20 July 2009

Nature, Nurture, Maturity & Morality

Recently, I had a debate with my 14 year old cousin vis a vis some decisions that someone we both know has made of late. The person in question (who shall anonymous, because it is entirely irrelevant to the point I'm making here) has not, shall we say, had particularly healthy choices of a romantic nature. When I posited that this person has grown up without any real examples of what a healthy relationship is, my cousin responded that it is entirely a cop-out to blame one's environment, that we each know right from wrong. Does any of this sound familiar? I thought so.

While washing dishes a little bit ago, I re-visited this debate as I am wont to do while cleaning. I think most people, if pressed, will confess that they have many chore-inspired epiphanies. Why this is, I cannot say; I only know that it happens. Anyway, I was amused to consider what my 14 year old self would have said concerning the issue. Partly my younger self has been on my mind because of the ongoing, Make Sense of Turning Thirty issue that has played out in this very blog, and partly I've considered the contrast betwixt my younger and current selves because I revisited Eyes Wide Shut the other day to mark the 10th anniversary of seeing it during its theatrical release.

I went into Eyes Wide Shut having been told it was an artistic triumph, that it was brilliant, etc. I walked out of the theater in that Chicago mall where my friends and I saw the film on vacation convinced that the whole thing was really just an overlong excuse to put some flesh on the screen. Upon subsequent viewings, however, I have come to appreciate the nuances and subtleties of the film. As a 20 year old guy with precious little dating experiences, I grew impatient with Tom Cruise's performance as Bill, wanting him to get on with things. My 30 year old, married self instead sees the depiction of a man coping with the unforseen devastation of his wife's confession that she would have discarded their life together to act on a lustful impulse had she had the opportunity. I cannot fathom experiencing that in my own marriage, and so where my younger self was bored, my current self stares in empathetic anguish at Cruise's masterful performance.

Getting back to the point at hand, I considered that my 14 year old self would have quickly sided with my (our?) cousin on the issue. He was a much more black-and-white, judgmental guy than I am. He had little sympathy for the circumstances that influence how people's lives can divert them from where they intended or desired to be. He almost relished the idea of people paying maximum penalties for their errors, because it confirmed his thesis that doing the right thing ought to earn a reward and doing the wrong thing ought to similarly bring about consequences.

My cousin argues that we somehow know right from wrong, and that that inner guiding voice calls out to us regardless of what we have been taught or exposed to in our formative years. I think my younger self, again, would have agreed with this. After all, he did not grow up around drug abusers and he knew that substance abuse was wrong. Surely, there are no people out there unaware of this fact; ergo, anyone who uses gets whatever they deserve. Sounds like right and wrong and justice to me, I would have said.

Social conservatives share this worldview, and dismiss the more accepting, liberal approach as naive and destructive. "Spare the rod, spoil the child," they say. And yet, I have to ask: How do they raise their own children? I would suspect that, time after time, they re-iterate the household rules, they try to lead by example, they give lectures and other disciplinary measures as needed to reinforce their childrens' understanding of the expectations placed on their behavior.

But why?

If we, in fact, know right from wrong inherently as they insist, then surely that is all wasted effort? Aren't their children hard-wired to already distinguish right from wrong? Of course they aren't; they must be taught what behaviors are accepted and which are not. Why, then, can we not acknowledge the role that failure to properly instill these guidances in a child played to lead one to poor decisions as a teen or an adult?

I am not so leftist I believe these unpleasant conditions ought to excuse one from the consequences of one's actions; rather, I challenge the judgmental nature of those who wish to ignore the relationship between past and present. Maybe it's the historian in me, but I cannot isolate an event in the present from those that precipitated it. I consider it necessary to properly understand a situation; why is it naive to pursue such a level of understanding prior to passing judgment on someone? More over, can we not agree that the failure to provide healthy guidance and role models for our youth is directly responsible for unacceptable choices made later in life? That is, after all, why we try to teach our youth right from wrong; why are we so harsh toward the youth whose parents did not and were unable to provide those things for themselves?

My younger self would say I've sold out, that I've become a wuss. He'd say that I'm guilty of philosophical treason to ourself and that I am not the person he ever wanted to be. On the former point, I would certainly agree with him. I just don't know that he would be experienced or mature enough to pass that judgment on me.