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Thursday, June 25, 2009

Mark Sanford: how do we react?

Governor Mark Sanford. Photo: AP
Governor Mark Sanford yesterday revealed that he has been having an extramarital affair with another woman. As a writer I'm struggling with what, if anything, I should discuss on this. Perhaps we can ask "what should we think of this", "how should we act", and "what can we learn from it?"

My hope for this spot at is to be interesting and helpful, and do it with some degree of dignity. It's therefore with some trepidation that I jump on the bandwagon by writing about the grimy gossip of the day: Gov. Sanford's affair. Here is the contradiction: I hope that philosophy will ennoble us and that I can 'rise above' tawdry things. But, at the same time, these are the sorts of things with which the general population is consumed. How then, can I show the importance and the role of philosophy in real, everyday life without addressing the things that occupy our collective attention? That is the issue that led to my decision to address this event after all.

Humanism is a worldview but also a moral philosophical stance. Inherent in its principles are honesty, integrity, responsibility, fairness, and concern for all people. Virtue is its own reward, as virtue and right reason are one in the same. One might expect, therefore, that in addressing the situation with the Governor, we should spend our time in admonition. Perhaps we should rail on how evil the Governor is and cast him out as an example to others who would similarly misbehave? Or, perhaps we could use this time to bash the Governor's political party as hypocrites to score political points?

To the contrary, our moral oversight - as always - should remain humbly fixed on ourselves. Was Governor Sanford in the wrong for what he's did? Certainly. But if we understand virtue properly, we will know that Sanford cannot escape the causal results of vice. They provide their own consequences.

I have no control over the choices Mark makes. I control one thing, and that is my own choices. Therefore we should not squander the moment with undue focus on Mark's just desserts. We should also not squander it with childish authoritarian appeals to beware Mark's behavior on the grounds that we too will fall from grace.

Instead, we should start with compassion, first for his family and others effected. Then, yes, with compassion for Mark Sanford. That doesn't mean we simply 'let it go' or that there should not be consequences. However, I suspect most readers have no direct power or authority to immediately do anything to the Governor. Those who are his constituents can certainly consider this when they enter the voting booth or write others in office. But if we are to focus on things we control, these are exceptionally minor responsibilities to be focused upon now.

We should have compassion for Mark, not because he deserves it or because he should receive it, but because doing so is good for us. Whatever I can do or not do to the Governor is individually not so significant - however, the attitudes I harbor about him and toward him can have a big impact on who I am, on my character, and on my life experience.

Let us humbly remember that we all have done wrong things in the past. We all have hurt others, have been selfish, etc. And, rather than busying ourselves with placing our misdeeds on scales to see whose is worse, we should instead remember this: when Mark got involved emotionally and intimately with a friend outside of his oath to his wife, behind her back, and disregarded his responsibility to his family - he misjudged what is beneficial to him. His short-sightedness and ignorance allowed his passions to overtake his judgment. What seemed a beneficial course of action before him was truly not. And, isn't this the very same error we all make, with every minor or major misdeed?

I should not try to twist the issue by suggesting that Mark's problem is merely that he "isn't perfect". That would be a distortion offenders often try to promote in their defense. He isn't going through what he is right now because he merely lacks perfection, but because what he did was pointedly gross in its measure - being more than a case of simply lacking perfection. However, while extremes vary, all of us are guilty of the same kind of ignorance and misjudgment as Mark's. Let's be humble and not compound our vice with the addition of self-righteousness, mercilessness, and pride in the face of Mark's unfortunate failures.

Instead, let's take this as an opportunity to be better than we have been and better than Mark has been, by being considerate, fair, and compassionate toward him and his family. Mark has done wrong, and our wish for him should be that he learns from his misdeeds and becomes a better person in the future, perhaps even someday emerging stronger and a good example of reform for others. We don't know if this will happen. As scientifically minded folks, Humanists do not believe that 'wishing makes it so'. But what we wish on others certainly impacts the kind of character we form.

Just as importantly, let's take this as an opportunity to consider our own shortcomings in the face of our passions. That will help us find our way from the screaming hordes surrounding the gallows and place us back on course.

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