Heroes, Saints & Ordinary Morality

Heroes, Saints & Ordinary Morality

Heroes, Saints & Ordinary Morality

Heroes, Saints & Ordinary Morality

Excerpt

I feel that I have done nothing well. But I have done what I could.

—Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness

In this book I ask a commonplace question, but it is one that, if successfully answered, will have profound implications for those who wish to live and conduct themselves in a deliberate, reflective, and morally honest fashion. The question is this: What ought we to expect ordinary people to do for others who need their help? This is a slightly more complicated question than it appears, for I am really asking both how much we ought to expect ordinary people to give of themselves and what attitude we ought to expect them to have with respect to their giving. Perhaps, though, the question could be put even more simply: What is morally required of an ordinary person in order to be considered a “good” person? This question, albeit basic, goes to the heart of a lifestyle that we take for granted. It forces us to reexamine our most routine habits and leads us to ponder a kind of interaction with others that is likely different from the one to which we have become accustomed in present-day society.

My inquiry is undertaken in light of the moral reality of my own secular, contemporary culture, a culture in which most people do less, or as much as, but rarely more than what they perceive to be expected of them. In my encounters with friends, acquaintances, and students—and in my own self-examination—I have discovered that even by initiating an inquiry such as mine, one risks incurring the resentment of the person questioned, for that person frequently feels as though the questioner has been intrusive. Some read into the inquiry an idealism or self-righteousness that they find unbecoming. When one raises questions about the specific issue of world hunger, for example, many respond: “Who are you to decide for me what of mine I should give away? And on what basis do you hope to persuade me that I should in the first place make sacrifices for a perfect stranger?” Thus, I also ask the question, “What ought to be expected of ordinary people?” in the face of an objection that takes the form of a pragmatic appeal to individual and civil liberties, liberties . . .

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