We’re not Puritans anymore

David Brooks, writing about Penn State in the NYT

In centuries past, people built moral systems that acknowledged this weakness. These systems emphasized our sinfulness. They reminded people of the evil within themselves. Life was seen as an inner struggle against the selfish forces inside. These vocabularies made people aware of how their weaknesses manifested themselves and how to exercise discipline over them. These systems gave people categories with which to process savagery and scripts to follow when they confronted it. They helped people make moral judgments and hold people responsible amidst our frailties.

But we’re not Puritans anymore. We live in a society oriented around our inner wonderfulness. So when something atrocious happens, people look for some artificial, outside force that must have caused it — like the culture of college football, or some other favorite bogey. People look for laws that can be changed so it never happens again.

Commentators ruthlessly vilify all involved from the island of their own innocence. Everyone gets to proudly ask: “How could they have let this happen?”

Led into temptation by their very goodness

Ross Douthat, writing about Penn State in the NYT:

Bad and mediocre people are tempted to sin by their own habitual weaknesses. The earlier lies or thefts or adulteries make the next one that much easier to contemplate. Having already cut so many corners, the thinking goes, what’s one more here or there? Why even aspire to virtues that you probably won’t achieve, when it’s easier to remain the sinner that you already know yourself to be?

But good people, heroic people, are led into temptation by their very goodness — by the illusion, common to those who have done important deeds, that they have higher responsibilities than the ordinary run of humankind. It’s precisely in the service to these supposed higher responsibilities that they often let more basic ones slip away.

Guilt of infinite extensibility

Wilfred McClay, writing in a First Things article, “The Moral Economy of Guilt”:

“There is another factor at work too, one that may be called the infinite extensibility of guilt. This…is a surprising by-product of modernity’s proudest product: its ever growing capacity to comprehend and control the physical world.

In a world in which the web of relationships between causes and effects becomes better understood, in which the means of communication and transportation become ever more efficient and effective, and in which individuals become ever more powerful and effective agents, the range of our potential moral responsibility, and therefore of our potential guilt, expands to literally infinite proportions…

In such a world, where there are few intrinsic limits to what I can do, there is almost nothing for which I cannot be, in some way, held accountable. I can see pictures of a starving child in a remote corner of the world on my television and know for a fact that, if I cared to, I could travel to that remote place and relieve that child’s immediate suffering. Whatever donation I make to a charitable organization, it is never as much as I could have given. I can never diminish my carbon footprint enough, or give to the poor enough, or support medical research enough, or otherwise do the things that would render me morally blameless.

…indeed, as those of us who teach young people often have occasion to observe, it may be precisely the most morally sensitive individuals who have the weakest commonsense defenses agains such overwhelming assaults on their over-receptive sensibilities…”