Welcome to the subject of ethics. Readings from various philosphers are presented in the sidebar on the right. My essays on the other hand are presented below. Tables of contents for both the readings and essays are available. They consist of hyperlinks you can click on. Links throughout this page are distinguished by the presence of an underline.
The Subject of Ethics
It is said that man is distinguished from other creatures because he uses tools. Some say it is because he has an opposing thumb. Some point to the high ratio of brain weight to body weight. Some say it is because he has the faculty for developing sophisticated symbolic languages. All this is true of man of course. But another hallmark of homo sapiens sapiens (the classification for modern man) is that he has the faculty for ethical reasoning and behavior. In fact we can go as far as saying that the most developed humans (or the most psychologically evolved) are those who have the keenest sense for ethical issues. This is evidenced by the fact that the most respected (and most deified) persons are those who have shown the highest ethical development such as Gandhi, Jesus, and Buddha.
I refrain from using the term morality since I believe that not only is ethics synonymous with morality, but that it encompasses more than morality. A word of caution: I certainly do not equate ethics merely with a set of rules, as in a behavioral code, although such rules of conduct may be part of the subject we call ethics.
Moreover, ethics does not at all denote a fixed and immutable set of principles. To give a simple example: It was once believed that man was the highest evolved creature on earth and therefore had the right to use nature as he pleases. We now know that anthropocentrism cannot possibly be a universal principle. Today, as our ecological consciousness grows, we are learning to value and respect biological life in general. In the future our descendants may yet find a higher value that would once more go through the process of recontextualizing the value of man and earth life.
Ethics is about value and valuation. When we admonish our kids not to hit their siblings we are implicitly telling them that they must love their siblings as much or more than themselves, or that what they want cannot always be so (such as hitting someone when one wishes to), or that we must not hurt others period. Whatever the message we are trying to communicate to them, it essentially is a matter of telling them that a certain thing has more value than another. Hence, we are in effect telling them that it is better to love my brother more than myself, or what we want must sometimes be subordinated to what others want, not hurting others is better than than hurting them.
Do You Really Want a Donut?
The following story has been making its rounds on the Net. My commentary follows.
(There are other versions of the story. For instance: www.mannacabana.com and www.luquette.org)
Want a Donut?
There was a certain Professor of Religion named Dr. Christianson, a studious man who taught at a small college in the Western United States. Dr. Christianson taught the required survey course in Christianity at this particular institution. Every student was required to take this course his or her freshman year regardless of his or her major.
Although Dr. Christianson tried hard to communicate the essence of the gospel in his class, he found that most of his students looked upon the course as nothing but required drudgery. Despite his best efforts, most students refused to take Christianity seriously. This year, Dr. Christianson had a special student named Steve. Steve was only a freshman, but was studying with the intent of going to seminary for the ministry. Steve was popular, he was well liked, and he was an imposing physical specimen. He was now the starting center on the school football team, and was the best student in the professor's class. One day, Dr. Christianson asked Steve to stay after class so he could talk with him.
"How many push-ups can you do?"
Steve said, "I do about 200 every night."
"200? That's pretty good, Steve," Dr. Christianson said. "Do you think you could do 300?"
Steve replied, "I don't know... I've never done 300 at a time."
"Do you think you could?" again asked Dr. Christianson.
"Well, I can try," said Steve.
"Can you do 300 in sets of 10? I have a class project in mind and I need you to do about 300 push ups in sets of ten for this to work. Can you do it? I need you to tell me you can do it," said the professor.
Steve said, "Well... I think I can... yeah, I can do it."
Dr. Christianson said, "Good! I need you to do this on Friday. Let me explain what I have in mind."
Friday came and Steve got to class early and sat in the front of the room. When class started, the professor pulled out a big box of donuts. Now these weren't the normal kinds of donuts, they were the extra fancy BIG kind, with cream centers and frosting swirls. Everyone was pretty excited it was Friday, the last class of the day, and they were going to get an early start on the weekend with a party in Dr. Christianson's class.
Dr. Christianson went to the first girl in the first row and asked, "Cynthia, do you want to have one of these donuts?"
Cynthia said, "Yes."
Dr. Christianson then turned to Steve and asked, "Steve, would you do ten push-ups so that Cynthia can have a donut?" Steve said, "Sure," and jumped down from his desk to do a quick ten. Then Steve again sat in his desk. Dr. Christianson put a donut on Cynthia's desk.
Dr. Christianson then went to Joe, the next person, and asked, "Joe, do you want a donut?"
Joe said, "Yes." Dr. Christianson asked, "Steve would you do ten push-ups so Joe can have a donut?" Steve did ten push-ups, Joe got a donut.
And so it went, down the first aisle, Steve did ten pushups for every person before they got their donut. And down the second aisle, till Dr. Christianson came to Scott. Scott was on the basketball team, and in as good condition as Steve. He was very popular and never lacking for female companionship.
When the professor asked, "Scott do you want a donut?"
Scott's reply was, "Well, can I do my own pushups?"
Dr. Christianson said, "No, Steve has to do them."
Then Scott said, "Well, I don't want one then."
Dr. Christianson shrugged and then turned to Steve and asked, "Steve, would you do ten pushups so Scott can have a donut he doesn't want?"
With perfect obedience Steve started to do ten pushups.
Scott said, "HEY! I said I didn't want one!"
Dr. Christianson said, "Look, this is my classroom, my class, my desks, and these are my donuts. Just leave it on the desk if you don't want it."
And he put a donut on Scott's desk.
Now by this time, Steve had begun to slow down a little. He just stayed on the floor between sets because it took too much effort to be getting up and down. You could start to see a little perspiration coming out around his brow.
Dr. Christianson started down the third row. Now the students were beginning to get a little angry.
Dr. Christianson asked Jenny, "Jenny, do you want a donut?"
Sternly, Jenny said, "No."
Then Dr. Christianson asked Steve, "Steve, would you do ten more pushups so Jenny can have a donut that she doesn't want?"
Steve did ten, Jenny got a donut.
By now, a growing sense of uneasiness filled the room. The students were beginning to say "No" and there were all these uneaten donuts on the desks. Steve also had to really put forth a lot of extra effort to get these pushups done for each donut. There began to be a small pool of sweat on the floor beneath his face, his arms and brow were beginning to get red because of the physical effort involved.
Dr. Christianson asked Robert, who was the most vocal unbeliever in the class, to watch Steve do each push up to make sure he did the full ten pushups in a set because he couldn't bear to watch all of Steve's work for all of those uneaten donuts. He sent Robert over to where Steve was so Robert could count the set and watch Steve closely. Dr. Christianson started down the fourth row.
During his class, however, some students from other classes had wandered in and sat down on the steps along the radiators that ran down the sides of the room. When the professor realized this, he did a quick count and saw that now there were 34 students in the room.
He started to worry if Steve would be able to make it. Dr. Christianson went on to the next person and the next and the next. Near the end of that row, Steve was really having a rough time. He was taking a lot more time to complete each set.
Steve asked Dr. Christianson, "Do I have to make my nose touch on each one?"
Dr. Christianson thought for a moment, "Well, they're your pushups. You are in charge now. You can do them any way that you want."
And Dr. Christianson went on.
A few moments later, Jason, a recent transfer student, came to the room and was about to come in when all the students yelled in one voice, "NO! Don't come in! Stay out!" Jason didn't know what was going on.
Steve picked up his head and said, "No, let him come."
Professor Christianson said, "You realize that if Jason comes in you will have to do ten pushups for him?"
Steve said, "Yes, let him come in. Give him a donut"
Dr. Christianson said, "Okay, Steve, I'll let you get Jason's out of the way right now. Jason, do you want a donut?"
Jason, new to the room hardly knew what was going on. "Yes," he said, "give me a donut."
"Steve, will you do ten pushups so that Jason can have a donut?"
Steve did ten pushups very slowly and with great effort. Jason, bewildered, was handed a donut and sat down.
Dr. Christianson finished the fourth row, then started on those visitors seated by the heaters. Steve's arms were now shaking with each pushup in a struggle to lift himself against the force of gravity. Sweat was profusely dropping off of his face and, by this time, there was no sound except his heavy breathing, there was not a dry eye in the room.
The very last two students in the room were two young women, both cheerleaders, and very popular. Dr. Christianson went to Linda, the second to last, and asked, "Linda, do you want a doughnut?"
Linda said, very sadly, "No, thank you."
Professor Christianson quietly asked, "Steve, would you do ten pushups so that Linda can have a donut she doesn't want?"
Grunting from the effort, Steve did ten very slow pushups for Linda.
Then Dr. Christianson turned to the last girl, Susan. "Susan, do you want a donut?"
Susan, with tears flowing down her face, began to cry. "Dr. Christianson, why can't I help him?"
Dr. Christianson, with tears of his own, said, "No, Steve has to do it alone, I have given him this task and he is in charge of seeing that everyone has an opportunity for a donut whether they want it or not.
When I decided to have a party this last day of class, I looked at my grade book. Steve, here is the only student with a perfect grade. Everyone else has failed a test, skipped class, or offered me inferior work. Steve told me that in football practice, when a player messes up he must do push ups. I told Steve that none of you could come to my party unless he paid the price by doing your push ups. He and I made a deal for your sakes.
"Steve, would you do ten pushups so Susan can have a donut? "
As Steve very slowly finished his last pushup, with the understanding that he had accomplished all that was required of him, having done 350 pushups, his arms buckled beneath him and he fell to the floor.
Dr. Christianson turned to the room and said. "And so it was, that our Savior, Jesus Christ, on the cross, plead to the Father, 'into thy hands I commend my spirit. With the understanding that He had done everything that was required of Him, he yielded up His life. And like some of those in this room, many of us leave the gift on the desk, uneaten."
Two students helped Steve up off the floor and to a seat, physically exhausted, but wearing a thin smile. "Well done," said the professor, adding "Not all sermons are preached in words."
Turning to his class the professor said, "My wish is that you might understand and fully comprehend all the riches of grace and mercy that have been given to you through the sacrifice of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who spared not the only Begotten Son, but gave Him up for us all for the whole Church, now and forever.
A god who inflicts unnecessary pain and suffering on person X (whether that person is his "Son" or not) so that person Y can have a donut or be saved or whatever is perverted. The behavior is nonsensical. Christianson no doubt paid Mr. Donut greenbacks to get his 3 dozen donuts. Bakeshops do not accept pushups as payment. Now to ask a third party to work his triceps so that the second party may have a donut is humorous. To reenact this 35 times is sadistic. Only a mentally unstable bloke would subject a person to such absurd punishment and have innocent people become party to the cruelty.
"Look, this is my classroom, my class, my desks, and these are my donuts. Just leave it on the desk if you don't want it." Here we get a taste of authoritarianism/despotism snarling and rearing its ugly head. And the classroom and those desks aren't even his. Christianson is guilty of abuse and coercion. Thus, the students were acting under duress.
Despots are fond of cruelties. Look at what Chinese soldiers did to Tibetan monks and nuns during the Cultural Revolution: They poked their guns and said: if you Buddhists don't have sex right now here in the plaza we will pull the trigger. Some people inflict pain on innocents and pit their victims upon one another because they get a kick out of it (some actually get a hard-on). Violence gives some people a high (and every one of us gets us high from being violent or watching violence every now and then).
While Christianson is an authoritarian teacher Steve is an unquestioning (even unthinking) student, the ideal organizational person, a yes-man. It is likely he is a right-wing authoritarian (RWA) follower. Psychology professors Altemeyer and Hunsberger describe high RWAs as "very submissive to the authorities in their lives. If their authorities teach a certain ideology, they will tend to embrace it." Furthermore, "to varying degrees religions also promote authoritarian following, teaching their members to submit to religious and even civic authority." (Bob Altemeyer & Bruce Hunsberger, Amazing Conversions, Prometheus Books, 1997, p.236) Thus, Steve, possibly a future minister, goes along with Christianson, even making Christianson's project his own. He bows to the lone authority figure in the story and becomes an unwitting and witless accomplice.
"Dr. Christianson asked Robert, who was the most vocal unbeliever in the class, to watch Steve do each push up to make sure he did the full ten pushups in a set because he couldn't bear to watch all of Steve's work for all of those uneaten donuts. He sent Robert over to where Steve was so Robert could count the set and watch Steve closely."
And here we finally realize the sadism of the writer himself. I wonder what the difference is between him and the Indonesian thugs who forced a Chinese father to watch while they gang-raped his daughter.
A god who acts in the way Christianson torments Robert is a deity worth deposing in the soonest possible time.
The characters Christianson and Steve are fabrications by someone who has not even bothered to think about the ethical dilemma that his/her story has introduced. These two characters are a sadist-masochist pair arising out of a tongue-and-groove union between an authoritarian leader and an authoritarian follower. The only sane people in this story are the students. They are human and humanistic enough to quickly wake up and not be party to the absurdity of the S-M duo. But rather than see that they represent the sane response to cruelty the writer chose to denigrate and even insult them.
As to why Christianity emphasizes blood sacrifice is a question I'd like answered. And I'm betting it has partly to do with instilling neurotic guilt (in contrast to existential and authentic guilt). Dr. Joanna Galvin avers that "guilt forms the core of our culture's Judaeo-Christian world view." (http://www.genderweb.org/medical/psych/guilt.html) I contend that a large part of it is neurotic rather than a healthy kind.
For instance director Mel Gibson considers himself as being party to nailing Jesus on the cross. I understand that Gibson's hand is actually shown doing just that in his film The Passion of the Christ. This guilt is neurotic for it is a guilt that is not founded in reality. While a murderer is really guilty--both legally and morally--of a crime against another individual, to believe that someone whom one is not related to and has been dead some 2000 years before one was born had died for a phenomenon called sin is to experience neurotic guilt. The guilt feelings exist simply because there is a worldview--a theological belief in this case--that engenders it, rather than some factual experience in the life of that individual that directly is responsible for that guilt. This is somewhat similar to the guilt a young child may feel with the death of a parent. The child may believe that his/her being a "bad boy or girl" was responsible for daddy's or mommy's demise. This is very sad and unhealthy of course for it is unnecessary suffering and may indeed hamper the psychosocial development of that person. Such guilt feelings while understandable are neurotic and should ideally in time be overcome. There is a divide between emapthy and guilt, and each of us should discern what it is we are experiencing vis-a-vis for instance our viewing of "The Passion of the Christ."
As for atonement and died-for-our-sins theology I find it so crass and illogical I don't know how we in the 21st century can possibly find any sense in it anymore. Dr. Gerd Lüdemann of Georg-August-University in Göttingen, Germany, among other scholars, injects into our mindstream the necessary realism in no uncertain terms: "Jesus had no idea of dying for the sins of the world." ( http://bibleinterp.com/articles/Ludemann_Passion.htm ) Episcopalian Bishop John Shelby Spong minces no words either: "A savior who restores us to our prefallen status [Eden before the Fall] is pre-Darwinian superstition and post-Darwinian nonsense. A supernatural redeemer who enters our fallen world to restore creation is a theistic myth. We must free Jesus from the rescuer role." (John Shelby Spong, Why Christianity Must Change or Die, Harper Collins, 1998, p. 99) And "the view of the cross as the sacrifice for the sins of the world is a barbarian idea based on primitive concepts of God and must be dismissed." (http://www.dioceseofnewark.org/jsspong/reform.html)
Blood sacrifice and atonment theology was invented by the Church, perhaps with no malice and with all sincerity. Nevertheless it is a mythic statement--it is an appropriation of an event, a religious interpretation of a historical fact--rather than something factual. And so while this worldview may have served a purpose in the history of Christianity, it no longer is viable in the modern world with our vastly expanded trove of understanding and scholarship.
Even if we assume that God had indeed sacrificed himself to wash our sins away neither you nor I consented to it. We had no say in it. It was solely his decision. We did not even ask for it. Yet given the powers we have attributed to this deity, it is ludicrous that one who has the capacity to create the universe and everything in it had to take on a human form, get a flogging and be crucified. But more than this it is scandalous to harbor the idea that the collective transgressions (against whom?) of a species has to be expiated through human sacrifice. This is Yom Kippur in full regress. While Jews take a goat (the scapegoat), heap the sins of the community upon its head, and set it out into the wild to symbolically cleanse the community, Christianity had devolved to the use of a human being for this very purpose. (Admittedly this theology coheres with the ritual cannibalistic act of ingesting the flesh and blood of its hero via the Eucharist--it is in itself is a throwback). The literalization of the suffering and death of Jesus into a blood sacrifice is a step back. Among the steps forward meanwhile is one that appropriates his suffering and death as a martyrdom of sorts for the principles of love and justice, for as we now know those who dare expend their lives in the pursuit of such humanistic and godly goals are always putting their lives on the line (Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. are some of the more prominent examples in contemporary times).
Christianson as a metaphor for god connotes a deity that is neither a moral nor loving. No one in his right mind would give to another and say, "You're getting this gift and I'm inflicting unnecessary pain on another for you to have it. Make no mistake--s/he really suffered. And by the way, you can't refuse this gift. And the person will suffer regardless of what you think or do or do not do." Now that's demented. Subjecting Steve to physical abuse and subjecting the students to psychological-emotional trauma is hardly loving, hardly acceptable. Again, the students express the reactions of any thinking and feeling human. In fact it is not unrealistic to imagine a student running out and calling the Dean to the classroom. I can only wonder the horror and shock of the Dean at this patent abuse of authority. Is it unlikely the students will file a complaint and that stern disciplinary action will be taken against the professor?
"And like some of those in this room, many of us leave the gift on the desk, uneaten."
I for one would return the donut. Similarly, over a hundred years ago the great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky had Ivan Karamazov say: "I hasten to return my ticket" to God. (Brothers Karamazov, Book 5, Ch. 4) Given the nature and power of the Christian deity spiritual salvation bought through the blood of a human or an incarnate deity boggles the human heart and mind.
The end does not justify the means. Certainly not in Christianson story.
Still want a donut?
An Ethical Quotient?
Three months ago I felt compelled to finally set down what had been fermenting in my mind, something that I knew would be controversial, even taboo. Hence, it remained dormant in a corner of my computer's hard disk, unread by any other pair of eyes:
After many years of mulling it over I am coming to believe that the faculty for ethical thinking is a function not only of a society's mores, taboos, laws, etc. but more a function of one's neurology/psychology. And more and more I am coming to believe that this psycho-neural capacity is better developed (or accentuated) and acute in some than in others. The more this function is accentuated the more the individual is "possessed" by the imperatives of ethics. The less this function is pronounced/developed the less inhibited the person is (akin to the effects of alcohol when one has had way too much of it). In this uninhibited state, the person's naricissism becomes the overarching controlling force and mans the helm so speak.... Perhaps in the future we may even find a genetic basis for ethical thinking."
I have chosen to let this hypothesis out of the bag for today I discovered that this heretofore inchoate understanding has been shared by an esteemed authority. Carl Jung writes (more than half a century ago): "Morality seems to be a gift like intelligence. You cannot pump it into a system to which it is not indigenous." (Psychology and Religion, CW11, Princeton University Press, 1989, par. 130)
It turns out my observation/hypothesis is nothing new at all. Others have had an inkling of this as well. Now it is left to experimental psychologists and neurologists to find out how empirically true it really is.
If there is a grain of truth to this hypothesis one can imagine the impact on ethics, jurisprudence, criminology, socio-anthropology, genetics, and of course psychology. If the faculty for ethical thinking is similar to IQ, then will see a day when every person will be compelled to take Ethical Quotient tests by the state to predetermine our culpability if ever we commit a crime? Moreover, if insanity is currently grounds for exempting a person from responsibility, will it be similarly so with people whose ethical quotient is below 25? And if we are in the future actually able to gauge a person's EtQ faculty and development will we be forced to isolate and segregate those with low and very low quotients so that they may not wreak havoc in a society populated by those with average and above average EtQ's? And how shall we deal with the problem of people born ethically retarded? Will we turn to bioengineering to modify our chromosomes so that every human born thereafter will be endowed with the ethics gene?
Even If Everything Is Permissible
Many Christians argue that without God there could be no morality. A couple of months ago for example Dr. Harold Sala, in his radio commentary Guidelines, contended that "apart from God and the recognition that we are accountable to Him, there is no motive for morality or treating each other with dignity and respect." Further, he paraphrased Ivan Karamazov (in Fyodor Dostoevesky's novel The Brothers Karamazov) saying that without God everything is permissible.
If I hear Dr. Sala correctly he is saying that the only motive for us to do good and inhibit ourselves from doing evil is the supernatural dagger that hangs over our heads. Tell me what I'm missing but I fail to discern any substance in Sala's assertion. I do not see how morality/ethics is tied to the presence/absence of a cop in the sky. Sala declares that God and morality/altruism are inextricably linked. Frankly, I don't see this link. Neither does professor of philosophy Peter Singer:
We have no need to postulate gods who hand down commandments to us, because we can understand ethics as a natural phenomenon that arises in the course of the evolution of social, intelligent, long-lived mammals who possess the capacity to recognize each other and to remember the past behavior of others. (Ethics, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994, p. 5 )
Ask yourself this: If God suddenly were taken out of the equation, if we were suddenly given irrefutable proof that there are no deities, no supernatural realm, would we suddenly barge into a gun store, steal an AK-47 and start picking off all corrupt government officials, terrorists, criminals, and every other enemy we may have? Would males suddenly go on a frenzy and rape every lady they fancy? Would women rush to the malls and go on a shoplifting spree? Would the constitutions and ordinances of the world suddenly go bunk? Would G.W. suddenly order the US to go to DEFCON 1 and launch a preemptive nuclear strike on Iran, North Korea, and every damn country he considers part of the axis of evil? In short would complete chaos and mayhem suddenly escalate to a point where civilization self-destructs?
Why, of course not. We don't need a deity to give us codes of ethics--we have more than enough intelligence such that we have created various ethical systems and theories through the millennia. And neither do we need gods to make sure we don't destroy one another--we can and do commit murder and genocide on a regular basis regardless of belief or nonbelief in gods (and sometimes belief in a god makes us more confident in annihilating the other for "God is with us"). As it stands a good portion of the world is and has been atheistic by Christian standards and yet for some odd reason these poor godless souls haven't turned into criminals and maniacs. There are good men and bad ones. There's war and there's peace. There is order and there is chaos. As it has always been.
We do not do good because there is a god who's keeping tabs on everything we do. We remain in line and engage in acts of altruism whether or not St. Peter has security cameras with 5,000mm zoom lenses trained on each of us to note down when we've been naughty and when we've been nice.
We do the right thing because it's the right thing to do, because we prefer order to chaos, because we want to treat others well. And we make an effort to avoid evil deeds because they cause harm. We are guided by our principles, by both an innate and acquired sense of right and wrong. When thrust into a situation that demands an ethical decision we strive to come up with the right thing to do. We do not ask ourselves whether God would approve of our decision or not. Those who do the latter are not being ethical at all, they're being calculating. They are only doing what they believe is right so that they may ultimately gain something. They do good only because they have an ulterior motive for doing so, such as a ticket to heaven.
The I-must-do-what-is-right imperative does not come from the pulpit. It comes from within us. I must not kill the City Hall inspector even if he is extorting money from me. That imperative does not come from God. It may come from the law of the land, but because I do not subscribe to the Chritian deity I am certain that my principles do not issue from Yahweh. I teach my nephew how to draw cars because I love my nephew, not because I am commanded by some deity to love my neighbor and my kinsmen. God is not in the equation. Love and morality do not come from without. They come from within each human being. The source of love and morality and even evil is to be found within eash of us. Heaven and its inhabitants have no role. If ever these denizens exist, then they are mere observers, not participants (the Deists may be right after all).
Therefore, even if there is really no God, or even if there is a God and still everything is permitted we don't just do anything we like, when we like to. We struggle to remain true to our principles.
And so I am beginning to suspect that Christians who insist that morality cannot exist without God are those who are continually impelled to do evil, who have not developed a stable and solid moral compass. They do good only because they are coerced to do so. They do good but under duress, under penalty of eternal infernal damnation. These Christians are the types of people who need laws to guide them. They are the ones in whom the spirit of ethics has not yet been ingrained, and so need the letter of the law to guide them and keep them in line. They are the ones who have not yet developed a moral kernel that allows them to be ethical (rather than just act ethical), and so need the presence of a schoolmaster with a big stick in hand.
Does the End Justify the Means?
Let us suppose my family and I are Kurds who have been fighting Saddam Hussein's oppressive regime for many years now. At this moment I have been arrested by the notorious Fedayeen. My hands are tied behind my back; I have been beaten up; I am on my knees; and my face is dripping wet with my blood. I am trembling from pain and weakness. I can hardly open my eyes, swollen as they are from the blows.
One of my captors pulls me by my hair and presses a dagger to my throat. He spits on me, curses me, and demands that I tell them where my father and brothers are.
If I refuse to answer for the third time he will certainly slit my jugular. On the other hand if I tell him where my family is they will be masssacred along with me. So I tell them that they are camped near the Turkish border (over 50 miles from where I am). I tell them this lie so that my parents, siblings and entire clan may have time to escape. I tell them a lie because this will buy me time--perhaps on our way to the border some of my comrade in arms will see us and rescue me.
In this case the objective--staying alive (even for just a few more hours) and keeping my clan safe from mortal harm--justifies the means I have chosen--lying. While telling a lie may, most of the time, be wrong, in this case it is the most sensible thing to do. It is ethical. In fact it is a duty.
We would like to have a pat and simple yes or no answer to a controversial aphorism such as "the end justifies the means." It is politically correct to say no it doesn't. But the truth is that sometimes the end justifies the means, while there are times and situations when it does not. Extraordinary circumstances may demand means which under ordinary situations would be unethical.
It is easy to apply rules. We expect machines like computers to flawlessly do so. But we cannot just mindlessly apply the law, the decalogue, or any code of ethics for that matter. If ethics were merely a matter of looking up a (mental) codebook then our actions are not ethical at all, merely mechanical. Without the agony of thinking things through, weighing alternatives, considering their consequences, our choice of course of action cannot be subsumed under the rubric of ethics.
To Kill to Save
I. The Storyline
In the episode "Nothing Human" of the TV series Voyager the crew of the spacecraft Voyager comes to the rescue of a very intelligent yet heretofore unknown alien species, one resembling a very large scorpion or lobster. Because its spacecraft is badly damaged Captain Kathryn Janeway decides to beam the lone survivor to sick bay, knowing fully well that by bringing this 'stranger' on board her ship she is putting Voyager at risk.
Preliminary diagnosis indicates that the creature is ill or injured. Though at first docile this creature moments later pounces upon B'Elanna Torres and attaches itself to her, pierces her neck, and starts injecting toxins into her body and sending tendrils into her major organs. By so doing the creatures survives by parasitically siphoning her energy and nutrients (reminiscent of Dracula).
Unable to decipher its language consisting of shrills the crew have no way of understanding the motives of this creature. They don't know whether it has attached itself to Torres because it merely wants to survive or whether it has more long term malevolent intents.
Knowing nothing about this creature and its anatomy, Voyager's chief medical officer 'Doc' (a 'mere' hologram) decides he needs the assistance of a Cardassian medical expert on exobiology. The engineers toil to create a holographic representation of Dr. Crell Moset, a feat they manage to pull off. After Doc explains their predicament Moset proceeds to examine Torres and the alien creature. But because the equipment on board Voyager is inadequate he asks that his laboratory be recreated in order that he may have access to the specialized instruments he requires to further examine this creature.
Voyager's Doc (left) with Dr. Crell Moset (right) examining a holographic mockup of the alien creature wrapped tightly around B'Ellana Torres.
While Doc and Moset try to learn about the creature and ultimately devise a method to remove it from Torres without killing her, one crew member, Ensign Tabor, by chance comes face to face with Moset. The Bajroan is aghast and is unable to contain his rage. He accuses him of having murdered his family by exposing them to all sorts of radiation and acids as part of his medical experiments. Doc cannot believe his ears. Surely there has been a mistake. The great Dr. Moset singlehandedly came up with a cure for a rare disease and saved thousands from the fatal epidemic. It must be a simple case of mistaken identity.
But alas, searching through the ship's database, the crew piece enough information that corroborates Tabor's allegations: the 'good' doctor indeed had performed horrible experiments on Bajorans directly causing the death of dozens if not hundreds of their people.
Captain Janeway calls for a meeting. Voyager is caught in a dilemma. How can they let Moset continue helping them when the very knowledge he's utilizing was gained from his murderous experiments? Given the fact that his expertise derives from many counts of heinous crimes, is it at all conscionable to use whatever Moset has to offer to save the life of Torres, notwithstanding that this Moset is merely a holographic representation? No, they say, not even if it's only a hologram since the representation relies on the actual Moset files found in Voyager's database. The debate among the officers heats up. Several want the Moset program terminated immediately. Even the Vulcan  Tuvok agrees that it is logical for Torres to refuse help from Moset. However, a few believe that saving Torres is more important and that the chances of doing so drops to nill if Moset's expertise becomes unavailable. The captain must make a decision. And she is forthright and does not dally, giving us the impression she had already made up her mind even before she called for the meeting. For now she says Torres is more important to her than ethical issues and so she instructs Doc to continue working with Moset.
In Moset's recreated lab he and Doc successfully induce the creature to retract its tendrils and free Torres from its death grip, by applying a neurostatic shock to its nervous system. They move on to sickbay and try the method for real this time. But while Moset wants to apply a large dose of electrical shock ensuring rapid retraction of the tendrils, Doc intervenes and takes over, and applies a less than lethal dose to the creature.
Meanwhile, the peers of this alien creature have arrived and are pounding the Voyager. Its energy shields are useless against the aliens' weapons. Voyager still does not understand the shrills even as she tries to to tell the aliens that they mean no harm. It is clear, however, that the aliens want their comrade back.
Over in sickbay Doc manages to induce the creature to finally let go of Torres. With the separation complete engineers are finally able to lock onto the creature and beam it to its fellows. Mission accomplished the alien ships depart without damaging Voyager. They even seem to say "thank you" on their way off.
In the aftermath Captain Janeway tells Doc that as the medical expert on board he must decide the fate of Dr. Moset. It will up to him whether to retain Moset or pull the plug on this most controversial hologram. Doc arrives at Moset's laboratory. Moset is stowing away his instruments while humming a tune he and Doc had sung during their most fruitful collaboration earlier.
Doc tells Moset that he has come to inform him of his decision. Moset understands that Doc is still bothered by his shady past and so tries to persuade Doc that what is important are the results. That he was able to cure thousands during the Cardassian War. Moreover, that he and Doc were able to save both Torres and the parasitic alien creature should be considered a victory. How they were able to manage to do that is irrelevant. The eloquent Moset puts up a convincing argument. He even reminds Doc that humans had for decades used animals to test virtually everything that humans dare not try on themselves. But Doc has already made up his mind. No argument by Moset can possibly make him reconsider. He hails Voyager's voice-activated computer and commands it to delete the Crell Moset program and all files related to it. The laboratory and Dr. Moset, murderer and savior, disappear from the holo-deck forever.
II. The Issues
A. Moset's Move
Was it right for Dr. Moset to conduct his medical experiments on the Bajroans, to use them as guinea pigs and in the process torture and eventually kill them? No. I doubt any one of us would agree. Those who dare say yes should be ready to stand beside Moset and infect, irradiate, and eventually kill any number of people.
The end does not justify the means, certainly not in this case. But this is exactly the point around which Moset's argument revolves. The Cardassian doctor believes that the thousands who were saved did justify the (cruel) means he employed. To complicate matters Moset is a utilitarian, i.e., he believes that if a hundred thousand lives can be saved by sacrificing a hundred or a thousand then it is a good bargain and one must go for it unhesitatingly. Moset would further argue that with the knowledge gained from experimenting on the Bajorans (or humans for that matter) medical science would be so served and advanced that the potential benefits may be even more than what is now apparent.
The utilitarian angle is an attractive argument and many throughout our history have so reasoned and rationalized their actions this way.Surely if I deny myself the several dozen books I would like to purchase right now and instead place that money in an investment that gives a return of 20% per month I would be able to buy even more books next month. In this rather trivial case the small amount of pain that I suffer today from being deprived of much desired reading material indeed is more than offset by the greater number of material I will receive in the very near future. Delaying gratification, of course if one of the signs of a mature person (very young children as we all know fail this test miserably). In this sense utilitarianism may be a good thing.
The English philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) was the founder of utilitarianism and made it famous (or infamous) with his formula that we must strive for the greatest happiness of the greatest number [see sidebar for an excerpt of principle of utility]. Doubtless our Cardassian doctor would gleefully assent. And to the sure delight of Bentham, Crell Moset is a utilitarian to the very end and in every circumstance. He is a doctor, but with a twist. He wants to save and cure people, yet he is ready to sacrifice a 'few' if that would ultimately enhance the life of more people.
On the other end of the scale is Ivan Karamazov of Fyodor Dostoevsky's novel The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan argues that if the salvation of the entire world were to be founded on the abominable suffering of but one little girl then it is not worth it at all. In fact it is unthinkable, so much so that Ivan would rather return his ticket to God. [see sidebar for Ivan's Challenge] The price is simply too much to pay. Indeed who amongst us would agree to such a Faustian bargain?—one tiny insignificant soul for the salvation of the entire world? Tempting sometimes, until you're handed the stick and asked to torture the child yourself.
B. Voyager's Move
The dilemma on board the Voyager is whether to allow Moset to continue counseling them, thereby directly benefiting from the murderous experiments he conducted, expert opinion which would probably save Torres; or whether to delete the Moset holographic program, thereby denouncing in no uncertain terms the crimes against humanity (or Bajorans) committed by Moset, a move which will almost surely lead to Torres' death.
Let us now tackle the argument by some of the crew members that it is absolutely wrong to reap any benefit from the work and expertise of Moset because they were gained through the most unethical means imaginable. Was it wrong for Captain Janeway to use Moset in saving Torres? Does her decision make her an accomplice to Moset's crimes?
My personal response is this: While it is incontrovertible that Moset's experiments were criminal in nature, that the harm he willfully inflicted upon the Bajorans cannot and should never be countenanced, the fact remains, today, that what happened had happened and that we now have in our possession the medical knowledge, the know-how which can and does allow Star Trek doctors everyhwere to help cure and save lives, indispensable knowledge without which many will not be cured and saved. I am of the opinion that we must not throw away that knowledge simply because it was derived unethically. If that knowledge is summarily discarded then the suffering of those who served as Moset's guinea pigs would have been in vain. Not only had they been tortured, but the only good that ever came out of their untimely death would be put to death as well.
We cannot change the past. History is like a moving hand that writes which, having writ, moves on.  That Moset committed those crimes is undeniable. That he was able to use the knowledge gained from those crimes to save a good number of people cannot be denied as well. That the same knowledge will benefit others in future (as in the case of Torres) must also be acknowledged. Call it some form of pragmatism but it is not conscionable to me to deny a starving family a loaf of bread just because that particular loaf had been stolen. If that stolen loaf is the only sustenance avialable that will keep that family from dying tonight in their sleep, I see an imperative for all to immediately offer that loaf to them however that loaf was acquired. There are priorities. And life is one of them, as Captain Janeway correctly recognized.
On the other hand if the knowledge we had derived from the suffering of those Bajorans was how to kill more people more efficiently and effectively, then, yes, we most certainly must immediately efface, erase, expunge, and raze all the knowledge the doctor had acquired.
III. An Experiment of Our Own
Let us imagine that we have been transported to the time when Dr. Crell Moset was just about to conduct these experiments. Further, let us suppose that conducting these experiments is the only way the for the doctor to find a cure for the hundreds of thousands who are dying. Moreover, let us also suppose that we have enough authority and power to stop Moset from continuing with his experiments. If we so wish we can even go as far as supposing that we can see the future well enough to know of the alien creature that will attack Torres which would thus require the services of Moset, and that if we stop him from performing his experiments now the future Torres will surely die. The question for us who can grant Moset the thumbs up or down is: Should we allow Moset to proceed unimpeded? Given our perfect foreknowledge can we deny the hundreds of thousands, and Torres as well, the medical knowledge that will cure and save them? How would you answer or change your answer if one of those who will eventually be saved will be your 4-year old child? How will you answer or change your answer if all of those who will be saved are the people who invaded your country and massacred your people, leaving you widowed?
If we permit Moset to conduct his experiments then we become utilitarians ourselves just like Bentham and Moset. Morevoer, we would become accomplices to torture and murder and all the crimes Moset will commit in the name of medical science.
Although the experiments will surely yield the answers we need to cure a whole generation there is no rationale that can permit us to decide the fate of a few in order to save the many. The end does not justify the means, however much more good there will be (as if we can quantify goodness as Bentham would have us believe) in the end than what we started with.
Therefore, while knowledge that already exists should not be discarded despite the shady means by which it has been acquired, consenting to create new knowledge through such means is not an option.
IV. Long-Range Scanners Indicate That...
Voyager and Star Trek: The Next Generation and their parent Star Trek are perhaps some of best collections of short stories we have in our high tech era that underscore the essential nature of ethics and ethical behavior in our species. Take for instance the now famous "prime directive," present since the original Star Trek series of the 1960's. It is suppose to be the first and most essential principle that the Federation is bound to. The prinicple simply states that no one should interfere in the evolution and development of another species. This obviously is an ethical principle, one that is meant to minimize any bias for or against one or another species.
The series has survived and thrived for more than 3 decades because it deals with something so vital to human consciousness and society. Star Trek and its progeny tackle the philosophical issues that have tormented man since Plato's time and will still shake man until that day he comes in contact with the first sentient alien creatures, and further on still until his last breath.
Star Trek and the above spin-offs are successful because the main cast are always portrayed as holding on to our loftiest ideals. They are not portrayed as superhumans, demi-gods who do no wrong, but as those with enough integrity and awareness to take very seriously the ethical dilemmas that come their way. And this is what we all want to be, we want to be like them— upright men and women who will not turn a blind eye to the issues nor take the easy way out.
This then is the nature of ethics: that to be ethical one must suffer; suffer the difficulties of becoming aware of situation, and weighing alternatives and choosing a course of action; and of bearing the responsibility for one's decision.
- Unlike humans Vulcans do not have any emotions. They are perfect rational beings, relying solely on reason for judgment and decision making.
- In The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam the Persian poet declares,
The moving hand writes, and having writ moves on.
What is Lawful May Not Be Right
Our anality for imposing the law of the land and religious law is one of the most common ways of institutionalizing evil and the surest way of becoming accomplices to its interminable manifestation. It is so common indeed that at times I am tempted to blurt that there is no statistical correlation between what is lawful and what is ethically right. It is only a cretin who could possibly believe that what is proscribed by law is absolutely wrong and thus merits punishment, and that which is not prohibited is absolutely ok. I can only pray to the god of lawyers that one day uttering such words as law, legal, illegal becomes in itself unlawful.
. . . . . .
In the film version of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, Jean Valjean as a young boy steals a loaf of bread out of hunger and is caught and imprisoned for two decades. He gets out of prison a hardened man. He steals again. And once again is caught. But when the man from whom he has stolen is asked by the police he not only denies he has been robbed but concocts a story to prevent Valjean's arrest. Valjean is moved beyond words. No one in his life has ever shown pity or love for him. From that moment on he is changed. Years later he becomes an industrialist and the mayor of his town. But then a intransigent detective who was his prison guard decades ago is on his case and is looking for the criminal Valjean. And this officer happens to have just been recently assigned to Valjean's town! Police Inspector Javert is a man of the law. But he does not recognize that the mayor to whom he has been assigned is the man he is looking for.... Valjean helps to save an ill and aggrieved prostitute from being imprisoned by Javert who would not show any pity. In his blind dedication to the law the inspector will slam the book on anyone who breaks it. Now in his care she beseeches Valjean to take care of her young daughter, now that she is about to succumb to tuberculosis. He promises.... Slowly things unfold and the inspector begins to suspect that the mayor is indeed his prey. Finally when Valjean hears from the inspector that a man touted as Valjean has been caught and is being tried, Valjean himself appears before the court and intervenes, and confesses that he is the man they are looking for and not the crazy fool they are trying. Valjean leaves the courtroom and heads off to find Cosette, the daughter of the whore, and to escape the Inspector whom he knows will stop at nothing to capture him. Valjean and Cosette find a sanctuary inside a convent in Paris and are able to live in peace, free from Javert... When Valjean and Cosette move to a private home a decade later an uprising breaks out and Valjean and his adopted daughter become caught in the middle of it, as the now teenage Cosette falls in love with the head of revolution, Marius. In the midst of this Javert is apprehended while infiltrating the camp. Valjean intervenes as the young idealists prepare to execute the officer, volunteering to finish off the officer. Valjean brings him to a secluded alley but, instead of shooting him, sets him free! Javert is rattled, but vows he will not end his quest to bring Valjean to justice. As the forces of Paris begin to break the back of the revolution Marius is seriously injured. Valjean comes to the rescue of the half-conscious lad and both escape through the sewers only to be pursued and caught by Javert. Valjean pleads with his captor to let the boy go for he, Valjean, is who he, Javert, is after. Javert consents and has his guards escort Valjean and the unconscious Marius to Cosette. Under guard Valjean returns as promised to the riverside where Javert has been waiting. Javert sends his guards off with a secret document for his superiors. He tells Valjean that he has had time to think for himself. He uncuffs Valjean and puts it on himself. Javert tells Valjean that he is free, that he is now a free man! Then Javert steps back to the bank's edge and lets himself fall into the swift river behind him.
Javert is the personification of justice gone blind, gone evil. Valjean meanwhile is the criminal reformed, who because of being loved has become a loving man himself. And in the course of loving Javert, time after time after time, Javert himself finally learns that justice--the law--must be forsaken in the name of love, in the name of ethical action. He frees Valjean from the hounds of Justice, and redeems himself via a martyrdom unto himself. No film presents the love-justice interplay more touchingly. It is a remarkable story.
. . . . . .
Once upon a time there was village whose population all descended from the elder of the tribe named Baba. Since Baba was the oldest and the patriarch of every single villager there was harmony within the village. If some conflict did arise, the parties involved would submit themselves to Baba and he would decide the case. Whatever his decision it was accepted as final and binding.
One day a woman from the village went off to fill a ceremonial vas with water from a sacred stream deep in the forest. While she was there she heard the cry of a child. She immediately looked for the source of the sobbing and quickly found a half naked boy by a tree, shivering from cold and fright. The woman tried to ask the boy his name and other questions but the boy did not seem to understand. When she made a sign for him to come, however, the boy immediately took shelter in the woman's arms. She then decided she would take him back to her village and present the lost boy to the tribe.
After the boy had been fed and clothed he was taken to Baba and the elders. They asked him questions, but the little one could only recoil from these ferocious looking men whose voices sounded like thunder while the flickering fire illuminated the hut with lightning. He did not understand anything they said or even gestured.
Having extracted nothing from the child Baba and his council deliberated on the matter among themselves as the boy watched. After an hour the woman who found the boy was summoned. She sat on the ground before Baba and the council.
Baba spoke: "Eliza, since you found this boy and brought him to us you must know what I have decided to do with him. I have spoken with my brothers and sons and it is my decision that you bring this boy back to the place where you found him and leave him there."
A look of horror descended upon Eliza's eyes and she blurted: "Father," as everyone in the village calls Baba however young or old, "forgive my insolence, but this boy will die if we leave him out in the forest. Can he not stay? I have already made a bedding in our hut. I will care for him ... I will make him strong so that he may soon leave us."
"Eliza, my dear grandchild, we have never taken in a stranger. We are one family. Of one blood, one flesh. In our laws what you are asking is expressly forbidden."
Eliza had a quick mind, perhaps to her disadvantage. "Father, can we not then send our men to look for his tribe and return him safely?"
"You are insistent Eliza. But I will be patient for you are young and tender of heart. Our village is poor. We cannot spare our men to venture out into the wilderness and risk losing them to the wild and to other tribes that hunt for slaves. No, this is not possible. I shall hear no more from you. Now take this strange boy and be off!"
Eliza shifted her gaze and looked at the boy with sorrow in her eyes. All this time the little one had not understood that his fate was being determined for him. All he knew was that he was no longer hungry and cold.
The little one had uttered not a single word since he was found by Eliza. And now as they both walked back into the very forest he had been alone in for almost four days he began to feel a shiver that was not brought on by rain nor by the cool of the jungle. Eliza led him by the hand, walking ever so slowly, hoping, hiding her tears from a boy whom she knew would, within a week, die of hunger or cold or, God forbid, of snake bite.
Eliza stood at the edge of her village everyday, hoping that the boy would somehow find his way out of the forest and into her village. But that day never arrived. And so everyday her heart wept for the little one. Many many years thereafter as Eliza lay in her deathbed she could only think of the boy. Tears welled and flowed unrelentingly as she chanted her last words, "Forgive us... Forgive us..."