Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Immoral Dilemmas

A moral dilemma is when two values challenge one another in a given situation. It is the triage of values where an individual is forced into a catch-22. Whatever he decides, he will be compromising at least one of his core values.

"Can I steal medication from a laboratory to save a life?"- The value of life versus that of stealing.
"Can I lie to someone in order to not hurt their feelings?"- The value of truth versus that of peace.
"Can I murder in order to save many lives?"- The value of life versus many lives.

These are genuine and troubling moral dilemmas. Any decision results in some level of regret and remorse- innocent people will suffer and injustice will result. Fairness and justice cannot co-exist within a moral dilemma. The resultant decision necessitates that result will, by definition, be partially unfair and immoral- this is no win-win answer.

We live, however, in a time where people find themselves faced with a new kind of dilemma. Unlike the moral dilemmas cited above, people are now struggling with issues of compromising their personal happiness or defaulting on another value.

"If I already have made a commitment and something better comes up, is it OK to cancel my first arrangement?"- My happiness versus responsibility for earlier commitments.
"If I can cheat on an exam without getting caught is it OK?"- My happiness/success versus being an honest person.
"Can I lie to get myself out of trouble?" - Saving myself versus telling the truth.

These questions were once issues of  right and wrong, but now that have been given an elevated status of becoming "moral dilemmas".

I sincerely do not think that people are trivialising these issues nor do I think that they are self-rationalising and justifying their positions- I truly believe that these 'dilemmas' genuinely trouble people and keep them up at night.

The problem is that 'my happiness' has become a value on par with all other 'altruistic' values.

Whether it is the media, literature or just social changes; happiness has become not only an important goal in people's existence, it has become the number one factor in our lives. Almost anything can be justified if it brings happiness.

Purpose, the feeling of actively contributing to the betterment of the world, and meaning, the sense of being a positive influence in other people's lives, have been relegated down the ladder.

The world is giving birth to a new generation of  fanaticism and fundamentalism, a calling in contradistinction to most Westerners hedonistic ambitions.  These people are rejecting the self-fulfilment and pleasure and are embracing a higher calling. A calling that demands the sacrifice of personal ambitions and happiness for the goal of doing what's right. They demand adherence to their values, even at pain of death- happiness isn't sought or even valued.

But there must be a middle, moderate, position. One that can restore the hierarchy of values to their former glory. Where happiness is looked to as a by-product of a life well-lived, with meaning and purpose rather than a goal to be pursued.

Our values need not be to the exclusion of all others, tolerance is a value as well, but the core of our argument should be that we are striving for enduring values that extend beyond us and our personal ambitions.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

"Sportsmen are not Angels"- that's not what they're paid to be

A brief disclaimer: One has to distinguish between explaining/rationalising something, and justifying it. Rationalising something puts it into context in order to understand why people do what they do. The assumption is that most people act rationally, and even though their behaviour may at times seem bizarre, there is an underlying logic to why they do what they do.
Justifying something is giving it legitimacy, saying it is OK and acceptible.

I am attempting here to rationalise, not justify.

Perpetually we are inundated with reports of poor behaviour amongst our top athletes from every code. As an example this article was published this morning:

"A "typical" day in the life of an NRL player looks, apparently, like this. After a good, solid warm-up he takes the field and pees in his shorts, shaking it loose with the legs, because, hey, when you gotta go you gotta go, lol.Halfway through the game he stands and fires a one-two into his opponent, wins the game, then heads out to celebrate with a beer or 10.
Before the clock even reaches midnight he is kicked out, but shows that some of his best footwork comes off the field when he sneaks back in through the kitchen.
He likes the little blonde over in the corner, so he goes over and ends up getting his face slapped. Her boyfriend isn't all that happy.
On his way back to his car he is still frustrated by the knockback and, well, did you see the way that street sign was looking at him?
Nobody looks at him like that and gets away with it, so he rips the street sign out of the ground and puts it through some poor innocent's car window. They can deal with it in the morning. Not his problem.
Then he jumps into his car, unlicensed and with a cabin full of mates, and gets pinched for drink-driving before arriving home with one of the girls his mate pulled earlier where, somehow, she ends in casualty with a fractured eye socket."
Although the author laments his frustration and disappointment in the NRL and its dealing with players' behaviour, it would be worth understanding the mentality of the perpetrators themselves.

Why do we love sport?

When you boil it down, the basic reason is that some people are capable at performing phenomenal feats of athleticism and strength.  Their speed, their power and their skill defy belief, and we are in awe of them as a result. The arbitrary nature of scoring a try, shooting a hoop or getting a ball into a hole is irrelevant- it is these people's ability to do the impossible that inspires and energises us.

The athlete seeks perfection in his physical abilities and is constantly encouraged to drive it to places beyond historically accepted norms. In order to achieve this he must invest all his energy into his body. His must train harder, get stronger and earn the right to perform on the great stage in the arena.
The professional era of sport has insisted that he not only be dedicated, but also devoted to nothing else other than his body and what he can and must make it do.

His mind is marginalised, unless it can help get more out of the body. His head tell him to stop when he feels pain but, being an elite athlete, he learns to not listen to it. In fact he may even enlist the support of a psychologist to assist him in ignoring the complaints, the doubts and the fear- the natural and normal fear- of his mind.

In essence we, as sports devotees, have insisted on creating beasts of physicality- who are masters of their bodies.
The cost, however, is the deterioration of their brains.

I am not refering to cognitive impairment as a result of excessive knocks to the head, but rather of an inability to distinguish between good decisions and bad ones- a lack of moral clarity.

Are we not expecting too much from athletes that they should be well mannered and exhibit impeccable etiquette in the public arena, when that part of the brain has been not only completely ignored during all of their training, but the voice in one's head has been viewed as the enemy throughout all of his training. And now we expect him to shed, along with his uniform, his mindset every time he leave the 'office'.

Accountants stays accountants at the bar- it is who they are. Sportsmen are sportsmen- in competition as well as out of it.

Perhaps we are expecting too much from our athletes...

Again I am not condoning this behaviour- I am just not surprised that it happens.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Bad questions

I often encounter bad questions.

That is not to say stupid questions, but rather just bad questions.

"What is a bad question?" you ask.
Good question...

In order to dissect the concept of a question, we need to first understand the anatomy of a true question.

Firstly questions are prompted by a lack of a specific knowledge. In order to discover the answer to my ignorance, I question an expert- real or self-professed- in order to resolve my doubt and concern. If, for any reason, the questioner already knows the answer to his question, then one needs only to ascertain the true motives of the questioner and the question- rather than its answer.

Secondly the questioner wants to know the answer to his question.

If one either knows the answer, or alternatively does not care about the answer, the dynamic that is created between the questioner & the respondent is not an educational paradigm, but rather a debate, argument or statement- but it is not a true question.

But even if these two components are fulfilled, we may still be confronted with a bad question.

Most questions are built upon assumptions. These assumptions create the basis and framework which form the foundation on which the question can be built.
For example- "Why did Abraham Lincoln abolish slavery?"
The built in assumption is that  Abraham Lincoln did, in fact, abolish slavery, and my only question is to understand his motives.
This assumption may be correct, but if it is not, then the question is a bad question.

The reason I call it a bad question is that if the underlying assumption is incorrect, the question ceases to exist. I don't need to answer the question, because there is no question.

Allow me furnish you with a few biblical examples, see if you can spot the underlying assumptions:

"Why does the Torah not mention dinosaurs?"
"How can the Torah talk about the world being 5773 years old when we know it is billions of years old?"

Assumption: The Torah is a history book, and as a history book it appears incompatible with modern scientific knowledge and understanding.

"How do snakes & donkeys speak in the Torah?"

Assumption: The Torah is attempting to tell us a story where the reader is supposed to imagine being a witness to the events as they are told. I am struggling to imagine a time where animals converse with human beings in a shared language. (Other than Dr Doolittle)

"What fruit did Adam and Eve eat in the Garden of Eden?"

Assumption: It is important to know the answer, despite the fact that the Torah leaves the fruit's identity anonymous. Curiosity for it's own sake is a value- i.e.. I am just interested to know the answer.

These assumptions may or may not be correct, but they still form the basis of the question.

If these assumptions are indeed wrong, then perhaps more important that answering the questions, we need to first and foremost, question the veracity of our assumptions.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Can we admire those that we hate?

In every dispute the combatant sides are convinced of the correctness of their position. Whether this be in the area of politics, religion or even social interactions, we take positions that are, by definition, correct and true, for that is the reason we chose them in the first place.

One of the great challenges when entering into debate is to distinguish between the 'issues' and the 'people'.

Unfortunately, this distinction is often blurred, and disputes that should stay impersonal and emotionally neutral, become heated debates where the very character of the parties is questioned and denigrated, rather than just their arguments.

Whereas we seldom question our internal motives for supporting our position, we are convinced of the biased, self-serving and delusional motives of those that sit opposite us. It is extremely difficult to see them as positively motivated individuals who are doing what they believe is best for society, motivated by altruistic notions of Tikkun Olam.

What I would like to suggest is that the Torah's approach to engaging in debate, necessitates that we judge the other party favourably; they are in essence good people who have made bad choices.

They want exactly the same thing as we do, to make the world to be a better place, but we clearly disagree as to how we will achieve that.

In this week's Parsha Moshe's leadership is challenged by a number of aggressive and abusive groups. The story culminates in a dual, where both Moshe and his antagonists offer incense offerings to Hashem. Moshe is triumphant, but his opponents suffer the ultimate fate.
The post script to the story is that the fire pans that belonged to the recalcitrant group are hammered into a covering for the altar.

Why are the possessions of the wicked raised to become part of the Temple ornaments?

The Netziv (1817-1893 Russia) comments that even though the antagonists were wrong, their motives were pure; they sought closeness to Hashem through communal leadership.
The positive intent and motivation of the group is recognised and admired by the Torah, even though the individuals met an untimely demise.

Is it possible to vehemently disagree with someone, even hate their opinion or position, yet to still like, admire and respect them?

If the mob of this week's Parsha can be respected by Hashem, surely we can respect those with whom we disagree...?