Human NatureOctober 14, 2008
Modern masters of science are much impressed with the need of beginning all inquiry with a fact. The ancient masters of religion were quite equally impressed with that necessity. They began with the fact of sin–a fact as practical as potatoes. Whether or no man could be washed in miraculous waters, there was no doubt at any rate that he wanted washing. But certain religious leaders in London, not mere materialists, have begun in our day not to deny the highly disputable water, but to deny the indisputable dirt. Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved. Some followers of the Reverend R. J. Campbell, in their almost too fastidious spirituality, admit divine sinlessness, which they cannot see even in their dreams. But they essentially deny human sin, which they can see in the street. The strongest saints and the strongest sceptics alike took positive evil as the starting-point of their argument. If it be true (as it certainly is) that a man can feel exquisite happiness in skinning a cat, then the religious philosopher can only draw one of two deductions. He must either deny the existence of God, as all atheists do; or he must deny the present union between God and man, as all Christians do. The new theologians seem to think it a highly rationalistic solution to deny the cat.
… some American literati have professed their naïve belief that temptation and coercion are really the same thing, that nobody could be asked to resist temptation. (If somebody puts a pistol to your heart and orders you to shoot your best friend, then you simply must shoot him. Or, as it was argued – some years ago in connection with a quiz show scandal in which a university professor had hoaxed the public – when so much money is at stake, who could possibly resist?) The argument that we cannot judge if we were not present and involved ourselves seems to convince everyone everywhere, although it seems obvious that if it were true, neither the administration of justice nor the writing of history would ever be possible. In contrast to these confusions the reproach of self-righteousness raised against those who do judge is age-old; but that does not make it any the more valid. Even the judge who condemns a murderer can still say when he goes home: “and there, but for the grace of God, go I.”
Those who wish to declare themselves to be either more compassionate or more enlightened than others are keen to appeal to the inherent goodness or innocence of a badly behaved child. Claiming that a fifteen year old who tells their teacher to “fuck off” has actually done something morally wrong, let alone saying that such a student deserves to be punished, is seen as unenlightened and unfair. Those who advocate blame and punishment are seen as either cruel tyrants who hate the adorable little kiddiewinks or superstitious primitives who have no understanding of the science of human behaviour.
There is, of course, a problem with the suggestion that children are inherently good or innocent: it is not true. Children do bad things all the time. This is not a surprise as, of course, we adults do bad things all the time too and for the same reason. It is in the nature of human beings to fall short of moral perfection. We do not achieve moral perfection even for a short time, the best we can hope to do is to seek to recognise our moral failings and consider them grounds for admitting our fault; resolve not to repeat the offence; attempt to make restitution for the wrong, or in some way try to reverse the harmful effects of the wrong.
There are problems here because what I am describing are the religious concepts of Sin (literally “falling short”) and Repentance. In suggesting an existing inclination to moral failure I am echoing at least part of the doctrine of Original Sin. This is not to say these ideas rely on a religious perspective. What I have talked about here can be deduced from obvious observations of both the world around us and one’s own inner moral world, but that doesn’t stop them being seen as religious ideas. It may even be this that causes the difficulties and the claims to greater rationality of those who pretend that, morally, children are either blank slates or, worse, natural saints. We are in a culture where people don’t like to use religious concepts in moral reasoning and so there is an incentive to replace this view of morality with another more “modern” (or “progressive”) one. “Sin” in particular has become devalued, often in two opposite directions. One is to view it as simply a euphemism for sexual activity, as in “living in sin”. The other is to view it only as conspicuous, serious wrong-doing, leaving us without the terminology to discuss either our personal failings or the everyday failings of humanity.
Without the concepts of Sin and Repentance, whether they are expressed in religious or secular ways, we are at a loss to deal with moral issues, except by ignoring them. Ignoring our moral failings is something many are loathe to do explicitly – people usually stop short of announcing their own sainthood – but such a claim is implicit in any moral theory that ignores what it is actually like to do wrong. Sometimes they don’t stop short of virtual self-canonisation. Two teachers I know told me that they never sinned. (My response was to suggest it was about time they started.) But if we accept as genuine the universal human experience of doing, saying or thinking things that our best judgement tells us are wrong, then without an acceptance of our inclination to sin and the need to repent when we do so, we simply cannot explain our own moral universe. We cannot explain where we have been or where we should go. Without the concepts of imperfect human beings needing to confront their weaknesses, we end up with a contradiction: our convictions and beliefs are in opposition to our inclinations and actions. If we deny that this contradiction exists due to our own imperfect natures, then it can only be resolved by
1) abandoning our convictions
2) denying our responsibility for what we feel or do.
The first of these options (abandoning any principle in response to the inclination not to comply with it) is often disguised as a dislike for Puritanism or hypocrisy. “Why should anyone suggest I shouldn’t do what I want to do?” people ask, even in cases such as speeding or smoking where the harm (or potential harm) to one’s self or others is obvious. When applied to schools this takes the form of a mindless anti-authoritarianism. Teachers are portrayed as ogres, driving students to bad behaviour through their unreasonable requests and unpleasant personalities. Any teacher who has been told they were at fault for enforcing the school rules will be familiar with this form of disapproval.
The second option (denying responsibility for feelings and actions) is one that people are sometimes cautious about applying to themselves as it does have implications of insanity, although people increasingly do seem willing to express even obviously selfish feelings as if they can’t be judged for having them. It is, however, seen as tolerant and broadminded to deny the responsibility of others for their actions. Where once being non-judgemental meant refraining from the casting of stones, it now seems to require looking at the obviously guilty and saying “well they couldn’t help themselves”. Temptation can now be a considered a medical or psychological condition. Examples of this are easy to identify, just by flicking through a newspaper. I’m sure it was with a great deal of sympathy and good intentions that those who were inclined to drink excessively were told they were suffering from the “disease” of alcoholism, but I wonder if they would have accepted such a diagnosis if they knew it would lead to the promiscuous being diagnosed with the laughable condition of “sex addiction”. Where psychological and medical explanations don’t explain our mistakes, then the alternative is simply to separate actions from consequences. The results of our actions are simply quirks of fate beyond our control. It is presumably for this reason that newspapers now report women “falling pregnant” in the same way somebody might “fall ill” or “fall over”.
With regards to education, the belief that children are not responsible for their actions is the default position for those attempting to reconcile their denial of human nature with the rather obvious fact that all children do bad things. The usual explanations of why children are not to be held responsible for their actions are:
- Children are too young to understand how to behave.
- Children’s behaviour is determined by their background.
- Badly behaved children have a medical or psychological condition.
For those of you reading this who are teachers, is this sounding familiar?
Arendt, Hannah,Eichmann in Jerusalem, Revised Edition,Penguin, 1963
Chesterton, G.K., Orthodoxy, 1908