Friday, May 26, 2006

Macro vs. Micro Morality or Prelude to a Survey

Dear Son,

I have been doing a survey. I know that you participated at the dinner table sometime, answering my question, “What is a characteristic of a good person.” So far, I've gotten responses to the question from quite a few people of all different ages and shoe sizes.

People occasionally ask me why I ask that question. That is a good question too, so let’s start there. I ask because I’m desperate. I want to know what good looks like. I want to know “good with feet.” By this point in my life I should be more sure of that answer, shouldn’t I? But I am not. Partly I am not sure because I see so many people who have some of the characteristics that I would name as good, who have other characteristics that I would not include on the list.

We talked about some of that last night. These are people who think it’s ok, even good, to go out and get high, to live with a wide range of life practices that I consider bad or, at best, unhealthy. Yet they are good, and struggling with issues of goodness that are, in many ways more critical than the ones being ignored by people who seem to be concerned with good behaviors of the other sort. With my survey, I want to study what that is all about?

Then, of course there is a negative drive in my investigation. I see people, lots of people my age, who have for many years lived a life in which they apparently embraced the “goods” of conservative behavior, who are now disavowing those behaviors and diving headlong into a life of fairly unfettered practices. It is not a pretty sight to see the innards of middle-aged discontent!!! People seem to be able to flippantly trash their lives and families for “wine, women, (or men) and song.” Why is that?

Your dad described a conflict between macro-goodness and micro-goodness. He said that some people seem to embrace a definition of good that is a reaction to global activity, global politics, global philosophy, global intent. Others have a micro-morality that reflects conceptions that rest within the heart and internal conflicts that have implications for daily behaviors, intimate relationships, personal desires, and immediate reactivity. To macro-moral-man, it is a sin to take certain political positions, such as supporting nuclear proliferation or doing things that cause global warming. To micro-moral-man it is a sin to drink alcohol because it could have negative moral implications for relationships with family and friends.

We seem to polarize ourselves though. We are either micro-moralists or macro-moralists, but we aren’t good at being both. Perhaps the weight of it all is too great. If we think too long about global warming, we feel like we just need a good stiff drink. If we look inside ourselves at the moral dirt of our own souls, we are too exhausted to have the energy to get involved in environmental clean-up.

On the surface, Scripture does seem to present a rather micro-picture of morality. The Ten Commandments, after all, don’t include, “Thou shalt recycle” or “Thou shalt not emit noxious fumes into the atmosphere that shalt tear up the ozone layer.” But there is macro stuff there. The Genesis call to tend the “garden” environment, the parables about stewardship, the strong call for justice in Micah and its curse of the “short measure,” “wicked scales,” and “bag of deceptive weights.”

Have you ever been bored reading the Old Testament with its page after page of the machinations of people groups that are hard to understand? I wonder if that is because the descriptions are trying to get us to understand a macro-morality using examples that are out of our sphere. Maybe if the children of Israel were going in to slay the people of Exxon for corrupting the sea or to conquer the land of Haliburton for charging unfair interest to a people devastated by war, we would get it.

But there is something conceptually much more transferable about the teachings of the heart, the micro-moralities that were experienced BC, AD, and now. The wrestlings from the hearts of Jacob to Moses to Deborah to Peter to Priscilla to John carry an immediacy that I understand at first sight. And the commands are pretty clear also. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Do not get drunk with wine for that is dissipation. Even “gird your loins with truth” sounds pretty darn personal.

So, what are we to make of this? I don’t think its simple. I think it is a long hard struggle to understand the interplay between the micro- and macro-moralities. It is the source of much angst in our souls. But that isn’t new either, is it? Micah cried out, “Shall I present my first-born for my rebellious acts, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” Every morning, I start my drive to work with a rather primal scream in my soul to God, “Save me, save me, save me.”

I don’t think that it is an either/or proposition. To embrace one form of morality and eschew the other undermines the whole thing. But to feel the weight of it all is way too much to bear. If we can chunk it someway and feel just the burden of today, assuming the weight of the decisions and moral choices for today only or of our own lives only. Perhaps that is how we can survive successfully.

Reinhold Niebuhr has written a classic work entitled, Moral Man and Immoral Society. I am starting to read it. Supposedly, he says that the morality that a person can experience on an individual level cannot be applied at the global level, because institutions are incapable of running on any level but the politics of power. I think that this is an interesting take on things. Maybe that is why Scripture attends more to the intricacies of the internal morality. It is there that we have some choice, but in the global realm we cannot rely on morality.

bell hooks, a writer who engages subjects from feminism to greed, is more hopeful about moral applications to the public sphere. She says in her book, All About Love, New Visions, “An overall cultural embrace of a love ethic would mean that we would all oppose much of the public policy conservatives condone and support. Society’s collective fear of love must be faced if we are to lay claim to a love ethic that can inspire us and give us the courage to make necessary changes.” She then quotes Eric Fromm who says, “Society must be organized in such a way that man’s social, loving nature is not separated from his social existence, but becomes one with it.”

Obviously, others have and are and will struggle with the questions of morality. It is a very weighty thing. Establishing a true moral compass is not as easy as compiling the right list of behaviors and abiding by it. Those lists serve some purpose, primarily as guides for us when we are blinded by the heat of our passions, I suppose. But they don’t serve well as clubs for beating up others or ourselves for that matter.

I love you honey and am glad that you are the kind of person that you are. I’m sorry that you have to engage in the very painful philosophical struggles. Yet, I have found these struggles to be the very things that make us deep and loving individuals.

With all my love,


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