Just as a daily examination of conscience reviews the past 24 hours and, at the same time, illuminates the next, so also a moral review of the past year reveals the challenges of the next. Perhaps this is more evident this year than ever, because the dominant ethical issues of 2002 are certain to reach crisis stage in 2003. It may well be that some readers would pick a different set of moral challenges and, to be sure, take a different perspective on how they challenge us; but the five crises I offer for your consideration will, I’m sure, haunt our headlines as well as our discussions.
1. The Wages of War and American Moral Exceptionalism. This nation is at a precipitous moment in the execution of its military policies. If we move beyond the boundaries of the just war theory, as is now being proposed by advocates who either are willing to distort its principles or even to cast them off as outdated, we may reap a terrible harvest of global violence. The true ugliness that marks the terrorists we decry is their willingness to cast off all reason, all limits and all distinctions in achieving their goals. With our own talk of pre-emptive, even nuclear strikes, of justified torture and of being willing to do anything to stop terrorism, it is terrorism itself that has seduced our consciences.
2. The Lessons of 9/11. Amid the countless suits for recompense that can never heal the terrible trauma, the endless chattering about loss of liberties and the mindless conspiracy theories of right wing and left, we refuse to address the harder question. Whither our relationship to Islam? If only one of 100 Muslims are radical extremists, that amounts to 15 million. It is an illusion to think they can be beaten into submission, not to Allah, but to the U.S. vision of the future. The hawks may ridicule dialogue, but fair discoursemuch of which must be done within Islam itselfis the only way to peace. If the United States pushes Muslim nations and peoples further into the ranks of resentment, there will not be peace, but a century of war.
3. The Chastisement of the Church. As painful as it has been for victims, perpetrators, clergy and laity, it is a matter of justice and an occasion of grace that the evils of clergy sexual abuse and seduction of the young have come to light. That is all for the good. But the special pleading continues. The responses to the scandal are a litmus test of one’s ideology. It is interesting that two of the dominant voices over the year came from the Catholic right (George Weigel) and the Catholic left (Garry Wills).
What is uninteresting is that they disagree. Weigel, thinking that all could be resolved if we were all more conservative, seems to believe that clericalism, authoritarianism and secrecy have little to do with the crisis. Wills, thinking that all could be resolved if we were more liberal, seems to think the culprits are celibacy and chastitythe two principles that were obviously violated. What is known for sure is that there was an appalling violation of vows and persons, a legitimization of it, an enabling of it and a covering up of it.
4. The Mirror of Money. If we do not believe that greed is a fatal problem in the United States, we must be sleepwalking. Covetousness, as Dorothy Sayers has reminded us, is still a deadly sin, even though it is considered bad form to remind us of the fact. The super-rich and their apologists have been so successful at eliminating greed from the catalogue of sins, it is considered envy even to raise the point. Greed has sent the economy into a tailspin. Greed has pushed the middle and lower-middle classes, so many laid off or relegated to service jobs, into free fall. Greed got us a tax boondoggle that helped break the bank, and it is promising yet more benefits for those who enjoy abundance, while the poor are being assembled for a $200-billion war. Will any leader ever appeal to the generosity of the American people?
5. The Margins of Human Life. While universities now hire well-paid specialists in animal rights, more and more humans are being excluded from the privileged class of rights-bearing persons. Pre-implantation genetic diagnosis allows us to eliminate unwanted imperfect embryos. Rather than just destroy them, however, we are learning to harvest any desirable cells they may have. For those embryos lucky enough to enter the fetus stage, there is absolutely no protection under the law. Be not surprised if it is soon proposed that, rather than destroy second-trimester fetuses in abortion, they, too, should be harvested for cells and organs at the service of high-tech cannibalism. Some brilliant ethicists, realizing that a newborn is much more like a fetus than a teenager, have announced that infanticide is not only defensible but often desirable. As for the margin at the end of human lifeagain when persons are defenseless, dependent and often unwantedthe deadly utilitarian calculus has already suggested that it would be better to terminate such burdens than care for them. Why not harvest them, too?
In each issue there lurks a profoundly narcissistic utilitarianism. The principle is not even the greatest good for the greatest number. It is restricted to the greatest good for my nation, my class, my family, my ideology, my genes. Kant, I believe, was right in proposing that moral exceptionalism is at the heart of amorality. To accept a moral law is to admit that there are ethical limits to the choices we make. And that will never be popular in a nation with Christmas cards that celebrate, not the birth of a Savior, but the supremacy of Choice on Earth.