Moments of Moral Clarity

Probably each of us has had an experience that awakened our conscience, one that changed the way we looked at the world and ourselves, a moment of moral clarity that made us reflect, “I was blind, but now I see.”

As a young boy growing up in the rural south, water fountains labeled “White” and “Colored” were as normal to me as men and women restrooms. So when my grandmother took me to Woolworth one day, what caught my eye was not the separate lunch counter for “Colored”; it wasn’t even the fact that the “Colored” counter was located on a mezzanine just below the one for whites, which was a social statement, in and of itself. No, what was out of place was the “white” man sitting among all of those black people.

“Grandma, what is that white man doing there,” I asked.

Grandma surveyed the lower counter, then turned to me in a whisper, “Oh, he only looks white. He’s just very, very light, son.”

Somehow her answer failed to satisfy my young mind. I stole another look at the man at the counter. But try as hard as I could, the man was not “colored,” he was white. Obvious to my confusion, grandma leaned in and explained how differences in skin pigmentation can make one appear white.

For the next half hour, between sips on my cherry Coke, I glanced down at the mezzanine. It didn’t help that there were customers in our section darker than the man below. I remained puzzled.

That is not to say I didn’t have prejudices of my own; I certainly did. But that day was my first awareness that there was something much deeper than skin color here. In the following years, my conscience was stirred each time I returned to that scene. Nevertheless, it would be much later before another experience would bring me full-face with the evil underlying my thinking.

The West Wing
For Dr. Richard Selzer a moment of moral clarity came in the west wing of a university hospital in 1976. It was there that he witnessed the abortion of a 19-week old fetus involving a needle injection technique. In the Esquire article, “What I Saw at the Abortion Clinic,” Selzer writes,

I see something! It is unexpected, utterly unexpected… I see a movement—a small one. But I have seen it. And then I see it again. And now I see that it is the hub of the needle in the woman’s belly that has jerked. First to one side. Then to the other side. Once more it wobbles, is tugged, like a fishing line nibbled by a sunfish…

Dr. Selzer goes on to say that the vision of the fetus struggling for life will be ever etched in his mind; and, that whatever language is used to defend abortion is powerless to erase that image. “For what can language do against the truth of what I saw?”

I was blind, but now I see.

The Streets of Birmingham
Shortly after that lunch in Woolworth’s, I heard terms in the schoolyard like “high yellow” and “mulatto,” which I later learned wasn’t a matter of one’s skin color, but of one’s bloodline. That made it sensible, giving me a rational basis for discriminating between “us” and “them.”

Then on May 2, 1963, Birmingham firefighters turned fire hoses and dogs on a group of young civil rights protesters. Although I had heard about this shocking incident, it didn’t become real until I saw the actual footage years later. The vision of young black students pounded to the ground by water guns, and others with their clothes and flesh ripped open by German shepherds shook me to the core. But more chilling was seeing that this wasn’t the act of angry citizens; it was the work of law officers acting on the orders of elected officials. That became my moment of moral clarity. No more could I justify my complacence about racial prejudice.

I was blind, but now I see.

The Streets of New York
Moments of moral clarity can also come upon an entire community. Dr. Selzer tells of an experience that jolted a neighborhood out of moral slumber. In Mortal Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery, he writes:

On the morning of August 6, 1975, the people of 73rd Street near Woodside Avenue…rise from their beds, dress, eat breakfast, and leave their houses for work, they have forgotten, if they had ever known, that the garbage truck had passed earlier that morning… They close their doors and descend to the pavement. It is midsummer… You walk toward the bus stop. Others, your neighbors, are waiting there. It is all so familiar.

All at once you step on something soft. You feel it with your foot. Even through your shoe you have the sense of something unusual, something marked by a special “give.” It is a foreignness upon the pavement. Instinct pulls your foot away in an awkward little movement. You look down, and you see … a tiny naked body, its arms and legs flung apart, its head thrown back, its mouth agape, its face serious. A bird, you think, fallen from its nest. But there is no nest here on 73rd Street, no bird so big… And you bend to see. Because you must… It is a baby, and dead. You cover your mouth, your eyes. You are fixed. Horror has found its chink and crawled in, and you will never be the same as you were.

Now you look about; another man has seen it too. “My God,” he whispers…. There is a cry. “Here’s another!” and “Another!” and “Another.”… Yes, it is true! There are more of these … little carcasses upon the street…. The people on 73rd street do not speak to each other. It is too soon for outrage, too late for blindness. It is the time of unresisted horror.

Later, at the police station, the investigation is brisk, conclusive. It is the hospital director speaking. “Fetuses accidentally got mixed up with the hospital rubbish … [and] were picked up at approximately 8:15 am by a sanitation truck. Somehow, the plastic lab bag, labeled hazardous material, fell off the back of the truck and broke open. No, it is not known how the fetuses got in the orange plastic bag labeled hazardous material. It is a freak accident.”

The hospital director wants you to know that it is not an everyday occurrence. Once in a lifetime, he says. But you have seen it, and what are his words to you now? He grows affable, familiar, tells you that, by mistake, the fetuses got mixed up with the other debris. (Yes, he says other, he says debris.) He has spent the entire day, he says, trying to figure out how it happened. He wants you to know that. Somehow it matters to him.

He goes on: aborted fetuses that weigh one pound or less are incinerated. Those weighing over one pound are buried at the city cemetery. He says this. Now you see. It is orderly. It is sensible. The world is not mad. This is still a civilized society…. But just this once, you know it isn’t. You saw, and you know.

I was blind, but now I see.

A Moral Touchstone
Over the years we have heard politicians from both parties voice their moral convictions on global warming, abortion, energy independence, health care, marriage, and the war on terror. For citizens confused over which policies should have primacy, it is important to realize that while they all have a moral dimension, they have different moral values.

The bedrock of our rule of law is equality and the endowed rights of every individual—the most basic of which, is the right to life. Consequently, policies that most directly and widely uphold the “sanctity of life” take precedence over all others.

That does not mean that affordable housing, environmental protection, and the national debt are not important; they are—extremely so. Each impacts the quality of our lives in one way or another.

It means that protecting the unborn, aged, infirmed, and other vulnerables from being reduced to “non-persons” is morally superior to easing the emotional and financial burden of their caretakers.

It means that saving one million children a year from the holocaust of abortion has a higher moral value than the reproductive “rights” of women.

It means that protecting children from sexual exploitation is more important than protecting the free expression of pornographers.

It means that providing clean water, affordable energy, and medical technology to the developing world is more important than reducing our carbon footprint.

It means that fighting slavery, sex-trafficking, AIDS, genocide and hunger has a higher moral value than fighting global warming.

It means that eliminating our energy and economic dependence on countries sponsoring terrorism, or guilty of human-rights violations, has priority over eliminating off-shore drilling.

It means that liberating the poor from the grip of the welfare state is morally superior to policies that create a permanent underclass.

It means that protecting traditional marriage—proven the best institution for the care and well-being of children—takes precedence over the desires of adults to express their sexual freedom.

In summary, it means that the moral value of any social policy should be judged by how profoundly it guards and defends the endowed rights for all people, especially the right to life.

Regis Nicoll

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Regis Nicoll is a retired nuclear engineer and a fellow of the Colson Center who writes commentary on faith and culture. His new book is titled Why There Is a God: And Why It Matters.

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