Or, Why I Am A Cynic

A number of years ago, I was visiting a small mission church, where the priest asked me to help with the chanting work.  I agreed, and he told me to read the Pre-Communion Prayers aloud.  I think all Orthodox Christians are supposed to read these prayers before receiving, but it’s not the sort of thing that gets covered in Sunday School, so we tend not to.  Or else we forget, or “forget,” because, as I soon discovered that Sunday, they’re a bit of a downer.  Here’s a sample, courtesy of St. John Chrysostom:

“O Lord my God, I know that I am not worthy nor sufficient that thou shouldest enter under my roof into the habitation of my soul, for it is all deserted and in ruins, and thou hast not a fitting place in me to lay thy head.”

There are six in all, but that gives you the general tone. While we Orthodox generally don’t do guilt the way Catholics do, the pre-communion prayers make sure to let you know that you really, really, reeeaaallly don’t deserve what you are about to receive. After getting through about three of them, I started thinking, “Come on, now. I know about sin and all, but most people aren’t that bad. The average person is decent enough.”

But then I thought—and this is why it’s sometimes worth it to have an internal monologue that never, ever shuts up—“Decent enough compared to who, exactly?” I thought about it, and had to admit, reluctantly, that I had a point. And I kept reading the prayers.

The problem was, I’d had no frame of reference to work with. Good and bad, like up and down or hot and cold, are relative terms. Some people behave better or worse than others, and that’s fine—logically, that is—as long as you’re only comparing one person to another. But when you judge the moral worth of the human race, who exactly are you going to measure us against?

Why, against the human race, of course. At least, that’s who I was using, without even realizing it, because I had no other grounds for comparison. And that’s a test we literally cannot fail. Ever. When you compare the hypothetical “average person” to himself, you naturally find that he breaks even. This holds true regardless of his actual behavior. In a hypothetical alternate reality where 72% of all people wind up murdering at least one of their parents, the average man still matches his reflection in the mirror. And the guy who only beats his dad instead of stabbing him, well, he comes out looking pretty good.

Of course the Church posits Christ as the frame of reference, and of course we all wind up failing the test miserably. That was probably pretty obvious. Also probably not that satisfying. Because, ultimately, most people really don’t do anything that spectacularly wicked, do they? Frames of reference aside, most of us do little or no lasting harm to the vast, vast majority of people we interact with.

But, in a way, that’s sort of the point; why would we? I can safely say that nobody who reads this will ever be guilty of patricide, like the hypothetical people two paragraphs up. Part of the reason patricide horrifies us is that it is rare and violates all reason. Most of us like our parents, or at least don’t wish them dead. Even when we do, we rarely stand to benefit all that much from losing them.

The same general rule applies to most transgressions. All the really nasty misdeeds are so extreme that there is rarely any opportunity or incentive for committing them. Certainly not enough to compensate for their difficulty, or the risks entailed. Why would anyone in my position rob a bank, for example? There’s a very real chance I’d get shot or jailed, and I, like most Americans, just don’t need or want money that badly. That I have not done anything terrible might be a sign of character, but more likely it’s just basic sense. Check out a country where the authorities are weak or unfair, or people are more desperate, and you’ll likely find a lot more bank robbers. Assuming they haven’t run out of banks.

It works in reverse, too. Most of the things we admire most are so admirable precisely because they are rare. Also, they tend to involve a fair amount of personal risk or sacrifice, which most people are just not all that willing to make. In the course of our day-to-day lives, there are seldom opportunities to rescue anyone from a burning building, and plenty of legitimate excuses for not trying should such an opportunity appear, starting with, “hey, I’ve got a family.”

What all this adds up to is that “most people aren’t so bad” is an inevitable and largely meaningless conclusion. The really bad things are rare and crazy; the really good things are rare and painful. Everything in the middle averages out to a muddle and a wash. Most of us do a few things in our life we’re really proud of, a few we really regret. We slack off on our jobs, gossip about coworkers on lunch break, refuse to let other drivers in on the commute home, neglect our families a little before bed, and continue the cycle the next day, and the day after, and so on. But everyone does that!

A few people are generous and decent for most or all of their lives, regularly volunteering to help and donating to charity; others are low-level villains, bouncing in and out of jail for petty offenses until an overdose or poverty ends the whole sorry cycle. In both cases, I think, the behavior can be credited largely to one’s upbringing and circumstances. So where do I get off, saying such bad things about humanity?

In a way, I’m ceding ground to the materialists here, because what I’m saying is: by and large, we respond to stimuli in a fairly predictable fashion. In all the examples above, I described people’s moral decisions as a set of reactions to various incentives, nothing more. I wouldn’t say there’s anything bad about this, per se, but there’s not much good about it, either. If we behave relatively well now, it is mostly because we have engineered a society that encourages good behavior. You can’t credit us for that, any more than you can credit a hammer for nailing well. You were swinging the stupid thing, after all. All it did was not break.

Of course, the larger society, with all its incentives, was itself a human invention; however, the credit for the formulation of a society can hardly be assigned to any single person, nor (for the most part) ascribed to any really altruistic motives. We develop more humane societies because they are more pleasant for most of us to live in (once we have wrested control from the people on top, who after all were having a lovely time being inhumane).

Again, you might say: what’s wrong with that? After all, this seems to be a fairly standard theory among social scientists these days, when they set out to explain the origins of altruistic morality. Altruism, the story goes, is a sort of collective scheme we all buy into, accepting some restraints on our behavior in order to build a happier and more productive society.

I can think of two big issues with this. The first is a simple freeloader problem: you don’t need to behave yourself all the time to reap the benefits of living in a just and moral society. The system can survive a little dead weight, or worse—which is good, since I don’t think anyone really acts nicely all the time, outside of saccharine children’s books.

Indeed, all the most pernicious forms of immorality actually require the basic structures of altruistic behavior to exist. Con men, for example, would get nowhere if most people were not used to other people telling the truth most of the time. All illicit forms of commerce rely on the same bond of trust, with all parties expecting and getting a fair value, whether the thing being traded is smuggled goods, counterfeits, drugs, guns, or human lives. And perhaps the most obnoxious criminals, gang members, actually live by their own elaborate moral codes, which allows them to cohere and become far more dangerous and persistent than any individual thugs.

The second issue is that, if morality is simply a collective agreement, there is no reason to be moral in a society where the majority of people are not “putting money in the pot.” Acting virtuous when nobody else is—what we generally think of as heroic—is actually, by collective-agreement logic, merely stupid. You are wasting time, energy, money, or opportunities on something that cannot help you and may actually hurt you. A few years ago, I read a blog entry by a Chinese writer who said this is generally how her people think; in a country where bureaucratic corruption has trickled down so far that virtually every human interaction now involves bribery, graft or favor-trading, anyone who gives without expectation of return is regarded as a simpleton.

And yet this is what Christianity, at least, expects of us: to turn us into the sort of person who acts irrationally.  There might be an argument that the conversion process, from unjust to just society, requires that, and this is the social utility of religion, et cetera.  But how often does it work that way?  We have lots of stories of men and women who “stand up for the little guy.”  Quite often, they get killed.

And we focus on them so tightly that we forget the hundreds and thousands and millions of men and women who were not troubling themselves in the slightest over the little guy, who were barely even aware that the little guy existed.  In the stories we tell, those people are merely the backdrop, stage trimming.  In real life, they’re always the majority.

Because, c’mon, now: they’re not that bad.


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