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How Good Is Good Enough?
From The Marshall Memo #440
In this trenchant New York Times column, David Brooks explores the subject of human dishonesty, drawing on a new book by Dan Ariely, The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty (Harper, 2012). Nearly everyone cheats, says Ariely, but usually only a little. Some examples:
What’s going on here? Brooks says that until quite recently, people in Western cultures were raised to see themselves as depraved sinners. “In this construct,” he says, “sin is something you fight like a recurring cancer – part of a daily battle against evil.
“But these days, people are more likely to believe in their essential goodness. People who live by the Good Person Construct try to balance their virtuous self-image with their selfish desires. They try to manage the moral plusses and minuses and keep their overall record in positive territory. In this construct, moral life is more like dieting: I give myself permission to have a few cookies because I had salads for lunch and dinner… The Good Person isn’t shooting for perfection any more than most dieters are following their diet 100 percent. It’s enough to be workably suboptimal, a tolerant, harmless sinner and a generally good guy.”
The problem, says Brooks, is that it’s more difficult for people to judge their own morality than it is for a dieter to look at the bathroom scale every morning. In addition, people are brilliant at rationalization, self-deception, and denial: “I was honest with that blind passenger because I’m a wonderful person. I cheated the sighted one because she probably has too much money anyway.”
“The key job in the Good Person Construct,” concludes Brooks, “is to manage your rationalizations and self-deceptions to keep them from getting egregious… Your moral standards will gradually slip as you become more and more comfortable with your own rationalizations. So step back. Break your patterns and begin anew. This is what Yom Kippur and confessionals are for… We’re mostly unqualified to judge our own moral performances, so attach yourself to some exterior or social standards… As we go about doing our Good Person moral calculations, it might be worth asking: Is this good enough? Is this life of minor transgressions refreshingly realistic, given our natures, or is it settling for mediocrity?”
“The Moral Diet” by David Brooks in The New York Times, June 8, 2012 (p. A23),