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I'm a college professor — I have been for almost a decade. I work reasonably hard at my job, and I think I do it fairly well. In fact, in my honest and solitary moments, when there's no occasion for false humility, I'd say I'm a better-than-average teacher.
I'm in good company. A recent study revealed that 94 percent of the people who do what I do think they're doing a better-than-average job. And it's not just college professors. "A survey of one million high-school seniors found that 70 percent thought they were above average in leadership ability, and only 2 percent thought they were below average. In terms of ability to get along with others, all students thought they were above average, 60 percent thought they were in the top 10 percent, and 25 percent thought they were in the top 1 percent!" Clearly, a lot of people are wrong about how they stack up in comparison with their peers.
Fortunately, I'm not one of them. Am I?
What's going on? These are intelligent and often self-reflective people. Many of them are aware of statistics like the ones I've just cited. For some of them, the evidence against the suggestion that they're doing a better-than-average job is fairly straightforward. Still they persist in their belief. They discount or ignore the evidence suggesting less-than-stellar job performance (negative course evaluations, people falling asleep in class, low course enrollments, bad test results) and find unusual standards against which to judge their work. But they seem utterly oblivious to the fact that they're doing this. They are the victims of a completely successful sham and deserve our pity. Except for the fact that there's nobody to blame for the lie but them. If they're to blame, should we still pity them?
But who can blame them, really? They've got an amazingly good thing going when you stop to think about it. It's hard work being a genuinely better-than-average college professor. It's hard to engage thoughtfully with the forty-third paper in the stack on Plato's Republic — most of them written in the wee hours of the morning they were due. It's hard work getting to know the quiet student — the one who sits in the middle of the far left side of the classroom — to get to know her well enough to really help her along with her thinking. Connecting with students often means time with them beyond what we do together in the classroom — a movie night to discuss The Matrix at your house on a Wednesday night, say, or attending the Collegiate Cheese Club society meeting that begins after you're usually in bed.
And what do you get in return for your effort? There isn't much money in it. And if your field is relatively obscure (mine's philosophy), you can forget about fame. At best, you get to go through life with a certain satisfaction in the realization that your job is important and you're doing it well. But suppose you could have that same experience of satisfaction without all the hard work of becoming (and continuing to be) a genuinely better-than-average college professor? If you could convince yourself that you were better than average, you could enjoy all the benefits of theft over honest toil. The one catch is that you'd have to do all of this convincing without catching yourself in the act. If you caught yourself in the lie, you'd miss out on the satisfaction that comes from believing, really believing, that you're doing a better-than-average job.
So lots of college professors have taken the deal. And it's not terribly shocking that they have. It is, after all, a pretty good deal. What is surprising is that they are able to pull it off — that they are able to tell themselves the lie without catching themselves in the act. And what's alarming is that if I had taken the deal, it would seem to me (as it does in fact seem to me) that I had not.
As it turns out, a fair bit of our felt well-being is dependent on our beliefs. In this case, what I believe about my job performance has a direct bearing on my sense of well-being. I feel better when I believe that I'm doing my job well. But other beliefs affect my well-being too. I believe that I'm in a vibrant, growing marriage with a beautiful woman who has been (and continues to be) faithful to me, that I have friendships that are — some of them, anyway — deeper and richer than your average friendship, and that my friends and my wife love me with something that approximates unconditional love. I believe that I'm relatively free of egregious racial bias — the kind that leads people to think reprehensible thoughts about and do reprehensible things to each other. I believe that I've successfully come over from being a "non-Christian" to being a "Christian" and that I'm making some progress toward maturity in Christ. I believe that God's not presently calling me to missionary work in Africa and that if he did call me to missionary work in Africa — if it was a very, very clear call — I'd go (or at least I'd seriously consider it). I believe that I can honestly sign the doctrinal statement that you have to sign in order to work at the Christian institution where I teach — that I really do believe everything it says I believe. These are just a few of the beliefs that contribute noticeably to my sense of well-being. There are many more.
Each of these beliefs offers me a certain kind of satisfaction. A discovery to the effect that I was in error about any of them would be pretty upsetting. If I discovered that the seeming depth of my friendships was a sham, I would be significantly disappointed. If it dawned on me that my marriage had been stagnant (or worse) for the last decade, I would be crushed and disillusioned. A discovery to the effect that I could not honestly sign that doctrinal statement would be a source of deep anxiety and fear about my future job prospects. To discover that I'd not been making any progress in the last ten years toward maturity in Christ would depress me to no end. And what would it say about me if I were not ready to go to Africa if God really did call me there?
Here again, life offers me a deal. The beliefs I have about myself and others do not need to be true to bring me satisfaction. I only need to believe them. Sustaining depth of friendship is hard work — as is growing in Christ. Our best counselors tell us that unguarded marriages trend toward stagnation or worse, and I suppose one doesn't become the kind of person that can drop everything and follow God's call to Africa overnight. If I could somehow convince myself that I were succeeding on each of these fronts, I could enjoy all of the benefits of theft over honest toil. Again, the one catch is that I'd have to convince myself that these successes are truly successes without catching myself in the act. If I caught myself ignoring or mishandling evidence toward this end, the game would be up and I'd miss out on the opportunity to believe, really believe, all of these things it gives me such deep satisfaction to believe.
So it shouldn't be a shock to discover that many have taken the deal with respect to beliefs like these. In fact, most of us could identify people (other people, of course) who've done just exactly that. We call them "self-deceived," and we feel a mixture of pity and reproach for them. Again, it's not so surprising that there are folks who take the deal. What's surprising is that they're able to pull it off — that they can manage to actually believe these things in the face of evidence (obvious to everyone but them) to the contrary. And what's alarming is that, had I taken the deal, it would seem to me (as it does in fact seem to me) that I had not.
Self-Deception in the Christian Tradition
Philosophers, social scientists, and psychologists have long been aware of the pervasive reality of self-deception. For centuries, it has been called upon to explain various forms of irrationality and dysfunction. Interestingly, it has also been called upon to explain survival and success in a variety of contexts. Historically, few masters of Christian spirituality have failed to notice the significance of self-deception. Christian thinkers through the ages have had a special interest in the bearing of self-deception on the Christian life and the pursuit of — or flight from — God, and it has long served as a key element in the explanation of sin, moral failure, and the avoidance of God.
The prophet Jeremiah reminds us that the heart is deceitful above all things and asks, rhetorically, "who can understand it?" (Jeremiah 17:9). The prophet Obadiah identifies a primary motive for self-deception: "Your proud heart has deceived you ..." (Obadiah 3). The apostle Paul explains in his letter to the Galatians how self-deception enables those who are nothing to think that they are something (Galatians 6:3), and in his rather depressing description of the flight from God in the first chapter of his letter to the Romans, he gives us the following:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; for though they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. (Romans 1:18-21, emphasis added)
In his first pastoral letter, John calls on the language of self-deception in an attempt to explain our flight from repentance: "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us" (1 John 1:8). Thomas Aquinas picks up the theme and suggests that "ignorance is sometimes directly and intrinsically voluntary, as when one freely chooses to be ignorant so that he may sin more freely." For Bishop Joseph Butler, an eighteenth-century philosopher and theologian, the "self-flattering forms of self-deception" explain a great deal of the wickedness that we encounter in the world. So significant is the danger of self-deception for Butler that he devotes three of his major sermons to the topic.
Strangely, though, sustained discussion of the human propensity towards self-deception has all but disappeared from twentieth-century analyses of the spiritual life. There are, of course, still specialists in philosophy and psychology working out the details. But, for most of us, self-deception simply doesn't jump immediately to mind as a significant element in the explanation of our experience. We rarely think of it. Lots of people I talk to have never so much as considered the possibility that they've fallen prey to it in any significant way. One is reminded here of the haunting suggestion in Bishop Butler's tenth sermon that "those who have never had any suspicion of, who have never made allowances for this weakness in themselves, who have never (if I may be allowed such a manner of speaking) caught themselves in it, may almost take it for granted that they have been very much misled by it."
Deceiving Ourselves About Self-Deception
What happened? How did we lose sight of this phenomenon that plays such a significant role in the historical understanding of Christian experience? For reasons that will become clearer as we move forward, understanding how we lost sight of self-deception will position us nicely to reconsider it. Paradoxically, it was a historical overemphasis on self-deception as a moral vice that led to its disappearance from the horizon of our conscious self-awareness. Put differently, it's because we made too big a deal of it that we stopped thinking of it altogether.
Until recently, Christian thinkers have warned against self-deception primarily because of its ability to facilitate more serious sin. There is a kind of wrongdoing which is possible only after you've convinced yourself to believe certain things — that a greater good is served, that the people you're mistreating somehow deserve it (or aren't really persons at all), that the pain you're causing is less severe than it is, that you have no viable alternatives, and the list goes on. As Mike Martin explains,
Evading self-acknowledgment of our faults enables us to avoid painful moral emotions: guilt and remorse for harming others; shame for betraying our own ideals; self-contempt for not meeting even our minimal commitments. We also bypass the sometimes onerous task of abiding by our values and manage to sin freely and pleasurably. We avoid the need to make amends and restitution for the harm we do. And, above all, we maintain a flattering self-image while pursuing immoral ends, often in the name of virtue.
Martin goes on to illustrate the point with reference to the memoirs of Albert Speer, Hitler's powerful minister of armaments and war production. Speer was a "talented architect and bureaucrat, a loving family man, and considerate to his circle of peers." How, then, could he possibly bring himself to the assigning of prisoners to the torture of Auschwitz? In his own telling of it, Speer refused to investigate the happenings at Auschwitz and elsewhere. He diverted his attention so thoroughly and systematically as to render psychologically manageable what would have been morally unthinkable if confronted squarely. Life cut him a deal: refuse to be convinced that the goings-on at Auschwitz are monstrous — believe instead that they're not so bad as all that — and you can experience the satisfaction that comes from believing that you're not a moral monster. He took the deal.
Closer to where we live, consider John, a nineteen-year-old Christian college student who spends considerable energy organizing his day with an eye toward getting time alone with his computer in his dorm room. If he's at all globally aware, he has good reason to think there may be some connection between the pornography he's consuming and the global sex-slave crisis that feeds the industry. But he's a morally decent person with basically normal moral sensitivities. If he fully acknowledged the horrific realities of the slave trade responsible for the production of images like the ones he's consuming, he couldn't live with himself — or the images would no longer serve their intended purpose. There are those, of course, who've tragically lost even this basic level of moral sensitivity. For them, no self-deception is needed; they can live with themselves in full conscious recognition of their contribution to the industry of sexual slavery. Ironically, though, it is precisely the genuine moral sensitivity of the average consumer that creates the need for self-deceiving ignorance of the causal history of the pornography he consumes. So life cuts him a deal: refuse to be convinced that there is a tight connection between these images and the horrors of the sex-slave industry — believe instead that these images were created in morally neutral circumstances — and you can experience the satisfaction that comes from believing that you've not been complicit in those horrors.
So, to be sure, self-deception often facilitates significant wrongdoing.
An interesting thing happened, though, with the rise in prominence of the philosophical movement called existentialism. Existentialism is notoriously difficult to define to everyone's satisfaction — and, fortunately, it needn't be defined precisely for the purposes of this discussion. Only this much of it needs to be understood: beginning with Kierkegaard, the existentialists (including Sartre, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and others) elevated authenticity to a place of primary importance in their understanding of the virtues. Due to the writings of the existentialists and other cultural trends, the "Good Person" was increasingly understood to be the "Authentic Person." Being true to oneself became a — or, in some cases, the — chief good. Self-deception, then, was given a promotion in the ranking of vices. What was once a derivative vice — one whose primary importance was found in its ability to facilitate other, more serious, vices — became itself the most egregious of all sins.
Excerpted from i told me so by Gregg A. Ten Elshof Copyright © 2009 by Gregg A. Ten Elshof. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted February 20, 2010
At the beginning of the book and throughout, the signs of self-deception in ones own life become apparent. I began thinking about how this really affects my life and how it is easily brushed off in some instances. The real kicker was toward the end of the book (three good ideas) and how to apply this information to life. It is a book I'll keep in my permanent library to refer to again and again.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.