Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Schmucks and Heroes

David Brooks writes about young people avoiding moral principles and trying to find moral action instead.
When I read the Stanford discussion thread, I saw young people with deep moral yearnings. But they tended to convert moral questions into resource allocation questions; questions about how to be into questions about what to do.
It’s worth noting that you can devote your life to community service and be a total schmuck. You can spend your life on Wall Street and be a hero. Understanding heroism and schmuckdom requires fewer Excel spreadsheets, more Dostoyevsky and the Book of Job.
Marty Kaplan agrees but thinks this is a good thing
The trouble isn't that we lack a moral vocabulary; it's that that language has long been a mask for wielding power. When people think pragmatically, it may not be because they weren't taught to ask what Jesus would do, or what the Torah says; it could be because they believe that secular reasoning is more reasonable, because faith failed them or didn't make sense, because you can think you know "how to be" and still be a schmuck. 
Christianity is very much on the "how to be" side. In fact, its central focus is on who Jesus is. It goes even deeper than moral principles and says we need to understand the author of those principles. Even more than understand Him. Have a relationship with Him. Nothing less than an encounter with God Himself will do. 

What about Kaplan's point that such talk can be abused? It can be a way for people to get power over you. Christian leaders can be schmucks. But what if they are? Can they still bring you into relationship with Jesus? That is where the Catholic church has a big advantage. Bad leaders can still put you in touch with scripture and sacred tradition. Bad priests can still give you a true Eucharist, Confession and other sacraments. Not that having schmucks for leaders is OK but the process is more schmuck-proof. That is good because leaders that seem like heroes will be schmucks will be schmucks once in a while. Sin is in every heart. We can't trust any leader and we can't trust our own ability to pick leaders.

The biggest mistake we can make is to assume our reasoning can be our reliable guide. Whether it is our reasoning about scripture, about people or just general moral reasoning. Reason is good but it can be biased. We tend not to notice our own bias. Especially when we have no external point of reference to compare our conclusions against. That is what tradition gives us.
The task of progress has even been conceived as the opposite of what Brooks advocates: Our work is to replace the language of morals with the language of ethics, the authority of tradition with the process of deliberation, the revelation of divinity with the evidence of science.
 This reminds me of the way young children think. Whatever idea pops into their head is assumed to be the greatest idea ever. All the old rules need to be dismissed in favor of this great new idea. Kaplan calls that "progress." Forget what humanity has learned over the past few thousand years. Trust your brain. You are smarter than any tradition, than any morality, even smarter than any divinity. What could go wrong?

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