To speak of obedience I will begin by speaking of disobedience.
When Annie Foster was a little girl she often made many mistakes, and was rightly scolded by her parents for doing so. When being scolded little Annie would sometimes reply, “I didn’t know! I forgot I wasn’t allowed to do that mommy!” Annie told herself that her parents made up too many rules to keep track of: no wonder she easily forgot what she should and should not do. However, while Annie was being punished for her misdemeanor she knew she did wrong, even amidst her melodramatic sobbing, and theatrical tantrums, Annie knew. Annie knew before she walked through the house with her muddy boots that what she was about to do was wrong. She didn’t have to be reminded by her mother. From the moment she decided to stampede through the living room, shoes caked in mud, she knew she was doing something she ought not do. When Annie finally make up her mind to stop crying, she would
begin to think clearly. After a decent hour spent thinking in her room, Annie realized that she owed her mother an apology. Annie confessed to her mom that she knew that tracking mud into the house was wrong, and she felt ashamed to have disobeyed her mother.
This sense of knowing that there are certain things which ought not be done is universally felt by all human beings. Most people would agree that stealing from a poor family is wrong, murdering an innocent man is wrong, the abuse of a child is wrong, and the list goes on. There is an inner knowledge of right and wrong written with our very beings. This innate perception of morality is an important aspect of the human person. Without morality we would live in total chaos; evils left un-renounced would reak havoc upon the good. Moral education disappears if morality is reduced to a mere subjective notion. We would no longer teach our children what is good and what is evil. There would be no general moral commandments or principles to compare our actions by.
Although it seems clear and obvious that general moral commandments or principles are essential for mankind, many throughout history have tried to deny this principle. During Dietrich von Hildebrand’s life there were many intellectual movements which sought to deny the existence of such general moral principles. These intellectuals taught that for every circumstance there was a new definition of good or evil. Good and evil were considered to be ever changing notions. They also taught that whether or not an action is good depends solely on a person’s intention. If the intention was good, then the action was good. If the intention was not evil then essentially “no harm done.” This belief is expressed in the mindset of little Annie Foster who did not intend to do evil when she tramped her muddy boots on the living room carpet and therefore tried to justify herself. Yet, Annie eventually realized what the intellectuals of Hildebrand’s day did not. Annie realized that there are general moral commandments, principles, which are known to man without having been taught them. Even a child knows that lying to their parents is wrong, even if that principle was never explained to him.
I believe we often try to deny general moral commandments because we are afraid of obedience. Obedience is a response to that which we respect, that which possesses value and worth. Is it not true that moral commandments intrinsically possess value and worth? Wouldn’t the brutal murder of an innocent child evoke a response of horror from you? Does this act of senseless murder not contain intrinsic ugliness? It is common knowledge that one ‘ought not’ murder. We ‘ought’ to obey this moral commandment for the sake of ourselves, our neighbor, and the world in which we live. But, how can we love to obey moral commandments?
Dietrich von Hildebrand warns man that he should not obey moral commandments as a means of obeying a mere formality or social construct. We should strive to obey the truth, goodness, and beauty of morality passionately, investing our very souls into the following of moral commandments.
We should not become like the mundane, mediocre, morally correct man who obeys principles merely because he prides himself in the knowledge that he successfully obeys laws and unlike his neighbor, he does not make mistakes. The mediocre morally correct man does not grasp the true meaning of morality. One must follow moral commandments with the ‘spirit’, spirit meaning the heart, the soul of your being. This approach of the spirit to morality Hildebrand says is the very “marrow” of morality.
The core of morality is the love of what is good, true, and beautiful.
To preserve a response of respect and reverence for that which is good, we must obey the general moral commandments which protect goodness; the goodness of the virtues, the goodness which inheres in the human person. We must not do so superficially so as to relish, in a prideful manner, our moral uprightness. No, instead we must bear within us a genuine motive and intention to do what is moral for the sake of charity. Charity, which is the core of morality, that from which morality stems.
As a child I ran into my mother’s arms begging for forgiveness, not because I wished to formally abide by the rules she enforced but out of love for her, because she is good, true, and beautiful.
Page 67. Morality and Situation Ethics, Dietrich von Hildebrand (Chicago, Franciscan Herald Press, 1966)
Image 1: sourceImage 2: Annie Foster and her mother Katie.