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  1. Opinion

Column: Expand circle of moral concern

"So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?"

And he said, "He who showed mercy on him."

Then Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise."

— Luke 10: 36-37, New King James Version

This generation is being called, perhaps more vociferously than any previous generation, to expand the circle of moral concern. You are called, as a citizen of the world, to care about and work for the improvement of the lot of those who are hungry, persecuted and oppressed, all over the world. You are called to display an appreciation for the religions of the world and to reject easy, uneducated denunciations of those different from you. You are even called to figure out how to save the planet, and all its creatures, from environmental catastrophe.

There were at least four great expansions of moral consciousness in the 20th century. The significant progress and deepening of understanding of human rights to include civil rights, religious and cultural rights, women's rights and gay rights is the definitive moral advance of the modern era. Steven Pinker, the Harvard cognitive scientist, calls this historical trend "The Rights Revolutions" and connects it to what he argues is a dramatic decline in violence worldwide — despite relentless media reports to the contrary. But we can see, if we have some historical perspective, the dramatic advance of what the philosopher Peter Singer calls "the expanding circle of moral concern." A growing mountain of recent evidence supports Martin Luther King's famous claim that, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

The compelling work of social progress for your generation is twofold: to deepen and extend the enormous gains of the recent past for women, for people of color, for gays and lesbians, for "the other" in whatever form we find him or her or otherwise; and to continue to expand that circle as our deepening knowledge and consciousness, and perhaps our higher development as a species, show us the way.

One such relatively new and, for many of us, unfamiliar expansion of that circle of moral concern involves a new approach to understanding and conducting relationships between people and animals. Increasing numbers of men and women, particularly the young, eschew using the skin or eating the flesh of animals. Once we begin to see our sources of food as akin not only to our pets but to ourselves, our perspectives begin to change rapidly. This emotional and, some would say, deeply moral recognition is beginning to rearrange dramatically the ethical parameters and practices of millions of people throughout the world.

Animal rights undoubtedly present extremely complicated and conflicted moral dilemmas — illustrated in Hal Herzog's Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It's So Hard to Think Straight About Animals. Clearly, the new science of anthrozoology reveals that the relationship between people and animals is more complicated than we thought.

But so much is. The limitations of our moral and intellectual imagination are astounding — in retrospect. The fact that so many of the great men who founded our nation were slaveholders is astonishing and morally reprehensible to us — but they lived in a world wholly different from ours, a world in which there were slaves and slaveholders on every continent. It is only in retrospect that their moral blindness is apparent to us. Living in their time, most of us would have been blind too. Our grandchildren are likely to think us moral reprobates, or worse, because we ate meat and wore leather shoes. And they may well be right.

In this complicated world, it is our duty to minister to the "other," however foreign and unknown to us, as the Samaritan did. Because there are always "others." Where there were Irish, Italians, Armenians, Jews, African-Americans and gays and lesbians, there are now Muslims and Mexicans and transgender people. This is the path of social justice, and it is the moral imperative for each of us.

We must not let our familiarity with the story of the good Samaritan obscure its primary lesson: "Everyone is your neighbor." If Jesus were to tell the story today, he would say that the illegal immigrant is your neighbor; the Islamic jihadist is your neighbor. The point is not that immigration laws, or national defense, are wrong, but that we should act, even in our public policies, with respect, and even love, for "the other" — whatever form they take.

Donald Eastman III is president of Eckerd College, a private liberal arts college in St. Petersburg. This is adapted from his baccalaureate speech last month.

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