Friday, January 16, 2009

The Conquest of Happiness, Chapter 7

Chapter 7 (pages 77-88), “The Sense of Sin”

The behaviors that induce a guilty conscience vary across the globe, so conscience cannot be some sort of voice of the divine within us. Conscience takes on many manifestations, including the fear of being caught when apprehension is imminent – people can live perfectly well with the thought of their indiscretion, but suddenly repent when they are exposed. The fear of being outcast from society is a related dimension of conscience – a dimension that does not apply to those innovators who do not accept the prevailing morality, and hence do not feel that they have sinned when they have violated that morality.

A sense of sin frequently resides in the subconscious. People have a vague feeling that a certain behavior is sinful, even when reason does not proclaim it to be so. This feeling does not fully deter the behavior, but ensures that guilt is a constant presence. The inchoate sense of sin generally is a vestige of moral precepts implanted in childhood. Thus guilt accompanies lying, cursing, alcohol, tobacco, and anything sexual. In childhood, these topics would cost a boy the approval of his mother or nurse; in adulthood, he retains the guilt, though has forgotten its origin. The association of morality with asceticism is contrary to reason – a rational morality would encourage any pleasure that brought no harm to anyone.

“If a child has been conventionally educated by somewhat stern parents or nurses, the association between sin and the sex organs is so firmly established by the time he is six years old that it is unlikely ever to be completely undone throughout the rest of his life… The result is that adult men feel women to be degraded by sex, and cannot respect their wives unless their wives hate sexual intercourse [p. 81].” Conventionally educated women try to avoid taking pleasure in sex, though nowadays, among the educated, it is men whose sex lives are most distorted by the morality they learned as a child – and this distortion is most likely to exhibit itself in weak moments. The unconscious feeling of remorse for acts that are not objectively objectionable can be combatted by a vivid impression of the rational view. “Look into the irrationality closely with a determination not to respect it and not to let it dominate you [p. 83].”

A sober approach to morality will reveal that much of the moral teaching given to the young is foolish, while the sorts of moral issues that will be relevant for adults go unaddressed. Respectable people fall short of morality all the time with regard to sharp business dealings, cruelty toward intimates, overzealousness in political disputations, and so on. These behaviors bring real costs, not just to those nearby but to civilization more generally. Nevertheless, people’s minds are untroubled by them, they do not imagine reproachful looks from their mothers concerning these transgressions. This illustrates the absurdity of most moral teaching to the young, which focuses on actions that do not cause harm, to the exclusion of those that do. “Our nominal morality has been formulated by priests and mentally enslaved women. It is time that men who have to take a normal part in the normal life of the world learned to rebel against the sickly nonsense [p. 84].” Rebellion is not enough for happiness and consistency, however; one must also think through and root out all of the secondary emanations of those superstitions learned as a child.

Even violations of a rational moral code are not best reacted to by a sense of sin – the concomitant loss of self-respect, which makes one feel unhappy and inferior, redounds to no good. It makes one solitary and envious. “An expansive and generous attitude towards other people not only gives happiness to others, but is an immense source of happiness to its possessor, since it causes him to be generally liked [p. 85].” This generous attitude demands a harmonious nature, where the conscious and the unconscious mind mesh well. Most people can achieve this harmony if they think hard about what their rational beliefs are, and root out even fleeting feelings inconsistent with those beliefs. The time devoted to this process (which needn’t be prodigious if the reasoning is forceful) is well-spent: “Nothing so much diminishes not only happiness but efficiency as a personality divided against self [p. 85].” One cannot become a moody self-analyst, however – happiness and mental harmony require that our energies be directed outward, not inward.

The notion that rationality comes at the sacrifice of more profound emotions is erroneous. In the beneficent emotions, there is nothing for reason to condemn. The internal harmony that rationality promotes provides the space for the outward orientation that is requisite for happiness. Rationality can help us overcome the self-centeredness which arises from the sense of sin. When we achieve internal harmony in this fashion, we no longer equate pleasure with intoxication; rather, it is complete possession of our faculties that brings us pleasure. Russell concludes the chapter: “The happiness that is genuinely satisfying is accompanied by the fullest exercise of our faculties, and the fullest realization of the world in which we live [p. 88].”

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