Brain-Hacking and True Virtue

In the article, The Strange Way Being “Good” Hurts Your Willpower featured on the blog Nir & Far, Paulette Perhach offers a brain-hacking solution to the human problem that the apostle Paul describes in Romans:

We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

Romans 7:14-19

Here is the gist of Perhach’s argument (also listed in her article):

  • Moralizing your choices as good or bad opens you up to the risk of moral licensing (moral leniency).
  • Berating yourself for being bad when you make the wrong choices only increases your chances of messing up again.
  • Labeling your behavior as getting you either closer or further away from your ultimate goals is a powerful way to get around moral licensing.
  • Congratulating yourself on your progress induces the effect of moral licensing. Using your progress instead to remind yourself how committed you are to your goal will re-up your willpower to achieve it.
  • Catching the inner voice berating your past behavior and turning it toward planning a different outcome for the next day will make you less likely to repeat that undesirable behavior and get what you really want in the long run.

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Sounds convenient, right? However, this current cult of brain-hacking, which is the focus of myriad recently published books, is opposed to the old paths of wisdom. Parts of these old paths are mapped out in many human traditions, but they have their full expression in the Scriptures, where they flow out of salvation by grace through faith in the crucified and risen Christ.

Brain-hacking ignores our human sinfulness and God’s moral categories of right and wrong and leads us to believe that doing what we want to do comes down to simply tricking ourselves. But, neither our sinful nature nor the image of God in us is easily deceived. Because of this, there are some issues with Prahach’s argument:

1. Brain hacks don’t change the essence of egoism and strengthening selfishness.

In its discussion of brain-hacking, what this article really gets at is egosim. Except for mentioning the effect of “moralizing” on others and the administrative right and responsibility of whomever is in charge—from a water slide attendant to God—this article essentially presents a happy-faced and presumably progressive version of Ayn Rand, stoicism, or Epicureanism (which ironically flourished in the intervening cynicism after the Geeks lost hope in finding truth from Plato and Aristotle, and before they believed in the spirituality of Christ). We humans always fall into this “science of high selfishness” whenever we have no guiding sense of wider truth or directing spiritual doctrine.

The purpose of moralizing anything is recognizing our right responsibility to others, even in our use of ourselves. For example, you don’t touch the turtle, not because he might bite your finger off, but because it might make sick the turtle that thousands of aquarium patrons are coming to enjoy. We should eat right and work out because we don’t want our kids or spouse to have to bear the costs of our health irresponsibility. We’re polite because our neighbor deserves not only our politeness, but our cheerfulness.

2. This article supports the gospel’s accusation of our self-righteousness more than it tells us about brain hacks.

The reason why we find morality exhausting and moralizing saps our willpower is because we don’t want to be good. We don’t really believe in goodness for its own sake or for God’s intentions. The article assumes we just believe in good (what the author calls “moralizing”) to affirm ourselves and others. But that’s approval, not goodness, and approval is just another form of selfishness and self-salvation. And it’s actually worse than that. Pay close attention to this paragraph:

McGonigal cites a study in her book that showed that people who felt they had expressed statements proving they cared about equality were more likely later to display sexist or racist biases. People are more likely to cheat and steal after they’ve purchased products that are good for the environment. People donate 60 percent less to charity after they’ve been primed to think about a time they acted morally.

What could be a clearer scientific proof of the doctrine of self-justification? The apostle Paul’s insight proceeded this by 2,000 years by talking about seeking approval through rule keeping. Notice that in each case, the self-justifying thought is very small, yet justifies a quite egregious moral failure: bigotry, cheating and stealing, failure of generosity. Christians must be awake to these kinds of studies in which scientists inadvertently prove something that most would never be willing to study, and that almost no one would be willing to fund. These are not human realizations we want to find out about ourselves, and our self-affirming culture will only take note of them for a moment in order to justify a fear that our selfishness may be hurting our enjoyment of our own narcissism, and that we need new brain hacks to make sure we end up happy.

It’s important that we realize how morally abominable this is, and how absolutely critical being able to think morally about the good, the true, the noble, and the beautiful in objective categories is for sinful, self-justifying, self-deceiving human beings. The objectivity of God—his creation, his rule, his declaration of our depravity, his declaration of our bearing his image, his promises, his covenants, his Christ, his written revelation, his church—is absolutely irreplaceable in directing human beings to faith and virtue. Faith, and the virtue that it creates through the Spirit, are not only necessary for forgiveness and our ultimate salvation, but also for our transformation in the present life to fulfill our created purpose.

God has given us many resources to make the arduous pursuit of virtue easier. Teaching us the truth of his law in the midst of our self-deception clarifies goodness. Saving us by grace and calling us to holiness makes seeking virtue not about our self-justification, but about goodness, truth and God himself. Christian faith has all the perks of this article’s proposed brain hacks, without the gaping and horrific liabilities of doubling down on narcissism.

3. Virtue cannot be hacked, though it can be improved by exercises.

We shouldn’t be surprised that selfishness and egoism don’t do the job of virtue. And we certainly won’t get anywhere by justifying egoism with brain hacks. Attempting to discipline or fulfill ourselves in this way has no power to fix the self-fulfilling prophesy of our own narcissism and its attending weakness.

It might be better to go back to Jesus (and Aristotle, or Seneca, or anyone who actually spent some time thinking about how people become virtuous). All of these, and many others, taught how our inner affections and conscience had to be shaped to love true good, real nobility, and sublime beauty. We must be formed to love and even worship God in our experience of these things. But if all we eat is the sugar of selfishness, we should not be surprised to find wine a difficult acquired taste. Nor should it surprise us that so many are looking for the best and most healthy sugar diet possible. This attractive and alluring futility is a universal pull of our visceral instincts and self-justifying mind, and it has been since the fall of humanity. Sadly, much of the new brain learning is being wrongly understood and obscures what all of us can know from our own conscience—and what the wise have known for at least 5,000 years.

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If we become the kind of people who love and pursue virtue, we will find the good motivating and seek virtuous humility so that our self-righteous impulse doesn’t undermine the next moment. Believe cheerfulness is inherently true, good, noble and beautiful for one day, worship the God of its beauty and goodness (rather than your self-congratulation about practicing it once to the barista), and then see how that affects your motivation to do it. Love the thing itself, and in rushes all the pleasures of being free of yourself. The philosophical and spiritual disciplines that lead us to virtue have better effects than the brain hacks that take us further into ourselves.

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