Good, Evil, and Confusion Between the Two

Last week I wrote about some philosophers who were concerned with the unfair advantage enjoyed by children in loving families. What I didn’t mention at the time was that once, when I was on a messageboard back in the late 1990s, I was subject to an insult that has stuck with me for the rest of my life because of it’s incredible oddness. I was accused of being “emotionally spoiled.” As far as I can tell, this is an innovative way to call someone well-adjusted when you’re angry at them.

In any case, it reminded me of this amusing post from Jr. Ganymede:

I have this friend who is always exercising and carefully watching what she eats.  She won’t even go into a McDonald’s, because she says its just not the right environment for what she’s trying to do.  So restrictive!

Yeah, she’s fit, superficially.  But it’s not true fitness.  It’s naive fitness.  It’s sheltered fitness.  True fitness is when you stop living in some “exercise and nutrition” bubble and you go pork out on your couch in the real world.

Or, if you prefer the classics, there’s C. S. Lewis:

A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is. … You find out the strength of a wind by trying to walk against it, not by lying down.

Of course these two ideas–growing up in a good family and thus being “emotionally spoiled” on the one hand and avoiding temptation on the other–are very different. I get no credit for the circumstances of my home life and I’m not claiming to be a good person. But there is an important similarity: and that is that the world has ways of sneering at things that are beautiful and trying to make you feel ashamed for liking them. You grew up in a good family? Then you’re the beneficiary or privilege and unfair advantage. You’re basically cheating at life. You’re trying hard to avoid temptation and follow rules? Then you’re shallow and superficial.

Don’t let the world confuse you.

Don’t let them get you to trade your heroes for ghosts. Don’t give up trees for hot ashes. Don’t exchange your walk on part in a war for the lead role in a cage.

Don’t let anyone tell you that darkness is light and that light is darkness. Don’t forget the difference between the bitter and the sweet.1

Never forget, there are four lights.

But sometimes we do forget. Sometimes we make the trade.

When that happens, try to remember one more thing about bad deals: “Ye have sold yourselves for naught, and ye shall be redeemed without money.”2

5 thoughts on “Good, Evil, and Confusion Between the Two”

  1. You grew up in a good family? Then you’re the beneficiary or privilege and unfair advantage.

    I think I would be somewhat hostile to someone else saying this about me, but it describes quite well one of the ways I try to keep some of the empathy-limiting consequences of my upbringing in check. My parents were amazing, and left me with a degree of comfort under criticism which lots of people don’t have, because their early experiences with criticism were less constructive and more traumatic. As a result, if I don’t make an effort to remember that difference, I use my own reactions as a gauge for reasonable ways to offer critique, which means I end up unintentionally bullying people with rhetoric. That’s natural to me–I’m used to the model of disputants presenting the strongest case available for their own side, leaving out any expression of sympathy or appreciation for the value of the other person’s perspective, because those emotions are assumed and need not be reiterated.

    That seems to me like a small example of something which would make the bit about being emotionally spoiled relevant. It would be better to point out how someone’s emotionally smooth history might be limiting their perspective on an issue, but the very trials which made someone’s life emotionally rocky might make it difficult to approach the issue without the sort of resentment which makes it difficult to care about such explanations. But most of the time that I hear about privilege, it isn’t intended to suggest that being underprivileged is better, only that the privileged aren’t qualified to understand what being underprivileged is like.

    But not always. A person I follow on Twitter to help me get a small window on a perspective very different from my own recently linked [a href=””>this article, which he seemed to think excused a pattern selfish behavior (in the process seeming to confuse “evolutionarily beneficial (sometimes)” with “good”). So, there’s an extreme example of the problem you’ve described; I don’t mean to suggest that no one tries to make the bad seem good. But I would also be very hesitant to reject legitimate criticism because it might seem to do this.

  2. Kelsey-

    I think you’re point about different backgrounds reasonably leading to different ways of looking at things is invalid, but just to clarify: I wasn’t being labeled “emotionally spoiled” because of how I was interacting with others. I do get into trouble there, but this wasn’t one of those times. I wasn’t arguing with someone or trying to change their opinions / beliefs. I was simply failing to express, in this person’s interest, an appropriate level of angst. This was the days before emo was a thing, but that’s the best comparison: someone else was being emo and I just… wasn’t.

  3. I don’t relate to that accusation; to me it seems like a bizarre thing to say. I suppose it might be the natural outgrowth of the doctrine that only those who have suffered can have truly profound artistic insight–if that were true, it would seem to follow that one who hadn’t been traumatized in some deep way would be missing out on a crucial part of the full human experience. I have found the connection between suffering and artistic merit sufficiently unreliable that I’ve no evidentiary reason to credit that doctrine, but I’m a bit hesitant to jump up and down on its grave in case it plays an important role in comforting those who need it. Which isn’t all that different from my view of most religions, now I think of it.

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