He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Juvenile Anthropology: Abandoning the Good

In many discussions with my contemporaries, it is argued that a thing should be permitted because it is not explicitly prohibited.  Others take it a step further and propose that what is not explicitly prohibited is not only permitted, but acceptable.  Others take it even further and suggest that all is permitted, that any act by a moral actor is good.  This last view is not a view that is generally taken seriously, perhaps because we often intuitively understand that if any act we choose is good, then the distinction between good and evil is a moot point in practice.

But the previous views are taken seriously, and that is why they are worth addressing.  The first argument is problematic because it assumes that there are no principled ways we might evaluate the moral quality of an act when there is no existing prohibition on it.  Prior to the detonation of the first atomic bomb, there was no prohibition on detonating an atomic bomb.  Does this mean that we had no principled way to determine whether or not we ought to detonate an atomic bomb, that we should simply permit it in the absence of an existing prohibition?  Most of us would be extremely reluctant to apply this sort of moral reasoning to a historical case, so why would we use it today?  Why would we not apply existing moral principles from some deontological or consequentialist framework in order to determine whether it should be permitted or prohibited?  Usually, the answer is, "Because I want to do it!"  I'll leave it to the reader to decide whether or not that's a convincing answer.

The second argument is problematic as well because it assumes that what is permitted is acceptable.  People are permitted to make horrifyingly hateful statements about their fellow human beings in the United States.  People are permitted to call others stupid, to belittle them, to make false statements about them.  And yet who would claim that this sort of bullying is acceptable simply because it is permitted?  Who would propose that these are morally good acts?  Usually the people performing those acts, "Because I want to do it!"

The deeper problem with both of these views is that they come out of a juvenile anthropology, an understanding of what it means to be human that assumes that the best mode in which we can exist as humans is the one in which we don't do bad things, rude things, harmful things.  All of which is to say that we should avoid being a "bad person".  This is not necessarily a bad goal, but it is only the beginning of moral development.  As a child, my moral goal was to not be a bad person.  I sought to avoid the painful consequences of my decisions.  As a youth, my moral goal was to be a good person.  I sought the rewards of acceptable behavior.  As an adult, my moral goal is to be a person of the highest virtue, to turn away from both what is evil and from what is merely acceptable toward what is most excellent, what is most true, and what is most beautiful.

Many of us have taken a view of morality that is suitable for children and paraded it around as if it were the ideal, a vision of a mature morality.  This provides a model of morality for our children that affirms their existing childlike morality that is completely appropriate for a child and never calls them to develop beyond it as they grow toward adulthood.  Many of us have let our children stagnate in what Kohlberg called a pre-conventional morality, seeking to avoid punishment and gain pleasurable rewards.  In doing so, we create a generation of adults who are functioning at the same moral level as a child in most respects.  This should sound very familiar to anyone currently working with university students in the United States, which I currently do.

We should want to give them something greater than a life in which the only meaning or purpose they can have is the one they share with an earthworm.  We owe it to our children to offer them something better than existing in the childlike state of fearing punishment and seeking pleasure, adrift in a sea of desires on a world of moral twilight with no moral compass by which to navigate.  We should be willing to lead them to the universal moral principles characteristic of a mature morality, the rules of love that will take them into a happiness much deeper and wider than anything they have yet known.

Instead of abandoning the good in favor of what is acceptable, permitted, or not prohibited, we can embrace the highest good and lead those we love to grow toward that good so that they can have what is indeed the good life, a life guided by principles rather than mere response to stimuli.  We can show others the path to what is the greatest good, the most profound truth, and the best beauty so that they can have more than what is merely acceptable, permitted, or not prohibited.

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