About That Moral Inventory . . .

Just when I conclude that enough has been said (do ya’ think?!?!) about the news breaking out of University Park this week another part of me wants to say a little more. That part won out and the result is what follows. But this entry is intended to move us forward by looking back. And not primarily by looking back on the events themselves, but at what we might conclude about ourselves as individuals, as a society, and perhaps as believers in Christ within that society. I’d like to use this as a consideration of the factors that would go into the conducting of a moral inventory, something that is surely in order as we reflect on our reactions to the news we have heard.

As noted in an earlier post on this blog (see “Free Press Run Amok . . .”), the fact that so much outcry immediately followed the news indicates rather clearly that we have a moral sense about us that reacts in the face of what we perceive as evil. On one hand, it might be tempting to focus on the emotion itself and reduce our moral nature to the response rather than the cause of the response (ethical emotivism). As indicated in the post, this is inadequate. What Jerry Sandusky did was wrong, and not just because it made us feel a certain way. What university personnel may or may not have done was/was not wrong not because of how we felt about it, but because a fundamental standard was involved. This is demonstrated by the expectation that the people reacting fully expect that those involved would recognize the standard that was broken. It makes no sense, in other words, to react so strongly if we do not assume that there is a common moral standard which the moral actors know full well. We’re not as convinced of relative morality as we thought we were.

Something else that grows out of this recognition of a standard is that we are not its source. Let’s think about something that has been said more than once in the past week. It has to do with Joe Paterno’s undeniably consistent teaching regarding integrity, honesty, fairness, etc. Some will say that all of this teaching, to which all of his former players and assistant coaches attest, has been undermined by what Joe is alleged to have done or failed to do. If Joe were the source of those ideals, they would indeed be undermined. But he is not, as he knows full well; he simply gave voice and, for the vast part of his career at least, his adherance to an already existing set of values. Any failures on his part, or on the part of any other public figure who similarly espouses them, do not undermine the values or the teaching they have done; in fact, they underscore them. That is, the failure of persons both prominent and obscure to live up to standards they both recognize and publicize serves to show that those values are bigger than the person who speaks them, and this is never more clearly seen than when the consequences of failing come to bear. In our inventory, what values are we actually striving to achieve? Which ones will we do our best to pass on to those whom we influence?

From a Christian perspective, we have a sense of justice because of our being made in the image of a just God. The sense of justice we have, however, is not perfect for a number of reasons. And those reasons have a bearing on the case we’ve been discussing. I believe that the moral inventory we take must include an examination of what sort of justice we are looking for, where we will find it, what we will do with it, and how we will set about trying to improve our grip on the concept. As for the first part, we might be looking for one or more of three kinds of justice that have been distinguished by ethicists: distributive, retributive, and restorative. To simplify, when we say “justice,” do we mean that we want a fair distribution for everyone; do we mean that violators “get what’s coming to them” (punitive); or do we mean that we want to do all we can to put things back in order for all concerned, which includes rehabilitation of offender and offended? Public outcry is usually centered on a punitive sense of justice; we simply want someone to pay, thinking this will soothe our violated conscience. Are we willing to invest, however, in the restoring to wholeness, at least as much as possible, of those involved? Another damaging aspect of focusing solely upon retribution is that we can easily focus only on singular acts, allowing us to overlook the longer sweep of a person’s history, whether positive or negative. It tends to condemn many but praise few.

One of the most disturbing aspects of this scandal should be that of where we get our information. Do we not have a moral obligation to get our information as accurately as possible before speaking to this or any other subject? We love to say everyone has a right to their opinions; we ought to say that everyone has the right to the information needed to form an opinion and the obligation to use that information before speaking about it. The national media, particularly the sports media, has mishandled this from day one. People who have not so much as bothered to read the grand jury report just can’t wait their turn to condemn; people already predisposed against Paterno and/or Penn State eagerly gobbled it up and disseminated it further, seeking no corroboration. But this pattern is hardly unique to this situation (can anyone remember the Duke lacrosse team?); we seem to have our likes and dislikes and allow them to filter what information will receive and believe. That’s a moral issue.

We do indeed have a moral compass; and it is functioning quite well, in that it points us in one direction or another. Whether that direction is true north or not, however, is very much up for debate. I mentioned above the existence of a universal moral law to which we give witness whenever we moralize. The source of that law is our true north; the source is the One who implanted the sense of justice within us and reminds us of it when we are confronted with evil. That One also came and bore the retribution for all of our failures, so that we can be free to work toward the restoring of what is fallen. Our moral sense is not best expressed by our identifying of evil; it is in overcoming it. “Be not overcome by evil; but overcome evil with good.” That’s the key to our moral inventory.