Screw the straight-and-narrow, I say!

The injunction to STAY ON THE PATH is one of those literary conceits that we take for granted. But all sorts of aspects of this idea annoy the hell out of me.

It is developed from an idea formed in the early Christian church which supposed that temptation, sin and wickedness were all around, but that if you keep your mind focussed on the attainment of a state of grace, and hence unity with God, you would be free from temptation, sin, and wickedness.

This allowed the Christians to introduce to our culture the idea that remains to this day: that everyone is subject to constant temptation; that it is difficult for everyone to resist, and that therefore those who resist are strong and virtuous, while those who do not are weak and wicked.

If your aim is to help others to avoid wickedness (however you may wish to define it), this is surely a valuable idea; but it is fundamentally wrong-headed. It assumes that all people are basically the same; that all have the same priorities, the same desires, and that all would, if they could, aspire to the same lifestyle, aspire to the same set of virtues. We see the consequences of this today: a huge range of behaviours are diagnosed (via the painfully dichotomous DSM) as illnesses – to be cured, treated or controlled – through the general acceptance by the mental health profession that someone who is excessively different will suffer as a result of his difference. I can (thoroughly unfairly) sum this up by the ruthlessly simplistic statement that "conformity is directly proportional to happiness".

Weirdly, the evidence is against this. You can see it for yourself, looking at crime, and criminal lifestyles in general. The crimes that I like to focus people's attention on are very petty theft (taking a pen home from the office) and petty fraud (exaggerating on an insurance claim form). It so happens that I can't do either of these (though I may have been capable of the former in the past). Many, many people have done one or the other or both. I know someone who happily takes apples from his neighbour's tree (for which he has to reach over the fence), but would never take leeks from his neighbour's vegetable patch (even though they are physically more accessible).

What leads people to choose to do some of these things but not others? I encounter two explanations. Sometimes they are kept distinct, sometimes they are combined. I call them "infantile parent" and "pragmatic parent" (neither of these terms is intended judgementally – I don't claim either is good or bad, right or wrong). Infantile Parent claims that people dare to commit petty crimes in proportion to their expectation of being caught or found out. Pragmatic Parent claims that people casually commit petty crimes in proportion to the harm they estimate is done. This equates to the advice always to carry a poor man's wallet.*

I suspect that in terms of what people will permit themselves, there is a very broad range, and the decision to do what is commonly agreed as wrong is taken on the spot, and takes account of an equally broad range of factors. After all, the same people who commit those acts of very petty theft and petty fraud, are those who have publicly declared their support for the illegality of theft and fraud.

So we are black and white in our public declarations, but shades of grey in our actual behaviours. How like marriage…

I'm not capable (for all sorts of reasons - some of which may be very obscure) of infidelity. But many many people apparently are. (To such an extent that Marital Fidelity probably ought to be defined as a personality disorder in the DSM.) People who declare, publicly, their intent to faithfulness.

So the idea of the straight and narrow has forced a paradox whereby everyone believes that they must declare that certain things are wrong, even while doing them. I wonder if this is the origin of guilt. I don't know, as it's an emotion that I know by sight and reputation only.

I don't believe that our capacity for understanding others has (oh, all right) evolved in order for us to try to set it aside in favour of rules that we all agree are right, but by which we cannot abide. I believe that our capacity for understanding others enables (many, possibly most of) us to consider the social consequences of each of our actions, and choose freely the social scale of our action (self / immediate family / extended family / close friends / extended network of friends / geographical community / society / nation / the whole of mankind / the planet  (this list is not exhaustive)). Viewed from the point of view of the individual's expected consequences for whichever is his favoured social scale, there is no such thing as crime… though there may still be such a thing as evil.

The injunction at the top of the page in fact becomes an injunction to resist the temptation to favour a social scale below that of the tribe.

(more to follow – an explanation of the picture…)


* (In case you haven't come across this, I remember once being advised never to carry my money in an expensive wallet, in case I lost it. Supposedly, whoever picks it up will look inside, and if they find some cash, they'll take it, before returning the wallet. But the decision as to how much cash they take depends on a value judgement of both how much cash there is, and how rich they think you are. If you have an expensive wallet, and there's only a few dollars in it, chances are they'll not take anything. I you have an expensive wallet and there's 500 dollars in it, they'll take the lot, but still return the wallet. If you have a cheap looking wallet and there is only a few dollars, they'll take them, but if there's a lot of money they'll think twice about depriving you of it. 

I'm not sure how much credence to give this. After all, the chances of the wallet being picked up by someone less sensitive than this are probably pretty high. One of my schoolteachers kept a typewritten note in his wallet that said "anyone who finds this can keep the cash if they return the rest".)

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