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The call to be human: making sense of morality

06 May, 2010

240pp. Veritas Publications. To purchase this book online go to www.veritas.ie

Theologian Vincent MacNamara sees morality as a call to the full human flourishing each of us has as part of our human make-up. We find ourselves with others in society searching to do the decent thing. The author leads us gently but with expertise and authority. And he doesn’t allow us to sell ourselves short. What the book presents is a Christian view of morality firmly based on human rights and duties. However, he is keen to point out that the dynamic a religion gives to morality comes not so much from external precepts the religious code may lay down, but from the narratives and images from the religion that fire the imagination to seek for authenticity. There is a particularly fine chapter on “Conscience and Choice”.



Chapter 1: Approaching Morality 
Chapter 2: The Moral Journey 
Chapter 3: The Human Condition 
Chapter 4: Is Morality a Delusion? 
Chapter 5: What Has Religion To Do With It? 
Chapter 6: Should We Take the Bible Seriously?
Chapter 7: ‘But It Says in the Bible …’ 
Chapter 8: The Greatest of These is Love 
Chapter 9: The Centrality of the Person: Implications 
Chapter 10: Is Love All You Need? 
Chapter 11: The Thorny Matter of Absolutes 
Chapter 12: The Emphases of Our Morality: What Matters Most? 
Chapter 13: Moral Agent: Who Am I? How Free Am I? 
Chapter 14: Conscience and Choice 




I think we can dive right into the subject. Morality is not a foreign country. We all know a lot about it. It constantly surfaces in our conversations. People argue about inequalities in our health or educational system, about same-sex marriage, about war, about the treatment of immigrants, about the bonuses of bankers, about the waste of public money, about abortion, about the welfare of children, about the failure of bishops. They write letters to the papers. They demonstrate, they sign petitions. They don’t always use the traditional moral language of right and wrong. They say that certain pieces of conduct or ways of behaving or institutions are outrageous or unacceptable or inhuman or indefensible. Or, on the other hand, they claim that they have a moral right to certain kinds of treatment or an entitlement to certain benefits.

We are right to talk and argue about such things. It is because we have a sense of the moral dimension of life that we do so. It is to such that we are appealing. After all, why should anyone listen to you or engage with you or take you seriously when you talk or write about rights or obligations or injustice or unfairness? We certainly expect them to listen; we think we are justified. There is some kind of unspoken common ground on which we depend, to which we can appeal. It is an acknowledgment of the moral point of view. It seems to be true that we cannot describe how life presents itself to us, we cannot have a society, without recourse to some of the language of ‘right’, ‘wrong’, ‘good’,’bad’, ‘duty’, ‘obligation’, ‘ought’, ‘praise’, ‘blame’, as well as much moral language of a softer kind – unacceptable’, ‘not the decent thing’.

So it seems to be part of our humanness, of our intelligence, to take this for granted. We may have trouble nailing it down. We may be only able to assert it, to say that we know that there are things that are right and wrong but not go much further in the way of explaining it, or accounting for it, or spelling out its implications. But we do seem to regard it as entirely natural to accept it. So we know a great deal and that is the best place to begin any discussion of morality – with ourselves and our spontaneous ideas and judgments, with what we do and expect. I think you would agree that, when we make moral statements, we do not think that we are merely expressing our tastes: they are not in the same category as statements such as I like science fiction, or Indian cinema, or spaghetti bolognese, or the
Connemara landscape, and don’t like cucumber or modern architecture. It is perfectly alright for you to like one thing and for me to like another. Such things do not greatly matter; there is no right and wrong or true and false about them. But there are areas of life in which it matters a great deal what we value and do – issues of a person’s right to life, of justice, of respect, of cruelty, of hunger, of political corruption, of banking scandals, of child abuse, i.e. moral issues. We are not prepared to say that in making statements about such matters we are merely expressing a subjective point of view and that it is perfectly fine for someone else to hold and act on the opposite point of view.

A Truth for Living
No, we believe that there is what we might call an objectivity about such statements. You would not blame someone for not liking cucumber or tomato but you would blame them for espousing cruelty or torture or the abuse of children, or being callous about people dying of hunger. We believe that there is a truth to be discovered here, a truth for living that is as rigorous as truth in any other area, and that the judgments we are making are somehow founded in the natures and relations of things. We would expect to be able to give reasons of some kind for our positions, to justify them. Or, at least, we feel that they are justifiable, that someone who was good at understanding the human situation and was articulate could demonstrate the reasonableness of them. I don’t think you would settle for saying ‘well, it was fine if they felt that cruelty or torture or abuse was OK’? I don’t think so – you would have to deal with Hitler and Mao and Pol Pot and many of the great crimes of history if you followed that line. There is something here that has a validity, that is undeniable, whatever people think.

Can we develop this a bit more? We use the words `wrong’ or ‘right’, but if you were challenged to say what you mean by them, what would you say? What does it mean to you to say that something is ‘wrong’? Why do we feel justified in appealing to it or expecting others to take it seriously? Or if someone says to you, ‘you cannot do that, it is wrong’, where does the ‘cannot’ come from? I don’t mean now what kinds of acts are wrong, but what do you mean by saying that anything is wrong? Does it mean for you, for example, that it is forbidden by God or forbidden by the ten commandments – you know how often you have heard people condemn a crime by saying that it is ‘a crime against the sacred and inviolable law of God’. That may have its place. There was a time when most people would give that answer, but less and less people would give that answer today. (And they’d be right, but more about that in chapter five.)

I suspect that people today would explain what they mean by appealing to such rock-bottom notions as harm, or fairness, or impartiality, or justice, or respect for self and others, or by talk about rights, or by concern for a just society. Or talk about what kind of life is fitting or appropriate for human beings. These are related ideas. What they all imply is that you are going beyond mere assertion. You are not saying arrogantly, ‘Well, it is wrong and that is the end of it’, or ‘it is wrong because my church says so’, or ‘it is wrong because that is what I feel about it’, or ‘it is wrong because it is wrong’. You are getting into a deeper question, the ‘why’question –’why do I say this is wrong?’ You are reaching back beyond mere assertion to something more fundamental in human life. You are trying to give reasons that have to do with your sense – and you hope everyone else’s sense – of what it means to be a human being. So you would be pushing things back a bit and saying that it is wrong because – because it is harmful, or discriminatory, or lacking in respect, or cruel, or is bad for society, or denies another’s rights, or makes no human sense, or whatever. And you would expect people to understand that and acknowledge it – at least to understand what you are getting at. This is our moral experience.

So we seem to have a vision, a sense of what being human in the world involves. And more precisely what being human in the world with others involves. We are naturally social animals and the actions that we judge to be naturally right and just are not right and just in some abstract universe but in human society, in the interface with others. So morality begins with what is – with our sense of what it means to be a human being with others in society, and not an orangutan or a cow. It is founded on that. There is some notion here of what is a characteristically human life, a worthwhile life, or a fulfilled life, or, in a deep and considered sense of that word, a happy life. There is involved a sensitivity to the reality of being a human being, to its basic desires or dynamic, some sense of potential, of human evolvution.

Human Needs
Well, that’s where our morality begins. But let us pursue it a bit further. When we look at our spontaneous moral statements or concerns – justice for all, honesty in government, an end to discrimination, etc. – we can see that they are about what human beings need for their well-being. What that involves is arrived at by our experience of living, our common experience of human needs and interests. Morality is not a matter of arcane laws. It is an understanding of what is good or fulfilling or growth-making for people – and that is the only justification any society or institution or church can have for promoting it. We all have ideas about that, and so we should. Your mother might tell you that vegetables are good for you, or fresh air, or exercise – and that too much drink is bad for you and that drugs will ruin your life. It is that kind of thing. The terms ‘right’ and ‘good’ are often used loosely – and often interchangeably – for the moral life. Strictly, however, ‘good’ is factual: it refers to what will bring about our flourishing or wholeness – understanding, for example, the importance to us of security, friendship, freedom, self-esteem, privacy, sex, leisure, and so on. ‘Right’ more strictly refers to what to do; it rests on our human sense that what is truly ‘good’ for us is to be followed, that it is the only thing that makes sense.

If you were to ask people around you what humans need for a fulfilled life, you would probably get a fair amount of agreement. Off the top of their heads they might mention all sorts of trivial things – because we are not always wise. But if you could sit them down and have them reflect, or meet them in decisive moments, it might be different. ‘If only I could get rid of the pain’, ‘if only we had a place to live’, ‘if only my husband would give up the drink’, ‘if only my child would give up drugs’, ‘if only I had peace of mind’, ‘if only I had a friend, someone to talk to’, ‘if only I didn’t feel so depressed about myself’, ‘if only we had peace and freedom in our country’ – you might hear that kind of thing. Such situations drive us back to what is vital for us. If, then, we have an awareness of the needs of our human nature, we can know the direction of moral life, we can have some idea of how we ought to live together. It will be in the direction of what will enable our needs to be met – or what kind of society will enable it. A society that is fair, that protects the young and the vulnerable, that cares for the less fortunate, that nourishes us educationally and culturally; that makes it possible for us to make a living, to live in peace and security, to participate politically, to be free to pursue our convictions, and so on. These are things we consider worthwhile: they are worth pursuing and hoping for. They are values for us. It is relatively easy to have this general sense of the direction of satisfactory living. It is much more difficult to settle on the more precise demands and that is where much of the argument occurs. (As in most matters, some are better at this than others: they have a better sense of the needs and possibilities of the human person. They have grown in wisdom. And some are simply good at being human.) But we’ll come to that in chapters four, ten and eleven.

A Fact of History
This kind of concern for how we need to live together is an abiding fact in our history and literature. In all cultures and at all times, men and women have had their moral codes. They may differ about what is right and wrong. They may differ about how they arrive at their conclusions. They may have only analogous notions of morality. It may sometimes be difficult to disentangle it from other kinds of rules in their society, for example, religious or ritual rules, or conventions of etiquette. But they have had no doubt that some kinds of act, purpose and intention are right and the opposite wrong – some kinds of conduct to be accepted or praised, the opposite to be frowned upon and blamed, and perhaps not tolerated in society. The details of their positions on life, justice, fairness, community, sexuality, may differ from culture to culture and from age to age – we will see why later, and see problems to which this gives rise. But it is striking that there is enough broad agreement among different cultures and traditions to permit a document like the UN Declaration of Human Rights to lay out for all peoples what kind of conduct is acceptable, and how all human beings should be treated in matters of justice, life and so on. That document stands as a beacon against all forms of arbitrariness and abuse. It is saying that life cannot be arbitrarily lived, any old way we like, and that people cannot be arbitrarily treated. Why? Because of a deep conviction, which it trusts is shared by all peoples, that ‘all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights’. It rests on this conviction of the inviolable quality of humans and their needs. It recognises that this is something deeper than and prior to agreements between governments. This acknowledgment by our intelligence, or soul, or humanness, is the lynchpin of society.

The Declaration is in the line of great classic statements down through the ages. We have it in philosophical and religious texts. But it is a constant also in the world’s great literature – the struggle of right and wrong, of goodness and badness in living. But we don’t need to go back through the ages: we have recent examples. How come we can agree to have international courts of justice and rights? To what do they appeal. Strikingly, when they arraign those who are charged with war crimes, even when they were committed under the duress of state directives, the courts have recourse to the language of ‘crimes against humanity’. Their judgments are based on the authority of a moral order that the human spirit recognises as overriding all other authority. It points to the inner nature and source of morality. To its inescapable humanness. To the fact that it is difficult to be an intelligent human being and deny it.

There are anomalies, of course. Moral awareness can be dimmed and can fade. If we are morally careless over time, then the demand of our moral being loses its sharpness. We can silence remorse for our wrongdoing. That happens. What is more disturbing is to find someone who never had any moral sense, for whom the moral dimension of life is a complete blank, someone who sees nothing wrong in any of the moral evils that revolt the generality. One, who not merely approves or enjoys or condones wrongdoing, but cannot grasp what conceivable objection anyone could have to, let us suppose, torturing people for fun. Such a one is, sadly, an emotional cripple who does not have the equipment for a full human life. Acceptance of some fundamental notion of morality enters into our conception of a normal human being.

In doing morality, then, we are concerning ourselves with one of the great questions of life: what does it mean to be a human being, a person; how is one to live? It is a question that arises spontaneously for us and that has troubled humankind from the beginning. It is not something that we make but rather something that we find and to which our human nature tells us we must attend. Neither is it something that we can easily manipulate; the normal person feels the pinch of remorse if it is ignored; in this sense it is something greater than ourselves. Some speak about it as having a sacred character – so, for example, you hear talk about the sacred character of human life. I take that to mean that it is perceived and experienced as something of the deepest importance and dignity, something overriding other considerations, something which we must respect or pay the price of knowing that we have not been true to ourselves, that we have denied our soul, that we have failed in our deepest core. Morality is not the servant of our desires and interests, but their judge. We cannot commandeer it into our service.

A Search
We might think of the moral codes of the world as the result of this engagement of the human race from the beginning. It is a continuing, delicate and fragile search. Any society can get it wrong. Every society will probably agree that past conclusions were mistaken or need to be modified. Many societies will not only fine-tune what they received from earlier generations. They will change the weight and importance they give to one piece of’ morality or immorality over another. Think of the well-worn examples of slavery or of the status of women – Plato, Aristotle and St Paul would probably have told you that it was part of the natural law that some are born slaves and some free or that women are inferior to men. Think, too, of how our own societies have developed – its relatively recent acknowledgment of our moral obligation to people with a disability, travellers, immigrants, those born out of wedlock, people in second relationships, those facing repossession of their homes. Think of issues like capital punishment, pre-marital sex, international trade, equal pay, the environment. At the very least there has been a change of emphasis. One could think of the whole of humanity slowly and painfully trying to work out over the ages what it means to live satisfactorily together. In a sense it is true to say that we make our morality. At least we discover it. But ‘discovery’ here is not like finding something ready-made. We have to work at it, to figure out what is best for humanity. And that calls for sensitivity.

Who is to say, people often ask. Who is to say what is right and wrong? Who is to decide whether a particular position or movement is an instance of greater moral insight, or the opposite – let’s say IVF, or assisted suicide, or democracy, or liberal capitalism? Some find it difficult to accept that moral wisdom depends on our fallible minds. But that is how it is. It is no more likely that we will have certainty here than about anything else that is important – psychology, philosophy, medicine. Even the much lauded science is now seen as a matter of probabilities or hypotheses. And we are largely ignorant of important issues of faith: we know so little about God, or about life after death. If we do not know the answers to many of the problems in these areas, why should we expect to know all about morality? You could consult your tradition or your elders. You would be foolish to ignore that. But how do or did they know? Together, we have to do the best we can. There is nobody to go to, at least nobody except our fellow human beings. There is only the age-old search of humankind to listen to its deepest inspirations. Aristotle would have told you to go to the wise person, and that is helpful advice, if you could recognise one!

We see divisions daily between those who are happy to see society in this state of continuing search and discovery – in the area of morals as in every other area – and those who see morality as settled and handed down, perhaps by God, and given to institutions like the church to defend. For the second group, questions about morality are non-questions: all has been determined. Their fear is that questioning will lead to carelessness, that a precious heritage will be lost, and that the structure of church and society will be weakened. Respect for one’s heritage is commendable. But morality is more fundamental than that: there is room for and need for thoughtful questioning. The chasm between the two approaches makes dialogue difficult and is often the source of disagreement on particular issues.

It is not surprising that we disagree about what is right and wrong, about who is the good human being. We are making value-judgments. We disagree about more tangible things. Not everyone will agree on what is a good table or lawnmower or poem. About such things as the length of a table or poem we cannot escape agreement – just get your measuring-tape or count the lines. That’s easy. But with a ‘good table’ we are in a different category. That requires some understanding on what tables are for, what they are meant to do. Still less will they agree on what is to count as a good cook or cabinet-maker or gardener, although that might be possible – again, what are they for, what are they meant to do or produce? And as for agreement on a good poem or painting! About a good man or woman we have even greater problems. That has to do not with a person’s skills – cooking, cabinet-making, gardening – which might be in some way measurable. It seems to mean ‘good at being human’ and that is a bit intangible. What are human beings for? What are they meant to be – if one can give sense to that expression? Who is the ideal human being? That is difficult. The meaning of life is much more difficult to discern than the meaning of a table or lawnmower or gardener. We do, however, have some basic sense of it and we should trust it.

We may rejoice in our gift of a moral sense and in its enduring presence in human society. It gives hope to us all. But that is only half the story. Many of us feel burdened by it: it is an uncomfortable friend; we can resent its insistence in our lives. It makes demands on us. Those of us who belong to a church sometimes see it as imposed on us ‘from outside’, as something that we have had no say in, and may feel that we have been saddled with a strict and damaging version of it. So that it might be important to see morality as something arising within ourselves, as our own doing, as the call of our deepest and best self. As something that we all have a right to discuss. We need to take ownership of it. This book is meant to be an encouragement to do so. If our experience of it has been confined and dispiriting, if our picture of it has been largely negative, we have a task to lift morality out of its narrowness and give it its true space. It is good to remember that it is the gift of our moral sense that drives us to fight against apartheid, to rage at the abuse of children, to run marathons for good causes, to build houses in the developing world, to work with Meals on Wheels, to provide shelter for Aids victims, to be concerned about human trafficking, to visit children’s hospitals, and so on. It invites us to build a better world. There is a need for all of us to be ever questioning and wondering about our lives together. We might see ourselves on a journey to discover what our humanness is saying to us, what vision it is holding out to us, what is important and what not.

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