The Moral Bookkeeper Living Inside Us All.

Von kjg


He is not my favourite concept of self.

How we all would like to see ourselves.
Self-confident, humorous, tolerant, spontaneous.

No: he is industrious, stubborn, accurate.

Just what we all want bookkeepers to be like.

Our moral judgement takes the characteristics of the bookkeeper. It compares words and behaviour of others with our values and then assigns consequences. In doing so, we weigh things against each other like in a debit and credit account that have nothing to do with each other. In the book “Christie Malrys Double Bookkeeping”, the author asks how we deal with all the small instances of meanness we are subjected to by others on a daily basis.

This is a question that concerns all of us. He comes up with the idea of starting a life bookkeeping in the form of double accounting. The protagonist, Christie Malrys, writes down everything he experiences under “debit” and “credit”. The slights are debits and must be made up for by corresponding credits, meaning experiences that were nice (for him). For instance, Malrys comes up with the idea of paying back a neighbour who never gives him the time of day by making a scratch mark on his car. A house that he finds offensive gets a thick painted line on its façade.

You think this is over the top? Sure. Pure Fiction? No. Our double accounting wants justice and will not hesitate to apply small or embarrassing ideas. After all, our values, which have been underscored by our sense of justice, are not officially calculable or exchangeable like Euros or Dollars. They exist exclusively in our very personal exchange rate mode. The correct exchange rate lies in our eyes or perhaps in that of our reference group.

So what is the right, appropriate, just “credit” for an Islamist who sees his God exposed to ridicule? What is it for us when we see the Greek Minister of Finances show the finger at Günter Jauch’s show? Public “beheading” by TV? Higher interest and credit rates? Appealing to the public to not spend their next vacation in Greece? As it is, the slights, that is the “debits”, are at a majority in real life, and a balance sheet that is constantly in the red numbers will easily tempt us to become more and more ingenious when it comes to looking for a balance. From the perspective of the others, we get more and more spiteful and unjust. Those who spend all their time looking to balance “old accounts” will miss a lot of life looking for suitable measures.

Wherever the moral bookkeeping is especially conservative, it will not see the accounts balanced. Practicing its balancing justice, it will also demand harsher punishment. Soft or moderate punishment would debase some behaviour. Those who believe in this system think that evil deeds cannot be paid for dearly enough. Conversely, those who criticize conservative bookkeeping look upon those strategies as upvaluation of a misdeed to turn it into a rare commodity. Not everybody is supposed to be able to afford it.

There is a general disagreement about how a balancing between good and evil should be accomplished. But there is agreement that there should be some redress. Either by revenge or by mercy, but justice must be done. You have to pay back if you overbalanced on your account.

While in financial bookkeeping we have strategies for minimizing double accounting, we get an overflow when it comes to moral bookkeeping with double standards. A moralist will certainly deny ever being calculating. This would weaken his moral position. He will not even admit that human behaviour and moral values can be measured at all.

And instead of laying open the criteria for his measuring and retribution, he simply will deny having any such strategy. Behind the moral judgement is a mental concept which transports a calculation of weighing good against evil. Yet at the same time it camouflages this background concept. Moral bookkeeping will camouflage that it is bookkeeping at all.

What humans say instead was stated by George Lakoff in his disarming book “Auf leisen Sohlen ins Gehirn“ (voyage into the brain on soft shoes) like this: “I am totally aware of what I think. It is exclusively my own decision what I think and which conclusions I draw. All persons can think in the same way. And in thinking, I understand objective truths as they are found in the world. All things have a basic meaning and can thus be mentally followed as they exist. This is why I, like all other persons, can think and speak objectively.”

Well, I wish that were how it is.

(Translated by EG)

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