Thursday, August 18, 2005
Thinking About Moral Authority
This post is not specifically about Cindy Sheehan, "Americas Mom On A Mission" who was the spiritual light of last night's national protest against the war. Ms. Sheehan's cause has surely been debated enough, and my thoughts on this summer's human interest story are below.
Instead I'd like to write about the concept of moral authority, along with how and in whom we deposit this important trust. The question comes to mind because of all the slogan's, both pro and con, that I've heard in the Cindy Sheehan fiasco the one that is stated the most, yet least challenged is that she has a greater level of moral authority than the rest of us because her son died in the war. I think this is wrong, and when we do not question the statement it does a disservice both to our country as we debate the war, and to Ms. Sheehan as it elevates her to a level for which she is neither prepared, or even, fit.
What is this thing that we call "moral authority" that has made Ms. Sheehan, and others who attain it, above critique? In my view, a moral authority is the quality of one who lives at a higher ethical level, and has demonstrated both the knowledge and the communication ability to serve as a teacher in word and deed for the rest of us human beings. To be sure, a moral authority does not have to be a perfect human being, for we all know such a person does not exist in our world. Indeed, were the perfect human to exist I question whether they could serve as a moral authority since anyone who is not subject to life's temptations would have difficulty teaching us how to rise above them.
Similarly, I do not believe that hypocrisy can necessarily discredit a moral authority. This is something I think people on the right generally understand better than those on the left. Go to any lefty blog and you'll find moral leaders deemed as hypocrites for their human failings, and therefore unworthy of our respect for their teachings. Yet life is not so simple as this. It is clear that virtually every one of our moral leaders has failed to meet the standard of perfection, so we need to remember their failings and observe their recovery to understand whether they are worth following. Were we to right off all moral leaders who failed we'd find ourselves in a society where we were unable to establish any moral guidelines beyond those that were easy to obtain, and as we all know, morality ain't easy. Oscar Wilde said it best when he said, "hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue".
So the question becomes, what must one do to become a moral authority? It is clear, that one needn't be perfect, but clearly one just can't be imbued with this quality either. A moral authority could be a person that has strived to rise from a squalid past life, or someone who has worked to bring salvation to others. It is also possible that a moral authority could be a person of great learning, an intellectual who has spent their life considering the moral implications of man's role on earth and its attendant responsibilities. There are perhaps countless examples of what could make a person a moral authority, but I think a few traits are consistent across all possible scenarios.
The first would be that a person must strive to achieve moral authority. Life is full of moral challenges; temptations, trade-offs, evils. To have not had to face these challenges, and perhaps even to have succummed at one point, is to not have had to work to get better. Moral authority then is earned. The second consistent trait would be an ability to teach by both action and example what a moral life should be. Role models are important in our world and a moral authority is nothing if not a role model. Which leads us to the third trait; recovery. As I've said moral authority does not require perfection, but it does require penance when one fails, and make no mistake, we all fail. Failure of the authority, while sad is and should be a learning process for the rest of us.
What is most clear is one cannot achieve authority through circumstance. In fact, to imbue a member of our society with moral authority through such a means is both wrong and dangerous. Yet in this age where emotions frequently dominate over logic our culture's knee jerk reaction is to do just this.
Imbuing people with moral authority through no real action of their own is extraordinarily dangerous for several reasons. The first and most obvious is that it lowers the bar for moral excellence in our society. While we don't expect perfection, we should expect our fellow man to always strive to live a moral life. Assigning distinction without requiring excellence is akin to eliminating score keeping in Little League games. What is the point?
Which leads to the second danger. If there is no point, then there is no standard of expectation that we should hold our fellow man to. Shallow libertarians and leftists will say that this is exactly what we should aim for since our neighbor's life is none of our business. While I agree completely that all of our lives are our own, and that individual privacy is critical in allowing each other a role that maximizes our talents and unique personalities in a liberal society, I also acknowledge that this ideal liberal culture requires a strong moral code. As we increase liberty, and break down governmental authority it becomes ever more important to have a moral code that helps individuals regulate their own behavior. Unfortunately, by handing out moral authority like a "deputy for a day" badge on the field trip to the sheriff's office we find our culture fraying at the edges.
The weakest end up paying as a result. The poor who can't afford single mother status, the slow of mind who can't fully understand why their behavior always gets them in trouble, and the physically weak who just wish for the kindness of a stranger are hit hardest. Strong moral teachers help these folks understand guidelines, and help the rest of us understand and remember our obligation to others.
Regarding poor Ms. Sheehan, she is obviously a woman who merits our sympathy and our gratitude. She lost a son, who gave his life for us. No mother and son can give more. Ms. Sheehan is not a moral authority as a result of her loss though. While she has suffered she has only come to her status as a victim. Something happened to her, she did not achieve her role. This is not to say she couldn't become a moral authority, but without critiquing her here, I'll just say that she has a ways to go.
More importantly, we do Mrs. Sheehan a disservice by making her a moral authority. In setting her up for this status, we make her vulnerable to the opportunists of the left who will happily fill her empty vessel with their vile lies about the Iraq war and the sacrifice of so many patriotic families. They will use her, and cast her aside with no care for her own well being.
Similarly, were we to make Ms. Sheehan a moral authority, we would set her up for the castigations of the attack dogs of the right. Filled with the slogans of their political enemies Ms. Sheehan must be attacked and brought down, like it or not this is our political process and as a moral authority she will be a victim once again.
Most importantly, my dear reader, once we make Ms. Sheehan a moral authority it releases us from our responsibility to her. As an authority, we are acknowledging that she has exceeded our status, and we will rightfully expect her to serve as an example to us. The next time you see her on TV look at her closely. Is there any way this could be right? Ms. Sheehan is a suffering mom, who in her own words finds herself unprepared and possibly unfit for the role she has found. One news article quoted her as saying she now knows what if feels to be like Mickey Mouse at Disneyland. Could there be a more unintended allusion to her unfitness for moral authority?
Mrs. Sheehan is a suffering mom who gave all she had to give. We do not have an obligation to listen to her as an authority, but we do have an obligation to treat her with love and kindness. She needs our help and our prayers. She also needs to go home and grieve with her family.