Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

Good Samaritan, Bad Seminarian: A Glaring Experiment in Practice What You Preach

A recent discussion about the difference or non difference in the way ethicists and non ethicists act directed me towards a very troubling question I often ask myself: Can we teach ethics and morals in order to make people and their actions more ethical or just? Or in teaching ethics and politics are we just developing a complex discourse of justification and rationalization? Leaving this question aside for the moment, the most glaring example I’ve come across of where “practice what you preach” doesn’t exactly hold true in the real world is from a discussion between Ricoeur et Changeaux where hardcore science and highest level of ethical theorizing meet. The example that turns the whole discussion on its head (for me) is the following:

A group of seminarians are asked to prepare a biblical reading or sermon on the Biblical story “Good Samaritan,” which retells the tale of an injured man lying on the side of the road who is passed by a rich man, a rabbi, etc. and only one who stops to help (and I would say he goes far beyond just helping and exemplifies a kind of a kind of economy of surplus love) is the Samaritan. This story epitomizes the fact that, in spite of our prejudices about who is morally good or bad, the one that helps the beaten man is the one we would expect the least to do it. Moreover, this act could be interpreted quite simply as “help those who need helping because one day it could be you in his place” (the moral ability to put yourself in the place of the other). Anyways, in this experiment, these young seminarians were required to give their sermon at a certain hour, but along the way they cross paths with someone hurt or injured (the very moral calling of the Good Samaritan story) and guess what they did? They didn’t stop. They had somewhere else to be. Their later requirements trumped over the obviousness of “practicing what you preach.” And in spite the very fresh and current knowledge of this story, their actions did not reflect what they had read and what they had prepared to say. While seminarians aren’t professional ethicists, their actions should follow from their religious principles. But as we see in this example, their actions did not follow from the goldenness of their rules.

It seems to me that according to this example, ethics as a discourse of rationalization fails a critical test of the Greek ideal where word and action are and should be the same thing. It seems that this presents us with a number of questions: What is the role and task of an ethicist? In spite of the fact that professional ethicists and seminarians don’t necessarily meet word with their daily action, perhaps we shouldn’t entirely give up on their role in society, because it seems to me that the role of an ethicist is more a public one than a private. The job of an ethicist is to survey a public moral crisis in its singularity, attempt to apply our moral theories, and in the tension of these two extremes (between the singularity of the event and the multiplicity of universal ethics) make a judgment.