Monthly Archives: June 2011

Lifeboats, Trolleys, and Ethics

My first encounter with formal ethics included the virtually obligatory paradigm of the ultimate dilemma associated with human behavior. More often than not, that dilemma is presented at the very beginning of a discourse on ethics. Its threadbare description takes the form of a ‘loaded’ question: If there are six fishermen on a sinking vessel with a single lifeboat that can stay afloat with only five of them, what ethical course of action should the fishermen take? Stripped to its core, the question asks, “Which one of the six men should die so the others may live?” From there, ethicists proceed to open Pandora’s Jar. Complex and ponderous arguments chase after each other in a maze of circular reasoning in quest of an answer.

But back on the sinking vessel, the fishermen have a simple answer: they draw sticks. Fishermen know what to do when confronted with a life-or-death situation before they set out to sea. A sinking vessel is not conducive to a discussion on ethics.

More recently, the lifeboat riddle has been replaced by that of a racing trolley which will kill lots of’ people unless a switch is pulled that veers it into another path, thereby exposing only one track worker to certain death. Do you pull the switch or do nothing? Oh…and there’s still another popular scenario…the one where six people can be saved if six vital organs of one healthy man were to be distributed among them. Do we proceed with the transplants? The dilemmas remind me of an aunt I had who, being poor, would give each of her daughters the same doll as a gift, birthday after birthday, as though the doll were new, by sewing a new dress onto it each year.

Like the dolls, ethics has had new dresses sewn onto it through the centuries but its study had always been in the realm of the humanities, not the sciences. The study of ethics, widely considered a branch of philosophy, included an enormous range of issues, of course, but its scope was limited to the behavior of humans as issued by nature, i.e., the behavior of a whole human being.

Enter neuroscience. There are neuroscientists who reduce the very concept of ethics to the level of automatic reflexes. They ascribe moral behavior to automatic activity in specific regions of the brain as the source of ethics. To paraphrase a Biblical passage, if your neurons, dendrites, and axons offend you, desensitize them. Of course neuroscientists are not required to shed light on the source of ethics, but their brain research tends to equate thought processes with involuntary bodily functions.

As technology increasingly reveals the functions of brain matter, region-by-region, synapses by synapses, the fundamental source of ethics is paradoxically illusive. Add to that the fashionable philosophic current that denies any substantive difference between humans and animals, and the source of ethics becomes more illusive than ever. In place of a conflict between right and wrong (or good and evil) we have a conflict between the medial frontal gyrus and the posterior cingulate gyrus. Whole human beings are lost in the laboratory.

Since I have only one life to live, knowledge of the source of ethics is not nearly as important to me as how I choose to live my life. Perhaps I’m simplistic, but morality is not as complicated to me as most ethicists make it out to be. In any case…

  1. Contrary to the notion that morality is tested during the direst of circumstances as depicted by morality riddles, the quality of an individual’s behavior is determined by calm reason and its application to everyday living, not on board a sinking vessel.
  1. As laudable as the scholarship of the best ethicists may be, there is really no need for the categorization of ethics. ‘Personal Ethics’ as distinguished from ‘Business Ethics’ is a contradiction in terms.
  1. I’m not troubled with an afterlife. I live as I do, not to avoid being a beetle next time around,” or for the approval of others or of a personal God, or in anticipation of rewards or in fear of punishment in this or any other life. If I were provided with absolute proof that either death ends me or that there is an afterlife, I would continue perfecting my moral behavior as an end in itself. That includes ‘doing unto others’ and maintaining my integrity even when no one is watching.

Ethics is an art, an exquisite blend of knowledge, wisdom, and empathy. Its elegant simplicity may be expressed in quiet acts, often wordlessly, and not necessarily acknowledged by others.

Best of all, I live as I do because I enjoy an ethically integrated life. 

Comments Off on Lifeboats, Trolleys, and Ethics

Filed under Uncategorized

Devouring the Egg

When parents are asked their opinions about child abuse, molestation, or murder, their response often begins with the phrase, ‘As a parent…’ or something to that effect. They assume that they have a greater concern for children than those of us who are childless. Theirs is a subtly insensitive attitude that asserts, in effect, that they would not be quite as outraged by the murder of another’s child if, like me, they were childless. They assume there is no greater grief than that for the death of one’s own child. True. But there is also grief as great as that for other tragic events. The impact of tragedy is universal.

Understandably, the average parent cannot imagine any grief as deep as the death of one’s child. Yet, many parents are guilty of the ‘invisible’ murder of their children. It’s a slow kind of murder that is committed over the years on a daily basis. Its weapons are not knives or bullets, but words and silences.

Ironically, the motivation for invisible murder is often the parents’ notion of love. They prevail on their children to conform to the popular drumbeat of their time so that they can ‘fit in.’ They commit murder by asphyxiation when their teen’s occupational proclivity runs against the prospects of financial success. They drill values into their children that, if accepted, condemn them to an imitation of life.

On the surface, we are all familiar with the clichés associated with nature vs. nurture, inclination vs. success, and so on. But what lies beneath that surface is unearned guilt that children live with when they take a path of life not chosen by their overbearing parents. It is a guilt transferred from generation to generation.

Its mechanism is as simple as it is deadly. The parent conforms to the unexamined values of society and its definition of success. In time, the parent has a need to justify a wasted life. Justification requires proof. If the child follows the parent’s footsteps, ‘all is well.’ However, if the child resists, the parent hurls an arsenal of critical words and pointed silences against the child. Those words and silences express disappointment, dissatisfaction, and disillusion: sure fire as a source of guilt.

Instead of some parents taking center stage in hypothetical discussions about the murder of children, they might better take a harder look at their complicity in the living death of their own children.

Comments Off on Devouring the Egg

Filed under Uncategorized

The Third Reality

TV is often the catalyst that drives me to my computer to write a blog. That’s true of this blog. I’ve just dashed from TV to computer in response to a statement made by a well-known commentator who is distinguished for his logical approach to political issues.

In context of a larger discussion focused on freedom, he casually referred to the alleged sexual relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings as one in which Sally Hemmings “[Had] to do what Jefferson wanted.” Putting aside the issue of slavery itself, I was struck by the subjective judgment of an otherwise objective commentator.

In contrast, when I first heard of the Jefferson/Hemmings sexual relationship, I didn’t connect it to the social structure of their time or of any other time. I just thought of it as something that might have happened between a man and a woman, not between a master and his slave. Without deference to Jefferson’s reputation as a statesman, orfor that matterconsideration of Hemmings’ bondage, I simply stored the historical fact that he and she were parents of a child.

Despite ample documentation about names, dates, and Jeffersonian family history, I have no way of knowing what their relationship might have been like at the private level. That would be true if they and I were contemporaries, even close friends. Sex defies description. It has the variety of a kaleidoscope, the aspects of a chameleon, and the fun of a roller coaster, especially when it comes in a love package.

It is also the most intimate of human experiences. Whether sex is practiced by a pair or by a group of people, beneath the surface there is a reality that only an individual can sense in the extreme privacy of his inner thoughts and feelings. But even in that deepest of sanctuaries, one’s unspoken sense about sex is often inexplicable to himself, let alone to the ‘outside world.’ That is the first reality.

The second reality is a relationship wherein individuals engage in role-playing so that they may breathe life into a mutually shared sexual fantasy. This reality is exclusively centered on the self.

The third reality is sexual fantasy itself, no matter what form it takes. It may take a relatively unconscious form of romantic sex or that of deliberate and extreme role-playing on a conscious level, including switching roles from encounter to encounter for its own sake. Whatever the case, sex without love is always enigmatic and dualistic.

If Jefferson and Hemmings had sex without love, all they shared was a fantasy. Love, with or without sex, is not a fantasy. It is not centered on the self. It is not transitory. Its reality is singular.

There is no way of knowing which reality Jefferson and Hemmings shared. Add to that the fog of two centuries, and you are left with only fragmentary facts about their relationship. Despite all we know about the facts, Sarah and Thomas might well have been in love.

As Maxwell Anderson put it in Mary of Scotland,

It’s not what happens

That matters, no, not even what happens that’s true,

But what men believe to have happened.

One might paraphrase Anderson’s poetry,

It’s not what happens

That matters, no, not even what happens that’s true,

But what men prefer to have happened.

Access to unequivocal facts is greater than it has ever been in the history of humankind, but facts by themselves tell you little about the third reality and nothing about love. I always keep that in mind, especially when confronted by ‘controversial’ issues.

Comments Off on The Third Reality

Filed under Uncategorized

Et tu, Brian

I’ve lived as long as it takes Uranus to complete one of its revolutions around the sun. Its run is equal to eighty-four of mine.  When I was an infant, Uranus was known as the seventh planet from the sun in the solar system within our galaxy, then thought to be the universe.

In 1927, the year of my birth, Georges Lemaitre proposed the Big Bang theory.  Hubble elevated the theory of ‘island universes’ to the reality of multiple galaxies.  Einstein had proved that space and time are not absolute.  Despite his somewhat rattling discovery of a fourth dimension and the prospect of a universe that came out of ‘nothing,’ classic science was at its peak.  Modern cosmology was born.

When, in my birth-year, the Copenhagen convention convened with the principles of ‘uncertainty’ and ‘complimentarity,’ classic science was severely jolted.  The universe below the atomic level was found to differ radically from the macrocosmic world.  When physicists probed as deep into the microcosmic world as cosmologists had probed into the cosmos, it became increasingly clear that there is an incompatible conceptual split between Classical and Quantum Physics-at least, for now, perhaps forever.

Even so, the macrocosmic and sub-atomic domains, each in their own way, are well within the parameters of valid scientific disciplines. However, by the time Uranus and I were almost halfway around our respective orbs, many scientists proposed ‘theories’ that resembled flights of fancy rather than plausible hypotheses.  That trend is growing  exponentially.

During the final lap of my journey with Uranus, I’ve found myself skipping article after article in issue after issue of Discover magazine, now packed with speculative cosmology that has no chance of being proved-ever.

In the June, 2011 edition of Discover magazine, there is an excerpt from Brian Greene’s The Hidden Reality, apparently a plug for his latest book.  As I read it, I heard echoes of Plato’s ‘ideal abstract forms.’  Referring to a host of ‘unknowable realities,’ Greene writes:

With its hegemony diminished, universe has given way to other terms that capture the wider canvas on which the totality of reality may be painted. Parallel worlds of parallel universes or multiple universes or alternative universes or the metaverse, megaverse or multiverse-they’re all synonymous, and they’re all among the words used to embrace not just our universe but a spectrum of others that may be out there.

He legitimizes those concepts by enlisting the established major developments in thermo dynamics, general relativity, quantum mechanics, string theory, and black hole research as portals to a hidden reality of which the universe is a ‘holographic movie.’ His premise appears to be generated by the theories about black holes posited by the physicists, Beckenstein and Hawking.  He synthesizes the proposed hidden realities as ‘Holographic Parallel Universes.‘

Plato’s cosmic description and a holographic universe share the same fatal flaw: they are abstractions that by definition can never be proved, i.e., they are ‘unknowable.’ Making no distinction between valid hypotheses and pure speculation is not science.

Because of my exceptional respect for Brian Greene, brilliant author of The Elegant Universe, I should mention that the excerpt quoted above refers to trends in current cosmology and does not necessarily mirror his own cosmological concepts.  Not having read all of The Hidden Reality, I’ve cited the promotional magazine article only because it contains so many of today’s typical buzz concepts whirling around in popular cosmology. So far, what I’ve read in The Hidden Reality is not ambivalent.  Long before reading the Discover magazine article, I intended to protest the ubiquitous blurring of speculation with scientific hypotheses. Counterintuitive hypotheses are meaningless when it’s impossible to ever prove them.

Having briefly described the theory of black holes posited by Beckenstein and Hawking, Greene goes on to say:

 If this line of reasoning [about black holes] is correct… Holographic Parallel Universes…would be as connected as me and my shadow.

His Platonic allusion is exalted prose, but speculation is not a substitute for vision.  I am not a hologram-neither is the universe.

Comments Off on Et tu, Brian

Filed under Uncategorized