In response to the question, “What were they thinking?” Christopher Buckley argues that the same substance propelling the success of men such as John Edwards, Mark Sanford, and Tiger Woods also detonates their spectacular flame-outs. “The very drive that propels these people to reach the top of their fields,” Buckley observes, “is accompanied by high levels of testosterone.” This surplus of testosterone, he claims, stays with these men once they have achieved success, and “it spills over, often with unfortunate, or even calamitous, effect.”
Buckley admits that he is no tower of virtue himself, but he notes in his defense that he has never run for public office. Having appealed to a universally acknowledged standard of behavior, Buckley cites not running for public office as his “special reason in this particular case” why “what he has been doing does not really go against the standard or that if it does, there is some sort of special excuse,” as C.S. Lewis described. For Buckley, being a humorist instead of a politician is some sort of special excuse.
Men with a superabundance of testosterone demonstrate a drive toward dominance or “killer instinct” that helps them reach the top of their professions. As an unhappy corollary, however, this competitiveness and need to lead can imperil their marriages. They are also prone to riskier and less healthy behavior.
These men “simply don’t get it,” according to Buckley. He asks, “why do politicians again and again and again — and again seem to think they are going to get away with it?”
Yet why do any of us think that we can get away with it? The issue of “what were they thinking” encompasses more than sexual misdeeds, Americans, or politicians. Recently, Margot Kassman, the head of the German Lutherans (overseeing 25 million Lutherans) resigned from her post after her arrest for running a red light while loaded with five times the legal limit of alcohol in her blood.
While our mistakes vary in type and degree, they all share a common theme: we know there is a standard, and we fail to measure up. What we do with this realization ultimately controls how we live our lives.
“the slaughter of other ‘tribes,’ the enslavement of the survivors, the mutilation of the genitalia of children, the burning of witches, the condemnation of sexual ‘deviants’ and the eating of certain foods, the opposition to innovations in science and medicine, the mad doctrine of predestination, the deranged accusation against all Jews of the crime of ‘deicide,’ the absurdity of ‘Limbo,’ the horror of suicide-bombing and jihad, and the ethically dubious notion of vicarious redemption by human sacrifice.”
But how does he determine that these actions are immoral?
Buckley’s argument belies a personal hope to find an easy answer. If testosterone is the cause, personal responsibility wanes and there may be a pharmacological solution to these flames-outs. As George Will said of behavior and causation:
“It is scientifically sensible to say that all behavior is in some sense caused. But a society that thinks scientific determinism renders personal responsibility a chimera must consider it absurd not only to condemn depravity but also to praise nobility. Such moral derangement can flow from exaggerated notions of what science teaches, or can teach, about the biological and environmental roots of behavior.”
Or, as Lewis said, if the human idea of decent behavior was not obvious to every one, then “all the things we said about [World War II] were nonsense”:
“What was the sense in saying the enemy were in the wrong unless Right is a real thing which the Nazis at bottom knew as well as we did and ought to have practiced! If they had no notion of what we mean by right, then, though we might still have had to fight them, we could no more have blamed them for that than for the color of their hair.”
If Buckley is correct that testosterone is to blame, then there can be no praise of good behavior and no condemnation of bad behavior. In the core of our beings, we know this is not true and we do not act this way, except when we try to find excuses for our own behavior. This problem needs a solution.
Many of us believe the solution happened two thousand years ago.