28 June 2014

Untangling Moral Absolutes from Ethical Certainty

Occasionally, I encounter strong reactions from individuals when I assert that there are absolute moral and ethical standards. While many people are fine with such statements, a few people seem to conclude that I am asserting that we can be absolutely certain about the morality and ethics of our decisions. In doing so, such individuals confuse moral standards with their application.

In truth, many of us who claim that absolute standards exist also know how difficult it can be to make an ethical decision. The reason for this is that applying a principle, rule, or standard in practice involves complex situations and complex people. There is always some ambiguity in such cases.

A good example of this can be seen in the A&E movie, Ike: Countdown to D-Day. In this dramatization, General Eisenhower must not only make the decision to invade Europe, he must also make decisions that may cost the lives of thousands of servicemen. If he makes the wrong decision, many more may die. Additionally, Ike must address issues among his commanders, including remarks made by Lt. General Patton, and a security breach by Major General Miller, both friends of his. Eisenhower had legal and personal ethical standards to guide his decision making. However, this dramatization clearly revealed the moral ambiguity he faced in applying such standards.

Such moral ambiguity has lead some people to conclude that there are no moral absolutes, a viewpoint which is called moral relativism. Ethics are seen as being relative to one's situation, or culture, or personal viewpoint. However, to state that there are no absolutes is, itself, an absolute conclusion. Therefore, at least one absolute must exist even from this viewpoint.

Indeed, I have found that moral relativism can lead to a "might makes right" basis for ethics. C. S. Lewis argued this in his philosophical book, The Abolition of Man. In this book, he noted that some moral relativists claim that morality is based on subjective emotional impulses. Lewis notes that if this is the case, then morality is about my impulse vs. your impulse. This can and has lead to some people trying to control other people's behavior through politics, psychology, technology...which involves the power of a few over the minds and bodies of the many.

Still, simply claiming that absolutes exist does not mean they exist. To untangle this web of confusion and escape the vortex of moral relativism, we need to first conceptually disentangle "absolute standards" from their application. Philosophy and theology has for centuries debated the existence and nature of moral absolutes. This is why there are several ethical schools of thought and differing theologies, which together Lewis calls the "Tao." Furthermore, the existence of such moral absolutes does not imply that they can be applied absolutely without error. Therefore, one can assert the existence of moral standards while at the same time acknowledging degrees of moral ambiguity in their application.

Next time someone claims that moral absolutes exist, check to see if they also claim that one can be certain about their application in every situation. You will likely find that many of us who believe in moral absolutes also find it necessary to be humble regarding their application because a lack of humility leads to moral arrogance.

Book suggestion: a good book about applying ethical standards in the workplace is Practical Ethics in Public Administration, Third Edition, by Dean Geuras and Charles Garofalo (2010, Management Concepts). The authors present a practical four-step process to apply ethical standards from four historical ethical traditions (consequences, principles, moral intuition, and character/virtue) to a problem or decision.

06 May 2014

A Management Principle - Evaluating Employees

It is far easier to tell someone what to do than to actually do it yourself. A manager needs to factor this into his or her criteria when evaluating an employee's performance. - Dr. Rob

17 April 2014

"The sign of a good society is..."

"The sign of a good society is the level and number of things acknowledged to be beyond market values -- and thus appreciated for their own sake and not for extrinsic, especially financial, rewards."
- Os Guinness, The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life. 2003, Thomas Nelson , Inc., p. 131.

08 March 2014

Republican Neo-Dixiecrats?

There is an excellent, balanced article in The New York Times entitled, "For G.O.P., Hard Line on Immigration Comes at a Cost," by John Harwood (March 07, 2014) that I encourage people to read...especially conservative Republicans. What may surprise many people is the fact that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was supported by 80% of Congressional Republicans compared to 60% of Congressional Democrats. It was, in essence, a long standing version of what Republicans traditionally believed and supported. Yet, contemporary Republican leaders rarely talk about this landmark piece of legislation as representing Republican principles. They seem to side with the few Southern Republicans in Congress at that time who voted with the Dixiecrats in the Democratic Party against this bill. This was a harbinger of things to come in the Republican Party.

In this New York Times column, Mr. Harwood describes how the Republican Party has alienated people of color since the passage of this important legislation. He notes that this has not always been the case. For example, Vice President Nixon received about 32% of the African-American vote as late as 1960, and I must note that President Eisenhower received 39% of the African-American vote in 1956.

However, the 1964 election was a turning point when Senator Goldwater ran for president and refused to support the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Beginning with that election, Harwood notes that the non-white Republican vote for president has significantly declined. To understand how the 1964 election was a turning point for the party, one must understand that African-American Republicans from Southern states, a community who had traditionally supported the party, were frozen out of the 1964 Republican Convention and replaced by "states-rights" (i.e. segregationist) Republicans at the convention (see Lea M Wright, "The Conscience of a Black Conservative: The 1964 Election and the Rise of National Negro Republican Assembly."). Republican and baseball great, Jackie Robinson, commented upon attending the 1964 Republican Convention that, "A new breed of Republicans had taken over the GOP.  As I watched this steamroller operation in San Francisco, I had a better understanding of how it must have felt to be a Jew in Hitler’s Germany." Traditionally, the Democratic Party, not the Republican Party, was the party of states-rights, and the Republican Party was the national party of civil rights.

Geofrey Kabaservice has written an excellent book that documents the decline of the moderate wing of the Republican Party and the rise of extremists in his book, Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party. He notes that the last election where the conservatives were not the guiding force of the party was the 1960 election, which is also the last time a Republican President received a significant number of African-American votes.

This was not inevitable, though. Although African-American voters have consistently supported Democratic candidates, other people of color have supported Republican candidates. For example, Harwood notes that many contemporary Republicans have received significant support from Hispanic voters (e.g. President George W. Bush). I also want to add that Republicans such as Jack Kemp have showed that Republicans can win elections with significant support from non-white voters when they provide alternative policies to public problems based both on a free-market basis and with effective government.

However, modern day conservatives often show contempt for those with whom they disagree, and this is not only towards Democrats, but also towards traditional Republicans. Such an attitude alienates many people, including people of color. Indeed, these conservatives claim to be "Reagan Republicans," but do not follow President Reagan's support of the so-called "11th commandment": Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican. Reagan was certainly a conservative ideologically, but he was also civil to his political opponents, and did not deride traditional Republicans.

In contrast, the prejoritave label, RINO (Republican In Name Only) is often used by modern conservatives against Republicans who show respect and consideration not only for Democrats, but also for those who are politically weak and vulnerable in society, such as immigrants. Conservative talk radio hosts often talk in an Orwellian way of Republicans as traditional supporters of states-rights (not true), and critical of civil rights measures (also not true), and label traditional Republicans who support both free-market economics and good government as RINOs. I cannot recall an exodus of Republicans from the party when Reagan was president, and yet we have seen such an exodus over the past decade as conservative activists continue to eliminate traditional Republicans from the party. If these Republicans eat their own, why would anyone trust them in power?

What motivates such conservatives? We can see how, beginning with the 1964 presidential convention and election, civility and respect, as well as concern for vulnerable people in society, is often looked down upon by an increasing number of conservative activists. One reason may be because many conservative activists admire the seductive morality of Ayn Rand, who said it was immoral to support the politically weak and vulnerable in society (keep in mind immigration policy), rather than Jesus Christ and His disciples who advocated supporting the poor in society. When a person despises such people, it is not hard to despise and look down upon their political opponents, as well. In many ways, Rand's morality is now the standard of conservative politics.

My Grandfather, a Texan born in 1899, and a common worker with a 10th grade education, told me that he became a Republican through his admiration of President Theodore Roosevelt. Contemporary conservatives often deride President Roosevelt for his progressive policies. President Abraham Lincoln, too, was criticized for expand the power of the presidency, and thus, violating the US Constitution. The way contemporary conservatives criticize Roosevelt implies that Lincoln was also a RINO because of his support for the supremacy of national power over state power regarding civil liberties and civil rights. However, Lincoln is too much of a national icon for conservatives to criticize, so they have tried to redefine Lincoln as a modern states-rights conservative.

Where is the party of modern Lincoln, Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and yes, real Reagan Republicans today? A Republican Party controlled by states-rights conservatives is not my grandfather's Republican Party. In many ways it is more like a neo-Dixiecrat Party.


08 February 2014

The Universe of GRAVITY

This is a short, excellent article about the universe of the movie, GravityGM=tc^3: The Universe of GRAVITY .

My favorite sitcom is The Dick Van Dyke Show. I also like the movie, Mr. Mom. The Dick Van Dyke Show took place in the early to mid-1960s. Mr. Mom took place in the early 1980s. Looking at the technology in both households, I noticed it did not change much in that 20 year period. Most households still did not have computers, and the computers available to most households did not have much capabilities compared to what we have today. However, technology drastically changed over the next 20 years, between the early 1980s and the early 2000s.

What will technology be like in space in the next 20 years, especially concerning outer space? Space taxis (don't laugh)? The above article discusses some of this focusing on the most excellent movie, Gravity. If you have not seen this movie, I highly recommend it.

29 November 2013

Effective Government, not Anti-Government

I often hear people claim that business can do everything better than government can. Without qualifications, this bothers me for a very important reason: if business can do everything better, why not have businesses be governments, that is, make government privately managed?
Under feudal governments, for example, the military belonged to the nobility, not to the nation as a whole. Military obligations existed among the peasantry to their noble overlord, who in turn owed military obligation to his overlord. As such, the military was privately managed, though few had standing armies.

Rather than support a modern form of corporate feudalism, why not support the free market? Capitalism, or the free market, is based on both private ownership and competition. For competition to be maintained, a third part enforcer of the law is needed to be an "umpire" between parties. This third party must have the means to enforce the law, which means it must have powers not possessed by private businesses. In other words, this third party cannot be a business itself or be equal to a business because it must have sole possession of sovereign power such private companies do not possess. What do we call this third party enforcer of the law? Government.

What is the best form of government for a civil society? After reading many great works of political theory, I conclude The Federalist Papers is one of the best sources of wisdom about creating a government, at least in the American context. Ironically, the purpose of The Federalist Papers was not to decrease the power of government (which at that time in the United States was the Articles of Confederation), but to increase the power of government in order for it to be effective, while at the same time not increasing it so much that it becomes oppressive to the natural liberties of the people. The type of government recommended is the US Constitution.

Why is this ironic? Because many of the people I hear praising private businesses and taking anti-government stances sound more like the Anti-Federalists than they do the Federalists. This is ironic because business was difficult to conduct under the Articles due to it lacking a strong central government that issued common currency, provided national security, and enforced common laws regulating commerce, etc.

The national debate should be about the role of government in civil society, not a business v. government debate. This debate should concern what governments must do in a civil society, what governments can do, and what governments should not do. Anti-government or pro-business-only attitudes do little to further the debate but instead antagonize those in opposing camps. This leads to the lack of progress we currently are seeing in public debate. Let's focus on what really matters. It is time all sides acknowledge the need for a strong, effective government in American civil society, as did the authors of The Federalist Papers.

26 October 2013

A very wise quote...


“I wish it need not have happened in my time," said Frodo.
"So do I," said Gandalf, "and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

02 June 2013

Change...

I am changing the subject matter for Dr Rob's Podium. In the past, I discussed several subjects here. Now, I have started a new blog, Berean Comments, for my remarks about theological, religious, and faith topics. Dr. Rob's Podium will now focus on other subjects, such as politics, science, culture, current events, etc.

Certainly, some issues cross over into both territories. So, if these subjects touch on Berean Comments type matters, I may still post such here. However, I wish to devote Berean Comments to matters about directly about God and the common faith Christians share.

- Rob

30 April 2013

Does Personal Faith Create Truth?

In light of people talking about the personal faith of NBA player Jason Collins, it occurred to me that there is a false presumption underlying such discussions. I often hear people refer to one's faith as being personal, but they do so in a way that suggests that their personal faith creates truth. This implies that what is true for me is not necessarily true for you. Furthermore, it implies that we must not challenge each other's faith because it is personal. So, toleration becomes a denial of truth.

Well, I agree that we must respect each others beliefs. There is no place for disrespect or bullying when trying to persuade someone about the truth of a matter. I absolutely believe toleration is a characteristic of civil society. Yet, to suppress the truth is not healthy or right.

Yes, we all can and will differ on questions about the answer to the question, "What is truth?" For example, Jesus said, "For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world--to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice." Pontius Pilate replied, "What is truth?" (John 18:37b-38). This was Pilate's personal standard in judging Jesus.

I argue that faith, while being personal, does not create truth. Why? Because God exists, and is active in human affairs no matter what our individual faith about Him is, or what we think He requires from us. We in the United States often prefer "salad bar" faith where we pick and choose what we want to believe from our respective religions. Yes, that is personal faith, but it is not truth.

Christ suffered and died for our sins. That is truth whether I acknowledge it or not. My faith does not create a Christ who suffered for me (John 1:1-5). His Lordship over my life is not created by my faith in Him. He is the sovereign God even when I do not understand why He allows somethings to occur and does not prevent other things from occurring. He is sovereign when I do not agree with Him. Just ask Job (Job 42:1-6).

So, the Lordship of God has no place for salad bar Christianity, which is a personal faith where we each make my our own decisions about how to live our individual lives.

I am so glad this is the truth, because if the meaning of my life depended upon what I create through my faith, then I am in real trouble. Too often I make bad judgements, my motives are self-centered, and I know I do not understand God's entire purpose. My rationality is bounded by my human limitations, my human nature, but God is unbounded. So, I also know I need my Savior, Jesus Christ, so I can be in an eternal relationship with God. Indeed, God can be fully trusted even when I do not trust Him, and is faithful even when I am not faithful to Him.

So, if my faith does not create truth, what is faith? The writer of Hebrews in the Christian Bible said, "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." (Hebrews 11:1, New American Standard Bible (NASB) (Kindle Locations 38146-38147). The Lockman Foundation. Kindle Edition.) These "things" which are not seen actually exist. So, these things are not dependent upon my faith, nor are they created by my faith.

Truth exists because only God can say, "I AM" (Exodus 3:14 & John 8:58). Truth originates in Him because He is the only Creator (Genesis 1:1 and John 1:3-5).

So, Jason Collins certainly has the right to his personal faith. The question still remains in this discussion, "What is truth?"

20 April 2013

Is God Indifferent about our Happiness?


Click here to read an excellent short passage by Tim Keller about God desiring our happiness.

I have heard several ministers preach that God does not care about our happiness. In saying this, they seem to confuse "pleasure" with "happiness." Yes, it is true that we will not always feel pleasure when following God, but this does not make Him indifferent to our happiness. Indeed, confusing pleasure with happiness is a characteristic of our present culture, and these ministers seem to be reacting to a cultural trend instead of preaching the eternal truth about our relationship with God.

Even worse, by claiming that God is indifferent to our happiness, these ministers unintentionally make God less than our parents, friends, and others who desire us to have a happy life. So, because I understand that they desire my well-being, why would I desire to follow an indifferent God?

Pleasure is momentary, and by pursuing wrong pleasures or even good pleasures in the wrong time, we can find ourselves unhappy with the consequences. Even if we do not feel remorse due to a pleasure's overwhelming sensation, or because we do not experience bad consequences, we still offend God when we are indifferent to Him (Revelation 3: 15-16). To find happiness, we must understand its source.

Keller understands that God desires us to be happy, but he also notes that happiness is a byproduct of glorifying God. The Westminster Short Confession (also here) begins by asking, "What is the chief end of man?" The answer is, "Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever." Yes, we are to enjoy God.

As Keller notes, happiness does not come from using God as a means to our happiness. I should add that this also means we must not seek pleasure as a means to happiness because it places pleasure as an idol in place of God (John 1:1-5; see also Keller's book, Counterfeit Gods).

I once heard a radio talk show host, Dennis Prager, note that happiness is what we feel when we do what we are supposed to do. An example is that of a parent getting up in the middle of the night to take care of their child. It is not pleasurable, but afterwards (maybe much later after a good night's sleep) he or she is happy as a parent. I think Prager got this one right. I might add that doing the right thing must not be defined by human standards. Likewise, happiness is not found by following abstractions such as minimal ethical standards. Rather, happiness must be defined by its source: God, the Creator.

In Matthew 6:33, Jesus tells us, "But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you" (Crossway Bibles (2011-02-09). The Holy Bible English Standard Version (ESV) (Kindle Locations 37819-37820). Crossway. Kindle Edition).

Yes, God desires us to be happy. He is a most loving God. Here is the beginning point to finding true happiness.

30 March 2013

Easter...

Easter is my favorite holiday of the year. It is about the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. He died to remove our offenses to God, and He lives forever. His regeneration is about God regenerating us; as He breathed life into Adam, so He breathes new life into us so we can believe in Jesus and be reconciled to God.

As Paul said, "17Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 18All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 19that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation." 2nd Corinthians 5:17-19 ESV. Crossway Bibles (2011-02-09). The Holy Bible English Standard Version (ESV) (Kindle Locations 45871-45876). Crossway. Kindle Edition.  

John also testified, "Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” 5And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” 6And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. 7The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son. 8But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.” Revelation 21: 1-8. Crossway Bibles (2011-02-09). The Holy Bible English Standard Version (ESV) (Kindle Locations 49162-49176). Crossway. Kindle Edition.

Happy Easter!

21 March 2013

Republican Reform: Lincoln's Advice

If the Republican Party truly wishes to reform itself, it might begin with advice from the first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln:

"If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend."

Before one can convince another that he is a sincere friend, he must sincerely be a friend in words and actions. The Ayn Rand faction that seems to controls so much of the Republican party (or at least influences much of its rhetoric) argues that helping weak people is immoral. Yet, to be a sincere friend of everyone, and not just the powerful in society, means the party will have to change it view of the weak, that is, the disadvantaged in society. Once it changes its view of such people, its rhetoric will follow.

The political issue Republicans should debate with the Democratic Party should be HOW to help those with little power, not whether to help them.

Should my Conservative friends argue that they sincerely want to help the disadvantaged, my reply is that their words and actions do not match. For example, tax cuts help those of us who pay taxes. I am all for them. However, such a policy alone does not directly and immediately help the disadvantaged, but may only help indirectly over the long run. So, what are poor people to do in the short run except suffer?

What Republicans need to do is develop both immediate and short term solutions to problems of poverty and education rather than defer them to a Darwinian form of the market where only the strong survive. Then Republicans need to communicate these solutions effectively before elections.

One of the best ways to communicate an idea is to put it into practice. What many of the disadvantaged in society see in Republicans are a lot of words without corresponding practice.

So, here is one other reform: Republicans need to run and win elections for local and state political offices, and gain experience in such offices before running for national office. I want to emphasize local governments, because it is at the local level that most government goods and services are provided (e.g. education, police, fire, etc.). Learning what government does best at the local level will help Republicans understand how government at all levels can be a positive force in society.

Currently, it seems the Republican model for a potential candidate is to make a lot of money in the private sector (or get to know a lot of rich people), then run for national office and promote anti-government policies. Republicans once ran for and served in local offices as a matter of practice in the past. Running for and serving in local governments helps such candidates better understand what governments at all levels actually do in practice, and also how governments are a positive force for social and business growth in many ways (no, I am not referring to Government Motors, uh, General Motors).

Sincerely finding immediate and long term solutions to poverty and education, along with gaining experience in local government will help rebuild the Republican electoral base. Doing this will not only change Republican attitudes towards government, it will help Republicans be credible with people by matching Republican words to Republican actions.

21 September 2012

Friendship, Erotic Love, and Sex



I love the quote, below, by C. S. Lewis:


“Those who cannot conceive Friendship as a substantive love but only as a disguise or elaboration of Eros betray the fact that they have never had a Friend. The rest of us know that though we can have erotic love and friendship for the same person yet in some ways nothing is less like a Friendship than a love-affair. Lovers are always talking to one another about their love; Friends hardly ever about their Friendship. Lovers are normally face to face, absorbed in each other; Friends, side by side, absorbed in some common interest. Above all, Eros (while it lasts) is necessarily between two only. But two, far from being the necessary number for Friendship, is not even the best. And the reason for this is important.

"... In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets... Hence true Friendship is the least jealous of loves. Two friends delight to be joined by a third, and three by a fourth, if only the newcomer is qualified to become a real friend. They can then say, as the blessed souls say in Dante, "Here comes one who will augment our loves." For in this love "to divide is not to take away.”

― C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves, see http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/349838-those-who-cannot-conceive-friendship-as-a-substantive-love-but


I've commented that some people talk today in a manner that suggests if a person loves someone, he or she must have sex with that person. My comment may seem to be an exaggeration, but I hear this perspective in a lot of statements made by some individuals in my classes at the university, and by others in the media. Indeed, it has entered into the political mainstream.

Lewis' quote is insightful to me because he shows that such people are really lonely. They are using erotic love, or more often just sex, as an anesthesia to cover up their pain. A person who has a real friend would realize how silly it is to assume that the object of love is a sexual act.

Here, I am suggesting that those who imply that love means sex do not even understand erotic love. Loneliness can lead people to such debasement, that even erotic love escapes their understanding. When this occurs, the idea of Jesus loving His disciples takes on a sexual overtone to the listener.

Then, statements by Jesus such as, "Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13 English Standard Version), become meaningless to the listener. This may be the real target of such attitudes: to make us numb to God's love.

16 September 2012

Teachers as Priests

Many people assume teaching is primarily imparting information to students. However, good and bad teachers both impart information. Three of the many characteristics that distinguish a good teacher from a bad teacher are: 1) the ability to see gaps in a student's understanding of a complex idea; 2) the ability to help him or her make the necessary connections, that is, build bridges over the gaps between facts, concepts, and ideas; and, 3) the willingness to be this bridge builder.

Often a teacher must identify where a student has not connected a fact to another important fact necessary to understand a complex idea. Other times a teacher must see where a student has not connected one or more complex ideas to each other to help build a larger mental picture of an important concept or view. These connections are mental or even spiritual bridges.

The latin word for priest is "pontifex," which in its root means "bridge maker" or "bridge builder." In this context, all teachers are priests.