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Posts Tagged ‘conscience’

There are some moments of Olympic glory that could never be caught on camera. Not because they are too quick (the photo-finish shots from the velodrome were at 1/1000th of a second intervals), or too peripheral (nothing seemed to be outside the purview of the journalists and their camera teams), but because they take place in the innermost sanctuary of a competitor’s conscience.

There was a defining moment for Timo Boll in the table tennis. His opponent hit the ball; it seemed to everyone to have missed the table on Boll’s side; the umpire was about the give the point to Boll; but Boll heard the faintest sound as it narrowly struck the side of the table, or saw the slightest movement as it glanced away, and relinquished the point. He went on to lose the match.

What a moment of high drama, what a moment of true Olympic glory: that someone would choose truth over victory, integrity over success. Something so apparently small; unnoticed and perhaps unnoticeable to anyone but Boll himself.

Perhaps I am romanticising. Perhaps he was afraid that the slow motion replays would reveal the truth and expose his complicit silence; perhaps he was more afraid of being caught than losing.

The reality is that these split seconds decisions, when there is hardly any time to deliberate, usually reflect the character of the person – formed over a lifetime of more considered decisions – rather than the impulse of the moment. Nevertheless, he made the decision, and he made the right one – and in my mind his glory is far greater than if he had gone on to win the gold. There must be many other moments like this, completely hidden from view.

This was reported in the Times on Saturday – I’ve lost the paper now so I can’t credit the author. Nor can I find the match on YouTube, so here is an older match against Jun Mizutani just to show you that he is a serious table tennis player as well as a man of honour!

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What if there were another you? I don’t mean just an identical twin or a clone with the exact same genes. I mean someone who was like you in every way, the same body and mind and heart, the same past and experiences and memories, the same thoughts and feelings, the same decisions taken and the same mistakes made, standing in front of you now – but not you.

This is the idea at the heart of the film Another Earth, which jumps straight into my Top Ten films of the year. [Major plot spoilers follow – sorry!]

Another planet appears – just a dot in the night sky. As it comes closer it becomes apparent that this planet is the same size as ours, that it even has the same structure of continents and oceans as ours. Then, in a magical sci-fi moment, as the woman responsible for ‘first contact’ with the new planet speaks on a microphone, she realises that the woman talking to her on the other end is herself. [It’s on the trailer here – I’ve ruined it for you!]

So the synchronicity between the two planets and between each corresponding person is absolute, apart from the fact that it inevitably gets broken by the appearance of the other planet – so the woman is not hearing the same words ‘she’ is speaking on the other planet, but actually having a non-symmetrical conversation with her other-self.

First of all, you are simply in sci-fi territory. I love these films. And in fact this film is really a re-make of another film from the ’70s (I can’t remember its name – brownie points for anyone who can help) where the US sent a spaceship to another planet on the other side of the sun, only to discover that the planet was the same as the earth – apart from everything being a mirror image of this earth. So our astronaut lands on the other planet, and another astronaut from that planet lands on our earth, with everyone thinking that our astronaut has come back early – until he sees that all the writing here is in reverse. Anyway – this is classic sci-fi.

But very quickly it becomes philosophical. Looking at this other earth in the sky above, marvelling that we can behold such a world, you realise that this is exactly what we do whenever we reflect on our experience, or use our imaginations, or question what is going on in our own minds. The remarkable thing about human beings is that we can ‘step back’ from our own experience (inner and outer) and view it; that we can ‘see ourselves’. The strangeness of the film brings to light the strangeness of ordinary human life.

We take this ability to reflect for granted, but it really is the key factor that seems to distinguish us from other animals. No-one today would deny that animals can be incredibly sophisticated and intelligent; and on many measures of intelligence they would beat us. But this power of self-reflection seems to be one of our defining characteristics; and it surely connects, in ways that aren’t always clear, with human freedom – the freedom we have to think and imagine and act in ways that go far beyond the instinctual programming we receive as bodily creatures.

So the wonder that Rhoda Williams feels staring up at this other planet is no more than the wonder we should feel whenever we step back and reflect on ourselves.

Then there is a theological angle too. To cut a long story short: Rhoda unintentionally kills the family of musical conductor John Burroughs in a driving accident, soon after the planet is discovered. He is haunted by the loss of his family, and then receives a ticket to travel to the other planet – a ticket that Rhoda has for herself, but she decides to give it to him. Why would he go? Because if the synchronicity between the two worlds was broken when they started to impact on each other, then perhaps the accident did not happen on the other planet, and ‘his’ family is still alive up there.

I call this a theological idea, because it’s about the possibility of redemption, of putting right something that has gone irredeemably wrong in the past. That in some sense this action might not have happened, or it might be possible to go back and undo the harm that has been done. This is crazy of course – in normal thinking. But if it’s crazy, why do we spend so much time imagining/hoping that somehow we could put right what has gone wrong? I don’t think our almost compulsive inability to stop regretting the mistakes we have made is simply a dysfunctional habit that we can’t let go of; it’s a yearning for forgiveness and redemption, for someone to go back in time and allow us to change things, an echo of a possibility of renewal that we can’t justify at a rational or philosophical level – because the past is completely out of reach. It’s about hope.

Or the film is about conscience – the possibility of imagining an action now, as if it were happening, and asking if we really want this parallel imaginative world to unfold into reality, or if we would regret it. So the work of conscience, and of all conscious deliberation, brings us up against another parallel world that is exactly the same as ours – only we have the power to decide whether it shall come into existence or not.

At the very end of the film, in her backyard, Rhoda meets ‘herself’ – we presume she has come from the other planet, with her own ticket, which she didn’t need to give away, because the accident there didn’t happen. All we see is her catching the gaze of the other woman before her, and recognising her to be herself – but not. Then the film ends immediately. It’s incredibly moving. As if a lifelong search, unacknowledged, is finally over; as if, miraculously, I step away and see myself for who I am, and see myself seeing myself. And that, miraculously, is in fact what happens every time we know ourselves through self-reflection, through self-consciousness. Human beings are not just conscious. We are self-conscious. That’s the idea that the film opens up so well.

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What do men really want? Not (apparently) beautiful women, fast cars, and an endless supply of free beer; but a life of duty, service, and self-sacrifice.

Robert Crampton wonders why the contemporary Western male is not happier than his father or grandfather, when he is ‘richer, safer, healthier, more long-lived, with a huge choice of leisure pursuits, lifestyles and material goods’. The answer, at the risk of oversimplifying, is that he is looking for happiness by seeking pleasure, rather than by cultivating virtue. He is following the path of Epicurus rather than Aristotle. And it isn’t working. [“What really makes men happy?” by Robert Crampton, The Times Magazine, 27/11/10, p54-59]

Live for today, the mantra that dominates our culture, simply does not work for most men. Men want to live for tomorrow. Men need goals, plans, causes, beliefs, structures, direction. Men are not natural Epicureans. Men crave the virtue Aristotle espoused.

That virtue can be found in small, everyday ways. The morning that I came into work to start this article, one of my colleagues, Jo, waylaid me by my desk. “Robert,” she said, “you strike me as a man who might have a screwdriver in his desk.” “I haven’t, I’m afraid,” I had to say. “What do you need a screwdriver for?” “My glasses have gone floppy,” said Jo, holding out her specs, the arms of which had indeed gone floppy. “Give them here,” I said. “I’ll see what I can do.”

I spent the next ten minutes experimenting with various tools attempting to tighten the screw at the side of Jo’s glasses, trying out in succession a penknife, teaspoon and paperclip in lieu of what was actually required, a tiny Phillips screwdriver. Eventually a bent staple fitted the screw head and gained traction. Thirty seconds later, Jo’s glasses were no longer floppy. She was duly grateful, I went back to work in a glow of satisfaction, of wellbeing and, yes, of happiness.

Why did this small action make me happy? Partly, but only partly, because Jo’s a woman and I’m a man. Partly my happiness came from sticking at a slightly awkward task, seeing it through, finding a solution. Partly it came from working with my hands, which I rarely do. And partly – mostly, I think – I derived a degree of pleasure from the fact that they were someone else’s glasses. I’d done a no-strings favour. Jo had asked for my help, I’d been able to oblige. Nothing in it for me. Except, happy as it made me, it turned out there was.

It’s not just about doing little favours and getting a glow of satisfaction from them. It’s about the whole direction of one’s life.

Men have an immense capacity for self-sacrifice. Not just a capacity, I would argue, but a need. Not all men, perhaps. But most. Male self-sacrifice is there in many of the key stories and myths of our culture, from the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae to the Battle of Britain.

For most of human history, what it has meant to be a man has involved self-sacrifice. Not only the patriotic self-sacrifice of war, also the peacetime sacrifice of doing a demanding, possibly dangerous job to provide for others. Or devoting yourself to a political, social or religious cause. Or simply having children and taking full responsibility for their welfare.

But these days, most men don’t dedicate themselves to creating Utopias, and aren’t involved in wars, or mining coal, or deep-sea fishing, or striving to lift their families out of poverty. All of which is a good thing.

A lot of men reach middle age unmarried and without children, which isn’t such a good thing, in my opinion – not for society, not for them. The reason married men are happier than bachelors is not, as in the caricature, because marriage allows husbands to grow lazy while a wife runs around for us. It’s the opposite: we’re happier because we’re almost certainly, to some degree or other, acting for someone’s benefit other than our own. I became a father at 33, which seems young from where I am now. Even so, I wish I’d done it sooner.

And it’s not just that we have lost the plot as individuals. The reason we have lost the individual plot is that we do not have the social networks there to remind us what really matters.

Our fathers and grandfathers had institutions to cultivate their virtue for them: the Church, the Army, early marriage, a lifelong, cumulative career building towards expertise and respect, a trade union, a political cause, an extended family network. Such bonds have either been loosened, or are gone.

In losing their access to these institutions and beliefs, men lost something else, too: the company of other like-minded men. A couple of generations back, men would work and play exclusively with other men. We did that too much. Now we probably don’t do it enough. Many of my contemporaries socialise with their partners or not at all. They have friends, but they are in some way estranged from them.

I like these ideas. But I’m not convinced by Crampton’s solutions. He wants us to live sacrificial lives as if we were living for a higher cause (with all the generosity and virtue that our grandfathers brought to their own causes), even if we are not sure about what the foundations of our own convictions and goals are. In the absence of God he appeals to conscience. It’s certainly better to follow your conscience than not to follow it. But I don’t think you can serve your conscience. It’s your conscience that helps you to serve and give your life to something that is more important than yourself: your family, your friends, your country, your God, those in need, etc. Conscience is a means to an end. But what if you have no identifiable end?

See what you think of Cramptons concluding remarks:

So what is to be done? Join the Army? Downshift to the country and become a lumberjack? Some things you can’t control: you can’t rustle up a morally bombproof cause like the defeat of fascism to fight for. You can’t start believing in a God whom you don’t think exists. You can’t go back to the days when your grandfather dedicated himself to lifting his family out of poverty. But what you can do is take the elements worth preserving from the institutions and activities and beliefs that we have lost and put them to work again.

You don’t have to be a labourer to spend time working with your hands. You don’t have to be a soldier or a sportsman to be fit rather than fat and lazy. You don’t need to be an intellectual to read a decent book. You don’t need to pretend to be thick and crude when you’re not. You don’t need to be a hero to take some responsibility for the world around you. You don’t have to be a revolutionary – it’s better if you’re not – to make that world a better place in small ways. You don’t have to be a monk to spend time alone to work out what you think about something, and what you need to do.

And you don’t, of course, need to be a believer to live according to a moral code. Most surveys conclude that the devout are happier than the faithless. It’s not clear why that is, but it might be because the belief that you are being judged by a higher authority is a superbly moderating influence on male behaviour. You don’t have to call that higher authority God. You can call it conscience. Pretty much everybody has one. When we live in rough accordance with our consciences, we’re happy. When we don’t, we’re not.

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Pope Benedict arrives today. There will be thousands of stories and reports in the press; and the BBC, ITV and Sky – to their credit – have given a huge commitment of airtime to the visit.

It’s worth looking at the official site, where there is also a live webcast of every event in case you can’t find anything on the TV.

Here are few paragraphs to set the scene, politically and historically. First, Eamon Duffy:

The Pope will speak in Westminster Hall from the spot on which St Thomas More was condemned to death for his refusal to renounce the papacy and recognise Henry VIII as head of a purely English national church. The resonances of that heroic defiance are overwhelming, as is the mere fact of the Pope’s presence at the symbolic heart of a nation whose identity for centuries focussed itself round the vigorous repudiation of papal authority. The invitation to speak in Westminster Hall suggests that, five centuries after the Reformation, the Pope is perceived as having something worth hearing to say about the values that shape and bind British civil society.

But many within that society, including many Catholics, are conscious that Benedict’s church has been compromised in the eyes of many by its recent history. Neither Church nor Pope can address society now from some imagined moral high ground. The Pope will need to recognise that fact, both in what he says and how he says it.

On his last day in Britain, Pope Benedict will beatify the great Victorian Catholic writer and thinker, Cardinal John Henry Newman. Like the Pope, Newman believed that the society of his day was cutting itself adrift from the religious values which had given the nation its distinctive moral and religious character. But he also believed that mere denunciation did no good. If Christian values were to survive, they had to commend themselves by their intrinsic attraction, “not by refutation so much as by an antagonist truth”. The young Ratzinger was deeply influenced by the writings of this very English saint: as Pope he could do worse than follow his master’s advice, and make the positive presentation of that “antagonist truth” the keynote of his visit.

And these words from Charles Moore:

I do not know exactly why first Tony Blair, and then Gordon Brown, encouraged the Pope to come here, or why David Cameron, sorting out the ragged fin de regime handling of the visit by the last government, is supporting it so whole-heartedly. I do not know the precise motivations of the Queen in being so warm about this visit and in breaking convention so that, for the first time in her reign, the Duke of Edinburgh himself, rather than a lower representative, will greet the state visitor at the airport. But it might have something to do with a sane recognition that this country should be able to welcome the leader of the largest Christian denomination in the world. We are a proud island, but we are also part of a wider European civilisation. It is worth having a public conversation about the state of that civilisation with someone who has devoted his life to advancing it.

In short, before answering the Thatcher question, “What does one say to a Pope?”, how about waiting to hear what the Pope will say to us?

Although I am a Catholic by conversion, it was never the papal aspect of things that attracted me. I feel quite Protestant about Pope-mania. But, even before he became Pope, Cardinal Ratzinger struck me as a man who was thinking deeply about the cultural problem of modern times. He welcomed the growth of freedom, but he noticed a danger that tended to go with it – a rejection of the very idea of truth. He counselled against the “deadly boredom” of relativism and egotism. His ideal was a man – and he noted such men particularly in England, singling out both More and Newman – “who listens to his conscience and for whom the truth that he has recognised… is above approval and acceptance.” Benedict thinks constantly about what we now call “the big society” and how it can achieve the common good. “Without truth,” he says in one of his encyclicals, “charity degenerates into sentimentality.” His idea of truth is not hidden: he wants to reason with modern society about it.

It was Newman who famously encapsulated his loyalty both to his faith and to conscience: “If I am obliged to bring religion into after-dinner toasts (which indeed does not seem quite the thing), I shall drink – to the Pope, if you please – still, to Conscience first and the Pope afterwards.” Next week, the Pope, as is the custom, will not be attending the state banquet given in his honour. But if he did, he would happily drink that toast. So should this nation.

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I mentioned a few weeks ago that a series of talks about ‘the Fundamentals of Faith’ was coming up. These have now happened, and thanks to the technology team at the Diocese of Westminster you can watch or read them all online. The main link is here.

Just to remind you of the topics: There are talks on Authority and Conscience; Prayer; the Bible; Finding True Happiness; God, Creation and Ecology; and Catholic Social Teaching.

The link to my own talk about ‘Happiness and the moral life’ is below. [That’s Fr Dominic Robinson at the beginning; I start the talk at 2:40].

Faith Matters, Lecture 4 Autumn 2009 from Catholic Westminster.

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Barcelona - Supercopa 2009 - Thierry Henry by boldorak2208.What’s the difference between an outright cheat and someone who tries to push the boundaries without being caught? This is the moral debate raging after Thierry Henry’s handball gave France their win against Ireland in the world cut playoff game on Wednesday. [The photo is Henry playing for Barcelona.] The story has moved from the back pages to the news and editorial sections, with politicians and pundits weighing in. Perhaps this moral questioning is heightened by the MPs’ expenses scandal and the collapse of trust in the financial sector.

Is Henry a cheat? He has confessed to handling the ball, but claims it was an instinctive reaction in the heat of the moment. So if cheating means consciously breaking the rules and trying to get away with it, then it’s grey. We are into a debate about whether we are responsible for our instinctive reactions, and whether it is the job of the footballer to referee himself.

In some areas of life the fact of not being caught is enough to make something acceptable. The classic example is the card game ‘cheat’, where you have to put down as many cards as possible, telling your competitors which cards are in this hidden pile, and hoping that they won’t call your bluff and catch you out. The very point of the game is to get away with as much as possible.

But say you are playing poker, and you hide an extra ace up your sleeve and use it to your advantange. If this comes to light after the game you’ll be disgraced, have your winnings taken back, and be branded a cheat and a liar. No-one will think you clever or audacious. Poker, despite the deceptions and subterfuge, is an honest game. The same is true in golf, if you ‘accidentally’ kick your ball into a better position without anyone seeing it; or in cricket, if you tamper with the ball illegally.

Football is grey. Diving in the penalty area and deliberately handling the ball are generally considered immoral – like cheating at poker. But trying to edge past the defender against the offside trap and getting away with it is considered legitimate – if it goes unseen. No-one really expects a striker to put his hands up after a goal and say ‘sorry ref, I was six inches behind the last defender, but unfortunately the linesman didn’t spot it’.

The problem in politics and business and finance, and in much of contemporary social life, is that more and more people think they are playing ‘cheat’ instead of poker or golf. There is no ‘inner accounting’ – to the idea of sportsmanship, or to the voice of conscience, or simply to one’s own integrity. There is only the ‘outer’ accountability of whether we get caught or not. There has always been dishonesty, but the question now is whether this dishonesty becomes so built into the culture that we become unaware of what we have lost. [See Henry Winter’s article in the Telegraph for an example of righteous indignation at Henry’s behaviour; and see the comments below the article for the view that he was just playing a tough game and doing all he could to bring his team to victory.]

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