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.

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3 thoughts on “About That Moral Inventory . . .

  1. I though you were going to let this go….

    I am not a fan of Penn State, for reasons that are many, and have to do with dealings with Spanier, his officers, the choices that were made there, and the contacts that I had with the 1% there. I am also not a fan due to the distortions that PSU puts on this Commonwealth in business, culture, etc. But I have had nothing against Paterno, because the long list of people who dealt with him directly thought highly of him and I thought highly of the people who dealt with him. Sadusky I dealt with, he could work a room, and he traded on his (severed) connection with PSU like no other. No one ever told me he was a good person. While I thought the Paterno narrative was overdone, I didn’t know necessarily that Paterno had that much to do with it.

    For the heathen of Happy Valley, and there are certainly tons of them, and I watched many of their rites and rituals, he was their christ. He made PSU what it is according to many, even today they say that to the press.

    You are really hung up on this sports media thing – media is distortion, it is not just POV (point of view), it is the message itself. And it is constructed to be so through more research dollars per year then went into the landing on the moon.

    You ask an interesting question about our morality in finding the most accurate information, I’m not sure, I’ll have to think about it, but I’m not sure that is the most important question here.

    Paterno did in fact talk all those things honest, fairness, honor, and they are sourced elsewhere, did he mention the source? Is this the moral of the story? Is this an Amos/Hosea story, God got no glory for all the good things that were present? I really don’t know the answer, and I’d like to go back and re-read some of his books in that manner, i took Paterno’s statement of “praying for the kids” at face value.

    Let’s be frank, God gets no glory, his name is not raised by the vast vast majority of the PSU people for anything on those special saturdays, what is glorified is something very different. It is not glorified for any science or engineering that happens there. We can extend that to other institutions, or other places from Silicon Valley to Wall Street.

    Why do we believe that these human constructs that are celebrated to the skies, by millions where God’s providence and supply are completely and totally ignored will in fact not all end in “oh, oh, oh”?

    I fear this in my life every day, i am a failure most of the time, when i fail at the final task of not thanking the living God today for something, then I am on the road of Amos & Hosea – absolute failure.

    Now you can draw the obvious connection to the Happy Valley christ.

    • I suppose the reason I am so turned off by sports journalists is that so many of them do not think they need to stay within their field of expertise. Yes, there are many good ones out there; but give them a platform, and they think they can legitimately speak to things about which they have learned or studied nothing, knowing that they are shaping the opinions of many. Same phenomenon as Hollywood types jumping on the political causede jour. That’s where the responsibility–yes, moral rsponsibility, comes into play. I and many other people watch sports and cheer for teams because of an overly competitive nature and because we simply want to stop thinking about important things and relax. Some of us enjoy the games more when people who really know the ins and outs of games and strategies can help us. They entertain. People like Lee Corso and Dick Vitale can get old rather quickly, but they have a way of reminding us that this is just for fun (as far as the viewer is concerned; I understand your issues with what the business side has done, largely due to the unseemly amount of money coming through television). But when guys in their field grab the mike and talk with false passion on important matters in society, I do tend to cry ‘foul.’ The tv portion needs stars on whom to focus; if they stay around too long, it becomes uninteresting theater, so let’s bring them down. That’s enough; we’ve talked about htis before and probably will again. You are, after all, a rebellious spiritual child.

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