Monday, October 09, 2006

Ethics of the Lowest Common Denominator - Part 2

I’ll start with an observation about human beings:

It is always easier to characterize groups than to relate to real people. And so we can feel bad for “the poor” or we can sympathize with “the Amish” or we can fear “the terrorists” or we can condemn “the gays” or we can vote against “the Republicans” or root against “the Broncos” and on and on and on. All of this without risk, without any thought of giving yourself up to the other, of sacrificing something for the sake of love, of offering to serve another child of God with a spirit of compassion and grace, in short, without any of that messiness that we would call a real relationship.

And this detached state feeds directly into the ethics of the lowest common denominator (the LCD ethic, if you will), the prevalent ethic that says one needs to act only slightly better than the group or the person who acts the worst. Consider the case study of terrorism and the treatment of detainees. Good or bad, why should we be concerned with how they are being treated? After all, terrorists have killed thousands of people over the decades, using deplorable techniques, and continue to wreak havoc around the world daily. The LCD ethic would say that the standard for the treatment of terrorism detainees is set by the terrorists themselves, the whole group of them lumped together as one evil blob.

However, Christian ethics start with incarnation, which is the most intimate expression of relationship that God could ever offer. The holy mystery of the trinity, itself an intricate interplay of relationship and unity, is made flesh in Christ Jesus in order to be real, in a reach-out-and-touch relationship by which God yearns to save creation. In the incarnation, God shows up for us so that our relationship with God is no longer an abstraction, but a tangible reality. Jesus gave himself up for the world, sacrificed his everything for the sake of love, knelt down to wash each individual disciple’s feet in the last moments of his life on earth, and made the messiness of human relationship more fully real than any of us ever could.

A “what if” comment last time asked what you would do if one person in your control knew the location of a nuclear weapon that would kill millions – would you torture them? Actually, I cannot ever picture myself in that position, and I’m highly skeptical that anyone but a TV character ever would, and so it is really hard to answer. The question is actually not responsive to the observations I am trying to make in this little dyad of posts. It falls into the category of a neat Youth Group conversation starter, but is not my point.

Mostly, I’m just trying to point out that when we start assessing our behavior by comparing it to a behavior that is truly horrible, we are in pretty big trouble. And further, that our tendency to do so is compounded by our equally sinful tendency to lump individuals together into large groups that we then characterize with broad, sweeping brushstrokes. Again, I’m not talking about the actual treatment of Guantanamo detainees. In fact, in a variation on the LCD ethic, the assertion that they are being treated well as a group is just as antithetical to Christian ethics as the assertion that they are being mistreated as a group.

Rather, a Christian ethic would demand to know how each one is being treated as a child of God, and insist that the sacred worth of every person be realized and respected. And that goes for detainees, guards, support staff, administrators – everybody – which is hard to do. But thank God Christ calls us to a higher standard, and may God give us the strength we need to attain it.


Larry B said...

"Rather, a Christian ethic would demand to know how each one is being treated as a child of God, and insist that the sacred worth of every person be realized and respected."

I struggle to find consistency in your argument when looking at it in the context of scripture.

First off, I think much of the Old Testament account would have to be rejected as being contrary to a Christian ethic. A couple examples: David slays Goliath - where is the christian ethical treatment of Goliath? Moses murdered an egyptian and led the people of Israel to a eventaul military conquest of people in Canaan. Where is the ethical treatment of the canaanites? Rahab lies to protect - ethical?

Secondly, consider how did Jesus decide whom to perform physical healing on? There are indications that he didn't heal every lame person he encountered yet were they somehow less deserving of Jesus's healing than others? What system of ethics explains this?

Paul calls for rejection of a sexually immoral person from the fellowship of the church. Is this ethical christian treatment by your standard?

I don't think it can be boiled down to a somewhat nebulous definition of treating each other as a child of God.

Harsh physical treatment, I would still argue, is not inherently evil. Painful maybe, but not in and of itself evil. The motivation of the person handing out the treatment ultimately determines the ethics from a Christian viewpoint. The forgiveness of sins only depends on the internal condition of the sinner - never on the effect of the sin on others. An ethical standard that defines itself solely by the effect on a receiving party is contrary to the christian understanding of grace and, I would assert, provides support for the argument that the motivation can be used as the basis for moral judgement, not the actual act or effect itself.

Kansas Bob said...

Ghandi said:

"The only tyrant I accept in this world is the 'still small voice' within"

This is the challenge for the spiritual person. Ethics is a very personal and internal struggle of pursuing righteousness and not rightness.

I like what Larry says about ethics in the bible. So often something seems unethical on the surface but is not so unethical when you take a somewhat divine perspective. I guess I disagree with Einstein when he says:

"Relativity applies to physics, not ethics"

I think ethics are not absolute ... integrity is a very personal and internal struggle ... it is about listening to your new regenerate heart ... that still small voice within.

Andy B. said...

Larry B.
"The forgiveness of sins only depends on the internal condition of the sinner - never on the effect of the sin on others."

Aha! I think I have pinpointed a theological point at which we differ greatly. I would need a whole lot more conversation about this idea in order to be convinced of its validity. I suppose I tend to think of the Christian faith a lot more communally than that.
Secondly, I think it is fine to say that neither David nor Moses nor Rahab were acting ethically when they did what they did in the stories you describe.
Furthermore, yes perhaps the recognition of the sacred worth of individual is a nebulous idea. Heck, I'll even go you one further - it's downright ambiguous. But so is life, and I cannot live by trying to force a "black and white" ethic around a "grey area" life.
And last a question. I am confused about the last paragraph of your comment. It seems to contradict itself as you say that "the motivation of the person handing out the treatment ultimately determines the ethics from a Christian viewpoint," but then seem to assert in your final sentence that an ethic based on effect lends support to the idea of an ethic based on motivation. Help me understand what you mean by that.
Thanks - great conversation!

Larry B said...


I think my last paragraph was a victim of poor grammar. It was intended to be more reflective of what Kansas Bob pointed out in his post.

I meant to draw a difference between an ethical standard based on one's internal motivations and a standard based on external observations of actions and ranking those actions along some kind of scale.

I tried to use the analogy of my understanding of the forgiveness of sins, which I concluded was dependent on the internal state of one's heart and the confession of that state regardless of the severity of the sins that had occurred, to draw the analagous conclusion that Christian ethics can be viewed from the internal state of the actor as opposed to trying to determine the ethics by rating the external actions of an actor against the actions of others or a scale.

For me this provides the most "logically consistent" understanding of an ethical standard that can be applied to the grey areas of life.

I think that the terrorist treatment example you allude to does appear a bit irrational if we use external scales to decide. I thought from your original post you were implying that the external scale is ok to use, but that Christians ought to be really high up on that scale, not just one step above. But with these scales we are trapped into arguing about where the marks on the scale should be and the marks are dictated by some external behavior markers.

I would reject the notion of using behavior markers to define scales and instead allow for the possibility that any given action may or may not be pursued, but the motivation for the action determines the ethics. If someone derives pleasure from inflicting pain on someone they are in my opinion ethically corrupt compared to someone who despises the act of inflicting pain on someone yet chooses to do so when they arrive at a moral imperative that would require them to engage in inflicting pain. So it is possible under this theory for two interrogators to use the exact same techniques and one is ethically corrupt while the other is not.

What makes me a tad leary is that an entity such as our government that is comitted to separating church and state doesn't contain any real mechanism whereby it's actors can be assured of having an internalized system of ethics to work from. So we are plagued with having to use a lesser form of ethics like the external scales.

This is a great discussion.

On the other note, I think I fully stated the idea about the forgiveness of sins being independent of the effects of the sin and I would be very interested to hear your perspective.

revabi said...

Well you have certainly raised an important question? I do think we are called to a hired standard as Christians.

A friend's son served at Gitmo for
a stint. He could not tell us everything, but he was spat, urine and feces thrown on him, other things happened. And throught it all he remained cool and calm never retaliating. I don't know how he did it.