Saturday, December 5, 2015

Moral Outrage

"A Wilderness Path"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

Today, for the first time since 1920, The New York Times published an editorial on the front page of the newspaper in which they boldly proclaimed: It is a moral outrage and a national disgrace that civilians can legally purchase weapons designed specifically to kill people with brutal speed and efficiency. These are weapons of war, deliberately marketed as tools of macho vigilantism.

The thing that particularly struck me about this extraordinary editorial was that I rarely if ever hear any conversation about morality in the public forum nowadays – especially rare in such a prominent place as the front page of a major newspaper.

It seems to me that people often tend to avoid talking about morality because they associate moral conversation with religious belief. “Morals” are rules handed down by religious institutions who claim that these are the laws of God. So of course, if you aren’t religious or if you are an atheist or an agnostic you probably want nothing to do with conversations about morality.

Even apart from all the religious baggage associated with morality, the idea of publicly applied universal moral standards is also somewhat anathema to the sensibilities of contemporary people in this “postmodern era” who believe that we all have our own truth and we all set our own personal standards about what is right and what is wrong. In fact, it may even be “politically incorrect” to have public conversations about universally- applied moral standards.

I personally think we need to expand conversations about morality beyond the purview of religion but I also believe there are some universal standards of “right and wrong” that apply to all of us.  

I very much agree with what the Dalai Lama had to say a few years back in his very insightful book Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World.  He makes a compelling argument for removing moral conversations outside of and beyond “religious institutions.” After all, if morality is only a subject of interest for religious people, than you can skip over the moral argument if you don’t happen to be religious.  But the Dalai Lama also suggests that there are some pretty clear standards of universal morality for all humanity, and upholding these standards has more to do with our survival as a species than with following religious dictates:

Fortunately there is now a reasonably substantial body of evidence
in evolutionary biology, neuroscience and other fields suggesting that,
even from the most rigorous scientific perspective,
unselfishness and concern for others are innate to our biological nature.
Interdependence is a key feature of human reality.

As human beings we can survive and thrive only in an environment of
concern, affection and warm-heartedness – or in a single word, compassion.

I applaud the editorial in today’s New York Times and I firmly believe that we need more public “moral dialogue” in the marketplaces of our common life. As I see it, we need to find more and more ways to ask those bigger “meaning of life” questions, searching together for direction about what is right and what is wrong. We need to be raising issues like gun control or immigration or climate change not only as a topics confined to politics but as issues that are essentially “moral questions.”

A while back another op-ed piece in the New York Times made the point:

Because there is less moral conversation in the public square
we are less articulate about our inner life,
There are fewer and fewer places nowadays
where people are able to talk to one another about the things that matter most,
as a result, many feel lost or overwhelmed.
They feel a hunger to live meaningfully 
but they don’t know the right questions to ask,
the right places to look or even if there are any ultimate answers at all.

I am not at all suggesting that we need to encourage everyone to flock into churches or synagogues or mosques where they might talk about issues like “what is right and what is wrong.” While I believe that you can certainly have these kinds of conversations in a church, I also think we need to be having “moral conversations” in coffee houses, around the water cooler at work,  and in the social media as a response to the front page editorial about moral outrage.

And when we have these important conversations I think there is a universal standard that can guide and inform our dialogue – we can determine the morality of our personal or corporate lives by looking through the lens of concern, affection, and warm-heartedness - in a word compassion.

Without this kind of morality we will be unable to survive as a species.


  1. Paul - I would like to re-publish this blog post in Episcopal Journal. Could you contact me at

    Solange De Santis
    Episcopal Journal

    1. Of course Im happy for you to republish this...I sent an email