Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Missing absolutes

Vivian Paige worries about ethics in a post on her blog, “On Ethics.” Conaway Haskins has had the subject of a code of ethics on his mind lately, as it might apply to blogging, “A SOB Story…discussion of Virginia bloggers association continues.” Others in Virginia’s blogosphere have frequently ruminated on the broad topic of where to draw the lines today for right and wrong.

Although I’m sure this sort of philosophical questioning doesn’t resonate with some of the political bloggers who can’t see past candidates and power lust, I believe Paige and Haskins are on the right track.

Here’s why: Unless our money-chasing, poverty-ignoring, secular society can find a way of restoring a sense of right-and-wrong to being one of its cornerstones, our freedom-loving way of life won’t last much longer.

That’s because a good part of the appeal of old-time religion -- with a violent I-am-doing-my-God’s-work twist -- whether it’s supposed to be based on Christianity, Islam, or you-name-it, is that our Postmodern Western culture is being seen as absolutely amoral by billions of eyes. And, the number is growing.

If America and its Western allies can’t turn this trend around, by changing our ways to do with how we treat powerless people -- there will never be enough bullets or bombs to prevent us from trying to wall ourselves off from the rest of the world.

Moreover, if we do opt for such fear-driven isolation from most of the world, together with yet more draconian security-first measures at home -- all in the name of protecting ourselves from evil -- our downfall is assured.

Well, I for one, don’t want my grandchildren to live through America’s downfall, so I think it’s vital for us to now think about/talk about how important it is to know right from wrong. Below the reader will find a little essay of mine that was published in 1999 by STYLE Weekly. It addresses the dilemma outlined above.

Do Unto Others
by F.T. Rea

The Ten Commandments have made an unexpected comeback this season. In the wake of recent teen violence, we have heard from pundits and legislators alike who say that posting this excerpt of the Bible on public school walls will help potentially dangerous students avoid running off the tracks.

OK, what’s the harm?

Well, when the guy across the street claims the Koran says it better, what do you say back to him? Next, the lady down the block says that the I Ching is more to the point. And so forth …

Ultimately, I’ve got to believe that the Supreme Court is going to have a serious quarrel with the notion of displaying selected portions of the Old Testament in public schools.

So regardless of the good intentions of those who would put the law according to Moses in the classroom, the First Amendment and a mile of legal precedent tells us: The state can’t establish one particular religion.

Yet I do sympathize with those who want to introduce children to the concept of absolutes. And, I wholeheartedly agree with those who observe that morality seems to be evaporating out of modern life.

The essential line between a healthy desire to improve one’s lot in life and in being so greedy that you’re a menace to society is getting more blurred all the time. Without morality, I’m not sure it is discernible.

Without morality perhaps the only perceived downside to theft, or any other crime, is getting caught.

If it’s ethical guidelines that are scarce, why not look to history?

Right beside the Ten Commandments, put up a copy of Hammurabi’s Code. After that, maybe we toss in some Aristotle. In short, let’s bring the basic rules of all major religions and philosophies into the classroom. Some of us may be surprised to see how similar the ethical precepts are.

In the name of “citizenship studies,” let’s put the history of ethics and laws in the classroom as a course of study.

I’m sure it would be possible to design a streamlined course that would offer second or third graders a basic overview of the subject matter. A subsequent look at the same kind of material might be offered in high school, with greater detail and more opportunity for discussion.

As long as we don’t tell students in public schools to pray, or we seek to raise one faith over the other, religion itself can’t be taboo. As we all know, much of the history of art and literature can’t be told without picking through religious relics. Now, I’m proposing that the actual tenets of the body of thought be examined as well as the artifacts.

The approach of the course would be to focus on the original purpose of particular precepts, together with the way religious canon has become custom and law through the ages.

If the reader is concerned that we must include every faith or philosophy, including such aberrations as devil worship, never fear. When we study art history we don’t cover every artist, or art movement, in a survey course. Therefore only the religions and philosophies that have had the most impact on the tides of history would need to be covered.

As the 20th century winds down, this scribbler is not at all confident that most children in the United States have much of a grasp of the classic concepts of right and wrong — much less why. And let’s face it, some kids draw a bad hand when it comes to parents.

Good parents or not, for many children the buzz of popular culture is so loud and prevalent that it overwhelms all other information.

Please don’t confuse me with those aboard the “Hollywood is evil” bandwagon. Nonetheless, I am comfortable saying that TV, pop music and the mass media in general aren’t good either. While they aren’t intrinsically good or evil, as they compete to make a buck they will jam pack a child’s head with sights and sounds.

If we expect all the busy parents in the real world to teach their offspring to see the vital connection between their acts and the inevitable consequences, we are indulging in wishful thinking.

Furthermore, if we expect children to pick up a clear sense of morality from popular culture, we are simply fools.

There is no set of instructions as to how to go about injecting morality into a secular society. In the past, like it or not, much of that sort of thinking came from the dominant religion in a region seeping into every fabric of the culture. So the parents were never expected to do the job alone.

Can there be any doubt that a society hoping to prosper has to find an effective way to instill in its young citizens an awareness of, and hopefully a respect for, its collective sense of right and wrong?

Finally, if it isn’t done in the schools, then where and when?

-- 30 --

1 comment:

teacherken said...

I am a social studies teacher who has taught a course in comparative religion in a public high school, and who also notes that one cannot teach World History (which I did once)without also talking about World religions. In fact, one can argue that without some basic understanding one is quite ignorant.

On the issue of Ten Commandments, I am often amused. First, the Jewish division of the more commonly cited text (there are actually two version in different places in the Tora) divides things quite different than either the Protestant or Catholic versions do - oh, dear reader, you were not aware than even in Christianity there is not uniformity of agreement as to the structure of something so 'basic'? And that does not even get into the question of translation into English. Thus the Hebrew has NO "thou shalt not" or equivalent. It merely states in such case "no". Thus the instruction about taking of human life, if accurately tranlated from the Hebrew would read simply "no murder." Obviously the deity of the Jewish Bible did not oppose all taking of human life, given that some of the commandments (amont the 613 that have been listed) are specifically requirements of putting people to death, including, incidently, disrepectful children!

Ethics has always been one of the problematic areas of human governance. Where I would disagree is the idea of mandating teaching of an ethical standard that the elected leaders of this nation and the various states and localities were not willing to abide by themselves. Not lying? Gee, how did we get into Iraq, and what is the content of much of our political discourse?

Just some random thoughts at the end of a school day, spent in Maryland although I live in Virginia.