I asked an atheist, “Why do you practice virtue if you don’t believe that there is such a thing as an objective moral law?” He answered very candidly:
- I live virtuously because of what it does for me. It provides psychological rest, enabling me to feel good about myself. It also improves my relationships.
Although this is true, I tend to think that his pursuit of virtue carries some deadly cargo. How? It seems like our pursuit of virtue is contaminated by our all-too-human desire for significance or righteousness. In “The Significant Life,” attorney George M. Weaver identifies the ubiquitous drive to establish our self-importance:
- Individual humans are not concerned so much about the survival of the species as they are about their personal survival or significance. In order to push ourselves beyond our confining space-time limits, we as individuals try to set ourselves apart from the rest of humanity. It is unsettling to admit that one is average or ordinary – a routine person. (7)
Weaver documents this in many ways:
- Salvador Dali once said, “The thought of not being recognized [is] unbearable”…Lady Gaga sings, “I live for the applause, applause, applause…the way that you cheer and scream for me.” She adds in another song, “yes we live for the Fame, Doin’ it for the Fame, Cuz we wanna live the life of the rich and famous.” (7)
Perhaps one reason we never achieve our longed-for significance is that it always comparative. We need to be more significant or to have more recognition than the next guy. Writer Gore Vidal had been very transparent about this:
- “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.” (58)
Eventually, its seems that this drive to establish our significance/righteousness tears at friendship, dividing instead of bringing together. The jealousy displayed by comedian Al Jolson is also reflective of the human condition:
- According to his biographer, “He once had a team of performing elephants fired because he thought the audience liked them too much.” (59)
Trying to achieve our worth, significance, or even virtuousness can become brutal and abusive. When life is about maintaining our “psychological rest” or our “good feelings” about ourselves, we can do some destructive things to ensure that these “good feelings” continue.
And it doesn’t seem to matter how successful, important, or honored we become, we always want more. The richest man in the world, John D. Rockefeller, was asked how much more money he would need to be happy. He answered, “Always a little bit more,” demonstrating that humanity is in pursuit of an unattainable goal.
In “Fame, The Psychology of Stardom,” psychologists Evans and Wilson argue:
- What we try to create… is some illusion of permanence. The desire for permanence drives people to carve their name on trees and rocks, just like the handprints on Hollywood Boulevard. We need to have an impact on life – to leave something behind us when we go. (19)
It is not enough for us to simply enjoy what we have. Our quest for “psychological rest” demands us “to leave something behind us when we go.” We even have to convince ourselves that we are leaving more behind than others. Weaver cites President Lyndon B. Johnson as an example of this:
- According to one commentator, “It is a curious footnote to history that long before he ran into trouble, Johnson had turned central Texas into a living monument to his heritage and his journey to the summit (the L.B.J birthplace, the L.B.J. boyhood home, the L.B.J. state park, the L.B.J. ranch and more).” (22)
The craving to be a somebody – to feel good about oneself - takes many forms besides the pursuit of virtue. It can embrace virtue or even vice. Weaver writes about other attempts to leave one’s mark on the world:
- In 2005 Joseph Stone torched a Pittsfield, Massachusetts apartment building… After setting the blaze, Stone rescued several tenants from the fire and was hailed as a hero. Under police questioning, Stone admitted, however, that he set the fire and rescued the tenants because, as summarized at trial by an assistant district attorney, he “wanted to be noticed, he wanted to be heard, he wanted to be known.” (44)
Evidently, this drive for significance is so powerful that it can overrule the moral dictates of conscience. One mass-murderer gunman explained in his suicide note, “I’m going to be f_____ famous.” (45)
This perverted drive for significance can even override all other affections. On December 8, 1980, Mark David Chapman, a zealous fan of the Beatle, John Lennon, first obtained his idol’s autograph before gunning him down. He explained:
- “I was an acute nobody. I had to usurp someone else’s importance, someone else’s success. I was ‘Mr. Nobody’ until I killed the biggest Somebody on earth.” At his 2006 parole hearing, he stated: “The result would be that I would be famous, the result would be that my life would change and I would receive a tremendous amount of attention, which I did receive… I was looking for reasons to vent all that anger and confusion and low self-esteem.” (47)
By attaching himself to fame of another, Chapman was able to elevate himself. Was it “low self-esteem” or merely Chapman’s way to achieve what everyone else is trying to achieve – importance and self-value? Weaver adds that:
- More than two hundred people confessed in 1932 to the kidnapping and murder of the infant son of famed aviator Charles Lindbergh. (50)
If we fail to be famous, at least we might have a crack at being infamous by attaching ourselves to fame. Could this pursuit for significance also explain why females throw themselves at the Rock Stars and the rich and famous? After all, we do not seek autographs bums but from the successful and the famous. Why? This elevate us, adding to our importance? (I like to boast that Charlie Manson had been my roommate for a few days!)
And doesn’t our craving for recognition, even for immortality, also find its more common expression among people-pleasers? Isn’t this just another way - through the esteem of others - that we achieve significance? And then we become resentful and jealous when we fail to obtain this desired commodity.
I’m suggesting that all of these drives for worthiness, recognition, approval, significance, moral adequacy, success, and even for negative notoriety are connected. But what is the common glue or the underlying cause that gives rise to these various manifestations of the drive for adequacy? Underneath, we feel morally inadequate, unworthy, and insignificant and, therefore, try to compensate for this nagging awareness. We experience guilt and shame and try to cover these destabilizing feelings with the tokens of success and significance – applause and approval. We wear designer clothing to cover up our sense of inadequacy. And when we are bested in our quest, we feel diminished as did Gore Vidal by the success of his friends.
Do we feel morally threatened? Is our sense of adequacy and worthiness threatened when we fail to live up to our moral standards? Yes! This would suggest that we are not born with a blank moral slate but a parchment filled with moral laws. In “Mere Christianity,” C.S. Lewis observed that even the atheist cannot escape the moral law that has been written on his heart:
- Whenever you find a man who says he does not believe in a real Right and Wrong, you will find the same man going back on this a moment later. He may break his promises to you, but if you try breaking one to him he will be complaining, “It’s not fair.”
Even though the atheist does not acknowledge an objective moral law, he inescapably acts as if he does. One evidence of this is the defensive excuses we make when we are accused of doing wrong:
- If we do not believe in decent behavior, why should we be so anxious to make excuses for not having behaved decently? The truth is we believe in decency so much—we feel the Rule of Law pressing on us so—that we cannot bear to face the fact that we are breaking it, and consequently we try to shift the responsibility.
We also compensate for our sense of moral inadequacy by trying to live a virtuous life, even if we don’t believe in the independent existence of virtue. I am not suggesting that there is anything wrong with this. However, if we are pursuing virtue for the wrong reasons – primarily to prove that we are good and morally adequate people – it will backfire on us and everyone around us. It will also make us intolerably self-righteous if we deem ourselves successful at proving our adequacy.
Instead, virtue must be pursued for virtue sake and not because it elevates us for the moment. (Often, the drug that elevates will also bring us crashing down.)
But why were we created to be obsessively driven to achieve significance and moral adequacy? We weren’t! We were created in such perfection that the first human couple went naked without any shame. What happened? They rebelled against God and refused to confess their sin. And this became the ultimate moral and relational Big Bang. It blew us apart from our life-sustaining relationship with our Maker where achieving significance had never been an issue. We were, therefore, banished into the very state of autonomy that we had so longed for and have been suffering ever since, awaiting the return of our Creator-Savior-Healer.