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Complexity in finding “the good”

BY ROBERT DOCTER – 

Recent events within the last year or so – or night or so – some distance away or close to home – cause us to shake our heads in confusion and painfully consider how some among us make moral judgments.

Feelings of fear or grief or anger or shock race through us. We speak of these events to others often using labels of contempt – wacko – crazy — while harboring relief that something very bad is happening somewhere else. Unanswered questions fill the spaces of our minds – questions that begin with phrases like “how could” – “why would” – “what should.”

We can’t figure out the content of anyone’s thoughts that could justify car bombs, human bombs, airplane bombs, or .223 caliber high velocity single rounds discharged from a distance into the bodies of 11 randomly shot people – nine fatally.

What drives a father to abuse a child or a husband to batter a wife? Don’t they know it’s wrong? What creeps into the mind of a parent who demonstrates cruelty or indifference to people in distress while almost simultaneously preaching altruism and compassion to her children? What message does she think the child learns? Many around us – not us, of course, seem to be making abominably bad choices.

Meno is alleged to have put an ancient question to Socrates: “Can you tell me, Socrates, whether virtue is acquired by teaching or by practice; or if neither by teaching nor practice, then whether it comes to man by nature, or in what other way?”

Somehow, I don’t think Socrates was only demonstrating the Socratic method when he responded: “You must think I am very fortunate to know how virtue is acquired. The fact is that far from knowing whether it can be taught, I have no idea what virtue is.”

Most of us often find ourselves in the same boat.

So – what is the good — the moral? What is right – and what is wrong? Are these terms relative? Are some things always right and others always wrong? How does one determine “the good” – with thinking, or with feeling, or feedback from prior behavior? How do we assemble the content of what is good — with lists of rules, through social conditioning culturally based, by study of philosophical and ethical principles, or simply by examining the contextual content of each particular situation?

Are there cultural differences in moral judgment? This seems obvious – there seems to be cultural differences, but cultures do have rights and wrongs. So, does everyone everywhere go through similar thought processes in deciding right from wrong even though the content and final decision might be dramatically different? Are there any – even a few moral principles that might be universal among all members of the human condition?

And what about religion? Will it help us in finding the good? It clearly has potential as it forms community, affords opportunity for personal growth, and teaches what the belief system defines as “good.” It also runs amok occasionally with misinterpretation, ignorance, prejudice, violence and deceit. Radical fundamentalism, whether Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu or any other religious persuasion, when mixed with historic animosity and separation, yields only a product of hatred for those not sharing the belief.

So – what should we do?

We can’t solve world conflict. We’re responsible for what goes on in our own communities.

Here are some starters. It seems to me we must first understand the belief system and practice the value structure of our heritage – emulating Christ with a holistic, caring ministry to others motivated by compassion and altruism. Second, I believe we must understand the relationships between love and justice as regulated by such terms as equality and reciprocity. We need more lessons on the subject of justice from the pulpit. Third, we must open ourselves to finding the delicate balance within our community between diversity and consensus – between those just like us and those significantly different. This will make it possible for us to achieve an integrated social structure – very possible where a multicultural society exists. Fourth, we need to go in the parent education business. The world expects much of parents. Sadly, it doesn’t do a very good job in helping them gain the skills necessary to teach morality to their children. We are heavy on the punishment side and fail miserably in teaching our children how to become morally mature persons.

Of course, when in doubt heed Micah’s advice: “I have told you, O man, what is good and what the Lord requires of you – behave with justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God” – and with his creation.

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