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On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.

Your Morals and Ethics Behind Balancing the Federal Budget

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

Our colleagues at the Public Insight Network have been getting some good response to the latest incarnation of their federal budget balancer. Designed to engage the American public in a conversation about the tough decisions necessary. Will you raise or lower taxes, cut Medicare benefits, maintain military spending or farm subsidies?

Try it out for yourself and let us know where you came out. Were there any moral quandaries you found yourself wrestling with as you had to make trade-offs. What decisions were the no-brainers for you? Where were you not willing to sacrifice a guiding ethic in order to balance the budget? I’m anxious to see where you come out.

I’ll be honest, it was not a great feeling that night. It was a good feeling that we got pulses back, but there was nothing in history to tell me he would survive this and that he could recover [with his brain intact]. I wasn’t sure we had done the right thing for him.

Bruce Goodman, a flight paramedic with the Mayo Clinic’s Medical Transport unit who resuscitated a man without a pulse after 96 minutes had passed.

The Wall Street Journal reports this incredible story while explaining how new technologies such as the capnograph, which measures carbon dioxide levels of patients, are being used to revive what were once lost causes. As the paramedic indicates, ethical questions abound when it comes to weighing the results of bringing someone back to life after such a long period of time without brain damage.

On a lighter note, the cardiac arrest victim had the best line:

"I’m a regular guy. I happened to die at the right place at the right time."

Eager as I am to break a good story, I’d have wrestled long and hard about being first to publish this information. Isn’t it a private matter in the life of a man who is no longer a public official?

Arnold SchwarzeneggerConor Friedersdorf

The associate editor at The Atlantic deliberates on the Los Angeles Times decision to be the first to publish the story about Arnold Schwarzenegger fathering a child with a household staffer ten years ago.

Is it a private matter? Would you have published the story?

About the image: Arnold Schwarzenegger speaks at a lighting ceremony at the California capitol building in 2008. (photo: Lon R. Fong/Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0)

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor


On Bin Laden Killing Tech Blogging

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

MG Siegler, a blogger at TechCrunch, takes a whack at Mashable and tech blogging in general for their capitalistic opportunism of the Osama Bin Laden news now that advertising dollars are beginning to ramp up online.

Is there some type of competitive rivalry going on here? Perhaps. But his question of business ethics and gaming the news and search engines in order to make money with SEO land grabs is something that is surely not relegated to the tech world.

The national tragedy question aside, do savvy operators undercut their own business in the long run in order to make short-term business gains? What kind of ethical responsibilities, if any, do businesses and news outlets like Mashable have in making sure their results don’t crowd out the most relevant news for quick access? What does Google owe its customer’s when businesses flood the search market with results?

From parislemon:

The information in the image above is not surprising at all. But still pathetic.

Imagine that, you write 35 200-word posts featuring the words “Bin Laden” in the headline and they pull in traffic on the day it’s one of the most searched terms ever

Were any of those stories really about technology? A few, maybe. But none were given the actual attention that a story of such magnitude deserves. It was a pure traffic/SEO play.

Read More


Live Video: Secular Ethics and Meditation

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

Although the Dalai Lama wasn’t able to make it to the Terrace Theater in Long Beach, California due to illness, this substitute talk by Thupten Jinpa, His Holiness’ translator, and Robert Thurman, Je Tsongkhapa Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University, should make for a great hour of learning. Two wise people discussing ethics and meditation should provide for some worthwhile contemplation and tips for living a more thoughtful life. The event starts now, at 5:45 pm (Eastern).


Sacred Conversations

by David Gushee, special contributor

Crucifix on the Klein MatterhornAt the heart of my Christian faith is the belief that each and every person I encounter is absolutely cherished by God. I believe every human being is ineffably sacred in God’s sight. This implies a moral responsibility on my part to do my very best to treat them accordingly. If God loves each person, followers of God’s way must love each person too.

This is a mystical vision. It is a mountaintop perspective. It is very hard to sustain it, especially in the vicious street fights of politics. And it is often very hard to see any evidence for it. But this belief is not really evidence-based. It is faith-based.

I am a Christian, born and raised in the Catholic Church before a teenage conversion to Protestant Evangelical faith. By now I find that both strands of my religious history are deeply interwoven and help to define who I am. I think that both of these strands, at their best, teach this vision of the equal and immeasurable worth of each human being. Catholic tradition, especially as articulated by the Vatican II documents and by Pope John Paul II, taught me a “consistent pro-life ethic.” Protestant evangelicalism, as exemplified in men such as Billy Graham, taught me that God so loved the world (each and every person in the world) that he gave his only son on the cross for our salvation. For my salvation!

I am also a Christian ethicist, a moral teacher, and writer. So inevitably my work brings me into occasions in which it is my responsibility and my opportunity to address hot-button issues like abortion, health care, war, torture, or gay rights.

Most conversations about these kinds of issues are profoundly unsatisfactory to me. Academic conversations tend to be highly technical, theoretical, and irrelevant to everyday life. Popular conversations tend to be angry and polemical, partisan and politicized. Neither type of conversation ever really feels very sacred to me. Academics are often scoring their tenure points while politicos are scoring their partisan points.

Over the years, I have tried to do something a little different when I engage difficult issues such as abortion. I try to play neither academic nor political games. I instead try to discern what it might mean to deal with the substance of the issue as if every person involved is sacred in God’s sight, and I likewise try to deal with my dialogue partners as if the same were true.

Frances Kissling Listens to David GusheeWhen I met Frances Kissling and dialogued publicly with her at the Princeton "Open Hearts, Open Minds" conference, I hope that this is the spirit that I brought to that conversation.

I saw in Frances and most of the pro-choice activists and thinkers at that meeting a serious concern for women in general, and women facing unwanted pregnancies in particular. I could tell that they were drawn into this issue because they had caught a vision of the suffering of women whose pregnancies create a crisis for them, and the even more intense crisis that this would be for them if they had no legal recourse to an abortion. Their fixed gaze on the needs and the suffering of women impressed me, and I respected it. Anyone who cares deeply about the suffering of other people is on the right track — because that is one of the ways we demonstrate our love for the sacred persons around us.

I do continue to think that our gaze on this issue must be at least bi-focal — on the suffering pregnant woman, and on the developing human life that she is carrying. I do sense that decades of defending the rights and needs of the pregnant woman have trained many in the pro-choice side to avert their eyes from the child. But I also recognize on the part of many pro-lifers the parallel averting of gaze away from the woman and her situation as she experiences it. Decades of advocacy in a polarized debate have caused both sides to miss the intertwined sacredness of woman and child. And it is certainly clear to me that the only way those whose gaze is fixed on the child will succeed in saving more of them is if they learn not only to look at the woman, but to love her.

This vision goes with me to other issues. I have been an advocate for the apparently astonishing view that no matter how much we want to prevent another terrorist attack that would destroy sacred human lives; this does not mean we are free to create a system that abuses suspected terrorists — because those swept up as suspected terrorists are also sacred human beings whom God loves. This view shapes my thinking about the right of all our nation’s children to have a good education, quality health care, and parents who love them. And it means that I refuse to go along with the contemptuous demonization of particular groups that sometimes sweeps us away — most recently exhibited in very disturbing anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim hysteria.

I find allies anywhere I encounter someone whose words and deeds show that they are operating on the basis of something like this vision. Often, sadly, these allies are not my fellow Christians, for sometimes the passionate commitment of my co-religionists to the positions they advocate causes them to forget their obligation to love even strangers and enemies. No, in public life, my favorites are those who surprise me with the tender and respectful way they encounter the sacred humanity of those around them. They give me hope.

About the images: (top) Atop the Klein Matterhorn in Zermatt, Switzerland stands a giant wooden representation of Christ on the cross. A metal placard beneath is engraved with the same phrase in four languages: “Mehr Mensch sein.” “L’homme d’abord.” “Uomo prima di tutto.” “Be more human.” (photo: mightymightymatze/Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons)

(second) Frances Kissling listens to the author at the “Open Hearts, Open Minds, and Fair-Minded Words” conference at Princeton University in 2010.

David P. GusheeDavid P. Gushee is the Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University. He is the co-founder and board chair of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, a columnist for the Huffington Post, Washington Post, and Associated Baptist Press, and a contributing editor for Christianity Today. Dr. Gushee also currently serves on the Church Relations Committee of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. He has published 12 books, including Kingdom Ethics, Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust, Getting Marriage Right, and Only Human.


Frances Kissling on the Limits of Common Ground: A Sneak Preview

by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer

 Frances Kissling

Frances Kissling, Charles Camosy of Fordham University, Jennifer Miller of Bioethics International, and Peter Singer of Princeton University at the Open Hearts, Open Minds and Fair Minded Words conference at Princeton University in October 2010. (photo: Ricardo Barros)

The audio above is an excerpt from our upcoming show with Frances Kissling, “Listening Beyond Life and Choice,” which we’re almost finished producing for a January 20th release. In the excerpt above, Kissling, a longtime voice in the public conversation about abortion and former president of Catholics for Choice, says she doesn’t believe there’s much promise in finding common ground with people whose views and ideology we fundamentally oppose: “the pressure of coming to agreement works against really understanding each other.”

Cracking open our deepest divisions requires a willingness to be courageous and alsoto be vulnerable:

"…when people who disagree with each other come together with a goal of gaining a better understanding of why the other believes what they do, good things come of that. … I have changed my views on some aspects of abortion over the last ten years based upon having a deeper understanding of the values and concerns of people who disagree with me. And I have an interest in trying to find a way that I can honor some of their values without giving up mine."


As Pocket God Enters Social Gaming on Facebook, What Will It Reveal about Our Moral Character?

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

Screenshot of Pocket God on Facebook
Screenshot courtesy of Mashable

The popular iPhone gaming app Pocket God, which has sold more than two million units, is making its way to Facebook. What character will this take in a social gaming atmosphere, I can only imagine. But I’m sure my newsfeed pipe will feel the constriction of arterial plaque.

If you’re unfamiliar with the game, Ben Parr of Mashable gives a good summary:

"The game focuses on giving the user god-like powers over islanders known as Pygmies. Since they obey the user’s every whim, players can be benevolent and give the Pygmies food and fire or be vengeful and summon thunderstorms, hurricanes and T-Rexes."

I’ll admit that I’ve played this game once for a very short time. I’ll be curious to see how the player’s social circle of friends on Facebook join in, rebuke, or challenge that said friend when they see him or her be particularly vindictive or “immoral” within the confines of the game. It could be an interesting avenue for conversation about how the player exercises power. Any thoughts from more experienced social gamers?

Warren Buffett Without God Too
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Picking up on Shubha’s post about the current marketing campaigns being put out by atheist and humanist organizations, our Tumblr friend Jiorjia over at The Ianez Compendium forwarded this ad featuring Warren Buffett and the comment, “I’m good without God. Are you?”
The point and power of the ad — that you don’t have to be a religious believer to be a good, moral, ethical humanitarian — is an argument that comes up a lot in my reading. I just wish this wasn’t the starting point for all parties involved.

Warren Buffett Without God Too

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

Picking up on Shubha’s post about the current marketing campaigns being put out by atheist and humanist organizations, our Tumblr friend Jiorjia over at The Ianez Compendium forwarded this ad featuring Warren Buffett and the comment, “I’m good without God. Are you?”

The point and power of the ad — that you don’t have to be a religious believer to be a good, moral, ethical humanitarian — is an argument that comes up a lot in my reading. I just wish this wasn’t the starting point for all parties involved.

One question that many readers have asked, and that none of the authors under review really answers, is: What is to be done? I don’t pretend to have answers for the humanitarians. But surely at least we who work in journalism can do a public service by treating humanitarianism the same way we treat other powerful public interests that shape our world. Too often the press represents humanitarians with unquestioning admiration. Why not seek to keep them honest? Why should our coverage of them look so much like their own self-representation in fund-raising appeals? Why should we (as many photojournalists and print reporters do) work for humanitarian agencies between journalism jobs, helping them with their official reports and institutional appeals, in a way that we would never consider doing for corporations, political parties, or government agencies? Why should we not regard them as interested parties in the public realms in which they operate, as giant bureaucracies, as public trusts, with long records of getting it wrong with catastrophic consequences, as well as getting it right?

— Philip Gourevitch responds to criticism of his New Yorker article examining "the moral hazards of humanitarian aid."

He mentions This American Life's excellent show on relief aid in Haiti. I would also point you to listen to Krista’s interview with Binyavanga Wainaina for a deeper look at the ethics of aid in Kenya.

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

[h/t publicradiointernational]


Repeated Responses to Stem Cell Show Guest Is “Life-Changing”

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

Doris Taylor Holds a Scrubbed Pig Heart
photo courtesy of the University of Minnesota Alumni Association

Oftentimes we hear from guests after a show has been released. But, it’s always by way of a direct email to one of our producers or to Krista herself. So, imagine my surprise this past Saturday when I saw this awfully gracious submission to our show on stem cells from the centering voice of that conversation, Dr. Doris Taylor herself:

"Being on your show has significantly impacted what I do and how I do it.

It forced me to think about my truths in a different way, and connected me with people who otherwise I would not have known — who in some way seem touched by our work. That is a humbling experience when it happens once or twice, but, when it happens over and over, it is life changing…

I remain grateful for your willingness to share yourself and make it possible for people like me to do likewise. Thank you Krista.

I also used my reply to her as an opportunity to follow up with a question several listeners have wondered about: the recent news of the first human embryonic stem cell line created at the University of Michigan. Her response:

"I fully believe getting enough cells will be the rate-limiting step to building organs. Think about it, the human heart has hundreds of billions of cells in it. Having to grow those in the lab is daunting. But as they say, if it were easy, someone else would have done it."


On Stem Cells and Untold Stories: When Nature’s Tools Provide the Answers

by Krista Tippett, host

I’ve wondered for years how we could contribute some perspective to the moral consternation that stem cell research stirred in recent years. As with so many other real and important questions raised by medical advances, I have been unconvinced by the blunt either/or choice that culture-war debates seemed to present: defining stem cell research as either a slippery slope to killing babies or a straight path to curing a host of dreadful diseases. Efforts to humanize the issue with real-life examples — seeming to present a stark choice between condemning Michael J. Fox to death by Parkinson’s, for example, or finding an immediate way to save him — can misrepresent both the promise of this science and the moral concerns it raises.

Hearing Doris Taylor speak, then, was a revelation. I knew I had found our way in to this topic. When it comes to stem cells — as to everything else in life, it turns out — the truth is complicated. And much of the story of stem cells — the big picture that arguments have obscured — falls outside the realm of the most passionately contested issues.

From Doris Taylor I come to understand, for the first time, that the existence and function of stem cells is one of those discoveries, not unlike DNA, that will fundamentally change the way we think about the human body. I learn that there are billions of stem cells throughout my 49-year-old body, and as I write they are repairing my organs and tissues as they have done all of my life — albeit less vigorously at 49 than at 9 because of the passage of time and the stresses that life has imposed, and that I have imposed on my body.

SoundSeen: Bioreactors and Building HopeThe newness and rapidly emerging nature of our knowledge about stem cells has contributed to incomplete premises and an understandable measure of fear. Doris Taylor has spent time in conversation with people in churches these past years as well. She has come away with a conviction that, if the medical community and journalists had used different vocabulary to discuss stem cells at the outset, some of the most heated debates might have been avoided.

She has often encountered the false impression that the stem cell lines used for research came from aborted fetuses. In fact, as she says, “fetal cells” are too old for the work she does. And the “embryonic cells” she uses have all come from eggs fertilized by way of in vitro fertilization (IVF) that would otherwise be destroyed. This insight, of course, does not address moral quandaries over embryos and IVF technology.

But much of the research Doris Taylor and others are doing might one day circumvent all of these issues. If she could build me a heart by way of the process she and her colleagues are refining in the University of Minnesota Center for Cardiovascular Repair, she would use my heart stem cells to do so.

From my visit to Doris Taylor’s lab, you can see elaborate architectural glass bulbs with tubes feeding suspended rodent hearts — one lifeless with old cells; another one stage farther, a pale “scaffold” ready for stem cells to be injected; and finally a regenerated heart pink, pumping, alive and beating on its own. Also, hear the story of the man with a heart disease that told Taylor she is “building hope.”

Seeing the untold story of stem cells beyond the lightning rod, moral issues clears my vision to see unexpected spiritual implications of this work. The genius of Doris Taylor’s work is in its simplicity — in realizing that there was no need to “build” a heart from scratch. Instead, she works with a dead heart, extracted from a cadaver — nature’s cardiac “scaffolding,” as she thinks of it. She washes the lifeless heart, cleans it, and injects the decellularized scaffold with cells that know how to colonize it — and begin to beat and live again.

Doris Taylor echoes one of my favorite themes: beauty is essential to life itself — beauty as a core moral value — as she describes the architectural perfection of nature that she honors and works with. In an exhilarating “field trip” to her lab, I was able to hold the translucent heart of a pig in my hand and see its exquisite intricacy — at once delicate and muscular — for myself.

Approaching the mechanics of life at this level inevitably raises questions about life’s mystery. Doris Taylor says she is passionate about “regenerating heart on a lot of different levels.” And as she considers how new knowledge about stem cells might one day change the way we think about health across the life span — facing aging, for example, or cancer — she is studying how spiritual technologies like prayer and meditation might support that. She describes a very simple test she did on the Buddhist spiritual teacher Matthieu Ricard. She measured a vast increase in stem cells in his blood after just 15 minutes of meditation.

All of this said, the fascinating science of stem cell research still comes with a world of real and complex moral uncertainties. We hope this conversation with Doris Taylor might broaden existing conversations and inform fresh thinking on the moral and ethical questions her science touches. Let us hear your thoughts — either as they’re sparked by this conversation or through your own experiences and knowledge.



The Pleasurable Choice Is the Ethical Choice

by Krista Tippett, host

I like to say that I’m not an an optimist, but I am a person of hope. That is to say, I cultivate the virtue of hope in myself. Hope takes account of the enormity and darkness of challenges and problems, and yet it meets darkness with light, and points to resilience and goodness where they can be found.

(photo: Jen Kim/Flickr)

In this spirit I am drawn to Barbara Kingsolver’s hope and resolve that, however grim the man-made crises of our time, we are gradually getting some things “more right.” And, Kingsolver advises, we must treat hope itself as a renewable resource, something we put on with our shoes every morning.

But she also says, reframing an equation many of us are internalizing, that it is not the job of the next generation to right the grand, looming environmental crises of the present. The work has to start here and now with our daily routines. Barbara Kingsolver has made one kind of beginning with her family’s “food life.”

Her story begins with a sense of urgency, however, in Tucson, where she had spent half her life, and her children the whole of theirs. As she became more aware of the larger issues she explores in her book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life — including the elaborate environmental cost of the global food chain — she came to perceive this great American city as a kind of space station, utterly dependent on the outside world for its most basic needs. And after three consecutive years of drought, she felt she was staring global warming in the face. “Like rats leaping off the burning ship,” her family moved to a farm in Appalachia to land that could feed them.

There is an irony in the fact that Barbara Kingsolver’s move to a simpler, sustainable life required a certain level of social and economic privilege, just as the ostensibly back-to-basics idea of organic food remains beyond the range of choice and budget of many. For me, the adventure related in her book — of giving her family’s life over to planning, planting, weeding, cooking, freezing, storing, and harvesting both plants and animals — appears immediately impracticable in light of another “drought” in American life and in my own, a drought of time.

Kingsolver helps put this into perspective by reminding me that the cheap and easy habits we take for granted — lettuce for salad all year round, strawberries in January — began as luxuries for the very rich. What her family did for a year, living off what they could grow and raise on the land around them, is the way most human beings have lived forever and many in the world still do.

The real irony is that the way most Americans eat is elite in the extreme. This is hard to grasp, as the crops behind some of the cheapest, easiest staples of American life — including that ubiquitous high fructose corn syrup — are underwritten by government funding. The real costs of much of our food do not turn up itemized in our grocery bills, but hidden in our taxes. And then there are, of course, the environmental costs, harder still to see and calculate and that we confer as a debt to our children. Some people give up meat, Barbara Kingsolver says; she has given up bananas, no longer willing to live with the fossil fuel footprint that is necessary to bring them all the way to her in Virginia.

But this conversation, which you can hear in the audio link at the top of the page, is not really about what we have to give up. The U.S. culture has fallen into “the language of sin,” Kingsolver says, when it comes to discussing changed eating habits. We steel ourselves to replace what is bad for us with what is good for us; we grit our teeth and enter the realm of sacrifice and penance. What surprised Kingsolver most in her year of local eating was how pleasant it was for her whole family, really, once they had retrained what felt like habit. They became focused in the most practical, daily way not on what they did not have, but on what they had — what was in season, what the garden was yielding plenty of today. It became, she says, a long exercise in gratitude.

I’m very aware that the details of my life — including the northern climate of the place I inhabit — limit my ability to follow Barbara Kingsolver’s experiment in totally local eating. But since this conversation I have begun to frequent the farmer’s market for the first time in my life. I planted a vegetable garden last summer and made pesto from basil I grew. I tossed my own home-grown lettuce, and watched tiny green tomatoes bud with the rapture of an expectant mother. I’m living some new questions about food life now, to paraphrase Rilke; as Barbara Kingsolver might say, I’m getting it a bit more right. And I’m delighting in the truth of my favorite line in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: “Food is the rare moral arena in which the ethical choice is generally the one more likely to make you groan with pleasure.”

My decision today is not based on a finding that you violated Georgia law, or on a conclusion that differs from that of the local prosecutor. That said, you are held to a higher standard as an NFL player, and there is nothing about your conduct in Milledgeville that can remotely be described as admirable, responsible, or consistent with either the values of the league or the expectations of our fans.

—NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, in his letter to Ben Roethlisberger, quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Goodell handed “Big Ben” a six-game suspension in his most recent action against a player violating the National Football League’s personal conduct policy. Goodell called it "early-intervention."

Is he raising the ethical bar for professional athletes?