Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Speaking As a "Retired" Pastor*

I have to say "fixes to moral problems" don't come from institutions; but also aren't an excuse for not having a system of government, nor of laws.  Which, I know, is a bit of a radical departure from what's being said here, but again, maybe not.  I also know "fixes to moral problems" are far easier said than done, especially when you start with the premise that someone else has a problem that you need to help them fix. Because that's what the "moral" argument devolves into:  what I want is good, what you want is bad.  Interestingly, there's not even an attempt to address the question of justice here, which is really what a civil society should be about (and not "justice" as defined by Rawls, either).  Nichols' argument (such as it is in tweets, not the best forum for this discussion) is that "civic virtue" will fix the "problems" we have in America, but he might as well cut to the chase and say "everything will be fine when everybody thinks like me!"

But as I once remarked, if everybody thought like me, they'd all be married to my wife, and I'd have a helluva time getting in the door at night.

What is "virtue," after all?  Socrates supposedly worried about that (what he actually did was prove no one could identify it, a result which leads to collapse into a world populated by Iagos).  Aristotle said, more sensibly, it was whatever a society approved of (what other standard was he going to appeal to?).  Plato tried to pull Socrates' fat out of the fire by positing a universal Good (in every sense), which has been bedeviling Western philosophy (and religions) ever since.  The best Kant could do was Categorical Imperatives, which is such a dodge even he knew he could only propose a discussion of ethics; he didn't really set up a system, though others after him tried.

The Hebrew prophets got it right, and to sum it up in one sentence (no, not the "Golden Rule," that's honestly a bit too narrow), I always turn to Micah:  "What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God."  For those of a non-religious bent, or a non-Judeo-Christian persuasion, elide the last three words if you like.  It still works.  And what does it have to do with lamenting (and implicitly arguing for changing) "the collapse of civic virtue among voters"?  Especially if you think your ideas of "civic virtue" would make a fine starting point for upbraiding everyone else on theirs.  Humility is hard. It's also vitally necessary.

Humility is the baseline for making any social solution work. The hardest part about humility is that it requires powerlessness, not the exertion of power.  You can't humbly beat someone, or berate them, or turn them into what you would like them to be.  You can say you  are a humble servant as you do those things, but it's a lie and you are a hypocrite.  Better to be in a world of Iagos:  at least Iago is not a hypocrite, he brags (almost) openly about his lies.  He tells Roderigo who he is (the Father of Lies:  "I am not what I am.") and yet still gets Roderigo to believe his lies (that he wants to help Roderigo.  Iago only and ever wants to help Iago.).  Humility in the service of power, any power, is not humility.  "He who would be first of all must be last and servant of all."  Hard to exert power if that is your goal.

If you look at what Micah says, it starts with the community:  "Do justice."  You don't need to do justice at home alone in your room (as I am now), or on the hypothetical desert island.  Justice is a community's aspiration, and the more it serves all, the more just that society is (think now of Omelas.  Omelas is happy and bountiful; but is Omelas just?).  And what should you love?  "Civic virtue"?  "Right thinking"?  No:  mercy.  To whom do we extend mercy?  If not to others, then we don't extend it at all.  Trump might plead for mercy for himself; but he extends it to no one.  There is nothing merciful in his public actions or statements.  Mercy only works when it is given freely to others.  So these two "rules" which aren't rules, concern the individual's relationship to the community, not what the community owes the individual (Nichols' argument is that the community owes him the propriety of a "civic virtue" of which he approves, including how it's government weighs competing claims against "adult conversations about risks and cost and tradeoffs."  Again, I think of Elijah and the widow.  I find the counterpoint stronger than the point. But what does Nichols owe the community?  Approval of their choices when they please him?).  And of course, those "adult decisions" put us on the road to Omelas, where "justice" is determined by what benefits the many, even if, ultimately, at the expense of only one.

Justice and mercy and humility argue for another standard, a different outcome. One that takes less account of what a few, or even one, wants, and is more concerned with the goals of many others, even all others. That is the goal of the servant of all, is it not?

*Involuntarily retired, but that was long ago, and really of no matter now.


  1. I like the idea of using that passage from Micah that way. At first I thought that you'd better put in something about being honest with yourself but then realized that's included in being humble, too. This is one I'll really think a lot about for quite a while.

    1. It’s pretty much a first draft. You’re right, honesty with oneself should be prominent.

      As I re-read it this morning I wanted to pull it, or re-write it. But it’s a blog post, not an essay. Still, I’m glad you like it. All I ever see in my own writing is what I should have said.