Readers know that, in the Olympic Games, only athletes who have reached the minimum required in their respective sport (diving, swimming, running, sailing…) take part. And only those who jump the highest, run the fastest or lift the heaviest weights win gold medals.
On the scale of human values, what are the minimum and maximum values that a healthy pedagogy should propose to our society? How high should we set the bar?
Adela Cortina, a Spanish professor of ethics, posed this question to a large audience. Tempers were divided, there were opinions to suit all tastes, and some friends of good arguments were even having fun like a cat with two mice. In the end, common sense won the day and led to some pretty good conclusions. In a pluralistic society like ours, we have to teach common values to all social groups aspiring to a full life. Believers and non-believers, young and old, agree on a series of irrevocable values, such as the aspiration for freedom, the struggle for equal opportunities for all, the defence and promotion of life, the culture of tolerance and mutual respect, the superiority of dialogue over any other means of resolving conflicts.
Should these values be proposed to future generations? If common sense were not the least common of senses, such a question would seem pointless. We would only need to teach children and young people how to use a computer and the rudiments of history and not teach them that love is superior to hate, freedom is better than slavery, solidarity is more humane than injustice, or that it is preferable to respect the faith of others than to settle differences by force. It would be a pity if this lesson, which humanity has learned at the cost of bloodshed, were not passed on as an inheritance to future generations.
It is up to them to bequeath to us what we have that is best. And our best harvest or our best treasure is not computer literacy or English language skills, but the founding principles of a dignified human life.
We call the set of such values “civic ethics”, because they unite the citizens of a morally plural society. Below this scale or this “ethics of minimums”, inhumanity is the order of the day. We insist, therefore, that helping children and young people to come to terms with this is a matter of elementary common sense.
And it is also elementary common sense to bear in mind that the accepted minimums are based on maximums and that these are often religious. The awareness that all men and women are children of the same Father is what guarantees the recognition of human dignity and establishes the sacred value of the person.
Civic ethics is inspired by and draws from this source. It does not refer to God, because it cannot do so if it is to fulfil its mission of uniting believers and unbelievers. But it lives to a large extent from that ballast of faith that drives many people to give their lives for their fellow man.
The ethics of maxims can also be lived to the hilt or half-heartedly; in this case, they do not nourish anything or give wisdom to anything. Teresa of Calcutta, Gandhi and so many others, known and anonymous, lived their maximal ethics to the full. By their actions they raised the bar, injected fresh and vigorous blood into the veins of humanity. By winning points, breaking records, reaching the top, they shook our mediocrity, they forced many of us to climb a little higher than the ground floor.
I sometimes think that if I had been pushed harder, in my years as a child and young man, and had my soul stretched more, setting ambitious goals, my performance rates would have been higher in the outside world. When I read about the deeds of saints and heroes, I was fascinated and able to imitate them. Generosity overflowed and nothing seemed to cost me.
Shakespeare was right: “We are made of the stuff of dreams”.
Abílio Pina Ribeiro, cmf