How Do YOU Know? Faith and the Contemporary Moral Crisis (#5)

To understand and deal with the contemporary moral crisis it is first necessary to get clear ideas of the good and the right. I think we’ve accomplished this in the first four parts of this series. The good is what is truly good for us in the most comprehensive sense and the right is what corresponds to moral law. But these concepts are still rather abstract. Perhaps it’s time to talk about how we know what specific things and actions are good for us.

The Good and Experience

We don’t come into the world knowing very much about what is good for us. As infants and small children we need adults to protect us from bad things and provide us with good. Almost immediately adults begin to teach us the difference between good and bad. Somewhere along the way to adulthood we learn from trusted others and from our personal experience enough to survive. We learn about what is good for our physical bodies. Fire, electricity and busy streets are dangerous. We need to eat our vegetables and drink our milk. We also learn social goods and evils. We don’t bite our playmates and we share our toys.

But all the adults in our lives were themselves at one time children and had to learn what is good and bad from the previous generation of adults…and that generation from the one before it. We can’t just keep resorting to the previous generation. From where did the knowledge of what is good and bad for human beings originate? Remember what we said in earlier posts: to say that something is good for us means that it enables us to flourish and achieve our end. The goodness of a thing or an act is revealed when it actually causes human beings to flourish and achieve their ends. It can’t be known theoretically. To say it another way: human beings learn what is good for them by experience.

Community and Tradition

But we cannot learn all we need to know about what is good and bad for us through our own experience! Indeed, by the time we can survive without constant supervision, we’ve already learned from others a way of thinking about the world and hundreds of rules about good and bad. We are born into a human community that is already heir to thousands of years of traditional wisdom. We inherit billions upon billions of years of human experience. Hence knowledge of good and bad comes to the individual in the form of traditional wisdom formulated in rules, maxims, advice, observations and sometimes in laws. And the best and most enduring parts of this wisdom are often preserved in fables, parables, and proverbs. In every age there are wise men and women who pay special attention to this tradition, collect it, organize it and write it down. We are all the beneficiaries of their work. (In the past, education consisted primarily of teaching this wisdom to the next generation…but that is another story.)

Notice that although experience is the original teacher of good and bad, the lessons of experience are mediated to individuals by language, the language of rules. Though the rules derived from the collective experience of the human race are not infallible, it seems foolish indeed for an individual to flout the lessons learned from billions of years of human experience in favor of their limited and as yet incomplete experience in living. Nor would a theoretical notion, such as autonomy or equality, suffice to overturn the authority of such a huge reservoir of experience. Traditional wisdom is derived from millions of completed lives, observed and assessed from within and without. Hence if we really desire the truly good we should acknowledge the limits of our individual wisdom and pay reverent attention to the wisdom of the moral tradition.

Where are We and Where are We Going?

We’ve learned some important lessons. Human beings learn what is truly good for them through experience and this good can be confirmed again and again by experience. But we’ve seen that we cannot discover what is truly good for us from our own private experience. We depend on the experience of generations of those who came before us. These lessons help us understand some things about the biblical vision of the good and the right that are often obscured in contemporary discussions. In anticipation of future posts consider this: given what we’ve learned about how human beings actually come to know the good, it should not be surprising that Christians look to the laws, parables, proverbs and direct moral teaching of the Old and New Testaments to learn what is truly good for them. Everyone looks to moral tradition in one form or another. We have no choice. But Christians understand the moral tradition contained in the scriptures to be based on more than mere human experience, and it is concerned with a wider horizon and a greater end than life in this world. Christians believe that this human experience was elevated and deepened by divine revelation and providence and by the working of the divine spirit.

To be continued…

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