From August 29th to 31st, the ATEM (Association des Théologiens pour l’Étude de la Morale), the French speaking ecumenical association of moral theologians hold its annual congress in Paris on the topic of moral education. The usual constituency of the association was joined by a substantial group of non-ethicist people interested in the topic, mainly actors in youth movements, schools or chaplaincies. The mixed audience was an opportunity for a fruitful conversation on the crucial and difficult question of the formation of moral consciences. What does this mean? How do we do this? What are the specific challenges of our time and local context?
I have no intention here to summarize the whole conference. I simply highlight a vexing question which somehow stayed in the background of many contributions. How about the “universal” today? For Kant, no doubt that ethical reasoning had to take the path of asking oneself about the universalizability of one’s “maxim” of action. It is a way of coming back to the golden rule: do not do to others what you would not like them do to you or, in the positive sense, act as you would like the others do. Whatever was the suitability of such ethical approach in modern times, it is obvious that today, in such a country as France and in late-modern or post-modern era, for post-millennials teen-agers, it hardly works. Setting the context on the first day of the conference, a high school teacher who happened to have worked within a large variety of socio-economic contexts in France, pointed out the issue: no lack of generosity among the youth, neither of a sense solidarity especially with those close to them (the family, the friends, etc.). But the idea of universal human rights or of something like the common good is very difficult to explain them. What is authoritative is primarily what can be directly experienced. How do you experience a concept like the common good?
More generally, as ethicists, we are all aware that we live in a world of pluralism not only regarding cultures, visions of the world, or ethical orientations but more fundamentally of anthropologies or visions of the human being. Again and again during the conference was valued an ethic of virtues, stressing the importance of the formation of the character, as an appropriate tool in order to respond to these challenges. But still the question of the articulation between diversity of goods and the search for universality remains. In his concluding remarks, Alain Thomasset (president of ATEM) restated the question. He also suggested some more general landmarks for moral education today, very much in the line of Pope Francis’ pedagogy: accompaniment, dialog, and “never without the little ones”. The latest caught my attention in relation to the question of universality. Could the attention to the poorest, the most excluded, the most fragile in our society be a path for an ethical discernment that would look for the “universal”? Indeed, if you take care of the last, the one at the bottom, the most forgotten, all should benefit. This was the intuition of Fr. Joseph Wresinski, the founder of ATD-Fourth World, fifty years ago. Some might also find support for such a reasoning in Rawl’s principle of difference. With some nuancing! In any case, if, as one of my teachers once said to me, a good day of conference is a day when you end up with having met a new colleague and with having a new question or idea, the ATEM conference this year fully achieved the goal!