Here’s a thought:
There is simply no psychological experience of “being wrong” at all, only the lurching realisation of having been wrong until a moment ago.
om/cms/s/2/9219969e-6a28-11e0-86e4-00144feab49a.html#axzz1KKnUH35Y”>The Undercover Economist, citing Kathryn Schulz in Being Wrong.
That’s a juicy thought worth remembering. But it isn’t true, is it? We do sometimes experience being wrong: when we take a wrong turn, for example, and then realize it, and then sit there cursing ourselves as we drive down the wrong road until we can get back on the right one. Wrong opinions disappear as soon as they’re changed. But “wrong” actions based on those wrong opinions put us in a state of continuous “wrongness” until we somehow remedy it.
We “are wrong” in a continuous sense when we “know” fact A but we are physically living, due to our choices, fact B. I find myself constantly inhabiting this experience of being wrong. I know and say that inequality is harmful, but due to my own choices I am living the business end, so to speak, of a highly unequal life. Every time that I say anything the least bit polemic about inequality, I am “being wrong.” And I know it.
I wonder to what extent we must live, in a personal sense, the things that we claim to believe in. Let us take the charity/aid worker who never gives money to poor people they meet during the day. That person says, with a point, that systemic approaches to this issue they care about, poverty, are the only approaches that matter. OK. Then let’s take someone who wants to alleviate poverty and also takes a personal vow of poverty. That person may work towards systemic approaches to alleviating poverty; in addition, they act out the alleviation of poverty in their personal life.
I do not believe that one must entirely inhabit every principle that one adopts.* However I do believe that one must live the principles that one adopts to some extent. If you’re not willing to live them in your actual life to some extent, then you don’t really believe them, and you should abandon the pretense. Similarly, if you believe in a value then actually living it a little bit helps hone the sensibilities that are necessary to achieve that value, even if it doesn’t contribute directly to that end. These things require practice. The question is just where between the two extremes of full personalization (a vow of poverty) and none (strategic parsimoniousness) lies a reasonable degree of personalization. I don’t know.**
Maybe modest personal acts are just token gestures to alleviate guilt. I don’t think so. If the whole broader interest in, say, poverty derives from guilt then this guilty motivation colors the principles as much as the action, if at all. Given a certain principle, though, a desire to live it a little bit in your personal life is just a good way to keep your eye on the road.
Something really unpleasant about this business of foreign aid work is that people seem to be constantly widening, rather that closing, that gap. Heartfelt assertions about urgency/dignity/participation/equity in the professional domain seem positively correlated with facts of inequality/privilege/control/power in the personal domain. These facts do not disprove the assertions. But that widening gulf has to be bad for one’s judgement and, frankly, bad for one’s soul.
I’m thinking right now of the Rule of Law project officer who never stops at police checkpoints. That person exists; in fact, she was explaining the practice to me the
other night completely unselfconsciously. Whatever having foreigners exempt themselves from official authority does for the “rule of law” in a country, that degree of incoherence has got to bad for the soul.
* But did you hear that Radiolab about that guy who was kind of a selfish prick who mathematically disproved altruism, then had some Damascene conversion and decided to disprove his own theory through his actions? He gave away everything he had, moved into an abandoned flat with a bunch of squatters, eventually stopped eating, and then killed himself? Died of altruism, failure to thrive? Shit.
** I’m struggling to distinguish this from “hypocrisy”, which feels like a harsher judgement. I feel like the “family values” legislators who have gay lovers on the side are being hypocritical. Maybe that feels different because they’re condemning a negative act rather than promoting a positive one: if you’re going to be condemning someone else’s behavior then your compliance needs to be full. But is there a difference between someone who condemns a negative act that he performs sometimes, and someone who promotes a positive value that he fails to perform sometimes? Or is the family values legislator just someone who is promoting a ‘positive’ value that they fail to live up to sometimes? Again, I don’t know. Relying on a cup half-full/half-empty distinction like that seems like it’s probably just a self-serving distinction without a difference. Still…