Morality is always subject to the faithful discernment of context, and altruism can become a Pharisaical objective.
Modern confusion about morality
The concern for morality is the cognitive mind’s natural response to the problem of sin and evil.
Throne and Altar: Moderns starting to realize how inhumanly difficult their morality is (December 17, 2018)
“Modern morality is often thought of as a deliverance from the harshness of past moral codes. But that’s only because we don’t take it seriously. If we do, then it is absolutely inhuman in its demands, a spirit-crushing, insatiable monstrosity, whether modern morals are taken in their Kantian-personalist or, especially, in their utilitarian form. Can you imagine being required to maximize the total happiness of mankind, never treat anyone as a mere means, or value everyone on Earth’s happiness equally with your own every moment of every day? Every human good would be strangled, and no one could ever be happy again. One begins to appreciate that the legalism and casuistry of pre-modern morality functioned not to burden mankind but to deliver us from the hell of unbounded altruism.
This has not gone unnoticed by the moderns. See this review of Susan Wolf’s “Moral saints”, namely an argument against trying to become one. Wolf appeals to all the “non-moral” goods that can only be preserved if we limit our commitment to modern morality. Interestingly, the reviewer, Daniel Callcut, points out that one way to escape from the dilemma would be to return to pre-modern virtue ethics, in which an altruism restricted to neighbors is held in balance with other goods as parts of a comprehensive good life, and he notes that Wolf rejects this option. Wolf is left to construct a solution which limits universalist altruism while granting it the monopoly on morality it has had in modern thought. She must claim that we should be somewhat altruistic but that we should not aspire to “moral sainthood”, i.e. allow the admitted demands of morality to entirely structure our lives and crowd out other goods. Indeed, I agree that one should not allow utilitarian ethics to ruin one’s life, but I see no way to coherently assert this while admitting utilitarian ethics. One is applying to a “should” which is more authoritative than the “should” of morality, but such a thing cannot exist. The ruling “should” is one’s true morality, and it’s better to make it explicit.”
Bonald has made some excellent points here. But there remains a more fundamental error of omission concerning any argument about the practice of morality, and it is that the philosophical transformation to generalized postulates leaves out any in situ sources of information that might be obtained through the discernment of the context.
Discernment is the operative word here. Without discernment, one is unable to respond to a circumstance in an appropriate and purposefully effective way.
- Discernment is the soul’s radar of good and evil – a hedge of safety in dangerous circumstances.
- Discernment is what delivers morality from becoming a hell of unbounded altruism.
- Discernment is what liberates the soul’s experience from the spirit crushing monstrosity of canonical law, AKA moral legalism.
To give the reader a taste of what it feels like to experience spiritual discernment, watch this classic scene from The Lord of the Rings, in which the hobbit, Frodo Baggins (feat. Elijah Wood), discerns the approaching presence of the evil Black Rider.
In case you missed it, the moment of Frodo’s discernment occurs at the 2:00 mark. Note that discernment is experienced as a perceived distortion of time and space, and this perception kicks in just moments before the Black Rider becomes optically visible.
It should be duly noted here that without discernment, it would have been impossible for Frodo to know whether to bid a good day to the passing equestrian dressed in the coolest goth cosplay, or to warn his friends to run for their lives.
Without discernment, one is relegated to be either a foolish laughingstock of a believer, or else, condemned to a mediocre existence of fellowship among the wicked. At worst, capture, destruction, defeat, and extermination are palpable.
Discernment is the foundation of true morality
“But solid food is for the mature—for those whose senses have been trained to distinguish between good and evil.” ~ Hebrews 5:14 (HCSV)
The New Covenant of faith in Christ transforms the very nature of the Old Mosaic Law Covenant, in that the 10 Commandments and other such “requirements” under the Law are no longer seen as checkpoints that necessitate one’s intentional volition to agree and conform, which can never be done by an act of the will alone. Instead, the Law is regarded as a promise from God that we will naturally live in harmony with God, not only lawfully, but also joyfully.
Hence, the new Morality in Christ requires the faithful exercise of discernment, and not in how well one can conform to the rules.
Mentioning the rule of law, English-speaking culture, which poses a sense of morality on an itinerant conformance to the legality of a thing, is especially susceptible towards seeking to attain righteousness through the law. This cultural weakness is becoming more obvious as western laws inch closer towards condoning what God’s laws forbid.
The appropriateness of the moral decision lies in the detection of either spiritual confederacy or enmity, and the assertion of the most effective course of action, AKA wisdom.
In other words, developing and exercising discernment is the quality that makes one a moral agent. It is not any particular system of philosophical beliefs, or one’s conformance to a set of rules concerning social interaction behavior.
How can a man develop his sense of discernment?
Discernment can only be gained through a fear of God and a continual awareness of one’s human nature.
Discernment is a quality that is only possessed by those who have been made righteous in Christ.
Maintaining a posture of humility is also a necessary ingredient for discernment. You must be mindful of your vulnerabilities, weaknesses, and needs.
For some odd reason related to human frailty, beauty can enhance one’s sense of discernment.
If you’re feeling a pang of panic, and asking yourself why you don’t have a sense of discernment, all is not yet lost. Those who lack discernment can pray, and ask God to increase their wisdom. If God grants you wisdom, your sense of discernment must necessarily increase, because wisdom is strongly dependent on spiritual discernment.
“If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.” ~ James 1:5 (KJV)
upbraid: to forcefully or angrily tell someone they should not have done a particular thing and criticize them for having done it.
But why doesn’t James 1:5 urge us to pray for discernment first, before asking for wisdom? This is apparently a crucial missing link in modern western theology. Personally, I believe the “fear of the Lord” is related to discernment. (I suspect that something may have gotten lost in the translation.)
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,
And the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” ~ Proverbs 9:10 (NKJV)
Connecting this concept to “upbraid” in James 1:5, why might a person think God would chastise him for having discernment, which seems to be what James is addressing.
I have one guess about the answer. Personally speaking, whenever my discernment is enhanced, the temptation I experience grows more intense. This happens because an increase in my discernment amplifies my awareness of those moments and circumstances when I could “get away with it”.
Discernment also indicates to me which women are “willing and eager”. It’s like I suddenly notice a longing hollowness in the eyes of certain women whose hearts are held captive by my aura. They gaze on me with an edgy breathiness, and this is accompanied by a certain urgent tenderness in the touch of their hand. I digress…
Ahem… yes, discernment causes the level of temptation that I face on a daily basis to skyrocket.
Back to the question. Should I be upbraided for becoming any more aware of the fact that certain situations can be misappropriated for selfish purposes, or for being aware of when certain women want to bed me? No, that is merely temptation. Upbraiding is only required at the point when I abandon wisdom to pursue my sinful passions.
During my younger years, I had the notion that when my discernment/temptation intensified, then I was moving away from God, mainly because my senses and visceral experiences became prescient in my conscious awareness. During graduate school, I discovered that I was wrong in assuming that the temptation associated with discernment was synonymous with backsliding, and that the opposite was closer to the truth. I was actually moving closer to God, but the consciousness of my own sinful desires, and the fear of being tempted past my threshold, not to mention the dullness of discernment that resulted from actually succumbing to various temptation, all remained as a wall that kept me from accepting this truth, and advancing farther down this path of holiness.
It seems like frustration just can’t be avoided in this life. The lost are frustrated because they lack the ability to obtain their selfish desires. Those who are in the process of regeneration are frustrated by the volatile infidelities of their own sinful nature.
The benefits of developing discernment
Having a sense of discernment is a mark of righteousness. Indeed, discernment is one of the fruits of the Spirit within Orthodox and Catholic catechism. Those who have it, possess it in varying degrees, in various areas. Those who have an extremely exceptional sense of discernment in a particular longitudinal area are often considered to be virtuosos, or even Prophets within that particular discipline.
- When discernment is present, wisdom and authenticity can develop, which allow the true expression of morality.
- Having a healthy ego is associated with positive morality, and this is contingent on, and supported by discernment. If a man has very poor discernment, or a weak ego, it causes other people to be generally unaccepting of him.
- As a man’s discernment grows, he becomes more in touch with his emotions, like anger, fear, sadness, etc. Awareness of his emotions can help him know himself better, what he truly wants, what he likes and dislikes.
- The information gained through discernment improves awareness which can help a man navigate through any particular social context with greater authenticity and finesse.
- A better sense of discernment helps one to be better able to empathize with the emotions of others, and interact with people in a more efficacious manner.
- The process of vetting a friend, girlfriend, wife, or business associate goes a lot smoother and easier.
What causes a lack of discernment?
A lack of discernment is a real killer, not only of one’s spiritual life, but also of the social, and sexual. It detracts from feelings of empathy and bonding. It prevents one from knowing important information about others, which leads to miscalculations and poor decisions, and therefore prevents one from extolling in situ wisdom. In short, it erodes the very foundations of Frame with caustic venom.
The following things may hinder the development of discernment, or can dull any discernment already achieved.
- In general, acts of spiritual disobedience, especially sexual sins, will kill one’s sense of discernment just like idolatry kills the imagination.
- Extended, intense frustration, including a preoccupation of wrestling against one’s desires, i.e. sexual urges.
- False generational guilt leading to unmerited self-condemnation.
- An inordinate temptation.
- Various fears, such as a fear of social scrutiny or rejection for expressing one’s self in an authentic way (lacking confidence); fear of gaining specific forms of knowledge from discernment, especially knowledge that exacerbates a fear of danger, temptation, sin, or requires extra efforts in taking responsibility for a difficult situation; fear of making a bad decision, or of using one’s personal charisma (power) for wrong purposes.
- Having a healthy discernment is strongly dependent on having a healthy ego. If the ego is prideful, warped or poorly developed, then discernment will lack prescience.
- Having an avoidant attachment style can undermine one’s posture of humility, which is necessary for building discernment. The emotional independence associated with this style can significantly change the subjective context in which discernment might be experienced and utilized. Namely, it reduces one’s ability to empathize with other people’s moods in the present moment. (This may appear to others as selfishness.)
- Asperger’s, or other similar learning disorders, can severely hamper theory of mind and the development of discernment.
- I don’t have any evidence for this claim, but I suppose that people with clinical personality disorders would be excluded from developing discernment.
- Σ Frame: The Ten Commandments of Christian Fellowship (June 25, 2010)
- Do What’s Right (feat. Ed Hurst): Fundamentals of Morality (January 4, 2013)