Book Review: “A Decent Life” by Todd May

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Ever since Aristotle tried to simplify the complexity of ethical reasoning down to his one-word concept of virtue, successive theologians and philosophers have been throwing out words or short phrases for labeling their life’s work formulations. Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) came up with his duty-based categorical imperative. My own study of this field in the 1990s was heavily influenced by John Rawls (1921 – 2002) and his detailed parsing of the word justice.

Clemson University professor Todd May’s recent book, A Decent Life: Morality for the Rest of Us, [1] takes a valiant stab at that task by asking a very time-appropriate question that I often shout at my television: “Can’t you people just be decent to each other for once?” (That’s my own one-sentence summary of the book, by the way, and not a direct quote.)

Professor May begins his book with a brief but effective tour through what I call the “four vectors” of traditional ethical thought. [2] He highlights both the strengths and weaknesses of Kant’s rule-based deontology, as well as end-based consequentialism, emotion-based empathy, and “meta” thinking like Aristotle’s aforementioned virtue ethics. His own driving to the basic moral expression of decency heads clearly down the “empathy” vector.

Decency versus altruism

The more extreme moral case down this path is Peter Singer’s “effective altruism,” which May spends a lot of time critiquing. [3] The author defends basic decency against the charge of “moral mediocrity” as compared to Singer’s extreme altruism, but he rightly points out the moral realism that most people just will not traverse “the bridge too far” as Singer advocates in addressing the world’s most intractable problems. My own expression of that dilemma is the “crisis of faith” experienced by my friends who have spent years of their lives addressing poverty when they realize that they “can’t save everybody.”

My own approach is that all of these “vectors” need to be part of “the moral conversation,” primarily because humans have evolved to attempt to solve the challenge of survival through each of these paths through separate “brain circuits” operating simultaneously. As individuals and as societies, our ethics are literally the statistical “norms” of our collective brains’ decision-making over thousands of years.

And then there is Trump…

Todd May waits until near the end of the book to confront the moose on the table that appears to have inspired this book. Political conversation has always been a challenging place to stake a space for civility and decency, but there is no doubt that the election of Donald Trump in 2016 caused political discourse to “jump the shark.”

Decency in politics, May suggests, is the acknowledgement of a need to “inhabit a common space” in this world. After struggling with reconciling his ideal moral conversation with the political reality of today, he admits that “there are certainly limits to what can be discussed within a framework of civility.” On that list he places racist, homophobic and misogynistic behavior.

So do I, and aye, there’s the rub. For May or any of us to state this publicly is to put up “fightin’ words” to a disturbingly large segment of the American voting public. And somehow I suspect these folks are not going to be reading this book. I still have not reconciled myself to why such a large part of the nominally-Christian community has wedded themselves, seemingly to the death, to Trumpian politics at its most nasty, indeed, indecent. [4]

What I appreciate most about May’s prescription for decency is the personal human frailty that he cops to, straining to take his own medicine. He is a late and inconsistent convert to vegetarianism. He has been known to be uncharitable to bad drivers getting in this way. He has a testy relationship with the family cat.

I can relate. A recent residency change forced me into difficult customer service contacts with a dozen utilities and other services. Most of these interactions were overly difficult to the point of being unpleasant. My internet provider’s customer service system seems especially programed for inducing early and sustained rage. [5] When one call took me off guard by immediately connecting me to a pleasant human voice who cheerfully addressed my issue in seconds, I felt such a rush of divine grace that I gushed my thanks over the phone to “my new friend.”

Incivility and indecency are contagious and toxic. But civility and decency are also contagious and can serve as “anti-toxins.” Unfortunately. incivility is now hard-wired into customer service systems, corporate actions, government agencies, and the political process. As a Jesuit professor of mine once remarked, it is often literally enough to “piss off a priest.”

While it is perhaps simplistic to prescribe this human moral need for “common decency,” Todd May challenges us to think of the word more broadly, “…to navigate through the world with a certain moral gracefulness.”


Notes:

  1. May, Todd. A Decent Life: Morality for the Rest of Us. The University of Chicago Press, 2019.
  2. Most writing on ethics and morality tends to defy clean “category boxes.” Moral vectors, on the other hand, have direction and magnitude, and we can usually tell when a writer is “going that-a-way” in his or her ethical reasoning.
  3. Singer, Peter. The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism Is Changing Ideas about Living Ethically. The Text Publishing Company, 2016.
  4. For my take on a structured “moral conversation” about ethics and Donald Trump, see this series of posts.
  5. Hint: It’s one of the ISPs whose name starts with “X”.

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