Words for Good and Evil, Part II

Words for Good and Evil, Part II August 23, 2013

Continued from yesterday

“Why is it possible,” asked Richard Feynman a year before he won the 1965 Nobel Prize in Physics, “for people to stay so woefully ignorant and yet reasonably happy in modern society when so much knowledge is unavailable to them?”

Feynman fretted that people cannot embrace wonder if they do not imbibe science. In my church there is a young man who cannot speak; he can only point and hoot. He claps his hands during the liturgy; he waves recklessly at people he recognizes. His mother keeps a grip on his belt loop, lest he knock over candles, or wander into the choir. Sometimes he points at the ceiling, gesturing wildly for the rest of us to look, and in those moments I am certain he sees angels.

Knowledge is no precursor to wonder. Science is no guarantor of joy.

Yesterday I mentioned a low-IQ man who will soon be sterilized, and a retarded child who will die because she isn’t allowed access to the kidney transplant queue. We have lost the language, I said, necessary to talk about these decisions in terms of their morality.

Psychology popularizer Steven Pinker would fervently disagree. He recently penned an unblinking defense of scientism, a term that—despite his protestation of ignorance about its meaning—has long been understood to mean the application of scientific methods to realms where they offer no guidance. To the contrary, Pinker asserts that science can illuminate “the deepest questions about who we are, where we came from, and how we define the meaning and purpose of our lives.”

Science can certainly give us the means to illuminate many corners of a darkened world, just as it can give us the means to sterilize a boy whose brain is not suitable to yield the happiness Richard Feynman equated with knowledge, and to ration organs so that only the mentally fit receive them. But can it tell us what to think of such acts?

Yes, answers widely followed atheist Sam Harris. He assures us we have no need of God to demarcate good from evil; instead we can search the “moral landscape” to determine what rules maximize “human flourishing.” What’s moral, Harris believes, is what benefits most people.

Harris derives his terminology from concepts mathematicians apply when solving multivariate equations. The poet and the priest might ask how mathematical morals can help us satisfy our craving for divinity, or cultivate sacrificial love, or craft a novel that will open someone’s eyes to purposeless beauty that knows no measure, that is an achingly inarticulable glory, an epiphany that reminds the reader, if nothing else, that epiphanies still exist in a measured and metered world.

Pinker’s answer is to stop pining for these things. “The moral worldview of any scientifically literate person—one who is not blinkered by fundamentalism—requires a radical break from religious conceptions of meaning and value.”

Both Harris and Pinker praise “human flourishing” as man’s moral zenith. And what is human flourishing? Less ignorance, less poverty, less pain, and with these, more luxuries, more peace, more opportunities for self-actualization and self-determination. The Westminster Catechism teaches that the chief end of man is “To glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” Now the chief end of man is to enjoy himself for as long as science will allow.

New York Times religion writer Ross Douthat calls this an “aesthetic morality.” Anchored in nothing but its authors’ preferences, it is as malleable as man’s tastes. Right now we worship independence and material wealth, and so we good people agree that it’s only humane to sterilize a retarded man.

What will “human flourishing” mean to the nations’ elites a hundred years from now? Who will be expendable then, that the majority might flourish? “All the great, important decisions that our democracy will be forced to take in the next decades,” claims British physicist Bryan Cox, “are based on science.” God help us, he is probably right.

He is right because the modern apostles of science, having eliminated all evidence that does not derive from man’s five physical senses, place man by default at the pinnacle of creation. Man is the end of creation, and in modern times he is its author. Man is judge and man is measure, and little wonder, then, that man’s worth to man can only be assessed in terms of his contribution to the well-being of others.

“Being human,” wrote Viktor Frankl, “always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself…. The more one forgets himself—by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love—the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself.”

You can save your life, in other words, by laying it down. You can reclaim that in you which is human yet dying by valuing other humans over yourself.

The language of morality, then, is the language of love. How very simple. How easily forgotten.

How, then, might we speak of the man who will be sterilized, the girl who will be denied her chance for a kidney? How will we speak of that man sitting listless on a street corner, that actress stumbling in and out of rehab, that parent whose words we can scarcely bear, that spouse whose touch makes us cringe?

I don’t know the ends of those conversations, but the beginning must be this, for our sake, for Christ’s sake: What is love?


Tony Woodlief lives outside Wichita, Kansas, and is the author of a spiritual memoir, Somewhere More Holy. His essays on faith and parenting have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The London Times, and WORLD Magazine. His short stories, two of which have been nominated for Pushcart prizes, have been published in Image and Ruminate. His website is www.tonywoodlief.com.


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  • There is so much to think about here. For me, the question “What is love?” needs so many disciplines before we can find the simplest answer. To answer that question, we need theology and art and philosophy… and math and science.

  • Glenn Howell

    Tony, you have begun your journey on the right path. The quest for love will take you through your life and be there at the end. I pray you will persevere.

  • Jan Vallone

    This is absolutely beautiful: “The poet and the priest might ask how mathematical morals can help us satisfy our craving for divinity, or cultivate sacrificial love, or craft a novel that will open someone’s eyes to purposeless beauty that knows no measure, that is an achingly inarticulable glory, an epiphany that reminds the reader, if nothing else, that epiphanies still exist in a measured and metered world.”

    Thank you.

    • Tony

      Thank you, Jan.

  • Terra

    This is very eloquently written, overall, and definitely thought provoking, but I take issue with a few things. Mr. Woodlief seems quite adept with language, yet uses “retarded” and “Man” – two quite loaded (and now largely avoided) terms. He also seems fervently against science, as if the extreme views of a Pinker (I personally dislike his reductionist slant) or Feynman – an otherwise brilliant thinker, who here sounds extreme – stand for all scientific thinkers.
    I used to be religious, but since my 20s I have taken my morality from both biology and the Golden Rule. I don’t feel I need to be afraid of a god, or do good works *for* him/her/it. I do good because – and here I agree with the author – it brings me out of my self-focus, makes others happy, and contributes to a more harmonious community. And by others, I mean all sorts of human beings and nonhuman beings. It seems to me that religion-centric thinkers, no matter how eloquent, think that their God’s concern stops at the human species, so that is basically all THEY have to worry about. It is only a start! (If you must see things through that lens, think of it as respecting God’s creations. Would He want you to starve that dog, eat that burger from a factory-farmed cow, or pollute that river?)

  • Tony

    Marcus, do we need those disciplines to arrive at a suitable answer? Perhaps intellectually. But if God is love, and everywhere He is manifested, then perhaps even the simplest of us can understand love, even if we can’t state it.

    Glenn, thank you for your prayer. I certainly need it.

    Jan, thank you!

    Terra, I know that “retarded” is now a term of denigration, which I certainly didn’t mean. I’ll try to be more careful in the future. My challenge (not to excuse my choice of words) was that part of what I was trying to trace out is the way we use gentle, therapeutic language to disguise what is really a brutal attitude toward “the least of these.”

    Regarding the use of “man,” I’d be interested in your reaction to Jacques Barzun’s digression on the the word’s etymology in his “Dawn to Decadence” (link to an excerpt here: http://books.google.com/books?id=9E8lDrfVlwwC&lpg=PA168&ots=8eSSowofnZ&dq=barzun%20man%20%22etymology%2C%20convenience%22&pg=PA168#v=onepage&q=barzun%20man%20%22etymology,%20convenience%22&f=false).

    From what (very) little I’ve read, it seems that “man” connotes simply “male” today (where for centuries it was commonly understood to encompass both sexes (“God created man, male and female”) because of a long-running effort to make it so, that it might be a grievance. I confess my instinct, in the face of that reality, is not to be bullied into inelegant language. On the other hand, insofar as a few generations have now been trained to view its as an insult, I suppose I should work harder to adjust to the more cumbersome approach. If it’s any consolation, in longer works I alternate male and female when giving examples. I suspect that when I’m writing something that approaches a jeremiad, I revert to more biblical language.

    All of which is neither here nor there, really — the main thing I want to say is thank you for reading, and please forgive the offense, which was not intended.

    • Tony, thanks for responding! I do think we need every discipline possible to think about God’s love. We are like the kohathites in the Old Testament, carrying pieces of God’s message wrapped up in mystery–and we need every piece and every person working together to build something like a Tabernacle that will properly honor God.

      On the other hand, I get what you are saying. People don’t have to be smart or educated to have a deep and abiding relationship with God.

      The key is that we not think our piece of the tabernacle is better or worse than any other piece. God is fully present in all of them, and even more fully present in all of them together.

      • Tony

        Well said, Marcus.

  • Peggy Rosenthal

    Tony, thank you for taking on these big moral questions that our current society poses, and for articulating our societal deficiencies so profoundly.

    Thirty years ago I published a book called “Words and Values,” which explored the moral issues raised by the pop language of that epoch. Now YOU need to write the sequel, for our current era.

  • Kevin

    Tony, thanks for these thoughtful words. In the end, when reduce the world and by extension humanity to merely physical components, it seems to me that a utilitarian ethic is pretty much all we have left. Of course, in our hearts we know better. Witness the outrage at the anonymous letter sent to the grandmother of an autistic boy in suburban Toronto. I have been thinking a lot about these questions in the last several days becasue I am the father of an autistic child of the same age.
    The danger of course in the question “what is love?” is that we can reduce it to a set of chemical reactions. Perhaps we need to augment it with “and why does it matter?” I would venture to say it matters becasue it reflects who God is and after all we are created in his image according to Genesis 1:27. I have written a few thoughts about it at kevinobrienwriites.wordpress.com

  • David

    “He is right because the modern apostles of science, having eliminated
    all evidence that does not derive from man’s five physical senses…

    If such evidence exists (non-detectable, since all we have for perception are our senses) how would we even know it?

    • Tony



  • Denise Demesne

    Mr. Woodlief, I feel I must report a significant update about one of the subjects
    of your two recent columns. You write that Amelia Rivera, a 3-year-old mentally disabled girl in the Philadelphia area is “slated to die” because the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia has refused to put her in line for the kidney transplant that might save her life. In fact, it was announced well over two weeks before your column appeared that Amelia had been approved for and would indeed receive a donated kidney. Transplantation surgery took place at the end of July, and the kidney was donated by her mother. Furthermore, legislation had been passed a while back in New Jersey─which is within the catchment area of the hospital that originally denied Amelia a spot in the queue─to penalize any hospital not willing to perform organ transplantation on the basis of an intellectual deficit of a proposed recipient. These revised details are obviously important because the outrage caused by the earlier refusal and upon which you base your commentary has been rectified both in the particular case and in general.

    Furthermore, the more recent developments also, in a real way, call into question your contention that we lack the language to deal with cases like Amelia’s or that of the other case you bring up of an intellectually challenged man who is to be sterilized in England. I would contend, to the contrary, that there is no shortage of thoughtful and effective discourse─public, private, and professional─on the moral and social issues you raise in your piece. Indeed, formal criteria for allocation of scarce resources in health care, notably organs for transplantation, have frequently been revised and refined in the wake of public discussion and debate on individual cases including celebrity cases such as those of Mickey Mantle and Robert Casey, the former governor of Pennsylvania. Often, constructive changes occur, as those that followed the public outcry to Amelia’s situation. (While I understand that the physicians involved displayed considerable insensitivity to Amelia’s parents, one must recognize that just because someone may need a new organ does not guarantee than they can have one. The system of organ allocation must consider the situations of other deserving recipients, including factors of age, medical complexity and prognosis as well as clinical need. With a scarce resource, one simply cannot hand it out on demand.) On some occasions when there is open discussion outside the professionals who routinely handle these cases, more troubling things can happen, as in the case earlier this year, also involving Children’s Hospital, where a U.S. Senator intervened on behalf of another child awaiting an organ and pressured officials─inappropriately and destructively, in my opinion─to secure an organ for her in a way that violated the well-established protocol for prioritization. As it turned out, that first transplant failed, and a second operation was accordingly forced, meaning that two deserving recipients at the top of the list had to continue their wait for a suitable organ, or one person had to wait even longer. This sort of unjust, ignorant, and intrusive involvement by public officials has much in common with the irresponsible and ignorant behavior displayed by several members of Congress (one of whom happened to be a physician who displayed both ignorance and impropriety in his actions) as well as the President himself when they collectively interfered in the right-to-die case of Terri Sciavo in 2005. Such conduct strikes me as sheer demagoguery. Still, despite the damage done by the uninformed voices of those with a political agenda, I believe we should accept and encourage public discussion of these matters because the upside is essential for promoting and ameliorating our moral conduct in the arena of health care delivery.

    Similarly, I would argue that fertile discussion and ample deliberation occurred in the sterilization case you cite. You present in disapproving terms and tone, to the point of being contemptuous, that so many people─the family of the man to be sterilized in England, social workers who have attended the man, the court that ruled in favor of sterilization, and officials of an organization that serves the mentally impaired─all agree that the man and his already impregnated mentally impaired girlfriend will be better off after the procedure. Honestly, who are you, Mr. Woodlief, someone who lives 3000 miles away and knows not one of those
    involved, to question the wisdom and kind intent─perhaps even an act of
    love─of proceeding with sterilization? Who now is arrogant? You are not the one who agonized over how much genuine autonomy─a critical element in assessing his capacity to make decisions, and not just medical ones, on his own─this man has and what constitutes beneficence with regard to his future as well as the future of additional babies he might possibly father. As useful as it might be for you and me to ponder these cases and to search for language that articulates our feelings and beliefs about them, I prefer to leave the difficult practical decisions to those who know all the personal and technical information about the cases, who have expertise in these matters, and who act only after thoughtful analysis and with firm professional grounding.

    • Tony

      Ms. Demesne,

      Though I am about to disagree with you, I want you to know I appreciate that you took the time to offer your thoughts, as well as updated information. I also want you to know that I agree with what I think is an undercurrent in your comments, namely that these decisions should be made in communities. My concern is that our communities find their language denuded, so we don’t even know how to talk properly about these dilemmas. This is not, of course, identical to saying that we don’t know how to talk about them.

      I’m relieved to know that Amelia Rivera, thanks to an outcry and subsequent scrutiny that elevated her case beyond the purview of, as you call them, “those who know all the personal and technical information…, who have expertise in these matters, and who act only after thoughtful analysis and with firm professional grounding,” has been allowed to receive a kidney from her own mother.

      I can only hope, given your standard for who may question such decisions, that the outcry came from those comfortably within a 3,000-mile radius of Amelia’s home.

      I must confess, meanwhile, to having less confidence than you that the practice of basing organ allotment in part on subjective valuations of individual fitness has been “rectified,” as you say, “in general.” It was only rectified in this particular instance because enough people noticed and paid attention to cause it to be rectified. The larger problem, as I tried (and perhaps failed, in light of your comments) to explain, is that the language we use to talk about such instances is technocratic and utilitarian. It’s a language of costs, benefits, and “best interests.” It’s not a language of right and wrong. I understand that people often abuse the latter, but certainly we can agree, can’t we, that the former, with its false patina of objectivity, is similarly open to abuse?

      I must disagree as well with your characterization of the Terri Schiavo tragedy. It is simply false to call this a “right-to-die” case. Mrs. Schiavo did not ask to die, nor did she have a living will indicating as much. This was very much a “right-to-terminate-life” case, or at best a “right-to-deny-life-sustaining-care” case.

      My point being that words indeed matter very much, carrying embedded within them our beliefs about what is right and wrong.

      • Denise Demesne

        I genuinely appreciate your carefully pondered response to my post. Of course, it appears that we respectfully agree to disagree. But although utilitarianism and deontology may be philosophically immiscible (I just had to couch our fundamental disagreement in a scientific term!), surely there are specific actions, decisions, and choices where both philosophies coincide. With the two of us, that may be even more apt to happen because, as you correctly surmise, I espouse the notion that important decisions ought to be communal and should reflect the values of those most affected by those decisions.

        That said, I do want to emphasize that in all those discussions and deliberations involving end-of-life and other grave choices arising in medical care which I have been privy to─and these comprise both several meetings in which I have been a family member of a sick or dying person as well as innumerable meetings in which I was a member of a team of providers─I invariably heard and expressed opinions and sentiments that covered the full spectrum between the starkly utilitarian and the steadfastly deontological. With such a full array of positions and beliefs placed on the table, I have always felt confident that as a community we were all doing our earnest best to arrive at a solution that everyone involved could accept. You register the important point about the Terri Sciavo ordeal that Ms. Sciavo herself did not ask to die. Nor did she ask to be kept alive in what all attending physicians were convinced was a persistent vegetative state. (Bill Frist was not in attendance, and committed the cardinal error for a physician of rendering a judgment telescopically: he neither knew nor ever examined this patient, and his diagnosis and prognosis in this case were frivolous and unprofessional, as I indicated earlier.) But in the absence of knowing a comatose patient’s beliefs and desires the only way available to come to a decision is by way of the law. And Florida law, if I am not mistaken, defers decision-making to a spouse before all other parties. So even if we are suspicious of Ms. Sciavo’s husband’s motives─and I admit that I was in that camp!─it was still the just as well as the legal solution for him to be the arbiter of her end-of-life treatment decisions. And it thus became a valid “right to die” matter for him. Moreover, I cannot see anything that is right or noble about letting a human being go on indefinitely in the state she was in, when the chance of a miracle recovery was virtually non-existent. But I can see the cruelty to Ms. Sciavo to force her to continue that way, and I can see the cruelty to those close to her who wanted it to end, to say nothing of the health care workers who day after day toiled in vain merely to keep alive some infinitesimal glimmer of hope for those unrealistic enough to believe that her recovery remained possible, perhaps even at the expense of the time and effort they could devote to other patients.

        But again, thanks for the depth and clarity of your reply!

        • Tony

          Denise (may I, since we’ve passed so many words between us?),
          I was just interviewed for a radio program, and mentioned your comment (not by name). The point I made to the interviewer was that while I disagree with you on some points, I was convicted (yet again) that these decisions need to be made in loving community, and that this is, further, the path out of the mess — modeling love within our communities. So thank you for that.

          • Denise Demesne

            Yes, of course you may…if I may, Tony. And of course it was perfectly OK to refer to my comment on the radio. I think we both favor the sharing of ideas over insularity as well as fostering a communal role in guiding conduct which affects other people. I hope and trust that your interview went well. I assume your speak as you write, and if so, that would clinch it.

      • Denise Demesne

        That’s my upward tick, by the way.

  • RustbeltRick

    The Outrage Playbook thrives on columns like this — where you falsely represent a situation (you insist a child is being denied a transplant, when in fact that’s not true at all) then you speculate that in the near-future, the soulless scientists are going to deny life to all kinds of people. And of course, this science-fiction-ish horror whips up people’s moral outrage and we all rush out and hate Obama even more.
    This is what passes for cutting edge in evangelicalism. As an evangelical, I’m appalled. Why not write a column that celebrates the facts as Denise Demesne has presented them, that Amelia Rivera has been approved for a new kidney and that the state of New Jersey is taking steps to ensure that organ transplant remains available to all? Would such a positive spin ruin everything, since the “world is going downhill” narrative is so much more sexy to the churchgoers who faithfully buy the outrage books?

    • Denise Demesne

      Thanks for the supportive remark. I must say, however, that my purpose was not to ‘out’ Mr. Woodlief’s omission but merely to set the record straight. It did, though, happen to support my position.

    • Tony

      It was an error, not a falsehood, and an error that doesn’t detract from the overarching points in the essays.

      Despite my obviously nefarious intentions, it seems the only outrage I’ve inspired is among anti-Outragers. Alas.

  • AuburnCathy

    Well put. I like that you make me think and also dust off my dictionary 😉

  • Tim

    Speaking as a Godless atheist science fan, most of us do not have a problem with “morality, then, is the language of love.” Where we have a problem with religion is the stone the gays, kill the apostates stuff that appears in most religious texts which is not in my view entirely loving and still quite influential in parts of the world.