How would we judge the following action? A wild young man, accompanied by his buddies, crashes a religious establishment, vandalizes property, and terrifies the parishioners with this taunts. So stated, few would question the wrongness of the deed.
Now, let’s add more information: the name of the wild young man was Joshua son of Joseph, known to us as Jesus Christ. He overturned the stands of the vendors and money-changers in the temple courtyard, while calling them thieves. In a painting of this scene by El Greco, now in Washington’s National Gallery, Jesus wields a whip against the scrambling merchants: he means business.
Why does this additional information make a difference in our judgment of the action? Let me submit that it does so for two reasons, one of principle, the other of the understanding.
The principle involved is that every action pertains to a person, and is judged through the medium of that person. There cannot be, and there ought not to be, a purely abstract moral judgment of an act. The understanding is engaged by our knowledge of the specific person, Jesus. He was the ultimate pacifist. He taught forgiveness of sins. Even those who have disapproved of him, like Nietzsche, considered him an overly kind-hearted fool.
Because we know (or think we know) Jesus, we mitigate our judgment of the action: at the temple, we think, he was not himself, others must share the blame.
I am presently reading John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism, a book as intelligent as its author but grounded on any number of unwarranted assumptions. Much of Mill’s thought, including his assumptions, are today accepted as self-evident truths. Here I would like to question just one: his incessant distinction between the character of persons and true moral judgement, which pertains to actions.
For Mill, morality became the search for some overarching rational principle to serve as a standard for all human behavior. That was, I believe, the most colossally wrongheaded of his assumptions — a subject for another day. But the stress on actions over persons follows inevitably from this definition of morality. A rational standard of judgment requires a subject matter to judge. A person is too complex and contradictory a subject unless broken down into his component actions. From a rational perspective, the person becomes superfluous: only the actions remain to be judged.
I suppose the assumption that morality pertains to actions is shared by many people. I often hear, for example, about the evil of the Holocaust or of some act of terror. Strictly speaking, such phrases are empty of meaning. Actions don’t just happen spontaneously. Human actors perform them, and it is to these actors, their characters and beliefs, that judgments like good or evil pertain. The Nazis first elaborated a whole philosophy of violence, then acted on it with great energy. They were evil, and the Holocaust they brought about was an evil consequence of who they were.
A Holocaust without Nazis is nonsensical; but given the reality of Nazis in power, a Holocaust was inevitable.
In a way, the rise of single-issue reformist politics has demonstrated the futility of bypassing character to focus on actions. Even when we agree that such actions — for example, drug-taking — are undesirable, pleading with kids to “say no” is both morally lazy and ineffective. The only path to changing behavior lies through building good character: that is, helping kids become the kind of person who will judge drug-taking to be self-vandalization rather than self-enhancement.
What of abortion? Can’t we determine, in some final way, whether this particular act is intrinsically evil, as some claim, or a matter of personal choice like cosmetic surgery, as others maintain? The question answers itself. After half a century of debate, we are no closer to agreement on the moral status of abortion, considered apart from its human context. My guess is that agreement is theoretically impossible. In any case, most Americans don’t even look at the matter in this abstract manner. They judge the person’s character, and the person’s circumstances.
Morality is not a speculative science. One cannot, by analyzing particular applications of moral judgment — my not stealing at a store, my neighbor not coveting my wife — arrive at a higher standard from which the particulars derive; nor can one, by an exercise of logic, first posit such a standard and then expect all particulars to follow as corollaries.
Stripped of such mathematical illusions, human life appears as a muddle of conflicting desires. Communities extract their sense of good and evil out of that muddle by trial and error, across the long sweep of history. The process is by no means devoid of logic, but the object is far from computational: the formation of specific types of persons needed by the community, for example the warrior or the free citizen. In achieving this object, the importance of practical success far outweighs the philosopher’s craving for logical consistency.
In life as we find it today — so crowded with strangers, so full of new objects of desire — this practical aspect of morality is of supreme importance. Rarely are we asked to determine the moral worth of an action (except possibly by TV, which daily invites us to engage in moral exhibitionism).
Yet we frequently need to decide the worth of a person, often with little information and on matters of some importance. How do I know my real estate agent isn’t a crook or a fool? Or that the taxi-cab driver won’t take me to a dark alley and shoot me for my money? Not to mention character judgments closer to home: discerning the kind of person my teenage kid is turning into, or the honesty of a potential spouse.
Under such real-life conditions, Mill’s ideas become, at best, an intellectual luxury, and at worst an impediment to true moral knowledge.