It has been my experience that most people are not interested in entertaining a conversation about the philosophical moral underpinnings of their own view of why human life should be considered valuable – because they’d much rather shoot from the hip when expressing their moral opinions. Such an approach invariably fosters an existential mix of emotional pragmatism with an extemporaneously applied conviction. Which is to say, scrutinizing their own moral views for consistency, is secondary to being able to pass judgement on those who disagree with them. Because in a conflict of moral opinions, securing the moral high ground in order to exact judgement with accusatory fervor, is preferable to being the target of such moral outrage . . . even if you can’t explain the presuppositions of your own morality.
This is our default relationship to morality – an inescapable paradigm of judge, or be judged. Which is why commonly accepted morality is constantly morphing to follow an ever changing cultural ethos – where morality is determined in a power struggle between the loudest influential voices of the day. But this is not a modern phenomenon. Nietzsche had long dismissed morality as being nothing more than a contest between various groups, hoping to leverage the authority of morality to manipulate culture into submission. And it was this kind of power play that the Pharisees had in mind when they brought a woman, they had caught in adultery, before Jesus (John 8:3-11) to see if he’d pass judgement as was culturally expected.
There must have been quite a stir within the crowd, everyone eager to hear Jesus’ verdict – those with empty hands, secretly hoping not to participate in a public stoning . . . and those who had gathered up quite a few rocks, just waiting for Jesus to give them the go ahead. And surprisingly Jesus does not disappoint either group – he gives the go ahead to throw rocks with the stipulation that only those without sin could do so . . . and with that everyone knew that there wasn’t going to be a stoning that day. But more importantly, he had exposed the insidious nature of the “judge, or be judged” moral paradigm that was essential in creating the Pharisees’ mystique of authority, they relied upon to control the people.
In Matthew 7:1-5 Jesus warns us that the morality of judging one another can only ever become a devolving cycle of perpetually finding fault with one another. But when asked which commandment is the greatest, Jesus instead sums up the entire law (morality) “And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”~ Matthew 22: 37-39. Notice that the operative word here is love, making of love the core principle of morality.
And if you’re wondering who is your neighbor, and what does loving them look like: Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan – a story about serving the needs of a stranger, a stranger who might even hate you (Jews didn’t care for Samaritans). Therefore the morality of loving must take on the shape of serving the other, regardless of who they might be. To underscore this very point Jesus chooses to wash the feet of his disciples . . . even Judas Iscariot’s (John 13:1-7). He is washing their feet fully anticipating going to the cross, where he will give himself over to the ultimate act of self-emptying service – so we’re tempted to wonder why spend time on such a lesser service as washing feet. But Jesus explains: “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example that you also should do just as I have done to you.” ~ John 13: 12-15. So every day we must choose whether we will throw rocks or wash feet . . . choose wisely which morality you want to live by.
“Let your mercy flow through us . . . may they know your mercy”