Doing good is like lifting weights: you have to practice

When a man makes a moral choice two things are involved. One is the act of choosing. The other is the various feelings, impulses and so on which his psychological outfit presents him with, and which are the raw material of his choice.

C.S. Lewis, “Mere Christianity”

Why does it seem that making the right choices and being good comes so easily to some, and with such difficulty to others? Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it? Some folks have had much more practice at doing good than other people have.

Doing good, or doing the ‘right thing’, is a muscle that needs training like any other. It’s ridiculous to expect that you’ll left 225 pounds on your first day of weight training, or finish a 3 hour marathon on your first day of running. Similarly, it’s unreasonable to expect that you’ll be able to practice virtuous behavior all the time, or do great deeds of charity, if you have not accustomed yourself to that mode of living and trained your mind to it.

At the same time, if you pay attention to your actions and your conscience, it’s probably easy to see that you find it trivially easy to do those things to which your conscience objects. So, the muscle of action works both ways: you can train yourself to do good, in which case you will find it increasingly easy to do good; or, you can train yourself to ignore your conscience and do bad, in which case you will find it increasingly easy to do bad.

Therefore, as we go through life and make the hundreds or thousands of choices we make each day (what should I have for breakfast? should I clean the dishes now, or leave them to later? should I give up my seat, or hold this door for the person behind me? should I clean the small spill I made in the office kitchen?), we are, without realizing it, training our moral muscles in one direction or the other. And once we realize that we’ve been training that muscle in the wrong direction for so long, and we realize just how many mistakes we’ve made, we also realize just how far we must go and how much work we must do in order to untrain that negative behavior.

Two conclusions are immediately evident from this:

First, it is vitally important to start recognizing and remedying the problem immediately. Just as the morbidly obese person who continues to eat junk food is only deferring their inevitable struggle and making their future life more difficult, so does the person who recognizes their poor behavior and chooses to ignore it. In both cases, the well-being of the individual is put increasingly at risk, and the climb back to health is made steeper and longer.

Secondly, we must not judge ourselves too harshly when we find that we struggle with simple moral decisions at the onset. Earlier I used the analogy of weight lifting. Starting a weight lifting regimen is in many senses easier than starting a regimen of moral behavior, because so many have attempted it and we can know what makes for a reasonable or unreasonable goal. Others have come before us, and documented their progress, and we can use their data to understand the journey that a weight-lifting routine might take. Yet we have very little data to draw out a map for us when we adopt a regime of morality. We must blindly choose our goals and timelines, and hope that they are neither too ambitious nor too modest. And, while every body is different and each man starts from a different ability in terms of physical strength, there is a generally well-understood range of starting strength based on your age group and level of activity. But for moral ability – ability to make and execute on good, virtuous decisions – there is no well-understood range, and I suspect that the range is much wider than for physical strength.

Therefore, since we cannot know if our goals are reasonable, but we know that we must take action now, the most reasonable path might be to set a goal that puts you ahead of where you are today, and strive towards that goal; but don’t beat yourself up if the goal turns out to be unobtainable. Rather, constantly revisit and refine your goals such that they meet that same, original requirement: set a goal to take action now, and which puts you in a place better than you are today.

This all leads to another topic: while we might be able to see in ourselves that we’re doing the best we can, given the flawed individuals we are, we cannot see into the ‘raw material’ inside others. We can only see their outward actions. And therefore we may make the mistake of judging them solely on their actions, without context that those actions might be the best they can possibly do in the moment. More on this in another post.

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