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The Philia Proposal

Adapted from a presentation delivered in Vancouver, May 2001 by Jacques Dufresne.

Mount EverestI would like to share with you today some ideas about moral  commitment, inspiration and social action.

These ideas occurred to me while thinking about persons I have come to know and that I like to think of as moral athletes. They are otherwise ordinary persons who would likely have led quite ordinary lives, but, when loss and tragedy struck and excluded them, their children or their loved ones from active social life, they chose to stay and care. Their commitment represents a moral summit, a spiritual Mount Everest. But even that comparison is wanting: climbers who reach the summit of Mount Everest quickly head back to altitudes where they can find oxygen. The persons I am thinking about remain on their moral summits day after day, year after year, long after they run out of the oxygen they need for their spiritual well-being. Onlookers, standing at a distance, reel at the thought of the effort demanded of them and wonder where sources of inspiration can be found to support them.

We tend to equate 20th century with war, destruction, and the worst crimes against humanity ever. But that is also the period during which, perhaps in response to the hardship, the sense of a moral obligation to care for suffering and the commitment to include those that are left out have risen to highest levels ever reached in human history. Thinkers, especially philosophers and theologians, have yet to develop a compelling conception of humanity, of the world, and of suffering that can make sense of and support the countless examples of moral excellence and courage on the part of otherwise ordinary people.

Christianity, we know, has been and still is a powerful source of moral commitment. This is visible in the work of Jean Vanier, for example. But today’s high level of moral demand has two other, more recent but equally powerful sources in what are, ironically, two opposite philosophical traditions: idealism and materialism.

There is a story of how the frail and ailing Kant, a few days before his death, got out of bed to welcome a visitor and remained standing until his guest had been properly seated. Finding his breath, he explained: “I have not yet lost all sense of humanity”. Inspiring this remark is one of the key ideas of Kantian idealism: objects are means to ends but humans, all humans, are ends in themselves and, as such, are entitled to unconditional respect. All human beings: Kant rejected all forms of racism, discrimination and exclusion. He once said that whenever he noticed outstanding moral behavior on the part of servants, he stopped to pay a silent tribute and would have bowed openly if prevailing customs had allowed him to.

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