On Moral Concern

You shall surely reprove your fellow. Leviticus 19:17 A long time ago, I spent a couple of years reading Calvinist theology and Puritan treatises and sermons (for a doctoral dissertation and a first book).I don’t remember many lines, but one has stuck in my mind. The Reverend Richard Baxter, author of The Holy Commonwealth, described in 1659 how he maintained moral discipline in his Kidderminster parish “with the help of the godly people of the place who thirsted after the salvation of their neighbors and were in private my assistants.” I have thought a lot about those godly people and their peculiar “thirst.” There aren’t all that many men and women so strongly engaged with their neighbors’ moral well-being, but such people do appear frequently in history. We find them again and again “thirsting” after the salvation, or the rectitude, or the piety, or the political commitment, or the ideological correctness, of their neighbors. These people possess what I want to call “moral concern.” (There may be a better term.) They are driven not only to worry about the moral rightness or wrongness of other people, but also to express their worry — sometimes only in private, but sometimes also in public. Moral concern is my subject here. You might call it nosiness, but that word carries negative connotations that are too quick for my purpose. Anyway, moral concern goes far beyond nosiness: it is not just an interest in other people’s beliefs and behaviors or a readiness to talk about them; it is also an eagerness to improve both. Moral concern is different from compassion, which describes a sympathetic engagement with other people’s physical or material well-being — with those who are sick or poor, or victims of flood or fire, or orphans, battered wives, disabled men and women.

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