Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Two wrongs don't make a wrong. Right?

I've been seeing a fair amount of traffic off-blog from folks who seem to think I've popped my cork. Eyebrows remain raised at some of my more recent positions on moral ambiguity and such. The general tenor of the feedback is as follows: "Stevie-baby... Whaddya mean you don't know what's right and what's wrong? Come on, dude. Man up here!"

Let's examine this, then, shall we? First of all, we don't even know if there's a God. Now I know some of you may be thinking, Oh, I know there's a God, believe me; I'm as sure as I am about the number of fingers on my hand. Look, I'm happy for you and your level of certitude, but logically speaking, you can't take an unknown, posit it as a known, then use that as the basis for further argument. That's just for starters, and it's kind of a big thing to be uncertain about, since so many of our moral truths are rooted in wisdom that, we're told, came down on heavenly tablets, or were otherwise stipulated in official works of religious record like the bible, Koran/Qur'an, Torah, Book of Mormon, etc. I'm also fairly sure that the actual Moses wasn't as good-looking as Charlton Heston, for what that's worth.

Anyway, throw out the God concept and what are we left with? A referendum, apparently: Whatever most people think is right, is right. Because if you remove a celestial arbiter from the mix, then you can't argue (plausibly) that there are any "eternal" truths. Morality becomes a matter of legislation and/or imperatives occasioned by the need to ensure survival. Things get voted in and voted out, and that's how we decide what's right and wrong. This week. Chew on that a while. Speaking of chewing, what about animal rights? Who says we're entitled to eat animals? Vegans may be "out there"...but are they wrong? How do you know? Or what about this one: A CEO, through a perfectly legal series of maneuvers, secures a large bonus for himself and his managerial-level colleagues at the same time that his company is laying off hundreds of lower-level workers. The low-level workers are devastated
this is hundreds of families we're talking about, representing perhaps thousands of people. Homes are lost, cars are repossessed, kids go hungry. Bereft of healthcare, people put off doctors' appointments; some get sicker than they ought to; some die. A few suicides occur. One day, one of those workers picks up his gun, goes to the CEO's house and shoots the man in the head. Why is what that worker did punishable under the lawseverely soand what the CEO did perfectly legal? Don't react in knee-jerk fashion. Think about it.

Now, if there is a God...well...whose? I'll tell you right now, people in this country better hope it's not Allah, because if it is, we'll all meet in hell. And I don't just mean Al-Qaeda's version of Allah, either. The normal, baseline, less-cranky Allah would still damn the lot of us. You ladies in particular, fuggetaboutit. If Allah's the guy, you're on the hell express, every last winking, drinking, up-hooking one of you.* So enjoy the way you look in that slinky little black number you bought for the office Holiday party while you can, because the Inferno awaits. (Anybody know offhand what the kindling point of silicone is?) And you fathers who dare allow your teenage daughters to behave with such abandon, you can shrug your shoulders helplessly now, as long as you understand that shoulders are all you'll have left in time, because that head of yours is coming off as soon as you reach the not-so-pearly gates. (Maybe sooner, depending on how things play out over the next few decades.)

Personally, I get real tired, real fast, of people who claim to have a sure-handed grip on The Eternal Truths. "Look," they'll say, "if nothing else, we have to start from the premise that killing is bad. I think we can all agree on that." Really? What about abortion? What about capital punishment? Heck, what about this little police action we've been running over in the Gulf on and off for almost two decades now? "Oh, see, that's different, because that's justified killing, and...." Uh, no. 'Fraid not. Once you start "justifying" killing
which is to say, the kind of killing you condonethen you can't complain when the swarthy-looking hijackers start crashing your airliners into your tall buildings, because they have a justification for the killing they do, too. In fact, they justify it by invoking God! "Yeah, but they started it!" Not according to them, they didn't. "Well, we have a democracy, whereas..." Allah doesn't want democracy; he wants obedience.** "See, that's it in a nutshell, they just don't understand what God wants for us..." Oh and you do? Sez who? Your priest? Well, my rabbi and John's minister and Ralph's reverend and Abdul's mullah say different.

Once again I go with Bill Maher: "If you haven't actually sat down and talked with The Big Fella, don't presume to interpret Him for the rest of us." And if we can't even agree on what's right from a religious standpoint
without exceptions, conditions or caveatsthen all bets are off.

* Yes, I know, guys do this too. Maybe even more so. Sorry, ladies, Allah isn't a feminist; he gets madder at the gals. He even allows men up to four wives so they can quench their libidos without breaking the rules. (For the record, Islamists dispute this interpretation of Muslim polygamy.)
** And incidentally, so did the God I was raised with, the God of the Catholic Church, until Rome took a turn towards ecumenicalism and a kinder, gentler Supreme Being a few decades back.


Anonymous said...

That's why I love ya Steve - you tell it like it is. I just don't think that the myriad of people making millons on telling us whats right and whats wrong would appreciate your genius.


RevRon's Rants said...

Warning: I'm feeling especially long-winded here. Read at your own risk.

A forest fire is a tragedy from the perspective of a tree being burned, an animal that perishes, or the person who claims ownership of or responsibility for the forest. In the larger scale, however, a forest fire is merely one of many essential elements in the healthy progression of the ecosystem. Old growth is removed, and the soil is nourished to make way for new growth. Some animals are caught unawares and die, but that serves to cull the less adept members from the herd.

The person who intentionally (or carelessly) sets the forest ablaze is punished for his (or her) dastardly act if caught. We collectively gasp in horror at the destruction the person has caused. If the act results in the death of other humans, we might even opt to kill the perpetrator.

Are we "right" to punish the arsonist? To kill him? Are we "right" to be horrified at the destruction? Or are we to simply accept it as part of a natural (and ultimately beneficial) cycle?

I think we are responsible for our actions, and that it is only natural for those actions to be based upon our limited perspective. However... and this is the "however" that defines us as supposedly evolved beings - it behooves us to attempt to look beyond our own limited perspective. To comprehend and ultimately accept the event in its larger scale. Yes, we are compelled to punish the arsonist by our sense of justice, no matter how limited that sense might be. We are compelled buy our capacity for compassion to mourn the suffering of the deer, squirrels, and other creatures (and humans) who suffered because of the fire. But we are also compelled by our intellectual curiosity to ponder the broader scope of the event's effects. To recognize the "rightness" of the fire, even as we condemn the "wrongness" of the resultant suffering.

We act upon what we "know" (or believe we know) and feel. We ponder upon what we think might be, and strive for synthesis of the two seemingly inconsistent perspectives. Doing so serves to inspire us and make us seek greater wisdom. The unwillingness - or inability - to consider even the possibility that what we believe may be flawed or - at best, incomplete - is a blinder that condemns us to intellectual and moral stagnation.

Even though I do believe in the existence of a Divine entity, my understanding of that entity will always be at variance with others who believe, as well as those who claim to "know" that no such entity exists. Even your (Steve's) apparent internal dichotomy, "I believe in a God, yet must admit to knowing intellectually that I am wrong," indicates integrity with the tenets of his "faith."

That integrity falters when one is so unsure of their own beliefs (or claimed lack of beliefs) that they cannot even imagine a reality beyond the scope of their understanding, and deny others the right to peer beyond their own intellectual horizons.

Yes, there is a "right" and there is a "wrong." But we humans can only react to that which we comprehend. We punish "evildoers" and mourn the existence of "evil." Allowing that the human concepts of good and evil are merely descriptions borne of our limited experience and understanding helps us to grow beyond those limits, perhaps even to begin to comprehend a process that has long eluded us. Perhaps even to eliminate that evil altogether. To a person guided by faith, it would represent touching the face of God. To one guided strictly by logic, it would represent a profound breakthrough in understanding. In the final analysis, is there really any conflict between the two? I don't think so.

Steve Salerno said...

Ron, that's typically well put, though I still think it's a bit sly in its language-parsing. We have to settle on what seems right or wrong to us (meaning, each of us) in order to get through life. But we should do so with the understanding that OUR right and wrong is not necessarily THE right and wrong, but elastic and temporary, and that even the most heinous acts--9/11, for one--nonetheless fit within someone else's value system. Those are difficult and shattering realizations, and many people will simply throw in the towel. ("You're telling me I have to accept 9/11 as 'legitimate' in someone's eyes? No freakin' way!") Throw determinism into the equation and it gets even trickier.

I urge anyone/everyone who sticks with this thread to consider the degree to which current notions of right/wrong are guided by nothing more than convention ("that's how we always saw it") and consensus. Consensus and convention are more erudite ways of saying "majority rule." And yet we all know many ways in which the majority has wrought acts and policies that we once accepted but now regard as unforgivable. That doesn't mean they are unforgivable; it just means that majority rule never tells you very much except what most people think and feel at the time. Which strikes me as a very troubling and unreliable guide for deciding what's right and wrong.

RevRon's Rants said...

"Throw determinism into the equation and it gets even trickier."

Toss determinism out altogether and it makes more logical sense. :-)

"consider the degree to which current notions of right/wrong are guided by nothing more than convention..."

Here, I believe you're painting with overly broad strokes, Steve. While convention is certainly a very significant factor, I think that the determination of right/wrong is profoundly affected by internal, as well as institutionalized processes. Whether it's defined as instinct, moral code (as opposed to code of morays), hard-wiring, or higher self, there is (I believe) a powerful internal driving force in each of us, its influence fairly independent of societal influence.

RevRon's Rants said...

"You're telling me I have to accept 9/11 as 'legitimate' in someone's eyes?"

This is the real crux of the matter: Accepting that another holds to a different assignment of legitimacy, while simultaneously acting upon one's own definition "as if" it represented absolute and incontrovertible Truth. To absorb and acknowledge, yet not be so crippled by indecision that we are unable to trust ourselves sufficiently to act. A fine line, to be sure.

Elizabeth said...

OMG, how stereotypical, Steve.;)

Have you even considered a possibility that God may be female? (See? You haven't. Aha!) Just imagine what trouble you all will be in if that's the case. Mhm.

(I'm not starting an argument. I'm only kidding! Or am I?;)

Seriously now, interesting post, with much to chew on indeed. Hope to say more if I can manage later.

Steve Salerno said...

Ron, right, exactly (I think; of course, I could be wrong, wink.) That's the point, though: It's easy to say "I'm open and accepting of others" when the stakes are low, and maybe you're talking about office dress protocols. It's when the costs and feelings escalate--and you're confronted with a 9/11--that you find out how really open-minded you are. I do believe that it's possible to firmly hold your own faith in a given precept/concept while also realizing that you could very well be wrong, or at least no more right than the other guy.

That's why one of the most powerful scenes in a brilliant and understated film, United 93 (and it ain't easy to make an understated film about 9/11), was that one towards the end, where they have the juxtaposed shots of the two groups praying: the Americans in the back of the plane praying to God, and the hijackers in the front praying to Allah, both groups appearing equally earnest and emotional. Was anyone "right," there? Will be ever know as mortals? I doubt it.

Steve Salerno said...

Eliz: I know you're kidding--sort of--but you're dead-on, too, and it illustrates my point: Convention and "the way we've always done it" make me conceive God, if there is one, as male and paternalistic.

But remember, you "guys" have the BVM, who--according to my wife--has always been the eminence grise anyway.

Elizabeth said...

Yeah, Steve, BVM is nice 'n all, but hardly has the lightning-wielding power. She's all pleading and maternal -- and weeps a lot, at least on those windows, walls and salsa splashes (yes) where she's been spotted lately.

I'm talking about the Holy Helga (or Mathilda) kind of God(ess) -- armored, nasty, and throwing guys to hell by the dozens. No virgins waiting for ya -- or if any, all past eighty and toothless. Chew on that!


RevRon's Rants said...

I was as outraged as anyone by the events of 9/11, and wanted revenge, just like everyone else in the US. However, I also knew that the stage for that horrific sequence had been set back during the Eisenhower administration. Until he had the CIA orchestrate a coup that overthrew a democratically-elected government in Iran, replacing it with the more west-friendly Shah, we weren't much of a blip on the Muslim radar, and the radical Imams' efforts and rhetoric were limited to wielding domestic influence.

While it was natural and even inevitable for me to rage against the barbarism of the 9/11 attacks, it was just as natural and inevitable for me to recognize the part my own country had played in fomenting the rage that caused them. And just as my sense of justice demanded that the perpetrators be punished, it also demands that we alter our foreign policy so as to not inspire subsequent occurrences in the future. In my perspective, failure to do the latter is equally culpable as the attacks themselves.

RevRon's Rants said...

"Convention and "the way we've always done it" make me conceive God, if there is one, as male and paternalistic."

Seems like I can recall attending that convention, many years ago. But I was never able to understand why a supreme spiritual entity would have need for a penis (or a vagina, for that matter). Eventually, I learned about the concept of anthropomorphism, and had one of those ah-hah moments.

Elizabeth said...

Speaking of morally ambiguous situations, see this one:

From Times Online
December 1, 2008

Mothers 'killed sons to end war'
by Anne Barrowclough

Mothers in Papua New Guinea have been forced to resort to infanticide in a tragic bid to end the tribal wars that have devastated the Eastern Highlands for the last 20 years, it has been claimed.

All baby boys born in the last 10 years have been killed at birth, according to two women from rival tribes.

The long running inter-tribal battles have left the women of the remote Gimi region struggling to feed their families.

In desperation, they agreed to murder their sons to reduce the number of men who could go into battle, the mothers told PNG's National newspaper.

Full text:

Anonymous said...

Ron, how do you know its a tragedy for the squirrel - he may be having fun in squirrel heaven for all we know - and that's the point - we don't know.

Living with the unknown is the most difficult thing to do - which is why we attach ourselves to beliefs that feel right. The problem comes when what feels right for you can be the complete opposite of what feels right for me - so we go to war and everybody loses.


Steve Salerno said...

Ron, apropos of Eliz's latest, I think she may be a tad too young to recall this, but I'm sure you remember the Vietnam-era Westmoreland ethic of "liberating villages" by, in essence, bombing them back to the Stone Age.

RevRon's Rants said...

"Ron, how do you know its a tragedy for the squirrel - he may be having fun in squirrel heaven for all we know - and that's the point - we don't know."

What we *do* know is the life in which we live, and it is within that framework that we formulate our judgments. I know how painful it is to be burned, and can vaguely imagine the agony of being burned alive, *based upon an extension of my actual experiential base.* However, I have no framework beyond my own *beliefs* by which to judge the experience of an afterlife, and am thereby inclined to base my perspective - and my actions - on the known, rather than things I can only project by my own visualization. I may well ruminate upon the prospect that the squirrel - or a loved one - is in a "better place," but I would still strive to save them from reaching that place, and feel sadness at their journey.

We stretch ourselves by conceptualizing that of which we cannot be absolutely certain, but at some point, we are faced with the decision to make a stand for that which evidence indicates is most likely. Head in the clouds, feet firmly on the ground.

RevRon's Rants said...

Ah, yes... the euphamisms of war; our means of insulating ourselves from the barbarism in which we engage. I recall the sick irony of "neutralizing" a village or region, especially done with "prejudice" (killing all combatant adults encountered) or "extreme prejudice" (killing any human encountered, with livestock thrown in for good measure and additional psychological impact). Of course, such definitions and usage were routinely denied by official sources. Our innocence - like that of the Papauans - was but another aspect of the "collateral damage" inflicted.

Stever Robbins said...

If there's an omnipotent God, he/she created "the enemy" as much as me. And he/she created those who believe in Allah, and those who believe in Kali, and those who believe in an Earth Mother, etc.

I've heard some people say that all those exist to test our faith and our willingness to lead those poor heathens to the One True Way.

Excuse me?

The notion Islam and Africa and China and Japan and Nepal and Tibet exist with their own beliefs and religions just so *my* God can test *my* faith and they're simple props for that little drama seems ... unlikely.

(This same logic holds regardless of which religion you use as a reference. For religion R, there are many more people who aren't R than who are R. For the "they were created to test me" argument to hold, it would mean all the non-Rs exist solely as an instrument to test the faith of the Rs. Seems absurdly inefficient for an omnipotent God...)

Steve Salerno said...

Stever, yes, the arrogance of some people--vis-a-vis the lengths to which they'll go to resolve the dissonant aspects of life into a pattern that fits their own religious template--knows no bounds.

This is a variant of the argument that goes, "God allows evil and famine and pestilence and the rest of it in order to test my faith." Now, if the person means that those horrific aspects of life are just artifacts, if you will--that they don't really exist except as imaginary crucibles--that's one thing. But if the person is actually saying that God creates other people and situations merely as foils, and then kills them off tragically in order to see if the rest of us "chosen ones" can handle it...wow.

RevRon's Rants said...

"Seems absurdly inefficient for an omnipotent God...)"

Not to mention grandiose in the most paranoid sense... on the part of the R's, not the God. :-)

Stever Robbins said...

I will not make a "Soylent Green" joke. I will not make a "Soylent Green" joke. I will not ... Oops! Too late.

Elizabeth said...

About Soylent Green -- washing my kitchen this morn, I turned on my TV during Martha Stewart's daily sermon -- and I could not believe my eyes.

Martha does not get it. She was showing us how to make an elaborate recipe of duck with truffles (hello, recession!), grinding your own spices and performing some other obscure culinary maneuvers that would puzzle physicists. And "after the break," she promised to show us how to make a Christmas tree from... feathers. Yup. I thought that given our economic situation, empty soda cans or recycled newspapers would be more appropriate, but Martha was adamant about feathers.

I guess that's Martha for ya -- always coming up with mind-boggling ideas to put ordinary people with normal housekeeping skills to shame. Which makes me think that you, Steve, should take her on as a subject of your SHAM-related dissections (or have you and I missed it?) -- she is a great candidate, IMO.

Oh, and I finished my kitchen duties in peace, after switching channels to an episode of "Police Woman" starring, as luck would have it, the gorgeous Cheryl Ladd. (Eat that, Martha!)

*My Soylent Green reference, Stever, was made only for the purpose of an unappetizing segue. Sorry. :)

Steve Salerno said...

You know, one of my claims to (in)fame during my brief tenure (now there's an oxymoron!) at Men's Health was that I put out a sex book called, unsurprisingly, The Book of Sex. It covered the gamut of the dating/mating scene, from that first tentative "hello" right down to position 654a. (I have no idea what that is, but I'm sure someone has thought of one.) But really, it didn't differ all that much from MH's prior sex books, except that it was maybe a bit more explicit. So one day I cornered my boss and said, "If the people on our mailing list already have our previous sex books [and almost all of them did], why do they need this one? Haven't they already mastered all there is to know?" He sort of smiled at me in that way that you might smile at someone who thinks "the birds and the bees" is really about birds and bees. And he said, "Steve--the kinds of guys who buy our books haven't mastered anything when it comes to women. In all likelihood they never get to use a single one of these techniques in real life."

"Then why by the books?"

I got the smile again. "Because," he said, "reading these books is like living in an imaginary world for them, a world where--in their minds--they do get to live out these approaches and techniques. And each new book gives them a chance to immerse themselves in that fantasy all over again."

And I thought: how sad. If true, how very sad.

What does that have to do with Martha and truffles? Everything. Maybe especially in a bad economy. Get my drift?

Elizabeth said...

Yeah, I get it, Steve. It's like my (rather funny) habit of reading cooking recipes while munching on a piece of stale bread, or whatever I find on hand at the time. All those colors, smells and flavors one can just imagine -- a promise of a better, more perfect life, almost within our reach...

But still, a Christmas tree made of feathers?

Anonymous said...

Its not exactly a christmas tree made of feathers but an anthropologist called Ernest Becker published some brilliant books in the 70's on the subject of this post: "The Denial of Death"
and "The Eclipse of Hope"

Sounds a bit grim but well worth it for the serious student of human nature. Becker got a Pulitzer
Prize for 'Denial of Death.'

Elizabeth said...

No, Becker ain't no Xmas tree, I'll give you that, Anon. I'm familiar with his work, The Denial of Death made a huge impression on me when I was younger (not that it wouldn't now, it's just that I have not come back to it in years).

But to continue with digressions -- or round-about segues -- since we are on the subject of God, religion, and (good) movies in Steve's next post, please see this brief (6 min.) animated film by a Polish artist, Tomasz Baginski. It's titled The Cathedral, it got an Oscar nomination in its category in 2003, and I can promise (I hope) that you will like it. And if you don't like it, then, well... then I don't know what to say.

BTW, the film is not really about God or religion, but... Oh, just watch it (and keep the sound on):

Elizabeth said...

P.S. A much better copy of The Cathedral is here:

...but this one can be capricious in loading, at least on my computer. (The original video was still available on YouTube three months ago, it's been removed now. Darn it.)

Anonymous said...

Elizabeth, thank you for "The Cathedral." It is astounding, a superb work of art. I can't stop watching it.

Anonymous said...

I'll second that Eliz, 'The Cathedral' rendered me speechless---a brilliant comment on the human condition.
Thanks for the pointer.

Steve Salerno said...

Eliz: Yes, it is mesmerizing. Thanks for posting the link.

Elizabeth said...

Oh, I'm so glad you like it!
(Frankly, I would be stunned if you didn't.:)

Yes, astounding, mesmerizing, superb, achingly beautiful, all that and then some. I was transfixed when I saw it the first time (four?) years ago; and now I've watched it, oh, a hundred times perhaps, still transfixed each time. Can't get enough. (Yes, Anon, that's a common side effect.:)

The film is based on a sci-fi story by a young Polish writer. I looked it (the story) up and tried to read it, but gave up fast -- it was just too boring. Baginski's animation has far surpassed it and elevated it to a different realm, I'd say.

BTW, the You Tube clip is a mirror image of the original. Don't know why this is so (but this may be the reason why the clip is still on the Tube while all the others were removed). It's a little weird to watch it left-to-right (or the other way around?), but it does not diminish its beauty. IMO.

RevRon's Rants said...

Wow, Eliz -

Loved Cathedral. Would love to see what Baginski could have done with "Heavy Metal!" Probably best that he wasn't involved, though... I fear a lot of people wouldn't have made the return trip. :-)

Elizabeth said...

Glad you loved it, Ron.

Baginski has done several films, some think that they were better than "Cathedral" in terms of his animation techniques. You can look them up, on You Tube and elsewhere (www.platige.com)

What's "Heavy Metal" you refer to?

Steve Salerno said...

Well, I believe arsenic is a heavy metal, so maybe Ron would like to see someone poisoned? Can I hazard a guess as to who...? ;)

Elizabeth said...

OK, just in case it was me that Steve and you may have in mind, I swear, Ron, I did not intend to "shoot the messenger" for that photo you forwarded to the other thread. I figured out that since it's your birthday tomorrow, we should spare you. (But just this once.;)