Seven Words – Ethics

Reading notes from Merton, Love and Living, “Seven Words”

Ethics

  • Merton identifies that “a certain pseudoseriousness in ethical exhortation” (124). By pseudoseriousness he means an ficticious appearance of considering something to require careful consideration; a facade that makes one out to be a critical thinker about ethics; a false attitude that pretends to think that ethics is an important subject to flesh out.

The only real ‘seriousness’ that a mature ethical knowledge can trust today is the unseriousness of a profound humility and openness which is ready to commit itself to the risk of provisional decisions where moral norms no longer seem absolutely certain in themselves. In other words, an ethical seriousness which bases itself on the absolute validity of its own system tends in the end to be pseudoserious and confusing. (125)

  • Merton seems to be arguing that black-and-white ethics are nothing more than facades that hide the “insecurity of minds troubled by the enormous confusion of modern thought.” (124) What is one to do when there are conflicting arguments that are equally valid (or appear to be) for a particular ethical norm? What is one to do when these conflicting arguments seem to both demand action?
  • Personal integrity and responsibility are “more practical” for creating an ethic by which to live. However as a result, we cannot simply rely on subjective reasoning for our ethics

[An ethic based on personal integrity and responsibility] accepts and respects objective moral norms, while remembering the distinction between an objective norm and pathological compulsion. A mature conscience is one which is willing to risk the responsibility of committing itself to action based on norms which are reasonable and sane but which do not always lay claim to an infallible and invariable validity. In this case, it is the person who assumes responsibility for his own act. He does not transfer all responsibility to the laws and moral dictates which he has chosen to obey. (125)

  • Merton then goes on to explain what he means by “laws and moral dictates.”
    • They are not merely useful customs, or social expectations, or rules that are functional and best for everyone to follow “like traffic laws.”
    • More often than not, these “moral dictates” are criticized as being utterly unrealistic to follow. But, if one does decide to follow these idealistic moral laws, it is “often [done] quite grudgingly, as if they were no more than the sentimental velleities [wishes or inclinations] for inner comfort entertained by people who have no stomach for the hard facts of life.” (125)
  • Instead, ethics should be understood as a “practical science [study] of attaining one’s ends as a human being.” (126)
    • What is the “end” or goal or purpose of humanity?: To become more fully human, to amplify personal freedom and responsibility.

The science [or study] of ethics then teaches us not merely how to get whatever we want without falling foul of civil and criminal law but to live in such a way that our actions will make us more perfectly human and enable us to discover ourselves in the fullest measure as free persons. With this purpose ethics studies norms of conduct which will enable us realistically to accomplish our vital human task. (126)

  • The norms discovered through the study of ethics should result in “concrete and objective” explanations of how one is to engage themselves in the world.
  • Norms are to be explored and discovered in the human person and in human relationships.
  • While objectivity and universality are key results, a mature understanding of ethics will recognize that the uniqueness of each situation may require an exception or modification.
    • This requires an “intuitive sense” of how to use one’s knowledge and conscience in everyday situations.
  • Moral education isn’t just learning the rules, though it does require learning moral norms, but the development of a mature conscience that can use the norms wisely in everyday life.
  • Ethics will always require risk “because we can never be quite sure that we fully understand the object of our choice, its real end, and all the circumstances surrounding it.” (126-127)
    • Dialoguing with others is a crucial step.
    • The presence of “risk” points to something else that undergirds and is “beyond” ethics: prayer, faith, and trust.
    • Thus, ethics is more than just about following the rules, but about full human development and flourishing; the “art of living;” “the education of human love.” (127)
  • Moral philosophy is helpful, but must recognize the reality of God’s revelation through grace which points us to the goal of humanity (achieved only by grace): our “ultimate fulfillment as a person in the love of God and of his fellow man in God.” (127)
  • As mentioned earlier, ethics is often criticized as being overly abstract and not in touch with the realities of human existence and human needs and desires.

The more abstract and idealistic an ethical system is, the more it will tend, in fact, to devalutate and reject life, substituting for it a cult of moral myths and abstractions that have no relation to the true purpose of man’s development. Such ethical systems can easily become so perverse that instead of helping man to truly find and develop his freedom in authentic love, they convince him that his highest values are to be sought in the refusal of himself and of love. This begets a morality of self-hate, of resentment, of frustration, of meanness and gloom. It is nothing more than an apotheosis [the exaltation] of the death wish and a pure hatred of life. (128)

  • If we lose the concreteness of ethics and also do not include our understanding of “natural needs and demands” then what happens is that we create such a lofty abstract model of ourselves that is thought of as perfect, righteous and pure that we are then left in a state of misery when we realize that the reality of that ideal is not possible.
    • “Yet one persists in trying to live an impossible and self-destructive life in pursuit of this ideal.” (128)

 

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