What We Are



We human beings have little comprehension of what we are. The difficulty is not that we are ignorant. It’s that we are self-deceiving. We systematically keep ourselves from understanding ourselves. We don’t do this deliberately. In order to do it deliberately we would, as Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote, have to “know the truth very exactly in order to conceal it [from ourselves] more carefully.” Instead, we do it by means of sin—by going against our honest feelings of what’s right and wrong for us to do.

Whether childishly rationalizing his moral failures or self-righteously claiming to be morally superior, the self-betrayer is blaming others and excusing or justifying himself. He can consider himself in the clear only if he can successfully find fault in others for whatever he is thinking or doing. There’s no way around this. There’s no possibility of betraying oneself without living a lie—no possibility of sinning in a straightforward, guileless, and open manner. This can be seen by considering the solution to a version of a puzzle well known to the ancient Greeks. The puzzle is this: Immorality—what I am calling “self-betrayal” and “sin” seems impossible. It seems impossible that anyone could know in his own mind what is morally right for him to do and yet not do it. When we experience a genuine prompting of conscience (there is such a thing as false or distorted conscience, and I’ll get to that later), we are in that moment obligated: we are requiring of ourselves the course of action it prescribes. (I am not saying the prompting cannot originate from a source outside ourselves, but only that whatever its ultimate origin, we in experiencing it recognize and accept its validity for us.) There is no room for wondering whether we ought to follow this course. In the very reception of a moral summons, we feel we ought to follow it.

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