Of Many Things

Joe: On Moral Courage

Characters: Michele, television news director; Pierluigi, a magistrate; Angelo, professor of ancient philosophy; Carlo, a barista.

Scene: the Socrates Coffee Bar, Siracusa, Sicily, adjacent to a ruined Greek amphitheater. A television set displays CNN International; an anchor is recapping the Penn State sexual abuse scandal.

Michele. Dio mio! What an awful story, this Penn State business. I bet in a few weeks we’ll learn it is even worse than it seems. But I have to hand it to the American media. They know how to dramatize these things. Depraved sex isn’t enough. Immediately it is a cover-up, and the coach has to go. A big crime demands a big fall.

Pierluigi. I agree. Child abuse is an awful crime. But I wonder whether the news has to follow the plot of a tragic drama. The king must die! The grand jury had no finding against Paterno. He reported to superiors as the law required and took action to bar the offender, though it may seem too little now; in 1998 he had assisted the police in their inquiry.

Michele. But, Piero, legality is not the point. He should have done more. People looked up to him. If anyone could have pursued the case, it was the coach. He had enormous personal authority.

Angelo. But is it fair for the media, which lazily reruns its old tapes about institutional coverup, to trash a good man’s reputation? After all, as far as we know, no one else did more. Moral dramas are more subtle than news directors’ story lines.

Micbele. Angelo, come on. Drop the subtlety stuff. Stereotypes reflect the facts. Look at the church. We don’t know the half of it. The Irish courts are still releasing sickening reports about cover-ups by the bishops there. And, by the way, you can give up that media-bashing too.

Angelo. Look, Michele, I don’t deny there may have been a larger conspiracy. Pierluigi and I only object that the opprobrium fell on a man whom the grand jury, after a long investigation, chose not to charge.

Pierluigi. There’s something else, Angelo, we have to bear in mind. While we’re watching TV, it is easy to say, “I would have done more than Joe.” But, in fact, like the drivers and pedestrians who saw the infant run over in China, in a crisis too few of us rush from our routines to do the right thing. In moral emergencies, we are far likelier to be bystanders than moral heroes.

Angelo. Would I have done more? We like to think well of ourselves, but very few of us are ready to press a moral issue. When we do, we know we will be treated as annoying S.O.B.’s; and when we persist, we will be dismissed as “crazy.”

Pierluigi. “To do more” takes practice; and before we learn to meet a serious moral challenge, we may fail—repeatedly.

Let me confess something about a personal moral test I set myself. (Pause) I try to respond to beggars in the street—with some spare change, a little conversation, maybe a shared prayer. But, if I come upon a panhandler unexpectedly, if he is aggressive or her behavior is a bit bizarre, I go into avoidance mode. For most of us it takes practice “to do more.”

Soldiers and athletes all understand that for the times when things get tough, they have to train to do the right thing. Why do we think practice is unnecessary in the moral life? Couldn’t it be the coach, like most of poor humanity, was unprepared to do more?

Michele. Carlo, you have been listening to us. What do you think?

Carlo. I say, being a football hero doesn’t make you a moral hero.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
C Walter Mattingly
5 years 9 months ago
Unless you're Tim Tebow!
5 years 9 months ago

Nice drama piece.....  makes one ponder about current sense of morality or nonmorality.   Very easy to point fingers than to practice to do the right thing always.

5 years 7 months ago
This article made an important point - that moral decision making takes practice, thousands of small decisions - in order to achieve moral excellence. I thought this creative way of presenting the point inspired. 

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