Harold’s Story – Part 3

By Stuart J. Whitley | Bio


I 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 thing.

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  to be right, based on the way in which our life experience has conditioned us to think. (I use the emotive word ‘feel’ 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.) 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. But 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. That doesn’t always come with age and experience—but it usually does. Somewhere at the root of our humanity, almost at a cellular level, there is a duty to share that wisdom.

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
try to comprehend the wonder that is you

© 2009 Stuart J. Whitley. All rights reserved.

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