Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Magnificent Seven

I wasn't sure what to expect when I went to see The Magnificent Seven. IMDB summarized the entire movie quite succinctly in one simple sentence: "Seven gun men in the old west gradually come together to help a poor village against savage thieves." I had not seen the original, so for better or worse I had no basis for comparison. I generally like westerns; I was impressed by the all-star lineup; I was intrigued by the previews. I went to see it without reading any reviews so I could experience it unfiltered.

The spectacular cast, the beautiful cinematography, and a story line featuring a small town of peaceful, church-going citizens who are badly in need of rescuing from a profoundly evil robber baron all work together quite effectively. In some ways Magnificent Seven is a classic good vs. evil scenario.  There is some sense of satisfaction as justice rolls down and wash away the violent men who have ravaged the land. The victims are truly victims who deserve our sympathy; the villains have committed genuinely deplorable acts that cry out for our anger. That's important to me in a movie: I want my emotions to match the reality of the situation. A good movie will get us to weep with those who rightly weep and celebrate with those who justly celebrate.

And yet...

Magnificent Seven is more complicated than that. In the middle of this timeless battle for good many smaller skirmishes take place, particularly among the Seven who ride into town as heroes. They are certainly fighting heroically, but... heroes? Maybe not so much.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Hell Or High Water

"They treated my people's wounds superficially, telling them, 'Peace, peace,' but there is no peace." (Jeremiah 6:14)

Hell Or High Water deserves the acclaim it has received from both critics and viewers. Here's a brief plot summary courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes:

Texas brothers--Toby (Chris Pine), and Tanner (Ben Foster), come together after years divided to rob branches of the bank threatening to foreclose on their family land. For them, the hold-ups are just part of a last-ditch scheme to take back a future that seemed to have been stolen from under them. Justice seems to be theirs, until they find themselves on the radar of Texas Ranger, Marcus (Jeff Bridges) looking for one last grand pursuit on the eve of his retirement, and his half-Comanche partner, Alberto (Gil Birmingham). As the brothers plot a final bank heist to complete their scheme, and with the Rangers on their heels, a showdown looms at the crossroads where the values of the Old and New West murderously collide.

Hell Or High Water is an exceptionally well made film: great cast, sharp dialogue, an excellent soundtrack, and a camera that captures the geographical and economic desolation of a place losing both direction and hope.

Of course, nailing the craft of filmmaking is only one kind of excellent. I view my entertainment through the rubric of good, true and nobleL is it made with excellence; does it tell an honest story about the world; and does it make me want to be a better man? I obviously think it's good, so let's consider true and noble.

Is Hell Or High Water true - Does it tell an honest story about the world? 

Absolutely. It's like watching the book of  Ecclesiastes unfold in the midwest. It's not hopeful, but it's honest about what life looks like when measured by money, sex and power. I found myself rooting for the protagonists not because they were good guys - Tanner in particular is most definitely not - but because they are so desperately in need of a glimmer of hope. They are overwhelmed by life: work is hard to find; banks are bullying small farmers into the ground; the Big Oil that makes some rich drives others into poverty; their families are either dying or deserting them. There is nothing that brings them peace. Vanity, says the Preacher. All is vanity.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Vote Your Conscience: A (hopefully) Helpful Guide For The 2016 Election

The Old Testament records that, when Israel wanted to have a ruler that looked like their neighbors, they had one demand of God: “Give us a king” (1 Samuel 8:6).  In God’s fulfillment of their request we are reminded of the caution that we ought to be careful what we wish for lest we get it. We are not Israel, but our plaintive “Give us a President!” resounds during this election with an unsettling biblical echo.

We the people – or at least the political machinery that claims to offer us all a constitutional republic that reflects our wills – have chosen two historically unpopular candidates. This looked like a banner year for third party candidates - but they have also taken quite a bit of criticism.

My friends, family and colleagues are more divided this election than perhaps any other since I began voting.  Many are reluctant supporters of Clinton or Trump; some are excited to some degree. More than usual are going third party this year if for no other reason than to send a loud message that is time for the independents to rise.

So what’s a Christian to do? We are citizens of Heaven first, be we are also American citizens who have been given the opportunity and perhaps even the mandate to be involved. The Bible uses imagery of salt and light to describe a Christian’s spiritual influence; it’s easy to see how this has a pragmatic call as well. It's just not easy to see what to do when when voting appears to be inevitably morally compromising.

I don't think there is a one-size-fits-all approach. This is the kind of election where the oft repeated mandate to ‘vote your conscience’ carries more truth – and weight – than perhaps ever before. In the interest of providing a way to think through this choice, I have written a series of posts that cover various ethical theories that can be applied as one prepares for this year's election. I am convinced that no one ethical theory does justice to the complexity of our world; nonetheless, I hope the process of viewing life through different ethical lenses will bring increasing clarity.

Who Best Understands Your Rights? (Trump And Clinton Through The Lenses Of Ethical Theory)

As I noted in the first post in this series, this is an election where the encouragement to ‘vote your conscience’ resonates perhaps more than ever. In the service of bringing clarity to our thoughts about this years' candidates, I am posting a number of articles that look at the candidates through the lenses of various ethical theories. So far, we have covered virtue ethics, deontological ethicsconsequentialist ethicsKantian ethics and Natural Law ethics. This sixth and final post will look at Rights-based ethics.

I am convinced that no one ethical theory does justice to the complexity of our world; nonetheless, I hope the process of viewing life through several different ethical lenses will bring increasing clarity. I should also note that my summaries offer a a broad overview that will not do justice to the complexities of these theories. I encourage you to read more deeply on your own.

                   * * * * * * * * * *

Rights-based ethics claims that we have a right to certain things because we are human beings. These rights create a moral responsibility in others to acknowledge and accept them. Two key examples of rights-based ethics in action are the Bill of Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Rights-based ethics are built upon four key claims:

  • Rights are “natural insofar as they are not invented or created by governments.” Natural rights pertain to us by virtue of our humanity; as such, they apply to all persons. 
  • Rights are “universal insofar as they do not change from country to country.” Conventional rights are created by humans, generally within the context of social and political organizations.  Note the contrast between rights based on a social contract vs. natural rights, which in some ways relies on Natural Law. Conventional rights are not typically used to build rights-based ethics. 
  • Rights are “equal in the sense that rights are the same for all people, irrespective of gender, race, or handicap.”
  • Rights are “inalienable, which means that I cannot hand over my rights to another person, such as by selling myself into slavery.” 

These rights imply correlative duties. If I have a right, others have a duty to honor it. My right to freedom from physical harm imposes on others a duty not to physically harm me. My right to free speech imposes on others a duty not to prevent me from speaking. My property right in X imposes a duty on others not to trespass upon or interfere with my use and enjoyment of X. Lewis Smedes explains it this way in Mere Morality: What God Expects From Ordinary People:

"If one person has a right, someone else has a duty to honor it. If I have a right to stay alive, you have an obligation to keep your hands off my throat. If you have a right to your private place, I have a duty so stay away from it. If a stranger has a right to some food for his hungry child, someone has a duty to see that he gets it. Whenever someone has a right someone else is obligated to honor that right. If my right does not obligate anyone, it is only a piece of fiction."  

Rights-based ethicists typically make a distinction between Negative vs. Positive RightsNegative rights impose duties of noninterference on others. Thus, my right to life as a negative right is a right not be killed. Positive rights impose duties of assistance on others (such as receiving food, money, or opportunity). For example, welfare rights impose on the state the duty to assist those who cannot provide for themselves; the state in turn imposes that on us through the taxation that supports the assistance.

The rights to be respected in Libertarian Ethics are negative or non-interference rights; specifically, the right to life, liberty and property. The only limit is interference with the similar rights of others. Libertarians generally reject positive rights. People have the right to assistance only if they have made contractual arrangements (insurance, for example). A semi-libertarian position argues that government ensures negative rights, but individuals have an obligation for positive rights.

Examples of what ethicists have offered as rights include the following: 

  • The right to life
  • The right to liberty
  • The right to pursue happiness
  • The right to a jury trial
  • The right to a lawyer
  • The right to freely practice a religion of choice
  • The right to express ideas or opinions with freedom as an individual
  • The right of individuals or organizations to express opinions or share information freely in written medium
  • The right to come together and meet in order to achieve goals
  • The right to be informed of what law has been broken if arrested
  • The right to call witnesses to speak on one's behalf if accused of a crime
  • The right of a person to be treated with respect and dignity even after being found guilty of a crime
  • The right to freely live and travel within the country
  • The right to work
  • The right to marry
  • The right to bear children
  • The right to free education
  • The right to join any peaceful parties or groups of choice
  • The right to be free from slavery
  • The right to not be tortured
  • The right to be treated as equal to others
  • The right to be considered to be innocent until proven guilty
  • The right to personal privacy
  • The right to own property
  • The right to internet access

If you scan the previous list of suggested rights while considering the negative/positive and conventional/natural distinctions, you can see that there is plenty of room for disagreement about which ones should be included and how they should all be honored.

  • Is the right to free education really on par with the right to be free from slavery? 
  • Does my right to pursue happiness create a negative or positive obligation in those around me? Should they just leave me alone, or must they assist my pursuit?
  • Doesn't my having a right work compel very different obligations than my having a right to marry? 
  • Is being denied internet access really as morally unacceptable as being tortured?
There seems to be a sliding scale here somewhere. We have fought wars to end slavery; I don't think there has ever been a war fought over education. Why the difference? And if it's not worth laying down one's life, is that an indication that it shouldn't be on the list? However, in spite of disagreements and distinction, there is a shared commitment among rights-based ethicists to honor the rights best understood as inherent to all.

So, back to our candidates:
  1. Do the candidates differ in their perspective on negative vs. positive rights?  
  2. Which one is more likely to impose duties of assistance? 
  3. Which is more likely to limit their agenda to duties of non-interference?
  4. Which candidate supports the idea that rights are natural, universal, equal and inalienable?
  5. Which candidate is more likely to establish or support rights that reflect the mood of the culture vs. rights that exist independently of the mere will of the people?
          * * * * * * * * * *

To summarize this series: Are you voting for a virtuous candidate (virtue ethics) who is committed to using just means (deontological ethics) to accomplish the greatest good for the greatest number (consequentialist/utilitarian ethics), who values the intrinsic worth of people, who will enact laws and regulations that are universalizable, who seeks to enact legislation that overlaps with the telos of the world, and who recognizes the existence of natural, universal, equal and inalienable rights?

I hope this has helped you consider the candidates carefully. I'm not sure there is an easy answer in this year's election when the candidates are considered from all these angles. However, that does not mean no choice rises to the top.

Vote carefully and conscientiously.

May the better candidate win.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The Overlap Of Natural And Societal Law (Trump And Clinton Through The Lenses Of Ethical Theory)

As I noted in the first post in this series, this is an election where the encouragement to ‘vote your conscience’ resonates perhaps more than ever. In the service of bringing clarity to our thoughts about this years' candidates, I am posting a number of articles that look at the candidates through the lenses of various ethical theories. So far, we have covered virtue ethics, deontological ethicsconsequentialist ethics and Kantian ethics.  This fifth post will look at Natural Law ethics.

I am convinced that no one ethical theory does justice to the complexity of our world; nonetheless, I hope the process of viewing life through several different ethical lenses will bring increasing clarity. I should also note that my summaries offer a a broad overview that will not do justice to the complexities of these theories. I encourage you to read more deeply on your own.

                                                                 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Though Natural Law theory is typically associated with Christian ethics - Aquinas is a Natural Law rock star - one does not need to be religious to believe there is a form of Natural Law that is powerful (Wikipedia's article on Natural Law gives a helpful introductory overview).

In Natural Law Theory, standards of morality arise from telos, the end or purpose of people and things that is embedded in the design of the world. Because we are rational (Kant smiles and nods approvingly), we can discover this telos  through the laws of nature and the work of philosophy. It is both knowable and authoritative. Natural Law proponents focus less on virtue than they do on their duty to honor design and purpose. (1) Good people embrace the duty to promote this; bad people do not. 

On this foundation, we build a good society that is far more trustworthy than 'positive' laws (mere human legislation that reflects a fluid social contract) and more accessible than divine laws (which require special rather than simply general revelation from God).

https://apakistaninotebook.files.wordpress.com/2014/11/nl1.png 
According to Aquinas, the best human law enforces or promotes the Natural Law. He described it as “an ordinance of reason for the common good, made by him who has care of the community, and has promulgated it.” (Summa Theologica). This is called the Overlap Thesis, a principle we see reflected in the founding documents of the United States ("the Laws of Nature and Nature's God"). Not everyone agrees - how often does that happen, really? - but it's a logical conclusion to the theory.

The bottom line is this: in Natural Law ethical theory, a reasoned assessment of the common good as found through the observation of design and purpose is morally authoritative for society as well as individuals. 

One clear advantage of the Natural Law approach is that it universalizes aspects of human nature that can be seen across time and cultures.  In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis wrote of the Tao, a way of showing that “men of every culture and age agree on the moral principles, even if they disagree on how those principles are to be applied.” He highlighted the following:

  • The Law of General Beneficence
  • The Law of Special Beneficence
  • Duties to Parents, Elders and Ancestors
  • Duties to Children and Posterity
  • The Law of Justice: sexual justice (faithfulness); property justice (honesty); justice in court (fairness)
  • The Law of Good Faith and Veracity
  • The Law of Mercy
  • The Law of Magnanimity

Natural Law is also compelling because it values purpose and design that will lead to human flourishing. We are designed to grasp knowledge, so natural law values education and truth. We are designed to be social, so friendship, love, compassion, and justice are all necessary. In the Christian tradition, this purpose comes from God, an objective, authoritative Law Giver who transcends individual perspectives and social contracts and who can rightly command our duties. In the non-religious version, one typically relies upon the rights contained in some sort of social contract that reflects the common experience and rational consensus of the people.

So what are the complications of Natural Law theory?

First, the more complex the nature of a thing, the more complex it is to understand. Unlike the Joker, I know what to do with a writing utensil. It's design and purpose are clear. But what is the purpose of a horse? Of a human being? The answer to those questions are probably more connected with one's prior worldview than with a scientifically measured standard.  Aquinas would turn to God for the answers; Hobbes would not. How will we as a society adjudicate between competing views?

Second, if we are to infer moral principles simply by observing design in nature, don't we run into the danger that morality become descriptive rather than normative? Some animals eat their children; others care for them.  Many people seem to be naturally aggressive or selfish; the alpha male in nature is a predatory bully. Should we conclude acting in that fashion is morally acceptable? Once again, one's opinion here will probably come from a prior worldview.  Stephen Pope has noted,

"When the ancients understood the good life to be 'according to nature', they meant according to what is best, most noble, or most excellent in human nature. Moderns, on the other hand, understand 'nature' according to the meth­odology of the natural sciences as what occurs with some frequency under natural conditions." 

In spite of the distance between worldviews, there is a shared commitment to finding the telos of the world and building a moral society from that foundation.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

So what sort of Natural Law questions can we ask of this year's presidential hopefuls?

  • Do the candidates believe there are morally demanding Natural Laws at work in the world?  If so, do they believe it comes from Nature's God (objective, authoritative Law Giver) or from a social contract (common experience and rational consensus of the people)? What difference would this make in how they would lead?
  • Which candidate is most likely to promote legislation in which the Natural Law referenced in our founding documents overlaps with our ongoing implementation of human law? 
  • Does the candidate view 'the good life' like the ancient world (it brings out the best, most noble, or most excellent in human nature) or the modern world (what the natural sciences show will occur with some frequency under natural conditions)? What are the implications of a disagreement in this area?

To summarize where we are so far: Are you voting for a virtuous candidate (virtue ethics) who is committed to using just means (deontological ethics) to accomplish the greatest good for the greatest number (consequentialist/utilitarian ethics), who values the intrinsic worth of people, who will enact laws and regulations that are universalizable, and who seeks to enact legislation that overlaps with the telos of the world?

UP NEXT: RIGHTS-BASED ETHICS
_______________________________________

(1)There is consequentialist component to Natural Law theory as well. The Principle Of Double Effect factors in consequences in moral dilemmas where there is an inescapable clash in the carrying out of one's duty. It is morally permissible to perform an action that breaks a known duty if and only if the following criteria are met:
  • the act itself must be good
  • the bad effect is unavoidable in order for the good to occur
  • the bad effect is an unintended consequence, not merely an instrumental means to an end
  • the ‘double effects’ of good and bad are at least proportional

Friday, September 9, 2016

The Imperatives Of The President (Trump And Clinton Through The Lenses Of Ethical Theory)

As I noted in the first post in this series, this is an election where the encouragement to ‘vote your conscience’ resonates perhaps more than ever. In the service of bringing clarity to our thoughts about this years' candidates, I am posting a number of articles that look at the candidates through the lenses of various ethical theories. So far, we have covered virtue ethics, deontological ethics and consequentialist ethics; this fourth post will look at Kantian ethics.

I am convinced that no one ethical theory does justice to the complexity of our world; nonetheless, I hope the process of viewing life through several different ethical lenses will bring increasing clarity. I should also note that my summaries offer a a broad overview that will not do justice to the complexities of these theories. I encourage you to read more deeply on your own.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Immanuel Kant believed ‘good will’ - acting from a good motive to fulfill one's duty -  is at the heart of ethics. Things that might be considered good in themselves (courage, happiness, truth) are always capable of being channeled into bad acts: courageous people do terrible things; destructive things can make you happy; truth can be manipulated deceptively. To avoid this, people must act (or exercise our will) with a rational consistency for the good of others.

Kant would have loved Spock. In his theory, any person that committed to reason and logic could not help but choose well. The moral person is the one in which an autonomous, purposeful, rational, willful, selfless motivation compels him or her to choose for the general good of others.  

While the importance of motivation and will is crucial to Kant's theory, he had some key moral principles that established the purposes for which that will should be used. Enter his famous Categorical Imperatives. By this he meant that some things are absolute and universal ("You should do X") rather than reliant on particular conditions ("If you want Y, then you should do X").

Sunday, September 4, 2016

The Greatest President For The Greatest Number (Trump And Clinton Through The Lenses Of Ethical Theory)

As I noted in the first post in this series, this is an election where the encouragement to ‘vote your conscience’ resonates perhaps more than ever. In the service of bringing clarity to our thoughts about this year's candidates, I am posting a number of articles that look at them through the lenses of various ethical theories. I began with virtue ethics and continued with deontological ethics; this third post will look at consequentialist ethics.

I am convinced that no one ethical theory does justice to the complexity of our world; nonetheless, I hope the process of viewing life through several different ethical lenses will bring increasing clarity. I should also note that my summaries offer a a broad overview that will not do justice to the complexities of these theories. I encourage you to read more deeply on your own.

Consequentialist theories argue that the moral nature of an action is determined by what produces the best balance of good effects over bad effects. Utilitarianism is the most popular form of consequentialist ethics, so that will be our focus.

‘Utility’ is the good that comes as a consequence of an action. Jeremy Bentham claimed that actions are good or bad depending upon the amount and degree of pleasure and/or pain that results; John Stuart Mill argued that happiness, not pleasure, was the standard for the good. The correct or greatest moral action or rule is the one that produces the greatest amount of utility (be it pleasure or happiness) for the greatest number of people.

One can be good without being virtuous or following duty to a social contract. The amount of pleasure or happiness that results from one's choices is all that matters at the end of the day. Lest this sound like a hedonic free-for-all, both Mill and Bentham believed there was a hierarchy of value. Mill stressed quality over quantityBentham offered a 'hedonic calculus' to aid in this endeavor.

There are at least four categories within utilitarianism worth noting.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Commands, Contracts, And The Veil of Ignorance (Trump and Clinton Through The Lenses Of Ethical Theory)

As I noted in the first post in this series, this is an election where the encouragement to ‘vote your conscience’ resonates perhaps more than ever. In the service of bringing clarity to our thoughts about this years' candidates, I am posting a number of articles that look at the candidates through the lenses of various ethical theories. I began with virtue ethics; this second post will look at deontological or duty-based ethics. I am convinced that no one ethical theory does justice to the complexity of our world; nonetheless, I hope the process of viewing life through several different ethical lenses will bring increasing clarity.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Deontological theories maintain that morality is not determined by the consequences of a chosen action or by the character of the person acting. Ethical conduct is simply doing the right thing or performing the correct action. There are two main types of deontological theories. One version finds its moral grounding in God; the other finds its foundation in society. 

DIVINE COMMAND THEORY


In Divine Command Theory, one is ethical when one follows God’s will. Theistic or divine essentialism, the most powerful form of this theory, argues that the good is grounded in God’s essential moral properties. God is love, justice, mercy, and truth by nature; God commands us to show love and mercy, fight for justice and commit to truth because in so doing we do what is good. This offers a transcendent, foundational standard for morality. There is an ‘oughtness’ that carries moral weight; there is a divine source of adjudication between moral disagreements. 

Is this relevant to this election? I'm a divine command theory kind of guy, but we have to be careful in its application here. In a theocracy (such as was found in ancient Israel), an adherence and allegiance to the commands of the divine was crucial. In a nation such as ours, where church and state are rightly placed in separate spheres, biblical duties are commanded by God specifically for His people; they are commanded for the lives and within the fellowship of those who claim allegiance to God (i.e. the church).

That is not to say God's will is unconnected from or irrelevant to the secular sphere. We pray that God's will be done everywhere because we believe it is good for human flourishing regardless of one's belief or non-belief. Many of our laws reflect our Judeo-Christian foundation not just because "God said it" but because it's a good call by any standard. Even international human rights often reflect some portion of God's will for how people should live in the world.

However, I believe a commonly repeated phrase is true: we are electing a President, not a pastor. I would like a candidate who seeks God's will, but that's not a requirement for office. That doesn't stop me from voting for the candidates who are most committed to love, justice, mercy and truth. Those candidates are the best choice not because they are necessarily Christian but because they are the ones who are most in line with what I believe to be God's design for human conduct. 

But perhaps you are one of many who lack the confidence that either candidate (or our nation in general) is genuinely interested in God's will. This takes us to deontological theories that, while not building on a transcendent foundation, still provide a template with which to think about what kinds of things we - and in this case our President - ought to do. 

SOCIAL CONTRACT THEORY


Because people are more or less egotistical (said Thomas Hobbes, one of the key developers of this theory), they usually act selfishly, even violently if needed. This type of life is “nasty, brutish, and short.” It will be characterized by a “war of all against all” to survive. To escape this cycle in the “state of nature,” they will need to agree to an enforceable social contract - which will mean introducing some form of government that established laws. (Click here for a look at how this shows up in The Walking Dead.)

A social contract is a set of laws/rules/norms that govern our interactions. Everyone will agree to have his or her freedoms restricted: they won’t be free to steal, kill, etc. The government will enforce laws; social pressure will enforce norms. Morality, then, is the set of rationally acceptable rules/laws/norms which people agree to observe. For those of us in the United States, this is found in laws originating in the principles of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. A good person lives within the boundaries of the social contract; it would follow that a good leader leads from within that contract as well.