Who’s To Say?

In yesterday’s blog concerning the Penn State scandal I quoted Hannah Arendt who insisted on absolutes in morality. Her position is based on her deep reflections about the atrocities Hitler heaped on humankind. These days in the spirit of what we like to call tolerance — and which may, in fact, be indifference — we eschew absolutes in morality and frequently hear the cry “who’s to say what is right or wrong?” In fact, I heard it so many times during my tenure as a teacher of ethics it became tiresome. Why? Because it suggests no-mindedness, a lack of reflection and serious thought about a very serious issue.

In the end I would argue that there is a core of principles that are universally recognized in both religion and ethics; even the nay-sayers embrace those principles, whether they know it or not. Those principles focus on respect for persons, fairness, and justice. If, for example, we see on our TV that a man and his wife on the other side of the world was abducted in the dark of night and whisked off to prison without any warning or any charges bring brought against either of them we immediately know it is wrong, even if such conduct is common in that culture. As I said yesterday, we all know Mother Teresa was a good person and we all know Hitler was evil. The reason we know these things is because Mother Teresa was motivated by love for her fellow humans and Hitler was motivated by hatred for an entire race. Hatred, of course, is an extreme form of disrespect for persons as love is the highest form of respect for persons. These principles form a core around which there are numerous lesser values and principles that may change from day to day and from culture to culture. But the core remains the same — in one form or another.

Those who mouth the platitude “who’s to say?” simply have not thought about what it is they are asking. They focus on the undeniable fact that we humans don’t always know clearly what principles are involved in a particular situation, or we cannot figure out how to reconcile conflict between principles. The principles are clear, our grasp of them is always partial.  But if we insist that morality in itself is simply a matter of opinion, there can be no resolution of moral conflicts: you have your opinion, I have mine. We go our separate ways, or we pick up clubs and start hitting one another about the head and ears. Only by admitting that there are moral precepts can we agree that there is a point in discussing the issue and seeing if there is a way to reconcile differences. In a word, the notion that morality is a matter of personal opinion leads to a dead end; insistence that there are principles leads us into the arena of dialogue and possible resolution.

Am I saying, then, that we should be “judgmental” — another taboo in today’s age of indifference? Yes, I am. In fact, it was precisely Joe Paterno’s unwillingness to be judgmental that lead to his downfall. Being judgmental doesn’t mean shoving our values down someone else’s throat; it means questioning and wondering and eventually, perhaps, it leads to an informed decision. Without judgment we must rely on gut feeling, which is pure whimsey.

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