Bells - Invocation
I must express my appreciation to Kristen, who actually gave me the idea for the title “Kind and generous Saddam Hussein.” She told us that Hitler’s niece reported him to have been a kind and generous person. And then I reflected about my good friend Dr. Hussein Al-Fallahi, whom I had the privilege to meet when I taught in Saudi Arabia. Hussein studied in the States under renowned writing specialist Erica Lindeman at, I believe, the University of North Carolina. While Hussein was in the States, his wife was pining away for him back in Iraq. She finally got up the nerve to see President Saddam Hussein about her problem. According to my Iraqi friend, Saddam reached to his back pocket, removed a bundle of money, gave it to Hussein Al-Fallahi’s wife, and told her kindly to take a plane to the States. Saddam Hussein: a kind and generous person, indeed. And why don’t we see Saddam Hussein that way?
Usually when I talk of morality and ethics, I follow in the steps of, primarily, Kant and Nietzsche and Schopenhauer and Mill. I mean, it’s really fun to slug it out with how much Kant’s Categorical Imperative in the form of the principle of universalizability is really a form of consequentialism in disguise and how Mill’s consequentialism when it relies on rules, is really a disguised form of Kant’s deontological ethics. And it’s fun to contemplate the sundry golden means that one could derive from Aristotle’s value thinking led forward into more modern days. And it’s fun to think about the space program and poverty in terms of Nietzschean aristocratic ethics or to contemplate the suicidal ethics that seems to flow so logically from Schopenhauer’s view of the demiurge as a force divided against itself. It’s even fun to play with the command-of-god ethicists and pose embarrassing questions such as, “How do you know when you’re obeying god’s word and when you are actually being whispered to by Satan or some other evil genius?” But that’s not what I want to trot out today; instead, I want to talk about a much more humble and homely concept, one, however, that I have found to be quite powerful in understanding more fully a certain category of ethical dilemma.
Part of the last summer term, I spent at the University of Montana to get back up to speed on Aristotle’s Nichomachaen Ethics, on Kant’s moral theory, and on John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarian Ethics because I was about to have the interesting experience of working with a group of students at Embry-Riddle in matters of morality, using specifically a text by Professor Peter Unger of New York University that left some of my students at times agitated and upset. And what perhaps for many of you is a bit of ho-hum So-What subject matter struck me as being insightful and enlightening, namely the concepts of moral ambience and moral community. Perhaps more than we would like to acknowledge, these two concepts determine much of our ethical decision-making and our way of seeing the world.
I’ll begin by illustrating one of these concepts; let me also point out that my illustrations are loosely based on Peter Unger’s examples, some of which, in turn, rely on examples of Peter Singer of Monash University in Australia:
Suppose that one of you with immense amounts of money invested in sundry accounts and banks, hires me to oversee those accounts. As soon as I have rights to those accounts, I receive a letter from some charity organization that tells me that, unless I send it $250,000 to that organization in an envelope they have provided, in Cambodia, 50 children are sure to die of malnutrition. So, being a kind-hearted person but a poor English teacher, I take the $250,000 of my employer’s money and wire it to Cambodia, where the money is being disbursed by the charity amongst the children to see to it that the 50 children survive. What do you think of my action? Did I do right?—I suspect that some or most of you would probably condemn my action as being morally quite wrong.
Now, let’s try to look at a different example. Suppose that a similar person has decided that he would like to invest all his riches in a fancy automobile, a Bughatti or Lamborghini or something similarly exotic and extremely expensive to the tune of about $250,000. The person hasn’t bought any insurance for the car yet and so hires an expert driver, who also incidentally teaches English at Embry-Riddle University, to drive that car to the owner’s garage where he will put it up securely to safeguard his investment. On my way to his garage, I have to pass through San Francisco, where sundry trolley cars are still part of the traffic picture. As I drive to the bottom of one hill, I see something shiny in the grass or on the sidewalk. I stop the fancy car, get out, and walk closer to the shiny object. Being quickly perceptive, I see that the shiny object is a switch for the trolley tracks. And to my horror, I also see that Snidely Whiplash or some other villain has tied a small child to the trolley tracks just parallel to the ones where I am. What makes things worse is that a trolley car has gotten loose and is now descending the hill on a track leading to the child. So, my choice is to throw the switch to save the child; but, if I do that, I also see that the trolley is going to end up on the track on which, a little lower on the hill, the fancy automobile is sitting. If I throw the switch, the automobile will be destroyed; but if I don’t throw the switch, the little child will be killed by the run-away trolley. Being mindful now that I should not waste my employer’s property, I decline to throw the switch. And so my employer’s property survives, but the little child dies. Now what do you think of my action? Did I do right?—Again, I would think that quite a few of you are likely to condemn my action as being quite immoral.
Now, try to draw out the comparison between the two situations. In the first case, I wasted my employer’s $250,000 to save 50 children, but most of you probably did not want me to do that. And in the second case, I did not waste my employer’s $250,000 to save one child, but most of you probably did want me to do that. So, what’s the problem here? Let me look at another example.
Suppose I am wearing my cap and gown as I am on my way to graduation exercises. On the way, I pass by a retention pond where a little child is obviously drowning. Being mindful of the cleaning cost of my cap and gown and clothes to be in the vicinity of $35.00, I decline to jump into the pond. And so my clothes stay dry, and the child drowns. Again, I think that you would probably condemn my action as being calloused and uncaring and quite immoral.
Now, suppose I get an envelope in the mail that tells me that 20 children are going to die today of malnutrition in Somalia unless I write a check in the amount of $35.00 to send to a charity that will then see to it that the 20 children will survive. Being more strongly persuaded to go to a film and to eat out at a nice but inexpensive restaurant, I decline sending a check and so the 20 children will die tomorrow. Would you condemn me as vigorously as you would probably condemn me for letting the child die in the retention pond?
I don’t think it takes a brilliantly philosophical mind to realize that these pairs of anecdotes are virtually identical in all the salient and morally relevant points, yet you would have probably excused my actions if I declined sending the check or if I were to not send my employer’s money to Cambodia. Yet you would probably strongly condemn me if I were not to hasten into the pond to help the child despite the damage to my cap and gown. And you would probably also condemn me if I were to safeguard the fancy car more than the child tied to the track. In fact, I am somewhat persuaded that many a one here has indeed disposed of envelopes more than once and has felt not terribly guilty about doing so.
What is the difference in our reactions to those anecdotes? I would think that the difference rests with the difference of moral community. I think it’s probably obvious to us all that, if one of our children were to be in need and one of the homeless under a bridge were to be in some form of need also, our children would take precedence over the homeless person. If we imagine a moral community symbolized by a circle, we can clearly see that our children are much more in the center of the circle that might define this moral community, while the homeless person might be far more to the periphery of the moral community. My children are centralized; the homeless person is marginalized. I would think that our reasoning works the same way whenever we toss an envelope from a charity into the trash. When the suffering is in a distance, the sufferer is marginalized and thus not central to our moral community. The child at the trolley track and the child in the retention pond, thus, are closer to my moral community than the starving children in far-away Cambodia or Somalia.
Membership in a moral community, thus, controls our moral action toward others. So, while we can be perfectly good human beings, our sense of moral community can define our morality in sometimes strange ways that require a form of double-think, as in the examples that I began with. Clearly, it is a form of double-think to excuse financial damage to my employer in the case of saving the single child in San Francisco from the trolley and to not excuse such financial damage in the case of 50 children in a far-away place. It is also a kind of double-think to excuse the tossing of the envelope but not to excuse my keeping my cap and gown out of the water.
Moral communities are defined by cultures. The Old Testament gives several good examples of moral community in the sense that “Thou shalt not kill” is perfectly compatible with the periodic annihilation of the Amalakites and the people of Jericho and the inhabitants of other cities during the massive genocide that Joshua staged upon his entry into the so-called Promised Land. The sense of “God’s Chosen People” defines moral community. Other peoples are marginalized. And while it is perfectly good not to kill a member of the tribe, it is also perfectly good to kill all others. Again, double-think is necessary. I should point out in this context that the New Testament parable of the good Samaritan is designed to challenge the double-think since the Samaritan was not part of the Jewish community. In fact, in Matthew 10, verse 5, Jesus admonishes the disciples not to go to the cities of the gentiles nor to the cities of the Samaritans. These folks all were not part of the moral community as Jesus understood it. So, the parable of the Good Samaritan as told in Luke 10, verses 25 to 37 is one way to stretch the envelope of the moral community; after all, the story’s purpose is to define “neighbor” as “ethically obligated contemporary.” Of course, we can also see that Jesus himself was somewhat conflicted, if both accounts do indeed represent his speech.
There are also some fascinating examples from historical definitions of moral community. The German Supreme Court in the NAZI era, for example, stated: “The Jew is only a rough copy of a human being, with humanlike facial traits but nonetheless . . . lower than any animal.” This is an example of marginalizing a member of the moral community; in fact, the statement excommunicates Jewish Germans from the German moral community altogether. I believe Himmler made a comment to the effect that the German boys working in those extermination efforts were to be admired for not losing an ounce of their moral stature despite the noxiously depraved environment that they had to work in. The persons so marginalized are not part of the moral obligation. Nietzsche made the comment and “2001: A Space Odyssey” demonstrated it marvelously, that humans are both over-animal and beastly animal, in the sense that they have no moral commitments to their fellow animals; you may recall from “2001” that the first power act on the part of the man apes was to kill the leader of a rival group. Animals in relation to humans are marginalized, just as NAZI Germany tried to de-humanize and morally marginalize its Jewish citizens.
Look at another one. Dr. William H. Holcombe of Virginia, an M.D., wrote in defense of slavery: “The negro is not a white man with a black skin, but of a different species, . . . the hopeless physical and mental inferior, organically constituted to be an agricultural laborer in tropical climates—a strong animal machine.” What we can see here again is the moral marginalization of an entire group of people. Mark Twain reminded us of this marginalization and the tension between community and moral common sense when he has Huck Finn wonder about his, Huck’s, terrible moral depravity in taking Nigger Jim away from the widow. Huck reflects about the fact that, after all, the widow had done him no harm; so why would he take away her property? And, of course, he makes an attempt to return Jim, but changes his mind in the last minute with the remorseful insight that he, Huck, is just a bad, bad human being and won’t ever be able to change to become truly decent. As the reader, of course, we know that he has overcome a moral-community definition that was supportable only with extensive double-think. And lest we believe that we repaired that sense of moral community, I invite you to remember the Tuskegee study, where poor black males were not treated properly for syphilis and where several died in the cause of a medical experiment and medical research that they were not fully informed about. Similar experimentation without informed consent was also conducted for contraception with poor Mexican women. Such evidence clearly gives us insight into the nature of moral community and morally marginalized people.
The same double-think was necessary when President Andrew Jackson signed into law the Indian Removal Act of 1830. The treaty of 1832 with the Seminoles was reported in the following words: “The Seminole Indians [regard] with just respect the solicitude manifested by the President of the United States for the improvement of their condition by recommending a removal to a country more suitable to their habits and wants than the one they at present occupy in the territory of Florida.” Being marginalized and calling this marginalization process an improvement is indeed a remarkable example of double-think.
This kind of double-think, I believe, has also characterized the male response to feminism and the equality of the sexes. The Victorian pedestal was also a cage, I would think. It’s often amazing how much even today many a male speaks a kind of patronizing language to and about the women in his life. In the good old days when the rule of thumb still predominated in family life, it was clear that women were at the very periphery of the moral community of this culture. By the way, for those of you who don’t know the rule of thumb, here it is: U.S. courts recognized a man’s right to beat his wife—when she deserved a beating—with a stick that was no thicker than the man’s thumb. So much for the good old family values, right?
Some moralists have suggested that for the pre-civil-war era, white male land owners were clearly in the midst of the moral community. Off center, you’d find white males without property. At the periphery and almost the outside, you’d find white females. And you’d find blacks quite outside the moral community altogether. Washington had slaves and decreed merely that they be freed after his death. Jefferson’s interesting relationship to his slaves is well known, isn’t it? So, it is clear that both men’s morality is understood as part of their sense of moral community. If we were to measure them by some slightly more absolute sense of morality, they’d be completely depraved, I’d say.
Of course, moral community offers also an almost unconscious sense of moral ambience to the individual. When I talked to my dad about his involvement in the “clean-up” of some of the Polish ghettos, I could understand fully how a seventeen-year-old is easily defined by the ambient sense of moral community. I don’t think that he was a bad person, but I do think that his moral community was being immorally defined in his culture. In fact, being mindful of moral ambience and moral community, I feel always somewhat emotionally conflicted when, on Memorial Day, we have all brave warriors rise to receive a flower. Sorry, guys: You were just lucky to be part of a moral community that lasted and a moral ambience that keeps on defining you without surprises. At Memorial Day time, I commemorate quietly also my grandfather who served in the Emperor’s navy, within the definition of his own moral ambience. And I think of my dad who served just as sincerely within the definition of his own moral ambience and community, both as member of the SS and as a Russian POW. And I think of my uncle who served as soldier and hated Americans with a passion as a consequence of his time as a POW in the US.
To see how easily moral ambience and moral community can re-define us, I want to remind you of the Yale experiment in moral decision-making. As you may recall and have heard, an experiment was designed to involve a learner, a teacher, and an experimenter. The experimenter and the learner were IN on the experiment and the teacher was not. The teacher was to administer shock treatment to the learner when the learner did not achieve a certain learning task. The dial on the desk of the teacher listed a scale from “mild shock” to “danger of death.” Whenever the “teacher” wanted to quit, the experimenter in a white frock would simply say, “The success of this experiment depends on your full cooperation.” The fictitious learner would, at a certain level of questioning and shock application, simply kick the wall a few times and then become unresponsive. With beads of perspiration on their foreheads and obviously in serious conflict with themselves, about 80 percent of the “teachers” would use the entire scale to the level marked “danger of death.” That is, they would remain in full cooperation with the experimenter. The ambient morality of a community that they felt themselves to be a part of—they were at Yale University within the trustworthy US of A, after all—ruled their conduct quite thoroghly.
So, as a liberal faith desirous of a liberationist ethics, are we really ready to stretch the envelope of moral community? Are there people in our lives that are at the periphery or beyond the periphery of moral community? Much of Charles Dickens’ writing seems to be aiming at altering the moral community. As we learn more about the characters of his novels, such as Tiny Tim, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, these characters are less and less marginalized and assume a stature of personhood that moves them into the general moral community from their more depraved low-life existence. As I was working on this sermon topic, a friend, who does volunteer service in a jail, sent me the following note:
His [the inmate’s] family is adorable—mother, daughter, sister, one niece who was a hugger and led me around by the hand, and a nephew in arms, 5 mos. They had to leave before the big program they had—my person [the inmate] gave his "testimony" which was totally grand, and there was a song made up by one of the prisoners about being a father from prison—must have wiped out a whole lot of the people there, and his own two children were there with their mother—and a drama, so to speak, really a monologue by one of them who was the hypocrite [in a dramatized morality play], with other prisoners taking little parts—best line was when he said that he knew that when God did the judging there wouldn't be any recounts.
You can see in this passage very clearly the growing periphery of the speaker’s moral community. This story about the person in jail has the same effect as a Dickens novel: it may be sentimental but it redefines our sense of moral community.
And perhaps all of us might benefit from a critical examination of our sense of moral community and moral ambience also. Under strict scrutiny of our most critical thoughts, I wonder where and how we have woven distant sufferers, poor people, inhabitants of the projects, drug users, ex-spouses, criminals, and others into our web of existence.
A few weeks ago, the NewsJournal offered a joke in its “Wit of the World” section. Vey, USA, offered a picture of a man sitting on the floor holding out a cup to another man, slightly bending over to place a coin into the cup. On the beggar’s right side, we see a computer with keyboard, electric cords trailing out of the picture. And the beggar—as he reaches toward his computer—says: “Thanks pal, let me put you on my mailing list.” Somehow I have a feeling that this is far more a US joke than it is a “Wit of the World” item. The image of this superior-minded beggar belongs into the same gallery of US-American moral ambience as the welfare queen, the repeatedly birthing mother who wants to rip off the welfare system, and as the smart poor guy who lives for nearly nothing in the projects and makes himself a nice day from our hard-earned tax money.
The immorally self-serving, highly intelligent, system-abusing poor person bears evidence of the marginalization of poor people in the culturally defined moral community, and the myth of the secret power of these people is part of our moral ambience. I am reminded of the statement about the Seminoles when I hear people expound upon how much they’d like to live a life of lazy dependency on governmental hand-outs. Of course, the fact that they’d never ever do anything like becoming dependent on government hand-outs bears ample witness that we have here again evidence of double-think. If the critic of poor people were to be sincere in believing this to be a really cushy life, he or she would immediately join the ranks of the poor persons; in fact he or she would be a severely foolish person if she would not. Since the critic doesn’t do that, we know that he or she really doesn’t truly believe what she’s saying.
So, when in our statement, we express our belief in the dignity and worth of every person and when we speak of the web of existence, we need probably to do a bit of further critical thinking about where our sense of worth and dignity stops, and where our web of existence may have gaping holes and torn connections.