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Capital Punishment: Execution in the Era of Timothy McVeigh

Recorded October 1997 by the Center for New Thinking.

Michigan was the first political authority in the modern world to outlaw capital punishment. But the outrageous crime of Timothy McVeigh has raised again the question whether this prohibition is indeed immoral. Is executing anybody beneath the dignity of any ethical government? Or are there some crimes so horrible that allowing the criminal to live fails to give full expression to the moral outrage of a wounded society? Is vengeance always immoral and unjust? The Oklahoma City bombing makes us confront the issue.

Click HERE to download and listen to this audio lecture.

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Choosing to be Ethical

The Jewish Humanist, September 1987

For Humanistic Jews morality and ethics are the heart of the good life. Being a moral person is much more important than being a religious person.

But what does it mean to be moral? How do you tell the difference between right behavior and wrong behavior? In a world in which so many people believe that ethical action is on the decline, these questions are important – so important that they will be the theme of our New Year holidays.

For many people right and wrong are very clear. The main problem is motivating people to pursue the right and avoiding the wrong. For others choosing to be ethical is not quite so simple. They believe that right and wrong are not so obvious, that specific situations do not offer easy moral answers.

Certainly, in a time of so much social change, old answers do not seem as obvious as they used to. Work, love, pleasure and marriage are not what they were. And the relationship between them and community welfare is not what it was. In fact, under new circumstances, the moral action of yesterday becomes the immoral action of today. Multiplying babies is right for an undercrowded world. It is wrong for an overcrowded one.

Choosing to be ethical today starts with many difficulties.

In an age when we feel that we have a right to personal happiness and fulfillment, it is difficult to figure out the proper moral balance between individual need and community need. When is it appropriate to be self-centered and to pursue my own agenda? And when is it appropriate to sacrifice my own pleasure and happiness for the sake of the pleasure and welfare of others? In a traditional society, which accepts the justice of human suffering, this dilemma never occurs. But, in our fulfillment-centered society this is a recurring problem.

In a world where romantic love has become supremely important, it is difficult to negotiate the claims of love and the claims of duty. In fact, the harshness of the concept of duty seems a cold contrast to the warm appeal of loving attachments. But the feeling of love is a fickle experience. If human relations depended on love alone, they would become the victims of a flaky anarchy. What I love today I may not love tomorrow. There must be some other moral value that allows for stability, continuity and commitment.

In a psychotherapeutic world which has banished the notion of guilt from respectable values, it is difficult to deal with rotten people who have rotten behavior. Guilt is a form of fear and intimidation, which has been successfully used for most of human history as a way of controlling human behavior. If inducing it is immoral, then one of the most effective techniques for persuading other people to change their actions – and for others to influence as to change our actions – is eliminated. It is almost impossible to do the business of ethics and avoid guilt.

In a time when people are very much caught up with their own subjective feelings and ideas and where the opportunities of an affluent society create so many options, it is difficult to talk about an objective ethics: which applies to everybody. Many men and women, in the name of personal equality and autonomy, deny that there is a single ethical standard for all people. What may be right for you may not be right for me. And, what may be validly moral for me may not be validly moral for you. My conscience is just as authoritative as your conscience. And where they disagree – well they just disagree. If this argument sounds familiar, it certainly is. And if it seems a bit chaotic, it certainly is too.

In, a shrinking world of international trade and technological wonders where isolated communities no longer exist, it is difficult to figure out what loyalty to the welfare of the community really means. Historically, moral behavior was action that placed group survival over individual survival. But, in a place where each individual belongs to many communities – familial, local, national and transnational – this standard is confusing. What may be good for my family may not be good for my city. What may be good for my city may not be good for my nation. And what may be good for my nation may not promote the welfare of humanity. Group loyalty now is more complex than it ever was. Chauvinists who are willing to die for their nation and their nation alone may not be as noble as they used to be.

On a planet where large urban centers bring strangers together into single communities, it is difficult to kindle moral concern for people we barely know. Giving up time, energy and wealth for members of our family we can understand. Sharing our assets with friends and fellow workers can arouse some enthusiasm. But worrying about people we do not know and whom we do not want to know is hardly natural. It takes an enormous discipline of mind and will to include distant strangers within our ethical commitments. “Foreigners” do not win our hearts in the same way as members of our own “tribe.” And we find convenient ‘moral excuses to exclude them.

As you can see, choosing to be ethical is not as easy as some make it out to be. We need to explore its difficulties and what we can do about it.

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The Right to Die

The Jewish Humanist, August 1990

The right to die.

An eccentric doctor, a desperate woman and a bizarre contraption have dramatized that issue. Ever since Dr. Kevorkian assisted Alzheimer victim Jane Adkins to kill herself, the question of justifiable suicide has received undue public attention.

Traditional religion forbids suicide, even the suicide of terminally ill patients. Since God has given us life, only God has the right to take it away. And since God is just, there must be a good purpose for the suffering and humiliation endured by the hopelessly sick. Because the limited human mind sees suffering as evil does not mean that it is evil. God works in mysterious ways.

For traditional religion there is no right to die. Only the threat of sexual violation or religious apostasy can justify the choice of death. And even then, not by one’s own hand.

In recent years the right to die issue has become important because we live in an aging society. Medicine and medical technology are now able to prolong life to the point where the quality of life hardly justifies its continuance. Thousands of -old people are attached, as helpless victims, to mechanical life-support systems. Millions of old people suffer chronic and terminal illnesses -which deprive them of any reasonable control over their fate. They are deprived of dignity and happiness and are condemned to endure a living death.

This medical “advance” has been accompanied by a quantum jump in human expectations. At one time people – expected no more out of life than suffering. Today they expect far more. They want -pleasure, fulfillment and dignity. They are – no longer prepared to settle for resignation and degradation.

The right to die derives from the even more fundamental right to happiness. Life is not sacred when it is all pain, misery and fear. It is not meaningful when all it provides, is the prospect of endless suffering. To view human existence as an irreversible prison sentence is to deprive it of all significance.

People with terminal illnesses, with unendurable pain and humiliation, have the right to die. They have the right to choose death. And they have the right to be assisted by the medical profession to achieve their goal with the minimum of pain.

Many doctors acknowledge the right to die. But they vehemently deny the right to medical assistance. If the patient wants to kill himself, he should not be prevented from doing so. But he should expect no help from his physician. After all, the doctor is under oath to save lives.

But, without medical assistance, the patient is deprived of the expertise he needs to execute the deed efficiently and painlessly. To deny the patient the help of a physician or a medical technician is an act of cruelty. The patient must suffer because the physician is emotionally unable to terminate the suffering or morally unable because of the promise he has made.

However, when morality sponsors cruelty, maybe it is not morality. Perhaps the doctors’ oath ought not to be one to preserve life. Perhaps a more ethical oath would be a promise to heal the sick and to alleviate suffering. The moral and compassionate thing to do is to enable the patient to die.

What are the implications of this morality? Should any individual have the right to recruit any physician to assist him in an act of suicide when he determines that he is suffering from an incurable and unbearable illness?

The answer is no. There is no absolute right to suicide. If there were, we would have to allow depressed teenagers, who cannot endure the pain of hopelessness, to kill themselves. We would have no right to intrude. To leave the decision of what is terminal and unendurable to the victim alone would be to surrender to the distortions of reality which many depressed people suffer from.

The decision of the patient needs to be supported by the concurrence of experts who determine that the perception of the victim is indeed accurate. (There is a terminal unendurable illness.) And these experts cannot be self-appointed (as in the case of Kevorkian). They have to be appointed by the community and be responsible to the community.

Jane Adkins had the right to die. She had the right to be supported in her decision by the medical profession. In a moral world that recognizes her right she would have been assisted by members of her own community – doctors, lawyers, psychologists and clergy. She would have died at home or in any setting of dignity that she would have chosen.

She deserved more than death in a car van. Perhaps her courage will force our society to find a more compassionate way to deal with the rational despair of needy people.

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Ethics and Morality

The Jewish Humanist, March 1986

Ethics and morality. They are not trivial issues. They are the very stuff out of which daily decision making is made.

Moral issues of the ’80’s will be the theme of this year’s Retreat discussion. They are bound to stir up some provocative dialogue.

Over the past 20 years, moral values in America have been radically altered. They have been molded by the traumatic political and social events which have left their mark on the American psyche.

The Vietnam War altered our view of patriotism and respect for government. The Black Power movement changed our attitudes toward civil disobedience and conformity to the law. The feminist campaign assaulted our traditional perspectives on gender inequality and the role of women in our society. The contraceptive revolution undermined our conventional vision of sexual behavior and sexual restraints. The psychotherapy “explosion” redirected our attention from historical values like duty and guilt to newer concepts like self-fulfillment, autonomy, and happiness. The persistence of affluence guided us away from an obsessive concern with work to an appreciation of leisure and leisure skills. And the cosmopolitan influence of Eastern religions introduced us to the importance of meditation and holistic health.

But the moral revolution produced its problems. In the heyday of its churning, the consequences of all this change were not clearly discerned. Many of its advocates did not reckon with the negative side of its assault on traditional values. The recession of the early ’80s dramatized the limitations of an ethics of leisure (“Finding oneself” simply became too expensive). The appalling divorce rate and the breakdown of the old family structures brought into question the feminist assault and the self-absorption of self-fulfillment.

The increasing isolation and alienation of so many citizens challenged the values of personal autonomy and sexual liberation. The fundamentalist religious revival reminded us of the danger of tearing down all authority structures and replacing them with clichés about options. And the pervasive disillusionment and pessimism among both the old and the young became an indictment of freedom without direction.

In the environment of the more sober ‘80’s, we need to assess the meaning and value of the moral revolution. Many of its changes were important and necessary. But some of its claims were naive, and many of its effects were harmful.

Because of the excesses of its proponents, we are experiencing a social and political backlash that may undo a good part of its positive achievements.

In order to get a handle on the problem, we need to focus on three ethical issues that dominate our personal decision making.

The first is the issue of risk vs. security. Conservatives have historically been concerned with safety and protection, with law and order, with evenness and stability. Liberals have usually opted for adventure and excitement, novelty and experiment, danger and the rejection of the routine. Both sides have often been carried away by their anxieties and enthusiasm. What is needed is an appropriate balance between the two.

The second issue is the issue of commitment vs. freedom. Conservatives have generally used the vocabulary of duty and obligation, of responsibility and eternal promises. Liberals have resisted with an alternative vocabulary of freedom and self-determination, of dignity and self-esteem. Their controversy has often led to pushing harmful extremes. A rational morality hovers somewhere in between their respective propagandas.

The third issue is the problem of authority vs. autonomy. Conservatives tend to emphasize the necessity of subordinating individual judgment to the wisdom of the past. Liberals are more likely to insist on the importance of personal judgment, personal conscience, and individual uniqueness. When either side is followed to its logical extreme, tyranny or chaos prevails. Neither external authority nor autonomy can be absolute.

These three issues dramatize the moral agonies of the ’80’s.