Archive for the ‘ethics’ Category

What Is Man? by Mark Twain

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Interesting story. It’s a series of conversations between an old man and a young man. The old man posits that man is essentially a machine whose character is the product of his inborn temperament, outside influences, and nothing else. This makes us no different than animals. The young man tries to argue against these ideas, but all his arguments break down. Other interesting ideas include that there is no life-long search of truth, we only seek until we find something suitable and then spend the rest of our lives defending that truth; that our only goal is to satisfy our hunger for self-approval; and that all our virtues come from God.

It’s not a full book, but not super short, either. I think it took me a little over an hour to read.

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C.S. Lewis on Forgiveness

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“Mere Christianity”, Book 3, Chapter 7:

Select quotes:

Every one says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive, as we had during the war. And then, to mention the subject at all is to be greeted with howls of anger. It is not that people think this too high and difficult a virtue: it is that they think it hateful and contemptible. “That sort of talk makes them sick,” they say. And half of you already want to ask me, “I wonder how you’d feel about forgiving the Gestapo if you were a Pole or a Jew?”

So do I. I wonder very much. Just as when Christianity tells me that I must not deny my religion even to save myself from death by torture, I wonder very much what I should do when it came to the point. I am not trying to tell you in this book what I could do—I can do precious little—I am telling you what Christianity is. I did not invent it. And there, right in the middle of it, I find “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those that sin against us.” There is no slightest suggestion that we are offered forgiveness on any other terms. It is made perfectly dear that if we do not forgive we shall not be forgiven. There are no two ways about it. What are we to do?

It is going to be hard enough, anyway, but I think there are two things we can do to make it easier. When you start mathematics you do not begin with the calculus; you begin with simple addition. In the same way, if we really want (but all depends on really wanting) to learn how to forgive, perhaps we had better start with something easier than the Gestapo. One might start with forgiving one’s husband or wife, or parents or children, or the nearest N.C.O., for something they have done or said in the last week. That will probably keep us busy for the moment. And secondly, we might try to understand exactly what loving your neighbour as yourself means. I have to love him as I love myself. Well, how exactly do I love myself?

The real test is this. Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, “Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,” or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies as bad as possible? If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker.

If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black. Finally, we shall insist on seeing everything—God and our friends and ourselves included—as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred.

Now a step further. Does loving your enemy mean not punishing him? No, for loving myself does not mean that I ought not to subject myself to punishment—even to death. If one had committed a murder, the right Christian thing to do would be to give yourself up to the police and be hanged. It is, therefore, in my opinion, perfectly right for a Christian judge to sentence a man to death or a Christian soldier to kill an enemy. I always have thought so, ever since I became a Christian, and long before the war, and I still think so now that we are at peace.

Food for thought, no?

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On the Nature of Hell (Assuming There Is One)

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The concept of hell must be tempting to even atheists. Not necessarily the eternal pitchforks and fire but some kind of justice for things not accounted for here, for example the child molester who lives a life of luxury and is loved by the masses and dies peacefully. Where is the justice there?

So I was intrigued by this article in The Week, “What Christians get wrong about hell“.

He basically starts with:

Jumping off from a handful of Gospel passages in which Jesus Christ speaks about “eternal punishment” for sinners in the afterlife, these believers conjure visions of a cosmic torture chamber in which those who reject God or commit grave sins without repentance are subjected to endless torment as punishment for their transgressions. It is a ghastly analogue to equally crude and comical visions of heaven as a place where the righteous are rewarded with angels’ wings and an eternity of harp lessons.

which he contrasts with:

Which is why the most theologically cogent view of hell found in classical Christianity maintains that it is the state of mind (or soul) of someone who is alienated from God. Living a life that is out of harmony with God is painful, and to die and be confronted so decisively with the error of your ways — to be made to see that you made a wreck of your life by separating yourself from God, and to have to learn to shatter your pride by reforming yourself in his divine presence — is, one imagines, excruciating. But it is intrinsically painful, not externally imposed by torturers in some fire-and-brimstone-filled dungeon.

I certainly agree that it is extremely un-Christian to relish envisioning your enemies or others in eternal torment, which is why I’ve always been gripped by the film Jacob’s Ladder, which (spoiler alert) tells the story of a dead person working through his demons before ascending to heaven. So Hitler may be in heaven now, but he had a rough time getting there and has learned the error of his ways. This type of universalism is tempting, and may be accurate, but portions of scripture seem to indicate otherwise. For example:

“And if your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; it is better for you to enter life crippled or lame, than having two hands or two feet, to be cast into the eternal fire,” (Matt. 18:8).1

I’ve tried to get around this by defining eternity as a state of mind, commonly known as impatience, which may be correct, but assuming there is unequivocal eternal damnation, how would a Christian view that? In Mere Christianity (PDF), C.S. Lewis tries to address the issue (page 40 in the PDF):

Again, Christianity asserts that every individual human being is going to live for ever, and this must be either true or false. Now there are a good many things which would not be worth bothering about if I were going to live only seventy years, but which I had better bother about very seriously if I am going to live for ever. Perhaps my bad temper or my jealousy are gradually getting worse —so gradually that the increase in seventy years will not be very noticeable. But it might be absolute hell in a million years: in fact, if Christianity is true, Hell is the precisely correct technical term for what it would be. And immortality makes this other difference, which, by the by, has a connection with the
difference between totalitarianism and democracy.

He also addressed it in The Great Divorce (wikipedia):

The narrator inexplicably finds himself in a grim and joyless city, the “grey town”, which is either hell or purgatory depending on how long one stays there. He eventually finds a bus for those who desire an excursion to some other place (and which eventually turns out to be the foothills of heaven). He enters the bus and converses with his fellow passengers as they travel. When the bus reaches its destination, the passengers on the bus — including the narrator — are gradually revealed to be ghosts. Although the country is the most beautiful they have ever seen, every feature of the landscape (including streams of water and blades of grass) is unyieldingly solid compared to themselves: it causes them immense pain to walk on the grass, and even a single leaf is far too heavy for any to lift.

But my favorite quote (page 48 of the PDF) is:

And that leads on to my second point. People often think of Christian morality as a kind of bargain in which God says, “If you keep a lot of rules I’ll reward you, and if you don’t I’ll do the other thing.” I do not think that is the best way of looking at it. I would much rather say that every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow-creatures, and with itself.

Is there eternal damnation? I think there is to those who choose it. Is there some sort of heaven/hell/purgatory/reincarnation karma beyond this mortal coil? I think so, I think it makes sense.


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Academic Justice, Anyone?

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An editorial by Sandra Y.L. Korn in the Harvard Crimson, “The Doctrine of Academic Freedom: Let’s give up on academic freedom in favor of justice,” has commenters wondering whether this is an Onion piece or if the author is trolling, but she appears to be serious. The fact that she is a “joint history of science and studies of women, gender and sexuality concentrator” (concentrator is apparently what majors are called now) lends some credence to her seriousness.

You really need to read the whole thing (and peruse the comments), but I think the crux is this quote:

If our university community opposes racism, sexism, and heterosexism, why should we put up with research that counters our goals simply in the name of “academic freedom”?

If you don’t immediately see the problem with the above quote, it’s that not “put[ting] up with research that counters [y]our goals” is not a valid reason to not put up (aka, not ban) research projects. Good reasons to ban research projects would be poor methodology, inhumane methods, fudged results, etc.

Ms. Korn begins by recounting a Harvard Professor in the early 70’s who “claimed that intelligence is almost entirely hereditary and varies by race.”

Students for a Democratic Society protested his introductory psychology class with a bullhorn and leaflets. They tied up Herrnstein’s lectures with pointed questions about scientific racism. SDS even called for Harvard to fire Herrnstein, along with another of his colleagues, sociologist Christopher Jencks. …

This, Herrnstein seems not to have understood, was precisely the goal of the SDS activists—they wanted to make the “certain kinds of views” they deemed racist and classist unwelcome on Harvard’s campus.

If you’re not familiar, the SDS, whose most radical faction became the Weather Underground, was not a moderate group as evidenced above. They didn’t debate opposition, they did their best to shut it down.

The author then comes to this conclusion about the important question to ask:

 Did SDS activists at Harvard infringe on Herrnstein’s academic freedom? The answer might be that yes, they did—but that’s not the most important question to ask. Student and faculty obsession with the doctrine of “academic freedom” often seems to bump against something I think much more important: academic justice.

Another paragraph and then:

Instead, I would like to propose a more rigorous standard: one of “academic justice.” When an academic community observes research promoting or justifying oppression, it should ensure that this research does not continue.

It goes on, but to get back to my point, what is the meaning of:

  1. SDS: They wanted to make the “certain kinds of views” they deemed racist and classist unwelcome
  2. Define oppression: When an academic community observes research promoting or justifying oppression, it should ensure that this research does not continue.


Long story short, I think Ms. Korn is nuts, but I appreciate her opening such a frank dialogue. And I’ll quote a commenter whose username is “libtard”: “The proper way to combat offensive research is to disprove it

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Organic Farmers and the FDA

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The L.A. Times reports Planned food safety rules rile organic farmers. While it clarifies that “full enforcement of the rules is still years away,” …

Now, farmers are discovering that the FDA’s proposed rules would curtail many techniques that are common among organic growers, including spreading house-made fertilizers, tilling cropland with grazing animals, and irrigating from open creeks.

Obviously there are negative implications for small businesses:

“They are going to drive farms out of business,” said Dave Runsten, policy director for Community Alliance with Family Farmers in Davis, Calif.

“The consumer groups behind this don’t understand farming,” Runsten says. “They talk out of both sides of their mouth. They demand these one-size-fits-all regulations, then say, ‘I don’t want to hurt those cute little farmers at the farmers market. I shop at the farmers market.’ It is frustrating.” …

“The public loves to love and idealize us little family farmers,” he [Crawford, a farmer] said. “But the vast majority of us are hanging by a thread. Now, the government is saying, ‘We are going to put a lot more weight on that thread.'”

And I hate to get back into regulations being trade-offs, but the shoe seems to fit. Of course we need common sense food regulations, but isn’t the trickle up economics obvious? Small farms close and big-agra is either unaffected or can subsume and move on.

And what about the EPA and the environmental groups that shape its agenda (as the consumer groups shape the FDA’s)? Petrochemical fertilizers rather than compost or animal manure? Get your water from someplace far away rather than the nearby creek? Using fossil-fuel driven machinery rather than grazing animals (granted, I’m sure PETA is pleased)? I can’t see Greenpeace, etc., getting behind that.

Somehow we need to find a more comprehensive view of the regulation environment. There are shared goals of liberty, economy, ecology, and safety here. To pursue one without heeding the others will not end well.

Side note:
I also find interesting that when the L.A. times says, “Tens of millions of consumers are sickened by tainted food each year, and some 3,000 die annually as a result,” they link to this page from the CDC. I’m not sure where they got the “tens of millions” number, as the five illnesses listed here make up 91% of all cases and add up to less that ten million. That said, the number one cause of illness (58%) is Norovirus, which the CDC itself says you can get, “from an infected person, contaminated food or water, or by touching contaminated surfaces.” The question this raises is how many of these 5,461,731 cases of Norovirus were directly related to food and not from person-to-person or surface-to-person contamination? If it includes the other two, isn’t the five million plus figure misleading? I may just be cynical and this may be above board, but it just seems like they’re using these numbers to justify constrictive regulations which will have little to no impact on said numbers.




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Mere Creationism

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The title of this post is the product of my love for C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity and the recent debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham on Creationism versus Evolutionism.

If you’re not familiar with Lewis’s classic, he does his best to offer a thought out reasoning for a Christian perspective (right or wrong). But it’s kind of a lowest common denominator Christianity: Not that it’s not demanding, but it doesn’t get into, say, varying beliefs about baptism. Hence, “Mere” Christianity.

The debate attracted my interest because there is a lot of controversy over this discussion.

How this all ties together is that this was a debate between two extremes, which makes a good debate, but don’t necessarily reflect popular sentiment. I mean, where do deists fall in this debate?

Deism holds that God does not intervene with the functioning of the natural world in any way, allowing it to run according to the laws of nature. For Deists, human beings can only know God via reason and the observation of nature, but not by revelation or supernatural manifestations (such as miracles) – phenomena which Deists regard with caution if not skepticism.

Creator? Yes. Intervention? No.

Sorry, no room for deists. Pick a side. Nye or Ham.

So Mere Creationism doesn’t have space for whether or not some God intervened since creation. Nor does it try to prove itself. It merely states that this world is too incredible to be a random accident.


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God Whispers

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A co-worker had a sign above her desk today about God whispering and the world being loud and taking time out from the world, etc. I was trying to find that exact quote, but found this:


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This is brilliant. Super-hero style action figures based on aspects of Crony Capitalism (fighting their enemies, the small business entrepreneurs.) They’re Konnected!

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Bankrupt – How Cronyism and Corruption Brought Down Detroit

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Great documentary about how Detroit went from an industrial and musical powerhouse to the economic wreck it is today:

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Conservative Environmentalism

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I’ve been explicitly concerned about the environment since I was a hippy in my late teens. As I evolved from hippy to punk in my early 20’s, I took my environmental concern with me. I recall when the accuracy of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth came under skepticism, my reaction was that even if it wasn’t all true, it was okay because the world needed to be shocked into action. More on that later.

I was also a liberal throughout this time. In addition to heavy-handed government to stop environmental degradation, I also wanted single-payer health care, and government redistribution of wealth. Without irony, I also considered myself something of an anarchist while advocating these positions, and probably would have participated in Black Bloc activism had the opportunity presented itself (similarly, I was sympathetic to Earth First! style environmental terrorism).

Around 2009, through a complex series of reconsiderations, I developed a more conservative worldview. This involved transitions from revolutionary to a return to first principals and, importantly, from looking to government for answers to advocacy of limited government.

While my concern for the environment was unabated, my previous thoughts on policy implementation were no longer acceptable, so most of my advocacy was on the personal level: composting, recycling, rain barrel, prudent consumerism, riding my bike to work, organic and local food, etc.

Read the rest of this entry »

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