the gate. We know the pagans sit and wait for the chance to kill us and take our women and children. The warn us and protect us from the work of witches and demons. Thanks also to the clergy who, through their wise advice, have kept our souls safe. They warned us of our sins and saved us from eternal damnation and the pains of hell’s fire. So let us arrange a tithe to give a portion of our wealth to the Church so it may protect us for another year.

Listen up folk ! The government has lead us safely through another year. Without them no roads would have been built, no one would have cared for the poor, our children would have been uneducated and ignorant and doctors would not have attended to our sick. Without our ruling class we would have descended into savagery killing and raping our fellow citizens. So let us feel pride when we pay our taxes as we are protecting ourselves for another year.


Check who is taking your possessions, check who holds the power. This will let you know who is your enemy.


 

Don’t be to tempted to force people to be altruistic.

Don’t be  to tempted to force people to be altruistic.

It is quite likely that altruism was one of the human traits which allowed our species to develop and progress. It is possible that this ability to behave in a way which is to the benefit of others, while being at our own expense, underpinned our development as a social animal.

Some scientists have proposed that “cooperative breeding” is at the core of this issue .

Humans are generally highly cooperative and often impressively altruistic, quicker than any other animal species to help out strangers in need. A new study suggests that our lineage got that way by adopting so-called cooperative breeding: the caring for infants not just by the mother, but also by other members of the family and sometimes even unrelated adults. In addition to helping us get along with others, the advance led to the development of language and complex civilizations,” (1)

Although cooperative breeding is not unique to humans, 10% of birds act in this way, it seems that we are the only group of primates which act in this manner. Whether is was cooperative breeding which initiated this change or not it has long been recognised that altruism is an important human characteristic and possibly the defining human characteristic.

Even before the evolutionary scientists and psychologists started to think about altruism the great thinkers had already considered it as an intrinsic and defining aspect of human nature. Indeed Adam Smith opening his major work with the following sentence :-

“No matter how selfish we suppose man to be, there is obviously something in his nature that makes him interested in the fortunes of others and makes their happiness necessary to him, even if he derives nothing from it other than the pleasure of seeing it.” (2)

We, as individuals in our species, gain pleasure from helping our fellows. Smith believed that this combination, of having a drive to look after oneself (self-interest) combined with the experience of deriving pleasure from making others happy (altruism), allowed us to develop a trading and commercial society where everyone looked after their own interests while at the same time promoting the common good. This type of society, capitalism, has allowed us as a species to greatly expand our wealth(3), reduce poverty (4),  extend health and longevity over the globe (5) and even, possibly, reduce the likelihood of wars (6).  It may even reduce the rates of materialism and consumerism (7).

However, we need to be careful and be clear what altruism actually is. There is a danger that, if we neglect the nature of altruism and clumsily try and promote good behaviour, we might actually damage on of  the most valuable aspects of our behaviour. Altrusim is defined as :-

“Disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others”:(8)

Its synonyms include charity, humanitarianism, generosity, benevolence, self-sacrifice and goodwill. At the core of this definition is that something is done by someone which is either not to their benefit, or possibly to their disadvantage, and it is done purely for the pleasure of making the other person’s life better in some way. There is no aspect of altruism which weighs up the potential future benefit the the giver, the altruistic action is performed simply for the pleasure of the other person. One doesn’t pay good wages altruistically, one pays good wages to ensure better staff. It is not altruistic if one undertakes an act in the hope that the consequences will benefit you in the future. If one is altruistic one doesn’t give money to the poor because you hope it will make your life more secure by reducing the likelihood that he will rob your house. It is not altruistic to donate money to a medical charity trying to find cures for the illness that troubles your sick child. These may be wise steps but they are not signs of your altruism.

People are altruistic as it is in their nature, it gives pleasure in its own right. If we try and force good behaviour on people, in the hope that this will promote altruism we will be mistaken. There is pleasure to be had from looking after a sick relative, positive feelings will also be felt when we give money to the poor, and we will feel good, and possibly pride when we place ourselves at risk to defend a friend or fellow from attack. These positive feelings allow us to know we have behaved well. They have their counterpoints in the shame we feel we don’t intervene to tackle an injustice, the regret when we missed an opportunity to help an ailing family member and the guilt we might feel if we judge ourselves to have been greedy while there are still people in need. We need to feel these emotions to guide our development as people. If we are to become better people we need to have some idea of what constitutes a “good“man or woman. We need to know this in order to allow ourselves to become better.

If altruism is replaced by state compulsion this is lost. When I arrange for for a sitter for my relative it is a chore. When my taxes go to help some group in need, there is no pleasure, I have no relationship with the good which occurs. If I am conscripted to defend my fellows I will do my duty but there will be no pride. None of these things allow me to choose my intervention, to experience the decision and to feel the consequence of goodwill to my fellows. In all of these I am no better, or worse, than anyone else. I do not get the opportunity to expand my moral development, to think about benevolence and charity, and how I might become a better person. Indeed with time, I will start to think that it is not my role to help others, I am just an individual after all, it is the role of government, the authorities, the state, certainly somebody else to make sure good works occur.

This is dangerous. There is evidence that, as welfare states expand, the amount of charitable activity and charitable giving reduces (8). We take away the individuals connection to altruism while doing nothing to alter their feelings driving them to self-interest. This is a recipe for decreasing the effectiveness of our market economies in spreading wealth more equitably.

States have always urged us to be altruistic. Early religions promoted the ideas of self-sacrifice for the common good, later nations promoted the need for us all to pull together, or tighten our belts, for the good of us all. But as they have removed our individual right in this process they have damaged altruism. If I have no choice, I am not acting well, I never chose to pay taxes for armaments for whatever war  was deeded necessary. Indeed often I feel my taxes are used for morally questionable interventions (Though at least I have no personal responsibility for these either). No-one can force someone else to be altruistic. While the altruistic soldier can volunteer for the suicide raid, the soldier sent by order on a suicidal mission does not die altruistically. Our rulers compel us to make donations, pay taxes, for good causes. These good causes help maintain the state that those in power run. Thus, they benefit directly from this action. There is no altruism on their part, simple self-interest and maintenance of the systems of power is their motive.

We need to bring benevolence and good will back to the individual so that we may benefit from its positive effects. We need to wrest it out of the hands of the state, despite any dire warnings of the tragedies which might befall us. If we really want these good works to continue, and I am sure most of us wish to look after our communities and our fellow, we will voluntarily contribute for them. This would also have the beneficial effect of allowing us to play a part in determining what we feel we wish to promote. I would guess that the call for voluntary payments to support the bombing of some distant upstart country might fall of deaf ears, and that would be a good thing.


Prompted by the Daily Prompt : Tempted“>Tempted


  1. http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2014/08/human-altruism-traces-back-origins-humanity
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Theory_of_Moral_Sentiments
  3. http://www.wealthandwant.com/themes/Free_Market_Capitalism.html
  4. http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2016/01/what-oxfam-wont-tell-you-about-capitalism-and-poverty/
  5. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/economics/10412499/The-world-has-never-had-it-so-good-thanks-partly-to-capitalism.html
  6. http://stevenpinker.com/publications/better-angels-our-nature
  7. https://mises.org/library/does-capitalism-make-us-more-materialistic
  8. http://www.thewelfarestatewerein.com/

Tempted

The Testament Of Mary.

I can say, with some confidence, that had this book not been chosen by my Book Group I would have been very unlikely to have read it. However, I was glad it was chosen as I felt that there was a gap in my reading, in that I had not tried the work of Colm Toibin before.

imagesHe is clearly a writer of considerable skill. His output has been prodigious, in prose and in poetry, and generally highly regarded. Indeed, he was listed as on the the top 300 British intellectuals by The Observer newspaper.

While the novel did give me a glimpse of this ability it was overwhelmed by the negative feelings the book invokes. I read that Colm Toibin writes in quite austere conditions seated on a hard, uncomfortable chair. I can believe this as the discomfort and misery seems to have been channelled into this story. This is the story of Mary as an angry misanthrope. Discard any ideas you may have had of the saintly Mary, and ideas of Mary as the epitome of motherhood. This is Mary as a very earthly mother, a mother replete with faults and angry and exasperated by her son.

This mother doubts her son’s miracles, despises his followers (all ‘misfits, fools and stammerers’, men unable to look a woman in the eye) and hostile to those who she feels are glorifying his history. She has turned her back on him. In the past; by denying his divinity, in the present; by literally turning her back as she flees the hill and his crucifixion, and in the future; by attempting to confound the writers of the gospels. In the final pages she turns her back not only on the man but also becomes an apostate switching to  a new life and faith with Artemis.

This book clearly intended to be controversial and iconoclastic. However, it is brief and without substance; there is no revelation in its attack, nothing new is uncovered, no alternative vision is offered. The only thing made clear is that the writer has problems with his Catholic heritage.

This is iconoclastic in the same way that drawing spectacles or black teeth on a picture of the Madonna would damage the icon. Iconoclastic but also a waste of time, to borrow a phrase “It is not worth it”.