Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Moral Life

Moses Holding The Ten Commandments: In the Mosaic Code, of which the Decalogue forms the central core, "there is no distinction between the religious and the secular—all are one—or between civil, criminal and moral law," notes Paul Johnson in A History of the Jews.
Credit: Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn [1606-1669]; Painted in 1659. Held at Gemäldegalerie in Berlin, Germany.
Source: Wikipedia Commons
One of the most profound questions asked in philosophy and in biblical narratives is "Why do evil people prosper?" That question is as profound as it is difficult to answer satisfactorily. Many religions, including my own, grapple with that question, and provide some answers. As have the philosophers throughout the ages. What is equally interesting and important is the question and the reason the person asks it.

That question presupposes that evil actually exists, not an idea that everyone or every religion easily endorses. That thorny question also presupposes that there is some pre-existing idea of morality, at least when it comes to defining good and evil. Which raises more questions, such as Does morality matter anymore? What is a moral life? Is there such a thing as universal morality? Among observant Jews, the belief is that our moral code was handed down at Mount Sinai, by God, first to Moses and then to all the Jews. More than three million souls standing at the foot of the mountain.

That takes some faith. Others believe that morality has been encoded into our DNA. That also takes some faith. Others argue that morality isn't real and doesn't exist. And then others look at morality as a quaint notion or abstract idea that gives us some idea of an an overarching ideal, one that is, for all intents and purposes, too difficult, too constraining, and too unrealistic for humans in modern society to practice.

In civilized society, however, we like the idea of morality. Even so, we resist the practicing of it in too concentrated of a form. We call people who are overly moral moralists or overly pious as practicing pietism. We are embarrassed, sometimes offended, by displays of exceptional piety and morality. We think it impossible, improbable, inhuman, hypocritical. The solution is to "get the dirt" on such a person, to expose them. Sully their reputation. Puncture their (bloated) image of goodness. Mock them.  Why?

It might be that the acceptable standard of goodness and morality is so low now that anyone daring to aim higher is considered a fraud, a phony, a cheat. Or a dreamer, perhaps. Consider what Michelangelo once said: "The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark."

We want to believe in good and goodness, but our faith is weak and we've been fooled so many times. Superheroes don't exist, even in the movies.  That's the view of the world if you watch TV, read the newspapers, the magazines, scientific journals, the web, and assorted online media. It's mostly a sad, horrible, frightening presentation of the world where evil prospers, the good guys lose, and the bad guys win. With such a diet of news, I am not surprised if people want to pull the covers over their heads and hide.

No doubt, bad things happen to people. Evil exists and people are harmed by it. Such is not to be easily dismissed or ignored. But that is not the full and complete story. Persons triumph and overcome personal tragedies. Doing good is an overt action against evil; and good things happen every day. But good news is not news, so it's rarely reported. One of the reasons put forward is that our brains are hard-wired to be aware of incoming threats (re: Bad or negative news). Another reason is the underlying unsaid assumption in all news reportage: Strangely enough, negative news is news because it is an event that disorders the universe, so to speak. Good is the natural order and as such is expected. Yet, good happens every day, at unexpected moments, in unexpected situations.

I point this out, because we all need reminding. Most of us do the best we can under the conditions with which we live. We have a sense of morality, of right and wrong, whether it's encoded in our DNA or passed on from parent to child by lesson and example. Morality and our moral codes underpin human civilization. Even so, there are times in history when these ancient moral codes are forgotten or put aside by some of those holding the levers of power. Yet they eventually reveal themselves before civilization become too intolerable. It sounds mystical, but it's not. It's life. It might just be that living the good life, the moral life, is its own reward.


  1. In Ecclesiastes 9:11, we read “I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happen to them all.”
    On the other hand, Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen has found that there never has been a famine in a democratic country. Virtue may not help individuals, but democracy, the only system of government that is inherently moral, helps its citizens.

  2. I agree wholeheartedly that democracy is the only system of government that is inherently moral. It is based on, to some degree, on the virtues and ideas found in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. Equally important are the Enlightenment ideas of western civilization thinkers.


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