Thursday, May 27, 2010

Ethics and Justice. Part 2: Is Human Nature Good or Bad?

Do you believe that human beings are born basically good, or basically bad? This is one of the most important questions you will ever ask in order to understand humanity.

I believe that we are born neither good nor bad - we are born innocent. “What about babies?” you might ask. Babies are not “good” in a moral sense. They're beautiful, adorable, cute, wonderful, and INNOCENT. “I want mommy; I want milk; I want to be held; and if you don’t do these things immediately, I will ruin your life!” We are born narcissists, preoccupied with ourselves. I know some of you are cringing, but be honest. Have you ever worked with young kids? Have you seen the cruelty kids inflict on one another? Consider the school playground in your neighbourhood. Consider a group of ten or eleven year olds where one kid is fat or clumsy or short, and you will witness cruelty that would shock most adults. People do not start out “good.” How many people have yelled at their kid, “Now listen - you share way too much! You have to learn to be more selfish.” The idea is absurd. How many times have you told your kids to say “thank you”? Gratitude doesn't come naturally. To insist that human nature is essentially good is to ignore the witness of scripture, and a mountain of evidence to the contrary – Auschwitz, the Soviet Gulags, Rwanda, Kosovo. But the good news is that we can do good, we can teach our children to do good, we can hold each other accountable, we can make the world a better place – starting in our own homes. We have to be made into good people.

So, to clarify – we are born neither good nor bad, we are born innocent. We are born with a blank slate. And if, as we grow older, we do not think about, and learn, and obsess about doing good, it is inevitable, as surely as the sun rises in the east, that we will do wrong. Goodness is a discipline that must be taught. The struggle to make the world a better place is not a battle between individuals and society, or between Christians and non-Christians, or between us and the government, or between free nations and totalitarian regimes – the struggle to make the world a better place happens every morning when you and I look in the mirror, when we walk out the front door, when we get into traffic, when we go to Wal Mart, when we interact with other people. The whole point of living a life of discipline and holiness is to fight against our nature.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Ethics and Justice. Part 1: Introduction to the Modes of Moral Reasoning

We, in the western world, live in an age that has been described as “Post-Christian.” In other words, we live in a time when the moral compass of Judeo-Christian values no longer guides people. It is no longer the default mode of human behaviour. We live in a morally confused time.

Here's an example: I am a big James Bond fan. I can name all the movies, in order, and analyze each one, and compare them to the books, and so on - its fascinating stuff. The Bond films follow a successful formula - glamorized violence, drinking, murder and mayhem, nudity, and gratuitous sex scenes. However, when “Die Another Day” was released, one scene in particular caused a firestorm of controversy. In one scene, James Bond lights up a cigar with a Cuban gangster. Anti-smoking groups around the world went hysterical! How dare he glamorize the evil of smoking? Illicit sex, drug use, murder, and theft receive far less condemnation than lighting up a cigar!

Another example of this state of moral confusion is PETA's (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) campaign to fight what they see as the evils of raising and killing chickens for food. Their campaign is called, "A Holocaust on Your Plate." Posters show chickens in a pen on one side, and on the other side is a picture of Jews cramped into a railway boxcar on the way to Auschwitz. When you morally equate the killing of chickens for food with the genocide of Europe's Jews, you are in a state of moral chaos!

Ethics and morality have shifted from the micro to the macro. For example, teenagers who think it perfectly okay to download music and software without paying (stealing) would never think about not recycling! So ethics are whatever is good for the planet, not what I have to do in relation to other people. When values are separated from God moral chaos ensues. Only a set of values independent of God could lead people to believe that people burned alive, slowly frozen to death, medically experimented on, stripped naked and machine-gunned family by family, forced to watch their children die, or slowly suffocated in gas-chambers suffer no more than chickens! This is the state of moral confusion that exists in a world where you and I are called on to make ethical decisions, to choose between right and wrong; good and evil, and then to act on those choices.

Imagine that you are a Senior in college. You are about to graduate. All your hard, diligent work is about to pay off. You are engaged to the prettiest girl in the school, and you’re planning to get married as soon as you graduate – her mother is already planning the wedding. And money is no problem anymore – after four years of Ramen noodles and cold pizza for breakfast, you have a job lined up. An advertising agency has offered you a position in their marketing department with a starting salary of $80 000, and to make the deal really sweet, because you have been such a great student, and because they recognize your potential, they are throwing in a new BMW as your company car. But, of course, all this – the marriage, the job, the money, the car, the respect – depends entirely on your graduating. No graduation, and its all off – a deal breaker.

And so you go in to register for your final semester. You do one final degree audit, and your advisor tells you that you missed a Freshman Literature class that is required, so you’ll need to take it. You reluctantly sign up because you need to graduate. Now understand that this class has nothing to do with your major - business and marketing. You sign up for an American literature class in which you study that great novel – Moby Dick, which you have to read in its entirety. But you’re too busy with other things – really important things, to actually read the book, so what do you do? Well, you watch both movies – the old one, and the new Patrick Stewart one, you read the Cliff notes, but you do not actually read the book. And then comes the final exam, and you are prepared. You know all about Moby Dick. This is going to be an easy A – a great ending to your stellar academic career. However, when you get the exam you notice there is only one question: “Did you read the book?” And it is required that you answer truthfully. The teacher makes a very moving speech about honesty, and integrity, and self-respect, and honour. “Did you read the book?”

Now let’s consider your actions:

1) If you answer truthfully and say, “no,” you will fail the exam, not graduate, lose the job, lose the BMW, and ruin the wedding plans.
2) If you say “yes,” you will be lying, dishonouring yourself; you will be guilty of purposeful deception – something the Bible strongly condemns!

What would you do?

I brought up this scenario to illustrate the kinds of ethical dilemmas we face everyday. Not terribly important, not life or death. Our decisions will not affect millions of people. Do we pay the nickel for the mint at the restaurant checkout, or do we just take it and walk out? Those are the types of ethical decisions most people face everyday.

There are really two modes of moral reasoning that we’re going to explore in this series:

1) Consequentialist moral reasoning. Here morality is located in the consequences of an act. Right or wrong depends on the OUTCOME.
2) Categorical moral reasoning. Here morality is located in certain categorical duties and rights, regardless of the consequences or outcome.

My purpose in this series is for us to look within ourselves and ask, “What kind of person am I?” Moral people, when faced with a decision of right or wrong do not ask, “Now what’s the right thing to do? What rule applies here?” They ask, “What kind of person am I? How has faith in God shaped my character?” Moral people will do the right thing instinctively because they are moral people, and because their value system is grounded in the life and character of God.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Set Me Free!

What is freedom? Much of our political philosophy as Americans is based on the presupposition that all people yearn to “breath free.” This is what it means to be created in the Image of God. We are “endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This is the trinity of choice. Freedom, we reason, must therefore be the absence of obstacles to doing what we want. But what if freedom has a much more stringent moral dimension?

Much of human activity vis-à-vis our notions of freedom involve seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. But this way of living is not really free – it is simply serving our desires. Let me give you an example. Last week two of my students took me to Yogurtland – a new, self-serve frozen yogurt store. They have multiple flavors, and you are “free to choose” any flavor or combination of flavors. Here are some flavors I could choose from: vanilla, strawberry, pistachio, peanut butter, green tea, and pumpkin pie. Of those flavors, the only ones that appealed to me where strawberry and pistachio. In yogurt form, the other flavors are nasty! So my “choice” at the yogurt stand was simply satisfying a built-in preference, a preference which I never chose to begin with. There is nothing wrong with acting according to our built-in preferences and desires, but it is not acting freely.

So, can one be held morally responsible for actions that fall outside of our ability to choose freely? Suppose I am pushed from the roof of a ten-story building and land on another person and kill that person. I cannot be held morally responsible for their death since I cannot choose to not follow the law of gravity. Think about the language you speak? Did you choose English? Did someone who was born in Russia choose to speak Russian? Of course not! What about your set of beliefs? What about your religious identity? Given that we inherit genetic defects from our parents, do we really choose to be healthy – or obese, or depressed? The truth is that we have far less choice than we realize.

But how far can we take this way of thinking about freedom and choices vis-à-vis moral responsibility? If someone is molested as a child, for example, can they be held morally responsible for deviant behavior as an adult? Here, then, is the link between freedom and morality. To act freely in a moral sense is not simply to choose the best means to reach a pre-existing end (the satisfaction of built-in desires). To act freely is to choose a new end for its own sake. This ability to rise above our instincts is what sets humans apart from animals. Back to Yogurtland. True freedom of choice is rejecting my desire to eat pistachio over pumpkin pie, walk out of the store, fast for a day, and then send $50 to feed hungry children in Africa.

Monday, May 03, 2010

MLK Nobel Peace Speech - 1964

Watch this, and really listen. This speech is timeless, and should give you chills as long as there is injustice in this world!