Another comment from the ether about my prior January posts noted that morality is largely a public matter, and that public views had not sufficiently evolved 30 years ago to judge parental action and inaction when it came to child abuse. In this reader’s opinion, it was unfair to bring 20/20 hindsight from a more enlightened time to pass judgment on these individuals.
“Judging” is part of “learning from terrible mistakes,” because the latter requires acknowledging that “terrible mistakes” have been made. Since we are often reluctant to draw any kind of conclusion from someone else’s behavior—“Who are we to try and stand in their shoes anyway?”—it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to think in a reasonable manner about how things might have gone differently. Because this kind of caution leaves us in a muddle, it makes some judgments necessary.
The intended aim on this page will always be to “learn from” in order to “maybe do better” the next time around. On the other hand, whenever you detect the smugness of a judgment’s moral superiority in these posts, I will count on you to call me out.
There is no question that the extraordinary publicity around the abuse of children over the past 15 years has led to an evolution of public thinking about what Society accepts and what it condemns. In much the same way, the soul-searching after the Holocaust’s horrors were revealed and the Nuremburg trials transfixed the world led to more evolved societal thinking about prejudice, and how one of the paths where prejudice can lead is ethnic cleansing.
There is also no question that a more primitive public morality in a sense “permitted” those who preyed on children or Jews for centuries to follow their demons without interference. Maybe it was because children were viewed as less than fully human or as mere property that they could be secretly exploited. Maybe it was because the Jews had killed Jesus and therefore were “evil” that these societies encouraged or tolerated inquisitions and pogroms and a million acts of violence against them. But whatever Society had to say about such matters at the time, what do we think individual hearts were saying?
Do we really think that individuals in less evolved times failed to appreciate that sexual and ethnic violence against other individuals –family members, neighbors, your seven-year old daughter, the man you bought your bread from—was unacceptable?
On an individual level, did Society have to get around to confirming that certain kinds of violent and predatory behavior were wrong before individual conscience could reach this conclusion on its own?
Hasn’t it always been what your heart is telling you at such times that truly matters?
In this regard, did the Philadelphia parents 30 years ago need Society’s blessing to shine a light into the shadowy corners where a child molester was doing his dirty work? Did they really need to know what all the psychologists and other authorities would be saying 30 years later about the damage he was inflicting on those children to put a stop to it?
At what point does Society’s un-evolved state become just another excuse for not doing what you know in your heart needs to be done?
Nowhere in the West today is ignorance so deep, lives so brutish and short, that hearts have gone cold. There are pockets of alienation, but this is not where most of us live. In addition, most moral decision-making ends up happening in areas where Society has never gotten around to providing us with anything approaching clear guidance.
On basic moral issues, I’m proposing that we have the confidence to look within ourselves, instead of simply looking at what those around us are doing or, more commonly, not doing. That is where the source code for moral decision-making can be found.