Quick: what’s the definition of morality? How about the definition of ethics?
These are not trick questions. The reason I ask is that it’s almost daily, and sometimes more often, that I hear or read a well-intended but misguided admonishment that goes something like this: “We should not be judgmental.”
Really? Nothing or no one can be declared right or wrong? Of course our courts of law are just one example of how we routinely judge the actions of others. Performance appraisals at work and academic grades at school are two other common examples. Social media sites that allow you to judge who to accept or reject as a “friend” or “follower” are yet another.
Sometimes, I hear the non-judgmental nonsense from the pulpit, or in a column written by a religious authority who very often will quote one of his or her favorite scriptures. A common one taken out of context is this one: “Stop judging, that you may not be judged.” (Jesus Christ, in what is commonly referred to as his Sermon on the Mount, Matt. 7:1)
Thankfully, various biblical scholars (Blackburn and Staples among others) point out that it’s important to keep this statement in the full context in which Jesus spoke. Here’s his complete statement:
“Stop judging,that you may not be judged. For as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you. Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove that splinter from your eye,’ while the wooden beam is in your eye? You hypocrite, remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye.” (Jesus Christ, portion of the Sermon on the Mount, Matt. 7:1-5)
Clearly, Jesus was not telling us to let our rational minds atrophy, no matter how appealing it might be when sitting in committee meetings. Rather, we are to be very careful when we do judge; ensuring that we are not being rash or hypocritical, not to mention unmerciful. In other words, judging is like driving a car, boat, or airplane. Speed is a necessary element of the experience, but excessive speed, an unwise speed, if you will, can and does result in harm, and sometimes it kills. So, in order for our judgments to be productive instead of destructive, we are to exercise virtue when judging right from wrong, and this presupposes that we know the difference.
Scholars also point out that in this famous statement, Jesus authorizes us to judge, but only after we make sure that we are not being hypocritical. Remember that he told us to “remove the wooden beam from your eye first.” (Matt. 7:5)
There are other biblical passages that underscore this point as well as our responsibility to judge. “Stop judging by appearances, but judge justly,” Jesus told his disciples in John 7:24. Other relevant passages in the Bible include the following: Lev. 19:15, Ez. 3:18-19, Matt. 18:15-17, 1 Cor. 5:12-13, 1 Cor. 6:1-20, 1 Tim. 4:16, and James 5:19-20.
“But, O’Malley,” you might say. “I’m one of the growing number of ‘Nones’ who does not adhere to any religious dogma or principles.” Fine, leave religion out of it, and you’re still left with an abundance of evidence that this post-enlightenment notion that we are not to be judgmental is simply irrational.
Take, for instance, Merriam-Webster Online which defines moral as “concerning or relating to what is right and wrong in human behavior.”
The same authority defines morality as “beliefs about what is right behavior and what is wrong behavior; the degree to which something is right and good; the moral goodness or badness of something.”
Merriam-Webster Online also defines ethics as “rules of behavior based on ideas about what is morally good and bad.”
So why do we preach and teach ethics in government and business to our employees unless we and they are to judge what’s right and wrong and act accordingly? Shouldn’t anything go if we are to be non-judgmental? Why bother?
Of course, what most people mean by this is that we should not to be hypocritical, rash, spiteful, uncharitable, or unmerciful in our judgments. Only a simpleton or permanent resident of the State of Denial would favor the anarchists recipe for disaster: a no judgment zone wherever humans tread.
Another modern fallacy is that we cannot legislate morality. Referring to the same definitions above, a rational person cannot assert such a claim, unless of course, he or she is acting in bad faith and simply wants a society in which anything goes.
What we are left with is a dilemma for those who are inclined to be very “progressive” in their thinking, at least in the way in which they want society to function. On one hand, in good faith they must concede that morality and ethics are woven into the fabric of society and that our laws and regulations are manifestations of them. On the other, they rarely, if ever, invoke morality and ethics in those terms as legitimate aspects of our society because they would then have to propose a reordering of society based on what they contend would be a new and improved moral and ethical code; and they realize that most people would reject the proposal if it was clearly and transparently presented to them in the form of a proposed law or regulation. Of course, in good faith they should also produce the scientific and non-scientific evidence to support their contention that the status quo should be changed.
Faced with this dilemma, the moral revolutionists have generally taken the low road. Instead of presenting their proposed laws and regulations in accordance with their preferences, they circumvent the system through undermining the education of our young people, pass unconstitutional laws, use unelected bureaucrats to regulate their preferences into existence, and make judicial and executive fiats to impose their will on the rest of the country or state, whichever the case might be. In essence, they are also expanding federalism at such a rate that if left unchecked, the only real differences between any of the states will be for show; such things as the state flag, bird, motto; all of which would be retained as a quaint throwback to the rigid, intolerant, old-fashioned America of old.
Candidly, our nation has and is being taken advantage of by those who use their social and political power and influence to work the system for their self-interests, not the public good. And, by the way, the blame for this should be assigned on a bi-partisan basis.
Of course, it takes great wisdom and courage to discern what is in the best interest of the public good —what is right from wrong— and to order civic and social affairs accordingly. Moreover, sometimes family, friends, and entire institutions are impacted negatively by decisions made on moral grounds. This makes it very challenging to take the moral high road, but nevertheless a responsibility that should not be ignored.
History is instructive in this regard. If a nation drops its guard intentionally or not, and governs by taking anything other than the high moral road, it does so at its great peril. For instance, our leaders chose to fight our Civil War instead of holding a Constitutional Convention in order to settle the issues at hand, including slavery. We paid a very steep price for this moral lapse.
Although analogies are never perfect, the fate of Greece, Rome, and Great Britain can also serve as a guide. Of the three, only Great Britain survives today, but a mere shadow of what it was during the era of the British Empire.
Perhaps, and this is conjecture, Britain out lives ancient Greece and Rome today because in the end the British did not get to the point where they were morally bankrupt, at least to the same degree.
To be clear, I do not endorse empire building by nations, businesses, or individuals. On the contrary, lust for power inevitably ends in the greedy being humbled by forces aligned with the greater good. Today, anyone who endorses the motto, “Greed is good,” should only be seen as harbinger of ill-fate, not a role model.
Of course, America is not an empirical nation. While some conspiracy theorists and misguided commentators may try to paint her as one, she has demonstrated, at least to the sober-minded, a firm commitment to help out around the world in various ways where she can without claiming dominion over the beneficiaries. Naturally, some U.S. based companies are considered “world dominators” within their respective industries, but it is a stretch to say that they individually or collectively represent American imperialism.
Still, there remains the matter of whether or not we are dropping our guard domestically and abroad by not claiming the moral high ground on some contemporary issues. Sometimes, scientific evidence can and should be used as one of the means by which a decision is made on moral grounds. When we unintentionally overlook or intentionally disregard the best of what the sciences have to offer, it gives rise to claims that decisions are more politically or socially charged, and the evidence and facts not carefully vetted.
Moreover, by not legitimately changing the social compact through a Constitutional Amendment or Constitutional Convention, it gives rise to claims that we are abandoning the moral high ground, and perhaps are simply unwilling to make some judgment calls on politically and socially sensitive issues.
All of this is to say we should abandon the flawed thinking that we are to be non-judgmental. Of course, I’m not saying we should condemn people for their actions, at least in most instances. Only in cases involving a capital crime, treasonous act, or abandoned property should a just society, using due process, exercise this power.
However, as Jesus urged in his denouncement of the hypocritical Scribes and Pharisees of his day, we should judge justly, mercifully, and faithfully.
“Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You pay tithes of mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier things of the law: judgment and mercy and fidelity. [But] these you should have done, without neglecting the others.” (Matt. 23:23)
I write this knowing full well that by simply commenting in this way about the current moral dilemma in which America is mired, I will be labeled as “judgmental” by those who, ironically, have declared themselves my judge and jury. If you hold fast to your principles, and conduct yourself accordingly, you are labeled a “fundamentalist” or “right-wing nut job” or some other pejorative. This sort of rhetoric is frequently deployed by members of the left-wing of their party or movement, although seldom if ever labeled as such by many members of the media, who seem to be more than merely sympathetic to their cause.
It’s tragic and in some cases scandalous that some people, when confronted by an opinion or fact presented by someone with a different point of view, or who holds to different moral principles, is labeled a phobic of some sort (ex: homophobic, Islamaphobic, etc.) However convenient these terms might be, using them in public does not make them legitimate, no matter how popular their use.
It does appear that the U.S. has arrived at a point in which we must decide if “we the people” are to remain the home of the free, the brave, and the morally upright. Are we still able to claim the moral high ground —even on socially, politically, or religiously sensitive topics? While people should discuss what is right and wrong, and likely disagree on some points, unless the matter is codified within a just law, should either one be marginalized, ostracized, or otherwise treated unjustly because of their opinion or belief?
In other words, in the home of the free, the brave, and the morally upright:
- Should a person have the right to hold a difference of opinion or belief on what is right and wrong?
- Should a person of good will have the right to hire, promote or fire based on a moral principle with or without it being rooted in a religious one?
- Should a tax-payer be forced to support government programs that he or she deems unacceptable based on a conscientious objection?
- Should a person, organization, or business be able to prohibit people or behavior on private or commercial property based on a moral principle?
As for me, I’m not afraid of differing views, and the team I am honored to work with is very socially, politically, and religiously diverse, as far as I can tell. Since we don’t have a litmus test, I’m not certain about this, but I do know I have very lively, engaging, and respectful discussions with team members who clearly have different views than mine on various topics including most if not all of the current hot-button ones.
I hope and pray that the U.S. is merely experiencing a relatively short period of moral ambiguity in which intellectual gymnastics and emotional appeals are held in higher regard than legitimate political, social, philosophical, and theological discourse.
Here’s to a speedy return to a society that promotes and supports taking the moral high ground by honoring and respecting people of good will who live in accordance with their principles —like them or not.