Thursday, April 19, 2012


Does everyone have standards? I imagine they do. Good, bad or indifferent, still these standards guide and inform and limit action, reaction and lifestyle.

These days, the news includes a self-serving revulsion against the fact that photos have come to light that show American soldiers posing with the dead bodies of Afghan combatants. There are standards even for warfare: We don't gloat over the taking of other lives even as American troops are required to go into a situation that requires them to take other lives. It's OK to ask these troops to enter hell and yet beyond the pale that they should take pleasure in their success.

And the much-shrouded Pulitzer board announced the other day that there would be no award for fiction-writing. Three books had been put forward as contenders, each winnowed from hundreds of possibilities. The reasons why the board rejected all of the books proposed by the two-women-one-man jury panel are unknown, but there are a lot of inflamed opinions about the decision not to award a fiction prize. Was the board in deadlock and finally just threw in the towel? Were they exercising some standard that remained hidden yet implacable?

Talking to my son, Angus, on the phone the other day, we got to chatting about his upcoming college athletic events. There was a chance, however slim, that he might be in contention at a national level (discus) and he asked when his brother, my younger son, Ives, was scheduled to graduate from high school. He was afraid -- even in a pipedream world -- that the competition and the graduation might conflict. I told him I would check on the date, but it seemed to me that whenever it was, he could worry about the conflict when the conflict actually arose. "I'm not like that," he replied. "I like to plan ahead." Angus has his standards and, as standards go, planning ahead strikes me as a pretty good one. Not that it actually works all the time, but it's better than getting caught flatfooted because he/you/I were inattentive.

Standards. Is there a standard that can stand the test of all circumstances? I don't think so. This is no reason to throw out all standards, but it is a good reason to loosen the grip anyone might have on whatever the standard is.

On the bumper on my car, contrary to my general distaste for bumper stickers, I have a bumper sticker that says, "Do no harm." Sounds good, but what does that mean? How well does it square up with a reality in which not only do people do harm, but also they do harm even as they imagine they are doing good?

Loosen the grip. Standards can be very good indeed, but standards, like law books, are tentative descriptions of observed activity. A life without standards might be anarchic and cruel ... just like a life with standards. Moral relativity is as chickenshit as moral absolutism.

It is happier to make peace with our standards while acknowledging that the far reaches of those standards cannot be known. No one can see into the future. Everyone's standards are a personal responsibility ... something to be acquired together with the willingness to correct the errors arising from those standards.

Do evil? Correct the mistake.

Do good? Correct the mistake.

It's just my noodling, tentative standard.

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