The Moral Imperative

At my seminary, there has been much discussion surrounding the situation at Penn State—understandable, considering that I’m in a class called “Christian Ethics.”  While there is no question that sodomizing ten-year-old at-risk boys is utterly reprehensible and unforgiveable, the matter of the coach not pursuing the issue raises questions of whether he had a moral obligation to do so, even if there was no law in place to force his hand.

As we’ve been hashing this argument out for the past two weeks, I keep remembering something Dr. Sharon Tan said in class on October 7th:

The law gives voice to the lowest common denominator of social behavior; it provides a baseline.  People start thinking that they are living a “good life” as long as they don’t get in trouble with the law.  Yet the law of secular government doesn’t take into account the “moral law,” or the law of kindness.  And the laws are not made by the marginalized….

So perhaps Paterno toed the line.  Maybe he fulfilled the letter of his duty, thinking that this meant he was “being good.”  But in doing so, he only obeyed the lowest possible rule of “acceptable” social behavior.  The main argument I’ve heard in reaction to this is that he had a higher law, a moral law, to live up to.  Some have called it the “natural law,” saying that nowhere in nature is it permissible to rape children.  I would call it, rather, the moral imperative.  We each have a calling—inescapable, compelling—that commands us to live up to our highest ideals.  The moral imperative demands our best, and points our minds and hearts in the direction of right relationship.  To refuse to live up to the moral imperative is to fracture our humanity.

Paterno did not live up to the moral imperative.  This is what has people riled up.  He had an ethical obligation to report this matter further than he actually did.  He failed in his larger responsibility as a role model and as a hero.

The question that has been bothering me is this: If Paterno, who was not involved in the crime itself, had a moral imperative to report the situation, did the victims, as direct witnesses, have a moral imperative as well?  And if so, what is it that their moral imperative would compel them to do?

I realize this is a very sensitive subject, and it is not at all my intention to cast any blame whatsoever on the victims who have suffered the aftermath of these horrendous crimes.  And I know that my question will likely trigger some emotional responses, many of which will not actually be typed out in response to this post.  In an effort to move the discussion away from the Penn State situation, let me change the parameters by offering a different scenario:

Many of my classmates have taken Introduction to Pastoral Care with Rev. Dr. Bob Albers.  On the last day of class, we were shown a video to teach us about the power dynamics that can lead to sexual misconduct.  While the outfits were outdated and the acting was bad, I still found myself profoundly moved and disturbed by the end of the film.

In the movie, young woman comes forward to report that she had had sexual relations with her internship supervisor several years ago.  She had kept silent until now, but felt obliged to speak up when her former supervisor came up for a promotion that would set him up as a figure with even more power, and she fears that he would abuse that power by taking advantage of more women.  As the movie continues, we learn that this supervisor has taken advantage of other women—one had been in an unhappy relationship, and he offered her comfort and understanding; another woman had thought she and the man were dating with the intent to marry, but he kept offering excuses for her to keep their relationship a secret.  All three women thought at the time that it was consensual, but later came to realize that he had abused the power of his position to manipulate them into having sexual relations with him.

In this scenario, it was one of the victims who came forward; she acted upon a moral imperative, desiring to protect any additional women from coming into contact with this man.  The other two women did not come forward on their own, but agreed to tell their stories after the first woman led the way.

So do victims have a moral imperative?  If so, what is it?  Are they obligated to come forward?  Are they obligated to focus on healing themselves in the aftermath of the abuse?  Do they have a moral imperative at all?

It is a complicated question, and I don’t know if there is an answer.  I look over the list of virtues listed in our textbook—Temperance, Courage, Prudence, Justice, Faith, Hope, Love.  Which ones are triggered by the moral imperative?  And if a victim were to act upon some or all of these virtues, following a moral imperative, what would those actions look like?

I suspect victims ask themselves these questions, and my guess is that they have an even more difficult time finding an answer that they can live with than someone would who is not involved in their situation.

-lm

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About Leaping Loon

I am an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister serving our congregation in Elgin, Illinois. While I am determined to embrace my propensity to wander, it oftentimes takes a leap of faith to do so. My life's motto seems to be: "Leap, and the net will appear." True to my spirit, and following Love's call, I must simply free myself to go. Where will I end up? Let's find out. Welcome to my journey!
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4 Responses to The Moral Imperative

  1. Amy says:

    Leslie, I can’t help but hearing your words as blaming the victim, even though you state that is not your intent. Any victim’s primary responsibility is to do what they can to survive. In most situations involving abuse, there are tremendous imbalances of power, often fear, shame, feelings of (unwarranted) guilt that lie on the victim’s shoulders. It may take years before victims can even break away from the abuse, more painful years of processing and healing before they can realize the abuse was not their fault. If, and only if, it is healing and feels SAFE to them, victims may choose to come forward to confront the abuser or “report them” — most often because they want to prevent further abuse from taking place. Most unfortunately, the time it takes to process and heal often extends beyond the “statute of limitations” and perpetrators face no consequences.

    Victims have enough pressure and shame hanging over their heads. Telling them that it is their moral responsibility to report is cruel. I believe supporting victims and reassuring them that they have displayed amazing courage simply by surviving and waking up each day and continuing to live is what individuals and communities are called to do.

  2. Leaping Loon says:

    Amy, thank you for speaking your mind. I really appreciate that you took the time to write down your response, because the intent of my post was to ask a genuine question that has been weighing heavily on me for nearly three weeks now. I wouldn’t have asked my question in such a public forum if I was not looking for an answer. So, truly, thank you.

    I do understand how my words could sound like I am casting blame, or pointing fingers at victims of abuse. True, I said that wasn’t my intent, but the nature of my line of questioning ruffles feathers. I asked this question in my small group discussion during class, and was told by a friend that anyone who even has to ask that question is lacking in humanity. Ouch. Another friend suggested that I re-frame the question to say, “Does a victim of sexual abuse have a right to keep their abuse private, even if and especially if it means others will get hurt?” I liked her question better than my own, and went a step further to suggest that instead of using the word “victim,” I could perhaps say “survivor,” which is a much more empowering term.

    But if this is something weighing on my mind, how am I supposed to find answers or resolution if I bury the question? If I had not asked, how would I have known your response, or the responses of others? I suppose we all learn by stepping on each others’ toes.

    I would like to gently point out, I haven’t “told” victims to do anything; I did not say they had a moral obligation to do anything. I have not cast blame or shame upon anyone. I asked a question, and I admitted that I don’t know the answer. This particular piece of writing was a class assignment, intended to pursue an argument academically, without pointing fingers at specific people, which was why I redirected the focus to a fictional movie.

    I admire the compassion (and passion) in your response. If you would like, I would be happy to sit down with you sometime and talk about this.

    Peace, friend. 🙂

    • Amy says:

      Thanks for your response, Leslie. Please know that I am not upset with you for asking this question, and when I wrote my response, I was not thinking of you specifically asking the question but rather what my response would be if society considered reporting a “moral imperative.” Obviously, I have a lot of passion around this topic and tremendous compassion for victims/survivors. If you’d like to learn more about my perspective, I’d be happy to share it with you. But please know that I’m not upset with you. I’m upset with a society that places a stigma on victims/survivors and the perpetrators who intentionally target vulnerable individuals and often “get away with it.”

  3. Leaping Loon says:

    Fred, a Unitarian Universalist friend of mine, offered the following comment and gave permission for me to share it here:

    “I drew from this entry that there is an interesting legal vs. moral imperative – the legal is the basis of a functional society, and the moral is layered on top of it. As for an imperative to report something, the question becomes much stickier. It is almost an argument for the need for moral development in society as a whole—to build a world where we all look out for one another, not because the law says we must, but because we value the inherent worth and dignity of every person….”

    Fred also suggested, “See Kohlberg’s Moral Stages of Development.” http://faculty.plts.edu/gpence/html/kohlberg.htm

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