Ethics & Morality Archives

Nuts in ignorance

“Anaphylaxis is an acute multi-system severe type I hypersensitivity reaction.” Such a reaction is brought on by the human body reacting to an allergen, or allergens, which it perceives as poisonous. Those persons, who happen to have a hypersensitivity towards certain allergens, such as peanuts, will experience an allergic reaction upon exposure to said allergens. The reaction, which runs in a cascade manner, has the potential to progress into anaphylactic shock, a condition where the body’s airways are swelled and constricted, and cardiac arrest occurs. In other words, if left immediately untreated, a person going into anaphylactic shock will most likely die.

Enter a post at both hellinahandbasket and Chicago Boyz in which James Rummel likens the banning of peanuts from commercial airline flights as one example of our leaning towards a nanny-state environment. From the Chicago Boyz post,

I’m voicing my bemusement over this situation because I just heard that there are tentative plans to have the US government ban all peanuts on commercial flights.

No more peanuts for you, you healthy bastard! Your inflight snack, which is nothing more than an ounce or two of roasted nuts, might cause the poor bastard sitting next to you to keel over from the odor!

My private charity for 18 years was a free self defense course for violent crime survivors, and I specialized in the elderly and disabled. I don’t think anyone can credibly claim that I am unsympathetic to the plight of those suffering from disabilities.

But banning peanuts because someone sitting somewhere on an entire airplane might be allergic? If there are people out there that are so hypersensitive to something so prevalent in our society, then they should be living inside of a bubble somewhere. If the problem is so deadly, their bodies so sensitive, then they could be passing someone in the street who ate a peanut butter sandwich and die in their tracks!

Now I read James on a pretty regular basis. He’s very level headed. While I can understand his frustration at the notion of losing access to airline peanuts, albeit for a few hours at a time for however many (or few) times he travels by air, I do take exception towards his attitude about those persons who do have a medically confirmed hypersensitivity towards peanuts (to be specific). His expecting someone so hypersensitive to live in a bubble is tantamount to expecting his disabled, elderly students, confined to wheelchairs / walkers, to stay in their homes and not bother the rest of us able-bodied persons to accommodate them as we get on with our daily business.

Yet, why the push for banning allergens, such as peanuts, from airline flights? In a word, time. As I mentioned earlier, the anaphylactic shock reaction is a cascade function, which is neither initiated or limited simply by the amount of allergen perceived. Therefore, reactions can occur with minute contact and reactions, once started, can progress into full anaphylactic shock. Once such a reaction occurs, treatment with epinephrine must be immediate. Those individuals who are diagnosed with hypersensitivity typically carry two doses of epinephrine with them at all times. However, while these injections provide immediate reversal of the allergic reaction, their effectiveness is limited in time (~30 minutes). Hence, it may be necessary to provide the individual with additional medical care.

This is why you see advocacy for limiting or banning allergens from airline flights and you don’t see advocacy for banning peanuts from, say, baseball games. I doubt that people, who are hypersensitive to peanuts, would choose to attend a major league baseball game, what with the bags of peanuts flying about. However, if they were to make the poor decision to attend such a game, and if they were to find themselves in anaphylactic shock, then a call to 911 would typically find paramedics at their side within minutes. The differences between the airline flight and the baseball game should be clear:  need vs. want, non-accessible vs. accessible medical facilities.

A commenter, emfdl, at hellinahandbasket, states,

Ban ‘em for all I care; I take my own peanut butter crackers with me when I fly. And I’m sorry, but if someone has that big a problem with an allergy, best they should stay in their air controlled bubble and let the rest of the world get on with life.

I don’t know who the person is, but if he truly believes that statement, then he’s an ignorant fool. And heaven help the likes of emfdl if they take that attitude while amongst me and my loved ones who suffer from allergic hypersensitivity.

Whenever I’ve heard of someone suffering a heart attack, while onboard an airline flight, it seems that the flight always diverts to the closest airport in order to provide that individual with the care they need. Rather than write-off individuals, with medically confirmed hypersensitivity, shouldn’t we extend them the same level of concern we do to other disabilities?

Also ref: The Peanut Allergy Answer Book

Bleg: Some N.T. Passsages

One week from Saturday, I’m giving an oral final/homily to a (late vocations) N.T. class that I’m taking. I had a suggestion to do my homily concentrating on the topic of tolerance. Right now I’m thinking of starting (and wrapping up?) with a look at the section in John in which Jesus confronts the crowd and those who would stone the prostitute.

What I’m asking for here is other N.T. verses and sections in which the theme of tolerance is significant.

Thanks much.

A SCOTUS Ruling Question

So, minors can’t be given a life sentence. A kid under 18 commits a completely heinous and extensive serious of assaults and he’s by law now going to be out again at some point? Do you think that’s a good idea?  He just has to “not kill” his victims, say he “just” rapes girls and amputates their arms and legs. Still think he shouldn’t get a life sentence? Is that a useful or meaningful restriction? 

The Big Commission Thang

Today we find the announcement that Mr Obama and the White House are launching a commission to figure out what happened in the oil spill.

I predict the same thing will happen as is occurring with the financial crash … more Democrat stupidity is what will happen. And no. I don’t expect that “if this was a GOP President and Congress” there would be any lack of GOP stupidity. But … today we have a Democratic President and Congress so they own the stupidness (which isn’t a word … stupid mess?)

What is occurring with the financial crash you ask that is evidence of Democrat stupidity in action? A commission was launched to study the causes of the financial meltdown. And the report on the findings of that commission is due in three months. Yet today and not in three months time the Democrats are rushing to put in place 1,400 pages “redefining” and restructuring how banking is done in the country … before the results of the study are out.

So here’s my prediction. That similarly there will be an exhaustive and complete restructuring of the oil industry and how it operates pushed through with great fanfare. Well in advance and like the financial package completely and obviously ignoring the results of the commission and any study launched with much fanfare.

Now the argument that the politically charged studies of this nature produce no meaningful results likely has merit. I think that argument is can find a lot of good historical backing and that later careful studies done show that those initial high stakes commissions produce results which are worse than a random stab at the cause or answer. But … if that is the case, then the news about this new commission is just yet another great big waste of taxpayer money. If we had a press corps with cojones, there’d be hard questions asked about the nature and expected effectiveness of such a commission which highlights the failures of the same in the past and pointing out essentially that “isn’t this commission just a way of pretending you’re doing something useful when you aren’t?”

It is not necessary for the beltway buffoons to be experts in oil drilling. It is in fact impossible for them to do so, they lack the time, the resources, and any incentive to do so. What would be good is for the beltway to get a clue about regulation. Regulators work when they have an personal stake and an incentive in regulating well. Oil drilling safety regulators would far better being beholden to insurers and not the platform operators. In the financial world, there is much noise about the problems with bond/security ratings companies getting their money from the bond issuers themselves. The (wrong) government solution is to have the government pay for (or in essence do) the ratings themselves. But that is just skewed in a different (and wrong) direction. It will cause bond ratings to skew for political purposes which are just as inaccurate. Inaccurate ratings are the problem. The solution of “who should” pay for the ratings is the same as the answer to the question “who most clearly depends on accurate ratings?” That is the same agent that should be paying for the ratings. In coal mines, the canaries might be said to be the ones wanting to be hiring the safety commission. In general the person or agents that have the most at stake, who depend the most keenly and sharply on regulation to get it right should be paying and funding said regulation (it should be noted that this is a quite different group from those who directly oppose the activity in question).

Our Unhappy Political and Religious Discourse

From a comment:

In Mark’s post-modern relativistic world it appears almost impossible for anyone on the right to say anything untrue. Likewise there’s almost nothing Obama can say that can’t be ret-conned into a lie.

In the above, the accusation leveled at myself is likely a charge made reflexively whenever Mr Boonton (or likely any number of interlocutors from the left) sees someone on the right suggesting that a phrase or word can be taken in more than one way. This is noted in the wake of the particular history of post-modernism/quasi-Derridan theories of language and as a result of the rejection of the same by conservatives. The ironic thing here is that the accusation of this sort attempts to at the same time defend relativism, i.e., multiple meanings while at the same time force a particular meaning to be established.

Foucault and Derrida, as is my understanding, suggest that fixing and setting the meaning of words and phrases, fixing the primary hermenuetic if you will, is an act of power and that furthermore there is no intrinsic meanings for things beyond being an expression of power. While this is undoubtedly a simplification at the same time has the problem of getting the matter exactly wrong.

Meanings are fixed … but their particular assignment to particular words is not. When one says something the intention, the meaning is the one thing which is fixed and not a thing captured or expressed fundamentally in and via particular words. The act of speaking and then of hearing is a distortion on the original meaning (or web of meanings) which is being expressed. Conversation is one aid to the exercise of transmitting this which allows one to correct and refine the transmission. This is of course an exercise made more complicated by the fact that the idea reflected back is itself distorted by the act of expression by the receiver. If speaking is a lossy transmission of one’s thought to another. When you converse and try to get your meaning across, discussion is the act of trying to correct the image of your idea into another’s mind through the quadruple layers of distortion (thought -> spoken words then perceived words -> thoughts with a reflection).

What perchance does this have to do with the title selected for this particular essay? Well, in our political discourse peculiar (particular?) assumptions are made about what phrases mean which are normally misinterpreted by the other side and which make our discourse more contentious than it would normally be. One of the common irritants between parties then aligns along the continual frustration which this engenders. One says a thing to express one idea and by the other’s reaction and comments it is clearly misunderstood. Furthermore as one clarifies and attempts to more clearly state and restate the original point one either gets nowhere or the act of restatement is interpreted as an attempt at “changing” what one originally said.

Flipping Theodicy Sans Pangloss

Jim Anderson considers my turning the Theodicy question around. He suggests that this, in essence, means this is the “best of all possible worlds.” Now I suppose that could be a charge put to an omnipotent Good God, that is if this is not a Panglossian utopia … why not? But my claim in flipping theodicy was weaker than that. Let me try to isolate more abstractly (or succinctly) the question I had posed.

  1. God wishes the love of his creatures. Love cannot be coerced his creatures must be free willed.
  2. Following Kass’ arguments in The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis from Genesis 1, creation is (and should therefore be) reasonable, that its workings comprehensible to rational creatures.

So, we have a rationally understandable universe in which creatures within it can do evil things if they choose. The ‘trap’ here for your omnipotent God wanting to prevent evil is the brute force approach is unworkable. That is if somehow an evil person, say SW (Snidely Whiplash), is prevented by deus ex machina or Rube Goldbergian coincidence every time he attempts acts of gratuitous violence they fail that this will make it impossible for a rational person to reject God.

Mr Anderson brings 6 points to bear.

  1. His first point is one of imagination. He cannot imagine a rational universe with free willed actors without evil. He asks if his failure of imagination “imagine a world you can’t imagine” is a problem.
  2. A “rigorously logical attempt will be confounded by the Butterfly Effect” … is an objection I don’t understand.
  3. Point three (that there might be too much gratuitous evil in the world) argues that this is likely not the “best of all possible words”, a point I am not defending.
  4. Point four reflects on point 3.
  5. His fifth point is incomplete, considering that an “inversion of the Ontological Argument” might be necessary when considering the inversion of the Theodicy problem.
  6. Is a self-directed ad hominem. That is, the evil in the world reflects really really poorly on us men and if it is indeed necessary it is callous to think that men have been, perhaps, constructed so that we were more naturally nice fellows.

This last point offers perhaps a clue as to where we might find a better universe, that is one populated by men less inclined to do evil?

The comments in his post trend toward mathematical thinking and I’ll offer one mathematical comparison. A school of mathematics is not happy with the method of proof by contradiction. A proof by contradiction demonstrates a fact not by construction but by demonstrating that a thing is impossible without really pointing to exactly why, i.e., by demonstrating that implications of a thing lead to a contradiction.

This “turnaround” of theodicy is perhaps similar, in that it suggests that assuming the opposite that is that a better universe is possible leads to a problem, that is our constructions of better universes have inherent contradictions, i.e., SW is magically ineffective.

Why I Oppose the HCR Bill: Promises Made

I wrote last Friday about "3rd rails" in American politics; programs like Social Security and Medicare that, no matter how wasteful, politicians can’t substantially deal with.  The reason is that the government has made promises, people have reordered their lives around those promises, and thus any attempt to change the conditions of those promises is met with vehement opposition.

This, then, is related to the eternal life of government programs.  Part of the reason some of these programs live on is because the promises made and the responsibility to live up to them and honor them.  The problem is, we have to honor them even if doing so bankrupts us (or, more specifically, future generations).  We have to honor them even if the money could be spent more efficiently another way, getting the same job done only with better results.  We are already saddled with debt because of some of these huge programs, but are also saddled with current and future promised payments that we can’t afford now, and thus will have to tell our children to make good on.

Is that moral?

Some have said that it’s immoral not to take care of the elderly and infirmed, but by doing it on the backs of our children and grandchildren, is that really the more moral route?  With the health care reform bill, we are making promises that future generations must pay for.  And we are making promises that they may not be able to afford at all after this generation has already spent their inheritance on previous promises made.

And, as I noted previously, no matter what you hear from any politician on how much this or that program will cost, it will cost more.  History is strewn with so many examples of this that anyone believing these numbers is utterly ignorant, willfully or otherwise. 

Making promises binds us to honor them, which is a good thing.  But making promises with an inefficient bureaucracy binds us to a millstone that will continue to take us down with its unsustainable load, and we can’t afford that.

On Manliness

Today in a BSA related discussion the following statement was made,

…and that’s without even getting into the dubious idea of “manliness” — the idea that there is one right way to be a man.

and to this I have to agree with the BSA. There is in fact only one right way to “be a man”, this is not a multiple choice exam. Examine for a moment, the BSA Scout Law:

Scout Law

A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly,
courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty,
brave, clean, and reverent.

which pretty much nails it. One has expressed manliness by (a) being a man and (b) living those 12 virtues.

There is no “alternate” or “other” way to be a man.

Pro-Choice Columnist Calls Out Intolerant Left

Few things have caused as much controversy in recent days as Tim Tebow’s upcoming pro-life Super Bowl Ad. Abortion advocates have been critical of Tebow and of CBS’ decision to air the spot during the upcoming game.
But the most remarkable thing I’ve seen yet is this column from Washington Post writer Sally Jenkins. Ms. Jenkins takes the abortion advocates to task for their criticism of the young football star:

I’m pro-choice, and Tebow clearly is not. But based on what I’ve heard in the past week, I’ll take his side against the group-think, elitism and condescension of the “National Organization of Fewer and Fewer Women All The Time.” For one thing, Tebow seems smarter than they do.

Tebow’s 30-second ad hasn’t even run yet, but it already has provoked “The National Organization for Women Who Only Think Like Us” to reveal something
important about themselves: They aren’t actually “pro-choice” so much as they are pro-abortion. Pam Tebow has a genuine pro-choice story to tell. She got pregnant in 1987, post-Roe v. Wade, and while on a Christian mission in the Philippines, she contracted a tropical ailment. Doctors advised her the pregnancy could be dangerous, but she exercised her freedom of choice and now, 20-some years later, the outcome of that choice is her beauteous Heisman Trophy winner son, a chaste, proselytizing evangelical.

Pam Tebow and her son feel good enough about that choice to want to tell people about it. Only, NOW says they shouldn’t be allowed to. Apparently NOW feels this commercial is an inappropriate message for America to see for 30 seconds, but women in bikinis selling beer is the right one. I would like to meet the genius at NOW who made that decision. On second thought, no, I wouldn’t.

There’s not enough space in the sports pages for the serious weighing of values that constitutes this debate, but surely everyone in both camps, pro-choice or pro-life, wishes the “need” for abortions wasn’t so great. Which is precisely why NOW is so wrong to take aim at Tebow’s ad.

Be sure to read the whole thing. Hats off to Ms. Jenkins for calling out the intolerant critics on the Left who wish to demonize the Tebows. Though we may not agree on whether abortion is wrong we can at least agree that we can respectfully disagree with each other.

When aggressors receive honor

Imagine, if you will, a documentary being broadcast on PBS, the gist of which pertains to details surrounding an attack on the United States; an attack which claimed almost 3,000 American lives. Also imagine the producers of said documentary extolling the sacrifice made by those who took part, and perished, in the attack.

No, I’m not describing an apologetic for the events of 9/11, but the recent PBS NOVA episode, Killer Subs in Pearl Harbor. From NOVA’s website,

NOVA dives beneath the waters of Pearl Harbor to trace provocative new clues to one of the most tragic events of World War II—the sinking of the USS Arizona. More than 1,000 crew members perished in the greatest single loss of life in United States naval history. For decades, it has been thought that a bomb dropped by a Japanese aircraft sank the Arizona. But the discovery of a group of Japanese midget subs in and around Pearl Harbor has raised questions about the battleship’s final hours.

While the program primarily consisted of historical investigation, pertaining to the events of December 7, 1941, I was taken aback by remarks made at the conclusion of the episode in which the remains of one of the midget submarines was found. From the show transcript,

NARRATOR: Today Admiral Ueda visits the wreck of midget sub number 5 to honor the remains of pilot Sadamu Kamita and commander Masaji Yokoyama.

KAZUO UEDA: Mr. Kamita, here is your brother. Here is Mr. Dewa who accompanied you to Pearl Harbor.

NARRATOR: A cup full of sand is carefully removed from the seafloor, beneath the sealed control room of the midget sub, and given to Admiral Ueda to take home.

AKIRA IRIYE: The remains or the spirits of the dead, ah, from the submarine would now be reunited with the sand.

NARRATOR: Admiral Ueda presents the sand to Petty Officer Dewa. He brings it to a memorial service for Japanese sailors who lost their lives in midget submarines.

AKIRA IRIYE: The sand that was brought back from Hawaii is purified now, becomes Japanese soil, so to speak.

NARRATOR: For Kichiji Dewa, the mission is at last over. For Parks Stephenson, it’s always been about bringing the facts to light.

PARKS STEPHENSON: I want their accomplishment known, so that their sacrifice will have meaning.

NARRATOR: Time may yet uncover new details in the history of Pearl Harbor. And each step we take towards the truth of the heroic and tragic events of that day, not only honors the people who lived it, but serves future generations, as the real story is finally revealed.

(emphasis added)

Color me unimpressed, but I find no reason to honor, as sacrifice, the actions of those who were responsible for the deaths of 2,400 U.S. personnel, the subsequent deaths of those U.S. personnel who fought in the Pacific theater of World War II, and those civilians, throughout the Pacific, who fell to the bloody actions of the Empire of Japan at that time.

It seems to have become politically correct to view aggressors upon our land with a sympathetic hand, in some attempt to excuse their actions as either psychologically or culturally motivated or, worse yet, somehow caused by our own actions (read: WE are the guilty party). Indeed, Mark Steyn raised such issues in his book America Alone (which I reviewed, here). As I wrote,

Steyn quotes an Arabic proverb, “A falling camel attracts many knives,” and then applies it to Europe. It is falling and, as it falls, it continues to be attacked… We’ve feminized our approach through our multi-culturalism: we ask “why?”, we try to understand, we sympathize, we concede, and we apologize – and these are all seen as signs of weakness.

Yes, and now this sympathetic sentiment is being expressed in our view of history. Oliver Stone recently remarked that,

Stalin, Hitler, Mao, McCarthy — these people have been vilified pretty thoroughly by history,

And when comparing two warring factions, motives and actions are melted into one as both the aggressor and those who are forced to fight to retain their freedom are seen as essentially the same. In the book, Flags of our Fathers, we are made witness to descriptions of the atrocities which occurred during the World War II battle of Iwo Jima. In a post I wrote for, I quoted the book’s author, James Bradley,

The Japanese army fought using the most ruthless tactics of any combatant in World War II. Their practice of “no surrender” meant they were unpredictable, as they fought far beyond the limits of a Westerner…

The Japanese soldier turned all Western logic on its head. If surrounded, a German would surrender; a Japanese would fight on. If wounded and disabled, an Englishman would allow himself to be taken prisoner; a Japanese would wait and blow himself and his captor up. The Marines could not treat the Japanese soldiers as they would hope to be treated. Their only choice was to exterminate him.

While the book was made into a movie, by Clint Eastwood, a companion movie, Letters from Iwo Jima, was also made and received more critical acclaim. Letters from Iwo Jima recounted the battle from the Japanese perspective, based on letters from the Japanese soldiers themselves. Hailed as an unprecedented demonstration of worldly citizenship, by Eastwood, the movie was also praised for humanizing “the enemy”, and paying honorable tribute to ill-fated men. Indeed, at, in a post listing the movie reviewer’s top 100 films of the 2000s, Letters from Iwo Jima is listed at #36 as an “other side of the story” companion piece to Flags of our Fathers.

Wow. I can’t wait to hear the “other side of the story” regarding Mohamed Atta and the other 18 terrorists responsible for the attacks on 9/11.

Our culture is deeply confused if it cannot distinguish between good and evil. To make such a distinction is not to diminish the humanity of the Japanese soldiers of World War II or of the Islamic terrorists of 9/11; such a distinction is, in fact, a deep recognition of the humanity of these individuals. Humans, created in the image of God can, and do, engage in evil acts. And the fact that there are two sides to a story does not mandate that both of those sides are valid.

Meta-Ethics, Memory, and the Torture Question

The topic of torture and Christian ethics is now a heated discussion topic at Evangel over at the First Things blog cluster. I’d like to ask a (perhaps naive) question about torture. Where is the harm located? What ethical principles are being violated by torture?

Sixteen years ago, I contracted appendicitis and was in the hospital three days recovering from surgery. During that recovery, I was receiving intravenous pain medication (Demerol I believe) to ameliorate discomfort after the procedure. One one occasion my wife returned to the room after being out for some hours running errands. She asked me if I had any telephone calls in her absence. I replied in the affirmative. She asked who and inquired about details about what had been discussed. I had no clue. The pain medication had severely impacted my ability to retain memory of events. It is likely that if not present in the modern pharmacological arsenal there are drugs which completely block short/long term memory formation these drugs could quickly be developed given modern technology and reasonable expectations of the abilities of modern medical technology.

So my question is the following: How does memory relate to harm? Does memory have anything to do with the harm or wrong which we associate with what is wrong with torture?

An interrogator uses “waterboarding” or similar techniques which do no lasting physical damage. The subject breaks under the stress and confesses and talks freely for hours for questioning afterwards. Is the harm or evil we associate with that occurrence changed if the subject is incapable of recalling that it occurred? What if both the subject and the interrogator have no memory of the event … that only in some small corner of intelligence archives exist transcripts of the event afterwards. Does that change the moral calculus or not? Why?

What does continuing to say that this act is wrong imply about your meta-ethics? Are there non-deontological arguments that still hold this to be wrong? For it seems to be that consequential arguments against using this sort of drug and method is likely very weak, i.e., the consequences afterwards are negligible and are likely outweighed if there are any appreciable benefits.

Because They Are No More

Today the church remembered the “slaying of the holy infants”, a voice heard crying in Ramah. Today living in as we are in the period of late modernity in the shadow of the great ideological killings of the 20th century (and likely waiting in the lull before the great ideological murders and atrocities of the 21st) this remembrance has no little relevance to our life today.

A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.
– Matthew 2:18

Recently I viewed the Polish film-maker Andrzej Wajda’s film Katyn. Like the verse above (and unlike much of the remembrance of the atrocities of the 20th century) the focus is not on the event and the slaying but on the impact on the families and specifically the mothers (and women married to those ) who were killed.

This raises for me a question, to which I will not offer any answer. When we remember the slain would it be better for our remembrance to concentrate our attention not on the specific details of those slain and their particular lives but to focus instead our attention on Rachel, i.e., the mothers and wives of those slain. For example, in our recent US history, the 9/11 monument and memorials to not denote and focus on those who were killed but those who mourn and are left behind?

Of The Hero and the Act

John Mark Reynolds takes another tack on the question regarding the heroes in our midst and not in the distant past, although he mentions at least one of them as well.

One approach to the question of the hero is to start with the particular. That is to say, before you have a hero, you have heroic acts. The acts of our heroes are, one might suggest, those momentary flashes, those instances where the ecstatic is made plain for the outside observer. And here the term ecstatic refers to eks – static, the taking oneself outside of oneself. He, in the act, transcends the ordinary and the merely human and displays something more. For it is in these actions a glimpse of the possible, the true, the good, or the beautiful is made plain for the ordinary observer.

Our popular heroes then are people who are gifted enough to regularly display these transcendent moments, normally only in their field of endeavour, such as the football arena of the Brett Favre example used in the prior posts by Mr Reynolds. These individuals, our athletic and artistic heroes regularly perform inspiring acts. Yet, at the same time today’s press revels in revealing that these people have feet of clay and makes no bones about exposing their weaknesses and foibles.

Socrates was informed by the oracle at Delphi that he was the “wisest of men.” After some deliberation and discussion, he arrives at the notion that his wisdom consists of realizing, in part, that being an expert in one thing does not confer expertise outside of the realm in which one is skilled. And this is essentially the equivalent error wherein we attribute excellence and heroism to a ball player off the field of play. This is not as stupid as it sounds. To acquire that level of excellence and expertise requires a number of virtues including diligence,  perseverance, and other qualities of character which are indeed excellent virtues. Yet, the fame and fortune comes with a host of temptations and lures which often bring vices which overshadow or at the very least discolor those same virtues. Achilles excellence at war likely was not accompanied by similar excellence at law, at medicine, or in the nursery. Likewise excellence on the athletic field does not transfer or imply to excellence in ethics.

The first suggestion would be that not fall into the common error regarding our heroes is we confuse the moments which give us glimpses of the good and ascribe that same goodness to an otherwise ordinary man. But there remains a problem. When a scrambling Brett Favre zipps a frozen rope across the grain, a Steve Nash fires a no-look pass in transition, or a Hillary Hahn unfolds a flawless effervescent cadenza … it is that act itself which we should laud, idealize, remember and fixate upon … and perhaps the person not so much.

The other problem, for the Christian, is how to frame and to put into perspective this glimpse of the good, the true, or the beautiful into the framework of virtues extolled by Gospel, Beatitude, and Psalter.  Bridging the gulf, if gulf exists, between that athletic or artistic moment and living a life of love, charity, apatheiea, and humility … is at the very least an exercise for another essay.

Dependent vs Interdepenent

In recent discussions around the term Dependent Rational Animals, a book I hope to return to reading and not just skimming the first few chapters, commenter Boonton and I went back and forth a bit over the use of the term “Dependent.” Mr Boonton argued for inter-dependent instead of “dependent.” In those discussions I had argued that dependence of all necessarily implies interdependence so that the insistence of the “inter-” was superfluous.

But, on reflection, I think that this is wrong. Preferring the term dependent to interdependent is more than an acknowledgement that dependence (of all) necessarily implies inter-dependence. In one of his objections it was pointed out that dependence brings to mind a wife and children depending on a wage-earner. Yet this is exactly right. We are all exactly like the child or the wife depending on others for so much. The notion that the provider in that situation is not dependent is the crux of my mistake. Humans are social creatures. We depend on social interactions to bring out the human nature in each of us. The independent wage earner with a flock of dependants who look to him for sustenance is the myth. There is no (truly) independent person. This isn’t to deny ethical/moral autonomy and independence as a thing to esteem and to acknowledge. But that independence is contained within the context of a network of social and physical dependence.

For further grist for the mill, I refer to this excerpt from a publisher’s blurb on the aforementioned book:

n Dependent Rational Animals, Alasdair MacIntyre compares humans to other intelligent animals, ultimately drawing remarkable conclusions about human social life and our treatment of those whom he argues we should no longer call “disabled.” MacIntyre argues that human beings are independent, practical reasoners, but they are also dependent animals who must learn from each other in order to remain largely independent. To flourish, humans must acknowledge the importance of dependence and independence, both of which are developed in and through social relationships. This requires the development of a local community in which individuals discover their own “goods” through the discovery of a common Good.

It’s not often you hear me disagree with something that Greg Koukl, from Stand to Reason, has written or said. Indeed, I heartily agree with his series on Decision Making and the Will of God. However, on his 27 September 2009 radio show, he made a commentary regarding utilitarian decision making and how it is applied to a specific moral dilemma scenario. His commentary was lengthy, and I recommend you listen to it in its entirety (begins at approx. 1:01:20 into the radio show). He presented a scenario, which was presented to him, as follows:

A group of the French Resistance, including families with infants, are hiding from Nazi occupiers. One of the infants wails inconsolably and will, more than likely, alert the approaching Nazis. The infant’s life is terminated – probably by smothering the child so it’s not making noise… to improve the group’s chances of survival. But a moral imperative: Murder is wrong, has been violated. A case for utilitarianism could be made. However, is this not a case of moral relativism and, even though it’s horrific, something that’s necessary?

In responding to the scenario, he concluded that it would be expedient for the group to murder the infant. Take note that I am summarizing his statements here and, to reiterate, one should listen to his commentary in full for a complete understanding of what he stated. His reasoning included (my summary),

Utilitarianism as a standard model of moral action is relativistic (the end always justifies the means, but the end isn’t always a moral good). However, this does not mean that considering the means to an end does not entail legitimate considerations.

Facing the scenario as an objectivist: a decision has to be made, taking into consideration relative circumstances and utilitarian aspects.

This is a moral dilemma in that there are only two choices and each of the two choices, in isolation, would be wrong to do. Note: taking circumstances into consideration, in your moral decision making, is not relativism. If it were, there would be no moral dilemma in this scenario.

In the case of this moral dilemma, the guiding principle is that human life has transcendent value and should be protected. In this situation the obligation to protect one innocent life (the baby’s) is in conflict to protect the lives of all the other people in the group.

Which decision does the greater good? The morally obligatory action would be to silence the baby, although difficult and tragic. The only other choice would be much worse (and the crying child’s life seems to be forfeit anyway).

It seems to me that, while Greg’s decision is based on an objectivist methodology, he has placed too much weight on the concept of the “greater good”. Is the greater good truly good when it encompasses betraying our commitment to certain moral truths? Despite any attempts at circumventing the rationale for the action, smothering the crying infant is still murder.

Consider the complications that arise when one envisions how the proposed scenario might actually play out. I realize that the scenario is carefully set up to invoke a moral dilemma, and that life is more complicated than the illustrations in our pre-packaged philosophical scenarios. However, a little tweaking of the scenario can also help illustrate some of the complications that may arise.

In Greg’s commentary he noted that the mother of the infant may not want to have the infant silenced (murdered). Yes, I think that would be a safe bet. Let’s run with that and suppose that not only does the mother not want her child killed, but she herself begins screaming when the majority of the group decide that is exactly what must be done. Not to worry, though, because while one of the larger males in the group rips the child out of the mother’s arms, a couple of other males wrestle her to the ground to stifle her screams. After the child is killed the mother, understandably so, cannot keep from crying… essentially the same problem faced earlier with her infant. Despite their pleas, and subsequent threats, the woman will not relent from her incessant mourning.


That would be the sound of her neck being broken so as to silence her. All, for the good of the group.

A moment later, in walks her husband who had been away from the group on reconnaissance. After seeing that both his wife and child have been summarily executed he begins a wild, and loud, fight with several of the males in the group.


That would be the sound of his throat being slit so as to silence him. All, for the good of the group.

Unreasonable? Well, consider a scenario where we have a group with 6 adults and 5 infants, in which all the infants are crying. Since 6 is greater than 5, are we justified in silencing the infants?

How about if the group has 5 adults and 6 infants, and all the infants are crying? Tough luck for the adults, I guess, because 5 is less than 6.

What would happen if the group consisted entirely of adults, yet one of them has a severe case of hay fever (anyone been in Oregon in the Spring? Ugh!). There the poor sap sits, sneezing and honking, obviously having forgotten to take his Claritin.

“Aaaa-choo! Aaaa-choo! Honnnk! Honnnk!”


And pity his poor neighbor suffering from a cold.

“Cough! Cough! Hack! Hack!”


At a certain point, I think, the greater good argument begins to crumble in on itself. It’s one thing to offer one’s self in sacrifice, and quite another to force an ultimate cost upon someone else. Is the good gained truly worthy of the act committed?

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