A few recent newsgames do something curious: They hide basic trivia questions under a layer of moral decision-making. It is often assumed that taking a tired design and adding some nominal amount of ethical choice — usually in the form of binary story branches or good/neutral/evil alignment meters — will somehow reinvigorate and edify its players.
But there’s a serious problem with this easy inclusion of moral choice: Even a simple move to branch out from the standard structure of a game results in an exponential need for more content. And in a genre where budgets are often tight, cuts will likely need to be made as a result. This means less thought goes into the causal chain between choice and consequence, undercutting the very goals that the inclusion of the simple moral system hoped to attain. A half-baked moral system can have the opposite effect on people’s reasoning, and can even become confounding.
—Simon Ferrari, from “When Moral Systems Miss the Point in Newsgames”
The 2010 Knight News Challenge winner’s post on MediaShift’s Idea Lab blog is a smart assessment of the pitfalls of applying morality or ethical veneers to news quizzes and interactive games. His premise, which ought to be deliberated upon more by reporters and producers, could just as well be applied to all forms of journalistic output too.
~Trent Gilliss, senior editor
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.
by David Gushee, special contributor
At 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.
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. 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.
Cinema as a Moral Compass
by Susan Leem, associate producer
“We are a storytelling species, and we have always used our stories to teach one another how we should live, and how we should not.”
— David Gushee, “Teaching virtue at the movies in 2011”
In a recent article from the Associated Baptist Press, David Gushee, a professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University in Atlanta, highlights four recent films, including The Fighter, that have narratives with accounts of moral virtue. This is a fresh way for me to share and evaluate new films.
I want more meaningful categories with which to talk about films rather than discussing whether it goes on the holiday viewing list or is an Oscar contender. Though I trust Roger Ebert’s judgment implicitly, the number of stars doesn’t tell me anything about how to live well or how to treat other people. Gushee’s language does.
What four films come to mind that have provided you with some teaching moment in the shape of a moral compass?
I found this a difficult as well as instructive debate (that occasionally left me nearly speechless) precisely because we had virtually no common ground, no relevant, mutual vision of a good society. Since we didn’t share some fundamental moral values or social and political goals, our debate was less an argument than an exchange of opposing beliefs.
Kaminer’s essay is a provocative and challenging perspective that really makes the reader think. I found myself creating scenarios in my mind and trying to think through all the options. I look forward to hearing from Ms. Otitoju when Intelligence Squared releases the video.
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
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.
The 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.
A Mind for All Seasons
by Kate Moos, managing producer
Richard Crouter’s elegant, concise book on Reinhold Niebuhr’s thought and legacy is a magnificent introduction to the life and work of this 20th-century theologian and public intellectual. I’ve been an armchair aficionado of this major thinker since the early days of this program when we produced a show and a magnificent (if you can forgive me for saying so) website we entitled “Moral Man and Immoral Society,” after one of Niebuhr’s significant works.
I was struck then, and remain transfixed, by Niebuhr’s ability to articulate the moral dilemma of human beings: the necessity of moral action, the certainty that moral action will not only fall short but often result in unanticipated harm. Niebuhr came strongly to mind at the end of this week’s show when New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof spoke of his regard for another philosopher, Isaiah Berlin. Niebuhr’s thought recommends to us a humility not native to our age.
Reinhold Niebuhr on Politics, Religion, and Christian Faith renders the complexity of Niebuhr’s thought light, and it makes for a wonderfully entertaining read. Crouter’s prose beautifully captures and translates Niebuhr for a casual reader, as in this representative sample:
“As we reflect more on Niebuhr, we discover even more practical reasons why it’s important to have a sense of history. We deepen our experience of history through encounters with ideas and events that reflect our stories, told in other times and places. We do this amid our present surroundings. Coming to grips with history deepens our grasp of present reality, while chastening our specific hopes for the future.”
Why another book about Niebuhr, and why now? What’s behind the apparent Niebuhr revival, if that’s not too strong a word?
A revival of interest in Niebuhr is real, even if mainly among intellectual elites. An urgency to hear Niebuhr again arose among political commentators amid shock waves unleashed since 9/11: American hubris in launching the Iraq war, the apparent quagmire in Afghanistan, and a flattening of the U.S. economy that affects all but the super rich. Because he’s on Barack Obama’s reading list (“one of my favorite philosophers”), the return to Niebuhr deepens our musings regarding presidential policy and leadership. When I began the book, Obama and financial collapse were not on the horizon. In the process of writing, even I was surprised by how often Niebuhr’s views shed light on the ongoing headlines and fears of our day, including the association of religion with violence. As in his lifetime, Niebuhr’s reception among American churches is more nuanced and mixed, for reasons that are examined in the book.
You propose that Niebuhr is concerned with, and particularly insightful about, the topic of “human nature,” and you assert that “He did so in the awareness that Christian teaching about human sinfulness is often despised and little understood, even by Christians who are regular church-goers.” So many modern and post-modern thinkers would reject the idea that thinking about sin could be in any way useful in the 21st century. Other loud voices in our world choose to focus on the perceived sins of others, rather than their own sinfulness, or on sinfulness as a quality that makes us distinctly, tragically human. What makes Niebuhr’s thoughts about sin distinct and useful in our sophisticated, technological age?
We ignore at our peril what Niebuhr means by sinful humanity, even if we choose to describe this reality differently. Self-preoccupation that leads to moral blindness among individuals and groups is undeniable in human affairs. Less obvious is the fact that for Niebuhr the thrust of moral good is ever present among us. That’s why the labels “pessimist” and “optimist” don’t work for him. Though the names and ideologies that shape history change, Niebuhr is a perennialist.
“Taking the Long View of History” (chapter 2) directly opposes being mesmerized by obsessive 24/7 news cycles. Having a large picture of human grandeur and folly puts our aspirations and losses as individuals, families, and nations into fresh perspective. Stated differently: Niebuhr speaks to our era because he never restricted himself to his own era. We gain courage to act and to persevere when we see how his view of human complexity addresses the deepest problems of our own time and place.
In this chapter on sin, you cite Augustine and say he “was aware of the fickleness and fragility of the will, its easy ability to follow a disordered desire.” Disordered desire, arguably, is the engine — or a significant driver — of the consumer economy. Is there room for this sort of insight in our daily lives? How does Niebuhr help make room for it?
It’s natural for us to resist Niebuhr’s insight into our precarious condition. Yet his acerbic wit regarding our pretension and avoidance of self-knowledge is the perfect antidote to the blustering of ideology in our day, whether from the right or from the left. Like the longshoreman-author Eric Hoffer, he knew that “true belief” without any self-doubt leads to fanaticism, both in religion and in politics. Niebuhr’s analysis of human avarice perfectly captures the financial debacle and lust for consumer goods of the 21st century. He didn’t write about ecology. But his insistence upon learning to accept limits fits our need to care for the Earth more radically than at present. His sayings and wry allusions jar us into self-recognition: taking the first step towards hopeful realism is a powerful impulse towards approximations of justice in our diverse and fractious society.
One of the great services your book provides is to be a pocket-sized compendium of some of Niebuhr’s pithiest and most penetrating writing, as well as a lens into how he was viewed in his time by other thinkers and writers. I especially enjoyed the chapter “Connecting with Wit and Words” for the light it shed on his role not as a theologian and pundit and policy thinker so much as a man of letters who knew Auden and Trilling and Archibald McLeish. Auden is another 20th century figure whose once mammoth influence is not much celebrated these days, and you point out he became a thorough Niebuhrian. That put me in mind of the lines in Auden’s poem in memory of Freud: “to us he is no more a person/ now but a whole climate of opinion” True of Niebuhr?
In a word, yes. Thinking about Niebuhr as a writer (“Connecting with Wit and Words”) arose from an awareness of the frequency that his sayings and aphorisms appear among pundits, not to mention devotees of Twitter and Facebook. In writing the book, I felt an acute need to bridge the gap between casual acquaintance with Niebuhr’s name and the work of specialists. Auden’s lines, penned in memory of Sigmund Freud, are most apt. Written a year after the psychiatrist’s death, the same insight applies to my effort to bring Niebuhr alive amid the clamor of opinion that surrounds his name. One of the underlying points of the book is that the dead, whether major scientists, composers, psychiatrists, or theologians, are never really gone. Being alert to their legacy is part of what it means to have a sense of history. What Niebuhr really stood for matters, even if his teaching is surrounded by a divergent and contradictory climate of opinion.
Is there one particular story or anecdote about Niebuhr you find most useful or enlightening about the man himself?
One incident remains indelible in my mind and pops up in the book at various points. It’s an image of Niebuhr — the tough-minded critic of U.S. arrogance and of Communism — emerging from retirement to stand in the Social Hall of Union Theological Seminary in 1967 to address students on the folly of the war in Vietnam. He began his criticism of the war by peering into his (mostly) youthful audience and slowly intoning the words, “History always repeats itself, but never in the same way.” At the time I had no idea the underlying thought would become so deeply etched in my mind or provide so much food for thought for me as an interpreter of history. It was his way of wrestling with the perennial problem of continuity and change, the repeated and the novel aspects of our unfolding human story. Looking back I see the Niebuhr book as a meditation on the permanent value of his teaching on politics, religion, and Christian faith, even if Niebuhr’s perspective — true to his adage — asserts itself in diverse and surprising ways.
Richard Crouter is the John M. and Elizabeth W. Musser Professor of Religious Studies Emeritus at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. His book “Reinhold Niebuhr on Politics, Religion, and Christian Faith” was recently published by Oxford University Press.