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On Being Bad

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We have just passed through the valley of the shadow of the IRS and are still sitting on the horns of a moral dilemma. As individuals and families we have done our best to represent our incomes honestly and to represent our deductions optimally. They are not the same thing. Representing income honestly means that we must first understand that others are reporting what they gave us for our work or in interest on our funds or in dividends on our investments. We could make mistakes in reporting, but the likelihood for most of us is that we will get caught, even waitresses with tip income, except in very small companies where the amount is not likely to amount to very much. Still, there is and has been a fair amount of cheating on reporting of income, and so the system has tightened down the thumb screws so our more inventive selves are employed more fruitfully on the deductions side. The deductions system is designed in such a way that the completely oblivious person will under-report his or her deductions. The IRS does not try to figure out whether you have deductions, and they make the process of late discovery somewhat onerous. So, we search high and low for evidence that we have contributed to charities, evidence that we installed solar panels on our roof, evidence that we sustained casualty losses that were not reimbursed by insurance, and so forth. For those of us with complicated and extensive investments or complicated expenses stemming from our work the process becomes quite burdensome and the material evidence of claims we make more tenuous. After all, it is not reasonable to have a CPA in one's retinue 24/7. In fact, few among us all have retinues at all. So, are we expected to have an evidence collection system with us at all times so that we can prove our charity and business expenses and investment expenses? If you want to be 100% honest, the answer is yes. But the IRS operates on a different basis. The IRS believes that you are lying about your tax returns when you get close to the edge of the statistical probability. (They may even think you are lying as an average filer.) For instance, people who earn $50,000 a year rarely spend $10,000 of it on charity. Tithing is understood, but double that and you are going to be audited, which means that you are going to be asked to produce material evidence. The income tax system is, in other words, predicated on a presumption that people might exaggerate, lie, cheat, and misrepresent their incomes and deductions. We citizens feel that this is a wrong position for IRS to take, but we freely acknowledge that there is lots of cheating going on. A trip downtown past all the mom and pop sole proprietorship businesses is a trip past the informal cash economy where the IRS is fully aware they are getting less than half of what is due by law. So, the question arises why people are so bad? The answer is not simple. The income tax context is one that goes directly to money itself, that symbol of worth and self-worth and even self-worthiness. But worth, self-worth, and worthiness are not always measured by dollars and cents. Often the metric is something a lot less obvious, a lot less interchangeable, and a lot less appreciated. For instance, a boy might fib to his parents about his affection for that cute red-haired girl in his 4th grade class, because he is embarrassed and confused by the flood of emotions resulting from his extending his affections outside the family ... even though he knows this is the way of people ... just not him at this age in his situation. He has not yet established trust relationships extensively beyond his parents and siblings, so he does not know how the news of his crush will be handled by people whom he does not know or trust. The boy is not really bad in the sense of harming or destroying anything, and the little lie does not materially affect the love his parents have for him. They understand that he must protect himself and his emotions from undue examination and perhaps ridicule. So, they understand the lie to be "natural" and healthy, in its own way. On the other hand, a teenager who cheats on a test in school, knows that his cheating is resoundingly wrong and that he is naughty (if not outright bad) for doing so, but he calculates that the penalty for a poor final grade will be worse than the penalty for getting caught cheating. The metric is emotional pain and discomfort, and what the teenager leaves out of the equation is the importance cheating has on his developing character where long-term effects cannot be measured in today's discomfort. He also excludes the social effect of cheating, the dislocations of resources within the school system, the teacher's methods, and the falsification of class rank that his cheating produces. These things are too abstract or too vague to be well understood at his age. He dismisses responsibility for social effects despite his aching yearning to be treated as an adult who accepts those responsibilities. If he gets caught, the consequence could either amplify or counteract that kind of behavior, particularly cheating events. And, if he never gets caught, the result still could go either way: he could become conscience inured or he could see it as a sweaty close call and turn over a new leaf. Well that's the beginning of theory anyway. In practice we are what we become in the sense that we accumulate the principal elements of personality, elements that can change radically, but rarely do. Often our personality traits only get more so, whatever they are. And, yes we do take more responsibility as adults, but lots of it is taken grudgingly and at the point of vivid fear of negative consequences, rather than because the responsibility for our behavior is gratifying in any way. As we get older and become adults we encounter situations that are ambiguous, situations that are not covered by the Ten Commandments, but are sometimes covered in various religious texts and doctrines. So, for instance, the Old Testament penalties for philandering are both different for men and women and often so severe that we can scarcely imagine our own society stoning us to death as we lay in the arms of someone else's spouse. In other words, expecting a "modern" response with alacrity and notoriously we cheat on our spouses-not everyone, but a significant percentage do. We acknowledge the infraction within ourselves, the violation of our "word of honor," but then when it comes to another sort of infraction also mentioned here and there in the Old Testament, we become quite pious and concerned. Thus homosexuality (scorned by the ancient Jews) gets our animosity and self-righteous indignation, while philandering gets a knowing smile and nod. This epitomizes a type of moral error that seeps into our lives with much less fanfare than the act of cheating on a spouse or voting against the civil rights of homosexuals or voting against miscegenation, but is nevertheless quite bad. It is, to put a name to it, the fallacy of selective authorization, or "cherry-picking," in the common jargon. But, we are not just error prone in the matter of moral logic and authority, we stumble on questions of means and ends all the time. In the case of spanking our children we confuse the attention-getting but brief pain administered to the buttocks with the lesson we are trying to convey. "Don't sass your mother,"-whack- gets lost in contexts where parents themselves bicker vociferously, where older, larger siblings do not get whacked for the same offense, where father's sobriety might be in question at times. So the lessons we learn are often far afield from the sassing injunction and amount to lessons on how to avoid father and to not have so many witnesses to our infractions. And, in this way we learn the craft of deception and, eventually, the value of confidence and secrecy. Means and ends questions are problems about relative merits of certain kinds of behaviors and goals, usually when the means is notably less acceptable than the end goals. But not always, for there are people out there who think that Aid To Families With Dependent Children (AFDC) welfare, as charitably conceived as it obviously is, produces a decidedly inferior outcome. The failures of the system are attributed to causes within the world view of the those receiving the welfare, namely the unlikelihood of that class of people being honest, and not the fact that the administrators of the program were dishonest. Then, at the most innocent level we throw a pebble at our girl friend's bedroom window to get her attention. We misjudge the mass of the stone, and the rock breaks the window. Her father then asks: So what were you doing out there so late at night anyway when you knew Suzie was grounded for missing curfew the night before? A series of not quite innocent mistakes and misjudgments becomes a cause celebre for Suzie's dad, and he banishes you from her company for a month, hoping that "your kind" will learn that you're not good enough for his daughter, a judgment not merited by the cracked window, but certainly part of a well-known pattern of thinking into which Suzie's dad slipped in his annoyance. God help you if he gets really mad! By now you can see that this essay is taking on the familiar outlines of a parable. That is the intent, of course, because we as a society, a polity, are now confronted with the errors, omissions, misjudgments, deceits, and outright crimes of significant characters in our society, and it is becoming unfathomably difficult to find a handle on some of them and to discriminate among these infractions for those deserving of civil or moral sanctions. Perhaps it would be better said that rational people seem to be disagreeing about the nature of the behaviors in question and have retreated (or been herded) into armed camps for security. In the case of Suzie's dad, above, we find a familiar explanation for your not quite innocent mistakes and misjudgments. You are categorized as a low-life, a member of a tribe of people who have not yet fully appreciated the benefits of full adult citizenship in Western Civilization, somber responsibility, attention to the activities of off-spring, respect for the sanctity of property, and (most obviously) the particular world outlook of Suzie's dad. In this quick moment of categorization Suzie's dad has tried and convicted you, your parents, siblings, and ancestors back to the fabled land from which they doubtless fled and further into the recesses of pre-history where doubtless your forebears engaged in the full panoply of perversions and abominations. In such ways we become divided and yet do not in the moment understand the full complexity of the divisions. The question at this point is whether we are bad (before our deities and consciences) for failing to understand how we divide ourselves and the miscreant logic we employ. The answer, of course, is yes. We are very bad. We are lazy bad. We are illogical bad. We are overbearingly bad. We are nasty, brutish, and fortunately we are short-lived bad beings whose Hobbesean attributes overwhelm us with wars, pestilences, disease, ignorance, and all but permanent grief. Or, we are optimists and believe that right and wrong, good and bad, moral and immoral are all somewhat artificial categories that are almost meaningless in the context of rapidly evolving societies. True, some people get lost in the rules created for long-forgotten contexts, these rules being applied as if they were germane to the future. But, most people are earnestly foraging out a path toward economic and moral homeostasis-a state where they have their bearings most of the time. Some believe that human affairs proceed in the same way that stalagmite and stalactites form-by accretion, slowly, and that one grain of mineral really does not care anything about the previous grain upon which it might come to rest. In this view the "rule of law" is not the relationships among grains, but that grains either adhere to become part of the stalactite or fall to become part of the stalagmite ... or splash harmlessly and uselessly away. The law explains only the crucial moment and says nothing about where grains come from or whether the structures they inadvertently build are valuable or useful. President Obama has this affliction. We are a planet with some 6 billion human inhabitants most of whom have no idea why their creeds continue to require them to honor cows, avoid pigs, believe in virgin birth, or touch thumb to middle digit while sitting with knee and hip joints popping, but there are reasons, and these reasons are not all simply to justify the authority of the creed, although you will find much of this in all human behavior and thought. Much of what we believe to be true is bound into contexts that are imported under cover of righteousness and rectitude. That is, as we are finding out in the scientific study of mind, perceptions, too, are bound and determined by contexts that may be or not be germane to contemporary questions. Yet, we all know that human beings prefer verities to facts. Verities derive from assumptions about continuity favored over change. Verities are stereotypes and shibboleths, customs, practices, and in this sense are circular logically. They are generalizations lacking the proof that they are generalizable. So, is it bad to be this way, for it seems that human beings have always been prey to their own quick assumptions and long-lived verities? The answer is yes, again. And yes, we must develop social skills and norms for uncovering erroneous assumptions about one another, leaving intact the norms for dealing with truly bad behaviors emanating from and justified by erroneous assumptions. So, then, if it is bad to not understand one's own illogical practices and prejudices, how bad is it to argue or lead a person into a moral position without telling him the hidden contexts and assumptions. The answer is that it is Very Bad! Yes, Rush, Bill, Sean and all you trickster clowns and all you politicians, it is very bad indeed to deceive people by employing what you know is their fear of change over continuity, their undeconstructed verities, the stereotypes that conjure up their past pains and injustices, the illogic of hatred and insecurity. It is very bad-not just naughty-bad! It is not just demagoguery; it is transcendentally evil for it cuts the sinews and destroys the mortar of the social compact for mean purposes. --JB--
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James R. Brett, Ph.D. taught Russian History before (and during) a long stint as an academic administrator in faculty research administration. His academic interests are the modern period of Russian History since Peter the Great, Chinese (more...)

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