Three rolls of fencing.

Three rolls of fencing.

I was on pleasant walk to post a letter this afternoon when I had an opportunity for a short thought experiment. As I walked along the road, with the dog, I noticed that the fence at the side of the road had been removed in preparation for being replaced. Every hundred yards or so there were neatly stacked piles of fence posts and rolls of fencing; some new and some tidily rewound ready to be reused. Everything was left ready for tomorrow’s task of refencing a large field.

I looked at these piles of equipment and recalled that I need to refence or middle field and will need to do this next month before I am able move the sheep. I then had the ‘thought experiment’ – “Why don’t I steal the fencing?”. This equipment, like so many other pieces of farm equipment, had been left here unguarded and with no protection, why don’t I just take some? If would be so easy just to lift it up and take it home.

The first reason I considered was that perhaps I didn’t need or want this stuff. This was easy to dismiss. Fencing is an never ending job on farms, a bit like painting the Forth Road Bridge, once you get to one end it is time to go back to the beginning and start again. Nor was it because this material is so inexpensive as to not be worth stealing. Although fence posts are relatively cheap, the fencing itself is reasonably dear and this is a noticeable cost in the farm budget. These weren’t the reasons.

I then considered the law and issues of crime and punishment. I knew that this was against the law, as taking without permission would be stealing. However, this would only influence my decision if I had a chance of falling into the hands of the justice system. In other words, it would only be an issue if I might, possibly  be caught. The risks of this were really quite negligible. One bit of fence wire is much like any other and who would be able to prove that this was not my wire once it was on my land. No, if I stole this wire punishment by the legal system would not be my biggest concern. Punishment in another way, however, might well be the reason.

The obvious reason I don’t take the wire is because I know it is wrong and that if I acted wrongly I would feel bad. The anticipation of guilt is the main barrier to bad actions. This guilt is modulated by a number of factors but, in today’s walk, community seemed to be the biggest modifier. I know who is repairing that fence. I know who would be hurt by my actions. I know that they, like I have, had left things out because they trust that their neighbours will behave well. My guilt would be even worse if I broke this trust. My knowledge of who was involved was the biggest factor in my decision. If I did steal from them,even if they never found out I would know. This knowledge, that I had stolen from them, would be corrosive to my soul and very difficult to bear.

All our lives, from when we are able to be independant, we are trying to balance the drive to keep our individuality whilst seeking to enjoin ourselves in community. Our first step is usually to find a partner, then to create a family, while all the time trying to find a community, or kinship group, in which to thrive. It is no surprise that the Lord’s Prayer asks for “our daily bread”, rather than “my daily bread”, and to pardon “our trespasses” not “my trespasses”. We only exist, as people, when we are in relationships with others. John Donne described this well in his poem “No Man Is An Island” :-

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; 
It tolls for thee. 

But as we build bigger and bigger communities there may be a cost. The anthropologist Robin Dunbar estimated, that due to the limitations of the size of our cortex, we can only get truly to know between 100 and 200 people. This number, usually rounded to 150, is Dunbar’s Number and is the limit of people we can know in any real and significant manner. Above this number,  communities start to require stricter rules and regulations to ensure good behaviour from its members. Above this number, the knowing interaction between individuals, and filial feelings, can no longer be relied upon to ensure decent behaviour.

I found the idea of stealing the wire “unthinkable” and I believe in part this was due to my temptation occuring in a smaller community. Were I tempted in a larger group, with anonymity for me and for my victim, I am not sure I could be relied upon to behave as well. Those of us who wish people to behave well, to seek out the good, and to become better people need to think about this. Rather than devising more, strict rules, which might more strictly control behaviour, but at the expense of weakening moral abilities, we should perhaps ensure that our communities are small and human sized. In larger communities there is a danger we become a myriad of individuals, in a huge shoal of individuals, requiring supervision to ensure we don’t harm one and other. In smaller communities the instinctive urges we have to look after ourselves while working cooperatively with our fellows are well balanced and effective.  Larger societies don’t just end up concentrating power they need to concentrate power and it is for this reason that we should resist this danger.

Let’s hear it for .. .. The Superego

Let’s hear it for .. .. The Superego

It is clear that history has not been kind on Sigmund Freud. His theories have not fared well in the face of scientific enquiry and they are rarely applied in the treatment of mental illness today as they are date, often wrong and usually ineffective. However, he was an important figure in our culture’s development and his influence on opinion and attitudes is hard to overestimate. Despite the shortcomings of his theories he made many useful analogies which help us understand our psyches at some level.

His description of the psyche as comprised of three components, the Id, the Ego and the Superego,  will never be shown to have any physiological nor psychological basis but is a useful analogy to help us understand aspects of our functioning. When the doctor uses the analogy of the telephone wires to explain the nerve damage that a patient experiences they know their analogy is wrong on very many levels but it is also useful as it allows some thinking and understanding of the problem faced.

The idea that the, largely conscious, ego tries to balance the demands of our Id and Supergo in the face of the needs of outside world is a helpful way to consider our own psyches. We clearly we are born with primitive desires and appetites, only some of which we are conscious, and these can be thought of as our Id. The feelings of sexual desire, our hungers, our passions (both good and bad) can be thought of as the animus which drives us. Our conscious ego has to steer these to socially acceptable outlets and in this task it is help by the superego. This is the, partially conscious, part of our psyche which knows what we should, or ought to, do. It is the consequence of learning, firstly from our parents and later from society,  what are the good and right things to do. In the modern parlance it is our “moral compass“. It sets up ideas of right and wrong and allows us to have an ideal vision of ourselves and helps guide our actions.

Unfortunately since about the end of the 1950’s we have been living in a world in thrall to the feelings of the id. We have tended to the view that what defines us are our inner passions and drives. The “inner child” is held to be our true nature and we are encouraged to “be true to our inner selves“. But is this actually our inner self ? There are good reasons to doubt this approach.

Our primitive desires are largely innate – our sexual preferences, our tendency to anger, our hungers and tastes, our fighting response when attacked – and they do give force to much of our behaviour. But this is purely at an animal level. All animals, not just homo sapiens, have these desires to some degree or another. All animals will eat, mate, fight and flee (Though not necessarily in that order). We are different because we elect not to follow instincts. We can see a beautiful sexually enticing person and elect not to try and mate, we can see food and decide to give it to someone more needy, we can feel the fury of revenge and decide to let the law take its course. We are human because we are not driven by these passions and instincts. What the world sees and what the world judges is the skills of the ego and superego in limiting the id.

To see the id as the true self is akin to seeing the petrol as the true core of the motor vehicle. Agreed, the petrol (or some motive force) is necessary but what makes the car is the engineering and electronics that convert this to speed and comfort. On its own petrol is just a short destructive blaze. If we want to know someone’s character we need to know how they temper and direct their passions in the face of the real world and its opportunities and adversities. Our heroes are those who curbed their own urges for self protection to allow them to save others. Our saints are those who ignored their own needs and comforts in order to improve the lot of others. We never hold someone in high regard because they have high passions or are probe to their impulses. Giving in to temptation is easy, resisting it is the proof of character.

The tendency to glorify the id and define ourselves as our passions (a lot of current identity politics reduces people to a small, animal impulse), or the tendency to see our personal growth in terms of sating appetites, is a tendency which belittles us as a species. It is ignores what is unique and great about us. Our ability to do things because they are right, despite them being difficult or carrying a personal cost, is our stamp. Self-control, planning, perseverance and prudence are signs that we are behaving as humans. It is no surprise that the seven virtues are descriptions of when we resist our urges, while the seven vices describe when we fail to do so.

We need to see through this infantile fad of revering our animal instincts and start to recognise our human abilities. We need to start to praise women and men with fortitude and prudence, or self-control and charity. It is people with these natures that will allow us to develop our society and culture. We will never be free from the devil on our left shoulder but we need to try and listen to the angel on our right.


All fur coat and nae knickers.

When I saw the Daily Prompt today was “ostentatious” this stirred something inside of me. As someone who was born and brought up in Scotland, and who now lives in Wales, this is possibly one of the worst, possible sins. I grew up with repeated warnings against the sins of pride and greed. It seemed to combine both the sin of pride and also that of greed or avarice.

Ostentatious displays of wealth were considered both vulgar and morally wrong. It was held to be bad form to display one’s wealth for two reasons. Firstly as it was rarely the case that wealth was imply earned by ones own endeavours; often accidents of birth or fortune, or the endeavours of co-workers and friends, underpinned the wealth, and on some occasions the source of the wealth was frankly underhand and at the expense of someone else. Secondly, it was generally held that, in a society with noticeable inequality, it might be seen as cruel or unpleasant to make lavish displays of wealth or consumption when there were others in straitened circumstances and in need.

Therefore when I see ostentatious behaviour I still find it jars with me and makes me feel less about the person behaving thus. Even when this conspicuous consumption involves good works, or charity, I find it difficult to feel benevolent to the donor,  tending to side with the New Testament’s instruction (Mathew 6:2-4) to donate quietly and unobtrusively .. ..

So when you give to the needy, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be praised by men. Truly I tell you, they already have their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.…

However, I feel that my feelings tend also to date me. I seem to harking back to an older time before we had the exhortation that “if you’ve got it flaunt it“. Today, it appears that displays of wealth are something to be admired if my reading of the popular TV programmes is correct. The whole point of “Real Housewives”, The Kardashians and other reality programmes seems to be to wallow in the apparent success of others. If I felt that this inspired ambition I could perhaps feel better that it might act as a spur to endeavour by others, but I fear that it may simply act as fuel for envy by others, which is to no ones benefit.

Envy, pride, and avarice I seem to be recalling the moral teaching of when I was young. These were things to avoid if one wanted to be a good and proper person. Now they seem to be, at best, minor discretions and, at worst often promoted as virtues. How the world has changed – I recall decadence meaning decay, decline and deterioration now it appears to be a virtue and a way to sell a chocolate ice-cream.

via Daily Prompt: Ostentatious