The Hudibras Strategy

C.S. Lewis was unusual among the Christian moralists of yore in holding that one ought to be cautious in condemning others for yielding to temptations from which one did not oneself suffer. In the modern idiom, one needs to have been there. In his case, he explained, the two “sins” to which he felt no attraction at all were homosexuality and gambling. Moralising about homosexual behaviour should be left to those who possessed what we would today call the homosexual orientation, and likewise for gambling; he himself flatly refused to indulge in the pleasures of moral superiority on these subjects.

I wonder whether Lewis was here influenced by the famous line in Hudibras. The Puritans, said Butler,

“compound for the sins they are inclined to
by damning those they have no mind to.”

That is to say, they purchased divine forgiveness for the sins they were inclined to (and by implication, committed) by the ferocity of their condemnation of the sins that did not attract them (and which they therefore did not commit). This is a strategy both cheap and cowardly, because one gives up nothing and confronts nothing in oneself. On the contrary, damning others is downright pleasurable. Righteous indignation is an addictive drug.

The Puritans of the English Civil War are long dead and gone. As late as the end of the 18th century, however, the visiting Schopenhauer observed that at the end of the 18th century, Anglicanism consisted in the purchase of permission for all other vices by ferocious Sabbath-keeping. The Hudibras Strategy thus lives on, and may be encountered wherever there are moralists of any kind. There is always a choice of what to wax indignant about. Not so long ago, for example, we had heterosexuals choosing fiercely to condemn homosexuals for acting on an impulse that they, the heteros, never themselves felt, while at the same time choosing not to condemn malicious gossip, an impulse that they themselves most certainly did feel.

The more thoroughly we understand the Hudibras Strategy, the more qualified we may be to detect it operating even in milieus that do not consider themselves Puritan and that do not believe in either god or sin.

Inasmuch as people have different sexual strategies, there will always be scope for vehement disapproval of whichever strategy is natural and necessary to the opposite sex but not to oneself. For example, men have traditionally moralised about female choice of sperm donor, colloquially known as infidelity, while remaining complacent about their own chronic unreliability. This female choice of impregnator can be derived from female biology as a necessary strategy for inclusive fitness, just as the male strategy can be derived from the biology into which males find themselves born.

This is excessively familiar territory; so let us turn it around. If it really is true that women generally feel no great desire to go round punching other people out, but that they do generally feel an insatiable thirst for attention, then the moral system they will devise will focus very heavily on violence but will not recognise the cultivation of narcissistic neediness as being a vice at all. Funnily enough, an ethical system that condemns physical violence but commends pathological attention-seeking under flattering new labels is the only one we now possess.

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