Saturday, August 15, 2009

More about rulesetting

I often think about the connected questions of why I should be good and how I can know what is or isn't good. Unbelievers are often challenged by those who have easy moral codes (although those codes sometimes strike us as the source of wrong action). They say, how can you not have rules? How can you teach your children right from wrong? But of course I do have rules of a sort (I believe strongly in the need for rules, as it happens, which should not surprise those who know I earn my living by applying rules to others' work).

This is what I wrote about rules in writing:

In my profession, the rules are essential. My knowledge of them is what I live on. My ability to employ words that obey them is what allows me to say I can write (by which I do not, as some seem to think, mean to say merely that I know how to put words on paper but that I am confident they are the right words – or at least properly chosen out of the words that can be right). The rules are not, though, the straitjacket that (mostly unskilled) wouldbes like to make out. They are the natural consequence of the desire to communicate – guidelines in a concrete sense. I sometimes use the metaphor that they are the road language drives along, not the speed limit or the prohibition against drunkenness. Of course the road is sometimes poorly signposted. You don’t always know where you’re going.

But you should be able to tell when you’re driving on the grass.

I think life works the same way. I could equally have said that in life, the rules are essential. We need to have them to create order from lives that are sometimes chaotic and confusing. Our ability to use them (and understand their provenance, which is a step sadly missing in most people's understanding of morality) is what allows us to live lives that work. (I am not saying though that we need them imposed from above, or that we need them prima facie in any sense, although I am not arrogant enough to believe that the best approach is to disregard others' wisdom and just make it up as I go along: I had a sunday school education, and my moral code, such as it is, is basically Christian, and I believe the ethos expressed in the New Testament by Jesus -- and not the horrid, womanhating bullshit mysticism of St Paul, designed to enslave us, not free us -- is powerful and useful.) They are not the straitjacket that some (many, sadly) like to make them. They are the natural consequence of the desire to live with each other. I see them as guidelines, rather than laws, that help you navigate life, rather than imposing ways of living on you.
You cannot always obey the "rules" you set yourself, or accept for yourself, whichever you have done. But they are not meant to be rods to break our backs on -- and those who think they are, who serve gods who demand that you break yourself in an extended moral trial, are deserving of pity, not admiration. (And those who use them as cudgels deserve nothing more than contempt, as I mentioned here.)

Of course, it isn't even easy. Even people who lead dull lives, such as me, are confronted sometimes by difficult choices. Sometimes, those choices would be made much easier by having a code to refer to (and the desire for regulation of your life is strong in many Muslims' lives, for instance, although I believe that is born more out of a desire not to offend their (extremely easily offended) god than a need to live an untroubled life). And deciding whether the outcomes of our choices even are good or bad can be difficult, because not only can we not see the future but we cannot make others behave in ways we want -- and our outcomes are never in our hands alone. But is easier better? I think back a few years, when I drove far into the grass (away from any recognisable road, let's be honest) with S. By any moral standard, what I did was wrong. We were both married, after all, with all that entails.

But what I did was right. It cannot be wrong to rescue yourself from bitter unhappiness if you think you see the chance. I cannot believe it can be.

Was I doing wrong to Mrs Zen? Well, she thinks I was, and of course I see the merit in her belief. She believed I had a contract with her that precluded consorting with other women -- and of course I believe I did too (although it should be noted that contract law has an understanding that contracts should not necessarily be enforced when they are entirely detrimental to the contracting parties, nor should they be considered binding if they are made under duress). I also believe though that this is a contract that is renewed all the time -- one that is refreshed by our continued desire to hold to it, and diminished by failures on both sides to uphold it. I made promises (and I don't take promises lightly, because I strongly believe they are central to living in societies that require trust to operate, as any human society does, ultimately), but I did not vow to accept hurt for someone else's ideal. And I didn't promise that nothing would change no matter how shit things became. What would be the use in that? I don't see any value in the promise itself: only in its outcomes.

That, for me, is the central idea in rulesetting. The rules are not valuable in themselves: their worth lies entirely in their ability to allow you to create good in this life (just as the rules of English are entirely meaningless in the abstract, but exist only to make communication work well). Would applying a law to my life have helped me with difficult choices? No. It would have served as a way not even to think about them. I could have just not gone there, patted myself on the back for my moral uprightness and I don't know what would have happened, but I can't think that it would have brought me much happiness.

Nor would I have felt particularly that I had done a moral act. Quite the opposite, because all I would have achieved is to avoid acting morally or otherwise by abdicating my responsibility for choosing. All I would have gained from it would be to increase my unhappiness. Perhaps it would have increased Mrs Zen's some, but I can't really see how: is it really better to have a faithful, deeply unhappy husband or a less faithful but more content one? Are we really all about one single facet of ourselves, or are we composites?

Well, we are what we are, and that is fallible, precious beings who cannot hope to get everything right, and can only hope that what we choose will be better than the alternatives, and, so long as we choose as best we can, who can judge us for that but ourselves, by our own lights?