moral sentiments

In a 2005 episode of My Name is Earl, Brett Butler’s character, Connie, is made to say “I have to gamble Earl. I have a problem. Don’t judge me.”  Taken on face value, we know that these three assertions are just her guilt talking.  However, various versions of these emotionally-loaded words are commonplace in our public discourse.

“I have to gamble” is an interesting declaration.  It is typical of explanations widely given for many undesirable states of affairs.  They seem to get described in terms of “causes.”  Poverty, chemical imbalance, bad upbringing, ADD, genetics and peer pressure are assumed to be sufficient to produce actions in individuals.  “I have to gamble” literally denies the freedom to choose not to gamble (note: this is not an anti-gambling blog).  One wonders, if this person had a gun to their head (note: this is not a pro-gun blog, either), if they’d be able to refrain from pulling the lever on the slot machine.  It seems that this idea suggests that we are the sum of our biology and inputs and we can no more help what we do than water could help freezing at 32 degrees.  This would seem to make the punishment of crimes and the vilifying of bad behavior (whatever we can salvage of that idea) cruel and undeserved.  The perp didn’t “choose,” they were “caused.”

“I have a problem” seems to contradict “I have to gamble.”  “I have a problem” identifies two separate things – me AND the problem.  “I have to gamble” is about only me and one of my qualities.  The idea of a problem, in this sense, would seem to suggest that there is a norm and I am off of it.  It’s the first thing you learn in AA.  “I have to gamble” is a statement about what is.  “I have a problem” is a statement about what “ought” not be, as if I am not functioning according to some known specification.  This has promise.  What is dysfunctional might be able to be made whole again.  In any case, unlike the first statement, responsiblity is somewhat implied.

“Don’t judge me” is one of the more vague statements that you can have tossed your way.  What is meant?  Would we say this to a traffic court judge?  Let me tell you what I think is being said – “Don’t disapprove (I feel bad enough as it is).”  What is it about moral disapprobrium (sorry, it fit) that is so bitter that we avoid it at all costs?  It seems the modern idea of tolerance might have arisen as a reaction to negative moral sentiment.  I am considered intolerant if I think you’re wrong.  Let’s face it – there’s never any real question that someone would actually want me to “tolerate” them.  That would imply that there’s something to tolerate and wouldn’t that be offensive?!  So we must pretend.  Pretend that we have no cognizance of how people’s actions or words line up with real morality.  Pretend that morality is personal and never public.  Pretend that right and wrong are so ambiguous that “who’s to say?”

The question keeps coming into my (alleged) mind – “If there’s no standard and my moral sensibilities are illusions, who cares what I think?”  It seems that people care very much.  It seems that denial becomes the corporate duty and disapproval the only intolerable position.

Now I am aware that “I have to gamble, I have a problem, don’t judge me” means “I have a huge emotional need to gamble that kicks my better judgement’s butt.”  Wouldn’t it be great if this world was a safe place to admit that.

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