Category Archive: Ethics

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January 29, 2007

Enjoyment & Shame

Category: Ethics,Feasting :: Link :: Print

Wendell Berry on enjoying good things even though you know others are suffering:

The solemnity and ostentatious grief of some implies that there is a mystical equation by which one man, by suffering enough guilt, by a denial of joy, can atone or compensate for the suffering of many men.  The logical culmination of this feeling is self-incineration, which only removes one from the problem without solving it.  Because so many are hungry, should we weep as we eat?  No child will grow fat on our tears.  But to eat, taking whatever satisfaction it gives us, and then to turn again to the problem of how to make it possible for another to eat, to undertake to cleanse ourselves of the great wastefulness of our society, to seek alternatives in our own lives to our people’s thoughtless squandering of the world’s goods — that promises a solution.  That many are cold and the world is full of hate does not mean that one should stand in the snow for shame or refrain from making love.  To refuse to admit decent and harmless pleasures freely into one’s own life is as wrong as to deny them to someone else.  It impoverishes and darkens the world. — “Some Thoughts on Citizenship and Conscience in Honor of Don Pratt,” The Long Legged House, pp. 82-83.

Posted by John Barach @ 4:10 pm | Discuss (0)
January 26, 2007

Institutions and Charity

Category: Community,Ethics,Miscellaneous :: Link :: Print

A couple quotations from Wendell Berry’s essay “The Loss of the Future” (in The Long-Legged House):

I cannot avoid the speculation that one of the reasons for our loss of idealism is that we have been for a long time in such constant migration from country to city and from city to city and from neighborhood to neighborhood.  It seems to me that much of idealism has its source in the relation between a man and the place he thinks of as his home.  The patriotism, say, that grows out of the concern for a particular place in which one expects to live one’s life is a more exacting emotion than that which grows out of concern for a nation.  The charity that grows out of regard for neighbors with whom one expects to live one’s life is both a discipline and a reward; the charity that, knowing no neighbors, contributes to funds and foundations is, from the personal standpoint, only an excuse.  It is patriotism in the abstract — nationalism — that is most apt to be fanatic or brutal or arrogant.  It is when charity is possible only through institutions that it becomes indifferent, neither ennobling to the giver nor meaningful to the receiver.  Institutional neighborliness can function as the very opposite of neighborliness, without impairing the moral credit or the self-satisfaction of the supporters of the institution.  There is good reason, for instance, to suspect that the foreign mission programs of certain Christian denominations have served as substitutes for decent behavior at home, or as excuses for indecent behavior at home; in return for saving the soul of Negroes in Africa, one may with a free conscience exploit and demean the lives of Negroes in one’s own community (p. 49).

In a society of ghettoes many of the vital labors of our duty to each other cease to be personal.  They are necessarily taken over by institutions; the distances between the giver and the receiver, the asker and the answerer, are so great that they are simply no longer negotiable by individuals.  A man living in the country or a small town migiht aid one or two needy neighbors himself; the most obvious thing for him to do would not be to phone some bureau or agency of the government.  But what could he do if he were to try to exercise the same charitable impulse in an urban slum, or in Appalachia?  The moral dilemma is suggested by a walk on the Bowery, equipped with common decency and a pocketful of change.  What is the Samaritan expected to do when he meets, instead of one in need, hundreds?  Even if he had the money, he would not have the time.  Now, in America, I think he is likely to feel that he is expected to do nothing.  He is able to reflect that there are organizations to take care of that sort of thing.

My point is not that these agencies do their work badly, but that having contributed to one of them, or even having heard of one, the citizen is freed of a concern that is one of the necessary disciplines of citizenship.  And the institutionalization of charity has its counterparts in all aspects of life, from the government down (pp. 52-53).

I suspect that Berry is right, that there has been a loss of community, due in part to increased mobility but also to television, which keeps people home at night and away from their neighbors, and to other factors, not so easy to trace.  Elsewhere in this essay, Berry also talks about specialization and the way that specialists tend to form their own ghettoes, all focused on the same area, even if they don’t actually live in the same vicinity.  A lot of what Berry is getting at is that life in cities tends to be relatively impersonal, and that has effects on our charity and our care for our neighbors.

If Berry is correct, one might think the solution would be to have everyone move to small or medium-sized towns.  But Berry himself recognizes that that isn’t possible or likely.  So what is the solution?  In particular, what is our responsibility as Christians?

Let’s face it: the church can become another ghetto.  We can talk a lot about community and build community with each other, and that may be attractive to those who long for community.  But it’s also possible that in building the church community we turn our backs on our own neighborhoods.  Isn’t it often the case that Christians don’t have non-Christian friends, that all our close relationships are with others in the same church community?

Let me hear your thoughts: In the face of the impersonalization brought on by charitable institutions, in the face of the general lack of neighborliness in our larger “communities,” what should we as Christians be doing to reverse these trends and to create not only close-knit relationships with each other but a true community that is attractive and healing for our larger towns and cities?

Posted by John Barach @ 12:29 pm | Discuss (2)
January 24, 2007


Category: Ethics,Politics :: Link :: Print

No one, I think, welcomes the intervention of federal power in the affairs of a state, except as a last resort.  That seems the crudest of solutions.  It is not a moral solution at all.  In being forced to do what is right, men lose the dignity of being right.  The right itself is debased as an aim and incentive — Wendell Berry, “The Landscaping of Hell: Strip-Mine Morality in East Kentucky,” The Long-Legged House, p. 22.

Posted by John Barach @ 5:28 pm | Discuss (0)
September 11, 2006

Erotic Imagination

Category: Ethics,Theology :: Link :: Print

Rich Bledsoe writes about the need to develop a biblical erotic imagination.

Posted by John Barach @ 9:12 am | Discuss (2)
August 19, 2006

Good Gossip?

Category: Ethics,Miscellaneous :: Link :: Print

Robert Putnam on the social benefits of close-knit communities and their gossip: “Dense social ties facilitate gossip and other valuable ways of cultivating reputation — an essential foundation for trust in a complex society” (Bowling Alone, p. 21).

Given that some gossip is clearly destructive and sinful (e.g., talk aimed at tearing down someone else’s reputation) or at least not upbuilding, is there a place for other sorts of gossip?  I suspect so.

After all, there should be some mechanism in society for people to know, for instance, that you don’t want to have their daughter babysit your children but you can rely on her to be there anytime you need her or that if you buy a car from him you won’t likely get your money’s worth and so forth.  You wouldn’t want to ask some girl to babysit, have a catastrophe because of her incompetence, and then find out that all your friends knew it wouldn’t work out but didn’t tell you because “We don’t gossip.”

Perhaps instead of condemning “gossip” outright, it would be better to say that there are certain kinds of talk about other people that should be forbidden but other kinds of talk that are sometimes necessary and helpful to build trust and establish people’s reputations in society.

Posted by John Barach @ 9:45 pm | Discuss (2)
July 13, 2006

Divorce Culture

Category: Ethics :: Link :: Print

The other day, I mentioned that Anthony Bradley had talked at the Reform & Resurge conference about how divorce affects far more people than just the couple divorcing. Wendy Shalit agrees:

I think the significance of divorce for my generation has been underestimated. Those who write about the ill effects of divorce usually write about the children of divorce — on their drug habits, or on the likelihood that they will get divorced too. Most critiques of divorce focus on this or that side effect, and only on the children of the rupture, as if divorce were an unpleasant consideration confined to its most immediate victims. But most of my friends whose parents are not divorced have essentially the same anxieties as children of divorced parents. What’s rarely talked about is what it’s like to grow up in a divorce culture even when your parents are not divorced. For even when they’re happy, they always could get divorced; indeed, statistics say it’s more likely that they will get divorced than stay together (A Return to Modesty, p. 210).

Posted by John Barach @ 4:02 pm | Discuss (0)
July 12, 2006

Plantinga on Shalit

Category: Ethics :: Link :: Print

In “Difference, Modesty, and Sexuality,” Theodore Plantinga interacts with Wendy Shalit’s A Return to Modesty and points out the connection between modesty and heterosexuality: “I maintain that a society that discourages modesty in the hope of somehow being ‘open’ and ‘liberated’ also — perhaps unconsciously — undermines heterosexuality.”

Posted by John Barach @ 3:41 pm | Discuss (0)

A Return to Modesty

Category: Ethics :: Link :: Print

Last night, I finished reading Wendy Shalit’s A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue. Moriah had read it last year and recommended it to me. I started it before the move down here but didn’t pick it up again until recently. I’m glad I did.

Shalit provides not only a defense of modesty in general and a summons for people (and girls, in particular) to return to modesty, but also many helpful analyses of what happened in western culture to move people away from modesty and what happens when such a shift takes place.

When so many voices in our culture are urging us to overcome inhibitions and all sense of shame or embarrassment, it’s refreshing to hear Shalit say, “Embarrassment is actually a wonderful thing, signaling that something very strange or very significant is going on, that some boundary is being threatened — either by you or by others” (p. 22).

I also appreciated her defense of hard feelings:

All those bad feelings we are too enlightened to feel nowadays — such as resentment, jealousy, betrayal — also signify the capacity to lose yourself in the first place, to fall in love with someone other than yourself. They presuppose that there is a soul to protect, that there are hopes to be shattered, a lost love to guard, even if now only mentally and futilely. No hard feelings? I’m advocating a return to precisely that: hard feelings. At least then you know you’re a person, that you have a heart (p. 34).

Her comments on the social effects of immodesty are also important. When most girls aren’t sleeping around, then a girl who feels pressured to do so will have a stronger sense of what she ought and ought not to do. She’ll have support to fall back on. But if most girls are sleeping around, then a girl who wants to be accepted — not least by a guy — will feel much more pressure to lower her standards and will have less of a support network to depend upon. In fact, girls who don’t sleep around feel pressured to act, talk, and dress as if they do in order not to stand out or be thought weird.

As she says,

To the extent premarital sex is accepted, to that extent is the idea of the necessity of marriage undermined….  To the extent that premarital sex is practiced and encouraged, to that extent will women who want to wait until marriage find it harder to meet men who will marry them without “trying them out” first, to have patience with someone with “hang-ups” — which is to say, hopes…. 

One of my professors who didn’t think modesty was a serious subject of inquiry memorably asked me why I couldn’t “just be modest and shut up about it!” The answer is that modesty simply cannot be “just” a private virtue — a “personal choice” — in a culture where there is such a high survival value placed on immodesty. The choices some women make restrict the choices open to other women. Perhaps this is where liberalism failed, because it claimed society could be simply neutral about individuals’ choices, and it never can. The direction of social pressure cannot be discounted (p. 228).

The Amazon reviewer (“Homeschooling Single Mom”) who complained that “Shalit makes wild sweeping historical generalizations without ever providing any sort of support for these claims aside from anecdotal stories and soundbites from women’s magazines” has a point. She does seem to paint a rosy picture of the past. For instance:

It is today’s male who is thought manly by “scoring.” In a different time he proved his manhood by being honorable. Success with women used to mean being faithful to one of them (p. 147). 

That sounds great, and it’s a good definition of true success with women, but is it historically accurate? Weren’t there always guys in the past, including in 19th century England to which she’s referring here, who boasted of their sexual conquests?

Still, I think Shalit is correct in implying that there has usually been a general stigma against immodesty on the part of women. That, it seems to me, is what is changing: not whether men boast about their sexual conquests and not whether they can find women to conquer but how society views loose women. Now “looseness” is the norm and that norm is, in many circles, being pushed on women who would rather not be loose.

So in spite of the flaws which Shalit’s account has, it is still valuable reading — for girls but also for young men who need to understand how to behave toward women and why, for parents seeking to raise children to love and to honor modesty, and for pastors whose congregations need to model before the world a new and different way of living, talking, and dressing.

Posted by John Barach @ 3:28 pm | Discuss (0)

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