In the wake of Joe Biden’s election as president, the problems America faces did not go away. President Trump opened his presidency vowing to clean up America’s southern border. Chants of “Build that Wall” could be heard from sea to shining sea. In 2016 as with today, this is not just a political crisis or a humanitarian situation, but one that is deeply moral.
The term “moral” designates a particular kind of conscious content — socially prescriptive and cognitively descriptive — telling us how we ought to treat one another. Although variously conceived, ethical and moral rules of behavior have historically brought stability and meaning to our collective living.
Through parenting, nurture, and continual interaction with others, we learn the importance of living morality. We can symbolize this aptitude as our “moral consciousness;” it is a social disposition identifying human interrelatedness and collective responsibility. This is learned and developed by communal awareness — in families, churches, schools, and by working with others. Thus, being moral is both natural and developmental but also reflective of cultural diversity. It may be so firmly enculturated as to be thought of as self-evident. Yet, its activation is not a given; someone or some groups must step up and provide the moral leadership required.
Moral consciousness is definitive of our humanity. The question of “consciousness?” does raise questions requiring attention; namely, “Who are we?” and “Why are we?” Answers to these questions reveal an uncertainty habitually blurring the lines between what is thought of as innate and what is considered social and developmental; what is temporary and what is universal.
Undoubtedly, consciousness is a form of self-awareness. Without consciousness we cease to exist, but its moral content is a developed capacity, socially anchored and constructed, and malleable — an outward flow of the conscious mind. Our moral capacity is erected on understanding the importance of creating strong and sustaining relationships revealing its social nature. Evolving within the family and community, our moral consciousness becomes a conduit to human communal life.
And so we ask, “How will a good person know when she or he is hurting or humiliating her or his neighbor?” and “How will companies, including scientific and governmental organizations, know when they are violating rather than promoting essential human values?” Notwithstanding the events of 1/6/21, we can also inquire into the role of the church — Christian or otherwise — in directing our moral consciousness. What does the church have to say about the immigrants pouring into our nation, many who are children, seeking relief from oppression and a safe place to live and work?
Valuing my own freedom and the justice it requires me to extend to others also necessitates that I become aware of all the various ways in which other human beings whom I might act upon can be hurt. From a moral perspective, are we not tasked with creating environments that respect the welfare, dignity and self-worth of those in our care?
Understandably, “life is a web of relationships.” Relationships reveal our character; they are “the eye of needle” defining our moral obligations. Relationship-building is a powerful but fragile phenomenon, constantly changing and easily lost. We are daily confronted with making an effort to understand those around us — their familial connections, religious affiliations, political views and deepest values. This understanding entails empathy, generosity, fairness and reciprocity. All of these, including their polar opposites, figure into our relationship-value-equation.
Artist Paul Cézanne remarked about one of his paintings, “The landscape thinks itself me and I am its consciousness.” If the “landscape” is symbolized as “the human landscape” then our consciousness will be a moral consciousness of unconcealment. Is this not what Jesus was advocating when he said we “should love others as we love ourselves”? How do we love ourselves and how can this be imparted to others?
Joseph P. Hester