The book I mentioned a few days ago, Drinking: A Love Story, led me to another its author recommended: A Drinking Life, by Pete Hamill, who was born to Irish immigrants and raised in World War II era Brooklyn. He describes a scene from his childhood that powerfully illustrates a major theme in personalist ethics. We do justice or injustice (as the case may be) not only by conforming or failing to conform to the objective moral law, but in our responses to the concrete subjective moral realities in front of us.
FOR THE CHRISTMAS of 1943, my mother bought me a pair of roller skates. They were strong and tough, with clamps over the front of your shoes that were tightened with a skate key. The wheels were shiny; they would never wear out, filling with those ruinous holes we called skellies. They had probably cost her a lot of money, at least three dollars. But on a frigid Saturday a week later, there was a huge scrap metal drive, men in trucks moving slowly along the avenue, shouting to everybody to haul out their old metal and iron so we could turn the stuff into bombs and bullets. People came out with beaten-up old metal chairs and lengths of pipe and broken bicycles. I thought it was my duty to make the ultimate sacrifice. I threw in my skates.
But as I watched the truck pull away, I began to cry. I wanted those skates back. And then felt as if I were a traitor, a regular Benedict Arnold. I stopped crying. I walked around the block. A cold wind was blowing off the harbor. I went home and lay down on my bed and started to read a Newsboy Legion comic to restore my sense of patriotism. Yes: I had made a sacrifice. But it was worth it. Somehow, my skates would help beat Hitler and the Japs.
Then my mother came in and asked me what was the matter.
Nothing, I lied.
Come on, something’s the matter.
Nothing’s the matter.
I was quiet for a moment and then I whispered: I gave my skates to the scrap metal drive.
Mother of God.
She looked upset and I said, I’m sorry, Mommy.
Oh, she said, this damned war.
Then she went into the kitchen and started cooking in silence.
But that wasn’t the end of it. An hour later, my father came home drunk. We sat down to eat dinner. And he learned about the skates.
What? he said. What? You gave away your skates?
I didn’t give them away, I said. I gave them to the scrap metal drive, you know, the war effort.
You bloody idjit, he said.
And he reached over and slapped my face.
The father sinned against his son's dignity not only by calling him and idiot and slapping him in the face, but even more gravely by his utter failure to recognize and affirm the moral goodness of the boy's sacrifice. He twisted the boy's inner reality into something contemptible. That was a worse and crueler blow than the physical one.
The moral blindness and egotism that prevent us from seeing and doing justice to the subjective truth in others is (I propose) a deeper, more commonplace, and more intractable evil than the evil of lawbreaking.