Moral Powers, Fragile Beliefs: Essays in Moral and Religious by Daniel Whistler, Joseph Carlisle, James C. Carter (editors)

By Daniel Whistler, Joseph Carlisle, James C. Carter (editors)

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The distance of a mop handle from them, we then mopped them down as zookeepers wash down elephants. The patients were judged to be incurable and they appeared to have irretrievably lost everything that gives meaning to their lives. They had no grounds for self-respect insofar as we connect that with self-esteem; or, none that could be based on qualities or achievements for which we could admire or congratulate them without condescension. Friends, wives, children and even parents, if they were alive, had long ceased to visit them.

As a student, it was the expression ‘inalienable dignity’, as used by one of the psychiatrists, that impressed me, but it is striking, I now realize, that I did not use it to characterize what I took the nun to have revealed. In the preface to A Common Humanity I say that the nun’s behaviour gave living meaning to words I had heard often enough, but which I had thought could never refer to anything real – ‘goodness’ – of a kind that invites a capital G, ‘love’, ‘beauty’ and ‘purity’. Instinctively, but not at all clearly, when I wrote about the nun, I realized that to say that the nun had revealed their inalienable dignity was to speak in the wrong key – to oversimplify a little, it would have made her seem like a Kantian heroine, a doer of such superlatively supererogatory deeds that even the psychiatrists seemed like mere foot soldiers in service to her noble cause.

The moral work done by appeal to the concept of humanity (as when I said that the nun saw the patients as fully human) will often be different according to whether it is essentially connected with Kantian notions of respect or with a compassionate 24 Moral Powers, Fragile Beliefs responsiveness to the sacred, to the inalienable preciousness of every human being, according to whether, indeed, it is embedded in one or the other of the two conceptions of the ethical that I sketched earlier. The works of saintly love, I claimed, have, historically, created a language of love that yields to us a sense of what those works reveal in any individual instance, in, for example, the demeanour of the nun towards the patients in the hospital.

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