Monday, November 4, 2013

The Dangers of Quantitative Morality

Jean Piaget, in his classic work The Moral Judgment of the Child, in his efforts to make the case for developmental morality, pointed out that when human beings are infantile and just beginning to develop their sense of morality (right and wrong) they understand morality exclusively in quantitative, rather than qualitative, terms. Ask a very small child whether it's wrong to steal one piece of candy and they will very likely say "no." But ask the same child if it's wrong to steal a handful of candy and they'll say "yes." Their view of morality is quantitative - big "sins" are bad; little ones, not so much. Piaget goes on to say that as the child "grows up" and matures as a person, they start to see morality in qualitative, rather than quantitative, terms - wrong is wrong, irrespective of the numbers involved. It's a child's morality that says "it's only wrong if harm is done to a large number of people." Making the same point, John Donne, the mystic poet, put it like this: No man is an island...Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main...Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.... Therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Now, to my point. I find it interesting that when Jay Carney, President Obama's press secretary, was asked last week about the fact that millions of Americans are having their health insurance cancelled as a direct consequence of Obamacare, he responded by saying, "Well, let's be clear: Only 5% of Americans are affected." Of course, a little quick math translates 5% to 15 million people. But I digress. Moreover, Carney did not say that the ethic at work in the Administration's decision-making was "the greatest good for the greatest number." In a world where absolute good is rarely achieved (but still must be pursued!), I could have respected that. But that's not what he said. What he said was "Since only 5% are affected, all this talk about cancellations is 'much ado about nothing.'"

Carney's morality is infantile. (It is also very likely political; that is, at the end of the day "right" and "wrong" are wholly determined by "who wins," a zero-sum game in which "truth" is purely a function of who shows up to vote. Wasn't it President Obama who famously said: "Elections have consequences"? But that's a conversation for another day.)  Carney apparently only thinks harm is done if a large number of people are adversely affected.  Hmmm.  Ponder that for a while.


What is even more troubling to me is that very few have either seen this (the "quantitative" notion of morality latent in his remark) or pointed it out, and among those who have, most think it's okay, which is to say, they share his notion of morality. I find that disquieting. If you want to see how disquieting a notion it is, apply his principle to murder instead of health insurance and suddenly it doesn't sound so "reasonable," does it?

A little "critical thinking" on a Monday morning.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Other Deficit

Saw a bumper sticker the other day: "Critical Thinking: The Other American Deficit." I've been thinking about that, and how little critical thinking I see in America these days. Those who know me know I don't do "group think," irrespective of what group is doing the "group think." I prefer to do my own thinking, thank you very much. "The mind," they say, "is a terrible thing to waste." With group think, no one does any thinking except the person at the top. He/she decides what the group will think and then issues "talking points" with which the faithful dutifully and uncritically proceed, and which they mindlessly parrot. It matters not whether the talking points manifest inconsistencies, hypocrisies, or gaping defects in logic; they have come down from the top, where all the thinking is done...or not done, and that makes them axiomatic and self-justifying. The casualty in group think, of course, is critical thinking, the real "deficit" in American life. Not doing "group think" has, of course, gotten me in trouble from time to time (if you don't do "group think" no group ever really trusts you), but I sleep pretty well at night.

Part of the reason for the deficit in critical thinking, I'm convinced, is that we no longer teach people how to do it. Critical thinking brings to mind windy lectures on logic with obscure Latin phrases and the like. And besides, it's hard...much harder than just being told what to think. But it need not be hard. Having taught critical thinking for years to my students both at the undergraduate and graduate levels, I've developed a method for teaching critical thinking that is simple, memorable, and doable. I call it "The Three A's of Critical Thinking." If you're interested, I've recorded a brief video lecture on my YouTube page. To view it, click here.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Falling Asleep by James O. Renault

I get lots of church newsletters from former students; an "occupational hazard" of having been in theological education all those years. Most are not worth reading...just programmatic and promotional flotsum. But a long-time friend (since college) who is a United Methodist pastor sent me an article he wrote for his church newsletter that is both poignant and profound. His name is James O. Renault, and he is pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Dade City, Florida. His article follows.


His eyes betrayed him.  Ryder, our eighteen month old grandson, was active as ever, but his eyes said he needed to take a nap.  Judy and I had tried to lay him down earlier but he was having none of it.  Now it was my turn to watch him.  I tried to lay him down next to me.  No go.  I let him run around some more hoping his obvious need for sleep would catch up with him.  No luck.  Then I picked him up and gently swayed back and forth while using a noise that sounds like "ssh...ssh...ssh."  Some call it shushing.  I use it instead of singing because I did not want to give Ryder nightmares.

I gently put my hand on his head, and gradually moved it closer to my shoulder until finally it touched.  After a few minutes, I could feel his little body starting to relax.  His arm fell to his side.  His breathing grew deeper and his body finally went limp.  He was asleep.  I waited a few more minutes before laying him down in the crib, patting his back and still shushing him until I was convinced he was long into his nap.  I left the room as quietly as I could.

I have rocked my children to sleep many times, but that was long ago.  I have put grandchildren to sleep a few times, but again it has been a while ago.  Something about this experience hit me like a ton of bricks.  Having a child fall asleep in your arms is one of the purest forms of love and trust.  When a baby falls asleep in your arms, it means you have surrounded it with a soothing sense of warmth, love, and protection.  Ryder implicitly and completely trusted me with his life.

The more I think about that simple, everyday experience, the more I am convinced that for that sublime moment in time we get as close to God as we are ever going to get in this life.

I believe that is what Jesus felt during his final moments of life.  When He prayed to His Father, "Into your hands I commend my spirit," Jesus used a line from a prayer that Hebrew children often prayed before they went to bed.  I believe in those final moments, God picked Jesus up, laid his head against his shoulder, and gently rocked him back and forth.  All the while God softly whispered in Jesus' ear, "ssh...ssh...ssh."  Then Jesus' body slowly relaxed as he drifted off into God's eternal presence.

That is how I am going to think of death from now on, as simply falling asleep with my head on God's shoulder, surrounded by his love, comfort, and peace.  James O Renault

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Waiting to Exhale (Rev. 1:9-20)

A sermon preached at First Baptist Church, Bryson City, NC, on April 21, 2013.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Jubilee Story
Luke 7:36-50
A sermon on forgiveness.