Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

The Beauty of the Ethical

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

The Beauty of the Ethical

Article excerpt

How, then, shall he be a god, who has not as yet been made a man?

- St. Irenaeus

Malcolm Muggeridge entitled his reflection on Mother Teresa Something Beautiful for God. Perhaps the force of that expression does not immediately strike us, but consider how curious a statement it is: that here was something - an act, a project, a life - beautiful for God. By far the most curious aspect, and the hardest to see afresh and not as mere formula, is that it was for God; but I leave that to a subsequent essay, with only the saints, here Teresa and Irenaeus, to point toward my sequel. For now note instead that it was something beautiful.

What I am trying to suggest is perhaps best indicated by its absence. There is a traditional worry about secularism and its slide into amorality, a worry that you cannot have ethics without God; but whatever the merits of that case, it is more about where our secular neighbors are headed than where they are now; it is more prediction than description. For our neighbors, warmly secular or tepidly religious, do believe in morality, even if they lack the metaphysics to explain what it is, and they do act on that belief, even if they cannot say exactly why. One need only glance at their general behavior and their public-policy proposals, comparing them to a mental image of what truly amoral behavior and amoral policy would look like, to see that this is so. The average secular man does not deny the wrongness of theft; he is willing to say that genocide is evil; he will raise moral objections to murder and rape and domestic abuse.

But notice how far his moral judgments stand from immediate practical application to his life. He does not struggle with a temptation to murder or rape, he may puzzle over the best means to end genocide, but these do not affect how he behaves on the subway. The one set of moral judgments that he entertains frequently are political ones - the secular liberal will think with regularity how much more the state should be doing for the poor, the secular libertarian how much less it should be doing to his freedoms - but these do not bear on his everyday actions: At most they touch how he votes and perhaps how he gives his money, not how he greets a coworker in the morning or looks at a woman on the street. If his moral judgment encompasses both political and individual behavior, where it concerns the individual, it is to condemn the unsocialized and criminal - things that have never had much attraction to him-and where it concerns the political, it affects him only as donor and citizen, roles that occupy little of his day.

This I think is the distinctive feature of the secular world's approach to morality: not a flat denial or a discomfort with invoking it, but its division from everyday behavior. Compare the evangelical struggling toward chastity or the Catholic attending regular confession: By social expectation, by institutional pressure, by the internal force of his system of ideas, each confronts moral demands in the regular commerce of life. Such people conceive not just the world in general but their lives in particular in moral terms. Perhaps this is why they suggest the secular man tends toward amorality, because his moral code is such that he need not think about it day in and day out; perhaps they cannot conceive of the survival of a morality banished from the everyday, and perhaps they are right. But I do not propose to treat this as a prophetic fact here; I propose to take it as it is, indicating not our man's future but his present.

And his great fault is that he lacks a sense of the intimacy of ethics. I do not mean just its everyday character: We can each of us bring to mind the familiar caricatures in Birkenstocks and Volvos who talk all the time in moral terms, who indeed won't stop talking, whose righteous indignation is as tired as it is tiring. These are insufferably, if implicitly, ethical - but they are not intimately ethical. They live their ethics in the selection of sandals, in the choice of coffee stands, in the produce aisle: common enough situations in life, but hardly the stuff of it. …

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