3/29/05

Contextual Morality

For a long time now I have thought long and hard about why morality plays such a central role in framing our world view. I can remember being a senior in high school (1978) and participating in a simulation game with the rest of my U.S. government classmates. We were pretending to be at a political convention. Our job was to develop the platform our candidate(s) would run on. At that time the big debate issues were abortion, euthanasia, legalizing drugs - marijuana in particular, and the death penalty. In those days I was an evangelical who stood against abortion and euthanasia, against legalization of marijuana, and for the death penalty. Oh to be so black and white again. How simple life would be - really.

Morality in black and white is much easier to grapple with than morality in color. Said another way, decontextualized morality makes it easy for people to come down on one or another side of something without interferences caused by empathy or sympathy. Morality in context is much more complicated. For example, is it wrong to euthanize someone who wishes to die - to play God in effect or be accomplice to someone who has decided to interfere with the natural course of things? And that raises other slippery slope questions i.e. is medical intervention a natural course and which interventions are and which are not?

This topic is present to me in part because of the Terry Schiavo case and the great debate raging once again on both sides. I'm not surprised by the strong feelings the case provokes, only saddened to discover that the debate in most cases sounds as shallow and unevolved as it did during my senior-year simulation game.

It occured to me many years ago while working with a brilliant sex-addicted client who's activities were so risky that I could hardly believe he was not dead or dying that morality, or more accurately having a moral compass, does not deter one's propensity to dive headlong into darkness any more than speed limits make impressions on habitual speeders. My client had an amazing moral compass and a more amazing capacity to sail into dangerous waters in search of....what? I'm not sure really. I could guess but it would be my analysis of motives too conflicted, convoluted, and hidden to be analyzed by the likes of me. If he wasn't immoral, what was he?

That example brings me to a central social purpose purpose of discussions about morality. What social purpose do they serve? Peace of mind, both individual and social. We need to believe that by agreeing on what is and is not morally acceptable, we are agreeing to a status quo that will keep us all moored to the social dock we call community. Faith in society depends on faith in people's adhering to socially acceptable behavior. Even when facts prove this idea wrong again and again, we can, by calling for moral common sense in our most visible debates, reassert our social preferences for well-being over anxiety, faith over fear.

I have a proposed rationale for adherence to good moral living that has less to do with good and evil and more to do with economics (time, energy, money). It makes good economic sense to set one's course to true north and establishes the closest thing I can imagine to the idea put forward in the Old Testament of having the Law of God written on one's heart. Imagine the economic benefits (from a social not socialist perspective) of maintaining a good diet, getting adequate exercise, reducing stress by recongizing one's limits, using kindness and compassion in one's interactions with others, extending mercy to those who fall, etc. Time, money, and energy we currently spend on health care, insurance, law enforcement, and self-help books could be invested in education, preventative health care, and social programs aimed at eliminating the gap that separates the fortunate few from the unfortunate many. My little Utopian dream.

The Bible says that faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things unseen. It takes imagination, courage, hope, and a profound commitment to making the world a better place to choose decent deeds with a bigger picture in mind than my personal salvation or social standing. Morality is not the ladder that lifts me out of the pit, it's the arm I use to reach into the pit with in hopes of pulling others out of harm's way. That's why Jesus praised the Good Samaritan - he was brave yes, but more than that, he was thinking about the fact that his choice to respond had a real and concrete impact on someone else's present and future. The Good Samaritan not only saved the man who was beaten by thugs on the side of the road, but also planted seeds of faith for maybe dozens of unseen others attached to the man he helped.

I was talking with some Inn-keepers recently (while on vacation in Santa Barbara) about "kids today" and the sense of entitlement being passed on to them by parents who, in the name of love, are depriving them of the spiritual strength-training that will ultimately result in a new generation of men and women who can "bear the cross" of their times - that is to say, children today believe that suffering is rooted in not getting what they want and therefore remedied by having an abundance of things. The problem is, their lives are cluttered (literally) with insubtantial and inconsequential things. Who can build a life of hope, passion, and creativity on a steady diet of carbohydrate rich and protein poor love? Fast-love to the soul is what fast-food is to the body - delicious poison!

If any vision of the future scares me - it's the vision of a future where people are spiritually impotent - unable sustain hope if suffering lasts for more than 30-seconds. And this is the great moral dilemma of our time - that we make most decisions based on "how will this impact me?" If we're in moral crisis, it's not because people are less moral, it's because people are less integrated, connected, whole. Morality, love, hope, faith are only powerful if woven tightly together. Unraveled and visible only as separate strands makes each vulnerable. Morality becomes judgemental, love-->sentimental, hope-->wishful and faith-->farcical.

Jesus, from my reading, had little patience for those who took the moral high ground - especially when doing so involved demeaning and derriding those who were judged "sinners" The standard Jesus set is one that can not be measured in black and white because it's rooted in the inter and intrapersonal. Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, mind, and body and Love your neighbor as you love yourself. Of course, this is the Cliff Notes version of what has turned out to be a lifelong lesson (for this learner) on contextual morality.

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