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By insisting that people act in accordance with their conception of morality and rationality (“Practice what you preach!”), we corrupt our facility for rational thought with our capacity for irrational behaviour. These two operate on different levels, and to demand a correspondence between them is to demand that our rationality does not extend beyond that represented by our behaviour. Consider your failure to provide change to beggars. Having refused to perform this act of kindness, you are not entitled to proclaim the selfishness that such a refusal entails. This strange cultural rule is child to a flawed premise: that one’s behaviour corresponds to one’s rational conception of the world. This is of course entirely untrue, and the source of much frustration as we continue to act against our ‘better judgment’. I need hardly provide examples, but since we’re here, the diagnosis of a phobia requires a recognition by the subject that his fears are irrational and problematic. In other words, the arachnophobic man knows that the danger posed by spiders is not nearly so great as to warrant the level of anxiety which spiders provoke within him.
The problem which people seem to have with statements such as this one (about the selfishness of hoarding money) is that the speaker seems to be evaluating themselves using a different criteria to the one they are using when evaluating others. This conception follows from the aforementioned premise (that we act rationally), because to admonish selfishness would, for the rational person, mean not practicing selfishness, and certainly not the specific selfish behaviour with which they have taken issue. Hence, when someone describes our behaviour as selfish, we infer from this that they believe themselves to be unselfish. Having witnessed them performing the behaviour they are reproaching, we become uncomfortable and even angry with the glaring inequity of their judgement. Hence our dislike for such statements and the people who make them.
Obviously, this sentiment is valid – the conclusion (that the speaker is arrogant, deluded and unjust) following logically from the premise – but the premise itself is problematic. Having established this (recall that you are not guided completely by your best judgment), let’s reconsider the statement without assuming that the speaker’s actions are consistent with his views.
Upon doing so, we experience and evaluate the statement in isolation from the person who made it. Few would debate, in this case, that the act in question is a selfish act. We may refuse this assessment by denying the speaker’s right to make it, but its truth is not diminished by the character or status of that person. If it is, then we live in a world where our personal version of reality is constructed by accepting and rejecting propositions on the basis of entitlement, rather than by subjecting them to the rational faculties of our mind. This is no hypothetical thought experiment, though. It is the strange world that we inhabit everyday.
However are we to reconcile the absurdity of this practice with its astounding prevalence? Why would we do such a thing, if it makes no sense and deprives us of an honest existence? The answer, in short form, is precisely because of this deprivation; an honest existence would be really demanding…
Now for the long answer. To alleviate the mystery surrounding a behaviour, we need only describe two basic components: the means and the motivation (because if we want to, and we can, then we will). Consider the way it rewards us by allowing us to fend off assessments of our moral character that might force us to adopt a lifestyle which is less self-serving, or, alternatively, to accept our inherent selfishness. By selecting our truth – so to speak – we are able to have both: a self-serving existence and a self-serving self-image, in which we are not self-serving (some would term this a ‘win’). Also necessary is a culture that permits this behaviour, for to perform it in absence of the aforementioned premise would not be permissible. Given this cultural impetus and its rewarding nature, the PWYP defence is not difficult to understand. By means of these factors, we seem to have wrested back some of the power which truth holds over us.
Happy days, right? Well, no.
Imagine the following scenario. A billionaire (let’s call him Nick Hanauer) exclaims that he has far more money than he deserves or needs. The news station hosting the interview (let’s call it Fox) refuses even to engage with the quite valid ethical and economical argument which Nick is presenting. Instead, they point out the dissonance between his immense wealth and his conviction that he ought not to have it. But what if Nick’s right? Do we really expect him to abandon his wealth voluntarily? Do we require that he do so just to prove he’s authentic? Shouldn’t we celebrate his bravery; even his hypocrisy? If these are the people whom we most want to change, then it is surely their allegiance that we ought to value most.
Hudson is a psychology/anthropology major with an acute awareness of the prestige that his BA will hold when he enters the workforce next year. He has prepared himself for a series of painful rejections, and is now resigned to a life characterised by crippling debt and the consistent abuse of drugs and alcohol.