I know a woman who had an abortion when she was young. The infant wasn’t the product of rape, it just wasn’t the right time for the couple to have the baby. Abortion, in this case, was being used for birth control. Since it had just been legalized, why shouldn’t she take advantage of it? Years later, however, that decision haunted her and she considered that she had killed her only daughter.
A number of years ago I met a professional drunk who was homeless. He was interested in whatever help we would be willing to offer. However, he had clearly already lied to my wife and I and he, frankly, had an obnoxious personality and smelled of wine processed through his pores.
A woman who had stayed in our house for years has been struggling with drug addiction for years, but she is losing the fight. She won’t work in the house or pay rent and gets angry when I approach her about it.
This is the kind of stuff that ethics are made of. Difficult situations. Some small and some large. Libraries have been created on the ethics of abortion, homeless, drug addiction, homosexuality, war, adultery, marriage and much more. When we think about these issues philosophically, we make one ethical choice, but when we face them in real life, we might very well make another.
In philosophy, there are two names that come to the forefront of ethical thought: Mills and Kant. John Stuart Mills taught that the basis of correct moral decision is happiness. Decide what makes the most people happy over the longest period of time, and that is the correct decision. Kant thought that the basis of ethics is duty. If we know what we should do, the right thing, then to do anything else is unethical. However, neither can be completely true. If a friend of mine experienced a death in the family, my empathy doesn’t make either of us happier, but isn’t it more right to feel for him than to not? If my duty is to not lie and obey government, does that make it right for me to tell the Nazis at my door that the Jews are hidden under the panel in the dining room floor?
The heart of right action is in the heart of human existence and experience. And human experience is found in the midst of others. Most of these others are human—we come out of our mother’s womb, live in a community, learn with children, connect with neighbors, buy from retailers, read the words of authors, work with co-workers, care for pets, have sex with lovers and hopefully, die with family. Since our whole life is spent with others, then the heart of the most basic decisions—that of right and wrong—also has to do with others.
But what is the nature of our relation with others, of life in general? The basic experience of all life is need. We are all a gaping hole needing to be filled. Three meals a day. Six cups of water. Sleep. Health when we are sick. A kind word. A good talk. Support when depressed. A good story. The needs perpetuate without end—the basic truth of life. And we spend our time filling these needs. We get a job so we can get money to meet our needs. We remain in long term relationships to meet our needs. We purchase things—a comfortable bed, a good book—to meet the needs of rest and pleasure.
To see ourselves as full of need, constantly being fulfilled, is to see us as life. And if this is what life is, this is what every living being is on the planet. Around every single one of us is another gaping hole, another sponge in constant need of filling. Yea, not just one, but many, hundreds, millions, even billions. Some of us pretty much meet our own needs. But for every one that is self-sufficient, there are a thousand or a million that are not. Every child is in need of raising until they are grown. Every spouse is in need of the love of their partner. Every ill person is in need of the care of another. Every destitute person is in need of assistance. And every person is in need of another to talk to, to obtain respect from, to love and to be loved.
This is the true foundation of ethics. Not the partnership of command and submission. Not the limitations of pleasure. Rather the recognition that everyone’s need is the equivalent of our own. And that even as we are in need of others to meet our need, we must live our lives to meet other’s needs. Not as a duty, although it can be considered a responsibility. Not as a part of our own pleasure, although we can find joy in it. Rather, we meet needs because it is a part of life, part of the community we live in.
To see the other’s need and to recognize it as a part of one’s own; to not only observe the need, but to feel it; to meet the need of the other and so be completed oneself—this is love. It may sound like co-dependency. But codependency is acting toward the other’s hurt, and so establishing one’s own hurt as well. Love recognizes true need, not just felt need, and fills the gaping hole. Love never turns away. Love does something.
And this is the good life. The life of love.
The woman on drugs on our house? We confronted her, but didn’t force her to leave until she had another place to be. On her own, she still struggles with addiction, but is on the road to recovery. Without basic structure, she would never succeed.
The homeless drunk? He stayed in our house one night and we found that his screaming in the middle of the night was not good for the rest of us to be able to sleep. But we had him come to dinner. And the next night he came again. The night after, he brought another homeless friend. And now we feed a hundred and fifty people a week, friends with them all, bringing love and hope to street folks and the mentally ill, meeting all the needs we can.
And, finally, the woman struggling with her decision to have an abortion? That was my mother. It was my potential sister she decided to not have. She did not need my forgiveness, as willingly as I would be to give it. She needed the forgiveness of God and of the baby. But in receiving welcome, support and hope from those around her, she experienced the forgiveness of God and her fourth child.
Love truly does conquers all evil, which makes it the most powerful substance in the universe.