Basic Moral Courage

   As promised (and as often interrupted) I now begin a series on Morality, Moral Courage and the Most Basic Moral Assertion. I have titled this series Basic Moral Courage since that is the real essence of this series and because the title I suggested on Saturday is longer than some of the posts in this series.

   The purpose of the series is simple; to explore some thoughts on our human sense of oughtness about how and what we ought to be and to suggest ways to think and act like we want. I presuppose that all of us want to act morally. If, in fact, we cannot be morally pure or even consistent we feel badly about ourselves. We want to be better so we can live better.

   This will sound odd coming from a preacher associated with an ultra-fundamentalist church background, although it is unlikely that anyone associated with either side of baptist life (the ultra-conservative or the ultra-ultra conservative; c'mon, a liberal baptist is a conservative Christian. In fact the very phrase "LIberal Baptist" makes as much sense as the couplet "Virile Impotence.") would wish to claim me at this point.

    However, I wish to make this assertion: People want to be good.

   As evidence I hold out these overwhelming proofs. First, that humans spend hours of effort and reams of paper trying to pronounce what is good. Second, that humans may not never find what it means to be good but certainly can find what it means to be bad. Finally, for our discussion, humans chide ourselves first and then our fellows when we feel we fail to be good and do good.

   I am going to spend some time on morality as the moral assertion, or the act of morality in companion with the announced goal of human goodness. There is power in the announced word, whether it is spoken, printed or put on that most ephemeral (and so most powerful) of media, the screen.

   First, what is a moral assertion, at least for our discussion? A moral assertion is a statement of oughtness. That is, a moral assertion is a statement that ought to point out a way we ought to be in order to come to what we ought to do. Even the framers of the moral assertion may not fulfill (or even grasp) the implications of the moral assertion but they can at least state what it is they know they ought to do and so would do if they were doing right and good.

   For instance, a famous American document makes the moral assertion that "…All men are created equal…" and then begins to frame how men might honor that equality in the divine-human arrangement, for the famous American document asserts it is God who makes men equal, though the document wisely refuses to identify the God who completes this task. 

   This is a moral assertion. If all men are equal before God, it follows that all men must be treated as  equal before other men, at least in their starting point. LIfe cannot be denied easily to even the most useless members of the race, or the most venal or the most degraded. LIberty is as precious as life to men but something has to be mentioned second and so liberty, freedom to pursue one's own interest without fear of reproach or illegal search and siezure or imprisonment without habeas corpus rights is next. From these two rights, life and liberty, grow the third, the pursuit of happiness, though Jefferson came to this phrase only after abandoning John Locke's preference for private property, because some felt even those who did not own property should be allowed to pursue happiness as best they could.

   A companion document to the first then apportioned some men (presumably created by God) to be worth exactly three-fifths of other men on the basis of social status; they were slaves. We cannot say this does not matter or that it matters little but the men (for men they were) who allowed the first statement on human equality sowed the seeds to destroy their own polyglot half-slave, half-free system. If ratified, the moral assertion "all men are created equal" meant that this man could not be whole and that man three-fifths. The language of the original document damned whatever might follow that did not uphold its absolute standard; all, all men, all men created, all men created equal.

   Hence, the assertion in the original document acted on whatever followed in such a way as to predetermine the American Civil War, the Freedom Riders, Rosa Parks and the American Century, during which America tore itself apart repeatedly in order to decide how far it would go to apprehend its greatest original sentence.

   This is a moral assertion. It is ground-breaking in its originality, breathtaking in its daring, soul searing in its indictment of that which has gone before. The Mosaic Law, the Code of Hammurabi, the American Constitution: all set their foes to a stricter test simply because they held their advocates to a higher standard.

   A moral assertion, then, points us to acts of oughtness on a previously unrecognized scale. Men may have thought it was wrong to murder but Moses codified the precept and set out certain consequences. Men may have suspected human equality but the American Constitution ratified the concept by asking men to vote in favor of that sentence, even if they were men who behaved as though they could not believe in human equality.

   This is groundbreaking stuff. From this one statement came emancipation, child protection and female sufferage, along with civil rights, the final repeal of the three-fifths provision. The moral assertion did what moral assertions do: it opened the whole realm of human experience to express the inner workings of the nagging conscience.

   A moral assertion does no less than grant the status of "living soul" to all members of the human race. The slave, the captive, the oppressed child, the offended gender, are transformed first from property and then emancipated from poverty, so to the pinnacle of humankind, i.e., the "living soul," for it is that soul said to be endowed by its Creator with certain inalienable rights.

   If we value what we count (appreciate what we quantify) we benefit by determining what we would vote for even if our vote counted for somethings we do not value. What is our ten on the human scale of one to ten, with ten being the highest? The ratifiers of the American Constitution were asked to vote their values and have their votes counted. When they voted Yea, they conveyed the status of "living soul" on all men. Nothing could stop the outcome of their vote, if they remained constituted with their opposing neighbors. If men are equal, created equal, all equal, then the manner of treating all men is prescribed.

   A moral assertion defines oughtness, sets a course, imposes order, breaks ground (sets precedent), creates discomfort and leads to other moral assertions. In fact, the litmus test of moral assertion may be its fluidity. Can it evolve and still hold its context, or,  conversely, does it calcify and shatter because of its rigidity?

   I served in an immoral adminstration in a denominational setting. The men and women who made up that administration did not mean to be immoral. They would have been shocked to find they were doing things (and failing to do others) that lacked moral meaning and so would have to be said to be immoral. The end thereof was destruction, which continues to play itself out on the world stage, for once one forsakes or just forgets his moral bearings, he loses the right to lead or even to be heard.

   There is a way back to moral authority. It is long and winding. Tremulous are the hands who reach to grasp the fallen chalice. Still, life is worth little without honor and honor is vacuous without the sweeping moral assertion. The stasis in our denominational life is not only about the change in our surrounding secular culture. It is just as much about the capitulation of moral position, as though one can rule simply because he holds a title, or has the purse strings, or because no one else will step forward.

   There has to be a moral force supporting leadership. In the next few days, I will try to say what a moral force might be for us.

2 thoughts on “Basic Moral Courage”

  1. Your next to last paragraph gets to the heart of the issue. It could be argued the rise of deconstructive philosophy ran/runs along this track. So, when Derrida suggests there can be no forgiveness without forgiving the unforgivable it calls into question those who suggested to me, “But Todd, you do not know what they did to us.” And this from the alleged moral authority in a Christian denomination.

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