The Language of Morality

When it comes to making moral decisions, is it better to have emotional distance or to have compassion?

An ethics professor once told me that ethics is not about choosing between right and wrong because you should always choose what’s right. Ethics is typically about choosing between two wrongs. Certainly, if two people are approaching a decision from differing moral foundations, they may disagree on the “right” decision, but what the professor meant was that they are still trying to decide the “right” decision in a difficult situation in which there are “wrongs” that must be weighed on both sides of the issue. When people disagree, they are often prioritizing the wrongs differently.

Let’s take a typical example from ethics class: if a train is running out of control, and one track has one person tied to it and another track with five people tied to it and you have control of the switch that will direct the train to either of these two tracks, which one do you pick?

More than merely a macabre puzzle game, these improbable scenarios are meant to illuminate how one makes ethical decisions. Often, in the train example, people will kill the one person to save the five people. The next bit is to change the scenario slightly to see if the same kind of utilitarian calculation applies. For example, the one person on the train track is your father, and the five people on the other track are strangers. You still have control of the switch, what do you choose to do? Or, another way to change the scenario is to change the demographics of the victims. What if the one person is a child, while the five people are escaped prisoners? Or, the one person is a woman and the five people are men?

Thankfully, we rarely find ourselves in such troubling situations. However, what influences our answer to these questions becomes much more important when we move out the realm of imaginary trains and into real situations. One example of this is in medicine. Bioethicists often debate how to determine who receives scarce medical resources.

Take the train example, and whether your answers changed when we changed the demographic of the people tied to the rail. This is quite similar to the questions ethicists ask when it comes to deciding who should receive an organ from an organ donor. There are more people waiting for an organ transplant than there are available organs, so we have a situation in which the ethicist must decide how to choose the person who lives in a fair and just way. This is a case of weighing out the “wrongs” because no matter what the ethicist chooses, someone will likely die.

People make decisions based on many factors, but an article in The Economist indicates one unforeseen factor. A study in which some participants were asked two variations of the train scenario in their native language while other participants were asked these scenarios in a different language showed a difference when asked in a different language. Participants were not fluent in the other language, and were tested to ensure they were able to understand the question. In one scenario, the train will hit five people who are lying on the track, and the only way to save them is to push a fat man onto the track in front of the train. You cannot jump in front of the train; the only way to save them is to shove the fat man in the path of the train. The other scenario is the switch and two tracks mentioned above.

The switch scenario emotionally distances the person from the violent act. When given the switch scenario, most people opt to kill the one person in order to save five. This was the case whether the question was asked in a person’s native language or in a different language. However, when the person must push the fat man onto the track, about 20% of people would push the fat man onto the track when asked in their native language (This was also the same for people fluent in a particular language), but when asked in a different language, the percentage was 33%.

After several tests and analyses to account for factors such as cultural mores and randomness, the study confirmed that when people are asked about the fat man scenario in a different language, they were more likely to push him onto the track compared to when they are asked in their native language or a language in which they have fluency. It seems that the different language provides emotional distance similar to the way the switch provided emotional distance.

We live in a globalized world in which many people communicate and make decisions in a different language. Based on this study, it seems that language barriers also create emotional distance that is not necessarily there if the person is making the decision in his or her native language. In the area of medicine, this may have implications for patients who are asked to make a decision while living in a different country that does not speak his or her language. Additionally, this may have implications for patients who are unfamiliar with technical medical jargon, in which the use of jargon may be similar to hearing a problem in a different language. This may prompt a patient to make a more emotionally distanced decision.

On Nihilism and Rampage Murders

A recent kudos on a Salvo article from the latest issue:

I think it is one of the best summaries of the “rampage murders” and I wish more people would read it.   I read it twice and he makes many important connections, that legislation for mental health and gun control will not fix the problem.  It is much deeper – a culture that lacks any transcendence. Existential nihilism is a logical conclusion to our cultures obsession with contraception, abortion, and inability to integrate faith in God.

You can read the article here: The Zombie Killers: Nihilism Threatens Us with the Walking Dead by Regis Nicoll. From the article. Could Mr. Nicoll be onto something here?…

The increase in zombie-like murders is gut-wrenching. But if we think we can thwart the perpetrators with the silver bullets of executive orders and congressional action, we would do well to recall Prohibition and the War on Drugs. Those efforts failed—and to the extreme—because legislation and law enforcement, by themselves, cannot imbue a moral sense into the heart of the offender, or renew the moral climate of society. Only a Transcendence that speaks to the deepest yearnings of the human spirit for wholeness, meaning, and significance can do that.

Unless the nihilistic worldview is abandoned for one that recognizes such a Transcendence, we can expect a rise in the number of walking dead and their devastating crimes. We must teach students and young people to reject what some of the supposedly brightest minds today are selling them—that the universe is meaningless and without purpose or supervision. Such nihilism only deadens the soul, which, after all, was created for communion with the living God.

The Argument of Tears

USAF Cellist

by Terrell Clemmons

A typical crowd of tourists, seniors, and schoolchildren on field trips was mulling around the large lobby of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. when a young man, wearing full military dress and carrying a cello, walked toward a chair curiously placed in the center of the large room and sat down. He took up his bow in one hand, stretched his other arm to adjust the sleeve, and began playing with calm, expert finesse.

After the opening measures, another soldier musician approached with a standup bass and joined in. A small riser was brought out, and a graying maestro removed his overcoat and accepted the conductor’s baton from an assistant with a cordial salute. An oboe came in with the melody, followed by strings, brass, clarinets, flutes, even a harp.

Mothers holding children swayed with the music. Faces broke into smiles and wonder. A few people started recording the flash concert on their cell phones.

The crowd has stopped mulling around; the rockets, space capsules and bi-plane hanging from the ceiling are forgotten. “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” composed by the great Johann Sebastian Bach and performed by the US Air Force Band under the direction of Colonel Larry H. Lang, Commander and Conductor, is enough to render these museum artifacts, sophisticated as they were in their time, as just so much scrap metal.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-cKE8pyfcZc

Then come the vocals:

Jesu, joy of man’s desiring,
Holy wisdom, love most bright …

If you look carefully, you can see a few museum-goers wiping away tears while other faces appear close to tears. In fact, you may find yourself reaching for a tissue as you watch.

Now why is this? Why is it that, all those bystanding technological accomplishments notwithstanding, this music has the power to slip right past the intellect and, drawing from unseen wells of emotion we didn’t even know were there, summon the heart to come forth and behold something greater?

Or to phrase the question in the language of science, what is the explanation for this universal phenomenon we call joy? Or rapture? Hold that thought.

Several years ago, I had an interesting conversation with an atheist named Ken. A medical doctor, Ken is very intelligent and articulate. His mother had passed on a few weeks prior, and the conversation turned to his reaction to it. “I was walking down the street Tuesday,” Ken said, “by an antique shop. And I had looked for a particular kind of double-striped cranberry glass that my mother collects. It’s very rare. And every time I go by this antique shop I look to see if they’ve got any in the window. I’ve never seen it. And I realized as I walked by that I never really need to look for that — and here his voice broke away. An emotional wave had struck him, seemingly, out of nowhere, and he couldn’t finish the sentence, I never need to look for double-striped cranberry glass again…

He changed the subject and soon afterward ended the conversation. It made me want to cry for him – not so much for the loss of his mother, but for the loss of his ability to grieve the loss. He feels something very deeply, but he’s cut himself off from both the source and satisfaction of that longing. Ken has rejected belief in God for lack of evidence, yet he misses the evidence that springs from the emotional wells of his very soul.

C.S. Lewis wrote about the innate desire for something beyond. That desire is also a form of nascent knowledge. “Most people, if they had really learned to look in their hearts, would know that they do want, and acutely, something that cannot be had in this world.” The human soul was made to enjoy some objects that are “never fully given — nay, cannot even be imagined as given — in our present mode of subjective and spatio-temporal experience.” He called it joy; he also called it longing. A literary critic, he even at times called it Romanticism. This desire, Lewis wrote, is distinct from others in that it is itself desirable. “To have it is, by definition, a want: to want it, we find, is to have it.”

To want to have what? Look at the rest of the words of the first stanza of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” penned by Robert Bridges to be sung to the masterpiece:

Drawn by Thee, our souls aspiring,
Soar to uncreated light.

Souls aspiring to do what? To soar to uncreated light.

Christmas NightTo rise up to God, to be united, or re-united, with our Maker. Why is Ken moved at the remembrance of his mother? Because God made both him and his mother for eternal relationship, and those relational bonds transcend death. Why are museum-goers moved by beautiful music? Why are we moved by beautiful music? Because God himself is beautiful, and he made us to dwell with him in glory and beauty. It’s part of the created order. We long for it, and we know it.

The tears tell us so.

Related:

Beyond Belief (or the Lack Thereof)

Salvo readers, the new issue (#26 Fall 2013) will be mailing out soon. You will notice that included with this issue will be the special Salvo supplement on Science & Faith. Check back here and at the Salvo website for more info. For now, please take a look at this article (one of five or six) available online. A good way to keep up with Salvo is to join our mailing list. See the sidebar on any page of www.salvomag.com.


Science Philosopher Bradley Monton Looks Past His Atheism to Objectively Assess Intelligent Design

You don’t have to believe in God to acknowledge the merits of intelligent design. University of Colorado philosophy professor Bradley Monton is a case in point. In his book Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design, Monton explains why he thinks the hypothesis has value, despite his conviction that its conclusions are ultimately incorrect. Here, he does the same before discussing what sort of scientific discovery it would take to make him finally abandon his skepticism and embrace the existence of a creator—a breakthrough that he would actually welcome, if only to end the longstanding uncertainty surrounding the origins of life.

What makes you take intelligent design (ID) seriously?

ID investigations are part of a long tradition in philosophy called Natural Theology—of looking for evidence in the natural world for the existence of God. Intelligent design has prima facie merit in being part of this long philosophical and scientific tradition. That’s one reason why I think it should be taken seriously. The other is that I find the arguments of the opponents of ID too emotionally driven and not as intellectually robust as one would hope. I get upset with my fellow atheists who present bad arguments against intelligent design and then expect everyone to believe that they have somehow resolved the debate with these bad arguments.

Why do you think some scientists refuse to take intelligent design seriously?

That’s a hard question to answer because it’s almost an issue of human psychology and sociology. But I would say that some atheists exhibit a fundamentalism that prevents them from even imagining that someone reasonable, rational, and intelligent could hold views different from their own. Others believe that science is the end-all and be-all—that it can answer all of the important questions about reality. There are even scientists out there, such as the theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg, who proclaim that neither religion nor philosophy can tell us anything important about the world. I totally disagree. Philosophy is actually an important field of inquiry. It can figure out the nature of ethical truths and what specific truths might be. Philosophy can also be used to investigate the existence of God in a way that science cannot.

Read the entire article.

 

Daycare in the News

by Marcia Segelstein

Posted today at MercatorNet, one of Salvo’s partner organizations, is a piece called “Dangerous Daycare?” It cites a recent study conducted at Boston University which reveals that children in daycare centers are at an especially high risk for contracting a particular respiratory infection. The pathogen is reported to contribute to inner ear infections, sinusitis, and even pneumonia.  The piece, originally published at The Family in America, notes that despite such research “advocates of maternal employment will continue to give assurances about the well-being of children in daycare.”

In Salvo 21 we reported on other dangers parents should know about when it comes to daycare.

Finding Evidence

A highlight from a recent interview with Steven King on NPR :

On his belief in God and whether it has changed over time

“I choose to believe it. … I mean, there’s no downside to that. If you say, ‘Well, OK, I don’t believe in God. There’s no evidence of God,’ then you’re missing the stars in the sky and you’re missing the sunrises and sunsets and you’re missing the fact that bees pollinate all these crops and keep us alive and the way that everything seems to work together. Everything is sort of built in a way that to me suggests intelligent design. But, at the same time, there’s a lot of things in life where you say to yourself, ‘Well, if this is God’s plan, it’s very peculiar,’ and you have to wonder about that guy’s personality — the big guy’s personality. And the thing is — I may have told you last time that I believe in God — what I’m saying now is I choose to believe in God, but I have serious doubts and I refuse to be pinned down to something that I said 10 or 12 years ago. I’m totally inconsistent.”

These remarks here have sparked some very intense responses…

From a National Geographic Blog:
Evolution is Wonderful

“But King’s quote represents a snobbish and pervasive belief that those who see no evidence of gods are somehow impoverished in their lives.”

From Patheos:
Stephen King: If You Don’t Believe in God, You’re Missing Out on Sunrises, Sunsets, and the Stars

See what I mean. Touchy, touchy. I’m pretty sure when Mr. King said “‘Well, OK, I don’t believe in God. There’s no evidence of God,’ then you’re missing the stars in the sky and you’re missing the sunrises and sunsets and you’re missing . . . ” he was simply saying that what someone is “missing” is some evidence for God. He was not saying that someone who fails to acknowledge a god is missing out on the ability to enjoy a sunset.

I can see why a nature devotee would be upset having it suggested that he didn’t love or could not appreciate nature because he’s an atheist, but that’s not what happened, and I think that Mr. Backpacker was reading into the comment waaaaay too much. Plus it seems to me that atheists spend a lot of time proclaiming that if someone believes in God, that person is basically akin to a child seeing recognizable shapes in the clouds and can’t possibly have an interest in science or reality, so I have a hard time sympathizing with atheists as victims here. By the way: 50 Nobel Laureates and Other Great Scientists Who Believe in God.

I’m curious about where this hostility comes from. Are atheists worried that Mr. King, with his very ambiguous, “totally inconsistent” (random) beliefs about “god” is going to convert all of these NPR-listeners and nature-lovers over to deism. . . or even worse, to have them consider the possibility that nature actually does exhibit intelligent design?!