The voices you are

April 23, 2006 | By | 1 Reply More

Many people think that they are motivated to act morally by reference to a set of external rules.  Not me.  Although rules direct our attention to various problem-solving strategies, there are so many rules (and so many interpretations of rules) that people can easily “justify” almost any behavior by reference to rules.  “Do not kill” unless, of course, you want to kill, such as when you want to start a war.  In other words, rules are attention-directing devices–they are codified (and sometimes ossified) recipes.   They don’t serve, however, as any sort of “engine” of moral reasoning.

Now consider the people whose opinions we value.  These people do constitute an important part of our engine of moral reasoning.   These are the people with whom you interact in real-life, of course–they call you and email you and run into you at the grocery store.  But even when they aren’t really interacting with you they are “there,” providing a durable moral compass as a result of the thoughts they have planted in you.

If the people with whom you spend your time consider only their own desires for amusement and consumption of material things, it is their sorts of thoughts that will be most available to you when you make decisions.  If you spend time with people who have burning desires to improve social justice (e.g., to make decent health care available for all children), then those are the types of thoughts that will be most available to you.

But who exactly are they, these people who you become?  You know some of them very well. They might include family members.  They also include those people you respect.  For me, one of them is a fellow who appeared out of nowhere to calibrate my moral compass in 1988.  Back then, my boss, then the Attorney General of Missouri, worked harder at corruption than at consumer fraud.  I relied daily on this friend’s “voice.”

We don’t generally fill out scorecards to designate exactly who they are at any given time.  If you move in a diverse social circle, the aggregate “voice” of your friends consists of diverse thoughts and opinions.  They speak to you in recognizable “chords.” If you’re fortunate, they are beautiful, richly harmonic chords. They constitute your personal Greek chorus.  They are your conscience and your guardian angel.   It’s questionable whether you could ever know yourself without these people.   

The people whose opinions you value, then, are always “with” you, even though they are often not physically with you.  When the people you choose are good and decent, they are “there,” nodding their heads approvingly whenever you dig deeply to achieve ends that are truly morally admirable. They hover over you, always somewhat accessible, always watching. 

There are certainly other such voices, though, and you might not recognize them to fill such important roles in your life until they suddenly die. Even when they die, you can still be inspired by your memories of these people, but it’s not quite the same.  When one of your “moral jurors” dies, the true importance of that person might finally dawn on you.

Susan Ehrenfest

Susan did not believe in God.  She did not attend church.  Rather, she believed in helping people who needed help and she attended to them.  Her mission in life was truly to help others in need, which she continued to do until yesterday, when she died of a massive stroke at the age of 87.

Born in 1919, Susan escaped the holocaust by fleeing to the United States in 1938. She was then a penniless Austrian woman whose mother had died when Susan was seven and whose father (who stayed behind, thinking that the madness wouldn’t last much longer) was about to be killed in a concentration camp.

Safely in the U.S., Susan married Steven, who she had known in Austria.  She was successful in her career as a fashion buyer for a large department store.  Though she didn’t have children of her own, she made her community her family.  She was a longtime active member of the board of Logos, a St. Louis school for children with academic and emotional needs that cannot be met in traditional classrooms. She was a active in supporting children’s theater productions.  She helped people who had health issues.  Over the past few years, I’ve learned some of the details regarding many of the people she helped with her time, money and encouragement (and this help went way beyond her work at Logos).

Susan was honest to a fault.  If you asked her what she thought, she told you. No crap. You would always know where you stood and that is why so many people valued her opinions. Opine she did, though her delivery sometimes bordered on curmudgeonly.  She was also street smart—no half-baked excuse or reason got past her.   But she more than made up for her “bedside manner” with her huge heart. 

At age 87, she retained a vigorous sense of curiosity and interconnectedness with her community.  When we brought people out to visit Susan, she always took the time to sit down with them to find out, in detail, who they were. Then she made them part of her family.  Whenever I saw her still actively reaching out to her community in her mid 80’s, I thought about so many other people in their 80’s who stop trying, who cloister themselves in their homes with their televisions and crossword puzzles.  It made me think of this great waste of human potential.

This brings me back to my first point.  Susan was a highly moral person because of her well-developed and well-practiced sense of reaching out to others in need.   Aristotle wrote extensively that morality is not about rules, but about moral character.  Being moral is not learned by memorizing external rules, but by practicing good-heartedness. Susan was quite a character, in every sense.

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Category: Friendships/relationships, Good and Evil

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Sujay says:

    I agree with what's said here. When people are likely to give more attention to skeletons of age-old morals, 'codified' for posterity, over the internal compasses that they are blessed with by virtue of their just being human, things are bound to go wrong.

    I too think that morality is rooted within each of us, and for those who feel that humanity would be doomed in the absence of these external regulatory codes, I am surprised at the little faith they have in humans themselves.

    Perhaps there would be more unity in this world, if people relied on their universal inner morals, rather than these codes, which as you have observed, can be used to justify anything!

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