Tuesday, June 9, 2009

"There Are No Bad People...

...only bad choices."

This particular line of thought just keeps surfacing for me this week. It's popped up in the blogosphere, in a series of random conversations with an old blog jousting buddy about abortion. It's come out of the mouth of the swim instructor at my kid's pool, in desperate response to the total entropic randomness of a moist horde of summer-addled tweeners.

Whenever it's surfaced, I find myself struggling. On the one hand, it's very non-judgmental. It's a happy warm fuzzy thing to say, particularly to someone who has completely messed up their life through a series of cascading errors. The meth and the string of armed robberies and those four kids you fathered with three different women were just bad choices on your part. You're still a good person. It permits people to say to themselves, gosh and golly, if I'm a good person, then I should act like a good person.

I'd like to believe that, and on some levels, I do believe that. Leaving space and grace for redemption is kinda important for all of us.

On the other hand, I think that the choices we make define us. We have no meaningful existence as ethical or moral entities outside of the decisions we make, particularly the decisions that impact other beings. If I choose to deck you with an unexpected uppercut because I truly believe you deserve it for being such a pinhead, my belief that you are a pinhead does not abrogate the very actual harm that I have caused you. If I lend you money at an exorbitant interest rate using your car title as collateral because I believe that making a profit in any way possible is my right as a businessperson, that belief does not mean that what I am doing is acceptable to anyone other than me. If I hack off your arm with a machete because I genuinely believe that your tribe is subhuman and needs to be put in its place, that subjective perspective does not in any way diminish the objective anguish that my actions have caused.

Those opinions and beliefs may form my rationale, and may be part of the ethos that formed me, but they do not mitigate against the specific and actual harm that I have caused another being.

As a person of faith, I see the ethical function of faith as being the thing that shatters our individual and cultural subjectivity, and brings us into an ecstatic awareness of the Other. That is the heart of a morality founded in compassion, which is the core ethical thrust of all Christian teaching.

Ultimately, the purpose of an ethic founded in love and compassion is to move us away from the claustrophobic moral onanism of the subjective, and to engage us more deeply in the actuality of being that exists beyond our limited selves and self perception.