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Nibbling Away at Moral 'Perfection'

I have an ON again/OFF again involvement with achieving moral perfection. Mostly off. Even though I am getting started 40 years later than Benjamin Franklin, it still 'counts'.

And it isn't as silly as it sounds. What should a person work on as they get older? Sleeping 8 hours per night, without waking once? Growing lush dark hair on their head? Running a 4 minute mile? Living the dissolute life of an international playboy? Good luck with all that.

The fact is that wisdom about the conduct of life, self-control over our own behavior, and having a broader perspective on the human condition are just about the only things that we can improve at, with age. And that is good news! These are the things we should have been emphasizing our whole lives, instead of running around, taking care of frantic busywork.

So how does one proceed on this noble quest? There is something to be said for a 'bottom up' approach, quite the opposite of the approach of long-winded philosophers. It is too likely to be fruitless to read shelves of books, contrasting and comparing different sects of philosophers.

Of course we must not drown in microscopic "practical" details. The concrete example that we work on should always be looked on as a possible member of a category, and an illustration of a general idea.

Let's come down from the clouds and get our hands dirty with real life. All of my life I have noticed outdoorsmen volunteering information about how frustrated they get with themselves because it takes so long to get organized in the morning. And they always forget something! It is funny to hear people complain of the same frustrations, despite all the differences between them.

In fact, people are tempted to just give up on this issue, and shrug it off as inevitable. But actually it is quite explainable. The problem is caused by slovenly habits after the outing. They come back indoors, feeling relaxed and happy. It seems so easy and 'natural' to dump their equipment, hither and thither, on whatever horizontal surface is convenient and empty.  Entropy in motion.

Why not store all the junk necessary for Sport X in one and only one box, labelled 'X'?

This combines with overcoming another moral vice: the Early Bedtime Syndrome. I am always complaining about it. But it really isn't intractable: too much reading or movie watching in the evening is bad -- more physical activity, even with the most mundane chores, is good. So rather than rounding up my stuff in the morning to get ready for a mountain bike ride, just do it in the evening. In the morning, there should be virtually nothing to do.

Lately I have been working on this vice, and the results have been gratifying. Yes, this is a humble sort of accomplishment, but on the other hand, it has been dragging on, maddeningly, for years and years; and finally killing it off makes me feel that other longstanding and idiotic vices are curable. Young Ben would be proud of me.


XXXXX said…
Yeah, I like this one a lot. You call it "bottom up" and I think it's the same thing I call "inside out", meaning one's focus is on oneself in a no-nonsense, no excuses sort of way.
Most of us spend a lot of time critiquing and offering advice to people and situations we have no control over whatsoever. The only control we have is over ourself and you have pointed out quite well how difficult it is to actually exercise that control. I think that's a good definition of "moral perfection" though I choose to say "moral intelligence" instead since our ideas of perfection most probably will never match.
Your focus seems to be on annoying habits. I like to focus on what I observe to be spontaneously arising attitudes within myself which I often don't approve of once I get to thinking about it. Cognitive Dissonance.
I agree that reading others' works, especially philosophical works, is secondary in importance or helpfulness because, after all, that's always the road someone else found necessary to take to make sense of their life. It is always best to follow one's own course.
This is an excellent post. I agree Ben would be proud of you and he's not the only one.
George, thanks for playing along with my half-facetious use of archaic terms, such as Moral Perfection, Sin, Lapses, etc., because I dislike the 'judgement-neutral' jargon of modern social science. (Their quintessential jargon is "appropriate and inappropriate" behavior, rather than "right or wrong." What a bunch of nambie-pambies!)

"Moral intelligence?" That implies that we are talking about a question of adequate knowledge or scientific technique. It seems to me that we are talking about the "Triumph of the Will", and please forgive all the nasty associations of the phrase.

My objection to reading philosophy is not the "not invented here" syndrome, but rather, that you could read until the eyes fell out of your head and those blowhards wouldn't reach one conclusion. They bamboozle rather than elucidate. They want to be famous for some philosophical "invention" or jargon that brings them immortality. They don't really care about helping themselves or anybody else.
XXXXX said…
Interesting words coming from one who sprinkles his writings with philosophical quotes on a regular basis.
Perhaps a better word rather than moral "intelligence" would be moral "sense".....having a sense, paying attention to the moral aspects of something. Would we all even agree on what that should be? I doubt it but it's still worthy to have that front and center in one's thinking. Surely better than not. At least better for the other guy.
As far as the usage of the word "will", well, you know, there is free will vs. determinism. How much exactly is in the DNA and we are simply the innocent victims of its unfolding?
Philosophers philosophize, scientists test and measure but nobody really knows for sure.
Is it possible that your desire to organize your stuff better originates somewhere deep in your DNA? If not, who or what is the creator of that desire?
Yes, I kinda' like the phrase 'moral sense.'