David Brooks had a very interesting column last week. He reported on some of those social science findings he finds so interesting–and I often find extremely lightweight. (Item: if you leave a plate of dollar bills in the kitchen, college students won’t steal them; but if you leave out a tray of Cokes, they will.) His basic point is that people today are willing to cheat a little bit, but not a lot. They want to maintain their self-image as a Good Person. Whereas, in centuries past, human beings knew they were Depraved Sinners, fighting daily against their inner demons as though afflicted with cancer.
The Good Person manages his or her dark side, keeping it reasonably in check. (Who defines reasonable?) The Depraved Sinner knows that every cancer cell is a tumor ready to grow.
Brooks suggests that we need external codes to keep us honest. He suggests reciting the Ten Commandments when you feel tempted.
I’m not at all sure Brooks is right about past generations fighting against sin like cancer. My reading of history is that people have always been pretty good at rationalizations, and pretty likely to think well of themselves. The story of David and Bathsheba is a classic case. The point of the story is that sin is like cancer, but it is a very unusual king that can admit it. That biblical message has always had a hard time getting heard. It still does.