Turning lead into gold

gold-barsI started college as a philosophy major. While my friends were agonizing their way through calculus and organic chemistry, I was happily holed up in the library stacks with musty volumes by Nietzsche, Socrates, Pascal, Descartes, Leibniz, et. al., or in the Student Union having deep conversations with cute girls. All was bliss until it dawned on me that I might someday graduate and have to earn a living, and the only career path open to a philosophy major was teaching philosophy to bored undergrads.

So I got into computers, but I never lost my love for Socrates and the joys of pondering difficult questions.

What I often do here is play at being Socrates. I ask questions, sometimes hard questions, hoping they will help me discover God’s truth and my errors. And not my errors only, but the errors of moral judgment, political philosophy and homegrown wisdom that our culture embraces as truth.

I work from several fundamental assumptions: 1) God exists; 2) God is the ultimate arbiter of truth and error; 3) God is relational in character and has revealed himself in history; and 4) God has made it possible for us to gain limited insight into his nature and truth.

There are a number of corollaries to these beliefs, such as “There is only one God, and I am not Him,” and “Truth exists, but I am often clueless.” I believe each of us has a duty to be inquisitive about who God is and what he wants from us. Too many of us drift through life without examining our deepest beliefs. We’re quick to say what we think about the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, but about God and the great moral questions of our times we can be strangely, and foolishly, incurious.

I recently stirred up a hornets’ nest by comparing the murder of Dr. George Tiller and the Rev. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s participation in the German plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. I managed to offend equally both the left and the right, so I don’t feel too bad.

It was an example of asking questions to discover what I really believe, and to try to discover God’s truth. If I ask a lousy question, I muddy the waters. If I ask an unsettling question, I may give offense. I may have done both.

Abortion is a grave sin that robs history of a human life. Any just and moral political philosophy must guard the rights of the weakest members of society, because a majority can tyrannize a minority — slavery and Jim Crow laws being two infamous examples.

If human life is intrinsically deserving of dignity and respect, every assault on human dignity is wrong, including the senseless murder of a child by a gang, the murder of an abortion doctor, euthanasia, capital punishment, genocide, torture, imprisonment on trumped-up charges, pushing mentally ill people out of hospitals and onto the streets, etc., etc.

In my essay, I was trying to find the limits, if any, to a philosophical idea known as utilitarianism, aka “the end justifies the means.”

Political systems are deeply utilitarian. And, since abandoning our historic belief in a God who conveys truth, our secular culture has also embraced utilitarianism in the Utopian belief that the moral choice for all is the one creating the greatest benefit for the greatest number of people.

Dr. Tiller’s murder was designed to achieve a good end (saving unborn children) by means of an illegal and immoral means: murder.

Many were horrified by the act, but not, interestingly, by the utilitarian ethic that Tiller’s assailant practiced. We practice utilitarianism ourselves whenever we break the speed limit to get to work on time, or illegally download a movie or song because we can.

In fact, the US House’s vaunted American Clean Energy and Security Act, aka Cap and Tax, is a perfect example of utilitarian thinking. On the theory that government must save us from ourselves by reducing CO2 emissions, the House bill will tax all forms of “non-renewable” energy production and use in order to force a more rapid adoption of “clean” energy. The bill will cost jobs, raise prices, increase taxes, and probably make the US less competitive. In the eyes of Congress and the White House, those are costs worth paying if it means reducing America’s carbon footprint.

The end justifies the means.

We may hate what Tiller’s murderer did, but we don’t disagree with his core end-justifies-the-means idealism — utilitarianism can be quite useful at times!

The Christian faith as lived and preached by Jesus rejects the idea that a wrong act can become right if it results in a useful outcome. At the end of his life, Jesus himself became a victim of that sort of thinking:

[The High Priest Caiaphas justified Jesus’ death, saying,] “You don’t realize that it’s better for you that one man should die for the people than for the whole nation to be destroyed.” — John 11:50, NLT

Though innocent, Jesus was unjustly executed to satisfy a mob and prevent a violent backlash by Roman authority.

It is always tempting to make such bargains. We think we are wise enough, powerful enough, even shrewd enough to turn lead into gold, evil into good.

But utilitarianism is a moral shortcut, and moral shortcuts inevitably lead to trouble.

Dr. Tiller’s murder was wrong for two reasons: because it took away a human life; and because it was an arrogant grasp for power that rightly belongs to God alone.

Like the alchemists of old, it’s so very tempting to think that we just might be able to turn lead into gold. The real sin at play when we justify evil by the good it might achieve is a kind of blind arrogance or hubris that puts us above the law, beyond the law, as long as our intentions are good.

Dr. Tiller’s murder forces me to examine my own heart, my own motives, my own conscience for signs of that same sort of god-like hubris. I somehow doubt that I’m the only one who, while condemning his murder, is down in the basement secretly laboring to turn lead into gold.

Photo credit: The Australian Atlas of Minerals Resources

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  1. A powerful and timely challenge, Charlie, exposing inner thoughts that many of us probably found bubbling up in our hearts. I also found helpful the labelling of this cultural attitude as “utilitarianism.” It is a slippery slope and I hadn’t recognised how far down it we’ve travelled at times and how easily we make our peace with it. Any thoughts on the virtues which particularly lead the way against utilitarianism?

  2. Anytime you make someone pay for was was previously free you’re going to cause problems. That’s the entirety of the CO2 debate. Throw in a lot of moneyed interests, scientists being paid on both sides to muddle the issue, and you end up with our current situation.

    We’ve got a lot of strange subsidies here in America – for example the true cost of car ownership is mitigated by charging developers to put in roads to your house. The Interstate highway system was constructed with heavy subsidies. Property taxes go to maintain roads. Compare this to in europe or asia where taxes directly on car use through gasoline pay for most of the road expenses.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that we shouldn’t show favoritism, or give certain industries or people things for free that may have a negative impact on others.

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