As I look at the title of this post, I can’t but think of Jane Austen. Given her interest in the emotional life, that reference may be more than coincidental.
In parents’, teachers’, professors’ and Student Life staffs’ conversations, it is common to hear someone say, “So and so (student) made a bad choice.” True. A bad choice s/he made (says Yoda). But is that all that is going on? Just a bad choice? What murky forces motivated the bad choice?
I remember well, when our now-grown children were in school, hearing education professionals say, “There are no bad people, only good people who make bad choices.” Hm. Motivated by understandable and laudable desires to speak positively and supportively of children and young people (for we sometimes do make bad choices), I think it stems from – to use theological jargon – a flawed anthropology, with seriously troubling circumstances, especially for college students.
In spite of serious work on awareness of structural evil and various power imbalances, much student-related activity in higher education still assumes the Enlightenment notion that, at bottom, human beings are rational beings for whom freedom means autonomy (the right to do what I want as long as it’s legal and I don’t hurt anybody else; the right to be left alone). Most of the attention relative to freedom goes to various forms of political and civic freedoms. Obviously, there is much value in this view. In this sense, all of us are liberals.
Furthermore, college is understood to be about learning how to handle new freedoms – being away from home and direct parental oversight, that is, to begin learning on one’s own, so to speak, how to live like an adult. Freedom in this sense, likewise, is mostly a good. Young people do need to learn how to handle freedom and they do need to learn how to live like adults.
But all of the foregoing – for all its value – is wide of the mark when it comes to – to use the theological jargon again – anthropology. Here I speak not of the academic discipline, but of the sub-category of Christian systematic theology. Anthropology in this framework has to do with understanding human nature and the condition in which we find ourselves. It has two parts: how God created us (God’s intentions, designs, etc.) and what we humans have become in actual “real life” experience. Here the picture becomes decidedly more complex.
Consider this scenario: I am an 18 year old college freshman, away from home for the first time (at least, for any length of time) and excited to live the full college experience. I come to school with a sincere faith in Christ and a desire to live faithfully and well as a Christian. But I have other desires, too. I want to be where the action is. I want to meet new people, have fun, make friends, have a good time. I’ve gotten to know some kids in my residence hall and they are really cool. I’d like to hang out with them and get to know them better. They tell me about a party they’re going to and invite me to come along. People are drinking and having fun. I don’t want to look like a dork. How do I fit in? How do I look cool? Besides, I’m curious about the “buzz” people talk about when they drink. Maybe I’ll try…
Here we see a not entirely rational “conversation” with oneself. We see choices, but more than choices. We see inclinations toward a certain behavior, based on certain desires.
Consider this scenario: she is an attractive, ambitious and active student on campus. It is very important for her to be liked, to be seen with the “right people” and to run in the right circles. She meets a handsome young man in one of her classes and they start hanging out. Soon, he invites her to his dorm room. They do what college kids do. They hook up. At the start, it’s just a little more or less innocent making out. It gets progressively “hotter.” She likes him and she’s kind of into the “moment,” but she also has qualms. She begins to worry about his full intentions. How far does she go? When does she stop? How does she stop?
Now, mix in some alcohol. Both students have had enough to be impaired (it doesn’t take that much). Is she still acting freely? Is he? Was she acting freely from the start? How will she feel about herself the next morning? (I know, it sounds like an old country song, but the feelings are dreadfully real.) This student was inclined to go along with certain behaviors that, in the moment maybe seemed sort of OK, but not really, not in her best interest, not according to her values. One set of desires inclined her to act against another set of desires. Freedom? Yes and no. It’s complicated…
In both cases we could say that these students “just made a bad choice” and that would be half true. And that’s the problem: half truths are often as bad as whole lies.
What the bad choices analysis simply does not address are the deeper, murkier, mixed motives – the inclinations – that we feel and often cannot understand. How often have I, after the fact, looked back on something I did and said, “What was I thinking?”
We are good at recognizing power disequilibrium between people and in groups. What about the struggle that goes on within a person? It, too, is a type of power struggle – the good that I would, I do not. I do the thing that, in my clearer, more rational moments, I hate. I think our popular and, to some degree, academic, explanations simply don’t do the job.
I have not space in this post to explore the contours of the human soul, but I will say this: academic institutions with Student Life policies that are driven solely by the Enlightenment understanding of human beings as free and rational – therefore they should be autonomous – are dealing young people a bad hand.
9 thoughts on “Choices and Inclinations”
Steve! You stopped just as it was getting good! You need to expand that last statement.
Leave ’em hungry for more…?
You’re right on the edge of one of my own favorite rants: our western mythology around what I’m starting to think of as the “atomic” individual. To clarify: the word “atom” comes from the greek “atomos” – indivisible. The idea was that an atom was an indivisible unit, the smallest amount of a thing, a substance, that could be isolated. It’s a useful theory, and for most levels of interaction, the kind of chemistry we deal with in the day-to-day, it describes reality pretty well. But when you look closer, study interactions at much shorter distance and higher energies, one finds that the “atom” is far from indivisible. In truth, it’s mostly empty space.
The thing is, we humans are a lot the same. We in the west developed this concept of “soul” – a unified essence that defines who we are in some deep, metaphysical sense. Medicine/physiology/neuroscience spent centuries looking for the “seat” of this soul in the human body. As science progressed we started to call in “consciousness” instead, but it was basically the same quest: to find the place where it all comes together in the brain, the final decisions point, the center of “reason” And as we’ve gone further and further into the tangled mass of cells that fill up our heads it’s becoming more and more clear that there really isn’t one! There is no one, conscious, decision point. In fact many brain activity studies suggest that many of our decisions are made before we are consciously aware of it. Sure, we can articulate a decision making process after the fact, but that is just as likely post-decision rationalization as pre-decision reason. The truth seems to be that our thoughts and behaviors are the external output of internal communities of neural cells – cells shaped by a combination of genetics, evolution, and individual experiences (shorthand for a variety of nutritional/chemical, social/emotional, and physical forces).
You, and me, and every other human being – we aren’t autonomous individuals, “atoms” in some larger social fabric. We are communities on a journey as part of larger and larger communities. We shape them, and they shape us, and any pretense that we are ever truly rational free-agents is questionable.
Thank you, Todd. Go ahead and rant!
We can never explain all that we’re thinking in a comment, a post, an article (a book), but let me probe on your statement about the brain’s activities and decision making. How do you avoid the implication of determinism or, more strongly, fatalism? Given that the seat of the soul cannot be located in a particular space, but is more like a web of relational functions, how do you deal with the assumption of agency?
Martha, you might want to chime in on this one!
I’m told Augustine said that we are always free. And, we always choose according to our strongest desire. Our freedom consists ultimately in our ability to ask God to give us the right desire.
R. R. Reno’s lead essay in the Public Square section of the August/September issue of First Things concerns exactly the issue you raise. As I read him, there are two basic forms of social control that teach us how to negotiate life, to become a good, moral person predisposed to make right choices.. There is the “positional control” that is based upon rules, codes, and roles. You do your homework because your mother told you to. The positional control model operates through a symbolic system that provides a grid that sets out the parameters of acceptable choices and expected behaviors.
The other system of control is a “personal” control system that socializes through analysis and “adept manipulation of the open-ended, enhanced code.” You do your homework because that’s the way you succeed in life; You will be a better person if you do your homework. Reno describes the process of supplanting the positional, restricted code with the personal, open-ended mode:
“Already when I was a child, however, those in positions of authority were beginning to dismantle the restricted code. The work continues. The elaborated codes of the personal control systems are now used to root out the older restricted codes of positional control systems. No stereotypes!! Use neutral terms like “out of wedlock” instead of “illegitimate”; Nobody should be stigmatized!! Sex should be safe but never wrong, or at least rarely so: We must be inclusive! And, of course, it’s important for everybody to decide just what they’re personally “comfortable with.”
Your title: Choices and Inclinations speaks to these two models of socialization. The college undergraduate is in many instances in the process of moving from “positional” controls to “personal” controls. Some are better equipped to make the transition than others. Ideally, the positional control model equips us for (or, gives us the inclination toward) making proper choices.
Thank you, James, for the article reference. I’m going to take a look. I think the point that interests me the most is how the transition to personal control occurs. This is a question of motivation, the old extrinsic/intrinsic distinction. How does God wrestle us into the intrinsic motivation aimed at the Good which is God? We don’t talk about goods, much, on campus. We talk about specific values, like respect, inclusiveness, diversity. These are goods, of course, but they go unexplained, as if they are self-evident and they are understood in almost exclusively political terms. It’s a dreadfully anemic anthropology.
Motivation = Desire. We always choose according to the strongest desire within us.
Our inclinations and choices are the product of our “loss of a palpable sense that God’s life makes all the difference in the world to our moral and political decisions.” Ephraim Radner, FIRST THINGS, August/September 2013.
George Weigel, in the same Issue, tells us what we need: “(A) platform for the reconstruction of a biblically informed culture, in the aesthetic sense of “culture.” We should be doing more with literature, film, music, the plastic arts, and architecture. Can we identify alternatives to the prevalent drek? Can we explain why the drek perfectly mirrors the deconstruction of the human and the escape from reality into a world of gnostic plasticity that is at the root of so many of our public problems?”
The “deconstruction of the human” is the loss of a biblical anthropology (the only true answer to the question of “what is man?”
The “world of gnostic plasticity” is the personal system of control operating in world in which the sense of the presence of God has vanished.
Unfortunately, the mainline Church is mostly a drek merchant.
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