We each have an inescapable responsibility to live our lives purposefully, to choose who we want to be and who we want to become in a shifting and complex world, to name ourselves and construct our identities in the noise and chaos of the whirlwind. One of my earliest teachers put it this way: Live your life in a way that won’t make a mockery of your values.
Of course, that injunction settles nothing in the everyday world we inhabit: we still have to make our choices operating largely in the dark, we still live without guarantees regarding the outcomes of our choices or our actions. But the admonition has as well some positive spark: it assumes that we have values that we can access and assess; it asks us to use those values as guides and goals; it challenges us to live a life that ties those values as closely as possible to our behavior every moment of every day. But it’s a bit like the exchange in Wonderland when Alice asks the Cheshire Cat, “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” says the cat. As the saying goes, if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there. Making our values explicit and accessible is one way to begin to create, if not a detailed and completed map, at least a sketch and a dream. This is what freedom looks like—it asks us to act with courage, to operate without a safety net, to confront the horrors as well as to celebrate the joys of living, and finally, to choose.
In the 1999 Brazilian film Central Station we find a woman who makes a meager living writing letters for illiterate people in a downtown train terminal.One day a man comes to her with an astonishing offer: he will pay her a significant amount of money if on the following day she will pick up a young boy at a certain address and deliver him to an American couple on the other side of the city so that the boy can be adopted. She of course takes the job, collects her money, and on the way home stops off to buy a new television set. Later, happily watching her new TV, a friend stops by and hears the story of the boy. Her friend reproves her. Are you crazy? she asks. Don’t you follow the news? She explains that children all over Rio are being kidnapped, sold, and murdered, their organs harvested for an international market in such things. The woman sets off immediately to try to find the boy and save his life.
When the woman took the job, there was no burning ethical issue involved. But when her eyes were opened, she had to either act or choose indifference and therefore immorality. A first step, then, in making a moral choice or taking an ethical action is to open our eyes to reality. We must see the world as it is, we must act on the world, and we must also then question whether our action was completely correct. And we act again.
During the time of slavery there were undoubtedly honest slave traders, loyal slave-catchers, and plantation owners who told the truth, paid their bills, and lived up to their promises, but in what sense were they acting ethically? In order to be a moral person then and there—it seems so obvious now—one would have had to work for abolition. Not many did, but we find some comfort today in telling ourselves we would surely have been among the courageous and the righteous few. But is it true? How do we know? We know that a slave society undermines goodness every moment in a million different ways. And since we know that it is very nearly impossible for individuals to live virtuous lives in a slave state, it becomes essential to end slavery—or, in these times, to work toward a more just and peaceful world—as part of leading a moral life. A just society creates the conditions for more of us to act more often in a moral way. Are there any injustices here and now that we take for granted for which the coming generations might indict or condemn us? And, most important, what social and community standards would allow or invite more of us to do the right thing?