Early last week, I completed the paperwork to enroll in an independent study class focusing on moral and civic education. This is an exciting step for me since I’ve always been fascinated with questions of right vs. wrong and I’ve long believed that education has an important responsibility to help students ask these questions and wrestle with their answers. Like most people, though, my relationship with ethics has changed over time as I’ve become more aware of the ambiguity that humans have to overcome as they deal with ethical issues. One of my favorite discussions of this subject is Love is Not Blind, a talk given at Brigham Young University in the late 1970s by then-president of Ricks College (now BYU-Idaho), Bruce C. Hafen. Since the talk is given by the president of one religious school to the student body of another, it’s no surprise that Hafen’s discussion focuses on the tension between faith and ambiguity. However, I believe that what he has to say is valuable to anyone who has tried to cling to their ethics and ideals in the face of a growing awareness that the world isn’t as black and white as we all used to think. Hafen asks us to imagine
two circles, one inside the other. The inner boundary is the real, or what is; the outer boundary is the ideal, or what ought to be. We stand at the inner boundary, reaching out, trying to pull ourselves closer to the ideals to which we have committed ourselves. We become aware of the distance between these two boundaries when we sense that some things about ourselves or the circumstances we witness are not all we wish they were.
Hafen then suggests three levels that describe how we react to this gap between the real and the ideal. I’d like to walk you through each of these levels, using a recent tragedy in the Lansing area as an example.
Level One: Tuning out Reality
The unfortunate reality is that last week in Lansing, two people were shot and killed and that a man was arrested as a suspect in both shootings. Given the obvious role that this man played in the tragedy, he’ll get a fair amount of attention in this post, so it’s important to point out that I fully support the presumption of innocence until guilt is proven. If I speak about him in terms that makes it seem like I assume he’s guilty, please consider that to be a rhetorical device that I use to explain Hafen’s three levels: it should shortly become clear that I do not do so flippantly and that I have every reason to hope that his innocence can be demonstrated if that’s the case.
Hafen suggests that people at level one deal with ambiguity by tuning out reality. In this particular case, a person at level one would (rightly) identify shooting someone else as a Bad Thing, but then (wrongly) either convince oneself that Bad Things don’t ever happen or swiftly and automatically condemn people who do Bad Things as Bad People. In case this second option looks attractive in this context (like it does to me), it’s worth pointing out that people at Hafen’s level one would likely also see a broken promise or a wonton act of littering as Bad Things and their perpetrators as Bad People.
Level Two: Rejecting the Ideal
The unfortunate reality is that I know the man who was arrested as the suspect of these two shootings. I didn’t know him very well, but I did want to know him better. He struck me as a Good PersonGood People out there. After all, it’s quickly becoming clear that most of us are guilty of Bad Things (though fortunately not all to the same extent as my friend), so maybe all the Good Things that I think I see in myself and others are the remnant of my level one attitude. Time to throw off the blinders and see all the Bad Things and Bad People who are out there, right?
Hafen thinks (and I agree) that level two is probably an improvement on level one, but not by much. At level two, we open our eyes to reality and see the world as it really is, but often at the expense of the ideal, which he maintains is critical.
Level Three: Keeping Both in Focus
The difficult-to-grasp reality is that the person I wanted to get to know better is also the person suspected of killing two people last week.
I think I know a couple of ways that I could handle this at level one: First, because he struck me as a Good Person, I could reject the possibility that he was capable of committing such a Bad Thing (a really bad thing – don’t let my bolded caps fool you into thinking that I’m being flippant about this) and assume that there’s been some terrible mistake. Second, I could reject him because he’s (allegedly) done a Bad Thing, which makes him a Bad Person and therefore not worth my time.
I think I know how I could handle this at level two: He did a Bad Thing, but that’s to be expected, since there are no Good People out there. This is just another example of why looking out for Good Things and Good People isn’t worth my time.
I admit that I’m still a little stumped for level three. Hafen says that I need to keep my “eyes wide open but … [heart] wide open as well.” I need to be aware of the painful and frustrating shortcomings of reality while still holding out hope for the ideal. I think I’ve started heading in that direction… but I don’t think it will be an easy road to take.
Back to Ethics
This experience has reinforced for me the need to spend time studying and wrestling with ethics. I believe that it’s important for our students to identify ideals, to strive for them, and to know how to handle reality when it falls short of that ideal. I’m looking forward to continuing to learn what philosophers and researchers have to say about this field, and I think I’ll be looking back to this past week more than a few times.