The Devil Is In The Details

Originally posted: 18 Sep 2005 09:36 am

A friend of mine is a very devout Roman Catholic. She considered herself a Democrat during most of her adult life, but has now registered as a Republican because she admires President Bush’s positions on such controversial issues as abortion, gay marriage, stem cell research, and physician assisted death.

She does have one son who is of draft age. She mentioned that she might favor the Democratic candidate, such as Kerry, if his policies would keep more young men out of combat. Our conversation inspired me to ask her a question which is for me potentially fascinating:

“Suppose, for the sake of argument, that you have a magic crystal ball which allows you to see what the future will be like based upon which candidate wins a presidential election. Suppose you foresee that a very liberal candidate, whose positions or personal beliefs are not to your liking, will successfully bring about many things beneficial to society as a whole, such as solving the health care crisis, balancing the budget, reducing unemployment and greatly reducing military action around the world, but through his liberal policies will legalize gay marriage, abortion, stem cell research and physician assisted death. On the other hand, your magic crystal ball shows you that the opposing candidate, a conservative whose beliefs coincide with your own, would forever ban gay marriage, abortion, stem-cell research and physician assisted death, but would cause an increase in unemployment, inflation, the demise of social welfare benefits, and plunge us into a world war which would cost many lives. Which candidate would you choose then?”

She objected that such situations would never arise; that my example is too extreme.

I replied, “But, you miss the point of our hypothetical ‘what-if’ scenario. The point is not WHAT might actually happen in the future. The point of the exercise is to help you determine what your values really are if forced to make a tough decision, when you cannot have your cake and eat it too.”

There is an old saying that “the devil is in the details.” Our wisdom and ethical metal is never tested until we are confronted by a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t choice. Ethics is only easy in movies where the good guys all wear white hats and the bad guys all wear black hats and mustaches.

Emmanuel Kant offered as a moral rule of thumb that we should never make any person a means to an end, but always strive to make each person an end in itself. Jean-Paul Sartre was brilliant at contriving real life scenarios which truly test these the limits of our character. Sartre describes the dilemma of a young man in war-torn, occupied France during World War II. This young man is the sole support and comfort of his aging mother. He sees his comrades risking their lives to join the underground resistance movement to fight against the monster of fascism and defend the values of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. If our young hero chooses to be patriotic and join his comrades in their noble cause, then he treats his mother as an object, a means to his patriotic end, and her abandonment and suffering becomes a means to a greater end, the end of self-sacrifice to win the greatest good for the greatest number. Yet, if he chooses to be a good son, and remain with his mother, then he treats his comrades and his country as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself.

What is the answer? What is the rule of thumb or formula to guide us? It becomes as essential and existential as Kierkegaard’s analysis of Abraham’s dilemma when a divine voice commands him to sacrifice his son Isaac. Or, consider the famous “Gauguin Problem” in ethics. The painter, Gauguin, abandons his wife and children, which society sees as something bad, but in so doing, is free to go to Tahiti and become a famous artist, which society sees as something good. So does the good of the result outweigh and justify the evil of the means? You may substitute a scientist in this scenario if you like, who abandons his family responsibilities but succeeds in discovering a cure for cancer and AIDS. In some sense, the success and prosperity of our great American society is founded upon a century of black slavery, the genocide of the native American, and various acts of colonial aggression and oppression in world history. The Pharisees would not take back the pieces of silver from Judas, but the land of the free and the home of the brave can never wash away the historical fact of the blood-money in its coffers which funded its success.

And the ultimate of all ethical paradoxes from antiquity is Plato’s dialogue, “Euthyphro,” when Socrates asks whether God loves the Good because of its inherent goodness, or is the Good good simply by fiat, because it happens to be what God likes or commands. And let us not forget that our very word “fiat” comes from the first words of Genesis in Latin vulgate translation: “Fiat lux” (let there be light.) If we say that God loves what is good for its inherent qualities, then we cast a doubt upon God’s omnipotence. God is not free to hate what is good. God is not free to lie. This is the position of the Judeo-Christian heritage. If, on the other hand, we take the opposite position, and say that God is so powerful that, by fiat, whatever God proclaims as good, IS good, ipso facto, because of God’s endorsement, well then we wind up in the position of Islam, which portrays God as so omnipotent that God may even abrogate His own commandments. Such a God is a capricious God who is not even bound by His own words.

Well, we have possibly uncovered here some sticky wickets. I wish I could be like a magician and pull a rabbit solution out of my top hat, but I have no solution for you; no easy answer. There is a joke in which someone is shown a vision of hell, and he sees a long table at which are seated people with very long spoons bound to their hands, far too long to reach the plate of food set before them, so all are frustrated in their inability to feed themselves, and slowly die of starvation. Then, he is shown a vision of heaven. He sees the SAME long table, and people with long spoons tied to their hands, BUT the difference is that each person dips his spoon into the plate of his neighbor across the table, and then places the food in his neighbor’s mouth, so all are fed and satisfied. Sometimes I suspect that right and wrong, good and evil, are the same banquet, with the same utensils, but everything depends on how we choose to deal with the situation; on how we play our hand, the cards which have been dealt to us.

In the independent film, Zentropa, a young, idealistic German-American moves to Germany to help with the reconstruction. He meets a German Catholic priest and asks, “each side in this war prayed to God for victory, believing their cause was right, but BOTH sides cannot possibly be right. How does God judge amongst them?” The priest replied that God does not look to the outward right or wrong of the issues at stake, but to the heart of each individual. The priest quotes the verse from the New Testament about the person who is neither hot nor cold (i.e. has taken up no side or cause), but is merely lukewarm, and those who are lukewarm God spews from his mouth (i.e. rejects).

Once upon a time, a Buddhist monk had just taken his vows, which including a vow never to harm living creatures, and also never to tell a lie.

This newly ordained monk was taking a walk through the woods when, suddenly, he saw a terrified rabbit race by his feet and jump into a thicket of bushes. A moment later, a group of hunters arrive and ask the monk “Did you see a rabbit?” So, what is our poor monk to do? If he betrays the presence of the rabbit hiding in the bush then he harms a living creature but if he tells the hunters that he did not see a rabbit, then he has lied.

A young doctor in a hospice one commented to me, “it is not the hand of cards which you are dealt, but how will you choose to play it.”


I am reminded of a recent conversation with an old college mate of mine who became a physician. I have always perceived him as a model of ethics and compassion. We were discussing the topic of physician assisted death. I argued that a long slow death by removal of feeding tubes and hydration was more cruel and degrading to the patient than a quick death by the administration of a drug overdose. My friend argued that the cessation of feeding and hydration was more ethical, since a doctor is not ethically obligated to extend life artificially when there is no hope of recovery, and that the doctor is simply ceasing all intervention allowing nature to take its course. This is death caused through inaction rather than the overt act of administering an overdose.

I realize that my friend is a devout Christian and has no notions of karma or rebirth, but it seems to me that the physician who elects to simply pull the plug and stand back is in on some level doing so to avoid the karmic consequences of taking a positive action to hasten death and diminish suffering. Actions cause us to become implicated and involved.

I suppose I would not be a very good doctor, but were I a doctor in such a situation, I would prefer to take upon myself the sin of euthanasia, the sin of action, for the sake of the other, to diminish suffering, rather than choose the sanctity and blamelessness of inaction.

In an odd way, one may see Christ’s submission to the authorities, allowing himself to be captured and crucified, as a form of suicide. Presumably, if we foresee our execution, but do not take measures to prevent it or escape it, then we are suicidal in our actions. Socrates is another example of someone who might have escaped his death sentence and survived, but chose to stay and submit to the judgment. Various Cristian theologians assert that Christ BECOMES sin, in that he takes upon himself the sins of all mankind throughout all past present and future.

If this is so, then there is something very Christ-like about someone who would willingly take sin upon themselves for the sake of alleviating the suffering of another.

I am rather pleased with the interpretation that I developed regarding King David, who wrote the 51st Psalm in repentance for his sin against Uriah.

As I see it, on the surface of things, David did nothing wrong TECHNICALLY. As a King, it was his right and duty to direct military battles and send anyone to the front lines whom he saw fit. Once Uriah perished in battle, his wife Bathsheba was now a widow, and there is no sin in marrying a widow. As a King, David is entitled to take many wives. So, where is the sin? The sin lies in the subjective aspect of David’s “wickedness of the imagination,” in David’s hidden agenda, and “malice of forethought.” Another King might have performed the same actions, but with a different heart, and there would have been no sin.

There is an old Taoist saying: “When the wrong person undertakes the right means, then the right means yield the wrong results.”

There is always a dilemma, a tension, a dissonance between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law, between willing spirit and weak flesh. Perhaps our dilemma between good and evil is like E. E. Cummings “dilemma of flutes:”

“in thy beauty is the dilemma of flutes

thy eyes are the betrayal
of bells comprehended through incense”

– e.e. cummings, “My Love”


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