Archive for May, 2017

As I was sitting in my favorite coffee & bakery shop this morning savoring my coffee I was holding two or three potential topics for my posting today; which one would I write about? As I was savoring and pondering a family of four entered the bakery.  The pre-teen son and daughter were arguing (ah…pre-teens, what a blessing).  The son, rooted in great frustration, blurted out: ‘That’s not fair!!!’ 

 A question emerged into my consciousness: What does it mean ‘to be Fair’?  What is Fairness anyway?  In our culture Being Fair/Fairness is a big deal (or if you are a pickle, it is a Big Dill).  Let’s explore this a bit.  Here are two definitions of each (among many, I might add). 

 Fair = just, equitable, impartial, unbiased, dispassionate, objective mean free from favor toward either or any side. Fair implies a proper balance of conflicting interests. a fair decision; Just implies an exact following of a standard of what is right and proper.

 Fairness = impartial and just treatment or behavior without favoritism or discrimination.

They seem pretty clear to me.  And, I think, they would be acceptable to the vast majority of adults in our culture.  In a sense, these definitions are ‘universal’ in nature; cultures who have a concept of ‘Fair’ and ‘Fairness’ would also agree to these definitions.  Yet, as any adult knows, when we strive to apply these definitions to ‘real life,’ things quickly become messy.  Why is this so?

Well, one response lies in how we engage two concepts: Principle & Parameters.  We humans tend to agree on the Principle.  For example, in our culture, there is agreement that our nation is rooted in a principle of Freedom.  We also support a principle of Fairness.  Even though ‘we’ agree on the principles we, more often than not, end up in heated conflict with one another (think: Progressives and Conservatives); each side claims that they support the Principle of Fairness [at their worst, each side also states that ‘the other side’ has no concept of what Fairness really means].

What sets each side apart is not the Principle of Fairness.  What sets each side apart are the Parameters.  What?  What are Parameters?  Each Principle requires Parameters in order to move from the ‘abstract’ to the ‘concrete’ [think: moving from theory to action].  Once the parameters are set, judgments of fairness will, too often, become incomprehensible to the other side.  For example, Conservatives do not understand Fair & Fairness the same way that Progressives do even though both claim the same definitions for Fair & Fairness.

It is not the Principle that engenders the misunderstandings and the conflicts.  The Parameters engender and support them.  Thus, Conservatives and Progressives can – and do – hold the same Principle AND at the same time misunderstand, disagree with, engage in conflict with ‘the other.’  The Parameters also enable each side to ‘judge’ the other side as ‘Un-American’ or, at worst, as ‘The Enemy’ of the Principle.

In order to help us understand the concept of Parameters I will, next time, employ a metaphor or analogy: ‘Cooking.’  [An Aside: I chose ‘Cooking’ because I am sitting in a bakery, because my mother was a superb cook and because I like to eat.]

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Gentle reader, please see PART I for the context and the two scenarios.

Consider that in the hospital scenario, if there is no tissue compatibility there is no way to save even one of the five.  In the train scenario, if the side track is empty, the engineer must switch tracks – the switching becomes an obligatory act.

There is a Guiding Principle that can help us: It is permissible to cause harm as a by-product of achieving a greater good AND it is impermissible to use harm as a means to a greater good.  In the train scenario, killing one person is a by-product – an indirect though foreseen consequence.  The key act – switching the switch to turn the train – is, in and of itself, neither positive nor negative, neither good nor bad.  In the hospital example, the surgeon intentionally harms one person in order to strive to save five people.

The distinctions between the two are crucial and they combine to provide a rationale known as the principle of double effect.  In the moment, most of us humans don’t pause and think about this principle.  Research – and my experience with my students – affirms that folks who are given these two scenarios respond and judge them immediately.  Few take even a brief time to think through the scenarios and even fewer take even a cursory look at the underlying principles that might help guide them prior to responding.

On the other hand, the participants’ responses seem reasoned and rational even though there is little sense that deep reasoning has occurred.  Researchers report that few participants are able to generate this principle [think: the principle of double effect] as an explanation or rationale for their judgments [so it was with my students – I only recall one student, a philosophy major, who was able to provide the guiding principle for her judgments].

Such dilemmas [think: dilemma = a forced choice where BOTH a positive and a negative outcome will likely occur] do occur in ‘real life.’  In 2005, after Katrina ran amok, a member of the Texas Army National Guard talked about his dilemma: ‘I would be looking at a family of two on one roof and maybe a family of six on another roof, and I would have to make a decision who to rescue.’

With these dilemmas, a decision to take one path over another isn’t immediately obvious.  We can ask, for example, whether our two scenarios depend upon absolute numbers (kill one to save five; or kill a hundred to save a thousand).  The dilemmas is maintained – the agent must choose and what ought to be done is not obvious (for the engineer or the soldier – it appears to be clear when it comes to the surgeon).

If all participants respond in the same way – so far all who responded to the two scenarios have done so – and if all are unable to coherently explain ‘why’ (think: to explain the underlying principle(s) that guided them) then what?

My current thinking is that we humans have been endowed with a moral faculty – a capacity, if you will, that enables us to unconsciously and automatically evaluate a limitless variety of actions in terms of principles that dictate what is permissible, obligatory and/or forbidden.

We know at an emotive level, for example, that to kill another human being is wrong and as we ‘mature’ and develop our rational capacities we add the ‘reasonable’ and ‘rational’ to the emotive.  When it comes to what is Morally Permissible then, we come into the world endowed with a moral faculty and as we develop our intellectual capacities we then develop the guiding principles that support our endowment.

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For more than fifty years I have held, embraced, reflected upon, struggled with – and I have had the privilege of helping others struggle with – a question: “Is it morally permissible?’   Given all that continues to unfold at the Executive and Congressional Levels of our Government I have found myself, once again, holding this question.  In order to engage the question with you, gentle reader, I have decided to use two classic scenarios.

Scenario #1:  A surgeon enters the hospital through the emergency room.  A nurse rushes up and says: ‘Doctor!!! Two ambulances just pulled in.  There are three people in one and two in the other.  Each person is in critical condition.  Two have damaged kidneys, one has a damaged heart, one a collapsed lung, and one a ruptured liver.  If they do not get an immediate transplant they will die.  Luckily a young man just walked in; he wants to donate blood in order to help.  We can save ALL FIVE accident victims if we take the needed organs from the young, healthy man.  Of course, he won’t survive but he will save the five.

 A Question: Is it morally permissible for the surgeon to take this young man’s organs?

 Scenario #2: An express train is speeding along.  The engineer gets a warning signal that the brakes might be failing.  The engineer looks up and there on the tracks ¼ mile ahead are five people walking on the tracks.  They are walking away from the speeding train and are not aware that a train is rapidly approaching them from behind.  The engineer also notices that there is a fork in the tracks ahead and that the train can be diverted to the side tracks.  Walking on the side track is a person; this person is also not aware of the train.  The engineer has to make a split-second decision.  The engineer can continue on its current course and five people will likely be killed.  The engineer can also redirect the train onto the side track and likely kill one person.

A Question: Is it morally permissible for the engineer to take the side track?

Gentle reader, what is your response to each question?

If you said ‘NO’ to the first question and ‘YES’ to the second, you are like thousands of others who responded to these two questions (the ‘thousands’ comes from the research done by moral psychologists).  My sense is that you also quickly answered these questions – you gave the questions little thought.  So, here are three additional questions: What determined your answer?  What underlying/guiding principles guided you?  What ‘facts’ influenced your answer?

What ‘makes sense’?  In the train case it makes sense (think: it feels right) to kill one person in order to save five.  In the hospital case it doesn’t make sense (think: it feels wrong) to kill one person to save five.  Students in my Ethics Classes explained the hospital case by saying that it is illegal to commit intentional homicide – if you are a ‘responsible doctor.’  In our culture, this is what we have been raised to believe (this is probably true for the majority of cultures).

Our culture inscribed this in our minds when we were quite young (ask a three year old if it is wrong to kill another person and he/she will say it is).

Now apply this legal perspective to the train scenario.  Here, we are willing to kill one person in order to save five.  We are, it seems, willing to do something in the second scenario that we are not willing to do in the first.  Why the mental twisting?  Given our mental twisting, how challenging is it for us to articulate our reasons?  We will explore this and other questions when we continue next time.


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Gentle reader, please see PART I for the context of what follows.  As I noted in my conclusion to PART I, there are at least three ways open to Christians – each has the potential for moving the Christian to holiness or hellishness.  Today, we will finish our reflection as we explore the third way: Amicable Separation/Divorce.

I personally prefer, Compassionate-Generous Pluralism, and will embrace Amicable Separation/Divorce rather than War.  Christians are, first of all, fully human-imperfect beings and, as research continues to affirm they are, like all of us humans are, primarily rooted in emotions, not in logic/reason.  Therefore when emotions run amok and trump reason/logic then it might be time for an ‘amicable separation/divorce.  At minimum a separation/divorce will spare the Christians – and the rest of humanity – from another ‘Christian War’.  A separation/divorce will spare all from another spectacle that demonstrates just how nasty ‘those Christians can love one another.’

During the past 40 years I have had the opportunity and privilege of serving two different Christian denominations as they were struggling with powerful internal religious/theological struggles.  The potential ‘war’ was concretized in ‘buildings, property and pensions.’  ‘Cool heads’ (think: emotions tempered with reason/logic) wanted to avoid the lawsuits and embrace a ‘no-fault separation/divorce.’  ‘Hot heads’ were willing to ‘burn it all down’ (think: emotions run amok and hence, not tempered with reason/logic).

I remember inviting these fine folks (they were, indeed, fine folks – they were not ‘evil;’ they were fully imperfect human beings) to consider two scenarios.  The first involved St. Paul.  Imagine St. Paul addressing the emotionally-laden Corinthians when he discovered they were taking their disputes to civil court (see: I Cor. 6:1-6).  St. Paul was not ‘gentle’ with his words.

Then I invited them to imagine Jesus-the-Christ standing at the door of their church and telling the dissenters (each side saw the other as the ‘dissenters’).  ‘Too bad, go away, good luck!’  Is this what Jesus-the-Christ meant by ‘you that are accursed, depart from me’?  Did his words not have to do with our ignoring the naked, hungry and imprisoned?

Then I invited them to think about how they have responded to their church members who were contemplating or seeking a separation/divorce (some of the most vocal in the room had lived this experience and had experienced the love, compassion, and forgiveness of the Community).

Do Christians truly believe that love means – at its root – doing good to the other?  Do Christians believe that they are charged with being faithful to Jesus-the-Christ and His lived message of love, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation?  All Christian say they pray to the same Jesus-the-Christ and all Christians claim that they are committed to being His followers (think: Follower = one who follows the example of the servant Christ).

Gamaliel’s prayer, I believe, is one that has and will continue to serve us well: ‘O God, if this is from you, let it flourish; if not, reveal its flaws.’ 


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Gentle reader, please see PART I for the context of what follows.  As I noted in my conclusion to PART I, there are at least three ways open to Christians – each has the potential for moving the Christian to holiness or hellishness.  Today, we will finish exploring the second, and for me, the most hope-full way: Compassionate-Generous Pluralism.

The Beatitudes make it clear that Christians are to seek and embrace ‘Unity in the Spirit.’  The Beatitudes remind us that this ‘Unity of Spirit’ consists in being humble petitioners for God’s grace, empathic mourners embracing the sufferings of others, collaborators for peace, role-models of mercy and forgiveness, and common ground seekers of God’s vision.

The ‘Unity in the Spirit’, as the Sermon on the Mount teaches us, seeks to cultivate a compassion that conquers condemnation and to nurture a love that trumps hate.  As Matthew reminds us, love is doing good for another, even for the ‘other,’ and love, not tribal solidarity is the Christian’s charge.

It is important for Christians to remember (or learn) that Jesus’ scathing prophetic voice is reserved for those who violate love and justice in their hearts and in their actions: arrogant, self-righteous hypocrites who oppress the poor and neglect the starving and who make their own traditions more important than compassionate-loving kindness in action (see Matt. 23).

As role-models, James and Paul, in spite of their differences, are both true to the ‘Unity in the Spirit.’  Both aim, via faith AND practice, for the same spiritual qualities Jesus proclaims.  The ultimate goal of ‘doctrine’ is Christ-likeness in attitude and action.

Christian history might have emerged in a quite different way if later generations of Christians had taken the first-generation paradigm to heart as they encountered their own differences.  Today, could making the practice of Christ-like humility, compassion, love, forgiveness and healing help Christians embrace one another and affirm, once again, the common ground that Jesus-the-Christ offered them two thousand years ago?

Would it be so difficult, for example, to adopt the ‘Gamaliel Principle’ that saved Peter and John as they stood at trial before the Sanhedrin?  The council debated and discussed the ‘threat’ posed by the new Galilean Heresy (think: Jewish-Christianity).  Gamaliel, the grandson of the great Torah teacher Hillel, advises them to wait and see whether this thing is from God or not (Acts. 5:26-40).

Since then, the question of ‘passing fancy’ or ‘new word from God’ continues to challenge Christians.  In the second century the question was whether to allow one to remarry after the death of a spouse (no kidding – this was a huge deal).  In the fourth century the question was whether to re-admit lapsed believers.  In the eleventh century the challenge involved the description of the Trinity.  Each century provided – and continues to provide – Christians with important challenges/controversies.  Gamaliel’s counsel will still to serve Christians well: Wait it out.  See what fruit it bears.  Don’t damage the garden by pulling up the weeks prematurely.

What if all Christian proponents and Christian opponents prayed the same Gamaliel prayer: ‘O God, if this is from you, let it flourish; if not, reveal its flaws.’?  The second challenge would then involve choosing to be open to what is ‘revealed over time’ – even if what is ‘revealed’ is counter to ‘our’ position.  This, being open in this way, requires ‘faith’ and ‘trust’ in God.  This itself is no little challenge for Christians; especially for Christians rooted in surety.




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