But Honestly…

I am sorry to say that honesty appears to no longer be a valued virtue in our society.  Many of us stretch the truth to the breaking point or even make up outrageous stories to get what we want, whether it be some type of advantage or just to avoid the consequences of a previous misdeed.  The illegality of fraud seems to have been reduced to little more than a technicality.

I say that honesty is “no longer” valued because I believe that, at one time, honesty was standard operating procedure both in the business world and in our personal lives.  Perhaps I’m just being naïve and no such halcyon time ever existed.  Perhaps we just covered up our deviousness better way back when, while today dishonesty has become so prevalent that it can be practiced openly without fear of denunciation or derision.

Interestingly, parents still expect honesty among their children.  Lying, fibbing, telling whoppers and every other variety of prevarication is preached against, strictly prohibited and sternly punished when it rears its ugly head despite our best efforts.  I recently posted about parents requiring their kids to share, even though sharing is not at all valued among adults and is, at least to some extent, discouraged.  I believe that lying belongs to the same club as sharing.  We require such things of our kids not because they need to learn these values to be productive adults, but because sharing and honesty are convenient for parents.  How will we know who to punish if Sally blames Johnny for her own misdeeds?  We certainly don’t want to look foolish when we’re called into school to account for Jimmy’s behavior when he dishonestly swears up and down that he did not copy from his neighbor’s test paper.  The list could go on and on.  The fact is that dishonesty among kids makes the job of parenting a lot harder.

Ultimately, of course, kids tend to model their parents’ actions, not their words.  “Do as I say, not as I do” is a ridiculous pipe dream and a cop-out to boot.  Children who see their parents bending the truth more than just a little (“oh, it’s just a teensy white lie”) are likely to internalize the idea that dishonesty is a perfectly legitimate and convenient technique of getting from Point A to Point B.  They may have to wait until adulthood to exercise this prerogative, but then they have the rest of their lives to “do what they have to do” to “get mine.”

When I was a child, my father would tell me such instructive stories as “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” and, of course, the myth about George Washington refusing to lie about chopping down the cherry tree.  This is the time of year that every bakery and restaurant sells cherry pies in honor of this ridiculous story, designed to teach the virtues of taking the punishment we deserve.  The wolf story takes a different approach, warning kids that no one will believe a thing they say once they develop a reputation as a liar.  Based on the events of recent decades, I would hazard a guess that the boy who cried “wolf” now works on Wall Street.

As a whole, I believe that we have become a nation of liars.  Parents work at teaching their children the difference between fantasy and reality, no thanks to the barrage of Disney movies and animated TV shows.  Apparently, parental efforts are not working.  As adults, we seem to have lost the distinction between truth and falsehood.  We now live in a perverted utopia where the truth is whatever you want it to be.

In court, when a person takes the witness stand, the clerk requires that he or she take an oath to “swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you, God.”  I am told that a person who refuses to take this oath is deemed ineligible to testify.  One who takes the oath and then knowingly testifies falsely is guilty of the crime of perjury.  I have no doubt that many witnesses perjure themselves for many reasons and often go unpunished.  Far more sinister, however, is the case of those who manage to convince themselves of the truth of whatever made-up story is most convenient at the time.  We don’t particularly expect young children to be able to distinguish between truth and fantasy, but today it seems that many adults are unable to tell the difference either.  The concept of our American judicial process is that many witnesses will be examined and cross-examined and that, in the end, the truth will emerge victorious.  Often, we depend on juries to determine just what the truth is.  This has the capacity to fail on a number of levels, including jurors whose votes express their opposition to the law as written (a phenomenon known as “jury nullification”) and jurors who are themselves so impervious to lying in everyday life that they no longer have the capacity to distinguish between a truth and a falsehood.  Then again, one could say that it works out in the end because all the Constitution guarantees is a jury of one’s peers, and it is likely that jurors are no more prone to truth telling than are the defendants or litigants.

My niece shares an apartment with a roommate who is experiencing difficulty in passing his college engineering classes.  I am told that he is a foreign student whose wealthy parents send him whatever funds he needs from abroad.  However, he is required to account for all of his expenses.  Among those expenses was hiring tutors to help him get through.  More recently, his parents’ money allowed him to incur the expense of paying others to take his tests for him.  If he can’t pass the exams himself, no worries.  If you have enough money, you can always take care of whatever little inconvenience comes your away.  The fact that this violates the school’s honor code appears to be of no consequence.  If his dishonesty were ever discovered, I wonder whether throwing thousands of dollars at the college would prevent him from being expelled.  My guess is that, should his luck run out, the family money would bankroll a cadre of lawyers dedicated to the art of obfuscation who would tie the case up in litigation until long after he graduated and returned to his home country.

But who can blame the guy?  He’s learned a lot during his short time in the United States.  After all, dishonesty is the American way.

Brittany Maynard and Death with Dignity

This is a post that seems too difficult to write in the limited time of my lunch break.  But I was reading this morning about the “assisted” suicide of brain cancer victim Brittany Maynard and her story has been on my mind.  At the age of 29, Maynard was suffering from painful seizures as a result of a fatal glioblastoma.  The disease would have ended her life within a few months.

Maynard, along with her husband and parents, moved to Oregon to take advantage of that state’s Death with Dignity Act.  The law allowed a physician to write her a prescription for a fatal dose of barbiturates.  On the first of this month, she ended her life.

I remember that, a couple of decades ago, assisted suicide had come into public awareness and was a hot topic.  Despite being a serious subject, I would hear jokes everywhere I went, comments about “Dr. Death” and being “Kevorkianed.”  Our discomfort with discussions of death led to wisecracking not unlike the faux witticisms I am now hearing about Ebola.

Maynard emphasized that a choice to beat a painful, fatal disease to the punch is not the same as “suicide.”  Apparently, the difference is that most people who commit suicide could have chosen to go on with full lives.  What the two situations do share is a whole lot of unbearable pain, be it physical, psychological or both.

I don’t think it is fair to require those whose bodies are rapidly deteriorating in the most horrible fashion possible to continue to live with a level of pain that few of us could imagine and fewer endure.

By the way, I think it’s past time that suicide, assisted or otherwise, stopped being a forbidden topic of conversation.  There’s no need to clear one’s throat and change the subject.  It is encouraging that the recent death of Robin Williams seems to be starting to make discussion of suicide more acceptable.

Many argue that suicide can often be prevented, that we need to devote more resources to mental illness and that we need to remove the stigma surrounding depression and other types of mental illness.  My father always dismissed suicide as “a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”

But what about those situations that are not temporary?  Those with terminal illnesses will never recover, no matter how many drugs and how much radiation and surgery we throw at them.  Their intolerable level of suffering will only increase as their quality of life dwindles to zero in the few days and weeks they have remaining.

So, yes, I support the ongoing work of Maynard’s husband toward passing Death with Dignity laws in every state.  I find it incredible that some claiming to be “pro choice” who are willing to end the developing lives of the unborn in the name of the right to control their own bodies are unable to support the right of a dying adult to make a life-ending decision on what to do with his or her own body.

If we can legalize abortion, I see no reason for us to be unable to legalize death with dignity for the terminally ill.

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A Personal Choice

broccoli

I’m tired of explaining myself all the time.

Why is it that when you admit to being a vegan, people look at you as if you have two heads, cloven hooves and laugh like a hyena?

And that’s if you’re lucky.  Half the time, they just roll their eyes as if to say “why can’t I know any normal people?”

But the worst is when they express sincere interest.  And just when you’re about to summarize the ecological, ethical and medical benefits of a plant-based diet, they blurt out the question:  “So why are you vegan?”

As if no one in his or her right mind would choose such a lifestyle.  Surely it must be some type of serious medical condition.  Unless, of course, you’re just one of those tree-hugging, granola-chomping hippie wannabes.  In either case, this is going to be a juicy story to pass around, so spill it!

Siiiggghhhh.

It’s bad enough when you have to go through this rigamarole with coworkers, clients and bosses.  Unfortunately, family and friends often aren’t any better.

My vegan proclivities are of recent vintage, but I’ve been a vegetarian for a quarter of a century.  My parents apparently feel that they’ve never received a straight answer from me, as every so often they ask again.  Such an occasion arose over the Thanksgiving holiday.  “Surely it can’t be for health reasons,” my mother offered.  Well, that’s obvious.  Health benefits clearly have nothing to do with it since I’ve been morbidly obese since childhood.  I would have done something about my weight long ago if health concerns were on my mind.  Right?

My father, ever helpful, chose this moment to add that, after all, Hitler was a vegetarian.

Thanks, Dad.

My sister, with whom I had had no contact for six years prior to Thanksgiving, had to ask me for an explanation as well.  And she is a vegetarian!  When I explained that I believe in the sanctity of life, she replied that this is no reason not to eat eggs.  As if no life emanated from eggs!  And where exactly do birds come from?

At this point, I became a bit snarky and offered my opinion that it’s disgusting to eat things that come out of a chicken’s butt.  My sister responded that, as far as she knows, the egg exits from a different hole than the feces.  Gosh, I feel a lot better now!

At least she didn’t point out that the plants I eat were alive until harvested for our culinary delectation, just as the cow and chicken were.  (My mother has pursued this line of argument in the past.)  Then I’d have to describe how plants do not have an animal nervous system and are unable to feel pain.  At that point, I’d be entirely on the defensive.

Why is it that no one asks “so why exactly are you a carnivore?”  And I’ll never forget the time I was chatting online with a self-styled pundit who demanded to know:  If we’re not supposed to eat animals, then why are they made of meat?

I’m never quick enough with the facile response.  In my sister’s case, what I should have said is that, in our Jewish faith, the entire rear third of the cow is forbidden as food, and there is no reason not to treat the chicken in the same manner.

Next time I’m asked the question, I think I will respond “I’m vegan because I want to be.” End of conversation.

My wife says I should just say “it’s a personal choice.”

Truly, I married a wise woman.

 

A Question of Ethics

ethics

I don’t consciously think about ethics on a regular basis, but lately it seems to be a recurring theme in my life.  Which is a problem, because I feel like a total dummy when it comes to questions of ethics.

It started the other night when my niece was over here doing her psychology homework.  She was telling me that there are different levels of ethical development.  To illustrate, she shared the example of the man who cannot afford to purchase the drug needed to save his wife’s life.  The ethical issue is whether he should steal the expensive medication.

The four of us present were split as to whether to engage in this act of thievery.  My niece indicated that she has been learning that, in this example, abiding by the law (saving one’s self and dooming another) represents a lower level of personal ethical development than placing one’s self at risk (of criminal consequences) in order to save someone else.

This reminded me of a lesson we learned back in the first year of law school.  In criminal law class, we were taught the difference between the old Latin terms mala prohibita and mala in se.  The former is an act that is wrong simply because the law says it is, while the latter is an act that would be wrong even if there were no law prohibiting it.  Murder, for example, is mala in se; we know it is wrong even without a law to specifically tell us so.  By contrast, one could argue that speeding is mala prohibita; not only is driving 60 miles per hour not of itself immoral, but it isn’t even illegal if the speed limit is seventy.

Returning to my niece’s class problem, the ethical issue could potentially hinge on whether theft is considered mala in se or mala prohibita.  One could argue that taking something that does not belong to you has always been wrong, even before the Biblical commandment “thou shalt not covet” codified it into law.  In the Judeo-Christian tradition, however, even such a basic law falls away when violating it is necessary in order to save a life.  Faced with such extreme circumstances, the proscription against theft gets demoted from mala in se to merely mala prohibita.  The reasoning behind this is that laws are not designed to be arbitrary; they are promulgated for the betterment of society, i.e., toward the formation of a social contract (as described in the theories of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau) that allows a diverse population to live together in peace and harmony.  The law ceases to be valid when
the very reason it came into being (lawyers call this “legislative intent”) no longer applies.  Arguably, honoring the prohibition against theft even when doing so results in death runs contrary to the reason that the prohibition exists at all. “Bright line” rules are helpful in the socialization of children (“I won’t take it, it’s not mine”), but seeing the world through a black-and-white lens is rarely helpful to adults faced with making ethical decisions in an increasingly complex world.

As if my niece were preparing me for what’s coming, I have been faced with ethical issues twice this week.  Thankfully, in neither situation was I called upon to make a life or death decision.  Or was I?

No one can truly know the far-ranging effects of his or her actions.

pantry

A woman, probably in her forties, rang the bell at the door of the parsonage while my wife and I were in the kitchen.  Our visitor asked if we had any food we could share with her.  We explained that we are a very small church that lacks the resources to maintain a food pantry or distribute food.  However, my wife told the woman, we’d be happy to look in our pantry and see what we can spare.

We opened a folded grocery bag and began filling it with items from our cupboards and refrigerator.  Pasta, rice, canned fruit, a bunch of baking potatoes, an apple, an orange and some crackers filled the bag to the top.  The woman thanked us, saying “this should get me through til Saturday.”

I asked my wife whether she thought the woman was homeless.  She said no, which made me wonder whether she had a family to feed.  Were there two or three little hungry children waiting patiently somewhere?  If so, have her utilities been turned off?  Will she be able to cook the rice and the pasta and the potatoes?  The woman was on foot, so she probably lives here in town.  Did she walk a long way to get here?  Probably not, as there are many churches within a mile or two of here.

Or, on the other hand, was the woman dropped off by someone in a car?  Was she headed a few blocks away with her bag full of food to meet the driver somewhere out of sight of the parsonage?  For that matter, did she really need the food at all?  Was she a freeloader, going around to all local churches to see what she could get for nothing so that she could sell it for money to buy alcohol and drugs?

Years ago, my wife and I decided that it is impossible to know such things and that it is therefore unproductive to stress over them.  Our duty is to discern needs and to fill them, to stand in the gap.  “And I sought for a man among them, that should make up the hedge, and stand in the gap before me for the land, that I should not destroy it:  But I found none.”  Ezekiel 22:30 (KJV)

If the recipient of our love offering misuses that gift, he or she will be held accountable for that misdeed.  In other words, we have no control over what anyone else does.  Our responsibility is to do the right thing and leave the rest to God.  For who knows, even if the recipient of our gift proves unworthy, perhaps our act will set a good example for someone else who will follow in our footsteps?

Unfortunately, it is often difficult to figure out the right thing to do, particularly when one is called upon to make an instant decision.  What if the person asking for your assistance needs more than a bag full of food?  What if the person needs hundreds of dollars that you can ill afford to give?  And what if the person in need is a member of your own family and your heart bleeds for his or her suffering?

charity

I was raised on the adage that “charity begins at home.”  Nevertheless, I am as prone to help a stranger as to help a friend or family member.  In some respects, I may be even more inclined to help the stranger, who may be friendless and have few other sources of assistance.

But I stopped in my tracks this week when my wife informed me that my nephew’s water is about to be turned off because he hasn’t money to pay the bill.  He would need more than $300 to turn his water back on.  As if that weren’t enough, his electricity is likely to be turned off soon for nonpayment as well.

Should my wife and I raid our savings to provide our nephew with the hundreds of dollars he needs to keep the lights and water on?  I was laid off a month ago, and neither of us is currently working.  What I get on unemployment is only a fraction of what I earned at my job.  Our savings will not last all that long.  At my age, who knows when I will find another job, if ever?

Uh-oh.  So now it’s all about me, huh?  Isn’t it unethical to place my own needs before those of another?  If nothing else, it sure is selfish of me.

So what to do?  Failure to proffer the requisite funds clearly would not be mala prohibita, but could it be mala in se?  Are we ethically responsible for “standing in the gap” regardless of personal consequences?  There are no easy answers.  What do you think?

(Update:  My nephew’s landlord prevailed upon the utility company and the water has been turned back on.  Praise God.)

NaBloPoMo November 2013