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Originally published Wednesday, April 25, 2012 at 3:32 PM

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A moral realism grounded in faith

Far from being too idealistic, young social entrepreneurs are engaged in a realism that transcends cynicism, fatalism and moral ambiguity, writes Seattle Pacific University faculty member Bruce Baker.

Special to The Times

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DAVID Brooks visited Seattle to give a brilliant keynote address at the Downtown Business Breakfast hosted by Seattle Pacific University, after which he gave another brilliant public lecture on campus.

He obviously was paying attention as he listened to President Phil Eaton and students share their views on social responsibility. The buzz around SPU's Social Venture Plan Competition was in the air during his visit. Brooks was obviously taking notes, as can be seen in his column in The New York Times, "Sam Spade at Starbucks." [It appeared in The Seattle Times April 15 under the headline, "Idealism wrapped in a trench coat."]

Brooks' allusions to Seattle and SPU could hardly be missed by anyone who took part in his visit: "If you attend a certain sort of conference, hang out at a certain sort of coffee shop or visit a certain sort of university, you've probably run into some of these wonderful young people who are doing good."

From this opening sentence, Brooks goes on to argue that these young social entrepreneurs are too idealistic. He praises their uncynical, inspiring enthusiasm, but then chastises them for lacking moral realism.

No amount of social entrepreneurism will do much good, he says, "unless you are willing to confront corruption, venality and disorder head-on."

Brooks challenges the young social entrepreneurs to be more like the noir heroes of Dashiell Hammett — people like the Humphrey Bogart version of Sam Spade. These are moral realists, according to Brooks: people who know you can't draw a bright line between virtue and vice, people who cross unashamedly back and forth over that line doing "spotty things," he says, in order to fight "crime, corruption, fascism and communism" head-on, rather than running off to do good somewhere.

Brooks does well to plea for moral realism. We ought not to feel any self-righteousness on account of our good ventures. We ought to know better than that.

I believe we do know better than that, if I may speak on behalf of the SPU community. Brooks is quite right to argue for moral realism.

What greater moral realism is there than the faith on display in these young entrepreneurs? Can there be any moral realism stronger than the recognition that it takes faith to press on in spite of our brokenness? Is there any moral realism greater than the message that God's grace alone overcomes?

No amount of social do-good-ism can change that fact, and these young people know a truth that perhaps Sam Spade missed. What greater call to action can there be than that contained in the message, "inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me"?

If you take faith out of the equation, then yes indeed, you are left in precisely the sort of moral quandary painted in dire colors by Brooks' caricature of idealistic young Seattleites who believe they are out saving the world through good works. But this is to confuse self-righteousness with obedient responses to the paradoxical mandate to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Moral realism is healthy. We can thank Brooks for this reminder.

But let's not forget that the greatest realism the world has ever seen is found in the Gospel. This is a realism that does not shy away from doing good, even though the progress may be slow and hard to come by in the face of corruption. This is a realism that transcends the cynicism, fatalism and moral ambiguity of film noir heroes like Sam Spade.

After all, there is a profound difference between moral ambiguity and moral realism.

The Rev. Dr. Bruce Baker is an assistant professor of business ethics at Seattle Pacific University.

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