Commentary Magazine


Penn State, the Starry Heavens Above and the Moral Law Within

In a recent column on the Penn State scandal, David Brooks takes to task the vanity of the outraged — meaning commentators “whose indignation is based on the assumption that if they had been in Joe Paterno’s shoes, or assistant coach Mike McQueary’s shoes, they would have behaved better.” None of us can safely make that assumption, Brooks argued, since over the course of history the same pattern has emerged, on a scale both much larger and smaller than what happened at Penn State (the Holocaust, Rwandan genocide, and beatings on American streets). Many times, people do not intervene. Very often they see but they don’t see. Our natural tendency is to evade and self-deceive.

David’s column is typically thoughtful and his arguments worth considering, though I think he misses the mark just a bit in this instance. State Police Commissioner Frank Noonan, who along with Pennsylvania Attorney General Linda Kelly filed the grand jury report, told reporters, “I don’t think I’ve ever been associated with a case where that type of eyewitness identification of sex acts [took] place where the police weren’t called. I don’t think I’ve ever seen something like this before.” So I don’t think the outrage many of us felt toward Penn State was evidence of vanity or living on islands of our own innocence. What we were commenting on is what we believe to have been a staggering, and according to law enforcement officials, an uncommon, moral failure.

But I want to make another, more important, point, which is that the near-universal condemnation toward Penn State is a healthy sign. It demonstrates that moral relativism, while trendy in some quarters, is ultimately unserious, and that even a culture that can idolize non-judgmentalism has its limits.

We all recognize a moral law, whether we admit it or not. Everyone you know believes raping young boys is wrong. Let C.S. Lewis take it from here. “The moment you say that one set of moral ideas can be better than another, you are, in fact, measuring them both by a standard,” Lewis wrote, “saying that one of them conforms to that standard more nearly than the other … the standard that measures two things is something different from either. You are in fact comparing them both with some Real Morality, admitting there is such a thing as a real Right, independent of what people think, and that some people’s ideas get nearer to that real Right than others.”

Professor Lewis went on to say, “If your moral ideas can be truer, and those of the Nazis less true, there must be something — some Real Morality — for them to be true about.”

That fact that we don’t always act on Real Morality might be an indication of lack of courage or of not seeing what makes us uncomfortable. But on reflection, we all know these are moral failures on our part. It’s true enough we often fall short of high standards — but as the gruesome Penn State scandal reminds us, at least certain standards remain fixed in place.

The next time someone insists moral truth is relative and enlightened people don’t “legislate morality,” you might consider asking them to read the 23-page grand jury report that documents the (alleged) predatory acts of Jerry Sandusky. What you’re likely to hear from them aren’t excuses or self-doubt or ethical tentativeness.What you’re likely to hear is disgust and outrage. Might this be evidence of vanity? Perhaps. But I’ll take it as a sign of the starry heavens above and the moral law within.


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