Stiffen the Sinews, Summon Up the Blood

We (a couple of us anyway) agreed in comments yesterday that motivation is an interesting subject. That’s a big part of what has kept me chipping away at this discussion – the subject of what motivates us to do things, good things and bad things, interests me a lot. It’s important, and it’s hard to figure out – it matters and it’s inevitably somewhat obscure. It matters because it (obviously) influences what we do – without it we wouldn’t do anything. (Which is also another reason it’s interesting – it hooks up with why the mind is adaptive, with what role it plays that makes it worth all the calories it burns.) And it’s obscure because we don’t fully understand even our own motivations (I think), let alone other people’s. And we don’t fully understand them (I think) because they are so complex – they rely on so many different threads, some of which stretch back into childhood – but we’re not aware of all of them when we think about why we do things. I don’t mean warmed-over Freud, I just mean items like things people say when we are eight or ten or thirteen that help to form our beliefs, attitudes, prejudices, likes and dislikes – and then become more or less lost to view.

Oh get on with it. Sorry. The point is, that’s why I resisted Norm’s example of our Polish Catholic friend (she does seem like a friend now) who risks her life to save an endangered Jew because she was taught from childhood that we’re all God’s children. I resisted it not because I resist on principle admitting that there is any good in religion, but because I was unconvinced, and I was unconvinced because it seems to me there are myriad potential and likely reasons one would strongly believe it’s wrong to murder people. It seems to me terribly unlikely that religion would be the only source of such a belief – though it could be the strongest. But I don’t have any trouble believing that religion could operate to motivate our Polish Catholic at another level. I think at the primary level, of beliefs about basic moral commitments, there is a big ol’ web, but at the secondary level, of willingness and determination to act on those beliefs, I can believe things are simpler. When things get difficult, when the Nazis start publicly executing people who save Jews, when the rescuer is called in for questioning – then it becomes a matter of will, courage, determination, resistance to fear – it becomes overpoweringly difficult. That is, perhaps, when the irrational comes into its own. And not necessarily in a bad or contemptible way – not necessarily through fear of hell or the like. No, not at all. It can be through belief that God wants people to be good and will be pained if you fail – irrational belief, if you like, that your tiny (comparatively) and understandable failure to sacrifice yourself will pain God just as much as the outright monstrousness of the Nazis. That kind of belief is a good thing. That’s what people are gesturing at when they talk about abolitionists, and in that way they have a point. Abolitionism was damn dangerous, it got people killed, it took courage to be one; and religion can be a source of courage when more rational reasons don’t quite do the job.

It worries me to admit that, of course, because it plays into the whole ‘religion is the source of morality and without it we’re all shits’ line that we hear so much of. But I think there’s some truth to it, so there you go.

This was touched on in a TPM forum last year – it’s in the archive, but I give the link in case any of you have archive access. Anthony O’Hear said something that I wanted to disagree with but couldn’t; it’s stuck in my mind ever since. (That’s worth noting since hardly anything ever does stick in my sieve-like mind.)

Is that what morality is? Deciding what it means to treat other people well? Why does that give me a reason for treating you well? It’s not a very profound point. I might know what you, Anthony Grayling, tell me it is to treat other people well. But I want to know why I should treat others well.

Simon Blackburn says he would appeal to moral sympathies, O’Hear says that’s a long way from the Kantian moral law, Blackburn says that’s fine, and O’Hear says –

I don’t agree, actually. I do think that people who stand out against tyrants with no hope of reward, the sort of people that Phillipa Foot discusses in Natural Goodness, are admirable people, and I don’t think their actions are necessarily supererogatory. If morality can’t encompass that or tell people that’s what they should do, then it’s rather weak. You’ve said that the only reason for morality is to produce accommodations, but you’re also telling people that you’ve got to produce more than accommodations. What worries me about the language in which you put it is that anybody who reads you is going to think, “Well I don’t aspire to be a hero. I’ll leave that to other people.”

Yes. We leave being a hero to other people. I know I do! Which is why it struck me. I think that’s an interesting and pretty undeniable point.

On the other hand, of course, the outcome of that is only as good as the initial judgment is. All too often the initial judgment is all wrong, is monstrous, is cruel and oppressive and tyrannical. The Vatican goes on obstinately telling ‘the faithful’ not to use condoms, thus condemning tens (hundreds?) of thousands of people to a horrible early death, a great many of them sexually faithful spouses and asexual infants, and more tens or hundreds of thousands of children to orphanhood and destitution – all to uphold a ridiculous and trivial piece of pseudo-morality. What a price for what a reason! So commitment and will are not enough. But – sometimes they are needed, and religion does seem to be one thing that can shore them up, or supply them entirely.

So, as long as I get to alter the wording of Norm’s example slightly, I agree with him. And that’s that.

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