Monday, February 28, 2011

If Nothing's Wrong, then Nothing's Right!

December 21, 1985. Tracy Ham had thrown that touchdown pass into the hands of Frankie Johnson, and the Georgia Southern Eagles had won their first National Championship, in Tacoma Washington. My family had traveled up with the Eagles on the chartered plane and now we were headed back to the ‘Boro with them. Our noises of happy celebration were mixed with the growling stomachs of the ball players who had not eaten since breakfast many, many hours before. And for some reason, the flight attendants served them alcoholic drinks – but not food, till after they had served those of us who were boosters riding with them. That was a mistake. The players got a little rowdy and a couple of them started harassing one of the female flight attendants.

Legendary Coach Erk Russell was sitting on the front row and heard some of the commotion. He got up, walked to the mid-section of the plane where the boys were acting out, and all got quiet. He looked at the young men, pointed to them, and said two words: “Do Right!” Then he turned around and went to his seat. No yelling and screaming at them, no lecture on how to treat women, no discussion on the etiquette of behavior on planes,…. Just those two words: “Do Right.”

And they did.

It was Erk’s belief that by the time they got to college, most of these kids KNEW right from wrong, so they just needed this ONE rule – do right. Perhaps Erk was a Unitarian in that since. But there are others that don’t see it quite so simply.

In the song I’m using for my sermon themes this year, Ric Masten says: “If nothing’s wrong, then nothing’s right.” I’m not quite sure what Ric meant by that – and alas, he’s no longer with us so I can’t ask him. I’ll assume that since most of the phrases in this song are lifting up opposing aspects of life as meaningful, perhaps he is doing that with wrong and right. As if, if we never do anything wrong, we won’t know that we are doing anything right. I can go with that… mistakes are important learning tools. But there is there is a difference in getting something wrong – by mistake – and doing wrong intentionally. And is that a wrong we lift up as well – just for contrast?

Then there is the even bigger problem of the ambiguity of the world, in terms of right and wrong. How do we struggle with morality in today’s complex world? Ric’s song tells us that we should “Let it be a dance,” and I’m willing to move in all those directions – sometimes tango, sometimes waltz, and sometimes do the boo-ga-loo.

This is an age old dance that folks have done for many, many, years ---- and some of these folks have even passed down some of their conclusions about right and wrong and morality for us to ponder. Here are some quotes I’ve collected.

“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”
Matthew 7:12 (quoting Jesus)

“The time is always right to do what’s right.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

“The pendulum of the mind oscillates between sense and nonsense, not between right and wrong.”
Carl Gustav Jung

“Success is the sole earthly judge of right and wrong.”
Adolf Hitler

“It is curious --- curious that physical courage should be so common in the world, and moral courage so rare.”
Mark Twain

“I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after.”
Ernest Hemingway

“The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict.” Dante (and quoted by MLK Jr.)

“Morality is herd-instinct in the individual.”
Friedrich Nietzsche

“For there is nothing either good or bad, thinking makes it so.”
William Shakespeare from Hamlet

“Contradictions do not exist. Whenever you think that you are facing a contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong.”
Ayn Rand

“When choosing between two evils, I always like to try the one I’ve never tried before."
Mae West

Just as when we are learning to dance, we are sometimes taught very particular simple dances with definite steps to take – so my learning in college about morality included that kind of linear analysis. And you don’t talk about moral development – STILL – without at least giving a shout out to this man.

Lawrence Kohlberg (October 25, 1927 – January 19, 1987)
Kohlberg studied moral reasoning by presenting subjects with moral dilemmas. He would then categorize and classify the reasoning used in the responses, into one of six distinct stages, grouped into three levels: pre-conventional, conventional and post-conventional. Each level contains two stages.

Now his most famous dilemma was known as the Heinz dilemma – and I’m sure you have probably heard this one before – it’s the one where the man steals the medicine he can’t afford that will cure his wife. And then the question is asked:

Should Heinz have broken into the store to steal the drug for his wife? Why or why not?
From Kohlberg’s theoretical point of view -- -it’s not whether the person thinks that he should or should not steal the drug that is informing us --- it’s the reason he gives that determines his or her level of moral development --- from a lower level of considering the punishment --- on up the steps.
Kohlberg was convinced that if we gave children opportunities to think and practice, and had discussions with them, we could gradually assist them moving to higher levels. So when I was preparing teachers – back in the 80’s, I shared some of this with them – but I told them the dilemmas often used in these curricula were ridiculous. They were not things that really happened to children. For example –“there are seven people in a lifeboat that is made for six --- so one has to go – and should it be the priest or the pregnant woman – or who?” I don’t know about you – but that hasn’t happened to me or anyone that I know. But we DO face moral dilemmas daily and our children do as well. So I shared with them a game that I had played with my first and second graders called “In a pickle.” I wrote down these little scenarios that possibly COULD happen to them on pieces of green construction paper shaped like dill pickles and I put them in a pickle jar, and they would draw the pickle out – and we’d have a discussion about it. And I tried to see what level they were, and then talk about possibilities for the next level up. And I was proud of myself --- till I started hearing all the feminist critique of Kohlberg.

And that critique mainly came from this woman – Carol Gilligan.
Harvard University Press has described her book, In a Different Voice, as “the little book that started a revolution.” In this text, she criticized Kohlberg's stages of moral development of children which argued that girls on average reached a lower level of moral development than boys did. Gilligan argued that the participants in Kohlberg's basic study were largely male. She also stated that the scoring method Kohlberg used tended to favor a principled way of reasoning that was more common to boys, over a moral argumentation concentrating on relations, which would be more amenable to girls.

Her work has gotten a lot of criticism as well. In reality – they are both right and both wrong, I think… I suppose it’s all relative --- or is it? That’s actually another criticism I have for much of this work --- we put that “situational, all’s relative, postmodern” screen on everything – when sometimes we don’t need it. Some actions in life are generally right or wrong – almost always. I mean – for example, you may have some strange situations where you’ve got Anne Frank in the attic or something – but in most all cases, you should tell the truth. In any case, these 20th century theorists gave us lots to think about – especially till it’s we could move to more scientific explorations. Ah, yes – and here is where I look to some of my relatives for some help!

No – I don’t mean Jane Goodall. I mean my cousin that’s with her, the chimpanzee! Georgia Congressman Jack Kingston shared on the Bill Mayer show recently that he does not believe in evolution and that he is not related to the chimpanzee. Well, that’s good because I do believe in evolution, and I will happily claim kin with this chimp – and actually might prefer claiming kin to chimps rather than politicians. Indeed, Goodall’s research showed that the chimps shared many of the positive AND negative behaviors and emotions that we previously believed were developed in humans only. And this chimp research continues with others today – not so far from here.

This is Franz de Waal who works at The Yerkes National Primate Center in Atlanta. We could take a field trip! On a public radio show I listened to about morality, de Wall took the interviewer up to an observation tower. He had broken off some blackberry branches on the way – because the chimps love to eat these. So --- when they got to the top, he threw the branches down. The young chimps all ran up and start trying to grab them and they were making this loud screaming noise you could hear on the radio – then it stopped SUDDENLY. De Waal explained that the alpha male had stepped into the area. This male followed by male number two – came to where the big branch had been dropped. The alpha male and the #2 male divided up the branch and gave everybody some – and yes, some got a bigger portion than others – but everybody got some. And that is NOT something they were trained to do.

De Waal notes that we call nice behavior “humane” – but it’s actually a very ancient tendency. Chimps do fight and kill each other – but on the whole – they get along.

So there is more and more evidence that sharing, reciprocity – and EMPATHY are already in our brains.

Here’s an example of another primate showing that she cares.
Link for gorilla saving boy at zoo.

Because folks had movie cameras, this was spread all over the news as something really unusual. But De Waal says this is the kind of thing they do all the time with each other --- and the little boy was close enough kin for her to respond this way.

So these basic “do good” ideas like sharing and helping someone that is hurt are not a “higher good” that we possess --- but something we’ve evolved from our previous lower selves. And when we make that “gut” decision – we can thank evolution.

That leads me to another researcher who is doing some remarkable work. This young whipper snapper is: Joshua Greene – who is both a philosopher and a neuroscientist, and he’s doing some groundbreaking research at Harvard. Greene is using some of these moral dilemmas – and he’s sharing them with folks – and asking them to make decisions about what they would do -- while scanning their brains.

Consider the following moral dilemma.
You are driving in a very remote area and see a man by the road waving you down. He’s been hurt while hiking and you can see that he is bleeding badly and needs immediate medical attention. He asks that you take him to the nearest hospital. But your car has nice seats that will probably be very hard and perhaps costly to clean if you take this man. Is it okay for you to leave him?

Most folks say it would be seriously wrong to leave him.

Now here’s another case – which nearly all of us have faced. You receive a letter from a reputable international aid organization asking for a two hundred dollar donation that could bring much needed medical attention to some poor people in another part of the world. Is it okay for you not to make a donation in order to save up some money?

Most folks say that is would not be wrong to refrain from making a donation in this case.

In both cases, one has the option to give someone much needed medical attention at a relatively modest financial cost. And yet – the person who fails to help in the first case is a moral monster, whereas the person who fails to help in the second case is okay. Why is there a difference?

So Joshua Greene asks his participants to respond to these kinds of things while their brains are scanned and found that judgments in response to “personal” moral dilemmas, compared with “impersonal” ones, involved greater activity in brain areas that are associated with emotion and social cognition. Why?

Our ALTRUISTIC instincts reflect the environment in which they evolved rather than our present environment. With this in mind, consider that our ancestors did not evolve in an environment in which total strangers on opposite sides of the world could save each others’ lives by making relatively modest material sacrifices. They DID evolve in an environment in which individuals standing face-to-face could save each other. So – it makes sense that we would have evolved altruistic instincts that direct us to help others in dire need, but mostly when the ones in need are presented in an “up-close and-personal” way.

And of course, we understand this – even if we don’t know the brain research behind it.

Now many times we will go with our “gut” when making a decision --- the thing that “just feels right.” And what Joshua is telling us is those are the morals hard-wired in from early primate days. And that backs up the same research that Franz and others are doing with primates.

However – Joshua also observes that the calculating mind lights up when we are considering scenarios that are not so “up close” and sometimes the gut and the calculating mind try to shout each other out. When there is a real battle there – the frontal lobes behind the eyebrows also light up– and when they do light up more, the individual is likely to make the decision which is more “rational” rather than the “gut” decision. And that’s probably a good thing too.

Indeed, though some things are pretty cut and dried, we face these dilemmas everyday --- and call upon both the “gut” part of our brain, and the more rational part in trying to figure out what to do. And sometimes it just helps to know what’s going on as we deliberate.

I’m going to share with you a recent moral dilemma that I faced – because it involved this congregation.

As you probably all know, there are several pieces of anti-immigrant legislation under consideration in Georgia – as well as other states. Georgia is now debating whether to join 39 other states that bar undocumented youth from accessing higher education. And even if this gets bogged down in committee this year (and hopefully it will), these students must pay the out of state rate which makes it impossible for most to even apply. Also, many are impoverished but ineligible for financial aid, scholarships, Pell grants, or the HOPE scholarship. Undocumented youth cannot legally work to help pay for college. Now these students did not do anything wrong. We can argue about whether or not their parents should have brought them here – but the students themselves have grown up here in Georgia, attending our schools, and having the same dreams as other American students.

Because of the support our congregation has given to the immigrant community in Bulloch County in the past, I was asked by members of the Committee on Tolerance and Community Collaboration if we would be willing to take the leadership in setting up a scholarship fund for four or more Bulloch County undocumented students. –This would not COST the congregation money, but we would be, in some ways, legitimizing it for others. And also, if we used an account in our name, folks could give money to UUFS and designate for this fund, and therefore it would be tax deductible. My GUT said YES!!! This is what we are about! This is “Standing on the Side of Love!”

I wrote a proposal and presented it to our board at our last meeting – asking that I be able to continue to explore this, with input from the legal and financial experts in our association. And they cautiously agreed for me to explore and come back with a recommendation. I must praise the folks at the top of our association for the work they did researching the ramifications of this in the state of Georgia for me. And my conversations with them led me to withdrawing the proposal to our board. I don’t have time to explain all of this in this sermon, but I had to weigh out possible legal implications for our congregation.

Yet – my GUT still says YES. Especially after I met and talked with one of these students Thursday afternoon. And that is why I’m sharing this with you today – to let you know that I’m not going to ask you as a congregation to join this effort, but if you are able, I hope that you will join us as a private citizen. That is what I’m going to do. I’m going to sign my name to a letter to the editor and I’m going to give to this account that we have set up at a local bank. No, it will not be tax deductible – but so what.

I share with my Unitarian ancestor Edward Hale these values:

I am only one,
But still I am one.
I cannot do everything,
But still I can do something.
And because I cannot do everything,
I will not refuse to do the one thing I can do.

And I invite you to join me.
(Sing) “Let it be a dance we do. May I have this dance with you? In the good times and the bad times too, let it be a dance!”