I Just Don’t See It
Sometimes in sports commentary you hear emphasis placed on the ability to “read and react”. This is about the player’s ability to look at the “indicators” exhibited by the opposing team, and then immediately take steps to circumvent the indicated strategy. As in sports, so also in life; we are always going to be faced with judgments that need to be made, and the most critical of these judgments concern ethics.
Since most of us are bit players on the stage of life, much of our moral reflection involves how we “read and react” to the moral decisions of others. We live in a fast-paced, dog-eat-dog culture, so the prevailing response to unfavorable conduct is to “dis and ditch”, which loosely translated means to “disrespect and disassociate”. We see a person goof up, we condemn him, and we place distance between ourselves and him.
We all do this, and when looking at the cause of this behavior it is fairly apparent that pride is at the root (surprise, surprise). I see a situation, and I automatically assume three things: first, that my perception of reality corresponds with the facts; second, that I fully understand the intention of the person I’m judging; and third, that my own elevated status permits me to disassociate myself from that person. Apparently, I’m a sort of pharisaical Sherlock.
People are psychologically complex, and they are motivated by extremely varied considerations. Sometimes we aren’t even sure what motivates our own actions, so why do we presume to insist that we can unfailingly peel back every layer of another person’s psychological onion to understand the pure motive behind an action?
Reforming the Judgment Process
Sometimes a different way of thinking about something is the catalyst for change. So, it helps to take advantage of some theological terminology to help us reform our judgment process—the “reaction” in “read and react.” The simplistic adage “Love the sinner, hate the sin” is based on a system of philosophical distinctions that forms the theological catalyst for this reformation.
The ability to apply motive to movement is unique to humans among the animals. Hence we call man a “rational animal”. An animal may “behave” in a certain manner based on instinct, but has no rational capacity for applying intent.
However, man does not transparently reveal his motive in every movement. For this reason, we can no more attribute a particular motive to a man based on observed behavior then we can about a cat’s behavior. Since we know that a man has some sort of a motive for most actions, we might make certain inferences as to his intent based on our observation of his behaviors. But we cannot “possess” or “know” in the truest sense his motive. Therefore it does not fall within our capability to make judgments of the person based on our observations.
That we do not observe “action” but rather “behavior” prevents us from passing judgment on the actor. You cannot “observe an action” without possessing complete knowledge of the actor’s intent—and how often can you claim to be in this position?
Close only Counts in Horseshoes
The argument has been made that a close analysis of exhibited behavior might result in a near perfect grasp of intent—near enough to form a judgment of the person. This is an extremely slippery slope, because even the most careful analysis of behavior is not guaranteed to produce intent.
For example, in professional football you’d be amazed what individual players look for in the behavior of their opponents to try to get an indication of where the play is going. If an offensive linesman sees a defensive end tense his knuckles on the turf on blitz plays but not on others, then he’ll look for that as an indicator of what is to come. The linebacker will watch the eyes of the quarterback to see if he inadvertently looks at his intended target before snapping the ball for a pass play.
These are assumptions based not just on a single behavior, but on a pattern of behavior. And yet, even observed patterns of behavior such as this provide no definite clue to intent. The defensive end may be thinking about his messy divorce and not have his mind on the play at all. The quarterback may deliberately look at random receivers so that the defense never knows where he is going.
You Don’t Have to Stand Idly By
After making these philosophical distinctions, it is important to carry the argument forward logically rather than taking a left turn towards the common misconception that the inability to make judgments of the person in some way removes our ability to recognize evil and take steps to counteract it. Distinguishing between behavior and action is not the path to moral relativism.
Take abortion as an example. A lifetime of miseducation and trained amorality might mean that the mother won’t be fully culpable for her action (as you might generously assume), but that doesn’t mean that we sanction the act based on the ignorance behind her intent. Though we do not condemn the actor, we still do not grant legitimacy to the act based on our lack of ability to make a judgment.
We may and do act to prevent abortion. We can say “abortion is evil.” We can say that those who contribute to abortion are contributing to the culture of death. To do so is not to make a judgment regarding the spiritual state of the acting parties.
Our Role in Salvation Is Not in Judging
My Christian identity, as one cooperating with God’s salvific will, demands that I treat every human person, no matter in what guise, as a person loved by God—and not just in extraordinary circumstances, but in the ordinary moments of our daily life. If every time I observe a behavior I murmur, “I just don’t see it”—meaning the intent—I’ll be much closer to fulfilling my role.
The advantage to approaching things from this philosophical mindset is that it forces us to think about the nature of personhood and our relationship to the Creator. One must be omniscient to make unfailing judgments regarding the spiritual state of another person—and in this respect we are wholly unsuitable for the task. Only God possesses this quality. Judgment is the Lord’s.
So what is our role? In the midst of our culture wars, we must maintain charity and compassion while not abandoning our positions. We must make sure that rather than trying to deify ourselves, we come to a greater recognition of our common human frailty. Our actions are based on a brotherhood with all others made in the image and likeness of God. We must not condemn, but raise up.
As an Easter people we must promote resurrection.
An appeal from our founder, Dr. Jeffrey Mirus:
Dear reader: If you found the information on this page helpful in your pursuit of a better Catholic life, please support our work with a donation. Your donation will help us reach five million Truth-seeking readers worldwide this year. Thank you!
Progress toward our June expenses ($13,107 to go):
All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!