On being morally alive

25 May

Today I finished teaching for this current semester, and in the energy which comes from that positive arrival (yes, it is a real joy to teach, and to see how my students —most of them, anyway—engage so constructively with doing theology), I have finally gotten around to blogging.

Several things come together this week to prompt my reflections.
What joins them, in my thinking, is the question of what it means to be morally alert, or alive to the basic meaning of being a fellow human being.

Last week, a woman was kidnapped and murdered, in the carpark behind her work-place. Her car was stolen, and all that was found was a large pool of blood and some human hair.
In the next days, the police found no fewer than ten people, who had heard what they described as ‘blood-curdling screams’, but not one of them reported anything to the police or to anyone else.

A week later her car, and body, have been found.

On this same day, a leading political commentator, Robert Manne, published an article in The Age newspaper, titled ‘Oh, to be so morally complacent’. His piece suggests that ‘the Howard prime ministership has put the national moral conscience to sleep’.

I am not interested just now in debating whether this is Howard’s fault. I agree with Manne’s diagnosis, though: that we have become a community whose moral awareness is altered. We have lost our conscience. We are not really morally alive, responsible to our fellow citizens—not even the citizens of our own local place, let alone those beyond our shores.

Manne suggests some possible causes of John Howard’s continuing success, which contrasts to the loss in popularity of every other leader of the ‘coalition of the willing’ who invaded Iraq: In part this is because of the generic weakness of the Labour Opposition; in part because of the influence of the pro-war Murdoch press; in part because of the marginalization of the critical intelligentsia; and in part because only one Australian soldier has been killed in Iraq. Perhaps most deeply, however, it is because the Howard prime ministership has had a strangely mesmeric quality that, except for local community concerns, has put the national moral conscience to sleep.’

How can a national moral conscience be put to sleep? This is something we need, collectively, to think really hard about.

Case in point: after the Second World War, the community of nations considered the situation of Jewish refugees from Germany who had been turned back from the borders of Switzerland. The question was: is there an obligation on nations to grant entry to persons whose situation in their home country was life-threatening?
The international agreements on asylum were developed precisely for this situation. The agreements are based on the recognition that in these situations many if not all of the affected people will not have travel documents; many will not have passports let alone visas. Their entry to another country is not ‘legal’, in the ordinary sense of the term. This is why there is a convenant to protect them.
They are not ‘illegals’. The use of this term by political leaders and the media, all around the world, signals a refusal to recognize, or is it a refusal to comply with, the international agreements to which we are signatories.

How can we ignore the plight of those in distress?
In his argument for a ‘rational’  basis for morality, the Scottish and generally sceptical philosopher David Hume wrote the following—in a footnote—"It is needless to push our researches so as to ask, why we have humanity or a fellow-feeling with others. It is sufficient that this is experienced as a principle in human nature. We must stop somewhere in our examination of causes; and there are, in every science, some principles, beyond which we cannot hope to find any principle more general. NO man is absolutely indifferent to the happiness and misery of others. The first has a natural tendency to give pleasure; the second, pain. This everyone may find in himself.’  David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, (1777) Columbia University Press edition, page 54.

Hume is here concerned to avoid any broad foundation for morals in a macro principle or reality, such as God. Rather, he appeals to our basic humanity. He says that no one is ultimately indifferent to the joy or pain of others. All of us can find this true of ourselves. We care, when someone else is hurting. We can’t completely ignore it.

If Hume is right, then to do just that, to ignore the blood-curdling cries of someone in distress, or to blind ourselves to those who come to us for asylum, and all the other examples we could reel off, is somehow to be less than human, to act contrary to our basic nature as human beings.

I want to spend a lot more time thinking about the implications of this, and especially about what is happening to us. I say ‘us’ because I know I am a part of this society. It is not just ‘them’ out there, other people, who don’t care. Somehow we have all been diminished by this loss of moral awareness.

To begin with, I have a couple of things I think are important. These are things to think about, not ‘solutions’ to the situation. (God save us from all those who have ‘simple solutions’ to the complex and varied struggles of the human condition.)
First, there is here an important matter about whatever it is we used to call conscience. The individual conscience is a vital part of our humanity. I had a deep sense of this when I first became a parent. Basically, I knew that given their genes and their environment, my kids would grow up capable. I am not saying they are ‘gifted’, but simply that they had every chance of doing well, with ‘reading, writing and arithmetic’, and all the skills that would help them to succeed. But what I knew was much more challenging, is and remains the question of moral formation. It’s like this: I know that my kids can and will make a contribution. The question is: in what directions? Contribution to what?
It’s their moral formation, the development of conscience, that has exercised me as a parent.
No comment on how I am doing!
The individual conscience is one component in our moral response-ability. It is that within us which enables us at least to recognise the pain, the needs, the potential of others, and of situations, small and large, individual and communal.
There is a task here: to nurture even this awareness. Conscience, as a word, implies knowing, and knowing ‘with’. It is not only private, but implies a sense that we belong to each other and relate to each other.
The nurture of conscience is one factor in all this.

A second factor is surely the nurture of our fears. Though our Government once told us to ‘be alert but not alarmed’, in fact our culture has nurtured our fears. Despite all that we spend on ‘security’ we seem more afraid than ever before.
We fear the ‘other’. I think we fear the other, more than anything, because she/he/they present to us unresolved fears within ourselves.
There is much we simply do not wish to face. I am convinced that this, for example, is the root of homophobia, and similarly of the ways many people respond to feminism.
What is it in ‘the other’ that so disturbs and causes such reactions?
If we were more able to engage with our fears, we might be able to attend to the needs of those around us, when they scream, or when they arrive in search of a home, of some protection.

These things together suggest a third consideration. My own struggling experience is that these things are only possible when we have some idea of the centre. In spirituality, this is about knowing where our security lies. We cannot face our fears without knowing that we can face them and not be overwhelmed, not destroyed.
This might be just words, or pious talk. I don’t pretend to have this worked out. Rather, I think this is something we have to work out, to live into, and that means it’s an effort, and something we need to do together. Knowing where the centre is cannot just be an idea, a belief. It’s actually a practice. And it’s something we can affirm in and for each other, precisely because when we are in the thick of some crisis, we usually can’t see or feel it for ourselves. We need to be that and do that for each other.
And that brings us back to being morally alive, for one another.

This is surely something we need to work on, and at least talk about, together. Otherwise more of us will die, screaming into a morally empty space, where there used to be human community.

One thought on “On being morally alive

  1. Thanks for the post Frank. I think that there are probably a lot of people who think and feel the same concerns that you have expressed here but don’t know what to do or where to go.
    I think a part of the whole problem is the anxiety (about high mortgages, job insecurity, jobs going off-shore, muslims overtaking the West, etc, that the Government manipulates into the need for greater self-interest and in order to consolidate their vote)that people therefore express through self-interest and concern over what used to be called values, ethics and common decency. Minorities in such an environment necessarily suffer and are ignored and because we only care for ourselves and ‘people like us’ nothing is done about this. Who would dare?
    It seems to me to be a natural extension of privatisation, but not just in the public realm but into the private realm. And if you look at which churches are generally thriving and growing in Australia and what their general message is… it gets worse!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *