Discernment: Harold’s Story III

By Stu Whitley

This is the third in a three-part series.

read somewhere that good decision-making—indeed, good relations—
depends upon a virtuous cycle of respect, trust and candour (which
takes some time to establish, but which can easily be interrupted). 
Attitude, after all, is everything. Perhaps that last statement needs a
bit of refinement: the ethical
attitude is everything. By that I mean the determination of the answer
to the age-old question: who is right? Was Harold right to express his
annoyance with conduct he perceived as racist and excessive, in coarse
language? Was the police officer right to arrest Harold in his
perceived perception that Harold was instigating a threat to the public
peace? Was the security guard right to expel the children from his shop
and continue to press for their departure from the vicinity? We don’t
have enough facts, a lawyer might argue. In a courtroom, various
perspectives and motives would be put in play, with neither party being
satisfied by the result. Forensic justice cannot answer competing
claims for rightness in a manner satisfying for everyone. But here, I
stand with Harold.

We react to moral decisions at a deeply
emotional level. Goodness makes us glad; we recoil from evil. Very
early on, religious teachings identified good and bad as beauty and
ugliness, light and darkness. ‘Fairness’ has two meanings, one of which
connotes beauty. Fairness as a generalized principle of equity took
some time to be formally incorporated into the narrow arteries of
justice, and in the minds of many, they are—or should —be the same

What stands in the way of an ethical attitude is the lack of
clarity about judgement and the allocation of moral choices, which is
to say, what we ought to do
in any given situation. Each of us is driven by what we feel (I use the
emotive word here deliberately, for moral choices are a complex of
rational and emotional processes of evaluation, with the emotions being
dominant – after all, such choices go to the very root of who we are as
human personalities) to be right, based on the way in which our life
experience has conditioned us to think. We are introduced to a moral
universe in which certain assumptions are instilled into us before we
achieve personhood. Some actions are bad regardless of motivation. If a
man abandons his family, it is a bad thing. A mature mind, a loving
state of being, would seek the circumstances: would mental illness in
the offender make a difference? Of course. An infantile sense of
justice allocates blame in the result, regardless of circumstances.
Arrogance has a blinding potency. Unfortunately, this leads in some
cases to the lawyer’s ephemeral answer to a request for an opinion: “It
depends.” What I am trying to get at here is the need for a discipline
of discernment, the refinement of our capacity to see what is essential
in any set of circumstances, and from the other’s point of view.
Thinking critically is essential to finding the true course.

I want to do the right thing
I have always wanted to do the right thing
but absolutes are for children
whose sense of justice is exaggerated
and the world is nicely managed
by simple allocations of good and bad
but the starting point for decisions
and in particular the nettlesome matter
of what to do about mistakes, or
that which readily inspires fear in us,
is not reductio ad simpliciter
but a recognition of a moral stance
—one of empathy—which recognizes that
not everything is always as it seems

everything beyond that, the whole rich palette
of emphases, principles, values and possibilities
that could have been imagined in the love of you,
especially in its spiritual dimension,
can be grasped and explained only
as a consequence of this essential quality

I want to do the right thing. I do.
what that will be, in any given situation,
from now on until the end of days, will be to
try to comprehend the wonder that is you


© 2007 Stuart James Whitley. All rights reserved.