Wednesday, July 20, 2016

On Moral Dilemmas and Not Giving Up the Ship


"Oil on Troubled Waters" by Frank Mason 
A friend of mine put this quote up on my Facebook page today:

"You must not abandon the ship in a storm because you cannot control the winds… What you cannot turn to good, you must at least make as little bad as you can."
— St. Thomas More

This is SO apropos for our current political situation; don't you think? What do we do when there are no good options?

There are really two parts to this quote and while they are not completely unrelated, I want to address them separately. Let's start with the back piece first: "What you cannot turn to good, you must at least make as little bad as possible," and that will lead us to the Ship.

Having recently spent a semester pondering the question of moral dilemmas*, this quote struck me as an endorsement of Gratian's exhortation in the Decretum that when hemmed in by two obviously bad choices, one must always choose the lesser of two evils because it leads you closer to virtue in the end. That would seem to be in line with St. Thomas More’s quote.

But, in later centuries, as Gratian's writings were used to train future generations, there were later thinkers who argued with Gratian. They are called the Glossators because they wrote "glosses" (or notes, or marginalia) on the original text.

The Glossators hold that "The Master (that's Gratian) errs gravely" when he counsels taking the lesser of two evils. They hold, instead, that God would never put us into a situation where there would ever be no good option. To hold that there are moral dilemmas in which there are no good choices, is to hold that God is not merciful. The Glossators go on to say that since we know that God is all-good and all-loving, he would never put us into a situation where we would have to jeopardize our immortal souls.

Okay, so quick recap:
Gratian: Moral dilemmas exist and if you encounter one, you should choose the lesser of two evils.
Glossators: Moral dilemmas do not exist, so if you encounter one, it's not really a moral dilemma, there is another choice you haven't come up with.
Aquinas does some thinking about this idea of moral dilemmas, too. In De Malo (On Evil,) he suggests that there are moral dilemmas, but he breaks them down into two types: simpliciter and secundum quid.
Dilemmas Simpliciter are stiuations where an agent, through no fault of their own, must choose between two equally bad options. Aquinas thinks that if these exist, they are very rare.
Secundum Quid Dilemmas are moral dilemmas that come about because of the agent's past actions. These actions can be decisions that were made years previous, but still come back to bite you in the end. Aquinas thinks that these are much more common.

Another quick recap:
Aquinas believes that there are moral dilemmas—situations where there is no good choice –but these are dilemmas of our own making (secundum quid). In line with Aquinas' very Aristotelian thought, there is, in fact, a cause for everything!

“Don’t give up the Ship!”

Many of my friends and relatives have chosen to support Mr. Trump. They see him as the lesser of two evils. My friends and relatives insist that I should not “give up the ship just because I cannot control the winds.” But I say that there must be a way to reset the sails and capture those winds for the benefit of all.

For 30 years, I have been a committed and active Republican. I even convinced my husband, a committed and active Democrat, to vote for Republican candidates because I believed that they were the better option. They said, and did, the right things where the question of abortion was concerned. Given this framework, the problems with supporting Hillary Clinton as a candidate are obvious. Donald Trump says all the right things - of course he does; he's a salesman - but I see no real evidence of his commitment to the Truth. What has he done to back these claims of pro-life commitment?

Sure, he says that he has accepted Christ and is now a committed Christian. A friend even likened him to Saul of Tarsus at one point, but even Saul had to prove his commitment to Peter. Saul had been wounded and had to be healed, and in order to do that, he had to be humble before Peter and the other apostles. I see no evidence in Donald Trump’s swaggering braggadocio that he has been knocked to the ground by his wounds. In addition, the rhetoric he employs in terms of who can be in America, who can move about freely – essentially determinations of personhood –are so far beyond the scope of Catholic Teaching as to be terrifying.

I do not believe that he is pro-life.

So what do we have here between Ms. Clinton and Mr. Trump?  In our two-party system, there seems to be an overall sense that this is an either/or choice. Even if we broaden our choices our to include Mr. Johnson (the Libertarian candidate) and Ms. Klein (the Green candidate), we still find no support for a pro-life stance.

If, as Catholics of good conscience, we are bound not to vote for someone who has stated that they support abortion rights, in that sense, I believe that we have a moral dilemma. But, I think that what we have here is a Secundum Quid dilemma. We, as a society, have allowed this to happen with our choices.

Rather than Catholics standing together and saying, “there must be another way,” we have acquiesced to the two-party argument that to choose a third way is to throw our votes away. By always choosing the lesser of two evils, as Gratian suggests, we have not moved toward virtue, we have moved further away from it.

We believed that the Republicans would change the federal laws governing abortion, but when they had control of the House, Senate, White House and Supreme Court, they did nothing. Nothing.

We have allowed the political powers-that-be to steal our voices and use them to bring forth ideas and laws that we, as Catholics, do not support. Since when does a stranger in a strange land get told, “Sorry, no room in the inn”? This is a reaction born out of Fear. Aquinas addresses this in another spot: “Fear is such a powerful emotion for humans that when we allow it to take over, it drives compassion right out of our hearts.”

We have allowed Fear to rule us, not Love and not Wisdom, and it has led us to this moral dilemma.

In a democratic republic, it is true, not every single vote counts, but a large enough groundswell can change the course of the river. We must stand against that tide as Catholics. We must stand up for our principles and we must vote with our consciences. My conscience tells me that Donald Trump, and the Republicans who support him are erring gravely and are leading us to worse places in the very near future.

I read a book during my Junior year of college that changed my life: Plato's Republic. In it, Plato lays out all of the different types of people and political systems we have in the world. He details the decay of civilization and predicts with stunning accuracy how we will get to each stage – from Monarchy to Aristocracy to Oligarchy to Democracy to Tyranny.

As I read, I realized that we have passed through all of them in human history and we are just a breath away from Tyranny in this country. Plato actually names Tolerance as one of the forerunners of Tyranny. To put it succinctly, he predicts that we will be so open-minded that our brains will fall out. But Tolerance is meant in many senses here. We buck against toleration of ideas that go against our own, especially when we see that they are damaging to the society at large. And that is as it should be. We should stand up for wise governance.

But, if we are willing to tolerate someone who admires leaders and people who lie and kill to get what they want (or who actually are leaders who lie and kill to get what they want), and who are so hungry for power that they will say or do anything to get it, then we are just as bad as those who tolerate other sins against the Father.

I cannot in good conscience vote for a person who has no record of being a decent and wise human being in the name of "winning". If we Catholics, as a group, do not rise up and say "no more!" this situation will continue to degrade and we will find ourselves prisoners of our own choices.

In fact, Plato addresses that, too. One of the hallmarks of tyranny is the lack of freedom --not just for the governed, but for the individual tyrant. He is a prisoner of his own desires, always wanting more. He constantly worries about how he will keep his power and who is coming to take it from him. He fears for his life. 

We might already be there. When you have to ask what is the lesser of two evils, that means you are trapped.

There are those who have advocated standing back and letting it all play out --the so-called Amish-Option. Even if we choose to exercise that option this time, we should never stand quietly. Moving forward, we should choose our champions wisely. It is, perhaps, time to consider that the two-party system does not serve us well. The either/or fallacy that this system sets up can be broken by a significant enough shock --but we MUST find the third way.

Fortunately, Aquinas gives us one more piece of advice for dealing with secundum quid dilemmas: he tells us that the only way out is through confession, penance and amendment. I don't think it's any accident that Jesus tells us, quite plainly, that He is the Way and the place that we can find him is in the Sacraments.


*Apologies to Michael V. Dougherty, PhD (my excellent professor at Ohio Dominican University, who wrote an excellent book on the subject of moral dilemmas) - I'm doing this from memory because my notes are in storage.

Just a note: the idea of moral dilemmas is not a settled question. The debate is still going on today. This is just the information I am working with and what I hold to be true. You may disagree. You may believe Gratian. I believe Aquinas.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Tempus Fugit - Time Flies


It is said that time flies, and it does. Never has this been more clear to me than right now. Now, at the middle-point of my life, I can see how fast things travel. It seems like only yesterday, I was getting ready to go to Germany and arranging to get my passport. I realized today that my passport expired at the beginning of June. 10 years is a blink of an eye, but it was a productive blink.

In that time, we've had two grand kids, I found my passion (Philosophy). We have moved at least a couple of times. We've been homeless and re-established our home again. My husband and I have both changed careers. There have been ups and downs to our marriage. We have lost beloved members of our family to cancer, some of us have defeated it, and still others are fighting for their lives against it.

What hit me this morning is the lack of time that we spend with one another. In our day-to-day lives, how much time do we really spend with each other? Sure, you're constantly with people, but are you connecting with them? Are your kids watching videos or listening to their personal listening devices, or playing their video games while you drive them to yet another practice? Or are you talking to them? Are you listening to their day? Are you spending the precious time that you have doing something that builds that relationship? I spent all day with my kids yesterday, and I am pretty sure that nothing we talked about had any substance.

And what about your spouse? Do the two of you fall into bed at the end of the week, sleep like the dead, and then make love on Saturday morning (like an appointment) just so that you can say you spent quality time with them? When was the last time you asked them what they thought about the immortality of the soul or what they think it means to be married? When was the last time you made a real connection with your spouse, so much so that you really thought you got to something real? I'm betting that it wasn't recently. For me, it's not as often as I would like.

When was the last time you made real eye contact with someone you were talking to? Not business contact, but the real, personal contact that says, "I care about what you are saying to me and I care about you." It's so rare these days that it's noteworthy when it happens to me. I remember it.

As I am preparing for my father to die (and it's coming soon) and watching my grandson grow from a toddler and into a pre-schooler, I am struck by how little time we have. What do we spend our time on?

I have spent mine on making money, making a name for myself, ferrying my kids and husband all over the city. My 5 year old car has 175,000 miles on it. I put 161,000 of those on it. At a mile a minute, that's over 2,683 hours in the car. Driving. That doesn't include waiting. I have spent even more time than that sitting at a computer keyboard reading about the horrors of the world or reading about who said what to whom --essentially gossip and self-gossip.

I have also spent a good deal of time getting to know my children and my husband. I have helped them navigate the rough waters of being grown-ups. I have spent time sitting in offices listening to people pour their hearts out to me (unbidden) that they wish they'd had more time with the people that mattered to them. Those interactions are the ones that I treasure and these are the things that last.

Money and stuff can be replaced --you can have everything one day and be bankrupt the next, and on top of the world the next week. Honor is fleeting and completely in the hands of others --you can have a good name one day, and be worthless in the eyes of the world the next. Pleasure is fleeting and always leaves you wanting more.

Time, however, is completely limited. Whether we spend it glued to our screens, or glued to our chair at work, or glued to our steering wheel, is completely up to us. I have spent far too much time doing things that do not build relationships with the people who matter most to me. I have spent far too much time doing things that I really hate or that are abhorrent to me. I have not used the time that I had with my friends and family to it's best advantage choosing to be face down in my phone or occupied with what I was going to do next, or what I wished was happening instead of this interaction.

This mid-life seat at the top of the hill that allows me to see what has led to where I am and what comes next. And, like any good scout, I am paying attention to the shadowy spots, the rocks and boulders that could complicate my descent. I can collect wood and berries and hunt for food along the way, but choosing the path and companions carefully can make that job easier or harder.

How will I use my time best? Gather the right team, plan the descent and look forward to the rest at the end.

(c) Katie O'Keefe, 2016. All rights reserved.
Photo credit: "Time Flies" at QuotesGram, Chanda Enos, 2016. 


Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Death and Beauty

My Mom and Dad on their 48th Anniversary
this past February.

My father was diagnosed with esophageal cancer about two weeks ago. The specific type is a common one, but because of its location (at the junction between the stomach and the esophagus) it is very virulent and hard to kill. People who have this type of cancer, in this location, have only about a 14% survival rate past five years. It's an awful disease that steals your ability to eat and I'm going to go out on a limb and say that it will steal his ability to sing.

My dad and mom have always sung to me. My father taught me to sing in German. He taught me to sing in harmony. He taught me to play trumpet and my very first notes on the piano. My folks sang me a lullaby every night before I went to bed. I can still hear their voices as they sang to me in my tiny, little, room in our tiny post-WWII house. In my life, where song is like breath, my parents taught me to breathe, but most especially my dad.

Having been here at this point (where singing becomes harder and then disappears,) I woke up one morning last week weeping over this impending loss. I know, perhaps more than he does at this moment, how hard this is going to be. To hear a choir and know and feel every single note all the way down to your inner core, but not be be to join in the song, is a great grief.

One of the things that I believe about the world is that beauty transforms people and when people are transformed, they transform the world around them. Creating beauty and appreciating beauty both transform you, but it is in creating beauty that we truly share in the divine. I think that's one of the things that makes us unique as human beings --our capacity to create beauty. Not just in the sense that we are beautiful, but in that we seek it out, we want to appreciate it, and we seek to create it using the gifts that we are given.

My father's gifts are not the same as mine, though they overlap (DNA is a thing). Where my talents are administrative and musical, Dad's are innovative and musical. Where I want a piece of music to recreate, Dad can improvise. Where Dad likes to create outside the box, I like to see what I can use inside the box to make things better. This is illustrative of the reason that my father is a serial entrepreneur and I work in an office.

Creativity can express itself in many ways and musicians (really artists of any type) have to learn to embrace those other forms of creativity as life throws us curveballs and takes away our more obvious gifts. It is obvious, for example, that a person who can sing or write or draw is talented and that they are creative, but what may not be so obvious is the beauty of other things that they can create. One of the things that I learned when I lost my voice is that there are other ways that I can create beauty, but first I had to learn to see it in places other than the obvious.

Dad has used his creativity to solve engineering problems for years. Always looking outward, Dad has done much good with his life. I have no doubt that there are many families who still have fathers, husbands, mothers and wives because my dad's inventions changed the way that manufacturing is done in their industry, making it safer, while making it more reliable and accurate. And that is a beautiful thing, isn't it?

"A thing of beauty is a joy forever: its loveliness increases..." - John Keats

Maybe this is how we live on in the lives of our loved ones - by creating things that are beautiful. The fact that even one life was spared from a runaway extrusion of steel may be the reason that ten more lives exist in the world - and happily. Even the music, which disappears as soon as it's made, stays with me and has inspired many others throughout my career. It is true: we never know the impact we have in the world and the ripples we send out from one act.

It is in this moment, where death and life are converging, that I can finally see the beauty of all of my father's creative genius. It's such a paradox to know that it takes loss to make you see gain.