People make ethical decisions every day. Some of them we raise to the status of moral principles. The word “raise” in that sentence is a problem. Why is it a rise to move from action to principle?
We admire people for acting in accordance with principles when the going gets hard. Principles seem to float free of the taint of sin, but they actually don’t. They belong to people, with all the temptations people have. One temptation is to enforce my principles—with all lofty intentions—upon people who have their own dilemmas to deal with. Another is to cherish unduly the ideas we learned in our formative youth. Today we have neighbors who seem stuck in some previous decade, whose insights no longer serve us very well.
What is at stake is not just safety, which sometimes has to be foregone. What is really at stake is the freedom needed for moral agency. Any given moment of life with a free God might call for action we could not have imagined a moment ago. In the movie The Bicycle Thief, a father steals a bike so he can earn money by putting up wall posters, to feed his wife and son. His son happens to witness this act, and he knows it is a crime. The man is terribly humiliated, but we know he has done right.
This doesn’t mean we can do what we want every moment; it means we are in charge of our commitments, which will change in spite of us. In a democracy, laws are just commitments among citizens, written down, changeable by the same authority that made them. It is less important that a law be right than it be agreed upon. In daily life we abide by laws and keep promises or we don’t; people will decide freely whether to trust us next time. But keeping such commitments is not a matter of principle; only simple practicality. There need be no confusion between City Hall and Sinai.