Moral standards usually develop without the benefit of personal experience
People need moral codes. When you have standards of what you will, and more importantly, what you won’t do, you feel like a somebody. To be blunt, everyone needs to feel like they are better than someone else. The rapist, the murderer, the child molester…these are people we look at from afar and say with self satisfaction, “I would never do that.” Not every moral standard is about something as extreme as killing the next person. There are other things that we refuse to do, again, feeling confident in our self worth. The problem we have is that we usually imagine how we would feel under circumstances we have never experienced. Given that most of our moral standards develop when we are children, it is only natural that we are only imagining how we would react. We say with confidence what we would never do, but we do not really know until we are put to the test. It is far too easy to judge people who are dealing with situations we have never faced in real life. We make imaginary moral decisions about imagined events. For example, “I would never snatch the last life preserver from an elderly person on a sinking ship,” Most of us think this, and certainly most of us would say this out loud in a group if we were asked. But in truth we do not know what we will do when an unprecedented situation occurs, even a minor situation such as looking at another person’s test paper.
Addiction is an unprecedented situation
Before we ever felt the intoxicating effects of a mind altering substance, we made a lot of decisions about what we would or wouldn’t do concerning drugs and alcohol. I suppose it could be said of almost everything in life that we don’t know what it is like until we have experienced it, but I will submit that addiction is far more surprising than other things. First of all, none of us believes we can become addicted to anything. I, for one, did not believe in the existence of addiction. I did not think about it much, but when I did I could not understand people who cannot control what they do. That just made no sense to me. I believed I had total control over everything that I did and regarded addiction as irrelevant to me. I was too immature to notice that I had no control over my anger and how I expressed my anger. I could not shake my anxiety in social situations. There were some obsessive compulsive habits that I did even when I did not want to, such as counting all live animals I saw within a 24 hour period and keeping a running list throughout the day. I could put myself down because I did not realize I had much in common with people who did things they did not want to do because to not do those things would be to bring about unthinkable fear. But I do not have to put myself down because one thing we are taught about people our society labels as “bad” is that we have nothing in common with them because we are “good.” American culture is not about finding common ground but about differentiating yourself so that you are not like other people. Everyone wants to be special and unique and there is no upside to finding out what, if anything, we have in common with “bad” people.
What about the people I think are lower than me?
In the bible Jesus says something like, “you guys never visited me when I was in prison. You never clothed me when I was naked or fed me when I was hungry. When I needed you, you were not there for me.” The disciples were all indignant and baffled, and they were like, “when did all this happen?” Jesus responded “when you did not do these things for the people you consider far beneath you, you did not do them for me.” I am paraphrasing Matthew 24. In Matthew 24 the translation I have read for those you consider beneath you, is “the least among you.” The people we consider beneath us are usually people who have made moral decisions we imagine we would never, ever make. We think of ourselves as better and society is ok with that. Of course we are better than rapists, or serial killers! But Jesus does not tell us to luxuriate in the self-satisfaction of superiority. Instead he tells us to do for those people. The “least among you” varies for each individual. I know there are many people who embrace racism, while for me, the racist is almost less than human, if I am being totally honest. Certainly the racist has not developed the reasoning to evaluated his or her beliefs about race when race is so poorly defined and people are a mix of different ethnicities. As soon as I think of the possibility of trying to see where the racist is coming from, trying to understand his thinking, I feel a great resistance within myself, almost a physical aversion to the very thought of using the word we to refer to myself and a Klansman (one example). I really do not want to see what we have in common. I am not willing to explore the idea that the Klansman is as good as I am, because in my heart of hearts I do not believe that he is. I think of him as inferior and I am comfortable with that. This admission is very raw and I will have to consider if I want to reach the next level of moral reasoning that demands I see what I have in common with the least among us, instead of embracing how different I am. Who am I willing to include when I use the word “we”?
Judging others is relevant to a blog about street life
I want to use my blog to humanize people that society is quick to discount. The homeless, the thieves, the prostitutes, the felons, the drug dealers, and others that can easily be found on the streets of downtown Honolulu. But it is important for me to remember that although these people are not “the least” the way I view rapists and racists, for other people, the people on the street are the epitome of “the least.” People are no more willing to see what they have in common with a prostitute than I am to see what I have in common with a Klansman. Is there a way to push through that barrier that unapologetically separates us as we do what Jesus tells us to never do–judge others. Or is it ok to keep the bad people where they are—over there and far away? Do we even want to find common ground with those we detest? Interestingly, everyone makes somebody’s list of unworthy and subhuman. If you are white and you are not actively helping to wage war against minorities you are considered by some to be a race traitor. Is it better to understand the incomprehensible other or just to stay away. In today’s world we opt to stay away but that might not be a solution that solves anything.