Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Goodness as Beauty

I'm writing this, my 100th post, in the hopes that is it not my last "academic" entry for the next 3 years. However, as I have moved into a new and very different role here in Ukraine, I wonder if it might be. A month ago, I became the area director of our mission here and will thus spend my time working with people, leading and participating in meetings, strategizing and, of course, answering a steady flow of emails. I was going to be teaching ethics in March and would have spent the summer and fall reading lots of great stuff, like the article I'll be discussing below, to get ready for that. But with the job change, I'll spend much less time with my head in a book, and so I wanted to get this idea down before it is replaced by conflict resolution principles.

The April 2011 opinion piece in First Things entitled, "The Beauty of the Ethical," by Ross McCullough is, well, beautiful. McCullough talks about the essence of ethics, which boils down to the the way we interact with people every day. All of the theoretical, dilemma-ridden ethical discussions that arouse our passions but are rarely materialized in real life, should take a back seat to the way we act toward the person who sells us our groceries. The heart of ethics is found in what we really do rather than what we want to do or think that we should do. And so, as we live out our lives and act out of goodness toward others, we are being ethical, even if it it doesn't seem like we faced up to and overcame a major moral dilemma. To witness a life lived consistently in accord with well-grounded and truth-infused daily ethical standards is a thing of beauty, even if that life is never publicly acknowledged or rewarded in any way. The goodness of that life is itself beauty and we should strive to exemplify that everyday beauty as much as or more than we should worry about the right way to solve illegal immigration, the Arab-Israeli conflict or world hunger.

In case you don't want to read the whole piece, here are a few of McCullough's thoughts that bring ethics down from the top shelf and put them into the grasp of the everyday, illuminating the grandeur of a consistent, cultivated ethical character.

On the loss of a grand moral vision:
"Somewhere along the way the traditional scheme of virtues was greatly flattened. Morality was collapsed into justice and justice reduced to its political dimensions: Prudence came to be conceived as cleverness, temperance as a lifestyle choice, fortitude as an admirable but not a moral thing. General prohibitions and political action items became the substance of everyday moral thought: Do not rape; end global warming. We lost sight of the truth that chastity is no more about avoiding rape or even adultery than kindness is about avoiding murder: Certainly the two are incompatible, but cultivating the virtue goes far beyond avoiding its most flagrant violation."

On the bankruptcy of secular morality:
"And his [the secular moralist's] great fault is that he lacks a sense of the intimacy of ethics. ... They [the secular moralists] live their ethics in the selection of sandals, the choice of coffee stands, in the produce aisle: common enough situations in life, but hardly the stuff of it. They think always in grand terms, as if good politics made a good life, or love of man were the same as the love of men, or philanthropy charity. They judge their moral success always by the fate of the world and never by the fate of their marriage."

On the beauty of the moral life:
"There is a beauty to the moral gesture, the moral life, the moral soul; there is a quiet harmony to the parts of the act and to the priorities of the life and to the passions of the mind; and there is from all this a beauty that spreads slowly and subtly but unstoppably out across this sleeping world, like the first signs of the sun."

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