Submitting to Others

This is part of a series on covenant marriage, and, hopefully, it’s becoming clearer what this all has to do with virtue.

How do you know that you’re not a psychopath?

The simplest check on your sense perception (moral or physical) is checking with others to see if they have the same observations as you. If you diverge, you have to weigh the odds that you are the lone sane person in a crazy world. If you’re seeing auras that are invisible to everyone else, you probably have a migraine, not an insight. It’s a good rule of thumb for most aberrants, but this moral dampening effect tends toward conservativsm and retards moral reform that upends the status quo. Are there ways to tweak this heuristic for the better?

In one of my favorite episodes of the TV show House (the second season finale “No Reason”) Dr. Gregory House realizes that he’s experiencing intermittent hallucinations, and he can’t reliably distinguish them from reality. He’s working on a high-stakes diagnostic case, and he needs to remain involved. For every choice he makes, he has to weigh the possible harm and help of his action and seek a proportionate level of confirmation from his lucid employees. He’s free to make very low-stakes choices on his own (walking, talking, eating, etc), but any medical intervention has to be questioned by and justified to his team of doctors before he acts.

In yesterday’s post, I described my youthful conviction that only I could be trusted to guard my moral integrity. As I’ve grown up, I’ve rejected that idea and trust more in the regulatory power of other people’s regard. Choosing friends is kind of like taking a contract on yourself. If your friends share most or all of your moral opinions, then, if you start to waver, they’ll still be holding you to your previous moral commitments. The odds are low that you’ll all fail at once.

Even if my friends don’t conceive of their moral regulatory role in the same way I do, they still have an incentive to keep me on the straight and narrow. The identity of the person that they became friends with is compromised if I abandon my moral principles. They’ll lose their friend in a different, and possibly more upsetting way than they would if I moved away. It’s in their interest to preserve the person and behaviors that attracted them in the first place.

So the goal is building friendships with people value what is good about you and will fight (against you if necessary) to preserve it. Good friends will curb your excesses and help you cultivate virtue, and you’ll do the same thing for them.

Up next, this line of thinking is finally applied to marriage and my support for covenant marriage is explained

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • Anonymous

    "The simplest check on your sense perception (moral or physical) is checking with others to see if they have the same observations as you. If you diverge, you have to weigh the odds that you are the lone sane person in a crazy world."I disagree. Weighing one's own judgment against the judgments of everyone else assumes that the others will not be determining what is moral in the same way, and that they reliably analyze and report what they determine to be moral. As you admit, this heuristic leads to a recursive definition of morality, and I think your conclusion preserves this problem. If you determine who is a good friend by who cultivates the virtues they initially find and works to preserve those virtues, then your initial values are less likely to change, even if there is good evidence against that they're virtuous.If the goal is to preserve values rather than finding better ones, then this is a sound strategy. But if we assume that an absolute morality does exist — that is, there are values that are incontrovertibly better than others, or that there are a fixed set of parameters that we all have a moral obligation to work towards — then, for a moralist, to look for like-minded people or people who will appreciate moral consistency to maintain values assumes that the initial values held have been determined to be incontrovertibly better.Our awareness of the values that earlier cultures held and that other cultures hold today cannot support this strategy for those who look for objectively better values. Values that we hold today, and generally regard as superior to values that we held before, were all once original ideas that no one else held, disagreed with, or agreed with. These values are all due to those who supported an idea that no one else held and was based only on evidence and effective argumentation, not on agreement or disagreement. Moral integrity — maintaining a consistent set of morals for its own sake — is harmful to the uptake of original, outlandish, and morally superior ideas.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03417402875563069026 Madelaine

    How is this "tweaking the heuristic"? Seems like your argument is "surround yourself with people who believe what you do." Which is bloody darn well prone to conservatism and retardation of moral reform. Except that given that I know you in real life, I am… extremely confused. Because you haven't done this. Unless the only virtue you're asking us to nurture in you is… um… love of vehement disagreement about virtues. Which I suspect is Not The Case.Also? People change. It's OK. A lot of the time, they stay friends anyway, because that's how people work. Sometimes they don't, because not all relationships are eternal (or eternally the same sort). Also OK. Call change loss if you want, maybe it is, but it's as much or more gain most of the time, so really, it's a silly semantic argument.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10019240793982424774 Christian H

    "The identity of the person that they became friends with is compromised if I abandon my moral principles. They’ll lose their friend in a different, and possibly more upsetting way than they would if I moved away. It’s in their interest to preserve the person and behaviors that attracted them in the first place."Out of curiosity, have you been through this in real life? It's not a pleasant experience.I would be more inclined to say that you should surround yourself with people who have a variety of ethical beliefs that they hold strongly and that you respect…but sometimes disagree with. Like-minded thinking often leads to group-think and radicalization of ideas. I know your vision is a world of ethical agreement, but until that day comes we need to put our diversity to good use. Arranging ourselves in mutually exclusive clusters of agreement does not help. (I think you are already surrounding yourself with people who you disagree with but respect, based on what glimpses I can see of your life through your blog.)

  • http://liseusetheloverofreading.wordpress.com/ Natalie

    “In yesterday’s post, I described my youthful conviction that only I could be trusted to guard my moral integrity. As I’ve grown up, I’ve rejected that idea and trust more in the regulatory power of other people’s regard. Choosing friends is kind of like taking a contract on yourself. If your friends share most or all of your moral opinions, then, if you start to waver, they’ll still be holding you to your previous moral commitments. The odds are low that you’ll all fail at once.”

    IRONICALLY similar to Ecclesiastes 4:10 (NIV): “If either of them falls down,
    one can help the other up.
    But pity anyone who falls
    and has no one to help them up.”

    • Ray

      which in turn is ironically similar to a passage from tablet IV of the epic of Gilgamesh.

      All hail the brave lord Shamash!


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