Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The future of humans


This post appears on Ash Wednesday. The typical Ash Wednesday homily or theological reflection addresses sin and repentance, explaining the symbolism of the ashes imposed on foreheads. For some thoughts on that subject, read these previous Ethical Musings posts: Rethinking Ash Wednesday and Getting Ready for Lent.

Instead, I want to consider the future of humans, not as individuals but as a biological species. Generally, this subject receives little explicit theological attention apart from affirmations that God, in God’s time, will fulfill God’s vision for creation. That also is not the focus of these musings. I just read two books on evolution, one arguing for a version of intelligent design and the other describing how Darwin’s theories emerged from his personal and familial interests. Both books emphasized evolution’s dynamism; neither book explored what that might mean for humans. Nevertheless, the books were a catalyst for these musings about future directions of human evolution.

First, I’m confident that homo sapiens are not uniquely static. Evolution, even if we cannot see it, evolution continues in our midst with our species exhibiting minor adaptations to environment that promote the survival of the fittest.

Second, cyborgs – entities that combine a living being with a machine – have arrived or soon will, depending upon how one defines machine. Replacement joints have become commonplace. Replacement sensors (e.g., an eye or touch in a fingertip or other piece of skin) are in the experimental stage. Scientists are also experimenting with a human using her/his brain to control an artificial limb. Perhaps the next major step in human evolution will be a cyborg with a human brain and an electro-mechanical body.

Third, racial and ethnic differences are disappearing through increased breeding among persons of different races and ethnicities. In Hawaii, for example, finding someone who is 100% Hawaiian is now difficult. To a lesser extent, similar trends are evident globally as global migration increases and cultural barriers against intermarriage and childbearing by unmarried women erode.

Fourth, manipulation of an embryo’s genome, selection of a particular sperm or egg, and modification of a person’s genome all portend changes to the human species. Once begun, these genetic modifications are unlikely to stop. And once begun, these genetic modifications may slowly but permanently alter the human genome. Perhaps one day parents say be able to select each of a new fetus’s twenty-six chromosomes.

Predicting the outcome of these moves is impossible. Nevertheless, rejecting all such changes as unethical is wrong. Some changes may eliminate diseases for which no known cure exists (e.g., sickle cell anemia), may reduce the incidence of birth defects or diseases such as diabetes and cancer, or may otherwise dramatically improve the quality of human life or its longevity. These subjects deserve more attention in Christian ethics, theology, and churches.

Fifth, I wonder what other evolutionary changes are currently happening to humans to which all but perhaps a few scientists are oblivious. For example, are humans, to the extent that these traits are genetically determined, becoming taller, losing certain physical capabilities, gaining or losing aggressiveness, gaining or losing resistance to particular diseases, etc.?

Sixth, how long will the human species survive? I recently met a professor of biology from Italy who teaches in New Zealand. He wonders whether popular understandings of the causes of war and other forms of human violence and oppression bode ill for our species’ longevity.

Seventh, will humans crossbreed with a species from another planet, producing a new species as unimaginable to us as humans were to their predecessors?

For me, one key theological and ethical implication of continuing human evolution is that humans do not represent the apex or culmination of creation. Contrary to the myths in Genesis 1-2, the understandable anthropocentrism of our spiritual ancestors is incorrect. Humans are simply part of creation; in calling humans to be stewards of creation, God valued all creation equally and trusted us to do the same.

Ongoing human evolution also underscores the error of believing in a utopian Eden from which humans fell out of favor with God. That erroneous belief also presumes anthropocentrism. Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday, is a time in the Christian calendar for self-examination and repenting of our errors and sins.

Thinking about human evolution identifies more questions than answers. Human knowledge has expanded exponentially over the last century, yet there is so much about which we know little or nothing. Humility, not hubris, best prepares us for today as well as the future.

Finally, ongoing human evolution, along with the continuing evolution of the entire cosmos, makes life seem like an adventure, even from God’s perspective, since God may very well not know where the processes that God initiated will eventually lead. Omniscience, after all, is a human construct. Omniscience may denote knowing everything about past and present without necessarily knowing the future.

What are your musings about the future of our species?

Friday, February 9, 2018

When winning at any cost is not worth it


The conviction of Dr. Larry Nassar for sexually abusing gymnasts he treated at Michigan State University and in the Olympic program has deeply disturbed me.

First, his crimes were heinous and numerous.

Second, numerous enablers were complicit in Nassar’s actions. These enablers turned a blind eye to warning signs, refused to act on complaints from the abused, and failed to establish adequate safeguards to prevent abuse, e.g., never allowing a male physician to see a female patient without another woman being present. Efforts to hold these enablers accountable should proceed along with mandating policies and protocols to prevent future incidents of abuse.

Third, where were the athletes’ parents? International gymnastics are highly competitive. Successful athletes depend upon family sacrifices, support, and encouragement. Having a daughter in the ranks of elite athletes who are part of a winning program feels good for parent(s) and daughter alike.

However, when the desire to win blinds a parent to the changes in his/her daughter caused by sexual abuse, then winning is no longer worth the cost. If one family had blown the whistle on Nassar years ago, that family’s daughter may not have won the gold. But she would have preserved more of her mental health, taken a step to reclaim the fulness of her selfhood, and prevented dozens and dozens of other girls from suffering similar abuse. Those victories are surely worth more than is a gold medal.

The father who attempted to physically harm Nassar during the sentencing phase of his trial acted, I strongly suspect, out of an abject sense of his own failure as a father. The judge wisely declined to take legal action against that father. Parents who failed to protect their children will have to live with their guilt. Parents who pushed their child to become a world-class gymnast when that was not originally the child’s dream will live with a double measure of guilt.

Children are precious. Parents rightly encourage and supporting a child’s efforts to achieve her or his personal ambitions – whatever those ambitions may be. Nevertheless, protecting the well-being of his/her child is a parent’s sacred duty.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

#Me too


In my last Ethical Musings post, Employment and ethics, I argued that inculcating virtue is the best approach to Christian ethics.

Women refusing to accept sexual harassment, especially in the workplace, have spawned the Hashtag Me too movement. Women are denouncing harassers; employers are beginning to take those complaints seriously, appropriately disciplining or firing abusive male employees instead of paying the accuse hush money upon signing a confidentiality agreement.

One explanatory factor for the movement, although in no way a mitigating factor in terms of a harasser’s culpability, is that women historically were not part of the workforce. World War II marked the first widespread entry of women into the labor force. Regrettably, women entering the workforce did not become a catalyst for men treating women with the dignity and respect with which men treated male members of the workforce. Instead, men continued to devalue women. Too often, men regarded women as lesser beings to be exploited as sexual objects rather than human beings equally worthy, along with men, of dignity and respect. This treatment of women as subordinate beings is evident in women typically earning less money for the same work than do men, slower or more limited promotion opportunities for women, categorizing certain tasks (domestic work, teaching, caring for the sick and elderly) as “woman’s work,” and sexual harassment.

In the Book of Common Prayer’s Baptismal vows, Christians promise to respect the dignity of every human being. No distinction is made for gender (or sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, political views, etc.). Sexual harassment – in any context – is immoral and unchristian.

Given human imperfection, sexual harassment will never entirely disappear. But the Hashtag Me too movement is an overdue growing pain as our society moves towards becoming more just, more equitable. Instead of being dismayed by the prevalence of sexual harassment, recognize that the growing refusal of women (and many men) to accept immoral behavior in the workplace and elsewhere is a sign of progress in an otherwise discouraging time.

Critically, cultivate in yourself, your friends and colleagues, and, most importantly, children and young people habits consistent with perceiving and treating all people with equal dignity and respect. These habits include use of appropriate language and touch, avoiding demeaning thoughts or words, and seeking to see God, or at least the good, in each person. Then, when confronted with a situation in which you have the opportunity to ill treat someone for your pleasure or gain, a situational temptation that is generally inevitable if not frequent, have confidence that your habits reinforced by God’s luring, will cause you to act rightly without having to think about what to do.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Employment and ethics


Recently, I talked to a man whose non-profit employer had restructured his job, significantly diminishing his title and responsibilities. The man understood that he was stretched too thin to meet expectations: he had a full-time job, another part time job, and the part time job at the non-profit from which the employer took away major responsibilities. However, what hurt was how the employer handled the change. The employer neither acknowledged the man’s key role in keeping the organization alive during a difficult transition nor had a personnel evaluation process to afford the individual time to improve before the reduction in status.

That conversation pointed my thoughts toward the Hawaii state emergency agency employee who was fired for initiating last month’s false alert of an imminent nuclear attack on the island. The employee had a record of difficulties on the job that culminated in intentionally or unintentionally triggering the alert.

What does the Bible have to say about employee management?

The short answer is: Very little. The Bible says nothing explicit about employee supervision and management except that a laborer is worthy of her/his wages and should not be defrauded (I Timothy 5:17; James 5:4).

The longer, more accurate answer is that the Bible is neither a rule book nor compilation of God’s dictates on how people are to live. Many secular ethicists and even some Christian ethicists inaccurately describe Christian ethics as “divine command ethics,” i.e., Christians find in the Bible a God-given set of precepts or commandments that govern life. Major problems with this approach to the Bible include:

1.     Deciding which commandments to obey literally and which to interpret metaphorically or in other, non-literal ways, e.g., the command for women to stay in separate dwellings during menstruation;

2.     Choosing when, if ever, to make an exception to a commandment, e.g., should one honor a physically abusive parent?

3.     Not having rules applicable to many contemporary situations, e.g., personnel management.

In the 1950s, Episcopal priest and ethicist Joseph Fletcher developed what he dubbed situational ethics. Christians were to live by two rules: love God and love one another. The Biblical warrant for highlighting these two commandments is strong. Jesus identified them as the two great commandments. Incidentally, the widespread Christian emphasis on the Ten Commandments lacks a similar warrant. Nowhere in the New Testament do the Ten Commandments receive a similar endorsement. And in the Jewish tradition, the ten are simply ten of 613 equal commandments in the Torah.

Ethically, Fletcher’s situational ethics restate utilitarian ethics, i.e., the right is that which will produce the greatest good (or most love) for the largest number of people. As with utilitarian ethics, situational ethics that adopt love as the norm for guiding behavior and choices entail applying that norm to daily life with its countless situations, contexts, and decisions, requiring repeated judgments about what appears likely to result in the most loving outcome(s) without being able to know the actual outcome of one’s choices. Emotions, knowledge, personal preferences, and many other factors invariably color those judgments in ways that an individual will rarely understand. Furthermore, nobody can look into the future. Although many Christians find Fletcher’s call for love to be the norm for Christian ethics, in practice the theory has proven highly problematic and led to poor moral choices. Ethicists find situational ethics only slightly better than the frequently asked but truly unanswerable question, “What would Jesus do?”

Instead of emphasizing rules or calculations about the most loving course of action, Christian ethics for most of two millennia have emphasized virtue ethics. Virtue ethics aims to create a person who embodies the four cardinal virtues (justice, courage, temperance, and prudence) and three theological virtues (faith, hope, and love). The Apostle Paul lists the three theological virtues in the last sentence of his much beloved discourse on love (I Corinthians 13:1-13). Since Thomas Aquinas, Christian ethicists have accepted the cardinal virtues as the minimum summary of Christian virtues, contending that other virtues such as honesty and fidelity are derivable from the cardinal and theological virtues.

Professional Christian ethicists continue to argue about the best catalogue or list of virtues. I find those arguments boring.

Rather, I’m primarily interested in helping people so inculcate the virtues that living virtuously is a function of habit and not of choice. Rarely does an individual consciously make an ethical choice. Indeed, neuroscientific research suggests that even when a person thinks s/he has consciously made a decision, that decision was made subconsciously milliseconds prior to the moment of conscious choice. Shaping behavior forms habits and over time shapes character, forming a person in Jesus’ image.

Good personnel policies are valuable in helping to ensure that employees are treated in a Christlike, healthy, loving way. Yet, as happened with the disgruntled Hawaii state employee who triggered the false alert of an impending nuclear attack, good personnel policies are no guarantee of good outcomes. Ultimately, we depend upon character, not rules or calculations about the greatest love.

May your habits be Godly!