Imagine the horror of your bad habits being made known on your body, on the news, or to the masses on social media. Even more than your social life, imagine the effects of such habits on your soul or upon your highest aspirations in life. If you’ve ever read The Picture of Dorian Gray you get to experience that through a man whose indiscretions are hidden from view by virtue of their effects being transferred to a painting of himself that essentially represents the sum total of his virtues or vices.
The power of the novel, or even the concept of a painting that ages in our place for anybody who hasn’t read it, is in its ability to make us reflect upon whether or not our actions move us closer to perfection or deeper into soul and aspiration destroying corruption.
The processes of corruption and perfection are measurable by comparison to an ideal self, a moral standard, or, in the case of physical goals, literally measurable by the strictest standards of science (fitness, financial, and other such material based goals).
With this in mind, I suspect that the best way to help somebody pursue a like of moral virtue is to get them to imagine an ideal version of themselves that seems ideal to them. Once you start pursuing that vision of the good, two things can happen. First, you realize how poorly you make choices, in other words, you’re a sinner by your own law. Secondly, you realize both the greatness to which you could realistically aspire and the silliness and small-mindedness of your ideals.
Richard Swinburne explains the process of personal corruption. It is essentially the encouragement of bad desires and elimination or deformation of good desires. This is the result of choices we make. In the book he proposes the case of somebody who decides to do what they know (or think they know) to be evil. He describes what he considers to be the two possibilities for somebody who repent of their actions:
“Gradually, unless a man to some degree pursues the good, one of two things happens. First, the agent may try to persuade himself that the action which he believes to be wrong, say stealing, is not really wrong. He looks for disanalogies between stealing and other wrong acts, and analogies between stealing and acts which are not wrong. ‘It’s only luck the victim had the watch to start with,’ says the thief; ‘so I’m just upsetting the balance of luck. Anyway, hardly anyone really loses anything, because almost everybody is insured.’ And so on. Or secondly, the agent may say ‘I don’t care about right and wrong. I’m not going to be a moral man in future.’ In one or other of these ways the agent intentionally dulls his conscience, blinds himself to awareness of good and bad, right and wrong.”1
In other words, as we make poor decisions we either deaden our emotions to that decision but justifying it over and over again or we convince ourselves that morality in this or in all cases is not real.
An important question for thoughtful people is this:
Are there any habits for which I feel the need to justify myself to my conscience? And then ask, “Is my conscience right or wrong?”
This process, I think, applies not just to matters of right and wrong, though it obviously does. I think it applies to any good habit that makes us more fully alive, more fully functioning, and more happily human. Areas that take extra effort to develop good habit like diet, frugality, paying bills on time, working on your art daily, managing your property, reading instead of watching television, exercise, cleanliness, intellectual effort, and so-on can go through the process of corruption until we find ourselves unfeeling and ungoverned by reason with respect to these things. We revert to our merely animal nature and live on the basis of impulses rather than reason.
This particular discussion is interesting to me because my favorite definition of free-will is “the ability conceive of an ideal and pursue it.” I heard it in a lecture and I don’t know from whom the lecturer was quoting. But it’s elegant and sidesteps all the other metaphysical baggage that comes with debates concerning free will.
Anyway, what good thing do you want? Do you want honesty, freedom from pornography, control over your emotions, a positive net-worth, to be truly tranquil in yourself and benevolent to those around you? Now ask, do my habits tend toward these goods or away from them? Is it worth it to keep up with habits that lead you to eventually abandon your highest aspirations or live with the anxiety caused by desiring what you believe you’ll never acquire? In other words, ask yourself if you’re on the path to corruption or perfection. You’ll have plenty of time to decay when you’re dead.
1 Richard Swinburne, Responsibility and Atonement (Oxford [England]; New York: Clarendon Press ; Oxford University Press, 1989), 174
*Image: By Ivan Albright (1897 – 1983) – en:File:The Picture of Dorian Gray- Ivan Albright.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48757597