• Tag Archives ethics
  • The Problem of Competing Versions of the Truth

    Samain                                 Moon of the Winter Solstice

    Colds.  Yeccchhh.  Feels like another one coming on.  In the list of things to consider when theodicy is under issue, colds would be at the top of my list.  If God created a good world, why does it have the cold virus?  Or, yes, if you want to be more to the point, cancer or blood clots or the human propensity toward violence.

    Some people, read religious fundamentalists of all stripes, believe moral relativism, occasioned by secular humanist cynics or their equivalents, lies at the root of all social ills.  If people would just learn the commands of:  the Koran, Jesus, Hinduism, laissez-faire capitalism, Marxism, and FOLLOW them, then all the speed bumps and wild curves of history would iron out and we could get down to the smooth, orthopraxic life God or Allah or Vishnu or Adam Smith or Karl Marx intended.

    Without even delving into the particulars expected by each fundamentalist group, we can see immediately one of the chief problems with fundamentalism.  They can’t all be right.  In other words if the absolute tenets of, say, strict Calvinism and Wahabi Islam conflict, who’s got the right answer?  Marx or Smith?  Vishnu or the Pentecostal Christian?  To make the absolute claim, which does soothe the believer with apparent predictability, you also lay yourself open to the catastrophic consequences of error.

    Instead, colds come into the human body because the evolutionary process has created this dance between viral entities and,  in our case, mammals.  In the dance the virus hunts for a home with all the elements it needs to survive and reproduce.  The mammal’s body, as that home, tolerates its presence if it doesn’t throw things too out of whack, when it does.  Bam.  The body’s shock troops go into action.

    Is the virus bad?  No.  It just is.  Is our body’s response good?  Well, to us as an organism, bent on survival, yes, but, in the ongoing dynamics of life, no, even our body’s response just is.

    In the same wise human acts of all kinds can be judged according to criteria so certain, so dogmatic that they can be determined bad or good, sinful or salvific.  Trouble is, if you step outside that zone of certainty, then the same act may change its colors.

    Spare the rod and spoil the child is a good example.  In some fundamentalist Christian groups this dictum is taken as holy writ. This type of fundamentalist certainty is the one clear correlation with both child and domestic abuse.  Abuse is the evaluation of others outside the circle of fundamentalist dogma.

    This difficulty becomes even more trenchant, and even more pertinent, when we look from culture.  In the US and the West in general individual human rights trump collective decisions.  That is, genocide such as that carried out by the mercenaries of Moammar Qadafi, though state sanctioned, violated the human rights of those who resisted his government.

    In the East though human rights themselves are seen as collective, that is, the good of the whole comes before the individual.  This belief gets its strongest support in the traditional Asian family structure where each family members lives so as to strengthen the whole family.

    We in the West see this submersion of the individual in the larger whole as crushing liberty and freedom, the East sees us as leaning toward the irresponsible, selfish.  We tend to act in our  own self interest rather than the interest of the community, so our parents can’t count on us in their old age.  Even our children can’t count on us in our old age.  At least some of the time.

    So, who’s got the right of it?  One perspective says the right of it depends on location.  If you’re in the West, then the path of individual improvement and progress is right.  If you’re a contemporary Roman Catholic, then abortion is wrong and heterosexuality is good.

    Another perspective, one I hold, acknowledges the multiplicity of perspectives and sees the dialectical truths often illuminated by the conflicts between and among ethical systems as productive for our overall advance.  More on this later.  Gotta go sign a refinance document.



  • More on the Humanities

    Fall                             Waxing Blood Moon

    Walked the fence today, checking for limbs, plants I’d missed.  Sure enough, about a third of the way around a large fallen tree branch pressed against the chain link shorting the fence and creating a hissing, popping sound when nudged.  The air smelt of burnt plastic fibers.  A visit with the chain saw fixed that problem.  Later on I tightened up the rope from a place where it had sagged.  After turning the fence off of course and putting Rigel in her crate.

    This fence is a great metaphor, but for what I’ve not yet discerned.

    On a topic close to my heart a professor of English for forty years wrote this essay:  The Decline of the English Department. Mr. Chace places yet another shot across the bow of careerism and the practical major while trying to suss out just what went wrong.  He puts his finger on the fragmentation of the humanities into gender, race, media and technology studies as well as the lack of passion for books and the traditional humanities.  In general I appreciate a man who takes responsibility for the dismal thing that has happened and I like Mr. Chace’s posture in this piece.

    While I would like to blame the victims, too, the politically wracked departments attempting to right ancient wrongs in scant years by creating university departments, I find it lets off the hook the real culprit.  A relentless scanning of the horizon for opportunities to make money without regard to the social or environmental costs lies at the bottom of this debasement of education.

    Crass instrumentalism has invaded every aspect of our lives.   Witness the prosperity gospel.  The growth of the mega-church. The new business orientation of medicine where patients are now consumers and doctors employees.  The rank greed filleted for all to see as the great economic crisis unfolded last fall.  The loose expansion of credit with fine print so dense not even its creators understood it.  Partisan politics make the party a blunt instrument for personal and factional advancement rather than a representative tool for negotiating compromises amongst civilizations conflicting interests.  Professional sports now have contracts in the quarter of a billion dollar range.  Tens of millions are not unusual for catching or throwing a football.  Educators at the elementary and secondary levels now teach to the test, a strategy created to insure that they meet federal standards and that their students pass high stakes tests.

    It is this coarsening of the social fabric, gone from a workmanlike denim for the post World War II economy to a scratchy burlap in this age of the derivative, that has led to a pushing aside of any thing that does not promise economic or political gain.

    This is not new.  A friend of mine has a neighbor in his condominium who was hired to teach philosophy at West Point.  In the time period before he began teaching a widespread cheating scandal unfolded.  The honor code had no clothes.  Leadership at West Point told him, “We can’t believe it, but we just never thought to teach our students ethics.  You have to put together a group of experts and develop a curriculum.”  Ethics is one of those disciplines that you can be taught, that you can know well, and that will have no affect on you at all unless you have the will to apply it.

    It is not enough, in other words, to teach justice and critical thinking and wisdom and equality if there is no social will to honor them.  That social will comes from a shared conversation about our past, about our common destiny and our mutual responsibility.  Instrumental thinking places all the emphasis on results with means receiving attention only as they bend circumstance to the result.  This is a recipe for disaster as any historian, English or philosophy professor can tell you.  It is not new, it is not a new thing under the sun.  Rather it is a lesson learned by Moses when he came down from Mt. Sinai and found even his brother Aaron bowed before the golden calf.

    Judgment came then and it will come now.