Now that the confirmation vote on Brett Kavanaugh to be a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court is most of a week behind us, I'm going to return to a question raised by the sexual misconduct allegations brought against him.
How are we to think about or even judge moral failures -- whether large or small -- that someone may have committed decades ago? That's the question a philosopher asks in this piece posted on "The Conversation."
Andrew Khoury, who teaches philosophy at Arizona State University, writes this:
"As a philosopher, I believe this ethical conundrum involves two issues: one, the question of moral responsibility for an action at the time it occurred. And two, moral responsibility in the present time, for actions of the past. Most philosophers seem to think that the two cannot be separated. In other words, moral responsibility for an action, once committed, is set in stone.
"I argue that there are reasons to think that moral responsibility can actually change over time – but only under certain conditions. . .
"What I argue is that when confronted with the issue of moral responsibility for actions long since passed, we need to not only consider the nature of the past transgression but also how far and how deeply the individual has changed."
That seemed to be part of the issue in Kavanaugh's case. By most accounts he had kept a clean record after college and had become a faithful family man, though even there one could find some questioning voices.
The great religions, of course, have much to say about repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation. All three are not only desirable but possible. As the Apostle Paul wrote, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. No one, in effect, is righteous.
But that simply names the problem. The solution, if there is one, has to do with a desire to come clean about what we've done (or left undone), to promise to do our best to act differently in the future and to make peace with those we've injured.
Sometimes, of course, it's impossible to right the wrong we have done. A small, perhaps even trivial, example: One evening when I was in college, I went to a bar that was known to serve beer to underage students, which described me at the time. If you had a quarter (this was long ago) and were tall enough to place it on the bar, you could get a beer. Not only did I drink some beer that evening, but I walked out of the bar -- the now-gone I.V. (for Italian Village, as I recall) on the campus of the University of Missouri in Columbia -- with a Schlitz glass hidden in an inside trench coat pocket. My guess, from observation at the time, is that the I.V. lost at least a dozen or more such glasses in that way each night, though I don't use that as an excuse for my action.
I still have that glass today. It's pictured here. I keep it on an shelf -- in sight -- in my home office to remind me of my responsibility to be honest. The I.V. is long closed and torn down, so I cannot return it today to its rightful owners.
But I think it's doing good duty where it is.
Should I carry the burden of that crime more than 50 years later? Well, no, but neither should I forget it and imagine it never happened. I have forgiven myself for the theft and asked for divine pardon, too.
But swiping a beer glass from a college bar strikes me as in a quite different category from committing sexual abuse or other violent crimes. And we shouldn't miss this present opportunity to think deeply and clearly about the issues involved in such actions -- no matter when they happened.
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AUSTIN, Texas -- I'm here for a few days visiting family and friends. And while I'm gone I won't be adding the usual second item to the blog. Things should return to normal here on Tuesday, inshallah.