Sunday, September 05, 2010

The principled life -- It ain't easy for kids OR adults to be oak trees

As a visiting professor for a semester at a North Carolina college in 1994, I stood before my writing class of 20 students and offered them the following question: "If you could steal $1 million from a business or person and there would be absolutely no way anyone would ever find out and you would definitely never get caught, would you steal the money?"

The classroom erupted, with laughing and high-fiving and jumping out of chairs and hooting and hollering and exclamations of "Hell yeah!" by young men and women alike.

They looked at me as if I were somehow offering them a trick question, as if I were insane to even ask such a question. Of course, you would steal a cool million that someone else had earned if you could get away with it. Why not!?

They are not alone, of course. Probably more than half of Americans would have the same reaction. Most of the other half would say "no" only because their gods tell them not to steal -- but they would really WANT to steal the money; they would have to remind themselves constantly of their commandments to resist the temptation.

The missing link in the above immorality is humanity -- and the singular tool that keeps us humane: rationality.

We humans live in a mental world, unlike the lower animals, and we either remain connected concretely to the outer world or we do not. Our mental lives are only as real as our concepts are real. We are honest only to the degree that we pursue honesty in our concept-formation. We have only as much integrity as we have integrated our concepts correctly according to the real world and to our values. We value our money only as much as we value ourselves (for the above) and our work. We value others' rights to their lives and money only as much as we value ourselves and, therefore, our rights.

When people make of the universe a mystical and unknowable place, and when they disassociate their thoughts from the real, then the only thing left to guide them is momentary and immoral emotions. When they hear that they can get a million dollars of someone else's money, their hearts beat at the thought of all the things the money will buy, instead of morally and principlely thinking: "That person/company earned that money with the sweat of their brow and thoughts connected rationally to the world, and they deserve that money -- not me. I could not live with myself for stealing their time and labor and living from them. Each time I spent the money, it would be a reproach to my own self-esteem and efficacy. I have no interest in taking from them, and I hope they have none in stealing from me."

That last sentence takes an enormous amount of mental work to get to: the building up of concepts of concretes, of self-examination, of morality, of the nature of humans as rational animals, of the ramifications of that, etc. That's why even the most rational of young children find it difficult to act morally all the time. They have a lot of learning to do to get to the utterly principled state of mind that prevents immoral action all the time -- to get to that state where a moral principle is just as hard as an oak tree, and where it must be abided in equal measure all the time.

And that is one of the primary places the rational parent steps in: to guide and inform and help be the watchdog until all those proper concepts and principles are mentally in place. It's an exciting adventure being a parent. It's daunting, yes. But it's thrilling when you know you've got the mental tools and resolution to help -- and you eagerly anticipate the day when your progeny become fully principled and happy individuals.

When they become happy oak trees.

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