27 December 2007

Morality is focus

William James said it, in The Principles of Psychology (1890): the whole of the moral life is a matter of focusing the mind.

The actual quote is: "To sustain a representation, to think, is, in short, the only moral act, for the impulsive and the obstructed, for sane and lunatics alike."

Here's a simple example. I may need to get up at a certain time in the morning to get a job done. Ah, but the simple act of rolling over and getting out of bed requires that I focus on doing so. There are much more interesting pleasant subjects of focus -- the warmth of the blankets, for example, and the pleasant possibility that my early morning duties might turn out to be not so important after all.

If I sustain the thought, keep the focus, on getting out of bed and on with my day, and assuming of course that my nervous system is in a healthy state -- I will get out of bed.

Likewise with the rest of the day. Sustaining a representation, focusing my thoughts ... that is the key.

So, why are you surfing about reading blogs? Don't you have work to do? Focus!


Henry said...

In what sense does James use the word "moral"? It doesn't seem to be the ordinary sense, because the job you may need to get done might be in a Nazi concentration camp.

Christopher said...
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Christopher said...


You've put your finger on a crucial ambiguity in the passage, which I like to think of as the exoteric and esoteric meanings thereof.

In this context and in some others where James uses the term, the most obvious meaning of "moral" is a subjective one -- a course of action is moral to the extent that the actor thinks it so. Even if an individual's ideal is " to save the Aryan race from the machinations of the Jews" or "to take the Black Hills away from the Sioux," the ideal comes within the realm of morality subjectively understood.

To this extent, James' point was that whatever you want to do in the world, the doing of it will prove one and the same with the ability to sustain attention, to hold an idea in your mind as against distraction.

Remember that James also famously proposed a sort of Peace Corps program, calling it the "moral equivalent of war." He didn't mean that draining swamps and paving roads etc. was on the same moral plane objectively considered as waging war. Clearly he considered the former a morally better thing than the latter. So why "equivalence"?

He meant that it would be another way, aside from soldiering, to put to use the energies, restlessness, and ambition of young men. Another way to give them focus.

I do think, though, that there is a more esoteric level here at which James was anticipating Hannah Arendt on banality. The people who run concentration camps don't give much concentrated (excuse the pun) thought to what they're doing. Thinking leads to morality in the objective sense of the term as well.

Though we have to say of the latter point, at the least, "not necessarily." Whatever one might say of Eichmann, Nazis such as Heidegger, Von Braun, Ezra Pound, were in their various respects hardly thoughtless or banal.

Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.