Monday, December 30, 2013

The answer: prudent practice of love



Is It Good?  Part III

By George Templeton
Gazette Columnist

Ethics is the summation of the tension between immovable principals and necessary adaptation.  Philosophy forms the questions.  Theology tries to answer.  Religion’s intent is to express our feelings and aspirations.  Culture creates its own ethos.  Good intentions sometimes lead to folly.  Modern evil is not like it was.  It can become common and lacking motives, different from its classic personal form.

Progressive idealism failed to eliminate poverty, suffering, and war.  Disenchantment with consequential government turned the focus to self-interest instead of hope, discouraging talented young people from choosing public service careers.

We have to focus on what is possible, but dishonesty with ourselves, rooted in repressing shame, supports triumphalism and prevents recognizing a deeper truth.  We have to decide whether evil is done by people or happens to people.  Lack of harm is a weak moral standard.

Does every effect have a cause or do sometimes things just happen?  Isaiah 45:7 claims that God created evil, woe, or trouble.  God destroyed Job, a perfect and upright man, without cause, to demonstrate mature faith to Satan.  We have no guarantee.

Sometimes the end justifies the means, but evil acts can be excused that way.   Were we lucky when “mutual assured destruction” did not lead to the destruction of our world?  It was big business, requiring massive coordination of legions of skilled workers that were never required to push the defensive ICBM launch button.  The unthinkable became normal politics.  We could rationalize it because we received support from our coworkers and our jobs were only a tiny part of the total.

If ignorance of evil is the problem, we have to decide what should be taught.  Comprehending evil’s damage should discourage it.  Education can teach about history, government, liberty, self-restraint, duty, justice, and law.  It can teach about critical thinking and propaganda.  It can discuss patriotic moral torture and drone strikes appreciated by Pakistani civilians.  It is precisely the lack of thought that allows an entire society to change its values and compromise its moral standards, opening the door for ordinary moral people to allow monstrous crimes against humanity.  The absence of serious thought increases the likelihood of the “banal evil” that Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) observed in the war crimes trial of Adolf Eichmann, an ordinary patriotic man, loyal to authority, not demonic, not crazy, who was responsible for the murder of six million Jews.

Does God will things, like the Holocaust, to teach us?  Are disasters a sign of deserved evil?  Tough love has not been enough to teach mankind.  Good intentions sometimes use unloving means, but one should be cautious whenever ultimate truth becomes a particular cause.  We learn, but the same intellect that led us to cure disease also created poison gas.  We have grown cleverer but not wiser through history.

History belongs to civilization, the collective, but yet is separate and individual in its smallest consequences.  History seems to have a spiritual transcendence.  It depends on the past, is crafted in the present, and points toward the future.  Do moments in history stand independently as good or evil, or are they misunderstood workings of a larger plan that will come to fruition in the maturity of time?

Predestination is God’s will, bounded by freedom, time (not well understood by science), mystery (a seductive inadequate antidote for irrationality) and the need to make the supernatural concrete.  Does God delegate some things to mankind?  Salvation, damnation, who, and why, hang in the balance.  It has troubled theologians for thousands of years.  It seems to stumble into injustice.  Is it unfair for an omnipotent loving God to create inadequate, sinful people?  Should the predestined dammed suffer eternally so others will appreciate their salvation and satisfy God’s need for adoration?

Civilized Evil
Politics is cruel.  It was Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) who taught us that leadership requires a heart of stone.  The State has to have a monopoly on the death penalty because the most important objective is stability, but does the end justify the means?

Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn told of Huck’s moral quandary.  Should he follow the dictates of his conscience or should he obey the morality he had been taught?  Society held that Jim, an escaped slave, must be turned in to the authorities, but Jim was Huck’s good friend, a human being, not property.

Old school books sugar-coated institutionalized slavery, focusing on the sacrifices of slave owners to benefit and promote the well-being of their slaves.  They failed to recognize, as Lincoln did in his second inaugural address, that the dehumanizing evil of slavery belonged to both the North and the South.

The civil war was still being fought in the 1960’s when Martin Luther King reminded us that fairness, justice, and equal opportunity belonged to all races in America.  Today, we have a second civil war, about politics and its treatment of Gays, women, immigrants, the disadvantaged, and the common man.

We start, like Pinocchio, by learning a personal morality, but it runs a risk of growing egoism.  Restricting morality to the personal is a way to avoid responsibility to live in the world.  Learning to live together has never been easy.  The Bible reveals many stories of conflict and cruelty.  It is no wonder monks retreat from the world to live the moral life.  Utility to society is a benchmark for virtue, but it is hard to see how fasting, self-denial, and mortification help the self-actualizing individual or society.

Alan Turing, the father of our computer age, lived in the intersection of science, math, and philosophy.  Famous for breaking the WWII German Enigma code, he pondered whether all problems could be quickly solved with binary true-false sequences.  A convicted and punished homosexual; he committed suicide at the age of forty-one in 1954, but was recently pardoned by the British government.  His life exemplified the moral difficulty that we write about.  How did his public disgrace and resulting death make the world a better place?

A society that becomes less creative and more consuming becomes increasingly tolerant of misrepresentation, confusing it with marketing one’s strengths and serving customers.  “Let the buyer beware” is the slogan that legitimizes deception and fraud.

Politics asserts that conservatives are more ethical than liberals, but social psychology claims that cultures define their own morality based on subconscious feelings.  Rationality’s force is difficult to measure because it is hidden in human complexity.

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971), influenced by two world wars, and the development of the machine gun, poison gas, and the atomic bomb, felt that political parties, societies, and nations were likely to be less moral than individuals because of collective self-interest and nativism.  Self-centeredness, not ethics, is what governs large group behavior when anonymity promotes a lack of intimate personal interaction and sympathy for the impersonal, faceless other.  Sentimentality is inadequate when it comes to complex matters.  Love’s reach is limited.  When evil becomes corporate, it embeds itself deeply.  Needed internal criticism becomes disloyal, not on the team, or unpatriotic.  The unselfish, complying, compromising individual inadvertently helps to make the group more selfish and rigidly centered in its ideology.

Powerful Evil
History’s revision claims that there was no Nazi Holocaust, but the facts show that Nazism was enthusiastically accepted by most Germans.  The Holocaust survivors say it must never be forgotten and it wasn’t.  Instead it was perfected in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Sudan, and now it rears its ugly head in the Central African Republic.

Evil went beyond genocide and cruelty to attack morality and Jewish faith.  The covenant is the thread that ties together all the books of the Bible.  It is the story of the promise to Noah to not destroy the world with floods again, the promise to make Abraham the father of nations and an example of faith, the story of a people taken from slavery to an independent nation.  The horror of the Holocaust was a new kind of evil, without precedent.  The covenant with the people of Israel had been broken.  The God of traditional Jewish faith and goodness died.  If not, God’s silence made him an accomplice in murder and destruction.

Society wants justice more than virtue.  Sometimes that slips into revenge.  Victory determines good and evil, not individual conscience.  Patriotic duty, ideology, partisanship, and intense devotion to the cause become a matter of duty, personal integrity, and an individual responsibility that allows evil to become bureaucratic, acceptable and ordinary.  Somehow these virtues, turned upside down, in situations where people have gotten along with one another for centuries, suddenly light the fires of slaughter and extermination.

The moral conscience becomes inverted when the threat to gun rights, caused by public reaction to the murder of innocent children, becomes more important than the threat to humanity caused by guns everywhere, when wealth redistribution is a greater menace than a broken health care system, when fairness to children, brought illegally to America by their parents, becomes less important than “no amnesty” and when the “detention bed mandate” promotes a culture of sadism, imprisonment and deportation for minor offenses.  Social evil makes ordinary people heartless participants in cruelty.  Heinrich Himmler proved this in 1943 when he assured SS leaders that despite what they had gone through in exterminating Jews, they had remained “decent” and had become “tough”.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), was the founder of cultural relativity.  He felt that morality was a social construct, not inherently in human nature, that was necessary for a stable society.  Secular cultural relativity comes not from philosophy, but from anthropology and psychology.  It is the idea that what is good is habitual and constructed by society.  The person who marches to the beat of a different drummer is regarded as aberrant.  Regardless, we find it difficult to accept the Nazi Holocaust.

The theologians and philosophers of the past realized that moral decisions must consider circumstances. Ethical relativity is not a moral nihilism.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) expressed it accurately when he wrote,  “The responsible man acts in the freedom of his own self, without the support of men, circumstances or principles, but with a consideration for the given human and general conditions and for the relevant questions of principle.  The proof of his freedom is the fact that nothing can answer for him; nothing can exonerate him, except his own deed and his own self.  It is himself who must observe, judge, weigh up, decide and act.  It is he himself who must examine the motives, the prospects, the value, and the purpose of his action.  But neither the purity of the motivation, nor the opportune circumstances, nor the value, nor the significant purpose of an intended undertaking can become the governing law of his action, a law to which he can withdraw, to which he can appeal as an authority, and by which he can be exculpated and acquitted, for in that case he would indeed no longer be truly free.”

Writing about evil is like writing about music.  It can never duplicate the experience of listening.  Evil will always be ambiguous and uncertain, but that is part of our creative freedom.  There is no “truth decay” here.  Certainty must not be confused with truth. Theories won’t make us moral.  What then can help us?  Only love is eternally unchanging but adaptable to deal with profit-margin over principle, technical advancement beyond virtue and wisdom, and individualism over interdependence.  Love relinquishes power and control to be at the service of the other.  It is up to us to figure out what the prudent practice of love means.

No comments: