Sunday, May 9, 2010

Ethics, Unsubstantiated

Once upon a time, a coworker and I were debating the possibility of a universal set of moral principles based, not on the Bible or any other religious tradition, but upon some reasoned idea of right and wrong, good and bad.

I said to this coworker that I didn't think it was possible to not base moral principles upon religious tradition.  He asserted that it should be possible to come up with some sort of universal right and wrong.

I was reminded of this conversation recently while reading The Careful Use of Compliments by Alexander McCall Smith.  Smith's protagonist, in the series of which this book is the fourth, is Isabel Dalhousie, a Scottish philosopher whose particular area of interest is ethics.  I'm not up on all the correct philosophical terminology, but if I had to put Ms. Dalhousie in a box with some title, I'd say she is a rational humanist.  She has no religion, per say and tends to think of herself as a-religious.  But in fact, her ability to reason is her religion.  She believes in it firmly and in her mind, every human situation has a consequence.  In order to be faithful to the precepts of her rational humanism, she must weigh the actions of every moment of her life on the basis of their ethical merits.  This leads me to wonder upon what one bases morality, when one has no foundation, nothing more substantial upon which to settle these matters than human wisdom.

This morning, while I was enjoying my morning cup of joe with a few chapters from The Careful Use of Compliments, I ran into the idea of guilt.  Guilt is a reality of human experience.  It's that law written in one's heart of which the Bible tells.  Both believers and unbelievers experience guilt.  It's also called having a conscience.

But, alas, a second reality of human experience is that our consciences are flawed because of the sin that pervades each of us.  And because of that we often feel guilt over things for which we are not responsible.

God has given each of us things for which we are responsible. In Lutheran theology, this is called vocation.  Most of us have several vocations, the obligations of which we must balance.  I am a wife, a mom, a homemaker, a home educator, a pastor's wife, a parishoner, the mom of some public school kids, a neighbor and friend, and a US citizen.  There are probably more titles I could find for myself.  Each of you readers of this blog has a unique set of vocations.

Isabel Dalhousie also has many vocations, although in her rational humanist world, I don't know whether she would call them vocations.  But mostly what she has is guilt.  She can never seem to figure out how to be nice and behave ethically toward everyone.  In this quote, she struggles with guilt even because of her annoyance over some biting midges.
     "Remember  drosophila from biology class?" Isabel said.  "The fruit fly?  They had two or three weeks, didn't they?  Two or three weeks to pack everything in.  I assume that the Highland midge has much the same.  Not much of a lifespan."
     "That doesn't make me feel sorry for them," said Lizzie.  "There are limits, you know."
     Isabel knew.  It was her biggest problem, after all:  how to draw limits to the extent of one's sympathy.  In the past, she had become involved in all sorts of difficulties by taking upon herself the problems of others; now she had resolved to be more practical about that, and was trying not to get involved in matters that she had no moral obligation to do anything about.  She was trying.
Of course, Isabel can't really not get involved.  First of all it wouldn't make much of story if the heroine didn't stumble upon a mystery in each installment.  But besides that, Isabel is always carrying on an internal dialog over what her moral imperative is in any given situation.   She has nothing but her own reason upon which to base her decisions.  And her reason often directs her toward multiple conflicting behaviors.

Each of my vocations carries its own set of responsibilities.  I cannot accomplish any of these tasks perfectly. I might be tempted to feel guilty if I can't do everything.  I think that "Supermom" might be a good word for the idea of doing everything and doing it really well.  But I am very definitely NOT a supermom.  I must prioritize.  If I keep in mind the Christian precepts of loving God above all things and loving my neighbor as myself, this helps me prioritize.  God has further specified that His married children must be a helper for their spouses, and those with children must train their children in God's law and the message of grace through Jesus Christ. These always must remain my highest priority.

My other vocations must fit around the edges of those top priorities.  Sometimes my interest is more or less toward one or another of these auxiliary vocations.  But when I am faithful to the first priorities, I need feel no guilt about the extent to which I am able to accomplish the other tasks I might attempt to fulfill.  Any pangs of conscience on that score are self-imposed.

And even when I don't fulfill perfectly the top priorities, I can trust to God's grace and Jesus' perfect life for me.  God has given me that.  He has credited to my name the perfect life of Christ.  What a relief!  What blessing!  What joy!

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