Sunday, March 18, 2012

Deciding Rightly, Deciding Wrongly

I will let James set the stage for this post: "Let four men make a tour in Europe. One will bring home only picturesque impressions -- costumes and colors, parks and views and works of architecture, pictures and statues. To another all this will be non-existent; and distances and prices, populations and drainage-arrangements, door- and window-fastenings, and other useful statistics will take their place. A third will give a rich account of the theatres, restaurants, and public halls, and naught besides; whilst the fourth will perhaps have been so wrapped in his own subjective broodings as to be able to tell little more than a few names of places through which he passed. Each has selected, out of the same mass of presented objects, those which suited his private interest and has made his experience thereby."

I can only speak for myself, but my initial thought was that the final man had the worst experience of the three. I do not mean worst in the sense that he did not enjoy himself, but instead that there was a right way or at least a spectrum of "rightness" regarding having this experience, and compared to the other men's experiences, his was somehow wrong. James certainly appears to support this claim; "The man of genius is he who will always stick in his bill at the right point, and bring it out with the right element..." (12). And earlier, he says, "The most important element of these fringes is, I repeat, the mere feeling of harmony or discord, of a right or wrong direction in the thought" (10).

What is it, then, that makes one man in one situation make one choice-- the "right" one-- and another man in the same situation make another-- the "wrong" choice? Is the second man not attuned to the "harmony" of his thoughts? Or is his "harmony" of a lesser quality than the first man's? And in either case, how could we blame the second man or praise the first if their thoughts are comprised of their experiences and determined by mere "habits of attention" (12)? I am sounding like Schopenhauer here, who James criticizes; "Schopenhauer, who enforces his determinism by the argument that with a given fixed character only one reaction is possible under given circumstances, forgets that, in these critical ethical moments, what consciously seems to be in question is the complexion of the character itself. The problem with the man is less what act he shall now resolve to do than what being he shall now choose to become"(13). My question is this: is "what being he shall now become" really a choice one can make? It seems to me that deciding "what act [I] shall now resolve to do" is in quality no different a thought than deciding "what character [I] shall now become," and so there seems an injustice here. The assumption one makes in calling one choice "right" and another "wrong" is that every man understands this distinction and that rightness is absolute. James doesn't deal in absolutes, so I don't understand how rightness and wrongness figures into his discussion, and if rightness and wrongness are subjective, as he seems to say, than it would follow that we could not fault someone for making the wrong choice-- to wrap this up, we couldn't fault the fourth vacationer, for example, for having his detached and somber experience.

And yet, it seems, we still do.

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