Posts tagged ‘Aristotle’

Michael Flynn, Intelligence Leaks, and Ethical Questions

michael-flynn

Credit: Carolyn Kaster/AP

When Michael Flynn tendered his resignation as National Security Advisor last week after only 24 days on the job, it marked the predictable outcome of what had become deepening concerns over some dishonest statements he made to the vice-president about the nature of a December conversation he had with the Russian ambassador to the United States and the potential his conversation created for his blackmail by Russian authorities.  In a political climate where dishonesty is often dismissed out-of-hand as part of the job, Mr. Flynn’s forced resignation is a sobering reminder that character still counts.

Of course, in this story, there are not only ethical questions raised by Mr. Flynn’s clandestine conversation, there are also critical ethical questions that must be asked about the leaking of his conversation by shadowy intelligence officials to the news media.  After all, unethically leaking the fact the National Security Advisor unethically lied to vice-president seems, well, just all-around unethical.

Sadly, in our hyper-politicized climate, it is difficult not to filter this story through anything other than a political lens.  President Trump certainly filtered it this way, at least in part, when he complained on Twitter:

The real scandal here is that classified information is illegally given out by intelligence like candy. Very un-American!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 15, 2017

Yes, intelligence leaks are indeed scandalous – and dangerously so.  But dishonesty by the National Security Advisor with the vice-president is also scandalous.  Both sides of this scandal need to be addressed.  Sadly, most politicians only see fit to address whichever side furthers their own political purposes.

The problem with politicizing scandals like these is that we often overlook the sins of one side conveniently while decrying the sins of the other side forcefully.  Our argument becomes not that one side is truly good, but that the other side is really bad.  In this way, we justify one side’s sins by the sins the other side.  But when we address ethical scandals like this, we only wind up creating a circular firing squad, with everyone squarely aiming their barrels at everyone else.  We settle for hurting whoever happens to be our political enemy rather than holding onto what is actually right.

Jonathan Bethune, in an article for The Federalist, captures and summarizes our political zeitgeist well when he explains:

There can be no meaningful dialogue premised upon shared values if both sides only apply those values when it lets them score points. The class of moderately intelligent politically aware people are those most affected by this trend. They have become partisan ideologues.

An ideologue is at least consistent in his belief in specific policies. A partisan openly supports his gang above all else. But a partisan ideologue is worse than both. He is a Machiavellian creature: a supporter of “ends justify the means” approaches to pushing an agenda. The gang must be defended that the agenda might be defended, even when the gang violates core tenets of the agenda. Partisan ideologues are dishonest by nature. Worse still, they often cannot even tell when they are being dishonest.

Mr. Bethune is onto something here.  He understands that a politics that is more partisan than it is principled can only become pathological.  And when this happens, politics becomes a sinister force for moral decay rather than what Aristotle envisioned politics at its best to be – a guardian of societal good.  Such pathology in our politics not only points to a problem with Mr. Flynn and with dangerous intelligence leaks, it points to a problem with us.

Perhaps it is time, then, to look not only at the news, but in the mirror.

February 20, 2017 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Colorado’s Pot Problem

Marijuana Leaf 1It’s really difficult to legalize something and discourage its use all at the same time. That’s what Colorado lawmakers are learning. In a state where marijuana is legal, lawmakers are faced with a dilemma: how do they uphold and support the legality of recreational marijuana use among adults while speaking out against its use among teens? Kristen Wyatt, in an article published in The Washington Post, outlines their strategy:

Marijuana isn’t evil, but teens aren’t ready for it: That’s the theme of a new effort by Colorado to educate youths about the newly legal drug.

Colorado launched a rebranding effort Thursday that seeks to keep people under 21 away from pot. The “What’s Next” campaign aims to send the message that marijuana can keep youths from achieving their full potential.

The campaign shows kids being active and reminds them that their brains aren’t fully developed until they’re 25. The ads say that pot use can make it harder for them to pass a test, land a job, or pass the exam for a driver’s license.[1]

Marijuana may be legal in Colorado, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for you – at least according to the public service ads produced for the “What’s Next” campaign:

One ad shows a teen girl working out on a basketball court and the tag line, “Don’t let marijuana get in the way of ambition.” Another ad shows a boy rocking out on a drum set with the tag line, “Don’t let marijuana get in the way of passion.”

Colorado’s anxiety over the teen use of a drug that, for adults, is legal presents us with an interesting ethical conundrum. Marijuana, except in very limited cases when prescribed by a physician, is demonstrably dangerous and, in many instances, is downright deadly. But, then again, cigarette smoking is irrefutably linked to cancer, alcohol consumption impairs a person’s ability to operate a vehicle and, over the years, can also cause liver damage, and the foods we eat on a daily basis are sometimes less than nutritionally sound. Yet, these things are legal nationwide. So is it really logically responsible, or politically feasible, to support the outlawing of recreational marijuana use in Colorado?

On the one hand, we need to recognize that the moral imperative to be responsible for what we take into our bodies is impossible to legislate comprehensively. Human wisdom must play a roll. For instance, having a glass of wine with supper, which has the potential of decreasing a person’s chance of developing heart disease, is very different from guzzling a case of beer on the beach. Or, as Morgan Spurlock learned, an occasional trip to McDonald’s with the kids for a Happy Meal and a toy is very different from eating only Super Sized meals from the Golden Arches for breakfast, lunch, and supper. Even a taste of what may soon be a legal Cuban cigar is very different from a person who smokes a pack of Camels a day. Calling people to moderation in everything, as Aristotle taught in his Doctrine of the Mean,[2] is much more helpful – and, I would add, much more practical and realistic – than trying to safeguard against all potential abuses of these things by dint of legislation and regulation.

On the other hand, it is a logical error to suppose that just because legislation and regulation can’t solve every issue that affects the care of the body means that it can’t be helpful in any issue that affects the safety of a person. This is, after all, the whole reason for the existence of the Food and Drug Administration, which works tirelessly to ensure that the food we eat for meals and the medicines we take for illnesses are safe. But marijuana is not safe, which is, perhaps, why, even though it’s legal in Colorado, it’s still outlawed federally.

When I am prescribed a drug for an illness, if the list of the drug’s side effects is lengthy while its benefits are minimal, I become leery of taking it and will further consult with my physician over it. There is no doubt that the problems with marijuana far outpace its benefits.  Indeed, aside from acute medical cases, marijuana’s benefits can really only be defined in social terms. Marijuana is good for partying. And that’s about it.

It is this that leads us back to Colorado’s curious campaign to discourage teen marijuana use. The social capital associated with having, sharing, and using marijuana is deeply enticing to teenagers. After all, teenagers – at least many of them – love to party. So when Colorado makes marijuana as accessible as alcohol, does the state really think a slick public service campaign will stem the tide of teens using what is not only a dangerous drug in and of itself, but an addictive gateway drug that often leads to more serious substance abuse?

Moderation is good for many things, as Aristotle teaches. But in this instance, a little wisdom from Augustine may be in order as well. Augustine, though also a supporter of moderation, reminds us that, sometimes, complete abstinence is preferable to even perfect moderation.[3] When it comes to marijuana, we need learn how to choose between the options of abstinence and moderation wisely.

Something tells me Colorado chose poorly.

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[1] Kristen Wyatt, “Colorado rebrands anti-pot campaign for kids,” The Washington Post (8.20.2015).

[2] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1106a26-b28.

[3] Augustine, Of the Good of Marriage 25.

August 31, 2015 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Rocking Your Vote

BallotLast Tuesday, I went to vote in the midterm elections. Even though news outlets and political pundits like to play the part of Chicken Little every time an election cycle hits, the line at the voting booth seemed much more reasonable and relaxed.

As I listen to the rhetoric that comes with each passing election, I can’t help but be concerned – not because acerbic political rhetoric is anything new – politicians have been tearing into each other for a long time – but because the rhetoric isn’t right.

The word “politics” comes from the word polis, the Greek word for “city.” Politics has to do with how we order our communities under a set of authorities. The great Greek philosopher Aristotle spoke of the goal of politics thusly: “It comes to be for the sake of living, but it remains in existence for the sake of living well.”[1] For Aristotle, politics was a way of doing what was best for a community by ordering the community under responsible and thoughtful authorities.   The ultimate goal of politics, then, was to serve the common good. Sadly, I think many have lost sight of this goal.

In running for office, one Senate candidate said of his political opponent, “Let’s go out there and sock it to them!” The state chair of this candidate’s party went farther: “We need to crush it. We need to grab it, run with it, push their heads under over and over again until they cannot breathe anymore.”[2] Somehow, I am not sure this was the type of political goal Aristotle had in mind. Many of our politicians have become so obsessed with winning that they have forgotten their true call to work for the common good. Politicians are not be snooty sovereigns, but public servants.

As Christians in a democratic system, we have a unique privilege that is also a heavy burden. In Romans 13:1, we are called to submit ourselves to the governing authorities. But in our political system, as Micah Watson of The Gospel Coalition explains, “We are called to yield to authority, yet we also wield authority.”[3] We wield authority through our vote. My concern is that we, like the politicians for whom we are voting, have become far too concerned with using our authority to defeat and destroy the people and party with whom we disagree and have forgotten that a healthy political process is meant to have as its goal the common good. We have traded Aristotle for Machiavelli.

God has given humans limited and provisional authority in a host of different arenas (e.g., Genesis 1:26-28, Matthew 10:1, Titus 2:15). But because such authority is from God, we must use it only in accordance with God (Colossians 2:10). Jesus reminds us how we are not to use our authority:

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave. (Matthew 20:25-27)

Jesus is clear. We are to use our authority to serve others, which means, when we cast our vote, we use our authority as “We the people” not to clobber our enemy, but to love and serve our community. When you vote, what do you have in mind?

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[1] Aristotle, Politics 1.2.1252b29-30.

[2] David A. Fahrenthold, Katie Zezima & Paul Kane, “Math is forbidding for Democrats in struggle for Senate,” The Washington Post (11.3.2014).

[3] Micah Watson, “Why Christians Should Vote,” The Gospel Coalition (11.3.2014).

November 10, 2014 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


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