Friday, November 19, 2021

There Is No Logical Explanation For This

Peace Child, Sadako Sasaki

There are plenty of reasons to be dubious about the double-edged sword of punishments and rewards, but I've been living with Natalia Ginzburg's words for some time now and as much as I objected at first, I now find myself taking comfort, even strength, from them:

And in general I think we should be very cautious about promoting and providing rewards and punishments. Because life rarely has its rewards and punishments; usually sacrifices have no reward, and often evil deeds go unpunished, at times they are even richly rewarded with success and money. Therefore it is best that our children should know from infancy that good is not rewarded and that evil goes unpunished; yet they must love good and hate evil, and it is not possible to give any logical explanation for this. (From her essay The Little Virtues)

I don't want this to be true. I recoil at the idea of living in a world without natural justice, but Ginsburg's take explains a lot. I keep waiting for evil to be punished and good to be rewarded in this life, and sometimes it seems to be, but honestly, over the arc of my time on this planet, the distribution of punishments and rewards appears to be random. The evil thrive and the good suffer.

Of course, maybe the arc of justice, as MLK suggests, is so long that it's not possible for any one of us to see it through to the end. Maybe there are punishments and rewards in the afterlife. But here on this earth, in this lifetime, Ginzurg has peeked behind the story we tell ourselves about punishments and rewards and found no cosmic tit-for-tat at work.

The Eastern tradition's concept of karma is thrown around a lot these days, but it's a notion that we in the West have mostly co-opted and misunderstood. Karma, as I understand it, is more akin to Ginzburg's idea in that when translated from the ancient language of Sanskrit from whence it derives, it comes out as "action" or "deed," and it refers to the cycles of cause and effect. Karma really isn't about punishments or rewards as much as it's about consequences. Each religion or philosophy treats it differently, of course, but the basic idea is that we, through our behaviors, either add to the collective karmic good or evil in the world.

"Good is not rewarded and . . . evil goes unpunished; yet they must love good and hate evil." In other words, we can't punish and reward our way to moral behavior. It is simply not something that can result from behaviorist  concepts of "conditioning." Certainly, we can find carrots sweet enough and sticks painful enough to control the behavior of others, but in the end of the day, if the intention is simply to avoid punishments or receive rewards, or worse, the result of pure Pavlovian conditioning, then we are not talking about morality, but rather cynical manipulation.

I don't know how to "teach" anyone to love good and hate evil, but I do know that I can choose good over evil. I haven't always chosen good in my life and I've certainly at times mistaken evil for good, but I've learned over six decades, through those cycles of cause and effect, that I love good and hate evil. And there is no logical explanation for this.

I find comfort in Ginzburg's words because, in the end, my only real moral power is to reject evil with no fear of punishment and be an example by choosing good with no expectation of reward.


"Teacher Tom, our caped hero of all things righteous in the early childhood world, inspires us to be heroic in our own work with young children, and reminds us that it is the children who are the heroes of the story as they embark on adventures of discovery, wonder, democracy, and play." ~Rusty Keeler
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