Archive for the ‘Ethics’ Category

My Uncle Martin Wood was a Saintly Man

January 5, 2011

My cousin Don Wood has been an avid hunter all his life. He told me that the tastiest game flesh he had ever experienced is the Canadian caribou. Don was born and raised on a dairy farm near Cobleskill (pronounced KOBOSKILL) NY and worked the farm all his life. In the 1950s the dirt road which ran for miles had about 40 active farms. Now there are perhaps only 2 or 3 active farms. His farm did not get electricity until the late 1940s. I once asked Don about politics and he explained that most farmers were Republican because they were small businesses. One truth, said in jest, was that the farmer is the only person who buys retail (a hammer in hardware, let us say) and sells WHOLESALE (to the dairy.) Don and his father Martin (my uncle) are two of the most moral men I have ever known in my life and I was around them for months at a time. Martin and Don only had intimacy with one woman in matrimony for their entire lives. Neither drank alcohol, used tobacco, used foul language, told dirty jokes or gossiped or spoke ill of anyone. And yet neither man was what you would call a church-goer apart from the occasional wedding or funeral. I questioned Don and his wife Lolita in detail once about their religious notions and they both readily agreed that once you die there is nothing beyond (no afterlife or rebirth). It was amazing for me to experience briefly the lives of people who are so upright and yet so secular. When I was ages 9, 10, 11 I spent a lot of time around both men as they worked and I totally TOOK IT FOR GRANTED that they were so virtuous. Only when I reached my 40s did I reflect upon how unique and saintly they are.

My uncle was a dairy farmer all his life. When I was age 10 I stayed there for the summer. I would get up at 5 am and watch him shave WITH A STRAIGHT RAZOR and a leather strop to sharpen it. Then he would cook up about 6 eggs and also have cereal with CREAM and milk. Of course the eggs and milk were from his own livestock. He did very heavy physical labor 7 days a week. He lived into his 80s. I am not certain what he died of. But obviously there are people who can eat lots of eggs and survive. I am sure the daily physical exertion played a key role in longevity.


Chosing the time and manner of ones death

January 3, 2011

Melissa: What I am about to say I say with total seriousness. I believe that each person should have the right to choose the time and manner of their death. I think that physician assisted death should be legalized not simply for those who are mortally ill but also for those who have simply grown tired of life. Stop and consider the annual statistics on suicide. I have even read that as many as 300 physicians commit suicide each year using drugs which only physicians have access to and using the skill and knowledge which only a physician possesses. Every successful suicide by any person is a tragic loss of organs which might be used for transplants for people who have not tired of living. Every suicide effort which is a botched failure often results in a person who is now severely impaired. If there were a protocol for people to apply for physician assisted death and submit to examinations and counseling then doubtless many would be dissuaded from their desires while others would persist in their request to die. Those who persisted in their request would die with some measure of dignity rather than under a dark social stigma and they might even feel a kind of generosity in donating organs for the use of others. It is difficult to criminalize suicide because even as ancients like Cicero point out, every cliff and pond and tree provides us with an escape route from this existence. I believe there are 6 or seven suicides mentioned in the Bible and yet there is no explicit statement regarding the moral nature of the action.

Mr. Koenig asks a perfectly reasonable question asking what were the plans for the grandparents prior to these political changes. Obviously if someone has great wealth then they can pay out of pocket for whatever medications or treatments are necessary to prolong life. I was actually in the billing office of Columbia Presbyterian and saw a European take out a credit card and pay a $70,000 bill. For those of us who are poor then we have no “plans” except to hope for subsidized health care of some sort. The extremely wealthy do not have “plans” but rather simply pay for whatever is necessary. The extremely poor do not have “plans” but either hope for some socialized subsidy or else simply die of their illnesses. And there are some who for whatever reason wrongly or rightly choose the time and manner of their death by whatever means they find available.

I will add as an afterthought that I recently joined a group which discusses the writings of Ayn Rand. I do not think I shall ever be a great Ayn Rand fan in the sense of embracing all of her principles and guiding my life by them. But Rand was an impressive writer who made a lasting mark upon society and every generation of young people has about 250,000 who rediscover Rand’s writings. When I search for Rand’s thoughts on physician assisted death I find that she supports the notion. I also notice some Republican Tea Party enthusiasts who employ Rand’s Objectivist philosophy as part of their platform. I see physician assisted death as a perfectly Republican and conservative alternative to welfare cradle to grave health care systems. I also believe there are convicts who would chose physician assisted death by sodium barbitol over life in prison without parole.

Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer

December 17, 2010

That song “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” “He knows when you are sleeping.. he knows if you been bad or good so be good FOR GOODNESS’S SAKE.” Stop and think that if you really were good solely for the sake of goodness then you would not need toys or rewards or quid pro quo and it would not matter what Santa knows or does not know!

It is most likely that the only people who do good PURELY for the sake of goodness are ethical atheists and agnostics.

The Chukshi Reindeer herders life above the arctic circle and all their food and clothing come from the reindeer who live on lichens (moss) on the rocks. Apparently prehistoric peoples who depended upon following migrating herds had myths about a flying reindeer (or medicine man or spirit) which could see where the best hunting might be and hence the notion of flying reindeer has very ancient and logical mythic roots.

And all of this is related to Plato’s classic “Euthyphro Problem,” namely, does God love good things like truth, justice, mercy, charity BECAUSE of inherent properties in those good things OR are things good simply BY FIAT because God decrees them to be good. We observe in the Qur’an a famous verse (paraphrased) “for do ye not know that Allah may ABROGATE anything and will replace it with something better.” Some religions have the idea that God must not be limited by anything, not even by God, so therefore God can be capricious and unpredictable. This is why some Calvinist denomination stress predestination because IF it were the case that human free will consent and choice and cooperation were involved in redemption and repentance and salvation then it would NOT all be God’s doing but there would be some human dimension and therefore God’s omnipotence would be compromised.

The ultimate judgment of our deeds

December 8, 2010

@Baruch, regarding some of your observations about “rule followers” I am reminded of issues surrounding “good Samaritans” who are under no obligation to render assistance but once they ELECT to do so THEN they take upon themselves some burden of liability. There are some countries or states where good Samaritan laws are passed to protect those who elect to help. Now, what does all this have to do with Assng-Wikilk? I know this is a strained analogy, but I am reminded of several saying 1.) Socrates – every person by nature desires “the good” and 2.) Evil people prevail when good people stand by and do nothing and 3.) Rabbi Abraham Heschel “Few are guilty but all are responsible.” I am also reminded of something called “Moral Luck” which you may google on and you will find examples such as Gauguin the artist. In some way shape or form Assng may have decided to intervene in the causal nexus of international politics. None of us are obliged to take such extreme measures (e.g. civil disobedience) and once we cross the line and take some extreme action then we become liable. I am reminded of an Independent movie called Zentropa about an idealistic young German-American who decides it would be constructive for him to go to Germany after WWII and help in the occupation-reconstruction. In the opening scene the young idealist meets an old German Roman Catholic priest and asks the priest : “Since each side prayed to God for victory and BOTH sides cannot be in the right then how does God decide.” The old priest gives an interesting answer, saying “The judgment is individual and subjective on a person by person basis, NOT according to the objective moral right or wrong, but according to the disposition of that person’s heart and will.” The priest then sites the verse which says “You are neither hot nor cold but lukewarm and so I spit (spew) you out of my mouth.” We tend to look for black and white answers and rules of thumb to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys. We all know from the movies that the good guys wear white hats while the bad guys wear black hats and have mustaches. Obviously I am not God who is said to be “the only knower of hearts.” The next closest thing to God is the verdict of history as the years pass. Some of you may be angry with me because I seem to be non-committal. Others of you will be angry if I condemn and vilify the accused. Yet others will be angry if I do not defend the accused. When we choose to make a leap and tread upon thin ice then we leave the comfortable world of laws customs and conventions and sometimes only years later will something be observed which either lends nobility to the action or condemns the action as wrongful.

If Hitler had conquered the world

December 7, 2010

The Book of Job presents us with the common misconception that good people are rewarded with good fortune while wicked people are punished by calamity. Such a notion is similar to Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand.” Then we are shown that in fact the righteous may suffer will the wicked may prosper and gain in strength. Similarly, we have the misconception that a moral victory in history should lead to a better future while the triumph of evil in history must inevitably lead to future disaster. We should realize that it IS possible in theory for a calamitous event to pave the way in some totally unexpected fashion for an auspicious future while a moral victory may unwittingly set the stage for a future catastrophic disaster. Such thinking is similar to what is called “moral luck” where a bad deed ultimately makes possible some good result.

I just had the WEIRDEST thought (DISCLAIMER: I am not a Nazi)… but STOP AND THINK of the following scenario. IMAGINE if Hitler had conquered the world and had eliminated all opposition and had created his so called “master race” under one world order. Now as evil as Hitler was, let us imagine that a world order that eventually emerges from Hitler’s victory lasts for 10,000 years and manages to evolve into a peaceful world of harmony in which all humans cooperate and war and poverty disappear. In our imagined scenario the the Nazi regime is quickly overturned and the emerging polity of world restructuring makes it possible for humanity to evolve into something positive, stable and lasting. Now CONTRAST that scenario (Hitler’s triumph unexpectedly leading ultimately to a lasting peace) with the possible scenario of our post-Hitler world in which (hypothetically) tensions between Islamic and non-Islamic factions increase, Israel, Iran and North Korea ignite the world in a thermonuclear holocaust and human life destroys itself in the next hundred years.

Now google on something called “moral luck” and it will tell you things about Gauguin the artist who abandoned his family but achieves a level of artistic success. In fact lets google on MORAL LUCK GAUGUIN right now ….

It is possible to envision a positive result from something as hideous as Hitler’s world conquest and it is possible to envision a human doomsday evolving from the seemingly good Allied victory in World War II which leads to the current world situation.

A side note:

I can easily see how Prophet Mohammad’s triumph at Mecca brought about a higher degree of order and humanity compared to life in 4th century Arabia. Even a law of an “eye for an eye” is superior to the justice of a Tubal-Cain who seeks 70 times 7 vengeance. But the order and solidarity of 7th century Mecca/Medina is no longer suitable to the 21st century global order.

The 100 year Pax Romana was the first time that humans realized the benefits of the order imposed by a huge empire. But the emerging orders of East and West clash and produce the evils of the Crusades and the Inquisition. Different types of order and unification clash and produce a greater evil and disorder. Even the good which Darius does for the Jews in the Babylonian captivity ultimately leads Roman oppression, the destruction of the Temple and the diaspora. Things reunite under the Zionist movement but then lead to the powder-keg of instabilty in the Middle East.

What is the final touchstone by which we judge the moral implications of historical events? As Joseph said to his brethren come to Egypt to ask his forgiveness “You intended evil but Hashem G-D transformed your evil into good.” What Joseph is saying is that if his brothers had not thought to slay him but then sold him into Egypt as a slave then Joseph would never have achieved a position of power which enables him to aid his relatives now starving from a famine.

Solomon says “there are ways which seemeth good unto a man but the end thereof is death.”

Benedict Joseph You are assuming what he said in Mein Kampf was the limit of his desire. Although he did try to carry out what he laid down in his book, I don’t see why we should believe he would stop there. Why not invade the Middle East instead of merely restricting its power? Why not attack India, China, and all the others? I don’t see a limit.

He would have had to win in Russia to win the war. I think that would mean Russia and most of Europe would pay tribute to Germany, probably gold every year. They would have been looted for their art, the Air Field Marshall would have most of it. Austria and part of Chekoslovakia would have been annexed to Greater Germany, possibly Switzerland as well, and parts of Poland, and Hungary.

Hitler wanted liebensraum for the Aryan people of Germany. He wanted them to multiply.

That said, it would not have been a Roman type of Empire and Occupation, with provinces and consuls to rule them.

Hitler believed in socialism, for the Aryan people. The economic arrangement was suivant to the volk and its prosperity and consolidation. He was not a Trotsky type who wanted international, or global socialism. He wanted national socialism. And defensible, contiguous compact territory with borders that were as short as possible while containing as much good territory as possible.

He would have taken bits and pieces of a lot of countries, but he had no use for England, France, Russia, Italy as parts of Germany. Tribute sources, art sources, sources of pretty women, but not parts of Germany.

If Hitler won the war, he would surely have had the atom bomb by 1950. He would be the third member of the club. I don’t imagine he would ever use such a bomb unless attacked. He would have had a nuclear Navy, and a very advanced air force, and of course a space program, with Werner Von Braun still onboard. He might have gone to the moon, but not before the Russians. He would have militarized space, but more as a defensive measure than to attack anyone. Hitler had no use for India, China, Japan etc, except to keep them off his back and away from Germany, well, Greater Germany, which would have been approximately circular in shape.

He might have crushed Bolshevism and Communism in Russia, or he might have made peace with it, that’s hard to say. Hitler and Stalin were two peas in a pod, so there’s no reason to hold grudges after the war as long as Russia stayed away from Germany.

The Hitler Youth would have run much of the world from 1945 till around the millenium when the Hitler Teenie Boppers would have taken over. Heel snapping would proabaly have gone out of fashion by now, but not my Mussolni outfit with the stylish military cap and lovely silver Reichsbaton (the portable wall).

Greater Germany would be an enormous tourist draw for Americans, and Japanese, and Chinese. Lots of dancing in the summer. Beer Halls. Yodeling. And really fast trains.

America would have stopped making cars around 1960 at the latest.

Most of Europe’s power would be nuclear.

Israel would not exist.

Aramco would have been Arab-Deutch Co. and would still be in total control of the oilfields, the Saudi Royals would never have been given substantial ownership of the Saudi oil. They would be a much smaller family and far less prominent.

In Iran the descendants of the Shah would be ruling today — the Ali Khan or his sons. Germany would not tolerate any disorder in Europe, or near Europe. Someone like Saddam Hussein would be running Iraq, if not Saddam himself.

The world is too big, my crystal ball is too small, and can’t really see alternative pasts anyhow.

It’s simple. He wanted National Socialism, which to him meant socialism within a single Volk or people — the Aryans. One could imagine an infinite tyrant with world conquest as his hobby. That wasn’t Schicklegrubber, and the German people would not have put up with such nonsense, and he knew it.

There weren’t enough Germans for world conquest and world governance. Today one could imagine the Chinese having such a goal, but not Germany in 1945.

A lot of areas are more trouble than they are worth. Churchill knew that about Iraq, and said it.

There is a natural limit to military conquest. Your periphery becomes too great, your borders too long, your supply lines unmanagable.

Hitler wanted the Sudetenland, he wanted part of Poland, and maybe a few other bits and pieces.

Mostly he wanted the 1000 year Reich. For that kind of stability, you need cohesion not dispersion. And once the Volk is gone, and you get into pluralism and diversity, socialism is gone too. Hitler did not believe in socialism for poly-cultural populations. He thought it would never work, and by the way, it hasn’t.

William: Thanks Fenton and Benedict for great comments. My idea was simply that the force of the Nazi conquest WOULD homogenize the world and the collapse but the surviving world minus various nations might forge a more stable and lasting world government and economy and their way would have been paved by the evil actions of the Nazi world domination. Obviously, things didn’t happen that way so it is simply an academic exercise or thought experiment but it does illustrate how a long range “good” might grow out of a great evil, and correspondingly a seem victory of goodness might pave the way for future world collapse. Everything is an academic exercise because there is little anyone can do to change the tides of political and economic events.

Suicide versus Physician Assisted Death

December 7, 2010

I sincerely believe that there should be a form of physician assisted death and that those who choose to avail of it may elect to donate their organs for transplant. Consider all the suicides each year plus all the failed suicide attempts. IF there were a sanctioned and honorable path for those who choose then they would go through counseling and examination and some would be dissuaded while those who persisted in their request would have a peaceful end and their organ donation would benefit those who wish to continue life but need a transplant to do so.

The Santa Claus Problem

December 7, 2010

I am not Jewish but I am curious. I once asked an Orthodox Rabbi how hell words in his religion. He explained that the righteous people are resurrected and live with G-d forever while the wicked simply cease to exist. To me that sounded more sensible. I dont see the point of endless torment with no hope of repentance or reform or rehabilitation. The “Santa Claus” thing involves that quid pro quo notion of reward for good behavior and punishment for bad behavior. Plus, kids are very trusting. They trust that parents are good and true and know everything. I was crushed when I found out I was lied to and that I was viewed as some kind of clown and object of amusement for my gullibility. As I look back on my childhood it seems like there are plenty of ways to have fun without lies and distortions of reality. The one chance I had to raise a 7 year old step son, I ALWAYS treated him as an adult within the limits of his understanding, because once you begin to patronize someone or talk down to them and treat them like an idiot, then they catch on and it affects their self esteem or they get them message WELL I am only a child so not much is expected of me so it is ok for me to mess up and in fact I am expected to mess up on a regular basis (like Bart Simpson).

Why does anything matter ethically?

November 20, 2010

Oh, please Nyc, knowing you I would say that you will do whatever you feel you HAVE to do if push comes to shove and you won’t be shedding many tears over morality or ethics. If one dreadful thing is done now then possibly we will have 1000 years of peace and in 100 years no one will dwell on it any more than they dwell today on the torture of the inquisition or slavery. Victory will come to the side who worries least about right and wrong. So are you REALLY saying that the world can endure another 100 years of fear at every abandoned box or vehicle, examine every envelope for anthrax, patrol every border, monitor every message on the Internet? Let’s make the Dostoevsky/Karamazov argument that if there IS no God then all is permitted. Nyc, WHY are you concerned about morality? Do you personally feel that you must one day stand before some dread judgment seat and answer for all your thoughts and deeds? If you believe that then I am rather surprised (but that is your privilege.) BUT if you do NOT believe in some almighty and some hereafter than what difference does it REALLY make if FDR actually KNEW about Pearl Harbor and LET it happen as an excuse to enter the war? And what does it matter IF 9/11 was somehow staged for some similar reason (I do NOT personally believe there was such a conspiracy, but if there WAS, then so what?) Someone told me that in Thucydides the Athenians do some bad things SO WHAT? Who really cares? If there is a God and a judgment then yes perhaps it matters. But if a nation is squeamish about doing whatever is necessary to survive then they will not do anything to survive and quite possibly they will not survive. Iif Earth perishes in 500,000 years then what does it matter if the Homo Sapiens exterminated the Neanderthal and roasted them on a spit and ate them? You perhaps know of the hypothetical “Cobalt Bomb” which has never been built but in theory could destroy all life on Earth. Now suppose some religion arose which believed that it is necessary to destroy all life on earth in order for paradise to come? Suppose there are 1 billion of these Cobalters? What do you propose to do, Nyc? DO you want to be like Gandhi and fold your arms and say “Ahimsa is the highest form of dharma?” and then suffer death rather than commit some heinous atrocity? You tell me.

The evil that men do

November 6, 2010

HMMM…. well, how about war, napalm, neutron bombs, free fire zones… I mean, only when the going gets tough, when we have no choice, when it’s our patriotic duty to make the world a safe place for democracy,…then we need free-fire zones, I mean, what is a fella supposed to do (hey do I sound like Pynchon yet…) then the Dresden fire bombing is actually noble,… Hiroshima and Nagasaki actually saved more Japanese lives than they took… you see, those fetus lives ARE precious and inviolable, but in just 16 short years all that preciousness wears off… and we send them out in the jungles of the Congo to do what they have to do… oh … wait, did you say that is not YOU, that someone else is doing that,… well…hmmm.. Abraham Heschel said that few are guilty but all are responsible… so arn’t YOU a bit responsible? No… Yes… What did you do to stop any of it… Oh, there was NOTHING you could do, you were helpless, a victim…well, I see… yes, you are quite right, sorry I brought this up… I get confused sometimes… you know, moral issues are so confusing…

Natural Morality

October 18, 2010

Francine: The NT says somewhere that God will judge even those who live in the deepest jungle (paraphrasing big time) by the law of light that is in their hearts no matter what their religion. Not a popular idea among the most “religious” because obviously it supports what you say and the idea that those who have no “religion” have a law written in their hearts.

David: Francine refers to Romans 2. Good post, William! You seem to be suggesting that primarily religion is about restraining “repulsive behaviors,” self-control, and reinforcing social norms. It’s plain that some religious tenets in the hands of various religious/political authorities have been used to reinforce social norms but I feel that this is not the essence of religion or the “religious impulse.” I don’t think apes are being “religious” when they appear to recognize a raw deal. No doubt that pre-ethical primate social behavior predated the historical religions, but in some worldwide religious traditions self-control and right action are one stage of a longer path that has a larger context than social norms — in fact those who take these paths seriously tend to alter or transgress these norms as did many of the founders of these traditions.

@David, I am not SUGGESTING anything but merely repeating parrot-like some interesting passages from the above link/article (though I tend to agree with its views.)

I suppose if all this “monkey-business” is correct then there is little need for those who study canon law part-time.

I am reminded of Gandhi who said “I like your Christianity but I do not care for your Christians” and, was it Bertrand Russell or someone like him who said “The only problem with Christianity is Christians.”

Some of the most ethical people I have known in my life do not seem to have a religious bone in their body whereas some of the most religious people are absolute rascals.

@Francine – What I find MOST interesting is that parable where Jesus describes the first group approaching the dread judgment saying “Lord, Lord, we have worked miracles in your name…” and they are told to go away (I suppose quite literally “go to hell.”) The second group comes along (quite possibly those righteous who never heard of religion) and they hear “I was naked and you clothed me; I was hungry and you fed me.” Now HERE is the BIG punch-line which no one ever seems to mention. THEY OBJECT and say “but WHEN did we ever do these things?” Now if YOU were ushered into some high court and the judge suddenly pronounced you INNOCENT, would your knee-jerk reaction be to ARGUE with that judge and say “Oh, but, your Honor, SURELY you must be MISTAKEN!”)

St. John of the Ladder who is somewhere around the 6th or 7th century says “You shall know the righteous at the judgment for their heads will hang low and they shall say ‘We have done nothing worthy.’ ”

William, hmm. Your reply suggests to me that you may have misunderstood what I said or the spirit in which it was said. I don’t disagree with anything you said above — particularly this “Some of the most ethical people I have known in my life do not seem to have a religious bone in their body whereas some of the most religious people are absolute rascals”. It’s just that I think the monkey-business is irrelevant. Those experiments with primates have nothing to do with what I experience as “religion.” I think it has a deeper significance which is about consciousness and not merely about ethical behavior.


@David – You and I shall never know whether whales are suicidal when the insist upon beaching themselves or whether elephants are mourning or paying homage when they are encounter the bones of deceased elephants, appear disturbed, and touch those bones, nor shall I ever really know whether you experience something spiritual or whether it is more deep or shallow than the spirituality of some other individual.

We shall never know what those animals experience because we have no language in common with them, and we shall never know what another person feels because people can deceive themselves and others and because language itself is flawed and to some extent recursive and at times produces artifacts in the sense of Platonic, eidetic form words like Justice, Beauty, Mercy and even words like RED (I mean after all what is red apart from some instance of it such as a rose or a sunset or blood and no two instances are alike nor can we know that any two individuals perceive them in the same way.)

I do find things that you write interesting from time to time though I do not always agree and obviously you reciprocate such interest but lack of total agreement.

One day that Sufi wise-fool Nasrudin was listening to a group of people argue in disagreement about the nature of God and as each one finished his/her discourse Nasrudin exclaimed “You are perfectly correct!” Finally one thoughtful person said “Nasrudin! They are all in disagreement! How can you find them all perfectly correct?” And Nasrudin thought for a moment and then exclaimed “You are perfectly correct!”

Obviously the researchers do not find their primate research irrelevant. And yet, in some ways, we are all irrelevant with regard to someone or something.