Orthodox America

Checking our Moral Compass


"The I9-year-old boy-man said he shot the newlywed woman because "I just felt like killing somebody.

Among those trying to find solutions to the outrageous crime rate in this country, the once prevailing opinion that poverty is at fault is wearing thin. As the Wall Street trading scandals caught media attention, so did the realization that statistics on crime were showing a disturbing rise of activity well beyond the precincts of inner city slums and well above the poverty level. If poverty is not to blame, what is?

The question has led scores of sociologists, psychologists, politicians, economists, historians and other professionals onto the broader field of ethics. Here the picture is even more disturbing, for while hard-core crime-- murder, theft, rape, embezzlement--is still recognizable as "deviant", the field, of ethics is pitted by cheating, lying, adultery, dishonesty and: other transgressions which have become the "norm". With advertising supplied by Capitol Hill and Wall Street, the subject of ethics has been enjoying a revival on college campuses. Unfortunately, the potential benefit of such courses is seriously undermined by a commitment on the part of both faculty and students--to moral relativism. Criticizing the way ethics is being taught in American colleges, Clark University Associate Professor of Philosophy, Christine Hoff Sommers, points out:

There is an overemphasis on social policy questions, with little or no attention being paid to private morality...Students taking college ethics are debating abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, DNA research, and the ethics of transplant surgery while they learn almost nothing about private decency, honesty, personal responsibility, or honor. Topics such as hypocrisy, self-deception, cruelty or selfishness rarely come up. ("Teaching the Virtues," in Imprimis, Vol. 20, No. 11, Hillsdale College, MI)

Sommers' own enthusiasm for teaching applied ethics waned as course evaluation forms returned with comments such as: 'I have learned there was no such thing as right or wrong, just good or bad arguments," or,'I have learned there is no such thing as morality." In trying to decipher what had fostered this "moral agnosticism," Sommers found an emphasis on "dilemma" ethics ("there are seven people in a lifeboat with provisions for four..."), cases in which "it is almost impossible not to give the student the impression that ethics itself has no solid foundations. On the other side is "basic" ethics. Here, argues Sommers, "one thing should be made central and prominent: right and wrong do exist. This should be laid down as uncontroversial lest one leaves an altogether false impression that everything is up for grabs."

LA Times syndicated columnist Cal Thomas similarly argued for a restoration of moral values--as a means for attacking crime. Taking the example of the appalling case above, Thomas comments:

"It was not the 'greed of the '80s' that made amoral criminals out of so many teenagers. It was the deliberate decision not to impose--yes, impose--a system of moral values. That has led to family breakups, recreational sex, teen-age pregnancies, rampant venereal disease, the de- valuation of life and the impression that the future offers no hope. Listen to the music of young people. Watch MTV, the Black Entertainment Network, the films. Sex, violence and profanity long ago replaced reading, writing, arithmetic and, yes, religion as the center of life."

(Ample evidence for this statement can be found in the statistics cited by Pr. Alexey in his "pastoral commentary" on page 10.)

There is a broad consensus that as a society we have lost our moral bearings, but few have offered promising solutions. President Bush's appeal for "a kinder, gentler nation" has broad support but little basis for development. Professor Sommers recommends courses in the philosophy of virtue, beginning with Aristotle's theory of moral education. For younger students she suggests reading stories and biographies about great men and women. Professor David Martin, offering his own "modest proposal" for the encouragement of goodness ('What Makes People Good," in National Review, September 9, 1991), likewise recommends reading books which reflect the kind of "firm world" found in Dickens, books which can act as "schools of virtue." Prof. Martin also wisely espouses a revival of guilt, which lies "at the heart of moral language'-not "a kind of brooding disablement but simply a recognition that our actions have consequences." And he would have "the firm exercise of authority and the deployment of fear" to restrict space for the disposition to ill.

It is encouraging to read such proposals, as they essentially agree with the Christian moral framework. There is, however, a fundamental difference: the above proposals leave the moral compass spinning; they have no magnetic pole; they run aground against Dostoevsky's profound statement: "Without God everything is permitted," i.e., all manner of sin; there is, ultimately, no reason not to sin; goodness comes from God and cannot be sustained without Him. It is not possible to return to the moral values of a Christian past without Christ.

Unlike the well-meaning secular philosophers trying to chart a course without a definite point of reference, our moral orientation as Christians, our magnetic pole, as it were, is fixed, and by following our progress, others should be inspired to set their moral compasses accordingly. Sadly, how- ever, we ourselves are often off-track. We, too, contribute a share to the general store of moral ills and ethical malpractice. We, too, have adopted a certain degree of moral ambivalence and have allowed ourselves to deviate from our true course.

The most efficient means for amendment, according to the Holy Fathers, is a healthy dose of the fear of God, coupled with contemplation of death and eternity. Rather unpopular advice, but effective nevertheless. It is especially needful to counteract the self-assurance and presumption which are such a feature of our intellectual and material affluence. We make bold to sidestep those commandments we find inconvenient, to concoct our own brand of Christianity, as it were; we dare to take slight notice of the exhortations of our spiritual father; we dare to attend services and keep the fasts as we will; we presume upon God's mercy and therefore do not force greater personal effort. Truly, as never before, we have need of the fear of God.

Let us make every effort to regain our moral bearings, that we might successfully reach our destination, and bring others in our wake.