I’m waste deep in budget data and policy language, and nothing is teetering on the edge waiting for the slight push to publication. So, with the day having turned into another early spring bonus (at least as observed through the 16″ x 24″ window of my basement office), I thought the time opportune to slip in mention of an essay from last April’s issue of First Things. Happily, it’s among the articles that the journal has posted online without need of subscription.
“The Beauty of the Ethical,” by Seattle-based writer Ross McCullough, is one of those bits of writing that inspire the likes of me to do what we do. Depending on your current phase of thinking, you may find it revelatory, benignly well phrased, or mere pap. But it is for the sake of the first that writers risk the last.
McCullough begins by rejecting theists’ common assumption that a world without God is a world without ethics; look at atheists and the things they do and their political causes. Agree or disagree, but place them beside the lives and policies that truly immoral, or even amoral, people would advocate. They do not compare.
But notice how far his moral judgments stand from immediate practical application to his life. He does not struggle with a temptation to murder or rape, he may puzzle over the best means to end genocide, but these do not affect how he behaves on the subway. The one set of moral judgments that he entertains frequently are political ones—the secular liberal will think with regularity how much more the state should be doing for the poor, the secular libertarian how much less it should be doing to his freedoms—but these do not bear on his everyday actions: At most they touch how he votes and perhaps how he gives his money, not how he greets a coworker in the morning or looks at a woman on the street. If his moral judgment encompasses both political and individual behavior, where it concerns the individual, it is to condemn the unsocialized and criminal—things that have never had much attraction to him—and where it concerns the political, it affects him only as donor and citizen, roles that occupy little of his day.
Those who harbor the aforementioned assumption of theists do so because they live their daily lives contemplating their behavior in moral terms, whereas the secularist “need not think about it day in and day out.” To the extent that they live their principles, it’s in the superficial terms of their purchases or the grandiloquent terms of their political advocacy. A superb line: “They judge their moral success always by the fate of the world and never by the fate of their marriage.”
Somewhere along the way the traditional scheme of virtues was greatly flattened. Morality was collapsed into justice and justice reduced to its political dimensions: Prudence came to be conceived as cleverness, temperance as a lifestyle choice, fortitude as an admirable but not a moral thing.
Viewing life — not existence, but the act of living — as a series of moral decisions makes of it an art, which in practical terms is merely a series of aesthetic decisions, about brush strokes or finger velocity or word choice. What the spiritually inclined fear, I think, is that our society can lose its appreciation for that beauty, and even if morality does not entirely disappear, it will be neither as full and fulfilling nor as contagious.