We each have a sense of self, a coherent unity within ourselves, a feeling of integrity that defines our identity in our own minds. This sense of self is challenged by the conflicts and incongruities we are forced to contend with, between the material and the moral, the physical and the metaphysical, and the various unresolved concerns in our lives.
The moral philosopher Mary Midgley describes this experience rather well I think:
“I am suggesting…, that human freedom centers on being a creature able, in some degree, to act as a whole in dealing with… conflicting desires. This may sound odd, because freedom sounds like an advantage, and having conflicting desires certainly does not.
“But it is not a new thought that freedom has a cost. And the conflicting desires themselves are of course not the whole story. They must belong to a being which in some way owns both of them, is aware of both, and can therefore make some attempt to reconcile them.
“…The endeavor must be to act as a whole, rather than as a peculiar, isolated component coming in to control the rest of the person. Though it is only an endeavor – though the wholeness is certainly not given ready-made and can never be fully achieved, yet the integrative struggle to heal conflicts and to reach towards this wholeness is surely the core of what we mean by human freedom.” (1994)
Each of us, consciously or otherwise, adopts a system of morality upon which to base decisions and guide our way in the world, either a formal religious system or one assumed or devised by ourselves.
Whether it is weak or strong, sloppy or consistent, or we even think about it very much, our personal morality serves as the grounding for our sense of identity and our actions. It is impossible to function without it.
It is our integrity as “whole persons” that resists the onslaught of disintegrating forces in our lives. When we lose consciousness of this effort and succumb to the fragmentation imposed by the incoherent impact of advertising and mass media that constantly bombards us, we lose control of our independence as individuals.
This is particularly challenging I think for those who choose to disregard the teachings of the great religious traditions, which supply us with rich and textured guidance. For the reader who is religiously inclined, the way forward is generally well-lit – at least in principle.
If the reader is non-religious, the task will be to ground oneself in common decency, to focus ones’ vision on the highest good, to abide consistently by an ethical code, and to bring healing and encouragement to those around us.
Let’s be clear, however: This is quite difficult, especially when we rely on our own devices.
Each of us is called to step forward to participate in the affairs of the community we have chosen as our home, and to engage with our neighbors respectfully as active listeners and facilitators motivated by a desire to encourage and empower.
We can only ensure the integrity of our purpose by means that are in harmony with our purpose. Mahatma Gandhi said it best: “They say ‘means are after all means’. I would say ‘means are after all everything’. As the means so the end.” (1937)
This assertion was stated somewhat differently, but just as explicitly by the economist and political philosopher F. A. Hayek, when he wrote: “The principle that the ends justify the means is in individualist ethics regarded as the denial of all morals.” (1944)
These are not theoretical statements. Rather they express a profound truth. The integrity of means must always provide the standard of reference in every endeavor.
If each of us holds our personal integrity clearly in focus, attends to moral responsibility, and respects our neighbor as we ourselves would wish to be respected, we should not find ourselves at odds with justice.
The manner in which we respond to our personal differences will determine who we are and the freedom we are capable of knowing.
In Two Weeks: Finding a transcendent resilience through inner freedom
Dear readers: I am scheduled for surgery next week. Consequently the blog will be on pause very briefly. I hope to have the next post ready for you on Friday, February 19.