Paul Richardson: Restoring public morality today

Posted by Kendall Harmon

...‘virtue ethics’ has grown in importance over the past 30 years. What matters is not just following the rules but becoming a good person and developing virtuous habits. Rules help us to see what this might entail but crucial to moral growth are the following of practices and learning from life in community. Tradition, the example of others, training in moral goodness — these are all important elements in becoming good men and women. For Christians this underlines the importance of life in the church. Christianity is not something we learn just by reading books but by being with others and taking part in such regular practices as prayer and worship. ‘Café church’ and other so-called ‘fresh expressions’ that are not tied to such traditional practices often overlook this.

How does a secular society teach its members moral values and enable them to grow in virtue? The favourite prescriptions of New Labour, lessons at school on how to be happy or sex education and citizenship classes, only go so far. Most people learn by joining the ‘little battalions’, voluntary organisations like the scouts and guides, who carry out certain practices designed to inculcate a particular ethos. At their best, church schools do this, which is the real reason why they are so effective. Once the public schools aimed to turn out ‘Christian gentlemen’, a flawed ideal, perhaps, but better than the entrepreneurial creed taught today.

Parliament needs to think about how it can instil in members a genuine sense of public service. A start has been made by the Speaker’s departure, but we should see the deselection of MPs who grossly abused their expenses. In fact, what is so alarming about the whole affair is the little sign of genuine remorse on display anywhere among politicians.

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Filed under: * Culture-WatchReligion & Culture* International News & CommentaryEngland / UK* TheologyEthics / Moral Theology

5 Comments
Posted May 27, 2009 at 8:35 am [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]



1. dwstroudmd+ wrote:

Well, the ABC thinks they have been victimized and need a break.  A moral compass, not so much.

May 27, 10:02 am | [comment link]
2. palagious wrote:

The first and hardest trick would be for secular society to define what exactly is moral and good.  I don’t think this is possible given today’s downward trajectory of moral (good) behavior and frankly the degree of diversity within secular society. 

This goes well beyond the nature of secular societies institutions like legislatures and courts which tend to define and enforce what is bad behavior that will not be tolerated under pain of fine and imprisonment. 

There is no secular version of the Great Commandment, no statue defining the degree to which citizens must “love their neighbor”.  Thus, there is no way for secular society to legislate or enforce morality, ethics and values. 

Its a peculiar and perverse condition in which western secular society assiduously works to destroy every vestige of living in community in favor of every manner of self-indulgence and then can’t fathom why there is no consistency in the quality of life or civility. 

The reason it seems to work better in Christian (Islam/Judaism) Community is that we all individually submit ourselves to a collective standard of conduct that is higher than the mere absence of criminality, hold each other accountable (without resorting to courts) and have a rulebook.

May 27, 12:13 pm | [comment link]
3. New Reformation Advocate wrote:

The ancient Greeks had three chief cultural ideals:
the True, the Good (or noble or virtuous), and the Beautiful.  And Aristotle remains the classic advocate of virtue ethics (sometimes now called character ethics). 

The Catholic moral tradition has always found this tradition particularly congenial, hence the Catholic stress on the four great classical or cardinal virtues: wisdom (prudence), courage, justice, and temperance (self-control), together with the addition of the specifically Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love.

Alas, in our cynical, relativistic, pluralistic western world, we aren’t able to agree anymore on what is True, or Good, or even what is Beautiful.  So it’s no wonder that our society is falling apart, as their are few, if any, institutions or segments of global north culture that still seriously cultivate virtue anymore (although some optimists might say the realm of sports or the military are rare exceptions). 

The result is sadly predictable: without the regular fostering of birtuous habits of thinking and acting, western societies have degenerated so badly in terms of moral rot and decay that we’ve ended up in moral free fall, and since there are no agreed principles of ethical behavior that are seen as universally binding anymore, there is nothing left to arrest that catastrophic slide into ever greater moral degredation.  We’re “Slouching toward Gommorrah,” as legal theorist and social commentator Robert Bork aptsly put it years ago.

And tragically, the same is generally true of much of the so-called “mainline” Protestant world in the rich and indolent Global North.  Speaking as an Anglican, I’ve often thought that we western Anglicans are no longer able to agree on what is theologically true, or ethically good, so all we’re left with is our widespread agreement on a refined aesthetic sense of what is beautiful.  And of course, that’s not enough to hold the AC together in our post-colonial world.

David Handy+

May 27, 10:18 pm | [comment link]
4. driver8 wrote:

#3 NRA your point rather reminded me of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Nobel Lecture. The old prophetic curmudgeon was yet more hopeful about the work that beauty could do: 

DOSTOEVSKY ONCE ENIGMATICALLY let drop the phrase: “Beauty will save the world.” What does this mean? For a long time I thought it merely a phrase. Was such a thing possible? When in our bloodthirsty history did beauty ever save anyone from anything? Ennobled, elevated, yes; but whom has it saved?

There is, however, something special in the essence of beauty, a special quality in art: the conviction carried by a genuine work of art is absolute and subdues even a resistant heart. A political speech, hasty newspaper comment, a social program, a philosophical system can, as far as appearances are concerned, be built smoothly and consistently on an error or a lie; and what is concealed and distorted will not be immediately clear. But then to counteract it comes a contradictory speech, commentary, program, or differently constructed philosophy—and again everything seems smooth and graceful, and again hangs together. That is why they inspire trust—and distrust.

There is no point asserting and reasserting what the heart cannot believe.

A work of art contains its verification in itself: artificial, strained concepts do not withstand the test of being turned into images; they fall to pieces, turn out to be sickly and pale, convince no one. Works which draw on truth and present it to us in live and concentrated form grip us, compellingly involve us, and no one ever, not even ages hence, will come forth to refute them.

Perhaps then the old trinity of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty is not simply the dressed-up, worn-out formula we thought it in our presumptuous, materialistic youth? If the crowns of these three trees meet, as scholars have asserted, and if the too obvious, too straight sprouts of Truth and Goodness have been knocked down, cut off, not let grow, perhaps the whimsical, unpredictable, unexpected branches of Beauty will work their way through, rise up TO THAT VERY PLACE, and thus complete the work of all three?

May 28, 1:06 am | [comment link]
5. New Reformation Advocate wrote:

Thanks, driver8 (#4), your citation of Solzhenitsyn’s Nobel Prize speech was apt.  I think it may capture something characteristically Russian (or eastern Orthodox) in his appreciation of the power of beauty.  The Russian Church, like other eastern churches, tneds to express its theology as much nonverbally as verbally, through icons and the glorious tradition of Russian choral music.  So just as the Cyrillic alphabet reflects the strong ties between Russian and Greek or Byzantine culture, so does the Orthodox appreciation of beauty as a primary cultural value.

It was Jaroslav Pelikan who called my attention to the importance of the triple Greek ideals of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, and their enduring impact on western civilization.  And I think it’s fair to say that in the Protestant world, we Anglicans have put more emphasis on the importance of Beauty than any other tradition.  But in our case, unlike the Russians say, we especially love the beauty of eloquent language, all the sonorous cadences of Cranmer’s matchless liturgical prose.  One of our favorite or characteristic biblical texts in Anglicanism is the Psalmist’s call to “Worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness,” and so on.

But I stand by what I wrote above.  Retaining just one of the three ancient Greek ideals isn’t enough glue to hold a distinctive fellowship of Christians together.  If we can’t recover a reasonable sense of what constitutes the theologically true and the morally good, we’ll inevitably fragment.  A refined aesthetic sensibility isn’t enough to do the job.

Thanks again for one of your typically insightful comments.

David Handy+

May 28, 8:54 am | [comment link]
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