Morality vs. Sanctimoniousness

THOMAS SOWELL

There are so many substitutes used in our society - substitutes for eggs, substitutes for wood, substitutes for diamonds - that perhaps we should not be too surprised to find substitutes for morality as well.

How do you tell morality from sanctimoniousness? For one thing, morality is hard and sanctimoniousness is easy. Anyone who has succumbed to temptation, and then felt deeply ashamed long afterwards, knows how hard morality can be.

Sanctimoniousness is easy. There are editorial writers who are sanctimonious every day of the week, without any visible sign of fatigue. As far as they are concerned, those who disagree with them are not merely in error, but in sin. Morality means being hard on yourself. Sanctimoniousness means being easy on yourself — and hard on others.

There are organizations whose very names proclaim the self-congratulation of the sanctimonious, the joy of being one-up on those with different opinions. For example, there is an environmentalist organization calling itself “Friends of the Earth,” as if people who disagree with its opinions are enemies of the earth. There is another organization calling itself “The Union of Concerned Scientists,” as if other scientists with different opinions were calloused and insensitive. There are groups who favor disarmament and call themselves the “Peace” movement, as if those who favor a policy of deterrence instead just don't care about the dangers and horrors war.

Long ago, Hamlet said, “Lay not that flattering unction to your soul.” But laying flattering unction to one's soul has become a way of life. A whole industry has grown up around it, featuring all sorts of movements, symbols, rallies, and bumper stickers. Morality isn't nearly as much fun. Anyone who looks back over his own life and honestly faces his own mistakes and shortcomings is likely to find the experience humbling, if not humiliating. At the very least, such a sober trip down memory lane is likely to suggest that human beings in general — and he in particular — have serious limitations that must be kept in mind when making moral judgments or in advocating social policy. Given our limitations, what can we do to make this a better world — and what can we not do? One thing we can do is to try to make better rules — in the law and in schools, for example, — and to see that everybody plays by those rules. What we cannot do, that is, what is not within our intellectual or moral power, is to decide directly who deserves to win or lose, who deserves more income and who deserves less, what groups should be “represented” where and in what proportions.

We can judge who has produced results, according to the established rules and criteria, but we cannot determine which of our fellow human beings has more personal merit. Schools have too often forgotten that limitation, and have graded students not on the quality of their work but on whether they were working up to their ability — as the teachers imagined their ability. Little Billy might make 90% on a math test while little Johnny made 50%, but both might receive the same grade if the teacher imagined that both scores represented their real ability. But, trying to reward them for personal effort, rather than their actual results, meant an utter absence of standards, contributing to the decline of American education — all as a result of trying to do what was beyond any person's power to do.

The philosopher Pascal said that morality included a duty to think clearly. Clear thinking, in turn, included not confusing effort with results. If I practice singing as long and as conscientiously as Pavarotti, I will have as much merit as Pavarotti — but I will still not sing as well as Pavarotti. What other people can judge, in this case all too easily, is who sings better. That is all they should try to judge. Neither my personal effort nor his is known to them.

Likewise, we can have rules and criteria that apply equally to men and women. What we cannot do is to determine whether a woman who is a secretary is of “comparable worth” to a man who is a truck driver. However, the fact that it is impossible has not stopped people from trying to do it — or from saying that they have already done it. In one case in England, it was solemnly announced that a woman who was a cook in a shipyard in Liverpool was of “comparable worth” to a man who was a carpenter on an oil drilling platform in the North Sea. The fact that she was not paid as much by her employer was enough to cause sanctimonious condemnation. But it was not enough for an informed moral judgment.

“Comparable worth” decisions sound good until you get the same decisions made by different “experts.” Now that the ideal of “comparable worth” has caught on in many places, there are different teams of “experts” deciding the relative value of librarians and chemists, or nurses and shipping clerks. In some states, the librarians are rated as more valuable than the chemists. In other states, the chemists are considered more valuable. Other jobs also bounce up and down in the ratings. Whenever a predominantly female occupation is paid less, that becomes a basis for sanctimonious pronouncements, alleging sex discrimination. But it does not provide a basis for a moral pronouncement, because morality implies a duty to engage in clear thinking.

Much publicity is given to the “fact” that the average woman earns an annual salary only fifty-nine percent of that of the average man. These averages are comparing apples with oranges. Far more of the women work only part-time. Far more of the women interrupt their careers to have children and to raise them. But, when you compare women who worked full-time and continuously, from high school into their thirties, these women earned slightly more than men of the same description.

Sometimes we can make a moral judgement about behavior, without being able to make a moral judgement about individual merit. I can say that drinking yourself into the gutter is not moral behavior. But it so happens that my body has a low tolerance for alcohol. It takes less alcohol to make me sick than it would take to make me drunk. Nature has made it almost impossible for me to become an alcoholic, without any moral virtue on my part. So, when I walk past a drunk lying in the gutter, I have no basis for being sanctimonious. How do I know that, if my body's tolerance for alcohol were greater, I might be lying there in the gutter and he might be walking past me under his own power?

Morally, it is still wrong to drink yourself into the gutter, no matter who does it. But this is one of many areas in which those who behave better may do so because of fortunate circumstances, which they did not create. They may be justified in saying, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” What they are not justified in doing is bending the rules to favor those whose behavior is a threat to themselves and society. It is right to try to help others raise themselves to a higher standard, but wrong to bring the standard down to where they are.

Morality has to recognize its own limitations in many ways, while sanctimoniousness does not. Morality which tries to adhere to Pascal's warning to think clearly cannot simply condemn all statistical disparities, whether between men and women, or between social classes, racial and ethnic groups, or between nations. We must look more closely into how those disparities arose and what they represent. In some cases, they represent historic injustices. In other cases, they represent nothing of the sort.

Much of the political sanctimoniousness of this era revolves around statistical data on income distribution. The problem is not with the statistics, but with what our imagination reads into the statistics. When we look at data on the incomes of the top twenty percent and the bottom twenty percent, we are likely to imagine that we are looking at “the rich” and “the poor.” But, most of those in the top twenty percent of the income distribution are far from rich and many of those in the bottom twenty percent are not poor.

Most income distribution statistics are like a high speed photograph that freezes everything the way it was at a given split-second, which may or may not be the way it was a moment later and is unlikely to be the way it was an hour later. For example, I imagine that many of the students here today will earn twice as high an annual income next year as they earn this year — simply because they will work full-time only six months this year and twelve months next year.

Even when a young man in his twenties works full time, he is unlikely to eam as high an income as his father earns in his forties, after long years of experience and seniority. Is this an injustice that requires a government program to correct it — especially since most people in their twenties will eventually be in their forties, with or without govemment programs? Are we to call an intern poor and a doctor rich, when being an intern is just a stage on the way to becoming a doctor?

When we look at income statistics, we do not know whether the actual people in those brackets are stuck there permanently or are just passing through. A study at the University of Michigan followed the same individuals over a period of years to see where their income went. Most of those people did not remain in the same bracket for as long as eight years. Half the people in the bottom twenty percent — those we think of as “the poor” — were not in that bracket the following year. Three percent of those in the bottom bracket one year were actually in the top bracket the following year. (I wish I knew how they did that.)

How many of those in the bottom twenty percent remained in the bottom twenty percent for a decade? Only three percent. No doubt there are many genuinely unfortunate people in that group. But they are nothing like the massive numbers of “the poor” that we hear about in the media or in what are called “the social sciences.” Much of what is called “social science” could more accurately be called perjury.

About ten years ago, in California, a lady who was struggling to raise her children after a divorce was complaining about financial problems. When I told her that she was among the top ten percent of wealth-holders in the United States, she looked at me as if I were crazy. But, the very fact that she had paid off most of the mortgage on her house over the years meant that her equity put her statistically in the top bracket of “wealth.” None of this was of any practical use to her in the supermarket or at the shopping mall, however “wealthy” she might be on paper.

When sanctimonious critics denounce the concentration of wealth in a relatively few hands, they omit the fact that those hands are usually elderly. Much of that wealth is home ownership. Its concentration in the hands of the elderly reflects the simple fact that, after decades of making mortgage payments, you finally do begin to build up some equity in your home. People who have been saving a little from their pay checks also finally do get a little nest egg. Much of the wealth of those in the top bracket will be inherited by their children, who are currently in lower brackets.

There are, of course, genuinely rich people, just as there are genuinely poor people. It is just that neither group corresponds very closely with those in high and low statistical brackets. If we wish to be moral, we must take that into account. if we are content just to be sanctimonious, we don't have to.

The ease with which media and academic intellectuals equate statistical disparities with moral inequities is inconsistent with the history of many groups in many countries around the world. Often those who are today among the most prosperous groups in a country began their lives there among the poorest. This pattern has been found, not only among such groups as the Japanese and the Eastern European Jews who immigrated to the United States, but also among the Chinese who immigrated to Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, and the Indo China region, as well as to such Western Hemisphere countries as Chile, Cuba, Jamaica, and the United States. Similar patterns have also been found among emigrants from Italy, India, and Lebanon when they settled in other countries.

Back in the colonial era, when Britain ruled Malaya, the British had great difficulty trying to get the indigenous Malays to work for them. The Malays had ample fertile land, and ample rainfall and tropical sunshine to enable them to grow an abundance of food without undue exertion. Why should they give this up to live regimented lives working on rubber plantations or subject themselves to the arduous and dangerous work in the tin mines? By and large, they would not. However, the poor people of India and China lived much harder lives, often in the shadow of famine. Vast numbers of Indians and Chinese came to Malaya to take the jobs that the Malays spurned.

Over the years, the hard-working and frugal Indians and Chinese used their meager savings to move beyond their initial roles as laborers to open small businesses. By the middle of the twentieth century, they had risen above the Malays economically, with the average Chinese earning about double the income of the average Malay. Now a Harvard economist has gone to Malaysia to offer advice on how to “correct” this “inequity.” In numerous other countries, in the tropics especially, indigenous people with ample means of feeding themselves have rejected low-paid employment offered by European or American companies, employment that was seized upon eagerly by foreign groups who used it as a stepping stone to a more prosperous life for themselves. Almost invariably, these foreigners have been envied and hated by the indigenous people, whether in Africa or Fiji. Almost invariably, Western intellectuals have sanctimoniously criticized the initially poor foreigners as privileged exploiters.

Here in the United States, as in countries overseas, one of the prime targets of the intellectuals is “greed.” While there is nothing endearing about greed, among the numerous sins of the human race, there are many others that have worse consequences. Often those who are most sanctimonious in their attacks on greed are most eager to urge young people into political life, or “public service,” as it is called. It is not at all obvious to me why greed for power is better than greed for money.

Often what is sanctimoniously called greed is nothing more than a desire to provide a comfortable and secure home for one's family, with perhaps some amenities to make their life pleasant, and something put aside for old age or a rainy day. Surely history tells us that men have done worse things than that.

Greed for power is something else. We can all have more material things and more spiritual things simultaneously. But, we cannot all have more power simultaneously, for power is one person's advantage over another.

Are we then to admire the person who is less concerned with providing the material needs of himself and his family, and more eager to obtain power over other people? Or, should we not fear him, as a menace to our freedom?

The years ahead will offer you many challenges as you form opinions and make decisions. One of the more subtle challenges will be discerning between true morality and sanctimoniousness.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Sowell, Thomas. “Morality vs. Sanctimoniousness” Unpublished talk.

Reprinted with permission of Thomas Sowell.

THE AUTHOR

Thomas Sowell (born 30 June 1930) is an American economist, political writer, and conservative-libertarian commentator. He is presently the Rose and Milton Friedman Senior Fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, and in 1990 won the prestigious Francis Boyer Award, presented by The American Enterprise Institute. Among his books are: A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles, A Man of Letters, Ever Wonder Why? And Other Controversial Essays, Basic Economics: A Common Sense Guide to the Economy, Black Rednecks and White Liberals, Affirmative Action Around the World: An Empirical Study, Basic Economics: A Citizen's Guide to the Economy, Revised and Expanded, Applied Economics: Thinking Beyond Stage One, Inside American Education, The Einstein Syndrome: Bright Children Who Talk Late, Controversial Essays, A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles, A Personal Odyssey.

Copyright © Thomas Sowell



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