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People Are Not of a Piece

2017 January 1
by Ian Welsh

One of the most difficult things for many to understand is that someone can be wonderful in some parts of their life and truly awful in others. A man can be a rapist, say, and also be genuinely kind to other people. Someone can go into work, make decisions that will impoverish millions, and then make sure they make it to their child’s play, where they agree to help build a facility to help disabled children or a shelter for abused women.

People can be terrible in one part of their life, and good in another.

It’s a relatively minor thing and an unimportant celebrity, but take Mel Gibson, of the infamous anti-semitic rants and terrible temper. Many people came forward to say how wonderful he’d been to them, and many of his friends, like Jodie Foster, didn’t turn on him.

The bad stuff doesn’t cancel the good stuff. The good stuff doesn’t cancel the bad stuff.

This is important in two ways: When someone who is generally good is accused of doing something bad, they may well have, especially if what they’re known for being good about isn’t related.

And if someone who is generally bad does something good, they still deserve credit.

It is also important analytically. If you assume someone is all bad or all good, you rarely actually understand that person, nor can you predict their actions. Terrible people can do good (Genghis Khan), wonderful people can do evil (FDR).

Good in what way? Why? Bad in what way? Why?


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27 Responses
  1. Red permalink
    January 1, 2017

    Watch the series incorporated…

    It is what you and me will make.

  2. V. Arnold permalink
    January 1, 2017

    Yeah, I like how you framed the good/bad dichotomy.
    As I have previously noted; knowing oneself honestly, is the key to knowing the world.

  3. BlizzardOfOz permalink
    January 1, 2017

    People can be terrible in one part of their life, and good in another.

    I don’t think this is true for a Christian. Jesus’ admonition “be ye perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect”, as well as Paul’s distinction of salvation by grace – as opposed to salvation by works or by adherence to the Law – implies that virtue is located in the will. So if a wilful, unrepentant rapist donates to charity, you wouldn’t call that act good, because his will is not oriented to the Good. This is maybe most clearly expressed in the famous passage from Corinthians:

    And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.

    So nowadays many people understand by good and bad neither the orientation of the will, nor the adherence to the moral law; but rather the predicted effects of a given action in terms of “greatest happiness for the greatest number”. Obviously, no one can predict this, so in effect you get political factions. All ethics is reduced to advocacy for a faction’s political program. When people say “Trump is evil”, they mean nothing more than this.

    CS Lewis wrote about this 100 years ago in “The Abolition of Man”. Already then he could perceive that the West was in the process of rejecting traditional moral law. (He didn’t mean just Christian tradition: in an appendix he showed broad agreement from the sacred traditions of all cultures.) In place of teaching our young the traditional moral law (now deemed “outdated superstition”) the modern youth would be “conditioned” according to what was deemed for the good of society. Of course, this process of conditioning implies subject and object, a conditioner and the conditioned.

    You can see this process fully accomplished now, with in many cases the full inversion of good and evil. As one example, many “feminists” now argue not just for the right to abortion, but that abortion is itself a positive good. For the advocacy of their political program, they want to disassociate any stigma from the act itself of aborting a child. Just as Lewis foresaw, moral man as our great grandfathers understood him has been abolished.

  4. Ian Welsh permalink*
    January 1, 2017

    The Jesus I read in the bible often offered radical forgiveness and grace to those who had not always been good. A religion which requires perfection is not realistic and Jesus’s admonition to perfection is is offered as a goal not a “do this and or you’ll never be good or get into heaven.”

    But then, in a non-moral way, Jesus is not of a piece (as presented in the writings which were chosen for the bible (and whose choice was often political in the worst way), and says rather contradictory things, while the God of the Old Testament is downright flaming evil at various points.

    Since one must, then, make choices, if a Christian, about what the most important parts of the bible are; what teachings matter most, were I to return to the fold I would combine forgiveness and ‘as thou have done to these, the least of mine’.

    Because I’ve known damn few perfect people and lord knows, I ain’t one of them.

    That said, I’m no Christian scholar, nor a Christian. But when I see people like the diochese of DC saying they won’t help poor and sick people because they disagree with gay rights and abortion, I think they’ve lost the plot. And any Christian who thinks they haven’t, doesn’t have a morality that I care to be part of.

    (Or, more succinctly, as Gandhi said, ‘I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.’ — not true of all. I’ve known truly good Christians. True of far far too many.)

    I disagree with Pope Francis on many issues, but I believe he is a good man. I did not believe that of the previous two popes. (In particular, what they did to liberation theology, I, not having Christ’s level of radical forgiveness, cannot yet forgive. Inaction on the child-abuse was terrible as well, and it was known.)

  5. V. Arnold permalink
    January 1, 2017

    An after thought; a why question is rife with problems; who, what, when, where, are pointed and unambiguous, leading to actual answers to actual situations/problems/dilemmas and real life contexts.
    Why is the sky blue? Because of the atmosphere, but why, because of the many elements of the atmosphere, but why…ad infinitum…

    Good in what way? Why? Bad in what way? Why?
    Good? In what way? Bad? In what way?
    Good in the following examples, blah, blah, blah…
    Bad in the following examples, blah, blah, blah…
    Think about it, no?

  6. BlizzardOfOz permalink
    January 1, 2017

    Can we agree that morality located in will, and not in the action itself or its effects? Eg, bad actions can lead to good effects, and vice versa.

    We have to ask why the guy that rapes someone is also kind to someone else. In the rape he showed he is either actively malicious to others, or cares so little that he would inflict massive harm for his own fleeting pleasure. Are we to believe that he then shows kindness out of benevolence for another? Isn’t it more likely that the kindness is an expedient for some other selfish end?

    It’s surely true that people aren’t of a piece, but then considering the unity of the soul, we have to ask what piece is acting on auto-pilot (“conditioned”), and what piece is the action of the soul itself (“unconditioned”). If the soul itself wills good, as expressed in kindness to others, then shouldn’t we expect that same soul to repent of the grievous harm of its previous rape? Even rape can be forgiven, but repentance is the key – people forget sometimes that Jesus says to the Samaritan woman after declining to condemn her: “go, and sin no more”.

    The next and bigger problem is that people sincerely disagree on what is good and moral. Especially, people confuse morality with advocacy of a definite political program — but political programs in themselves are neither good nor bad. But that’s another question.

  7. Ian Welsh permalink*
    January 1, 2017

    The will?

    I had a conversation about whether Obama believed that bailing out the bankers was good or not.

    Well, maybe he did. Say he did. Why did he believe that?

    I mean, it’s kind of in his interest to believe it, isn’t it? Because if he hadn’t bailed out the rich, they wouldn’t be able to make him rich after his Presidency, like they did Clinton.

    It is very easy to convince oneself that what one wants to do; what benefits one; is good, especially in an age where we are so confused that we think greed is good and that everyone acting greedily will create a good world.

    And Obama is clearly a mass murderer, there’s no question of it.

    Yet he just did something good in creating those two monuments, and he did other good things.

    And I say this as someone who despises Obama.

  8. bruce wilder permalink
    January 1, 2017

    The good/bad dichotomy is often employed as a dialectical strategy to get us off the hook for thinking about culture, politics and institutions, that is, society instead of individuals, and individual behavior as a product of institutions. Individualism, as a worldview, economizes on information and knowledge to a radical extent. As a worldview it can be formalized as methodological individualism and given a thick varnish gloss of academic respectability, or it can be reduced to a simple-minded demand for meaning that can only be satisfied by identifying the hero of the narrative and the villain.

    Ironically perhaps, our (western, American) culture places a great weight on an imperative of individual responsibility for consequences, especially in any case where justice demands institutional sanctions: in the criminal and civil law, for example, or more loosely, in the awarding of honors. For a criminal caught and punished, moral individualism becomes a rationalization for the process of stripping that individual of social status and support and connections, while (usually but interestingly not always) exonerating the larger society that has nurtured, say, the bar culture where the drunk driver has thrived or the culture of hopeless poverty where drug use is a palliative and distribution becomes an industry.

    That people are complex creatures and act from mixed motives is surely an insight widely shared. Every child must surely grow up fearing and knowing this is true to some extent, though she may neurotically fashion more magical and self-centered explanations when some motives cannot be seen or understood. Even in entertainment, some moral ambiguity is popular and villains sometimes get the best lines.

    The political problem is not that people never have any insight into moral ambiguity; the political problem is that everyone has limited capacity for focus and abstract analysis. A democratic politics — really, the deliberative politics of any complex, hierarchical society — has to be abstract, has to be a debate over abstract rules and not concrete allocations. A politics of concrete allocations quickly degrades into naked kleptocracy and can only be sustained as a small-minded tyranny, which strips most of the society of autonomy and initiative.

    But, abstract thought that has been reduced to the simple atomism of moral individualism can not resist the slide into kleptocracy. At best, maybe it generates a fig leaf of apologetics.

    It is not simply a question of whether one can see that the same rich man can be a predator in business and a philanthropist in civic life as a single complex moral person; the political question is whether people can see that predation and philanthropy are socially related. Not personally related but socially and institutionally related, that they may be of a piece in the same pathological design, the predation creating the economic conditions that in turn call forth efforts to make charity to relieve poverty socially prestigious enough to attract the attention of the predators monopolizing resources and creating poverty suffered by others. Or, turning it around, if we are seduced by the narrative of the hero overcoming the adversity of poverty, winning some scholarship or other lottery instituted as a safety value on a pressure cooker of economic oppression, do we notice or empathize with the losers? Do we notice the system?

    My point, broadly, is that the limited capacity of human beings for abstract deliberation on the public good of political and economic institutions is itself a critical political problem. Those immediately concerned may always be tempted to grab at the familiar and apparently certain and shy from even trying to understand complex arrangements that place them in balanced conflict with the opposing interests of others. Authoritarianism always promises an end to bickering, if nothing else.

    I think what Ian seems to be complaining about, as stubborn moral stupidity, can be a symptom of information overload and a dearth of opportunities to engage deeply with political questions. We want a quick answer: who is the good guy and who is the villain? We want the quick answer because we need to move on, to solve other pressing personal problems. Sure, on some level we know ” the good guy” is not a saint or angel, but we do not have a forum or context to consider either the issues directly or to found trust in some proxy. We do not belong to institutionalized associations that can be trusted and the institutions that do exist increasingly do not belong to “us” as a public or a citizenry.

    I am not saying greed or resentment do not play their parts. Any institutional ordering of the economy or the society becomes a game we all must play, and humans who cannot be bothered understanding the public purpose of rules will be very clever in private subversion. That, too, is a foundational challenge in all politics and one that must recur.

    What I see as a critical and alarming problem in 2017 is the failure to see institutions as primary. The collapse of thinking to a morality play of saints and devils is a symptom of problems that go beyond the wilful limits on individual cognitive capacity.

    It is especially alarming as it seems to swallow up elites even more than the mass of followers, who know their discontent even if they do understand the systematic source. Imagine that they did not recognise Hillary as a saint, Trump as reality show devil incarnate! Must be evil racists!

    When the foreign policy establishment blob searches mindlessly for moderate factions in Syria with no memory of the series of catastrophes in Libya, Afghanistan, Yemen and Iraq, one wonders. When the Democratic neoliberal establishment blob cooks up Russian email hackers as an explanation for its abject political organising and policy failures, one despairs.

    I do not despair of wilful human cognitive capacity so much as I wonder where the resources for trust, mass-membership political organization and deliberation on the public weal might be cadged.

  9. Synoia permalink
    January 1, 2017

    Christ said it well:

    Do unto oters as you would be done by.

    and this:

    As one example, many “feminists” now argue not just for the right to abortion, but that abortion is itself a positive good.

    Is it good to bring a new child into this world, which appears to be facing mass extinction? If the projections of mass starvation and a huge die off are in the near future are correct, Is it more evil to abort, or give birth?

    Of bring a child into a world where it appear the rich have every intention of entering feudalism, again?

    We done not have oligarch or oligarchy. We have a new Aristocracy, with all the feudalism that brings, as in Europe before the black death of 1340, and mass death which made labor valuable because of the consequent shortage of skilled people.

  10. Francois Tremblay permalink
    January 1, 2017

    How can such a simple and obvious entry lead to such bizarre comments? Gift of prophecy? Morality is in the “will”? What is this, Superstition Hour? Are we gonna talk about how good and evil are located in rabbit’s feet next? Or in chanting incantations?

  11. gnokgnoh permalink
    January 1, 2017

    The principle that everybody is capable of both bad and good actions is fundamental. Bad actions are almost always about the abuse of power. Power imbalances exist in many relationships, but they are most observable in the leadership at our workplaces or in our government. Public actions that hurt others are magnified. Private actions that hurt others inside families, between couples, or between friends are only easily visible to ourselves. This principle is closely tied to V.Arnold’s admonition, “knowing oneself honestly, is the key to knowing the world.”

    It is very rare for a person in a leadership position with very real power to not act out of deep insecurity and a powerful sense of inadequacy. People in power, who do terrible things, are usually not just evil sadists (yes, sometimes this is true, but usually not). They deal the hand they think they have, including using the tools that are often scripted for them and metaphorically laid out like surgical instruments in front of them. In the case of the killing power of our military, it is not a metaphor. It is most easily perceivable in our daily lives in how bosses and managers act in companies.

    The reality, though, is that the insecurity manifests itself in a daily grind of poor communication, lack of transparency, greedy appropriation of credit, and inadequate mentoring. All of these characteristics may be cloaked in rationales that make sense to the person exercising them, or even to those who oversee their behavior. The big, really bad, evil stuff is what stands out. The stuff that kills, or more frequently simply boxes in the organization, or the institution, or the entire country. When Gandhi talks about liking Christ, but not Christians, he’s talking about the big stuff that Christians do, institutionally, and that the leadership demanded of the believers in the name of Christ.

    I keep coming back to Jacob’s subsidiarity principle and local accountability. As messed up as our larger institutions are, my local institutions – the school board, borough council, police, library, and such mundane groups as the tree-planting committee – are still very effective and rewarding. When we get a bad mayor, we vote them out in the next election.

    Contrary to Bruce Wilder’s long-winded challenge to the validity of Ian’s questions, the simple question of good and bad actions is deeply woven into the quality and importance of our institutions.

  12. BlizzardOfOz permalink
    January 2, 2017

    Ian, I guess I appreciate how you use extreme illustrations to present an idea starkly. “A rapist can also do good things.” I just think that, in this case, the extreme example shows that the principle is wrong. An unrepentant rapist cannot be good, and any good acts he might do are purely inadvertent.

    But regarding morality as intention, I would refer back to Christ’s transformation of the Jewish law. Jesus said that Moses allowed men to divorce due to the hardness of their hearts; he then said that actually, not only can’t you divorce, but you should pluck out your eye if it lead you to covet in your heart, it being better to lose a member than for the whole body to be cast into hell. The Jewish law prescribed outward adherence to a law, but the Christian concept of grace emphasizes the inner adherence of the will to the law of conscience. Perfection is prescribed as an intention and an orientation, not something actually attainable.

    Regarding the Obama example: isn’t integrity (honesty with self) a pre-condition for virtue? To me Obama is a fruitless discussion, because he just seems like a hollow guy that was elevated beyond his station as a puppet for a certain faction. (It’s to my eternal shame that I was stupid enough to vote for him in ’08.) Bill Clinton is the really tantalizing one – a genuinely brilliant man, seemingly undone by his personal corruption.

    Moving from the realm of personal morality into how it impinges on statesmanship seems very challenging. One thing worth re-emphasizing though, is that Presidents hardly need to act from principle at all. When Obama chose to bail out the banks, was he acting as a free moral agent, or just rubber-stamping what his owners wanted? To act effectively rather than merely be swept along by the forces of history, takes an exceedingly rare personality. I do think the Wall Street bailout was an excellent test case though, because it was at once so obviously corrupt, and yet overwhelmingly backed by the crushing force of the institutions. McCain failed the test. Obama just punted as is his nature. What US President in the last century would have passed? Probably FDR, and that’s it (maybe JFK?).

  13. Lisa permalink
    January 2, 2017

    “As one example, many “feminists” now argue not just for the right to abortion, but that abortion is itself a positive good. For the advocacy of their political program, they want to disassociate any stigma from the act itself of aborting a child. Just as Lewis foresaw, moral man as our great grandfathers understood him has been abolished.”

    Sigh, spoken like a man.

    ‘Its all the woman fault’ is the endless cry….’yep sure I am man wanting sex, do everything to get that….and impregnate a women and walk away’ ..after all a woman who allows sex by a man is just a slut …….even if she is raped…because (and this is a real comment by a US male polticians ) ‘women cannot get pregnant by rape’..

    Abortion and its related child infanticide has been the norm by the human race until we, by science and technology, developed contraception,

    The ideal world , no abortion (except for medical reasons) ..but that means the end of rape and total, free, available contraception along with complete sex education.

    Check the stats…Rise of contraction, more sex education (less rape too) = less abortion.

    And nope morning after pills are not abortion,,,, ok…understand that?

    Typical male FW.

  14. markfromireland permalink
    January 2, 2017

    @ Ian,

    “People Are Not Of A Piece” ranks up there with “Night Follows Day” and “You Too Will Die Someday”.

    Yes I know it needs to be said but sheesh.

  15. Willy permalink
    January 2, 2017

    As far as judgment goes, especially the pragmatic kind where misjudging another could mean trouble, I try to look for things like good intentions when nobody’s looking, what philosophies their closest associations live by, what any ‘fruit’ consists of including their children… I’ve known sociopaths who were very good at camouflage. But in hindsight, they always left clues. And then we have many amongst the more normal masses who are expert at the art of self-deception.

  16. markfromireland permalink
    January 2, 2017

    @ Synoia January 1, 2017

    Do unto oters as you would be done by.

    Your typo brought a smile of rememberance to my face. At one point early on in my school days I misread that saying as “Do unto otters as you would be done by” I wandered around deeply confused by that one for weeks. Eventually I asked one of my elder siblings what he thought of the matter and once he’d stopped laughing he provided the necessary correction.

  17. January 2, 2017

    That’s the reason for attention to the ones who you know you affect, and attention to the ones who you do not know. Many people can easily dismiss people who they do not know.

    (Fon d’parikulur – 02
    https://symbalitics.blogspot.com/2017/01/fon-dparikulur-02.html
    )

  18. January 2, 2017

    A aspect of humanity that ReneDubois covered years ago in his book “Beast or Angel: Choices That Makes Us human”

  19. Ian Welsh permalink*
    January 3, 2017

    Unfortunately MFI, I feel the need to meet my readers where the majority of them are. Remember the series of articles that were essentially “for the right thing to be done, first people have to want to do the right thing?”

    Or the “killing more people is worse than killing less people”? Which combined nicely with “if you must kill someone, it is less morally abominable to kill a military man than a random civilian”.

    I too, am amazed. Which is why I keep writing the “why I write what I write” article, because it astonishes me what needs to be explained.

  20. realitychecker permalink
    January 3, 2017

    @ Ian

    Well you know the old joke about having to hit the mule upside his head with a brick, just to get his attention so you can start training him.

    Obviously, many mules require multiple bricks.

    Repetition and consistency, Ian, repetition and consistency. A little boring, but very necessary. 🙂

  21. White Buffalo Calf Woman permalink
    January 3, 2017

    One of the most difficult things for many to understand is that someone can be wonderful in some parts of their life and truly awful in others. A man can be a rapist, say, and also be genuinely kind to other people. Someone can go into work, make decisions that will impoverish millions, and then make sure they make it to their child’s play, where they agree to help build a facility to help disabled children or a shelter for abused women.

    Those kinds of people are called a psychopaths. You’re wrong.

  22. White Buffalo Calf Woman permalink
    January 3, 2017

    …or maybe you were just being ironic? Sarcastic? It’s hard to tell.

  23. January 4, 2017

    England gives us Vaughn-Williams contra Tony Blair

  24. January 4, 2017

    Keep writing Ian I deal every day in contradictions some of most difficult are great musicians and some musicians make a joyful noise

  25. Davidt permalink
    January 4, 2017

    Old Joke with Modern Twist
    The masochist said to the sadist whip me.
    The sadist said no.
    Sometimes we can do the right thing for the wrong reason.

  26. Lisa permalink
    January 5, 2017

    Synoia \”As one example, many “feminists” now argue not just for the right to abortion, but that abortionis itself a positive good\”.

    Too many people get caught up in binary logic, that is something is seen as \’good’ or ‘bad\’.

    Lots of things are done, or should be done, because of \’harm minimisation\’, that certain things are done by people no matter what others may think, that can cause some harm to some of those people or some sort of weird offence to others.

    In many of those cases the correct attitude is to use harm minimisation, the so called \’war on drugs\’ being a classic. In the UK pre Thatcher heroin addicts could get it on prescription, result few deaths, far fewer of the health side affects, far less crime and no organised drug syndicates. The issue is and always was, people will take drugs, so let\’s at least minimise the risk and bad affects.

    The same logic can apply to many other areas. The legalisation of abortion in the UK was framed exactly on that logic as far too many women were dying from back street abortions. As is well known to reduce them the overall answer is good sex education and cheap and easy access to contraception, with abortion (including morning after pills, RU-486, etc) being a back up and for cases of rape, medical reasons and all the rest. Countries that have done that have very low abortion rates.

    The much copied ‘Australian model’ for dealing with HIV and AIDs was also successfully built on that logic.

    And there is the simple thing that discrimination against a part of society is far less tolerated now, where once it was seen as \’normal\’, and is desired by many (the so called \’religious right\’ being a classic).

    So a good society is also pragmatic and non-judgemental as well as being ethical.

    By and large religious based ‘morality’ is a total failure, as should be expected since (for the Abrahamic religions) we are trying to graft bronze age, tribal in a small geographical area, social rules onto modern scientific and technological societies. The classic example being Liviticus, long quoted by homophobes for calling male homosexuality an \’abomination\’ is never quoted on a similar \’abomination\’ being the selling of land…or that people with physical or cosmetic defects or even being short sighted should not be allowed into a church….

  27. BlizzardOfOz permalink
    January 11, 2017

    From Meister Eckhart’s sermon “Outward and Inward Morality”:

    Only by grace man comes from the temporal and transitory to be one with God. This lifting of manifoldness to unity is the supreme aim of ethics; by thus the divine birth is completed on the side of man.

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