12/21/2010 09:46 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

An Advent Reflection: Can God or Obama Help Me Do the Right Thing?

At the advent of Advent, I was inspired by my local priest, Father Mike, to eat better, become thrifty, help the poor in my community and, overall, lead a more virtuous life. Not later--now.

But then came a pumpkin role from my mom, the Christmas lists from my kids, that Satellite radio I just had to have, and so many others around me taking good care of the poor. Coming closer to the close of Advent, I'm now thinking this will be a great New Year's resolution, one I will definitely keep. I'm reminded of, perhaps exonerated by, St. Augustine, who famously said, "Lord, make me chaste--but not yet." In fact, perhaps I'll become a saint, too.

But the odds aren't so good, as I keep hearing from these grim yet fashionable "behavioral economists," who weren't around when I first seriously examined the good life as a graduate student in ethics 20 years ago. In their view, human beings are irrational, reliably acting against our own self-interest by letting things like inertia, emotions and even fantasies guide our behavior. Sorry, Socrates: To know the good is not to do the good.

How can this be? The problem is, the human "default" setting--what Reinhold Niebuhr calls our "predisposition to sin," or Friedrich Schleiermacher calls our "propensity to sin"--needs to be reset. So I guess I need to "opt-out" of the human condition.

Gandhi, Jesus and perhaps a few others managed to do that, I'm not so sure about me. Apparently I need what these vogue economists call a "soft paternalist," if not to opt-out of the human condition to at least, like Nietzsche's ubermensch, help me overcome it.

So who is this paternalist, the one who can save me from myself? The Obama Administration would like to be. The President, in fact, recruited an entire army of behavioral economists who are busy "nudging" us to improve our health, wealth, and happiness. As I understand it, they're restricting our choices, and sometimes boldly making the initial choice--the "best" one--for us. Apparently, these "choice architects" have shoved, not nudged, the invisible hand out the way so that we actually make the choices we want to make, leading to a better society overall. Lose some freedoms and lose a few pounds seems to be the deal.

Others say God, or (in my case) God working through Jesus, is that paternalist. This effort is even better staffed than the Obama Administration, with envoys here at my church in St. Louis and in every corner of the world. The Church isn't trying (nor has the power) to restrict my freedom, but wants to lead us to the good life by the example of Jesus, who we believe always made the right choice. Turns out the behavioralists, too, have learned that "following the crowd" is a great human motivator, one the Obama campaign used brilliantly (and may need to use again) to get out the vote, raise money, etc.

So with two noted paternalists, God and Obama, trying to orient me toward the light, will I succeed? I'm not sure. What I am sure about, however, is that I've thought too much about doing the right thing instead of simply doing it. I'm reminded of that touching scene in Anna Karenina, where Levin (Tolstoy), philosophizes endlessly about death but is completely immobilized and helpless as his brother Nicholas lies on his deathbed, while two women, Kitty and Agatha, beautifully comfort him without thought or hesitation.

Yes, Father Mike, the time is now.