Honesty

Woman, Haematoma, Fight, Black Eye, Pinch, Bruising

Image by Mystic Art Design from Pixabay

Fandango has posed the question: “Do you believe that honesty is always the best policy? Is there is ever a time or circumstance when dishonesty (lying) is justifiable? Please elaborate.”

This is another ethical question debated by my students.  Where does honesty eclipse compassion, and vice versa?

In the first instance is the issue of degree and risk.  If a friend you are shopping with asks you, “How do I look in this?” you have to consider your response.  You can be “brutally honest,” and say “You look awful.”  This creates a situation in which the feelings of the person can be hurt.  You can be more exact in your wording and say “It looks awful,” but the nuance might be missed and harm still done.  You can lie and say, “It’s good,” but this creates a situation where for the moment the person feels validated, only to risk ridicule by less tactful commentators later.  Again hurt results.  Tact and honesty,  however can still go hand in hand with the statement, “The last outfit (hat, make up, etc) was better.”  In each case the degree of harm is emotional, and seldom “life-changing.”

On the other hand there is the scenario of: You are sitting at a bus stop and a young woman comes staggering towards you.  She has a black eye just starting to form, her blouse is torn, and she is carrying one broken shoe, and the other is missing.  As she nears you, she holds one finger to her lips, and makes a shhh sound as she climbs behind a nearby hedge.  A few moments later a man, his knuckles bruising, approaches you and asks if you had seen a woman of her description.  You can lie and say “No, I haven’t.” This may be a noble action.  You can be truthful and say, “Yes,” this however, opens up the conversation and the follow-up question, “Which way did she go?”  Here you can lie and say “I don’t know,” or even give a false direction.  This compromises your own previous honesty.  Or you can say, “She is behind the bush.”  Here you are merely stating facts without regard to future consequences – a “morally neutral” stance – as you do not know what the future hold, only the past.

On the other hand, you could treat the initial question as to whether you have seen her in an honest, but closed ended way.  “I saw her, but I don’t know where she is now (a true statement since she is out of your sight).”  Even this has risks based on you assumptions rather than your true knowledge.  Is this man the cause of her injuries?  You do not know for certain.  Yes, the evidence suggests that her black eye and his bruised fist have a link.  You may then conclude that you are protecting her by any obfuscation you offer.  Consider the alternatives, however.  What if this questioner is not her attacker, but a rescuer?  Might this be her brother, who has just given her abusive boyfriend a thrashing?  Is your lie (well-intentioned as it might be) delaying her rescue or even medical treatment?

I have stated in the past that I lean to an absolutist view of morality, and shun relativism.  So for me, honesty remains the best policy.  But I must acknowledge that it does not come without its own risks.

Padre

Fandango’s Provocative Question #38

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Do the Ends Justify the Means?

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image: Mises Institute

Fandango wrote: For this week’s provocative question, I am asking about means and ends. I have often heard people say that “the end justifies the means.” Conversely, I’ve heard others say that “the means justifies the end.” So what about you?

One way to approach this is to phrase it in a slightly different light.  With my ethics students, we seldom stick with merely “do the ends justify the means.”  Instead we focus on intention versus consequences.  What are the intentions of your actions?  Are they ethical?  Do you seek to bring about a positive result, and if so can this be achieved by less that ethical actions?  Do such actions in turn corrupt the end?

I want to get an “A,” is my desired “end.”  I can study, and review, and practice until the topic is mastered; or I can make a “cheat sheet,” or devise a code with a more able student to feed me answers.  Both actions get the end result.  But what about the real life application of knowledge I don’t actually have.  Might I lose a job because I am not up to it, etc..  Or consider bribery to meet a political or corporate end, is it in the public interest or only your own?

But even positive intentions are problematic.  The blind man and the manhole scenario is one of these.  You see a person with a white and red stick crossing the road.  The stick indicates both hearing and sight problems.  You with your 20/20 vision note an open manhole cover.  You shout a warning that is unheard.  You therefore intervene, and pull the person away from the impending fall.  As a result they stumble and break a leg.  You motive, and even initial action were positive, but with a negative outcome.  Does this make it a bad deed?  In this case the end was because of a means.  Should in hindsight you not even have tried.

So the answer to Fandango’s Provocative Question is, it depends.  It depends on your philosophical outlook.  Are you an absolutist?  Then always act based on pure intent.  Are you a relativist? Then let the individual situation be your guide.

Remember Spock – the greatest good for the greatest number.

Now that I have philosophically waffled long enough, I personally hold that the means must be as worthy of you as the end result.  Honour is as honour does.

 

Padre

Fandango’s Provocative Question #36

 

 

The Lesson

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TES

Mrs. Murray was explaining to her class that Snakes and Ladders was originally a teaching tool to help children understand Karma.  The bottoms of each ladder bore words or phrases such as “Kindness, Honesty, or Thrift;” while those at the mouths of snakes read, “Lying, Bullying, and Greed.”

The class was divided into groups of four, and as they played they were to record what actions advanced them, and which set them back.

Harvey Johnson, who was both a troubled and troubling boy, was fascinated with the progress of his game.  He noticed that the “Goody-two-shoes” Amy Carson lost the game after “pulling hair” and later when she had nearly won descending to the bottom row for “killing.”

The experience seemed tranformational for the would-be bully, Harvey.  He resolved to only do “ladder” things from that moment onwards.

Later, on the playground, several girls screamed in distress.  Harvey, having sworn to be “Ladder ‘Helpful’,” ran over to offer assistance.

When he arrived he found that a large diamond adorned snake had cornered the girls against the playground fence.  What should he do?  “Killing” was definitely a bad “Snake” thing to do.

Harvey lifted his softball bat and clubbed the shoulder-less creature, as the girls ran to safety.

Had Harvey gone for “Snakes” or Ladders?”

Padre

Tuesday Writing Prompt Challenge: Snakes

 

Though the story is fictional, I do use the general lesson plan when teaching ethics.

Hippocratic or Hypocritic?

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I am beginning to examine the Moral Argument for the existence of God with my students.  Cardinal Newman argued that a sense of morality, or ethical certainty,  was shared by all humans.  This inner voice of conscience, he argued was the voice of God.

In route to the examination of this point, I will be taking my students on a side trip into medical ethics, in which we will examine the Hippocratic Oath and its implications.  Are the values contained within it a statement of professional conduct only, or is it a humanitarian and moral document? We will then question if the “universal” nature of the oath among physicians makes its implementation universal, or is it a relativist document in actual practice?

These questions are needed in order for us to examine our own moral compass.  Are we absolutists (an ideally Christian view in which morality is God-given), or is our ethical life subject to variables and personal opinion?

Auschwitz provides us with a case study to then examine the oath.  Dr. Gisella Perl, a Jewish gynecologist made several (what Primo Levi would call) “grey zone” decisions while incarcerated in the camp.  She conducted abortions, and risky operations without adequate equipment or supplies.  Did she fail in her oath?  Is our view in judging her absolute?  Was she being merely utilitarian, as she did abortions to save the mothers from the gas chamber?  In stark contrast to the “situation” Perl found herself, we have Dr. Josef Mengele.  Can we in the “name of science” excuse his “medical practice” in the camp?

Where did the Hippocratic Oath apply in the dark world of the camp?  Was it stretched, broken, or just ignored? If a straight forward, precisely worded document can be so treated, then what about “still small voice?”

Free moral agency is a fancy way of saying “we make our decisions.” God did not create robots. He allows humans to make mistakes.  Does this mean He doesn’t speak?  No, but it does mean we don’t have to listen.  It is here that the moral argument hinges.  Many will say the inconsistency of human action, “proves” their is no absolute voice. But is it so?  Maybe we just aren’t listening.

Padre

Slippery Slope Ethics

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Slippery Slope image from The Guardian

The “slippery slope” is often used in the rhetoric of ethical discourse.  It follows a basic pattern.  If A is allowed, it must follow that will or should be followed for the same reason.  An example is the argument against euthanasia. If we allow a terminally ill person to end their life prematurely because it is only speeding up the inevitable, and it is a compassionate act owing to pain or quality of life, then we should allow the same end for someone who is not yet terminal, as their pain or quality of life is of equal value.

Let me first say, I am not advocating euthanasia.  I am in the sanctity of life camp on this one, but as a philosophical and ethical model it is an interesting starting point.  Let’s look at some scenarios.

Person A has a severe terminal ailment in which they will become totally paralyzed and fail to even be able to swallow.  They will die of this, and should we spare them the pain and agony of such a death?  If so, should Person B who was an active sporty individual who has suffered a broken neck be allowed to end their life?  They are not going to die from their injury, but they are now dependent on others for all of their basic needs, including post toilet wiping, and feedings. It can be argued such is no quality of life.  Should this be allowed as an act of compassion?  If so, what about Person C who has a similar but not as severe injury.  They can feed themselves, and have limited mobility via a wheelchair.  But they do not enjoy the level of freedom they had before their injury.  Do they rate the “compassionate” end?  I have seen the slippery slope taken all the way in this vein to Person F who is “suffering” a “bad hair day.”  The question is, do each of these necessarily follow from its predecessor?

I advise my students to check the validity of the slope argument by reversing it to a Slippery Mountain.  Does your end point necessarily lead to the next step?

So much for hypothetical arguments.  What about day to day morality?

It is interesting that the 10th Commandment (Exodus 20:17) in many ways is the most harsh of the set.  It is not based on action, but on thought.  But it is indeed clever to have this mechanism in the commands.  After-all, if you don’t covet your neighbour’s wife you will not be tempted to commit aultrery.  If you are not jealous of his/her reputation, you will not slander them.  If you don’t desire their property you wont steal it.  And if you have no desire for his things, reputation, or relationships – why bother murdering him?

Jesus uses this same approach in Matthew 5:27-28.  “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Here again there is the challenge to avoid a thought.  Okay, in this case it is linked to the action of looking – but it is specific in the intent behind the “look.”  It does not say don’t gaze upon a woman (or man), but rather don’t do so “lustfully.”  If you are not entertaining impure thoughts, the actions will not follow.  Here we have our slippery mountain scenario.  I Timothy 5 aids us in this in verses 1b and 2, “Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity.”  It is all in the approach and attitude.  If the contact is pure, the actions that follow will be as well.

There are real slippery slopes out there.  We need to approach them in a spirit of purity, we need to not create situations in which one action (or thought) leads to more negative consequences.  It is so in keeping with God’s care of us, that He has given us the models of Exodus 20 and Matthew 5.

Padre

The National Holocaust Centre & Museum (Beth Shalom)

HITACHI

I have visited the National Holocaust Centre on several occasions.  These have included a field trip with my students, a study visit for my own benefit, and a couple of visits to hear Holocaust survivors give their testimonies.

The Centre is a bit off the beaten track, but has beautiful grounds studded with thought provoking statuary and themed memorials.  The internal spaces include a lecture theatre, library, and the museum.

The Camps Pillar is a potent symbol, as it represents the millions who died in the six camps named upon it, and soil from each lies beneath it.  Other memorials include one dedicated to the Swedish diplomat, Raoul Wallenberg who rescued thousands to only perish himself.

HITACHI

Raoul Wallenberg Monument

This being an educational centre, there are several features which focus on children. These include a memorial where you are challenged to place a stone to remember the lost children, a monument to the hidden children and those that protected them, and a bronze sculpture representing the children of the Kindertransport.

The Centre also has regular educational events, and Holocaust survivors regularly tell their stories at the venue.  I have heard Kitty Hart Moxon and others here, and their accounts are powerful and moving.

The museum shows the progression of the isolation and persecution of the Jewish community, and the subsequent events of the Holocaust.  It is deeply touching, and calls for some soul searching on how one might respond in such circumstances.

While not the main focus of such a visit, their are some nice gardens, notably the roses of the memorial garden.  There is also a book shop and places to have lunch.

This is a place to take your time to take it in.  It is  place to learn, to reflect, and to reflect again.  It is well worth the visit.

Padre

Centre’s page for further information

All Equal

In Amos chapters 1 and 2, the prophet quotes God with a recurring phrase, ““For three sins of [country], even for four, I will not relent.”  People of God are often quick to note the sins of the world, but are at times blind to their own failings.  But here in Amos, Judah and Israel are given the same warning as Moab, Gaza, and Tyre.  God will not relent over their sins.

In the same way that Jesus told the gathered crowd to let the one without sin cast the first stone, so to should we in “glass houses” avoid doing so.  God sees our iniquities as well as those of those who have no relationship with Him.  Our act, so to say, should be all the more together, as we are what the world sees of God’s message.

Do as I do, not as I say goes along way.  Let us be that shinning example today, and remember apart from grace ““For three sins of [your name here], even for four, I will not relent.”

Padrebible

Well of Peace

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19 Isaac’s servants dug in the valley and discovered a well of fresh water there. 20 But the herders of Gerar quarreled with those of Isaac and said, “The water is ours!” So he named the well Esek [dispute], because they disputed with him. 21 Then they dug another well, but they quarreled over that one also; so he named it Sitnah [opposition]. 22 He moved on from there and dug another well, and no one quarreled over it. He named it Rehoboth [room], saying, “Now the Lord has given us room and we will flourish in the land (Gen 26).”

Conflict resolution takes many forms.  In this account the precious resource of water is at stake.  This has led to wars, and perpetuated famines in the past.  Issac’s approach is not to add to the “dispute,” nor to further the “opposition.”  He instead moves on till there is enough “room” for all.

We so often get caught up in our petty grievances, and perceived “wrongs” committed by others to look for alternative approaches.  Don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t mean to be walked over by others, but rather for options to be sought.  Gandhi once famously said, “there are things I am willing to die for, but none for which I am willing to kill.”  What a wonderful attitude!  Think where we would be if everyone took the approach.

The well at Rehoboth, therefore is a symbol.  A symbol not only of God’s blessing (“we will flourish”) to Isaac, but of Issac’s wisdom and perseverance.  A wisdom and perseverance that led to peace.

Let us have “Rehoboth” [room] for peace today.

Padre

 

 

The Magic of Words

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Humans are endowed with imagination, and this has aided us in the symbolic medium of language.  We can communicate beyond the easily apparent.  We can describe a far-off land, or even better – abstract concepts.

An experiment I try with every first year class is to ask them to show me “one.”  I am then usually presented with an assortment of single fingers, pens, and books.  To which I respond, that is a finger, pen, etc. Some then turn to writing the figure “1,” to which I respond, “Then show me five.”  To this I am offered a “5.”  I in turn say, “There is only one symbol there.”  The end comes with the realisation that one or five are merely concepts.  You can see “one.”  One pencil, yes; “one,” no.

So it is that our language captures the concepts and constructions of our imaginations.  It is indeed a kind of magic.  I can tell you of a peaceful lagoon, with waters that glisten with the lustre of crumpled foil, that has been smoothed out.  The blue is that of a robin’s egg, and the sand a coral white.  Many of you will be able to share this invisible image with me.

There is the wizardry.  We as adepts in our own tongues can create “reality” from nothing!

How absolutely powerful is the creation account of the Judeo-Christian scriptures?  For we in our use of language are “in the image of God.”  God said in Genesis “Let there be . . .” and it was so.  In John’s gospel we similarly see, “In the beginning was The Word . . .” and nothing that was made was made without Him.  God created with words, and so do we.  [Don’t get me wrong, and think I am equating creation with “magic,” I am merely illustrating the power of words, and any verbal creation of ours must by necessity pale to true physical creation].

We then, as agents of this verbal power should create with good intention.  The words we use to paint a sunset, can also be used to bring darkness on the soul of the one we criticise.  With great power verbal magicians, comes great responsibility.

Padre

 

Common Ground

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I had a long conversation with a very upset Palestinian girl recently.  The issue of conflict resolution was our lesson focus, but some of the case studies we looked at were centered on Gaza.  She assumed that her classmates would have settled opinions on the topic, and became anxious in anticipation of someone putting forward a view with which she could not emotionally agree or deal with.

When we spoke later she made it clear that her anticipation had been based on experience not just on fear.  She had suffered verbal abuse based on her religion and ethnicity in the past. True enough, their are those who make striking assertions and broadly cast stereotypes about Islam, and of religion more broadly. But, this does not mean that open, constructive dialogue is impossible.

Interfaith dialogue opens doors between communities.  It promotes understanding where knowledge is limited.  It helps us move from stereotype to a familiarity with diversity.

This is best done with candid open expressions of one’s own position.  Surrendering you own beliefs is not what it is about.  It is about sharing what YOU believe.  This does not mean  there will not be differences of viewpoint.  It does not mean we wont in fact have major points of disagreement. Nor does dialogue say, we will not have areas that can’t be readily resolved. But, the way forward is still through communication. One way to sum this up is with a motto of the US Navy Chaplains Corps, “Cooperation without Compromise.”  It is about empathy, and our common humanity.  Let us seek what unites us, not what divides us.

[Just a personal point, after years of religious dialogue (within Christianity and beyond), I am no less committed to my faith than when I began.  In fact, by explaining the reasons for my faith to others, it has become clearer and dearer to me].

Padre