Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Ethics of the Lowest Common Denominator - Part 1

One of the reasons I am a Christian is because of ethics; the ethics of Christ resonate with me in a way that feels right. I have chosen to follow him, in part, because the pattern of life that Christians are called to follow provides an ethical center that makes sense to me. With that in mind …

Somebody please correct me if I have misunderstood something with this one. I am sure that I must be oversimplifying the situation again, a habit of mine which some of my friends have been kind enough to point out in the past. I trust that if I am guilty of doing so this time, I will be duly chastised.

HOWEVER …(I am now done prefacing, on to the actual content!)…

It seems to me that some people are trying to advance the argument that, since terrorists use unethical tactics, our military should too. The argument is most evident around the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay. As if, because the terrorists commit such evil, nasty, horrific, etc. etc. actions against innocent people, that justifies treating them with a lowered ethical standard, or at least, not being overly concerned about potential mistreatment or ethical violations. There is no coherence in the ethical system that says that terrorists commit atrocities, so we ought to be able to, as well.

Before I go further, it is important to note that reports of the actual treatment of detainees in the “War on Terror” vary widely, from the most horrific pictures of torture and abuse to an almost idyllic luxury. It is not surprising to note which commentators are espousing which reports. The truth is probably somewhere in between the two extremes.

The point is, the actions of terrorists should not change the ethical standards by which we live, even to the point of affecting how the terrorists themselves are treated. This should not be a “lowest common denominator” world, in which our ethics are determined by the person who acts the worst. That’s an elementary school playground worldview, in which the phrase, “Well they started it” is regarded as logical reasoning. Such ethical deterioration makes it possible, for example, for people to say, “No, I don’t approve of the homosexual lifestyle, but at least I’m not Fred Phelps.” As if his twisted perspective sets the standard.

John Wesley, writing about slavery, wrote, “Notwithstanding ten thousand laws, right is right, and wrong is wrong still. There must still remain an essential difference between justice and injustice, cruelty and mercy.” He wrote that prosperity should never be attained at “the expense of virtue.” And neither should the elimination of terrorism be achieved (if that is even possible) at the expense of our own ethics. We may make our regulations about questioning detainees as vague as we want, we may interpret the Geneva Conventions as loosely as we want, we may play with terminology to spin the situation to our benefit all we want, but right is right and wrong is wrong still.

Christ calls his followers to a higher standard.

A part of this ethical system relates to the distinction between one’s attitude toward a large, anonymous group and one’s attitude toward individual people. As I continue to think about the “lowest common denominator” ethics prevalent in our society today, I’ll post again this week about that distinction.


Anonymous said...

Proud of you again, son. cb

Art said...

Great post! I agree totally.

Kansas Bob said...

I'm a bit confused Andy. I was following you about Christian ethics until you brought the government into it. Are you thinking that "religious" ethics should be brought into the political/military arena? I have to ask the same about right/wrong because the terrorists seem to believe that right/wrong is at the center of their cause. It seems that when we discuss ethics we need to talk about what ethics we are speaking about - the national, cultural and religious factors seem to weigh heavy on this one.

Of course if you'd like to bring Jesus into this one there are many that would object on the basis of church/state seperation.

I'll be interested in hearing your views on this one.

Blessings, KB

Andy B. said...

KB - Your comment is actually a pretty good segue into the "Part 2" that I am working on next. Nutshell - it is not so much about church/state as it is about individual/group.

Anonymous said...

I am just a layman that enjoys reading your post, although your reasoning and language often go way over my head. However, I have been unbelieveably impressed with the Amish community and their willingness to forgive the terrible injustice that has been done to their community. Does this fit into your thinking at all?

Anonymous said...

Ah if it were so easy to determine Christ's ethical standards.

As I heard on the radio the other day if you knew a terrorist knew the location of an atomic weapon in New York set to explode in an hour and that weapon would kill, say, five million innocent people would you be ethically justifice in using whatever means necessary including torture to find the location and save those five million people?

And if you tortured and killed the man, what if you were honestly wrong and he knew nothing?

Sometimes Answering To A Higher Power makes us like Hebrew National. We may slaugher according to the Law but the animal ends up just as dead. But if we didn't we would end up just as dead as the animal.

The solution seems to be in God's hands and that seems to be the one place we are least likely to want to place it.

John said...

I haven't written on the debate because I find it so surreal. Belly-slapping, shirt-grabbing, and loud music are considered 'torture'? Detainees are interrogated literally in La-Z Boy recliners. The food is culture specific and the average detainee gains 18 pounds. As a prison, living conditions at Gitmo are positively luxurious. Human rights inspectors visit frequently. It is the most transparent terrorist detention facility on the face of the earth. Gitmo is a massive achievement in human rights, and yet so many people live in some bizarro world where the US engages in brutal torture and detainees are forced to live in subhuman conditions.

So I've seen a lot of posts in the Methoblogosphere demonstrating appall at Gitmo in the past two weeks, but I haven't really had a response the protests are based on sheer fantasies.

As the great philosopher Donald Rumsfeld said, "People are entitled to their own set of opinions, but they're not entitled to their own set of facts."

Andy B. said...

John, As I mentioned in the post, reports of actual treatment vary widely, depending on what source you read. My thoughts are more about the underlying ethic. I'm almost done with my follow up, hopefully this afternoon.

Larry B said...

It's an excellent question to ponder. I've been away on vacation for a week and have been "fasting" from the blogosphere, so this a great "meal" to return to.

My own thoughts - After looking at both the old and new testament as a whole, there are several instances where at least in the understanding of the old testament scripture, the use of violence or force wasn't necessarily ethically wrong and was even deemed to be commanded by God in some instances.

Having said that, it is, I think fairly certain that Jesus called Christians to a higher standard, but I personally think the distinction he made clearer with his ministry is that the internal condition of ones personal being or soul is ultimately what matters, not the outward appearances of the act itself.

In my opinion, the dilemna comes from judging the outward acts as being reflective of the inner soul. So in the case of whether it is ethical to use techniques such as waterboarding to gain information from terrorists, I think the dilemna comes from whether the person or entity using the waterboarding technique can be judged to have an internal ethical state that derives no moral satisfaction from inflicting the physical/mental anguish on the person, but is following an ethical line which is driven by the intent to derive a good from the situation.

A simple analogy is the surgeons apparent damage from an incision is meant to heal, whereas the murderer who drives a knife into someone is meant to destroy.

I think in the current political environment, the distrust we have of one another and the secular humanistic thinking that is prevalent throughout most of society is leading people to insist that the external actions are the only indicators we can rely on and thus any action that could inflict even the slightest "harm" on someone else is judged to be ethically wrong.

So our ethics seem to be moving from an understanding of internal motivations to strictly viewing each others actions from an external viewpoint.

So when we view things by external standars, we find ourselves not able to answer questions such as those posed by one of the other posters where we cannot determine what to do if there is a greater good at stake such as saving 5 million people by torturing or harming one person.