Myodicy, Issue 23, June 2005

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Moral Highlanders

by Theodore Plantinga

The Bible holds us to some high ideals. For example, consider that business about not trying to take credit for the good deeds you have done: let not your left hand know what your right is doing: we are assured that the Father who sees what we do in secret will reward us openly (see Matthew 6:3-4). But there is doubt in our hearts. We yearn for a credit ledger: if we are honest, we admit to ourselves that we want more credit for good deeds than this passage seems to allow us.

Because of our great reluctance to cloak our good deeds in a veil of secrecy, we tend instead to go in the opposite direction. We go so far that some of the good deeds for which we would like a little moral credit entered in the ledger (however discreetly this might be done) wind up bordering on symbolic actions. By this term, which may be unfamiliar to some readers, I mean deeds that may have a good effect in and of themselves but are intended primarily to communicate to others that we do in fact engage in actions of the such-and-such a sort and that our heart is therefore in the right place and so forth. Their significance lies mainly in what they stand for and suggest. For example, if Prince Harry is in trouble with the media again and needs his image polished some more, he may be advised to go to Africa and hug a baby suffering from AIDS -- making sure that the occasion is also a photo opportunity for journalists so that he will get moral credit for his symbolic action, which is at the same time a good deed. The primary purpose then is to make it clear to people that Prince Harry is very concerned about babies and AIDS and so forth.

Much dissatisfaction with "celebrities" arises from the suspicion that they are quite free when it comes to performing symbolic actions, they do very little in the way of good deeds in private or in secret. Yet, unless one holds to a very strict interpretation of Matthew 6:3-4, there is nothing wrong with symbolic actions by which we express and communicate our convictions concerning some cause or problem. Much parenting involves trying to make an impression on one's children by way of symbolic actions.

I am suggesting, then, that we should not be too hard on Prince Harry and other folks who are in the public eye more than they would like to be. I suppose that many people, from time to time, are inclined to follow the route of symbolic action in order to gain moral credit. Yet it remains true that many of us are content to build up moral credit mainly through actual good deeds in the real world -- and not just through deeds performed before the camera. Even so, we may sometimes take steps to make sure that the accomplishment of such deeds is quietly made known to those who count in our lives. Take a marriage relationship, by way of example. If I, as a husband, perform a task around the house that is normally performed by my wife, it is my inclination to make sure that she notices or finds out -- otherwise, what would be the point?

Those who keep records on moral credit (whether on paper or in their heads) will be well aware that one also can get moral credit for certain intentions which -- for whatever reason -- are never realized in the form of actions. In the world of professors in which I move, we sometimes joke about getting ourselves appointed to committee such-and-such, which is known to meet almost never. And since there is a point system for assigning moral credit for committee service (I kid you not), such aspirations to serve on a dormant committee are by no means foolish. I suppose that what sometimes happens is that one expresses an interest in serving on a dormant committee while secretly hoping that in the coming year the committee in question will once again fail to call even a single meeting: one could then brag about never having missed a meeting! It's a bit like volunteering to help a friend move, while realizing that the friend in question has quite a collection of sizable sons and sons-in-law in the vicinity, which means that one's offer -- even if made in good faith -- will never be taken up. Of course if one has too much certainty about the offer being a mere straw in the wind, the amount of moral credit earned by making it would be minuscule. In short, there are fine points in this business of moral credit: elaborate bookkeeping may be involved.

In my experience, moral credit can also be obtained by refraining from something that one might have done or had opportunity to do. For some people who think in these terms, the whole business becomes something of a joke. I can nicely illustrate this point through my relationship to my wife Janet, who is nowhere near as enamored of bookstores as I am. If I pass by a bookstore, especially a used book store, without going inside and spending some time there, I pick up moral credit. But if Janet spots a CLOSED sign in the window, she knows that I could not have gone into the bookstore in any case, and so no moral credit is awarded. In some situations, a judge would be needed to figure it out. Just recently, she and I were touring London in one of those famous double-decker buses. As I looked down on the scene below from the top level, I spotted an enchanting used book store which was obviously open: people were going in and out, and books were on display. Of course the fact that I was riding in a bus meant that I could not simply pop into the bookstore, as I would surely have done if I had been passing by on foot. On the other hand, it was within my power to get off the bus at the very next stop and march over to the bookstore and spend some time there, which is what I did not do. And so I claimed moral credit on that occasion, but it was a somewhat disputable case: just how much moral credit should I be allowed?

The American novelist Peter De Vries (1910-93) is also interested in the notion of moral credit. He has a wonderful story in his collection No, But I Saw the Movie [NOTE 1] in which he applies this theme to a somewhat more serious matter than a bibliophile's opportunity to visit a used book store. In his story (and I believe he uses such a scenario in one of his novels as well), he has a male character named Frisbie, a married man, winding up with an opportunity to commit adultery with an attractive woman after the office Christmas party. Frisbie passes up his big chance. It then occurs to him that he should report what happened -- or didn't happen -- to his wife in order to pick up some moral credit; after all, what husband could not do with more moral credit? De Vries tells us:

The more he thought of it the more gratifying his conduct seemed, and, presently, the more his satisfaction struck him as worth sharing with his wife, not for the light the incident put him in but as a certification of their bond. Superimposed upon the good spirits in which the drinks had left him, his moral exhilaration mounted." [NOTE 2]

It turns out that Mrs. Frisbie did not regard the incident in the expected light, and therein lies a tale: do read it for yourself. Clearly the virtuous husband thinks he deserves moral credit for what he did not do but had opportunity to do. Of course it should be borne in mind, when comparing the two examples of moral credit, that committing adultery is wrong on almost anyone's moral code, whereas many moralists would assure us that there is nothing inherently wrong with dragging one's spouse into a used book store.

De Vries, like many another writer, is fascinated by the intricate dances that take place with partners of opposite gender within a marriage relationship. And he knows that one of the games that marriage partners play is to seek and hold the moral high ground. There's great satisfaction in being a moral highlander.

Now, this term --"highlander" -- needs a bit of explanation. Readers who know me personally will be aware that I am married to a Scottish woman. Janet hails from the area near Glasgow which is just below the Highlands, and so she would have to be judged a Lowlander in Scottish terms. Much of what makes Scotland distinct and unique and attractive to people who are not Scottish in origin (yours truly included, for I'm a Frisian) is associated with the Highlands and the clans and tartans and kilts and so forth. And so one is inclined to say that the Highlanders are the real Scots, and that they are therefore in a position to look down on the Lowland Scots, many of whom imitate the Highlanders as a way of affirming their Scottish ethnicity, whereas some other Lowland Scots who inhabit the major cities have largely abandoned their unique Scottish accents and have merged into a general British identity -- not quite English but tending in that direction. Is there then a certain cultural and moral superiority -- in Scottish terms, at least -- that goes with being a Highlander? This is a question worth pondering. Of course the lamentable story of the "clearances" comes to mind here. Having been a victim -- however long ago -- seems to entitle people to some moral credit.

I have spent almost all of my adult life in Canada, and all throughout those years I have been an admirer of the Scots, partly because of what I learned about them during my elementary school days in Winnipeg, whose local history is also bound up with a Scottish settlement (the story of Lord Selkirk and company). [NOTE 3] I suppose it should not surprise anyone, then, that I wound up married to a Scot, albeit a Lowlander. Scots make good Canadians, and Canadians, in turn, are in a fine position to understand the Scots and their Highlander inclinations. In effect, it could be said that many Canadians consider themselves "Highlanders" in relation to their American neighbors south of the border.

Much speculation about Canadian identity consists of meditation on our relationship to the Americans -- how we are different from them, in what respects we may consider ourselves superior to them, even though they dominate us economically and militarily. I have speculated about these matters in earlier issues of Myodicy: see, for example, "Anti-Americanism and Canadian Identity." And what lives in the minds of many a Canadian -- especially the more intellectual and self-conscious of us -- has a good deal to do with the notion of moral credit developed earlier in this essay. The idea, in brief, is that Canadians of this stripe deserve moral credit for the things they refrain from doing. In virtue of their self-restraint, Canadians are entitled to consider themselves morally superior to Americans. Canada, we are then told, is a "kinder, gentler nation."

Sometimes this message is articulated by people who themselves started out as Americans but came to live in Canada and have adopted this understanding of what it means to be Canadian. To some it will seem supremely ironic that the phrase "kinder, gentler nation" was actually made popular by the first President Bush, who wanted to contrast his approach to international relations with that of his predecessor, President Reagan!

In his book about the border between Canada and the United States, James Laxer quotes an interesting statement dating from 1880. The Canadian Methodist Magazine wrote:

We are free from many of the social cancers which are empoisoning the national life of our neighbours. We have no polygamous Mormondom; no Ku-Klux terrorism; no Oneida communism; no Illinois divorce system; and no cruel Indian massacres. [NOTE 4]

Today we would be able to make our own list of the evils that seem to exist in the United States but are scarcely to be found in Canada; indeed, we could get some help from Michael Moore if we needed it. But even back in the nineteenth century, the claim was made that whereas Americans are known to massacre their native peoples, here in Canada we are kind to them. (How kind? There are differences of opinion.) Surely we deserve some moral credit for that kindness, or perhaps I should say: for the restraint we have shown in our dealings with the aboriginal population. Such, at least, is the line of thought one often encounters.

Now, I teach a course in philosophy of history in which the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831), a contemporary of Lord Selkirk (1771-1820), is one of the major figures coming up for consideration. And Hegel, of course, would scoff at such a line of reasoning. He has a wonderful passage in which he makes fun of the schoolmaster who claims moral superiority for never having conquered Asia (in contrast to the world-historical individual, a man of seemingly sinful "passion," who cannot help but get some blood on his hands as he fulfills his historical destiny). Writes Hegel:

What schoolmaster has not demonstrated that Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar were driven by such passions and were, consequently, immoral? From which it immediately follows that he, the schoolmaster, is a better man than they because he has no such passions, and proves it by the fact that he has not conquered Asia nor vanquished Darius and Porus, but enjoys life and allows others to enjoy it too. [NOTE 5]

I often think that Canadians are like Hegel's schoolmaster: they have never conquered Asia, nor have they attempted to occupy and hold Vietnam; indeed, they did not even participate in the attack on Iraq (2003), although they were willing to take part in the Gulf War and the action against Afghanistan after the 9/11 attack. Canadians can indeed be compared to innocuous -- perhaps even impotent -- schoolmasters who are willing to lecture the rest of the world on what is right and wrong while rarely venturing outside the classroom.

Of course the favorite object to be criticized on the part of Canadians nowadays is President George W. Bush, whose political demise was widely expected by Canadians as they followed the U.S. presidential election of 2004 (after all, who in the world would vote for Bush?). And it was not only from Canada that such criticism emanated. Robert Harvey, using Great Britain as his existential vantage point as he surveys the world that slowly emerged after the end of the Cold War, points out that during the Cold War era, it appeared to many pro-America nations that

... the United States was fighting a crusade of good versus evil against the Soviet Union. America was visibly fighting for freedom and justice against a tyranny that enslaved a huge section of mankind, occupied Eastern Europe, suppressed uprisings with tanks and imprisoned and tortured dissidents. With the Soviet bloc's disappearance, the United States no longer appeared to be a crusader for good: it simply seemed to stand for its own self-interest, but on a much larger scale than any other country. It appeared to have lost its moral purpose, beyond the making of money. It had lost a role, and found an empire. [NOTE 6]

Hegel would shake his head at such misguided criticism of the U.S. pursuit of its own self-interest. Canadian attitudes would win little support from his still-alluring philosophy of history. Instead he would point to President Bush as a fine example of the movers and shakers in history who are exempted from moral evaluation when it comes to the deeds they perform on the world stage. Those world-historical individuals are carrying out a longer-term purpose of the World Spirit, even though they are at the same time acting on the basis of their own interests and what Hegel calls "passions."

When detractors of President Bush claim that he does not know what he's doing, even Hegel, while ultimately approving of Bush as fitting the Hegelian philosophy of history, would agree -- up to a point. It is not in communion with the World Spirit that the world-historical individuals figure out what it is that they must do. Rather, they are driven by their own ambition and need for ego-gratification. Hegel speaks of the "cunning of Reason" and declares that Reason or the World Spirit simply makes use of such individuals as long as their private ambitions line up with the larger purpose. It then discards them when they are no longer needed, and so Napoleon winds up in exile on St. Helena.

If Hegel were writing op-ed pieces in our newspapers (of course he would do no such thing, for he maintains, in Sartre's famous formulation, that history happens behind our backs, which is to say that it cannot be properly comprehended while it is in the process of unfolding), he would advise us to ease up in our moral attacks on President Bush as a bad man. Bush can no more help doing what he does than can the tiger who tears apart his prey and devours it. Because we all have a role to play in the larger scheme of things, the moral summing-up attempted by the schoolmaster who has never conquered Asia is not only unneeded but ultimately laughable.

And so Canadians are inclined to be uncomfortable with recent U.S. claims to unchallenged dominion that are often summed up in the word "empire." Many Canadians are much more in tune with the traditions of peace-making and non-violence which we associate with Gandhi and more generally with India in an earlier phase of its existence as an independent nation, especially back in the days when Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964) was prime minister.

Something of that spirit was still alive among us as Canadians when, many years ago, I was enrolled in a class in Indian philosophy at McMaster University, taught by the late Professor Krishna Sivaramen, who was both a Hindu and a native of India. At one point, a couple of us were going on about how the people of India -- inspired by the ideal of ahimsa -- are gentle folk who would not lord it over others and, so forth. Prof. Sivaramen laughed openly at such thinking and responded: "But they've never had the chance! Just watch what they would do if they had an opportunity to lord it over others." I recall feeling somewhat deflated by the sentiment expressed by our esteemed professor, for at that point I shared in this idealization of the people of India. Perhaps the professor's point applies to Canada as well: it can be said of us that we have never had a chance to threaten people with "shock and awe," and so we are inclined to take refuge in the righteousness of Hegel's schoolmaster.

Even in the face of these Hegelian considerations, I feel the need to persist in my Canadian desire to define my national identity in part by the moral credit we gain from refraining from certain actions in the international arena, actions that Kant -- if not Hegel -- would consider immoral. I grant that our Canadian identity needs to consist of more than just the absence of conduct of such-and-such a sort, but I continue to maintain that our restraint earns us some genuine moral credit. In a certain sense, we are "moral highlanders" in relation to our immediate neighbors. Pascal (1623-62) would understand, for he once proclaimed: "I have discovered that all human evil comes from this, man's being unable to sit still in a room." [NOTE 7]

But some students of the Canadian psyche would tell us that this approach to Canadian identity -- however grand it may sound -- is not working. They may well be right.

One difficulty here is that absence is hard to perceive. Sometimes you walk into a familiar room from which an object that has always been present has been removed. You may sense that something is different about the room, but you have a hard time figuring out what it is. Absence is hard to perceive. Some years ago, when I shaved off the beard which I had worn for more than two decades, some people spotted the difference at once, but there were others who did not notice it at all, and then there were some who scratched their heads, as it were, and said to me that there was something different about my appearance, but they could not put their finger on it. Their puzzlement illustrated once more that absence is hard to perceive. And so, when certain forms of bad conduct are absent from our repertoire of behavior, we may not immediately get the moral credit we think we deserve. People might not notice.

This small difficulty can play a role in parenting. I believe I can say that my children grew up not hearing their father use profane language. I sometimes wonder at what point they became aware of the good example I was trying to set them. I probably reminded them once in a while that I did not use such language, thereby inviting them to reflect on what it was that I wanted them to notice. But it's also conceivable that such restraint on the part of parents escapes the attention of their children as they grow up, only to seep into their consciousness in later years, perhaps when they encounter difficulties in this area at the point in life where they have become parents and must set a good example for their own children.

And so it can be as well with the nations: good conduct in the form of restraint is not what makes the news and the history books. When one tunes into the television news, it's all the trouble spots -- terrorist attacks, unprovoked invasions, civil wars, and so forth -- that draw the attention of journalists. Countries in which there are no such conflicts are often dismissed as being of no interest. They may even be called boring: nothing seems to happen there. Some would have us believe that paying attention to such countries is like sitting in an Iowa cornfield with the intention of watching the corn grow, which might not be a whole lot more fun then watching paint dry.

I sometimes think that a better way to draw attention to morally commendable restraint in human conduct is to violate the pattern occasionally. I once performed in the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta "HMS Pinafore," in which the "gallant captain" makes much of the fact that he never swears "a big, big D." The chorus asks: "What, never?" The captain's response: "No, never!" The chorus refuses to believe it, and so it repeats its question. The "gallant captain" then admits: "Well, hardly ever!" The point is made. When we do something that is out of character for us, we draw attention to what our character actually is. An impression is then solidified.

This suggestion to the effect that an actual deed is needed to consolidate our moral standing as it relates to our identity draws on a well-known existentialist theme to the effect that man has no nature or fixed identity but is to be defined only in terms of his history -- by what he does. This theme has been articulated by Ortega y Gasset, among others. Ortega writes: "Man is what has happened to him, what he has done. ... Man, in a word, has no nature; what he has is -- history." [NOTE 8]

If this is indeed a possibility, I wonder whether it would be conceivable for us to define ourselves by what I might call our "unhistory," that is, by what we have not done. Of course Hegel and the existentialists would not be impressed. The answer to the question I am posing will depend in good measure on whether we need to be externally observed in our doing -- or not doing -- if our doing or not doing is to be able to have a substantial impact on what emerges as our identity. (Should I swear on occasion to make my children realize that I don't swear?) I'm inclined to answer this question with a yes. And if I'm correct, it will turn out that if we are to have an identity -- whether as individuals or collectively as a nation -- we need partners with whom we interact in an effort to exact recognition. Hegel would understand these things.

Returning to relations between Canadians and Americans, my line of thought would seem to point in the direction that Canadians need Americans. More specifically, I (or we) need them in two respects. The first has to do with contrast or "foil": I'm reminded of how Prince Hal, in Shakespeare's Henry the Fourth, Part One, appeals to the sun as he tries to justify his less than exemplary conduct:

I know you all, and will awhile uphold
The unyoked humour of your idleness.
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wondered at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapours that did seem to strangle him.
If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work;
But when they seldom come, they wished-for come,
And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.
So, when this loose behaviour I throw off
And pay the debt I never promisèd,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men's hopes;
And like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glitt'ring o'er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I'll so offend to make offence a skill,
Redeeming time when men think least I will.
[Quoted from Act I, Scene ii, lines 173-195]

It may turn out, then, that whereas we love to excoriate the Americans for their misconduct on the international stage, we need their misconduct so that we can build up our own moral credit as people who do not conquer Asia (so that we will be "more wondered at"). In such a way, picking up moral credit through our restraint, it becomes possible for us to scramble up to the moral highlands: then we can be comfortable looking down upon the Americans to whom we need to feel superior, for without that sense of superiority we would have only a shrunken identity.

Secondly, we need the Americans as a kind of a mirror through which we gain affirmation. I am confident that the issue of identity would not come up if the universe were so constituted that there was only one person in it. Might this realization not even be part of the meaning of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity? I believe one would find support for this line of reasoning through an analysis of Hegel's master-and-slave dialectic as presented in his Phenomenology of Spirit. [NOTE 9]

Click here to read Frictophobia.


London: Panther, 1966. The story is entitled "Flesh and the Devil," and comprises pp. 26-31.

Page 26.

Thomas Douglas (1771-1820), the fifth Earl of Selkirk, played a major role in establishing the community that grew into the city of Winnipeg. Selkirk wanted to provide new farmland for families that had lost everything in the "clearances."

See The Border (Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 2003), p. 35.

Hegel, Reason in History: A General Introduction to the Philosophy of History, trans. Robert S. Hartman (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, Library of the Liberal Arts, 1953), p. 42.

Global Disorder, (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2003), p. 33.

There are various editions and arrangements of the collection known as Pascal's Pensées. For the context of this quote, see the Penguin Classics edition, trans. A.J. Krailsheimer (revised edition of 1995), published in Book VIII, called "Diversion," p. 37, numbered as 136. Krailsheimer's wording is as follows: "... the sole cause of man's unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room."

"History as a System," trans. William C. Atkinson, published in Ortega's Toward a Philosophy of History, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1941), pp. 216-17.

See Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A.V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), pp. 111-19, where the terminology used is that of "Lordship and Bondage."

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