Beyond Clean Hands, Clear Conscience
In a recent presentation to Grace Farms Design for Freedom Working Group, Dr. Matthew Croasmun, our Faith Initiative Director, asks a gathering of global leaders and experts in the built environment, if “clean hands and a clear conscience” are sufficient goals in aiming to do good.
In his reflections, Dr. Croasmun invites architects, designers, and builders, to really consider what it means to design “a more humane future.” Here are Dr. Croasmun’s thoughts.
Ever since Sharon first began convening this group, I’ve been inspired by its mission: Designing a more humane future. Eliminating modern slavery in the built environment. It is a powerful moral vision. But, even or especially with a moral vision like this, there is danger. Design is a powerful tool, but it is also a dangerous one. The fundamental question is: what is our design goal? What are we optimizing for?
Perhaps we might swiftly answer that we’re aiming at clean hands and a clear conscience. Now, to be sure, clean hands and clear consciences aren’t bad goals. They are better, surely, than bloody hands and guilty consciences. But clean hands and clear consciences are dangerous goals, because they propose tempting shortcuts.
If we aim chiefly at a clear conscience, the tempting shortcut is ignorance—even, if it comes to it, a willful ignorance. We hear no evil, and see no evil, and, for just this reason, we do much evil.
If we aim chiefly at clean hands, the tempting shortcut is alienation and estrangement. We cordon off a dedicated space—our projects, our affairs—from which evil is expelled. Evil may well continue, but it does so at a distance. When we aim at clean hands, we are in danger of designing not a humane future for all but the veneer of moral virtue for a few—the latest and most exclusive luxury good, in which case “slave-free” simply joins the ranks of “gluten-” and “sugar-free.”
In the end, the shortcomings of clean hands and clear consciences are clear enough: these are goals for ourselves. In adopting them, we center ourselves in our so-called humanitarian efforts.
The antidote is a different set of goals that center the other, goals like liberation and human dignity—goals I know are celebrated in this group. These goals are much harder to achieve, but they are far more valuable. These are goods in which we ourselves might share, should we come to know ourselves as in a very real sense belonging to those whose dignity and liberty are threatened.
In the end, the choice between self and other is in an important sense a false one. We ought not aim at clean hands and clear consciences for ourselves, nor at liberation and human dignity for others, as though only their dignity is in jeopardy. In reality, our dignity, too, is threatened by our indifference to and estrangement from the suffering of our neighbors around the globe. Only in their liberation can we hope to find our own. Any dignity we might hope to secure will be shared. Any humanity we might hope to design will be something we share with one another.
With these goals in mind, we can hope to find something far more valuable than clean hands or a clear conscience: perhaps we will stumble our way into mutual flourishing. That’s a humane future worth designing.