This post was mostly written before I saw this week’s episode of Madam Secretary, the CBS drama starring Téa Leoni as US Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord. The episode resonated with what I had already written, and prompted other insights I want to mention. So I decided to blend some thoughts from the show into this post.
In case you’re not familiar with the series, or haven’t seen this episode (“Waiting for Taleju”), here’s a little background. The Secretary’s husband, Henry McCord is a theology professor and scholar. The McCords are close personal friends with US President Conrad Dalton and his family. The McCord’s eldest daughter, Stevie, and the President’s son, Harrison, have dated off and on.
Spoiler Alert! In this episode Professor McCord has recently finished a book on ethics and is interviewed on a cable talk show. But the day before the interview, a relatively tame selfie of Stevie and Harrison in bed together had been posted on a low-profile Internet site, with more explicit photos offered to the highest bidder. Most of the episode is about the two families (and their offices’ support personnel) trying to resolve this embarrassing situation.
I was intrigued by two short bits of the dialogue. First, after Professor McCord has talked a bit about his book, the talk show’s host takes a call from a listener, who immediately berates the professor for holding himself out as an expert on morals and ethics, while his daughter and the President’s son have their sexy picture on the Internet. Is this moral parenting? McCord begins his response by saying that he starts his ethics courses by offering definitions of morals and ethics: “Some say morals are how we treat the people we know. . . . Ethics are how we treat the people we don’t know.”
What do you think of these definitions? They strike me as somewhat clever, but ultimately unsatisfying. While we certainly behave differently around close friends and family than around total strangers, the differences are mostly about degrees of formality. But I believe that morals and ethics are more about right and wrong than social proprieties. Correct behavior is treating everyone—regardless of how well you know them—with respect and love.
In a previous post about morality, I argued that morality is a universal code of behavior given to us by God. In that same post, I suggested (but didn’t explore in detail) that ethics are standards of behavior imposed by society. So the difference between them is not so much about specific behaviors, but about the authority that establishes both the standards and the consequences of ignoring them.
I also took for granted that encouraging morality to whatever degree is possible within our spheres of influence was a good thing. The rest of Professor McCord’s answer to his judgmental caller was direct, pointed, and forceful. He clearly proved that the caller himself was severely lacking in morals. But later he chastised himself for “losing it” on national TV. (I’m sure that both the fictional and actual audiences were cheering for him. The jerk certainly deserved to be knocked down a notch or two.)
But is this really how we should promote moral behavior?
We have several options for encouraging others toward good morals:
- We can just tell the people around us why they should act a certain way.
- If we want a wider audience, we could post our message on Facebook or other social media services.
- We could go door-to-door handing out free pamphlets that explain what we’re trying to share.
- If we can afford it, we can launch a whole marketing program, with print advertisements, radio and TV spots, billboards, and banners on the sides of buses.
I’m sure you and I could both think of several other ways to preach the message. (Ah! Preaching—there’s another option.)
All of these, including the ones we haven’t thought of yet, have some common aspects:
- They take for granted that a significant portion of our audience needs the message—they need our help in improving how they live, or at least in assessing their shortcomings.
- They assume that we know the answers, that we have a good idea of what constitutes morality, and that we can promote it effectively and profitably with others.
- They assume that people want to hear from us on this issue, and are willing to consider changing how they live and behave, if we can convince them they should.
But even well-meaning people too often neglect another aspect—and I’m sure I’m guilty of this myself. Telling people that they should be more moral necessarily implies that they are not now moral enough, and even worse, that the one delivering this message is morally superior to those they are admonishing.
These may or may not be true, but in any case, most people will resist these implications because it is well-nigh impossible to deliver such a message without being judgmental. And people don’t like to be judged, especially by someone that they see as no better than themselves. (And since we’re all human, are any of us really better than anyone else?)
So if encouraging moral behavior is a legitimate and beneficial endeavor, but doing so necessarily tells people that they don’t live up to some moral standard, how do we tell this story without being judgmental and practically guaranteeing rejection of the message?
This brings me to the second bit of dialogue that impressed me in the Madam Secretary episode. It came right at the end. The photos had been retrieved and the seller arrested. He and Stevie sat down in a secure room at the White House for uncomfortable small talk. After some awkward exchanges, the seller says with exasperation, “I don’t know what you want from me!” To which Stevie replies, “I don’t want anything from you. I just wanted to get to know you as a person so I wouldn’t reduce you to one stupid thing that you did. See how that works?”
That’s profound, and the principle applies to much more than the “stupid” things we do. Just about every interaction between people at every level of society would be improved if we would recognize each other as persons, and not reduce each other to the one most obvious characteristic we see on the surface, such as whatever sort of immorality their lifestyle demonstrates.
This is hugely challenging to me, because small talk and getting to know people are just about the most difficult things in the world for me. But I intend to start making a conscious effort to see persons, rather than ignore people, to engage them enough to demonstrate respect. And if an opportunity arises to encourage them toward a better path of life, I’m sure they’ll be much more open to it, knowing that it was shared with loving respect, rather than moral judgment.
See how that works?