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Video — The Ethics of Eclipse

Video: What are Ethics? Dare to Debate

The Problem with Ethics

“The hate and division must stop. And must stop now.”

~President Donald Trump

Is this the best we can hope for from the president who tells it like it is?  Do we need yet another uninspired chapter lamenting the “cycle of violence” added to the tedious narrative of moral equivalence?

After eight years of an administration too feckless to acknowledge radical Islam as the leading force behind global terrorism and so vapid as to dismiss the Fort Hood massacre as “workplace violence,” we have a right to expect the new regime to condemn white supremacists and neo-Nazis for what they are.

To his credit, the president got there… eventually.  But it took him way too long.  If we want to stop these kinds of incidents before they start, we need to confront them with clarity and courage.

WHAT CAN BE DONE?

The sad reality is that we have to let bigots and racists hold rallies like the one last weekend in Charlottesville.  And the sadder reality is that we have to encourage young idealists like Heather Heyer to put themselves on the line by speaking out against bigotry and racism, even though we know it sometimes ends in tragedy.

But passion has to be tempered with reason. Case in point: the outcry against Attorney General Jeff Sessions for not immediately launching a hate-crime investigation is all heart and little head.

The very term “hate-crime” is symptomatic of the ethical confusion of our times.  With left and right more polarized than ever, each side brands the other side as evil and thereby legitimizes its own hateful rhetoric.

The result is that we criminalize the motives of people we don’t like and excuse the actions of people we do.  And that just leads us deeper into the quagmire of moral anarchy.

WHAT GOES AROUND…

The day after the Charlottesville attack, a drunken American tourist got it into his head to give the Nazi salute in Dresden, Germany.  A scandalized local physically attacked the man, then fled before police could arrest him for assault.

Are you nodding your head in approval?  That’s only natural.  But ignorance, loutishness, and racism are not illegal, nor should they be.  If we want to live with freedom, we have to tolerate those who wield their freedom irresponsibly, if not criminally.

And when they do cross the line into criminality, we should let the law work the way it was meant to work.  It’s a sure bet that the deranged extremist who rammed his car into the Charlottesville crowd had convinced himself he was acting on the side of the angels.  But he should be prosecuted as a murderer, not as a zealot.

… COMES AROUND

What sparked this ugly episode was the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, a southern hero revered in his time for his honor and nobility.  Should we ignore General Lee’s support of slavery because of his other virtues?  Or should we discount his virtues because he fought for slavery?

No and no.  People are complicated, and often contradictory.  That’s why attributing motive is both tricky and risky.

It’s easy for us in our age of equality to condemn man’s oppression of man, as we should.  But it’s also unjust to demand the same level of moral clarity from those who lived in different times with different values.

Indeed, when the values of future generations undergo another sea-change – as they will – who will defend us for our beliefs and actions before the indictment of our grandchildren?

IT’S NOT ALL BLACK AND WHITE

What are ethics but the slippery discipline of gleaning the spirit of the law from within the letter of the law?  Even more slippery is the awareness that the morality of Man is subject to human bias and shifting cultural values.  Sometimes the law is wrong; and sometimes so are we.

We dare not excuse every historical movement merely because it seemed right in its time; but neither should we condemn all those who lacked the moral clarity of our own times.  19th Century slavery and 20th Century Nazism were both evil.  But they are not equivalent.  And 21st Century white supremacism is much closer to the latter than to the former.

So how do we navigate these treacherous moral waters?  We look to our leaders, who have the responsibility to help us set our collective moral compass as much as they have the obligation to steer the ship of state.

King Solomon says, A magic rests on the lips of the king; let his mouth not betray him in judgment.

You’ve got the helm, Mr. Trump.  Be very careful what you do with it.

Published in Jewish World Review

Our Dormant Morality

A bridge over untroubled waters

After 50 years, no one believed it would ever happen.  That’s why they called it the bridge that was going nowhere.

But now that’s all water under the… well, you know.  The new St. Croix Crossing Bridge opened last week to great fanfare, connecting eastern Minnesota with western Wisconsin and replacing the Stillwater lift bridge that was built in 1931.

Which just goes to show that two sides are never so far apart that they can’t be brought together.

The project was first proposed way back in the 1960s, but every imaginable obstacle conspired to prevent its construction.  Needless to say, funding was the first challenge.  Then came the predictable squabbling among federal and local agencies.  Finally, the inevitable lawsuits brought by the environmental lobby threatened to kill the plan before it could begin.

People said it would take a miracle for the bridge to get built.  What they got was something even more remarkable than divine intervention.

They got cooperation.

In 2012, an unlikely alliance formed between two Minnesota congresswomen, Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar and then-Republican Representative Michele Bachmann

Their task was herculean.  They had to persuade, convince, and cajole U. S. representatives and senators, as well as state governors and local legislators, to sign off on the project.  Incredibly, they had to get unanimous approval from all 100 U. S. senators to gain an exemption from the 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.  Ms. Klobuchar personally prevailed upon every one of her colleagues in the senate to give their support.

The final product is more than just a river crossing.  It’s a work of art, a thing of beauty.  The bridge is a hybrid, a cross between box girder and cable-stayed designs, only the second like it in the country.  The innovative design minimizes the number of piers in the water while keeping the tops of the towers below the tree-line.  Even opponents of the bridge grudgingly conceded that their fears were unfounded.

Could there be a more fitting allegory for our troubled times than the new “miracle bridge” of St. Croix?  In a time of knee-jerk partisanship, of hyperbolic rhetoric, of militant groupthink that drives all proponents of moderation to the far extremes lest they be slaughtered on the altar of ideology by their own comrades – in times like these it is the concerted effort to bridge the divide that can calm the waters below.  All that’s needed is the courage set aside personal agendas and the willingness to work together for the general welfare.

Nothing puts an end to quarreling faster than a spirit of common purpose.  Nothing builds trust more certainly than a shared commitment and collaboration toward a universal goal.  The feeling of being united in a higher mission, combined with a sense of urgency to achieve results, raises the rewards of success above egoism and ideology.

Once we resolve to make the effort and take the first step, almost anything is possible.

King Solomon says, Like water reflects one face to another, so too the heart of one man to his fellow.  By showing our adversaries that we are committed to peaceful cooperation, the chances increase dramatically that they will see themselves reflected in our sincere intentions and respond in kind.

Of course, there will always be those too petty to seek common ground.  But strong, sure leadership will relegate them to the footnotes of history while inspiring others to discover greatness within themselves.  With vision and determination, we can refashion the world into a place where human spirit can overcome any obstacle and truly soar toward the heavens.

Published by Jewish World Review.

Wish you were here

My latest poetic musings, published in this month’s issue of The Wagon Magazine.

Click here and enjoy!

The price of uncertainty

Harry Potter and the Ashes of the Temple

In spite of its exceptional popularity, or perhaps because of it, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series produced its own share of controversy. Critics complained that Harry is a chronic rule-breaker, that the vividly depicted magical backdrop will divorce children from reality, and that the books instill no redeeming social values in the children who read them.

It is true that Harry does demonstrate a certain disregard for rules and regulations, but he is openly criticized by his friends and teachers alike for this, and he gets into trouble as often as not on account of his rule breaking.

It is also true that Ms. Rowling’s depictions of a magical world are mesmerizing in their detail and verisimilitude, but it’s precisely this vivid imagery that has turned millions of television-addicted preadolescents into avid readers. Moreover, it’s hard to imagine any book causing children to become more detached from reality than the glut of fanciful movies, video games, and trading cards with which they come into contact daily.

The third argument, however, is where Harry’s critics really miss the boat. The books are steeped in such universal ethical lessons as honesty, discipline, and loyalty, to mention only a few. And from a Jewish perspective, Harry Potter can offer our children (and us as well) a contemporary insight into the destruction of the Temple that we commemorate today, on the 9th day of the month of Av.

Throughout the Harry Potter series, many of the advocates of evil and the defenders of good share a common character trait: an irrational insistence upon the “purity of blood.” Although the leader of the forces of evil himself comes from a mixed background, his followers are dedicated to purging the wizarding world of “mudbloods,” those who have non-wizard blood flowing in their veins.

But it isn’t just the wicked who display this kind of genealogical prejudice. Many of the defenders of good, even as evil threatens to destroy them and their society, refuse to join forces with potential allies because of irrational prejudices.

J. K. Rowling may never have studied Jewish history, but her series provides a perfect parable for the causes of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Even as the Roman siege upon Jerusalem tightened, the Sadducees, the Zealots, the Sicarii, the Essenes, and other radical groups refused to address the common danger that threatened every Jew, sometimes even forming alliances with the Romans in hope of gaining the upper hand over their political enemies within the Jewish people. The Romans exploited this infighting until both the Temple was destroyed and the Jewish nation was broken.

The Talmud tells us the cause of the destruction was senseless hatred. Jew hated Jew not for what he did but for how he identified himself. Instead of recognizing how much they had in common, instead of strengthening their commitment to Jewish values, instead of working together in the face of a common enemy, Jews squabbled over political agendas and schemed for political gain, deaf to the entreaties of the sages that they set aside their differences, blind to the impending holocaust that Rome would bring down upon them.

Nearly 2000 years later, we are still quarreling senselessly with one another and overlooking enemies who seek our destruction. If we haven’t learned the lessons of our own tradition, perhaps we can learn a lesson from Harry Potter’s headmaster, Dumbledore: “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

Of course, the talmudic sage Rabbi Akiva said it more simply in aftermath of the Temple’s destruction: “Love your fellow as yourself: this is the great principle of the Torah.”

What makes him your “fellow”? That he chooses good over evil. And how do you love him? By setting aside your differences and seeing him for who he is, not for what he believes — and certainly not for what he calls himself.

Originally published in 2001 by Jewish World Review.

Why we fall short

Take Pleasure in Taking the High Road

We all know that two wrongs don’t make a right.  But does one right cancel out one wrong?

There’s a good chance you believe that it does.  Research suggests that our brains are wired to think of a good deed as a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card.

Psychologists call it licensing.  It works like this:

You come home from a hard workout at the gym and immediately sit down to a double-helping of ice cream with chocolate syrup and whipped cream. The virtuous behavior of exercising makes you feel better about yourself, which then gives you license to indulge the less virtuous behavior of overdosing on sugar.  The responsible act of taking care of yourself makes it easier to rationalize letting yourself go.

But Aaron Garvey and Lisa Bolton of the University of Kentucky have discovered that it goes even further than that.

WE ARE WHAT WE THINK

In their research, they took two groups of volunteers and gave them cookies to eat.  The cookies were identical for each group, but in one group they were labeled “healthy.”  After finishing their cookies, the subjects were given candy.

As the psychology of licensing would suggest, subjects who had eaten the “healthy” cookies ate more candy than the other group.  But not for the reason we might have thought.

Garvey and Bolton measured not only the amount of candy eaten but also the amount of pleasure experienced from the candy.  They found that the candy actually tasted better to the people who believed they had eaten healthy cookies.

Professor Garvey identified two implications from his research.  First, if we do something virtuous before indulging in pleasure, we can actually make the experience of pleasure more pleasurable.

Second, if we reframe our attitude toward responsibilties and acts of virtue by thinking of them as commitments that we want to do rather than obligations that we have to do, we can make vices less attractive and protect ourselves from the damaging fallout of licensing.

THE MOST ENDURING PLEASURE

These two implications teach us an electrifying lesson in human free will.  Through disciplined thinking, I can choose whether to make my self-indulgence more or less pleasurable.  And that discipline takes the form of how motivated I am to choose virtue over vice.

In other words, do I want to trick my brain into getting more pleasure from healthy acts or from unhealthy acts?  And if getting more psychological pleasure from virtue means that I’ll become less interested in the physical pleasure of vice, why would I ever want to choose vice over virtue?

We know from experience that physical pleasure is nothing more than psychological junk food.  Enjoyments of the flesh feel good in the heat of the moment, but they leave a pleasure vacuum the instant they’re over.  In contrast, emotional pleasures linger, and profound emotional satisfaction endures long after the source of pleasure has passed.

Most of all, the warm feelings we can get from family, community, and the sense of contribution to a higher purpose stay with us constantly.  The less we distract ourselves with empty physical gratification, the more intense and continuous those emotional pleasures become.

King Solomon says, One who loves pleasure will be a man of want, and one who loves wine and oil will never become rich.

In a society that has increasingly debased the nobility of human emotion, people say that they love their cars, they love to sleep, they love to go to the beach, they love steak and wine.  But if these are the objects of our love, what emotion is left for us to feel for our husbands and our wives, for our parents and our children, for the sources of inspiration that beckon us to moderate our lust and pursue loftier, more satisfying ideals?

The comics page can give us a chuckle, but it doesn’t enrich our minds like a good story.  A jingle on the radio might get stuck in our head, but it doesn’t move the heart like a symphony. A passing flirtation may set us briefly a-tingle, but it is a sorry substitute for a lifetime of commitment.

Anything worthwhile requires investment and effort.  Life is too short to squander it on fleeting pleasures when there is so much real joy for us to find.

Published in Jewish World Review