The Winter of Our Discontent and our identity

woodFor the past several years I have required students in my applied ethics course to read John Steinbeck’s book, The Winter of Our Discontent. The story, which takes place in the early 1960s in a fictional East Coast town called New Baytown, is about the moral decline of a man named Ethan. At the beginning of the book Ethan is content and has a reputation for integrity. By the end of the book Ethan has engaged in a number of morally corrupt activities in order to obtain wealth and status.

I like the book because it is one of the best novels showing the dilemma people face when tempted to do bad things and the heartache people inevitably feel because of their actions. Steinbeck takes us into the mind of Ethan as he rationalizes what he does. “What are morals? … Is there a check in men, deep in them, that stops or punishes? There doesn’t seem to be,” says Ethan. That’s a scary way to justify one’s behavior.

The class discussions of this book are always interesting. Students generally agree that the things Ethan did were wrong and that Steinbeck did a good job in showing that happiness in life does not come from doing bad things to get ahead or merely from the acquisition of wealth. However, students differ in the lessons they learned from the book.

Some students drew connections with teachings from their parents and churches about the importance of doing good and being good, even when others around us are not.

Some students felt that experience is the best teacher in life. That is, we learn right and wrong by choosing wrong and then by seeing that it does not get us what we expected. Only rarely can one be “taught” that something is wrong and that such teaching will be sufficient to keep us on the moral high ground. In other words, the only way we can learn that stealing is wrong is to steal, get caught and be punished. Having someone who says they know better and who tells us it is wrong and that we can never “prosper” by stealing is not good enough.

Some students believed in the power of example and of a good role model. If there is someone we admire who behaves ethically, then we might be more inclined to avoid the temptations to lie, cheat and steal. But what if we associate with people who do not value integrity?

An important lesson is where our sense of identity comes from. If we require validation from others, then we will be susceptible to pressures to acquire riches at any cost. That is, we will become like Ethan. You’ll have to read the book to understand why. (The book would carry a PG rating for adult themes and mild language.)

An alternative objective would be to find validation from within, or, better yet, to consider “what thinks God of me?” There is an extensive scholarly literature on the subject of religiosity and identity. Scholars have noted that religions provide a strong effect on the way people see themselves and the world. But that can come at a cost, for example, if one’s religious identity is threatened by intergroup conflict. When one’s religion is attacked, then having an identity too strongly tied to the religion may create a risk that people will take extreme actions in order to protect their identity and worldview (see, for instance, a paper entitled “Religiosity as Identity: Toward an Understanding of Religion From a Social Identity Perspective.” But havin51lkrhfbuelg one’s sense of identity tied to one’s religion is not the same as considering “what thinks God of me?” An excellent religious perspective of this theme is here. I’m also reminded of a wonderful book, You Are Specialby Max Lucado, that makes the same point.

I know I’ve gone off track a bit, since I started this post with Steinbeck’s book. But since my identity is not based on what I think others think of my blogging, I guess it doesn’t really matter.

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Author: Harvey James

Professor, Agricultural and Applied Economics, University of Missouri Editor-in-chief, Agriculture and Human Values

1 thought on “The Winter of Our Discontent and our identity”

  1. Have you read Al Bandura’s new book on moral disengagement? He tries to understand how it is that “good” people can behave in morally reprehensible ways. David, his parents, and I had an interesting discussion with Al about it. I argued that a person can’t be morally good if they behave in immoral ways by definition, but Al believes that morally good people can sometimes disengage their morality, yet still be morally good.

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