Thursday, October 7, 2010

You don't have to be moral... just be clean

“So great is the effect of cleanliness upon man, that it extends even to his moral character. Virtue never dwelt long with filth; nor do I believe there ever was a person scrupulously attentive to cleanliness, who was a consummate villain”

- Count Benjamin Thompson Rumford

With such a pompous name and dainty opinion, I’m sure this gentleman was every bit dedicated to the virtuous act of cleansing away his genuine and more often, imagined sins. The dust and dirt of the world must have stained his clean soul leaving him with a lingering feeling of bruised morality until of course, his next bath time. I must admit, I am being a little cruel. Here I am, in my own self-important way poking fun at a long deceased fellow who in his current state is powerless to prove me otherwise.

To be fair, religious texts are ripe with phrases upholding cleanliness as being equal to moral purity. The Quran states that “God loveth the clean”, the Talmud claims that “cleanliness falls into godliness” and the Bible declares that sins can be washed away. Now, I can appreciate metaphorical eloquence (something which I cannot help but note eluded dear Count Benjamin Thompson Rumford) and in no way do I claim that these phrases are literal, but symbolism often rises beyond the descriptive orb.

Take for instance, the Hindu caste system. The ‘Untouchables’ are a group of unfortunate individuals left to dwell outside the caste structure. Although being at the bottom of the caste structure is not particularly appealing, being entirely rejected by it is even worse. The ‘Untouchables’, according to O’Neill from National Geographics are considered impure, dirty and polluted inherently as well as in association with the ‘unclean’ work that they do such as handling blood and excrement. They are excluded from temples for fear that they will pollute the sacred sanctuary and members of the caste system are wary of eating food prepared by an Untouchable or marriage with an Untouchable. It appears that such physical contact may render them morally polluted also. So, dirt and dust may actually carry with them grains of sin. But are dirty people really morally impure? And, are clean people morally pure, or paradoxically, is the opposite true?

It seems that cleanliness creates a sense of moral purity but that this alas, does not transform into zealous moralistic behaviour. In fact, it appears that the opposite occurs. Psychologists Zhong and Liljenquist (2006) got one group of their participants to wash their hands and another group not to. They then presented them with a false volunteering opportunity (psychologists can be quite deceitful). What they found was that volunteering dropped by almost 50% when participants washed their hands! Who knew washing one’s hands could have such dire consequences for the well-being of society.

Being moral seems to be less about good deeds and more about having a good shower. Count Benjamin Thompson Rumford must have been a very clean chap indeed, with the highest opinion regarding his own moral integrity while contributing very little to benefit society. If only he knew that his esteemed cleanliness potentially crippled the manifestation of all that moralistic fervour. But, of course, we cannot blame a man for lacking insight into future discoveries. The influence of this cunning metaphor is left in your hands to dissolve. So, at some point if you find yourself consumed with the longing to do good deeds, discard any desire to cleanse yourself, ignore those posters in public toilets that tell you to be sensible and wash your hands. It is not sensible, it will result in you feeling a sense of moral purity far than what you rightfully deserve and will have you praising cleanliness as being next to godliness with the same reverence displayed by the Count.