Having a persona as a “do-gooder” means we probably won’t.

“Through three psychological experiments, Sonya Sachdeva from Northwestern University found that people who are primed to think well of themselves behave less altruistically than those whose moral identity is threatened.”

She posits that

“the choice to behave morally is a balancing act between the desire to do good and the costs of doing so — be they time, effort or (in the case of giving to charities) actual financial costs. The point at which this  balance is set is by our own sense of self-worth. Tip the scales by threatening our saintly personas and we become more likely to behave selflessly to cleanse our tarnished perception. Do the opposite, and our bolstered moral identity slackens our commitment, giving us a license to act immorally. Having established our persona as a do-gooder, we feel less impetus to bear the costs of future moral actions. …

“It implies … that we have a sort of moral thermostat …”

This from an article at Science Blogs by Ed Yong, which describes the three studies as well as some earlier ones that yielded similar results.

These studies suggest that we do whatever it takes to feel good about ourselves, whatever it takes to relieve our “own personal guilt” (as Yong phrases it), and once we get to that point, the perceived balance between the work required to do good deeds and the motivation to do them shifts.

For some people, this never seems to happen: it’s always worth the work because they never reach the point of feeling good; every moment requires either another good deed or a major act of rationalisation or justification for not doing the good deed (or, in fact, the best deed). The guilt never abates to a truly non-motivating, non-influential level.

I wonder how this doing good dynamic meshes with Jesus’s words about loving our neighbours and feeding his sheep. Is the Christian idea to completely spend oneself in all moments for the sake of others (self-sacrifice)? from a desperate need to save the world? for the sake of a fuller life for all?  in imitation of Jesus or God?  from an internal or Spirit-given sense of overwhelming love for all? I’m pretty sure the idea isn’t to do good because otherwise you’ll feel guilty and rotten, unworthy to exist. That way seems to lead to resentment for most of us.

What is conscience (self-knowledge) all about, anyway? What makes us feel clean, and feel unclean?

One thought on “Conscience

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