On a New “Norm” of Morality

Making compassion, sincerity, or sensitivity the prime virtue is a fatal mistake

Within the universe, man is the one being who is not complete simply by being what he is. Being what he is, he has still to become fully and completely what he is. His given being depends on him for its own fullness. He is irreplaceable to himself. No one can”make” him be what he ought to be. He is free to complete himself in most any way he wants. But he ought to complete himself in a way that proceeds from his recognition of what is good and what is evil. He does not establish this distinction but finds it already confronting him. The drama of human existence unfolds according to how he responds to what he is free to do or not do. He can reject what he ought to be by putting in his soul his own self-defined ‘what-he-ought-to-be,’ a definition that denies any relation to a transcendent or natural source to which he is open.

Compassion and sincerity are in themselves noble sentiments. And that is what they are: sentiments, passions, or feelings, not goals or ends. Compassion means to “suffer with.” It allows us to stand with those who suffer in fact by imagining ourselves in their place. It means that those who suffer or are abused are not totally alone. We stand and feel with them. Sincerity means that no duplicity is present in us, no saying one thing and doing another. We are genuine. We are as we appear to be. The word “sensitive” also comes in here. We are aware of the feelings of others; we are reluctant to embarrass anyone. Thus, lack of compassion, insincerity, and insensitiveness becomes a vice. The world is safer, we are told, if no one notices anything untoward about anyone else. We chastise those who think or designate something wrong with the way we live.

At first sight, this account sounds like a straight-forward explication of the decent side of human character. No one wants to be uncompassionate, insincere, or insensitive. We do not want to embarrass anyone. And yet, what these words have in common is that none of them, as such, sets a standard. Hitler and Stalin, in their own minds, were compassionate, sincere, and sensitive. They were, to give them their due, out to make the world better. They each had intellectual theories or ideas that they were determined to follow. The world would be better for their efforts, they thought. They were not the only ideologues we have to worry about.

It all depends on what we are compassionate about, sincere about, or sensitive about. If we separate the feeling from the object that would define whether what concerns us is good or bad, then we suddenly find ourselves, in the name of compassion, sincerity, or sensitivity, gradually approving what is in fact evil. The ways and paths by which our souls are undermined are indeed torturous, even, dare I say it, diabolical. The devil does not care how we pass from identifying what is good to be evil, what is evil to be good. The end, not the means, is the primary concern. Once there, we are locked into disorder of soul. We find we arrived there by using our feelings and not our minds accurately and honestly to judge the goodness or badness of what we were doing.

The issue is also related to manners and etiquette. The proper ways of eating, drinking, dressing, courting, marrying, and conversing can vary widely in details. What they all have in common is the attempt to guide us in how to live properly and well. These latter manners, moreover, are related to morality as distant preparations for being able to recognize and to accept what is decent and even elegant among us in the way we live and deal with one another.

A proper training in decency and manners from youth, Aristotle said, will enable us to see what is good and evil when we encounter them in our experience. Sometimes we also hear the word “refinement.” Our manners are refined, attentive to others. Everyone recognizes that danger can arise here. The hypocrites of the Gospels had good manners and liked to be recognized by them. But such is the subtly of human nature that we can make the manners and not the heart that motivates them to be the first thing in our intention. This danger is not the fault of manners as such. Any good thing that is not God can be corrupted by using it for a purpose for which it was not designed or intended.

Yet, I venture to say the overturning of classical morality that we are witnessing in our time with ever increasing force and speed has been largely made possible by the elevation of compassion, sincerity, and sensitivity to the rank of moral absolutes. They have taken the place of what it is we should be compassionate, sincere, and sensitive about. Today, we are used to people who kill their babies in the womb, or advocate it, or make it legally possible and what not. Yet, these same people are indignant when someone identifies just what it is that they have done or cooperated in or made possible. We are robbed of the language in which truth and accuracy is contained. We assign babies to single-sex couples because the “couples,” not the child, “need” them. The child needs a mother and a father. We kill the elderly or encourage them to kill themselves to lessen their suffering as if suffering or caring for them has no purpose. We want to be compassionate. We want to “feel” with the one who “suffers.” With such feelings, we are led to do terrible things and insist on calling them good.

What goes on here? We do not call things by their right names when we make compassion, sincerity, or sensitivity the prime virtue. What is behind this shift from being to feeling? In order to justify our actions, we have to postulate that the world has no intrinsic order by which or in which we can distinguish one thing from another. We have to say that the distinction of the sexes is of no import. We have to say that the lives of those we kill because we did not “prevent” their conception are of no account because our “choice” takes priority over their being. If my choice is more important that someone else’s very being, it follows that they are less than second-class citizens. We have to deny their humanity, without any scientific basis to do so. We have to do so because we want something else. That is, we do not want to be responsible for our actions that caused the new reality in the first place. We have to lie to ourselves so that we can ‘feel” righteous and be sincere and sensitive.

In the classic creation account, man was created from nothing. He is what he is through no input of his own. To be a human being means that we find ourselves as already existing as the kind of beings we are. We have worthy lives when we do or achieve what we ought to be. The steps in overcoming what is natural or normal about our being follow a familiar pattern. If something is wrong, but we want to do it, we first look for a single case, usually extreme, in which an exception to what is right can be made to seem valid, logical.  We next make the exception a “right.” One has a “right” to do what is not right. Once an exception becomes a “right,” we feel sympathy for those who, by practicing their “right,” are said to do evil. The next step is to forbid any criticism of what deviates from what is now a “right,” even though it be the opposite of the first principle of what is good. The final step is to make what is evil to be what is right. We then legally enforce it and prevent any criticism of it Classical morality becomes the enemy of the state.

This process seems to be the principal way that compassion, sincerity, and sensitivity have come to be the primary instruments whereby the disorders of soul are established as “rights” and policies in our time. We do not say it is wrong to kill babies in the womb. We say it is insensitive to criticize somehow who does this. We say that those who want to alleviate the suffering of the elderly by providing euthanasia are sensitive and compassionate. Therefore, we cannot criticize what they do.

It seems strange that the struggle between right and wrong has become a struggle over language. Freedom of religion and of speech has been relativized.  It does show, of course, the power of words. They can even be used to keep us from seeing what is really going on. The new norm of morality is not that something is right and something else is wrong. It is that what we say is right must be right because we say it. What is really wrong–we call it hate language–is to be insensitive to those “sincere” people who show compassion for those who not practice the norms and standards that we once defined as evil.

About James V. Schall, S.J. 160 Articles

James V. Schall, S.J. taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until recently retiring. He is the author of numerous books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His most recent book is Reasonable Pleasures: The Strange Coherences of Catholicism (Ignatius Press). Visit his site, “Another Sort of Learning”, for more about his writings and work.