Sunday, August 2, 2015

When Only God Is Watching

In the early sixteenth century an Italian courtier named Balthazar Castiglione wrote a book that turned out to be an important guide for gentlemanly behavior. It was called: The Book of the Courtier.

For my part I was struck by Castiglione’s notion that one did not manifest true courage by running into a burning building to save a child. Since any sentient human being would do as much, there is nothing distinguishing about the act. Moreover, courage and character lay in consistently doing the right thing, not just doing it in extreme circumstances. Thus, Castiglione said, to be a man of courage one had to do the right thing when it didn’t matter, when no one was watching.

Now, there are several variations on this theme. Jonah Goldberg reminds us of two: Character is what you do when no one is watching, and, Character is what you do when only God is watching. Another is Chinese, perhaps Confucian: A sincere man does not take advantage of a darkened room. This means that, given the opportunity to do something in private that he would never do in public, the sincere man refrains. The insincere man, of course, asks only whether he can get away with doing in public what other people do in private. It’s called doubling down on amorality.

In less philosophical terms, the concept is telling you to use good table manners when you are eating alone.

One notes an interesting point here. If you look at the psychoanalytic practice of free association you will recognize that it forces patients to speak in a way that they would never do in public. It tells them that they must say whatever comes to mind, regardless of how trivial or obnoxious. The exercise can only undermine one's character and one's ability to socialize.

Be that as it may, if you learn to do the right thing when no one is watching, you are more likely to fulfill Castiglione’s predicate: good behavior should seem effortless and automatic.  And it should look as though it has not been thought out in advance. It is seriously disquieting to converse with someone who seems to be reading from a script.

Castiglione was showing how to develop good habits.He was saying that we must behave well when it doesn’t matter—in my terms, use good table manners when eating alone—because then it will become nearly automatic. We will not have to think about whether we should use these or those table manners, but will always use the same manners, without thinking.

If you have two sets of table manners, you will often need to think before acting. Perhaps the hesitation or hitch is not especially grave around the dinner table, but when engaging in a conversation, being a beat or two off tempo suggests that you are not really engaged.

Some of you know that I have already opined on these points. I take the occasion of returning to them today because I was inspired by Jonah Goldberg’s remarks on his most recent G-File.

Goldberg also offers a definition of reputation:

Gossip mattered less when everybody was pretty much in plain view of everybody else all day long. But as bands grew to tribes and clans, gossip took on ever greater importance as the social sinew of reputation. Boiled down, reputation is what people say about you when you’re not around to hear it.

Surely, gossip is monumentally important to the formation of human society. If it was not important, people would not keep doing it. And reputation is also of exceptional importance. In many ways we are what people say about us when we are not around to hear it.

I would note here the therapy culture has been telling people, for many years now, that what matters is how they feel about themselves, not how they look to others.

One must emphasize that the therapy culture has been handing out very bad advice. Your character is based more on how you behave and less on how you feel. It is based on how your actions represent you in the eyes of others and less on how you feel about yourself.

When people are told to ignore what other people think of them, they are more likely to become more vulnerable to gossip… and especially its evil twin, slander. If they have not learned how to manage their reputation and if they do not know that there are steps they can take to safeguard it, they will feel completely powerless when someone defames their character.

Some philosophers might frame the issue in terms of the question of other minds. Without getting into the metaphysics, the problem with reputation management and other minds is that you have (apparently) very little control over what other people think of you. It’s one thing to say that you ought to reconfigure your own mind,  but when your problem is how other people see you and what other people think of you… how do you go about changing that? How do you erase an image in someone else's mind?

Why does reputation matter? Goldberg suggests that reputation tells us who we can and cannot trust. It is far more economical than to try to judge each individual individually. One understands that most people today believe that we should judge each individual as an individual, that we should ignore what other people say or think about him, and that we certainly should not judge him in relation to other people who belong to his family or his community.

It feels unjust to judge a person by what others say about him and it seems even more unjust to judge him by the reputation of a group he belongs to.

One feels great sympathy for the individualistic approach, but the truth is,  judging people by their reputation or the reputation of their group is so much more economical that it is not about to go out of fashion. If you think about it, if we spend our time trying to judge every individual as an individual we will get nothing else done.

All this becomes that much more anguishing when we recognizing that reputation need not be based on fact. It need not have anything to do with what we have or have not done. We are tempted to wring our hands and gnash our teeth over the injustice of it all, but we do better to consider that there are some constructive ways to address the issue.

In all things, behavior trumps gossip. Thus, if you behave as a person of character at all times calumny will appear to be misplaced.

If you should hear gossip about someone else, you must begin by considering the source. If someone speaks well or ill about someone else, you should take it as a hypothesis. Be skeptical of its validity and await the results of your own experience. This means that you neither accept nor reject gossip whole cloth. You test people, to see whether their reputations are accurate or slanderous. And when someone gossips about you, you tell him to do the same.

However much you are going to be influenced by someone’s reputation, nothing says that you have to take it as gospel truth.

But then, how do you repair your reputation when it has been damaged, either through your own fault or not.

Different people have different approaches to this problem. If you have done something to damage your reputation, you should apologize. Then you should behave in a way that contradicts the mistaken impression you gave.

Unfortunately, slander paralyzes the soul. Thus, those who respond most effectively to it are those who know how to do the right thing without thinking, when no one is watching.

Some people believe that you must vigorously and publicly denounce any and all calumny. Others will say that you should ignore it. Here there is no strict rule. If a slanderous comment is widely known and widely believed, it ought to be addressed openly and forthrightly. If very few people have heard of it or take it seriously, you do better to ignore it. If you publicize a slander that few are aware of, you bring it to their attention and tend to diminish your reputation.

One needs to be cautious about giving one-size-fits-all advice. It would be like telling all women to lean in.  So much depends on the players, the game and the different possible moves that we cannot give a definitive formula that works in all cases.

If someone impugns your good character in public you should react with anger but you should not come across as an intemperate lout, someone who has so little self-control that he manifests weak character. Your task—should you accept it—is to draw attention to the offense while not making yourself look bad.


Ares Olympus said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ares Olympus said...

I notice the usage of the word "character" unqualified to mean "good character" while with other words the qualifier is needed: "good behavior", "good habits", "good (table) manners".

It also reminds me of the warnings in Matthew 6... remembering the idea we should pray in private, oh, and I actually had forgotten it's long list of requirements for "good character" in the eyes of God.
6 “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

2 “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
5 “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

But maybe all these are not about encouraging habits, but just recognizing the nature of our own hypocrisy, or to recogize how much fear controls us. That is a person striving to obtain the greatest life for himself (and his family) may tend towards dishonesty, towards following paths of status and public image of good, while compartmentalizing away awareness of the compromises necessary for worldly success.

Perhaps everyone knows that Jesus's advice isn't to be taken seriously. It was advice for fanatics and radicals who forego having their own family, and who let the dead bury themselves, while if everyone would do that, humanity would be gone in a generation, or at least this branch of humanity.

Perhaps people have opinions about Jesus's interest in reputations, or his own, or what compromises he should have made to avoid being judged and cruified? I think I remember a claim that Pontius pilate didn't want to judge Jesus and was looking for any excuse to refuse, but Jesus gave him no options, refused to defend himself.

Last I think of the word "status", and to have worldly power, you need status, but the question is what that status is based upon. If status can be destroyed by lies or mockery, how strong is it really?

A public reputation is a curious ideal. Myself, I might suggest a middle ground and say "public reputation" is always a lie, is always deceptive, while a "personal reputation" among your family and peers is the only one that matters. And people who aspire to a greater public good may have to fight harder for their reputations, merely to do their good work, but that might have nothing to do with the personal reputation, nothing to do with "God" or "(good) character" just the necessity of gaining and holding power.

I can see the ideal of "God watching" has nothing to do with what others think about you, but awareness of "seeing one's self as others might see us" and this perspective is a necessary mirror to self-correction, whether or not God exists, or whether or not we could ever be capable of seeing ourselves objectively.

Ares Olympus said...

p.s. I see Krugman showing the downside of reputation, i.e. once you give advice to others, you have a responsibility towards the success of that advice, even when it was bad advice, and its easier to let pride double-down on bad advice that tell people you were wrong and they are going to pay for it.
But it also looks as if the Chinese government, having encouraged citizens to buy stocks, now feels that it must defend stock prices to preserve its reputation. And what it’s ending up doing, of course, is shredding that reputation at record speed.

We can wonder what a reputation is worth when you can claim absolute power to change any rule at will to defend that power. But I guess that's why you have naked emperors and only little children (or foreign busibodies) dare notice.

I pay attention not because I want to judge incompetence of others, but I want to know how "soft landings" to "hard lies and inconvenient truths" are managed.

And I admit my worried are not relieved to know that the Chinese leadership uses their chopsticks correctly and don't drink from their bowls when they eat alone.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Ares quotes Scripture, too. Wow. Rejoice.

And then Ares quotes Krugman. Wow. Boo.

And priss doesn't believe in God, but moralizes. Check The Dewey decimal index under Richard Wright. We should h at what priss thinks of him. No doubt priss is "The Moral Animal." Emphasis on the noun, lest he think otherwise.

Other than that, we're doing great.

What's character, if not conferred? Chosen? Free will? Let the geneticists know, please...

And the funniest thing is we're quoting Krugman in the same post as character. What was Krugman's rile with Enron?


Dennis said...

Sadly, Krugman has been wrong on a variety of economic issues. Forgetting that economics is a social science leads to an amount of certitude that is not warranted especially by Krugman. The whole idea that there are "rational sellers and rational buyers" is not demonstrated by the evidence that is available.
For your edification: A reasoned argument why Krugman should never be taken seriously. "The Consciousness of a Liberal" seems to denote a political bent rather than an economic one.
I wish that people would be far more selective and knowledgeable about issues when selecting their heroes. Krugman is NO hero.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Dennis @August 3, 2015 at 6:02 AM:

Yes, I am also looking for those "rational sellers and rational buyers" of endless speculation by economists. Let me know when you find one.