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Decency and social psychology

February 4, 2010


We’re no saints. All the same, most of us are good people…good enough anyway. We’re decent. We’re slobs but we’re muddling through. To be sure, there are felons among us, but if we didn’t on some level believe in a community of decency, what would we do? We’d have to cast ourselves out of society or else start burning it down.

This sounds self-congratulatory, and it’s true: never trust a self-proclaimed ‘decent person.’ It’s the worst kind of false modesty: smug and self-defeating. For humility is the core of decency: announcing it only tarnishes it, makes it indecent.

But it’s not just that some things should be kept private. It’s also that certain things should not be said at all, even in private. Decency is partly a matter of aspiration, and the decent person is always looking up, keeping eyes on the prize. The decent person never really settles for being what she is, even if it’s good enough.

This sounds puritanical in the colloquial sense, and it is in a way, insofar as it contains a truth that puritanical moralities distort to hideous effect. Being a good person means having certain ideals you can never achieve—that’s just, I think, a basic, inescapable feature of moral life. The error of puritanism is insisting that this gap is evidence of some basic, inescapable crime for which we must be punished, but for which we can never do penance, at least not in this life.

But it’s no more a crime than it’s a crime for a table to fall short of the ideal table in whose perfect image it was made. It’s no more a crime than having a human body—blemished, fragile, occasionally embarrassing, always decaying—is a crime. We are real, what we aim for is ideal; the two are simply separate. They are as different as the mold and what is cast in it.

Our virtues are, like our bodies, always imperfect. What perfection they have is the sort of perfection a lover’s body has, perfection in imperfection. If there is any truth in the myth of the Fall, it’s this.

Because there are real crimes out there, it’s a grave mistake to criminalize the merely non-ideal. The real crimes come from having the wrong ideals or from having the right ideals but betraying them. If everyone is necessarily a criminal then either no one is a criminal or the real criminals are incarnated evil.

Puritanism isn’t the only danger. You can go to the opposite, but no less hysterical extreme. You can see the gap between real and ideal as the opposite of a crime, as evidence of some basic, inescapable good deed, as a cause for celebration. This is more harmless than its opposite, but it’s no less deluded. It treats as a human action what is really just a part of the landscape in which we act.

Between the extremes, there is a kind of flabby middle ground. That is, you might simply temper your ideals, put more slack in the line, lower your sights a bit to something you might actually achieve. This is no doubt part of the answer. When we set ourselves to thinking about ideals, mission statements as it were, we have a tendency to aim too high in every direction. So we probably do need to lower our sights, but how far? To the point where ideals are achieved or approximated with some regularity? I cannot accept that our ideals must be humanly achievable. Morality is a bridle: it confers freedom only by tethering us, and there needs to be some tension in the reins.

People do often take the real, imperfect people around them as role models. But when they’re sincere, they always idealize them. They say: “If I could just be half the man my father was…” or “If I could just have half my mother’s courage…” They bristle at the thought that these virtues are really quite common and easily within their grasp.

So far the life of a decent person looks rather uncomfortable, both for her and for the people around her. But we do not live by ideals alone, even humble ones. Ideals should not be too high or too low, but they also need to be counterweighted. The flipside of having unachievable ideals is that they come with the realization that we are all equally fallen. We are all equally deserving of the kind of charity that can only exist between imperfect beings.

Moral life is complicated and I have only tried to describe a few of its broadest structural features. It has at least three distinguishable components: the ideals that we aim at, the charitable exemptions from these ideals that we grant to other imperfect beings, and the state of decency that comes only from honoring ideals and imperfection in the right proportion.


All this is relevant in part because social psychologists have empirically shown that our virtues are even more fragile than we might have suspected. It’s no surprise that we act better when we are in a good mood, when we are relaxed, comfortable, well fed, undistracted. We are better when it’s easy to be good. The good are almost always lucky, for if they were unluckier they wouldn’t be good. But the extent of this fragility can be unsettling.

Studies have shown…. People are more significantly likely to help a passerby with a stack of spilled papers if they have just found a dime. They are significantly less likely to help someone slumped in a doorway when they believe they are late for a mundane appointment. But they are more likely to give change for dollar when enjoying the enticing smells outside a bakery. (These examples are drawn from chapter 2 of Kwame Anthony Appiah’s terrific book Experiments in Ethics, which stimulated much of this little reflection of mine.)

This is fodder for the puzzles and paranoia of philosophers. We think we have good grip on morality, but yet we misgauge how apparently decent people will act. Are we just completely in the dark about morality…if there really is any such thing at all?! How can there be such widespread deviations from morality among apparently decent people? How can the virtues of apparently decent people be impaired by something as trivial as mood? What, then, should we think of our moral role models? Is there a single honest man left?

Once you appreciate the complexities of moral life, the urgency subsides. Our virtues are, like our bodies, fragile. They fall short of the ideal even as they are bound to it. If we had different, lower, more manageable ideals, if we took the virtues we already have as our ideals, they would collapse completely.

So there are two distinct questions. What are the virtues of decent people and what are the ideals at which the virtues aim? These questions are often conflated because usually when we speak about virtue we simply mean the ideal, not the state achievable by aiming at the ideal. For example, when we ask what honesty requires, we are typically asking which ideal of honesty we should aim at. And this makes sense, since aiming always precedes acting and what we aim at determines how we act.

Most of us come from good homes, so most of us have a good grip on the ideals we should be aiming at. We can imagine, on a case-by-case basis, what a perfectly honest person would do, even if we can’t imagine what the life of such a person would be like. Moral ideals sometimes conflict, and then we are at a loss, but this is because we feel so acutely the pull of the conflicting ideals.

Having a grip on decency is something else altogether. Being mistaken in a wide range of cases about how a decent person will act is no impediment to being decent. As decent people, we are bound to aim higher than that!

The aspect of moral life that the research bears on most directly is charity, those exemptions from the ideal that are owed to fallen, fragile beings. Obviously, if decent people are more fragile than we expected, then they are owed a fuller measure of charity. But neither this nor the fact that decent people fall short of the ideal shows that our ideals are seriously in need of reform.

As I said, we have a tendency to gloss over the complexities of moral life by conflating the virtues of decent people with the ideals those virtues aim at. This is no less true when we try to attribute virtues to people, when we label people as honest or courageous, and particularly when we do so as a way of setting them up as role models or allies. For what we then hunger for is the impossible, an ideal made flesh.

But this doesn’t mean we need to cast off our role models and admired friends in a fit disillusionment. It just means that we should appreciate this practice for what it is. Is it really a surprise that there never has been and never will be a truly honest man? Does it really matter? Those we admire are not infallible guides to moral life, and that’s not ultimately what we use them for anyway. Their examples are far closer to talismans that we press blindly to our flesh in order to steel ourselves.

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