Søren Kierkegaard, a 19th century philosopher and theologian, is called the father of existentialism. This “dismal Dane,” whose nickname comes from the stark nature of his perspective on life, is the author of a series of essays, which he called “Edifying Discourses.” One of the essays that has caught my attention is titled, “Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing.” These titles are probably enough to drive my readers to the obituary column for some lighter entertainment. But hang on for a minute, because there just may be something in this stark treatise that is worth observing. Kierkegaard is arguing that the only authentic approach to life is single-mindedness. All mixed motives are, therefore, unethical if not flat-out immoral.
Maybe 19th century Denmark was uncomplicated, and one could go through life with the consistency ethical living mandated. But sadly, that is not my world today. Maybe you can “will one thing,” but I find myself trapped in the realization that so much of my life is caught like a fly in a spider web. Let me illustrate.
Anyone who follows these weekly columns knows that the issue at the top of my social agenda is global warming, and the looming worldwide cataclysm it portends. Ethical consistency means that I do nothing to exacerbate the problem, and would therefore go through my days with a zero carbon footprint. The little issues could be resolved with solar panels on my house, sweaters instead of powering up my gas furnace, and walking to the store instead of taking my car — or even having a car. But those things are small potatoes. I really contribute to the problem when I look at my frequent flyer miles and think about a couple of our next trips. So instead of being pure of heart I go about my days doing what is convenient. And there seems no way to get out of what I don’t know how I got into.
Here is a further complication. I serve on the Board of Directors and the Finance Committee of the retirement community where we live. We have a modest endowment that helps us survive here. It is invested with a reputable firm which has put us into a very attractive index fund. But part of that fund consists of energy stocks. The moral thing to do is find an ethically clean fund somewhere. But as a member of the Board I am also bound by what is called a fiduciary responsibility, which calls me to maximize the financial benefit to the facility on whose governing body I sit. My inclination is to work for divestment, but that comes with a price. There is no way to be pure. So we decide to get clean of energy stocks, but not stocks in corporations involved in America’s mammoth war machine. What we are facing here is the same dilemma now cascading across hundreds of colleges and universities, as well as scores of privately run bodies. It is a discussion worth having in all these locations.
Whatever decisions these groups make will hardly be consistent with Kierkegaard’s single mindedness, and those who believe they are acting out of pure motives are fooling themselves. Nevertheless, we must act knowing that at best we operate with mixed motives. At this point, divestment seems the best of imperfect solutions to the problem.
There is another personal complication. My wife and I have a few very modest investments. So every evening we look to see what the stock marker has done that day. If it goes up, we are happy, and a few dollars richer. If it goes down we are a few dollars poorer. We end up hoping that corporations whose policies we oppose will nevertheless do very well.
If you think it is a simple matter to be pure in heart in this ambiguous complex society, it is not that simple. Perhaps we can begin by admitting that like everyone else, we may be trapped. Nevertheless, we must continue to reach toward some nobler goal. But more about that later.