Big Box Morality
Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Florence Nightingale, these are giants of moral virtue, courage and commitment. They devoted their lives, sacrificed their lives, for the cause of justice and the greater good. When we think of living an exemplar moral life, it is these lives that we look to because of their engagement of big issues that affect big changes in a multitude of lives. They overshadow our small, insignificant lives, lived in the alleyways of common life.
An equally long shadow is cast from the methods typically used to understand the nature and development of morality. The study of moral development has, for decades, used moral dilemmas to determine one’s moral stage of development. For example, the question is posed, “If you were poor and your parent had a life-threatening illness that required a drug that you could not afford, would it be acceptable to steal it?” Analysis of the reasoning involved in the answer is used to determine individuals’ “moral stage”. Philosophical inquiries into the basis and origins of morality and ethics typically pose similar moral dilemmas to expose underlying moral reasoning and values. These approaches assume that morality is exposed in events of great significance, and that reason and logic are the gateways to identifying and codify the rules of ethics.
Mom and Pop Morality
I call the beliefs that morality is manifest only in the lives of great personages or in life-altering situations “Big Box” morality. It is presumed that from the flat, quotidian landscape of life, morality arises and is made manifest in singular lives and in life-defining moments. It is here where moral character is revealed. And this presumption is misguided. These singular lives and defining events, while important, are merely more pronounced features of the rich, dense moral landscape that comprise all our lives. Morality and ethics are not Big Box items. Nor are they derived from reason or deducible from logic. They are conditions of being, like breathing, where our every action is inescapably a moral one. We are, fundamentally, constitutionally, inescapably, moral.1 Not “Big Box”, but mom and pop morality.
I place my mother with Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Florence Nightingale in my moral pantheon of individuals I admire. My mother, of course, is not Big Box. She, instead, underscores the absolutely essential contributions of the unheralded moms and pops. The moms and pops are all of us, not just parents, not just adults. Our lives are embedded within the moral matrix of family, friends, and communities, great and small, whose accumulated commitments form us, nurture us, bind us at the nuclear level. Moms and pops are the hands that reach from the past into the present, that constitute, stabilize, and guide us through life, and reach, though us, into the future. This occurs, not at moments of acute crisis, but at the at the everyday, ground floor of human action, care, giving and exchange.
Our daily life is a moral one, and it is only the moral currency we have earned in our life’s journey that matters:
Humans are caught — in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too — in a net of good and evil. I think this is the only story we have and that it occurs on all levels of feeling and intelligence. Virtue and vice were warp and woof of our first consciousness, and they will be the fabric of our last. … A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard clean questions: was it good or was it evil? Have I done well — or ill?. 2
Tribute and Remembrance
I offer this tribute to my mother and, by association, to all the moms and pops, whether parents, adults, or children, who form the collective web of moral regard that binds us together.
When my mother died we found this Bible verse, Psalm 86:11, on prominent display on her desk:
Teach me your way O Lord, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere your name.
Teach me, my Lord, to be sweet and gentle in all the events of life—in disappointments, in the thoughtlessness of others, in the insincerity of those I trusted.
Let me put myself aside, to think of the happiness of others, to hide my little pains and heartaches, so that I may be the only one to suffer from them.
Teach me to profit by the suffering that comes across my path. Let me so see it that it may mellow me, not harden, not embitter me.
That it may make me patient, not irritable, that it may make me broad in my forgiveness, not narrow, haughty and overbearing.
May no one be less good from having come within my influence.
No one less pure, less true, less kind, less noble for having been a fellow-traveler in our journey toward eternal life.
Teach me O Lord, your way.
This is how she lived her life.
She died 5 years ago, on Good Friday, April 19, 2014.
- See Origins of Ethics, which addresses this point in more detail.
- In East of Eden, by John Steinbeck