Home > philosophy, sleep deprivation > I have no moral center

I have no moral center

There’s a Confucian concept, the precise spelling of which I can’t recall, that basically means “possessing such a deep understand of the rules for what is right, proper, and polite that even in an unprecedented situation, you act with moral authority and perfect correctness.”

My mother calls this “good breeding.” Being polite is knowing which fork to use, understanding the difference between “pardon me” and “excuse me”, that sort of thing. But “good breeding” is having something so deep in the bones that you act politely even when there’s no one else around.

I do not have good breeding, I suspect. But until recently, I would have told you that I have the ethical/moral equivalent of that — a moral center.  I am the kind of person who makes sure that the newby barista remembers to charge me an extra 40 cents for organic milk and I return excess change to the cashier. I actually have to plan and think about it if I am going to lie to someone because it’s so weird for me.

The past two weeks, though, I’ve decided I’ve been deluding myself.

We are, I think I’ve mentioned, in a bit of a financial crunch. Not egregious, but we could use some extra cash. Doing my periodic cleaning out of the medicine chest, I noticed some high-end pain pills left over from The Husband’s surgery in December. Now, I hung out with some druggies in college and high school and I have a (vague) idea of the street value of this quantity of these pills. Non-trivial. And for about a second, I thought about it!

Of course I would never do that. But I realized that the reasons were purely along the lines of “because it’s very bad if I get caught.” Not because “it’s wrong.” That was a bit shocking.

So was the fact that I took a gander at the pile of quarters from the co-op laundry machines yesterday (we’re responsible, as trustees, for depositing them in the bank). I thought, “You know, no one would know if we just skimmed about half of that off the top.” Then I sort of bitch slapped myself, but the thought has remained, nagging, in the back of my brain. Of course I would never do it — but when I ask myself “why not?” I come up with “Well, it would upset The Husband.” (The Husband’s moral center is like the sun — it is the center of his system and it provides the light by which he sees everything.)

Lately I’ve been blaming any defect of thought or personality on lack of sleep — because three years of only broken sleep is really debilitating — but I’m not sure that I can attribute this to mere sleep deprivation.

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  1. Anonymous for this
    March 6, 2008 at 9:18 pm

    it is very easy to chastise oneself and worry that thoughts make us bad. everyone has weird, scary, and creepy thoughts: i could turn my car into the on-coming truck, i could murder my husband in his sleep, my son will have sex one day and i wonder what he’ll tell his friends, i wonder what my dissertation adviser looks like when he has sex. These are all weird thoughts that i’ve had and i bet others have had. they are no reflection on me as a person. the difference between good and bad people, to me, is appreciating the difference between thought and action. many people restrain themselves from doing questionable things because they just don’t want to get caught. i don’t think that’s bad. i am skeptical of people who say they act for the good of all mankind or are beholden to some higher power.

    people are naturally predilected to take care of themselves and their kin, in the easiest way possible. being stressed about money, being overwhelmed with the desire to just be comfortable and not worry, wanting to give as much as possible to your child all make it easy to pay attention to all the ways you COULD make money but aren’t.

    i’ve considered selling my meds too…and i’m a therapist!! I’d never do it.

    so what i’m saying in a long-winded way is that you are a good good person because you love your people, because you want to be good, because you think about yourself and your actions and their effect upon the world!

    i hope this isn’t minimizing or invalidating. you are courageous to express this stuff outloud. brains are funny funny things. we can’t stop the weird and inappropriate thoughts that bounce in sometimes. maybe you think I’M a crackpot now! 🙂

  2. March 7, 2008 at 1:35 am

    You are obviously motivated by NEED. Being motivated by a need as opposed to greed are two different moral choices.

    The fact that you keep resisting the impulse to do what you feel is wrong is evidence that you DO have a moral center. And I would say a pretty strong one due to the trivial nature of your potential crimes and the resulting guilt.

  3. C'tina
    March 7, 2008 at 1:11 pm

    And deep down, the thought that you’d be contributing to your child’s well being with tainted money stopped you, maybe? When I get the urge to do something wrong, I think, “Everybody is someone’s baby, and I wouldn’t want anyone to do that to my baby” Even if they are adults who trusted you with the coins, or would be buying the meds, they are still someone’s baby….So, I don’t really care about others, just my own kid…this bothers me…also, “oh what a terrible web we weave…” means the same as being afraid to get caught…moral center is something we have to remind ourselves to use everyday. thanks for sharing

  4. March 9, 2008 at 5:35 am

    hunger trumps morals. it is EASY to be “moral” when the rent is paid,the medical insurance is up to date and there is enough food without counting pennies to pay for it. much harder when you do not have enough money to ride mass transit, let alone gas up the car. as long as you THINK as opposed to do, you are OK. rabbi schneerson said to a non-observant jew: i laud you. you have your center without the trappings. i need the trappings. you make your own center which is much harder.
    you have your center. you’ll be fine. no matter WHAT you do. [sigh] been there, done that. been rich, been food-stamp poor. rich is SO much better. and whoever says “as long as you have your health..” has NEVER been there.

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