Today’s moral blind spots

The Washington Post printed an interesting moral exercise written by Kwame Anthony Appiah:

Once, pretty much everywhere, beating your wife and children was regarded as a father’s duty, homosexuality was a hanging offense, and waterboarding was approved — in fact, invented — by the Catholic Church. Through the middle of the 19th century, the United States and other nations in the Americas condoned plantation slavery. Many of our grandparents were born in states where women were forbidden to vote. And well into the 20th century, lynch mobs in this country stripped, tortured, hanged and burned human beings at picnics.

Looking back at such horrors, it is easy to ask: What were people thinking?

Yet, the chances are that our own descendants will ask the same question, with the same incomprehension, about some of our practices today.

Is there a way to guess which ones? After all, not every disputed institution or practice is destined to be discredited. And it can be hard to distinguish in real time between movements, such as abolition, that will come to represent moral common sense and those, such as prohibition, that will come to seem quaint or misguided. Recall the book-burners of Boston’s old Watch and Ward Society or the organizations for the suppression of vice, with their crusades against claret, contraceptives and sexually candid novels.

Still, a look at the past suggests three signs that a particular practice is destined for future condemnation.

First, people have already heard the arguments against the practice. The case against slavery didn’t emerge in a blinding moment of moral clarity, for instance; it had been around for centuries.

Second, defenders of the custom tend not to offer moral counterarguments but instead invoke tradition, human nature or necessity. (As in, “We’ve always had slaves, and how could we grow cotton without them?”)

And third, supporters engage in what one might call strategic ignorance, avoiding truths that might force them to face the evils in which they’re complicit. Those who ate the sugar or wore the cotton that the slaves grew simply didn’t think about what made those goods possible. That’s why abolitionists sought to direct attention toward the conditions of the Middle Passage, through detailed illustrations of slave ships and horrifying stories of the suffering below decks.

via What will future generations condemn us for?.

The article goes on to apply these three principles and predicts four areas that future generations will be appalled about:  our prison system; our treatment of animals in food production; our treatment of the elderly; our treatment of the environment.

And yet the three principles apply most clearly to one issue that the article says nothing about:  ABORTION.

What, by these criteria, are some other moral blind spots of our time?

North Korea will release Christian prisoner after suicide threats

Amidst the happy news that North Korea will release a Christian activist from prison, thanks in part to the intervention of former president Jimmy Carter, are some curious details. From Christianity Today:

From a hospital in Tucson, Arizona, former North Korean prisoner Robert Park prays for the release of his friend Aijalon Mahli Gomes.

On Christmas Eve, Park crossed into North Korea in hopes of drawing attention to the Communist nation’s human rights violations and persecution of Christians. Park was arrested and imprisoned in North Korea and released after six weeks.

Gomes, 31, an English teacher turned Christian activist who attended the same church as Park in Seoul, followed in Park’s footsteps, crossing into North Korea on January 25. In April, the North Korean government sentenced the Boston native to eight years in a hard labor camp and fined him $700,000.

Park, who has been hospitalized several times since his February release, has not spoken about his imprisonment.

“I didn’t want to cause anything to happen to Aijalon,” Park told ChristianityToday in an exclusive interview. “I want him to come out first.”

Amid carefully selected answers during the phone interview from the behavioral health center where he has been since making suicidal statements in July, Park prayed several times, not for himself, but for Gomes’s return home.

“Father, restore Aijalon to his loved ones in America,” Park prayed, his voice laced with urgency. “Show us great and mighty things through the deliverance of Aijalon Gomes.”

Park’s prayers may finally have been answered.

Former President Jimmy Carter arrived in Pyongyang on Wednesday, according to the government-controlled Korean Central News Agency. North Korean officials agreed to release Gomes to Carter, 85. The two are expected to return to the United States by Friday. . . .

Park said his concern for Gomes and frustration over the lack of media coverage and response to his friend’s imprisonment have led him to speak out—and were the cause of his plans for a July 16 suicide demonstration.

Park said he was ready to end his life because nothing was being done, “but God stopped it through the intervention of a friend.”

“I was planning to kill myself with a suicide note to bring attention to Aijalon—I feel responsible for him being there,” Park said. “He is one of my best friends, and I prayed for my life to be taken and not his.”

Park said he feels a burden and responsibility for his friend’s release. He was told that Gomes was very emotional when attending several demonstrations for Park’s release.

“He wept and prayed fervently and intensely, but he did not say much—I don’t think he told his plan to anyone,” Park said. “I think he went in, in part, because he was my friend and he wanted to help me.” . . .

In July, the Korean Central News Agency reported Gomes had attempted suicide. Park said he also fears his friend would be treated as a political prisoner or become lost in the politics of the relations between the U.S. and North Korea.

Observers speculate that North Korea was using Gomes as bargaining leverage with the U.S. over its nuclear program.

The seeming acceptance of suicide by both of these Christians is startling.  Perhaps they are combining their Christian faith, which I don’t doubt for an instant, with the relative acceptance of suicide found in Asian cultures.  (Gomes, though, is an American.)   We certainly shouldn’t accept the old Roman Catholic teaching that suicide is an unforgiveable sin; and yet, I wonder if the attitude against suicide is shifting.

HT:  Sarah Pulliam Bailey

The Washington Post & the student loan scandal

Last week we blogged about the student loan scandal, how some schools–especially for-profit institutions–are sucking in billions of taxpayer dollars from federal student loans, even though the majority of their students can never pay them back.  One of the biggest offenders is Kaplan, which was caught advising students to apply for loans they didn’t even qualify for.  Kaplan is owned by the Washington Post.

The newspaper has admitted that fact in its stories about the scandals.  On Sunday the ombudsman Andrew Alexander responded to reader complaints about conflicts of interest when the paper covers stories involving its corporate holdings.  Alexander thinks everything is all right as long as the paper is transparent about its financial ties.  In his defense of the paper, he let drop a remarkable detail:

But disclosure of The Post Co.’s ownership of Kaplan is especially critical because of Kaplan’s outsize importance to the overall bottom line. The Kaplan division, which offers higher education, test preparation and professional training services, accounted for 62 percent of The Post Co.’s total second-quarter revenues. Its higher education unit, the subject of government scrutiny and proposed regulations, will be in the news for months to come.

Disclosure aside, a separate issue is The Post’s commitment to following the story. “We will give Kaplan the same level of scrutiny as we give the rest of the industry,” said Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, who runs the local news staff that handles education reporting.

via Andrew Alexander – From Kaplan to Buffett, Post gets it right on transparency.

So 62% of the Post’s revenue comes from a questionable college under criminal investigation?  That would mean that 62% of the Post‘s revenue comes from the federal government?  From taxpayer money?  That is to say, cheated taxpayers and bilked students whose defaults will go with them for life?

Not only that, the lead editorial in that same Sunday edition had the effrontery to come out against the President’s plan to cut off federal aid to schools with a smaller pay-back rate of 35%.  (Kaplan’s, I was told, is something like 33%.)

Yes, the Post editorial made clear that it owns Kaplan’s.  But disclosing a conflict of interest does not mean there is no conflict of interest!  Here the editors are using the power of their opinion page to defend their own cash-cow against needed reforms.

The nature of marriage

Philosopher Stephen J. Heaney discusses the nature of marriage in the context of the same-sex marriage debate:

Marriage is often characterized today as follows: 1) two people 2) who love each other 3) want to perform sexual acts together, so 4) they consent to combine their lives sexually, materially, economically 5) with the endorsement of the community. Since same-sex couples can meet the first four criteria, how can society refuse the fifth?It is easy to see why this would be a cause of aggravation, not only for same-sex couples who wish community endorsement of their relationships, but for millions of others. If the criteria stated above actually define marriage—and in contemporary Western society, many have come to view marriage as no more than this—then refusal to acknowledge and endorse same-sex relationships is a rank injustice, nothing but an exercise in bigotry or stupidity.

Typically, marriage does in fact have these characteristics. But why does marriage have these characteristics? Remembering why will help us to remember how they show themselves in a relationship that has the essence of marriage—and how that is often different in other relationships.

First, human beings have a powerful hankering to engage in sexual intercourse.

Second, sexual intercourse between a man and a woman naturally and frequently leads to children. Male and female alone each have part of a complete reproductive system. Without both parts, reproduction cannot happen. Without the result of children, it would be a real puzzler why we have these organ systems at all, and why we have such a deep urge to engage in sexual acts.

Third, the rearing of children is a lifetime responsibility. As deeply social beings, we remain connected to each other across generations. Even adults with children of their own need the wisdom and guidance of their fathers and mothers. It is easier for those who enter this project that they have affection for each other, and that they form a self-giving friendship. To perform these actions lovingly is the properly human way.

Fourth, because it leads to children, sexual intercourse has extraordinary public consequences. It is not, as we might like to think, a purely private act. It matters a lot to the community who is doing it, and under what circumstances. So the community endorses certain sexual arrangements; others, which fail to abide by the fullness of truth of human sexuality, the community rejects as unfitting for human beings. To support those that are fitting, it offers the institution of marriage. In marriage, the couple promises before the community to fulfill this project through vows of fidelity and permanence, joining their bodies and their lives to make the project work. The community promises to give the couple the privacy to perform their sexual acts, and care for each other; it further supports the family by means of appropriate protections and benefits. It may be that others could receive similar benefits for different reasons, but this is why benefits accrue to marriage: to help the marriage project flourish.

If sexuality did not naturally bring us offspring, it is hard to explain why it exists, whether you believe in a purely material evolution or a loving designer of the universe, for it would serve no purpose. If sexual acts did not naturally lead to offspring, it is just as hard to explain how marriage would have appeared in human history, for it would serve no purpose.

Religions may bless marriage, but they did not invent it. Because it involves such profoundly important human realities, it is no surprise that sex and marriage have religious significance. But sex and marriage have existed as long as there have been human communities.

If we accept the misdefinition of marriage using non-essential characteristics as the complete story, it would be impossible to reject same-sex marriage. Given the whole truth, however, it is impossible to accept it. No matter how superficially similar they are to real marriages, same-sex relationships cannot function as marriages.

This is a good example of the “natural law” approach to moral reasoning. Does it make sense?  Is there anything exclusively Roman Catholic about it?

HT:  Larry Hughes

Ayn Rand and the virtue of evil

Joe Carter tries to think what he ever saw in Ayn Rand, who despised Christianity and held that the only virtue is selfishness. He cites a new biography that details how bad she was, though at least consistent with her assumptions:

She announced that the world was divided between a small minority of Supermen who are productive and “the naked, twisted, mindless figure of the human Incompetent” who, like the Leninists, try to feed off them. He is “mud to be ground underfoot, fuel to be burned.” It is evil to show kindness to these “lice”: The “only virtue” is “selfishness.”She meant it.

Her diaries from that time, while she worked as a receptionist and an extra, lay out the Nietzschean mentality that underpins all her later writings. The newspapers were filled for months with stories about serial killer called William Hickman, who kidnapped a 12-year-old girl called Marion Parker from her junior high school, raped her, and dismembered her body, which he sent mockingly to the police in pieces. Rand wrote great stretches of praise for him, saying he represented “the amazing picture of a man with no regard whatsoever for all that a society holds sacred, and with a consciousness all his own. A man who really stands alone, in action and in soul. … Other people do not exist for him, and he does not see why they should.” She called him “a brilliant, unusual, exceptional boy,” shimmering with “immense, explicit egotism.” Rand had only one regret: “A strong man can eventually trample society under its feet. That boy [Hickman] was not strong enough.”

via Two biographies of Ayn Rand. – By Johann Hari – Slate Magazine.

Like Nietzsche, Rand held Christianity in contempt for its teachings about love, which encourages the weakness of compassion that allows the weak to survive, as opposed to helping them die out as they are supposed to.

A lot of conservatives, though, like her.  Why?

No more secrets

Last week the Washington Post outed thousands of top-secret security agencies, to the point of publishing an on-line map so that they can be located.  Now an online group WikiLeaks has released thousands of classified documents about the war in Afghanistan:

U.S. and Pakistani officials are condemning the publication of leaked documents that are said to be secret U.S. military files about the Afghanistan war.

The website WikiLeaks posted tens of thousands of documents online Sunday, and said it has another 15,000 documents that will be released “as the security situation in Afghanistan permits.”  It says the files cover the period between January 2004 and December 2009.

White House National Security Advisor James Jones issued a statement calling the leaks “irresponsible,” saying they not only put the lives of Americans and their partners at risk, but also threaten national security.

The leaked documents are said to include records detailing raids carried out by a secretive U.S. special operations unit against what U.S. officials call “high-value” insurgent and terrorist targets.  Some of the raids are said to have resulted in unintended killings of Afghan civilians.

Also included are documents allegedly describing U.S. fears that Pakistan’s intelligence service was aiding the Afghan insurgency.

Jones said WikiLeaks made no effort to contact the U.S. government, which learned about the release from news organizations.  Those include The New York Times, London’s Guardian newspaper and the German weekly Der Spiegel.

via Thousands of ‘Secret’ Afghan War Files Released on Internet | News | English.

It is certainly difficult to keep secrets in the age of the internet.  Should we just accept all of this “transparency” and embrace a totally free marketplace of information?  Of course, the exposure of government secrets simply follows the exposure of personal secrets that the internet also makes possible.  Do we need to find a way to allow for both individual privacy and national security secrets, or do we just need to find a way to live with the new information environment?


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