Tuesday, February 15, 2005
The Gospel according to Z
I've been thinking about the moral theory implicit in the song "Search Me, Lord" by the Kings of Harmony. The chorus is excerpted below. Click on the iTunes box if you want to hear it for yourself (the chorus is included in the sample loop).
Oh, search me Lord,
Please, search me lord, yes,
Turn the light of heaven on my soul,
If you find anything that shouldn't be,
Take it out and straighten me,
I want to be right,
I want to be saved,
I want to be whole.
It seems to me that this lyric contains three distinctively moral elements. Working back to front one finds, first of all, an articulation of the content of the concept of being a moral person. Second, there is an implied account of the source of moral motivation. Lastly, a procedure is suggested for arriving at the desired state of moral perfection.
The content of the concept is given in the last three quoted lines. Each suggests a dichotomy: right as opposed to wrong; saved as opposed to lost (or perhaps fallen or damned); and, whole as opposed to incomplete. Of these it is the last which is most difficult to interpret. The key, I think, is to take each line as corresponding to an element of the Trinity. So: to be right brings the agent into agreement with the Father, the law giving God of the Old Testament; to be saved is to be given grace by the savior of the New Testament; and, to be whole, then, is to be filled by the spirit of the Holy Ghost.
It is worth noting that the notion of immorality as defect or incompleteness is common in non-theological philosophical contexts. So, according to some views, a moral failure is a failure to live up to one's higher order judgments and this disrupts the unity of the self (in some sense). Others, and notably Plato, have thought that immorality (and particularly indulgence) polluted the soul, and one can think of the removal of this pollution as a return to wholeness. I'm a little unclear on the theology of the Holy Spirit, so I don't know how close the song's moral understandings are to these.
In any case, it seems to me that one can grant the song's conception of the state of moral perfection and yet take issue with the other elements of the song's moral view.
Begin by considering the implied account of moral motivation. It is apparently suggestd that there are three reasons to be moral. First, because it is commanded by God. Second, because otherwise one will suffer the pain of damnation. And, lastly, because one will receive the benefit of communion with the Holy Spirit. Unfortunately, each of these is inadequate as a basis for moral motivation.
In the case of the first the problem has to do with the externality of the proposed direction. By substituting God's will for her own the individual abdicates her status as an agent. In order to understand the individual as an agent, then, we must see her as endorsing the laws given unto her by God. But then the explanation is incomplete, because nothing has been said about her reasons for giving that endorsement.1
This still leaves hope for the account as a whole, of course, since the endorsement might be underwritten by the other two suggested reasons. This hope is dashed, however, because those reasons are entirely egoistic. That is, the individual doesn't seem to be concerned with morality at all, but only with her own wellbeing.
On the basis of this, it seems to me that the motivational account suggested by the song is inadequate. It should be mentioned, however, that this account is suggested rather than explicitly stated. It may be that the Kings of Harmony are not egoists and imagine other reasons (perhaps articulated in other songs) for moral action.
Consider next the proposed procedure for moral correction. That procedure has two parts. In the first, the Lord is asked to 'shine the light of Heaven' on the agent's soul in order to find 'anything that shouldn't be.' In the second, it is requested that the Lord, having identified a defect, 'take it out and straighten me.'
The first part of this is vulnerable to an objection which parallels certain elements of those given above. In trusting the Lord to identify defects, the individual abdicates her own role in the project of moral evaluation, and this makes it difficult to understand her as a fully responsible agent. As with the previous line of objection, however, there is room for the thought that the individual has, for reasons not identified in this song, endorsed the content of the Lord's evaluative judgment.2 If this were so then the individual would merely be relying on the Lord's priveleged view, rather than substituting His will for her own.
The second part of the procedure faces a problem which is less easily evaded because it rests on an explicit demand. The difficulty here is that the Lord, rather than the individual, is entrusted with the responsibility for seeing to it that the demands of morality are met. This has the effect of reducing the entire content of the individual's moral obligations to a single act of supplication. That is, the individual entirely satisfies her responsibility for the reform of her character by asking that the Lord do the heavy lifting. This, clearly, is a moral vision fit only for children. It would be better if the demand had been something like, "please Lord, reveal it to me."
1 I mean to be following Korsgaard here.
2 It may be that the relevant explanation is that given by The Dixieaires in "The Greatest Creator of Them All."