Morality isn’t only hard on special occasions

Morality isn’t only hard on special occasions July 12, 2012

This is not the kind of problem I’m usually dealing with

In the discussion of St. Thomas More’s martydom, and how it helps me understand moral obligation, Kewois had a question about something I said, and I quite appreciate the chance to clarify and expand.  I’m double blockquoted, and Kewois’s reply follows in normal blockquoting below:

Morality might be natural, but most of us don’t think of it as easy.

You said “morality” but you are talking about “moral dilemmas”.
I mean, I think that for most of us is easy not to steal or to kill at random.  But in a moral dilemma you have to choose between two “evils” trying to achieve a greater good.

I think it’s a mistake to talk about morality as something that only comes into play in edge cases (that, for whatever reason, are mainly involving trolleys).  The kinds of dilemmas that Kewois is referring to are definitely hard, but they’re also romantic.  We think there’s something exciting in being called to make a hero’s choice, where we know we or the people we love will suffer greatly in either case.

That’s not the kind of hard morality I was talking about.

I wasn’t talking being tempted to steal or kill at random, but about repeating a funny, unflattering story about a friend or lashing out when someone doesn’t seem to be listening to your answer to their question or  responding to a friend letting you down by just resolving to rely less on other people in the future.  People who know me in person will recognize a rogues gallery of my own weaknesses in the above, and I’m sure you can come up with other examples of petty-seeming sin.

The first examples that came to my mind are all sins of commission: when I do what I shouldn’t.  The glaring omission is, well, sins of omission: when I fail to do something I should: not helping a lost-looking tourist, not paying enough attention to a friend to notice s/he’s upset and needs attention, not attending to the physical needs of the poor (through donations and political activism) or their dignity (by recoiling when approached by a panhandler).

Calling my struggles with these weaknesses heroic is as silly as labeling my quest to wake up at my first alarm ‘epic.’  But the small scale of the failing doesn’t mean it’s not hard to fix.  If I focus too much on the big, romantic dilemmas or the exciting intricate ones, I run the risk of ignoring the problems that I’m already messing up.  And the people I hurt when I screw up aren’t any less wounded just because there isn’t a whole world’s worth of them.



UPDATE: Richard Beck has a really nice piece on this problem and Saint Thérèse of Lisieux’s advice. Merci to the commenter who thought to link it.

A little too far afield for a full treatment in this post: Doing due diligence to make sure our heuristics for ‘bad’ and ‘good’ are in sync with reality is also a moral duty and is definitely hard.  Read “The Sword of Good” if you haven’t already.

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