There are many habitual actions in life like driving a car or writing which become habitual and drop away from the surface of consciousness; we can do them without much effort and become at ease with them. Because we are at ease with them we have the illusion that they get better.
We see this clearly in the case of handwriting, which steadily degenerates from the carefully formed letters we make at school through to the scrawls of student days, and then to the almost incomprehensible jottings later on in life, when we no longer form many of the letters properly. These are often difficult to read except by someone who is quite familiar with the writing. Without conscious practice towards a definite model, the edges of precision gradually become blunt, and, moreover, the monitoring function is not used and thus becomes dull. This can apply in the moral field also.
When we are young we often have a keen sense of right and wrong. Then we join a company, and we find that everybody is stealing some of the paper and the envelopes and so on, and because everybody is doing it, the edges of our moral sense become blunt. We think: ‘Well, we have to get on with people.’ Someone who is very honest is not much liked. Of course we have no need to preach honesty but we should not do those things which our teacher says will degrade us. However, we must also be prepared to be disliked for it.
I remember a brief conversation with a commander in the Royal Air Force in war-time – an heroic character – who was a pupil of the same teacher as myself. He asked the teacher: ‘When I am flying, many birds are killed. I feel a certain sense of regret at this, do you think in any way it is wrong?’ The teacher said to him: ‘Do you feel you are degraded by doing this?’ The airman replied ‘Well, no. There is a war on which, in my opinion, concerns a vital question of principle, so I don’t feel degraded.’
The teacher said: ‘Then it is all right, don’t voluntarily do things which you feel degrade you.’
© 1999 Trevor Leggett
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