Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The Ethics of Striving for a Better World

My life is lived out in tension.

I want the world to be a better place. I also desire for people to treat one another with respect. Often, these two desires come into conflict.

How can we encourage people to be better without being perceived as attacking them? Is there a way to accept people without judgment? I hope so, but sometimes find it difficult. I try not to be judgmental. But I find I am judgmental, especially when I find judgments by others that I perceive to be made unfairly or for unjust reasons. Then I become judgmental toward those who are judgmental. Instead of building relationships,, they become fractured. Is there a way to stop the vicious circle of accelerating tension?

I also want to encourage people to live up to their potential. It is from this desire I often resort to parody and satire to challenge those whose actions seem self-righteous or who seem to take for granted their positions of power. The satirist critiques are based upon a strong moral ethic and the sharpness of his or her pen lies in the hypocrisy being practiced by those who are in control. “If mild reproof and counsel could succeed, the satirist would have nothing to do,” according to Ernest Tuveson in an article in “The Satirist’s Art. But when I critique, I run the risk of treating others with less respect that I would like. [for more on satire, see “Edward and Lillian Bloom, Satire’s Persuasive Voice, (Ithaca: Cornell, 1979). A warning however, the Bloom’s never met a compound or complex sentence they didn’t like—me being judgmental again.]

One of the most influential books I’ve read in the past 2 years is Paul Woodruff, Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue (Oxford, 2001). Woodruff draws from early Greek and Chinese philosophy to make the case that reverence is a classic virtue which helps us to do right. “Reverence arises out of an understanding of human limitations; from this grows the capacity to be in awe of whatever we believe lies outside our control—God, truth, justice, nature, even death…” “Simply put, reverence is the virtue that keeps human beings from trying to act like gods…” “tyranny is the height of irreverence.” “reverence separates leaders from tyrants…” “the reverent leader need not pretend to be godlike; the ideals are godlike enough.”

Woodruff does not deny the importance of humor and mockery in reverence. “Mockery serves reverence in two ways: by reminding stuffed shirts about their imperfections, and by awakening a sense of shame in people who have allowed theirs to lie dormant.” This is good news for me—I can still use humor.

Since reverence makes few demands on belief (it can be practiced across religious lines), then a truly good desire would be that all people of all faiths practice reverence. I think there are deep wells within the Christian tradition from which we can draw. Jesus’ command not to judge, not to hate, and to pray for our enemies (anyone said a prayer for Bin Laden lately? And I don’t think Jesus saying to pray for our enemies’ means for us to pray that he meets his maker sooner.) Instead, we love others and pray even for our persecutors, for when we act in such a way, we will have a hard time demonizing them. We should pray that our enemies have reverence! I like that.

Okay, this is heavy stuff—reminds me of the Ethics classes I took as an undergrad in the philosophy department. Let me end it with one quote from another of my favorite reverent/irreverent philosophers, Edward Abbey (who died in 1989, but lives on in Ed Abbey’s blog): “I hate intellectual discussion. When I hear the words phenomenology or structuralism, I reach for my buck knife.” -from, A Voice Crying in the Wilderness


  1. "How can we encourage people to be better without being perceived as attacking them? Is there a way to accept people without judgment? I hope so, but sometimes find it difficult. I try not to be judgmental. But I find I am judgmental, especially when I find judgments by others that I perceive to be made unfairly or for unjust reasons. Then I become judgmental toward those who are judgmental."

    Sage - this is my life! I have the same problem, living as I do, with an uber-religious, self-righteous, pompous ass, as I do. (Don't tell him I said so). Of course, I cannot help but judge him, since he is so very judgmental of others - and me.

  2. Edward Abbey was full of good quotes. One of my favorite of his was, "You do your needed work out of love, the love that dares not speak its name, the love of spareness, beauty, open space, clear skies, and flowing streams, grizzly bear and mountain lion, wolf pack and twelve-pack, of wilderness and wanderlust and primal human freedom and so forth."

    If by Ed Abbey's blog you were referring to me, I am a poor representation of the man. Check out his website Abbey's Web which still lives on after his death.

  3. Ed, like Abbey, you have some good journals and enjoy nature, but I don't think you're quite as irreverent as he could be. That's a good site--looking through it I noticed I've read 6 of his non-fiction and 6 of his fiction work. So I still have a few more to savor.

  4. From what I read, Ed had a real irreverent streak in him at times. In fact, had he not been so irreverent at times, I think his voice could have been much larger than it is today. For every person I meet that has read a book by Abbey, I sadly could name one hundred who haven't. But that wasn't Ed and you have to admire him for staying the same throughout the years. I think I have every book he has written except a few very rare early books and have read them all.

    Part of what inspired me to keep journals of my own was what I and many others consider his masterpiece, "Desert Solitaire." Never has there been a book where every single word has purpose and weight. To use some modern slang, his writing in that book was tight!

  5. When I hear "epistemological" or "post-structuralist", I'd want to reach for my buck knife (if I had one).

    I think mockery has its place. However, it has to be used with care. Many people don't need to be shamed. They have enough in them for 10 people and shaming them more is hurtful.

    I think humility is another good trait, besides reverence, that we should all aspire to attain. It keeps us in place.

    I am awed by the world around me. Some people say I live life with rose-colored glasses. But how can you not be awed when the Grand Canyon stretches out before you or giant trees rise up above you. Even other people amaze me. Each person has something amazing to share and it's often such a delight to hear a different perspective.

  6. Hmm..guilty as charged. I do so judge the judgemental. Thanks for pointing my prayers in a different direction.

  7. The best approach could be by the example one sets. It can change others without threatening them.

    But then, I'm thinking of the poet, the jester, the comic, along with the satirist. Our job is not to make people comfortable.

    By the way, I answered your question on my blog. I don't think the paper you asked about would be online, but you could visit the author's site and strike up a conversation. He's an interesting guy. And being on, your comments won't be blocked, like mine are.

  8. Advice well taken. It never hurts to be reminded to be a good person. It's why I wear a bracelet with the golden rule engraved in it.

  9. Once again, reading this has given me a chance to dig a little deeper. The J in my INTJ personality is quite strong. I am aware of it and resist it but it is very hard not to judge people when you clearly see negative results of their actions or values. I suppose that applies to all strongly opinionated people, and there certainly isn't any shortage of those on the blogs.
    Here via Michele, but I woulda been by later anyway. :)