Puzzlers and Dilemmas

When we send criminals to prison, we do so partly because we want to punish those criminals for wrong-doing. But if a brain scan were to reveal faulty emotional "circuitry" at the root of their misdeeds or if we were to detect disconnected or non-existent mirror neurons or if some form of autism were at the root of their sociopathic behavior, should we then change the way we treat them in court? Why? Or why not? [This problem was mentioned in Scientific American Mind of September/October, 2009, as it announced an international conference on jurisprudence and neuroscience.]
The Declaration of Human Rights is at http://www.un.org/Overview/rights.html. Take a look; read it; think about it; then decide which--if any--nations ought to abide by it. Can you think of any breaches of these rules? How seriously should we stick to this document? Find out where it came from.
A presentation by a theology professor from Stetson University included the following reference, which, he said, was rarely referred to as sermon topic.  But I agree with him that this is highly intriguing and puzzling.  Here it is from a "King James" version:

John 14:8 ff.: [8] Philip saith unto him, Lord, shew us the Father, and it sufficeth us.  [9] Jesus saith unto him, Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known me, Philip?  he that hath seen me hath seen the Father; and how sayest thou then, Shew us the Father?  [10] Believest thou not that I am in the Father, and the Father in me?  the words that I speak unto you I speak not of myself; but the Father that dwelleth in me, he doeth the works.  [11] Believe me that I am in the Father, and the Father in me: or else believe me for the very works' sake.  [12] Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father.  

Curious!  The standard Christian interpretation is that one is forgiven because one cannot excel in good deeds beyond what Jesus does; this verse appears to say that one not only can but should excel beyond Jesus' standard of, presumably, moral excellence.  How do you reconcile this passage with other religious views you may hold?

If one must obey God's commands to be an ethically upright person, one must reflect about the following dilemma that goes all the way back to Socrates: Does God command something because it is good? Or is something good because God commands it? Note that if God commands something because it is good, then God him/herself is subject to a moral law; thus, God cannot be all powerful--at least not more powerful than the moral law. And if something is good because God commands it, then if God changes his or her mind now and then, one has no guarantee for constancy in one's ethics and morality. 

So which is it? How do you resolve this?

To obey God's commands, one must either be told those commands directly from God or one must use scriptures to figure out God's will. If one follows God's commands directly, how does one tell if a command comes from God or if a command comes from some other bad source or one's own depraved wishes and sub-conscious perversions? And if one follows scriptures, how does one tell if one follows the right scriptures since many, many scriptures claim an origin from God. How do you solve this problem? What do you tell someone when s/he tells you that s/he must do X because God said so when you know that X is about the most stupid and most dangerous and most despicable thing anyone could possibly do? Is dialog possible that might lead to understanding?
If ethical obligation diminishes with distance, how far away must someone be for me not to have any ethical obligations? Is one mile enough? Are a thousand miles necessary? Or is this simply a matter of my relative ignorance? The dumber I am, the less of an obligation I have to stuff I don't know about? 

How many miles? How do you solve this?

Leviticus 20:9 ff.: (9) For every one that curseth his father or his mother shall be surely put to death: he hath cursed his father or his mother; his blood shall be upon him. (10) And the man that committeth adultery with another man's wife, even he that committeth adultery with his neighbour's wife, the adulterer and the adulturess shall surely be put to death. (11) And the man that lieth with his father's wife hath uncovered his father's nakedness: both of them shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them. (12) And if a man lie with his daughter in law, both of them shall surely be put to death: they have wrought confusion; their blood shall be upon them. (13) If a man shall also lie with mankind, as he lieth with woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them. (14) And if a man take a wife and her mother, it is wickedness: they shall be burnt with fire, both he and they; that there be no wickedness among you. (15) And if a man lie with a beast, he shall surely be put to death and ye shall slay the beast. (16) And if a woman approach unto any beast, and lie down thereto, thou shalt kill the woman, and the beast: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them. 

Several other penalties follow for several other matters of improper sexual conduct, but these are the ones that demand the death penalty. The passages are from the Old Testament. How far does a contemporary Christian need to go to abide by these biblical commandments?

Public Prayer: Matthew 6: (5) And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues ["synagoge" is a Greek word meaning "assembly"; the Yiddish word is "shul"; Luther translates "Schule" (school)] and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. (6) But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou has shut the door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.

So, what about public prayer? Should you or shouldn't you pray in public if you mean to abide by Jesus' rules? 

By the way, here is another comment on prayer from the Dalai Lama. Do Jesus and the Dalai Lama agree? Or not?

It is not sufficient for religious people to be involved with prayer. Rather, they are morally obliged to contribute all they can to solving the world’s problems.
-His Holiness the Dalai Lama

From "The Pocket Dalai Lama," edited by Mary Craig, 2002.

And here's Immanuel Kant's take from the Critique of Judgment about public prayer in song:

Diejenigen, welche zu den häuslichen Andachtsübungen auch das Singen geistlicher Lieder empfohlen haben, bedachten nicht, daß sie dem Publikum durch eine solche lärmende (eben dadurch gemeiniglich pharisäische) Andacht eine große Beschwerde auflegen, indem sie die Nachbarschaft entweder mit zu singen oder ihr Gedankengeschäft niederzulegen nötigen (Kritik der ästhetischen Urteilskraft, Suhrkamp Ausgabe, Band X, Seite 434).

My Translation: Those who add hymns to their in-home exercises of worship forgot that they put great discomfort on the audience by way of such cacophonous (common, public, and Pharisee-like [allusion to Matthew 6]) worship in that neighbors are either forced to sing along or to suspend anything they might have been thinking about at that moment (Critique of Aesthetic Judgment, Edition Suhrkamp, Vol. X, page 434).

If one person's opinion is about as good as any other person's opinion and if everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, how can you help someone see that s/he holds an exceedingly stupid and dangerous opinion?  Or are all opinions really equally benign? What strategy of dialog and debate do you suggest?
Some people suggest that one follow the norms of one's group when deciding ethical dilemmas. Suppose that you want to follow the norms of the group but that you hold membership in more than one group. For example, if you are a US-American Catholic, you have an obligation to the political group and another obligation to a religious group. Many people in the political group--maybe even a majority--endorse the death penalty. The Catholic church decidedly is opposed to the death penalty. Which group commands your loyalty more strongly? Why is that? How would you decide? Name several other similar conflicts and groups, showing how you solve them in terms of group loyalty. Consider religions, social clubs, fraternities or sororities, and so on.
Suppose that you believe in greater obligations to a group close to you than to a group far away; for example, you might believe that, before one feeds people who live far away, one must take care of one's own poor. What guidelines would you use to determine proximity of a group? For example, if you are a soldier, you might feel greater affinity with comrades at arms on the enemy side of the conflict than with self-satisfied civilians back home. If you are a poor person, you might feel a greater affinity with poor people all around the world than with rich people of your own nation. Karl Marx relied on that kind of "proximity" when suggesting that the proletariat of all countries unite against the common capitalist enemy. How do you decide proximity of groups in your life? What reasons do you have for preferring one group to another group?
People used to believe that witches were bad women in league with the devil. Some women have been killed because they were assumed to be witches. Today, most of you are likely to believe that, while some women may be disagreeable persons, they are unlikely to be witches and thus you would do a great injustice to persons by believing them to be witches, who deserve death. What moral beliefs are we likely to hold today that people will look back to with shock and perhaps even with disgust in a few years, a few decades, or a century? This is a chance for you to project into the future some rectifications that we have not achieved today. Give your reasons for believing that these moral beliefs are detestable enough to be looked back to with disgust.
Puzzle over the Prisoner's Dilemma! Here's the set-up. You are one of two prisoners in jail. The jailer offers you a deal. 1. If you confess but the other prisoner does not, you go free and the other prisoner gets three years in jail. 2. If the other prisoner confesses and you do not, you get three years and he goes free. 3. If you both confess, you each get two years. 4. If you both remain silent, you each get a year. Take a moment to reflect about the best possible deal here . . . . . You may have noticed that this example favors the ratting on each other. If you tell, you may either get off or you may serve two years. If you don't rat, you gamble all: either no time or three years. What's the safer way to bet here? Now, think about other situations where the Prisoner's Dilemma might apply. Think of incidences of academic dishonesty, ratting on each other on the job, or any variety of other similar situations. Your task is to find one other such situation that is similar to the Prisoner's Dilemma. Then tell me what system changes one should make to make sure that at least one person will come clean. In Scientific American of April 2008 on page 82ff, Michael Shermer writes about the drug use among competitive bicyclists in these terms. Since professional bicyclists have their entire economic future stuck on being successful and since bicyclists are unlikely to succeed without doping, the payoff in that group of people is toward keeping quiet and thus toward having all go without penalty, particularly since drug use is little likely to be successfully determined otherwise. Shermer asks how one is likely to set up professional bicycling so that, as in the Prisoner's Dilemma, the circumstances are skewed in favor of ratting. How would you handle that problem where you see it repeated in life, in industry, or at sports?
The Dalai Lama said, "It does not matter whether you are a theist or atheist; what matters is sincerity, forgiveness, and compassion." Is he right? Why or why not? Be sure to support your answer with reasons.

Dr. Reinhold Schlieper