We each have a sense of self, an understanding of ourselves in our own minds. This sense of self is challenged by all the conflicts and incongruities we are forced to contend with as individuals – between freedom and responsibility, the material and the moral, and among all the concerns in our lives.
Consciously or otherwise, each of us adopts a moral / ethical system upon which to base decisions and guide our way in the world. We can choose religious guidance or a philosophy assumed or devised by ourselves.
This can be highly refined or only rudimentary. Either way, it is all we have to moderate conflicting interests and desires.
The moral philosopher Mary Midgley describes the problem in an interesting way:
“I am suggesting,” she writes, “…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.”
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 both 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.
We lose control of our independence when we succumb to the fragmentation imposed by the incoherent impact of advertising and mass media that constantly bombards us.
This is particularly challenging I think for those who choose to disregard the major religious traditions, all of which offer rich and textured guidance. For the reader who is religiously inclined and grounded in the original texts, the way forward is generally well-lit – at least in principle.
If the reader is not religious, the task will be to ground oneself in common decency, to focus on the highest good, to discipline oneself to abide by an ethical code, and to bring healing and encouragement to those around us.
Let’s be clear: This is very difficult, and especially when we rely solely on our own limited knowledge and perspective.
Each of us is called to participate in the affairs of the community we have chosen as our home, to engage with our neighbors respectfully and to encourage and empower those around us.
Whatever our personal vision or intent, it is important that we think carefully about our means in relation to the ends we wish to seek. 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.”
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.”
These are not theoretical statements. 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.
In the end, the way we respond to interpersonal differences will determine who we are and the freedom we are capable of fostering.
Please look for the next post on or about June 2.