At a certain developmental stage, young children are appropriately concerned only about themselves and what they want. At that stage, that behavior is appropriate and we would be wrong (and ineffective) if we tried to hurry them out of that stage. We would interfere with their normal, healthy development, and they would suffer consequences at they moved into adulthood.
When we are adults, living in society, and presumably capable of understanding the world in a much broader way than a three year old does, we come to realize that some of the things we might want to do that we cannot do out of concern for the greater good. For example, we might want to drive through a school zone at seventy-five miles per hour, but children might be hurt. We pass laws to make such things illegal, and no reasonable person objects to those laws.
You might think that same logic would apply to questions of gun control given that high number of gun incidents in school zones. You might expect that reasonable people, seeing the danger inherent in the regularity with which shootings and near-shootings* occur at schools in America, would be willing to change our laws to restrict access to firearms even if such changes impacted their perceived right to own as large an arsenal as they might like. You would be wrong, however.
America is well past the point where there is any reasonable argument in favor of the status quo in gun control. What we have isn’t working. Any politician who argues against stricter gun laws is likely in the back pocket of the NRA and is corrupt and needs to be removed from office. Even the most rudimentary understanding of any of the world’s great religious and spiritual traditions tells us that nothing is more important than the health and safety of a child.
The truth is that when we encounter someone who believes that their need to own a gun is more important that a child’s need to life, we have encountered a moral midget who needs to be ignored. If we are to live in a civilized society, we have to do everything we can to ensure the safety of our children. If you feel you need to hunt, I’d suggest you buy a bow and arrow.
It seems to me that we have lost sight of a basic ethical principal. I would state that principal as follows: An action is right or wrong independent of the impact of that action on me. Stated another, perhaps less gentle, way no one of us is the center of the ethical universe. Indulge me as I offer some examples.
If it is wrong to set fire to my neighbor’s house, it is wrong even if he offers to share the insurance money with me. My personal profit is irrelevant in making decisions about right or wrong. Similarly, telling someone at the bar that I am personal friends with Brad Pitt is wrong (unless of course I am), even if telling them that makes it far more likely they might go home with me. It’s wrong to lie, even if it means I stand a better chance of getting laid. This is the same principal at work as in setting fire to my neighbor’s house: My personal profit is irrelevant. Taking this to the employment environment, it’s wrong to lie on my resume or CV even if I think doing so offers a better chance of me getting hired. Again, same principal.
I am afraid that we have come to conflate and confuse several related topics. We have decided that lying by a politician isn’t lying, it’s just “playing politics.” As Shakespeare said, “A rose (or in this case a turd) by any other name is still a rose (turd).” There is nothing about our goal in lying to people that makes lying a moral virtue or even morally neutral. Politics and integrity should walk together, not be opposed to one another. When that’s not the case, the result is what we have today in both parties: a highly corrupt system.
The idea that the ends justify the means may have valid applications, but we have pushed it too far and find ourselves left with, in practice, a system in which some believe that if the ends are of value then any means to achieve them are valid. That is absurd. If my wife asks me if a particular dress makes her ass look big and I want to stay married, a nuanced my answer may be justified. If I can make more money by lying about the environmental impact my actions will have, an impact that endangers countless lives, no level of nuance is acceptable. Nuance is okay if it saves marriages and avoids being needlessly cruel, but it’s not okay if someone becomes sick or dies. That should be as plain as the nose on our faces, but we’ve lost sight of it. We desperately need to correct our vision!
I have been discouraged for some time now that we have become unwilling to forgive the minor indiscretions of youth that, at the time, weren’t seen as terribly problematic (such as the wearing of blackface in a college skirt or at a party). At the same time, we are unwilling to address serious transgressions that have never been acceptable, like rape.
That unwillingness is a lot of things, none of them especially attractive, includng cowardice, attention seeking, a distorted relationship with reality, narcissues, obfuscation, and self-deception. What it isn’t is a serviceable morality.
I have noticed that, quite often, when an organization determines that a certain course of action is the right course of action their next step is to enter into a long process to determine how to best implement that course of action. What they really seem to be doing is determining how to implement their decision in the way that will create the least amount of public relations damage possible. While I agree with the old adage that fools rush in where angels fear to tread, there are some problems that require action sooner rather than later. If your house catches fire, you want the fire department to arrive as soon as they can rather than wait until they determine the route that will offend the fewest people with their sirens and horns. The humanitarian crisis at our borders is a house on fire, but the issue is being referred to committees at a frantic pace.
I understand that everybody wants to afford everybody else the illusion of empowerment (God help us all), but in some situations the reason we have placed leaders in position is to take action while some well meaning soul forms committees in hopes that nobody gets offended. We have so battered many of our leaders that they are afraid to take action because they don’t want to weather the second guesses of their constituents, and so they fail to take action when required. We have a lot of damage to repair!
We might start that repair by learning to trust our gut. I believe there are many ways in which we communicate with one another that we can’t see or measure, but they exist nevertheless. Whether we call it intuition, a hunch, or trusting our gut, we respond to that information that is subtly communicated. How many times have each of us ignored our hunches only to later discover we should have listened to them? Sometimes we just need to take action. If we lose our position for doing the right thing, or the best thing we could, we need to ask ourselves if we would have wanted to remain in a place that confuses popularity with right action. I hope not.
Sometimes, knowing right from wrong seems remarkably easy. At other times, it seems impossibly difficult. When it does seem difficult, how do we know what choice to make?
Looking to the law is not the answer. Just because something is illegal doesn’t mean it’s wrong. For example, suppose your spouse needed a life saving drug that you couldn’t afford and you had exhausted all ways of getting assistance without any luck. If you walked into the pharmacy and noticed the drug just sitting on the counter, you might steal it to save her life. While the action would be illegal, it isn’t clear whether it would be wrong. From some perspectives, it would be wrong. From others, not so much.
If tomorrow murder were made legal, would you kill somebody just because the law now said it was okay? Nothing changed about the action itself, just the laws around the action changed. Apartheid, slavery, and a host of other horrible systems were at one time legal. Some people used their legality as an excuse, others saw that participating in such a system was wrong no matter the laws surrounding and supporting it. Therefore, while laws can help us determine right from wrong, the cannot define it.
Suppose your best friend was having a heart attack in your car. Would you speed to the hospital, breaking the law, or continue driving the speed limit? Most of us would speed. One way to explain why we would speed is that speeding would be life-giving, while continuing to putter along at the speed limit would be life-denying. That is an excellent question to ask when trying to determine right from wrong. Is it life-giving or life-denying? If it’s the former, it’s right; if it’s the latter, it’s wrong. That’s true no matter what the law, or any number of “experts,” might say!