Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Professional Ethicists and Shining Examples

Anthony Esolen writes at Public Discourse:

"On Expertise and Ethics"

One of the more puzzling things about contemporary arguments regarding what things a good or free society ought to allow and what things it ought to forbid is our turn toward the 'expert,' the ethicist, the person who has made a professional career of teasing out deductions from moral premises. But what really qualifies such a person to be regarded as a beacon of wisdom? Aristotle famously said that the best way to learn about justice would be to observe a just man. The dictum is not tautological. In the life of a Mother Teresa, for example, we may learn literally countless—that is, not reducible to numbers—lessons in love and magnanimity, whence we may confirm true principles already held, and reveal others whose existence we had not suspected. We would be confronting the just life not as an academic exercise, but as an intensely personal challenge."

Read the whole thing.

Lee Harris explores the same subject in his essay "The Future of Tradition."

"In a world where shining examples are no longer pointed out, what is there to aspire to? You must change yourself, as Rilke’s poem tells us, but into what? A tolerant person? A wise person? These are abstractions. They permit us to declare ourselves “tolerant” without further ado, just as we can equally well declare ourselves “caring” or “loving” or “open-minded.” We can make a resolution to become more sensitive to others or more appreciative of their feelings. Indeed, we can even display bumper stickers that assure both us and the world of our deep devotion to world peace and the brotherhood of man.

A society that moves from seeing the human ideal in terms of shining examples to thinking of the human ideal in abstract terms is a society that has undergone the most traumatic and wrenching change imaginable — a change so drastic that those who come out on the other side of it cannot comprehend the position of those who have been left behind by it. These are your shining examples, but they have no meaning for me. They are not my heroes, but yours.

The moment we leave it to ourselves to measure our own progress, we have lost the most powerful motive for making progress, and that is to make ourselves as close to our shining example as we possibly can. Only a shining example has the power to transform us from our present state to a higher one — abstract principles alone can never do this. Indeed, their very abstractness serves to camouflage all sorts of disreputable self-deceptions, as no abstract term can ever protest against even its most wanton misuse."

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