Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Moral equality

I wanted to pick up on a line from my last post:
This runs against what we tell ourselves about truth telling. We want to believe that it is a simple matter to tell the truth. You just say what you believe to be true.
One thing we desperately want to believe about morality is that it is equally open to everyone to be moral. Anybody can be a moral person (or "ethical" if you want to be snooty about it). This seems for inclusive and democratic to us. I don't think it is either.

I'll probably come back to those issues in future posts but I want to make a blunt and possibly disturbing claim here and it necessarily follows from a correct understanding of virtue that is that some people are just better at being moral than others.

The ancient Greeks understood this and that is why they praised people we would not as virtuous. They understood that virtue is the ability to perform. 

We intellectualize virtue. We say things such as, "the right choice is the one that the virtuous person would make." That misses the point. Yes, there are times when morality consists of making complex decisions but, most of the time, we know the right thing to do. The challenge is actually doing it. We couldn't admire virtuous people if this weren't the case because we couldn't judge their actions. Virtue is the ability to perform and that's why you'd want Achilles on your side.

I'd prefer Hector on even if that meant losing because I'm a Christian and Jesus was not an egalitarian. He was firmly convinced that the poor would always be with us. More importantly, he said this:
Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required; and of him whom men commit much they will be given more. [Luke 12: 48]
We see hierarchical distinctions like that in the Gospel and we assume it is solely socio-economic hierarchy. I think Jesus meant much more than that. I think he meant virtue hierarchy as well. Indeed, the culture of the time didn't think of economic disparity in the narrow terms we do. They assumed that wealth reflected the blessing of God. The apostles are gobsmacked when Jesus tells them it will be difficult for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. These people weren't stupid; they knew full well that some greedy people became wealthy. They also knew, however, that success tended to go to the good, that is to say, the virtuous.

One of the really subversive things that Jesus does is to remind us that this is not God's way. That human virtue is not the ultimate goal. He does not judge as we judge. The holy men and women we revere might be judged harshly in heaven and others we hold in low esteem will be praised. Tax collectors and prostitutes will enter heaven before you. 

This comes back to a favourite point of Benedict XVI's: morality is not the point. We are not called to be virtuous to earn our way into heaven. Instead, God has loved us and thereby ennobled us in ways we couldn't imagine and striving to be virtuous is the appropriate response to such an incredible gift.

Think of it on analogy to music. God has loved you and making music in response is an appropriate response to that. Some people, however, are much better singers than others. That doesn't mean their gratitude is better than that of poor singers.

No comments:

Post a Comment