Free Will and Brain Chemistry

Evidence continues to accumulate that the brain rewards certain behaviors and that we respond to those incentives. The Washington Post reports:

The results were showing that when the volunteers placed the interests of others before their own, the generosity activated a primitive part of the brain that usually lights up in response to food or sex. Altruism, the experiment suggested, was not a superior moral faculty that suppresses basic selfish urges but rather was basic to the brain, hard-wired and pleasurable.

Their 2006 finding that unselfishness can feel good lends scientific support to the admonitions of spiritual leaders such as Saint Francis of Assisi, who said, "For it is in giving that we receive." But it is also a dramatic example of the way neuroscience has begun to elbow its way into discussions about morality and has opened up a new window on what it means to be good.
The more researchers learn, the more it appears that the foundation of morality is empathy. Being able to recognize -- even experience vicariously -- what another creature is going through was an important leap in the evolution of social behavior. And it is only a short step from this awareness to many human notions of right and wrong, says Jean Decety, a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago.

The research enterprise has been viewed with interest by philosophers and theologians, but already some worry that it raises troubling questions. Reducing morality and immorality to brain chemistry -- rather than free will -- might diminish the importance of personal responsibility. Even more important, some wonder whether the very idea of morality is somehow degraded if it turns out to be just another evolutionary tool that nature uses to help species survive and propagate.
Joshua D. Greene, a Harvard neuroscientist and philosopher, said multiple experiments suggest that morality arises from basic brain activities. Morality, he said, is not a brain function elevated above our baser impulses. Greene said it is not "handed down" by philosophers and clergy, but "handed up," an outgrowth of the brain's basic propensities.
Marc Hauser, another Harvard researcher, has used cleverly designed psychological experiments to study morality. He said his research has found that people all over the world process moral questions in the same way, suggesting that moral thinking is intrinsic to the human brain, rather than a product of culture.

These results turn previous brain chemistry arguments about homosexuality on their head.

Compare these results to the strong evidence that sexual preference is hard wired. That, to my mind, is not an argument that homosexuality is moral; that argument has to be made on other grounds. Otherwise, we have given away the notion that we are responsible for any behaviors that are preference driven.

What about this evidence that moral decisionmaking is brain chemistry driven? It could be that the cultural and religious proscriptions of homosexuality have their roots in survival of the species through propogation. These mores do not fit today's world.

Red Meat

Deviancy! Immorality! Racism! If you read enough of the papers—not to mention the bloggers-- this is what one might think the Episcopal Church stands for. Have you heard? The Episcopal Church is swinging the door open to deviants! Also, six Anglican bishops want Canadian Anglicans want to approve immorality so they won't be distracted from global warming. And don't forget, when the Executive Council disagrees with African Archbishops, it's racism.

Dinesh D'Souza, a conservative columnist, Robert and Karen Rishwain Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and a popular public speaker for conservative causes, whose reputation as a race-baiter was established by his book, The End of Racism, trains his animus on gays, lesbians and the Episcopal Church in his most recent blog entry. Under the heading "Attention Social Deviants! The Episcopal Church Wants You," D'Souza likens the Church's acceptance of gays and lesbians to the acceptance of child molesters and serial killers.

“--Convicts Who Have Been Found Guilty of Violent Crimes (more marginalized now than ever before)
“--Child Molesters (marginalized even within the prison population!)
“--Serial Killers (admired in the movies, but otherwise very marginalized since at least the days of Jack the Ripper)
“--Pedophiles (so marginalized that even gays keep their distance, and all for holding that there's nothing magical about being "of age")
“--Polygamists (marginalized for holding the view, "Why Stop at Two?")
“--Skinheads (more marginalized today than the groups they seek to marginalize)
“This is hardly a complete list, and I'm sure I'll be hearing shortly from nudists, swingers, wife-swappers, Nazis, and other groups I've left off my list.”

So, in one swipe D'Souza includes a faithfully partnered gay man with child molesters and serial killers. Does this make any sense at all? Only if one's goal is to stir up rage. Keep in mind that D'Souza's career has been financed since his college days by the same foundations that keep the Institute on Religion and Democracy in business. Not only does this kind of thing make happy people who agree with D'Souza, he knows that it will illicit rage from some quarters of the people he opposes.

D'Souza is certainly not alone in this approach.

Washington Times columnist Mark Steyn claims that the plea of six Anglican bishops to this weeks General Synod to allow for some provision to bless same-sex couples is another fashionable stand along with their concerns for Global Warming, both of which lead to global moral depravity.

And just last week, Chris Sugden of the Anglican Maintream says disagreeing with certain African Archbishops is racist. It was all well and good, he tells us, for the 1998 Lambeth Conference to condemn genocide in Rwanda, but now the tables are turned when it comes to the ordination of openly gay bishops, Americans should be quiet and listen. “Now,” Sugden says, “something that was regarded as acceptable when dealing with Africans is not acceptable to the Americans. It sniffs of racism.”

To make this analysis work, one must equate the deaths of 800,000 Rwandans in the late 1990's—and what this horror did to the Church and the people of Rwanda-- to the ordination of one man in 2003 in New Hampshire.

By themselves, these statements seem irrational. Most faithful Episcopalians ignore them, perhaps with a sigh and a roll of the eyes. Small shots across the bow don't stop the vast majority of the faithful from going about the business of living faithfully. But taken together, these statements are 'red meat' for a loyal base—many of whom are not even Episcopalian—in a nasty war of words. And when ideas don't work, exaggeration, smear and outright lies will.

And the worst part is this: most of the time it's not about the Episcopal Church or the Anglican Communion per se. For most of these writers, it about using the Church as a symbol of all that is wrong with the world from their point of view. Which sure beats writing about what's right.

Stop trying to "save" Africa

Stop Trying to 'Save' Africa is the challenge by Uzodinma Iweala, writing in this past Sunday's Washington Post. Although thankful for all assistance from the wider world, Africans " question whether aid is genuine or given in the spirit of affirming one's cultural superiority."

It seems that these days, wracked by guilt at the humanitarian crisis it has created in the Middle East, the West has turned to Africa for redemption. Idealistic college students, celebrities such as Bob Geldof and politicians such as Tony Blair have all made bringing light to the dark continent their mission. They fly in for internships and fact-finding missions or to pick out children to adopt in much the same way my friends and I in New York take the subway to the pound to adopt stray dogs.

This is the West's new image of itself: a sexy, politically active generation whose preferred means of spreading the word are magazine spreads with celebrities pictured in the foreground, forlorn Africans in the back. Never mind that the stars sent to bring succor to the natives often are, willingly, as emaciated as those they want to help.

Such campaigns, however well intentioned, promote the stereotype of Africa as a black hole of disease and death. News reports constantly focus on the continent's corrupt leaders, warlords, "tribal" conflicts, child laborers, and women disfigured by abuse and genital mutilation. These descriptions run under headlines like "Can Bono Save Africa?" or "Will Brangelina Save Africa?" The relationship between the West and Africa is no longer based on openly racist beliefs, but such articles are reminiscent of reports from the heyday of European colonialism, when missionaries were sent to Africa to introduce us to education, Jesus Christ and "civilization."

The author asks questions such as why Africans are not shown for the work they do supporting one another, or why the western press usually says countries in Africa were "granted independence" when often they had to fight and shed their blood for it? This article calls into question not so much the work that churches and other organizations do in Africa but our motives and how we present our assistance.

Read it all here.

When the time of death becomes our choice

Reuters has a substantial article reminding us of the dilemmas we face in a world where medicine can extend "life" in quotes:

"The ability of medicine to keep people alive for such long periods of time -- despite their best efforts to die -- has changed the way people perceive the end of life," said Susan desJardins, a pediatric cardiologist and member of the ethics committee at Arnold Palmer Hospital in Orlando, Florida.
"Our hospital attempted a few years ago to write a policy on futility," Mary Ruckdeschel, a social worker from Barnes Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, said at the Georgetown course.

"We were never able to do this because people could not agree on the definition of futility."

Read it all here.

If you missed the fine report on hospital chaplains in the New York Times earlier this week, check it out here.

Evangelicals and torture

Earlier this year, 17 prominent evangelical leaders and scholars issued “An Evangelical Declaration Against Torture: Protecting Human Rights in an Age of Terror.” As Peter Steinfels of the New York Times notes, while the document received a great deal of attention when issued, it has largely been forgotten:

Four months have passed since a group of 17 prominent evangelical leaders and scholars issued “An Evangelical Declaration Against Torture: Protecting Human Rights in an Age of Terror.”

. . .

Will everyone who has read this document, or even heard of it, please raise his hand?

Well, you’re forgiven. There are reasons, unfortunate perhaps but understandable, that the declaration hasn’t received the attention it deserves.

Not that it went entirely unnoticed, particularly back in March, when the board of the National Association of Evangelicals all but unanimously endorsed it. This endorsement, by a body claiming to represent 45,000 evangelical Protestant churches with 30 million members, was quickly reported as another sign of an important shift in evangelicalism’s political stance. For several years, leading evangelicals have been pressing the movement to widen its public agenda to embrace issues like poverty and global warming alongside standing concerns about abortion, religious symbols in public spaces and sexual norms.

But in March, the declaration also drew immediate fire from other religious conservatives. Daniel R. Heimbach, a Southern Baptist professor of ethics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, called the evangelical declaration a “diatribe” that was “confused and dangerous,” mainly because it failed to pinpoint exactly where coercive interrogation crossed into torture.

Mark D. Tooley, a leader of the neoconservative Institute on Religion and Democracy, quickly dismissed the declaration as the work of “pseudo-pacifist academics and antiwar activists” who were contributing to “a barely disguised crusade against the U.S. war against terror.”

The initial flurry of attention has died down, although people who want to use the declaration for church or classroom discussions continue to download it from the Web site

As Steinfels observes, however, the document might have had an impact after all. Recent polling by the Pew Research Center shows that those who worship every week--including Evangelicals--are more likely to oppose torture than those who don't, which suggests that religious voters are susceptible to a purely religious argument on issues like torture:

The survey found that in every religious group, those who said they worshiped weekly appeared more restrictive toward torture than less observant believers, although the difference was modest. Dr. Green considered this finding “a bit counterintuitive” because weekly worshipers “tend to be more Republican, conservative and supportive of the Bush administration than their co-religionists” — traits otherwise associated with more permissive attitudes toward torture.

Not surprisingly, the poll data showed that white evangelicals were somewhat more permissive toward torture than other religious groups. But in Dr. Green’s fine-grained effort to sort out religious identity and weekly worship from other factors like party identification, political ideology and views on the Iraq war, white evangelicals also appeared the most likely to have their views modified on religious grounds alone.

Does this mean that “An Evangelical Declaration Against Torture” is a potentially influential document? Its original authors and the scores of significant evangelical leaders who have signed on to it along with the National Association of Evangelicals obviously hope so. But this is also an act of conscience, to which they were compelled regardless of its impact.

“What we developed was a pretty sizable teaching document,” writes David P. Gushee, a professor of moral philosophy at Union University and the principal drafter of the declaration, who has compared it to a papal encyclical. But in the end, he said, the drafters’ motivation was simply “to bear Christian witness.”

Read it all here.

So did this document make a difference? How can members of the faith community most effectively address issues like torture and war? How do we measure success? Is being a Christian witness sufficient reason to issue such a document?

Related: Bush signs new executive order on interrogation methods.

Losing my religion

A reporter for the LA Times looks at how the stories he covered affected him and his spiritual journey. William Lobdell relates how he went from enthusiastic believer to despair over the actions of the leaders and members of churches, especially as they covered up sex abuse by clergy.

When Times editors assigned me to the religion beat, I believed God had answered my prayers.

As a serious Christian, I had cringed at some of the coverage in the mainstream media. Faith frequently was treated like a circus, even a freak show.

I wanted to report objectively and respectfully about how belief shapes people's lives. Along the way, I believed, my own faith would grow deeper and sturdier.

But during the eight years I covered religion, something very different happened.

Sexually abusive priests, in all denominations, who are moved around and allowed to continue to work as clergy; fake healing ministries, and the prosperity gospel purveyors gradually sapped his faith.

Lobdell concludes:

My soul, for lack of a better term, had lost faith long ago — probably around the time I stopped going to church. My brain, which had been in denial, had finally caught up.

Clearly, I saw now that belief in God, no matter how grounded, requires at some point a leap of faith. Either you have the gift of faith or you don't. It's not a choice. It can't be willed into existence. And there's no faking it if you're honest about the state of your soul.

This "de-evangelization," as I call it, continues in all faith groups. Wherever power and secrecy are allowed, people will arise to use it for their own purposes and not the purposes of holiness.

Read the entire article here.

Silent racism

Recommended reading for anti-racism work is Silent Racism: How Well-Meaning White People Perpetuate the Racial Divide by Barbara Trepagnier. It is discussed by Marc Speir in the Texas State News Service.

Barbara Trepagnier says that people should replace the question of whether or not they are racist with asking themselves how they are racist.

"It’s a much more fruitful question," Trepagnier, a sociology professor at Texas State University, said. "We’re this way because of the stereotypes we all grew up with and the ideas in our head have everything to do with our actions. My point is that those stereotypes matter."

Trepagnier argues that every person harbors some racist thoughts and feelings, and that the acknowledgements of these attitudes are important to changing racial inequality.

The 66 year-old recently celebrated Paradigm Publishers’ March 30 paperback release of her book entitled, Silent Racism: How Well-Meaning White People Perpetuate the Racial Divide, as it continues to find further shelf space in bookstores nationwide.

Trepagnier says while blacks can act with prejudice, there is a difference between being prejudiced and being racist.

"I’m referring to systemic racism," Trepagnier said. "Blacks can certainly act with prejudice. But with whites as the majority in our society, racism becomes an institutional structure practiced by the dominant group."

Her book contends that “silent racism” fosters routine actions not recognized by an individual as racist, but upholds the status quo.

Trepagnier says that this form of superiority remains prevalent in American society, and is a major reason African-Americans continue to struggle. Blacks are outperformed by their white counterparts in most social demographics, including factors such as education, employment and income. She says that whites that deny the existence of racism or dismiss it as unimportant are often protecting white privilege.

Trepagnier says that some whites become detached from the race issue while others are so concerned with it that they become apprehensive about it, avoiding even the mention of the topic. In both cases, this passive stance silently provides the racist actions of others an endorsement, or worse, encouragement.

Read it all here

General Convention resolutions encourage church leaders to take anti-racism training and all candidates for ordination are required to study this issue in their formation.

Have you participated in anti-racism training yet?

Information on The Episcopal Church's anti-racism program is here

Do no harm?

Last week, USA Today reported on the growing trend of doctors' refusing to treat patients for religious reasons. The phenomenon goes beyond abortion and fetal tissue research and includes such matters as prescribing Viagra or performing in-vitro fertilization. At issue in many of these cases is gay discrimination:

The collision between religious freedom and rules against discrimination occurs when physicians perform procedures selectively, offering them to some patients but withholding them from others, says Jill Morrison, legal counsel to the National Women's Law Center.

This year in a case generating wide interest, the California Supreme Court will hear a first-of-its-kind lawsuit: fertility treatment denied to a lesbian.

In Washington state, a gay man recently settled out of court with a doctor who refused to prescribe him Viagra.

"He told me he had prescribed certain drugs for married people, but he wasn't going to do that for me," Jonathan Shuffield says. "It was very painful having the trust broken between my doctor and me."

Patrick Gillen, legal counsel for the Thomas More Law Center, a Michigan-based public interest law firm that defends religious freedom, says the political clout of gays and lesbians has led to a situation that "is ripe for conflict." Gillen says no doctors should be required to perform procedures that violate their religious faith, especially "if the patients can get the treatment elsewhere."

The whole story is here, and seems to be a sidebar for a related story on the California court case, reported here.

Edited to add: This is the topic in the Washington Post's "On Faith" feature this week. Check it out here.

Do we need some laughs?

Scott Gunn at Inclusive Church blog wonders about all the rumors, plots and secrets and how perhaps we need to laugh at ourselves when we get caught up in them. He writes:

Our church has become a place where we need to learn to hide our work? We need to master the skill of techno-obfuscation? This veil of secrecy should reveal something to all of us. God's love is open and transparent. In the Gospels, just as in life, the good guys don't plot in secret. In life, as in James Bond movies, all the plotting happens secretly, sometimes even in fake volcanoes. Shouldn't it tell us something that these dissenters gather in secrecy, to engage in secret business? Contrast that, if you will, with the progressive side. Our plans for Lambeth 2008 are right out in the open. Anyone can come to a meeting of the St. Anne's network, and the minutes are posted for all to see. We meet in a church, not in a fake volcano.

Here's my idea. Let's talk about rumors, but only for humor and jest. We could use a few laughs in the Communion. And let's stop the schoolyard whispering. It's not polite, and it's probably not God's love at work.

Seems like there is something in the Bible about things done in secret ---

Read Scott's blog here

Body Shop founder discovered vitality in religion

Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop, who died on September 10, is being honored around the world for her life commitment to ethical, cruelty free business practices. Initially uneasy with religion, she believed that "anybody who has a religious inclination has no sense of rationale or intellectual understanding and therefore should be dismissed." She came to see the value of spiritual development bringing about material change to the way we live and act - and she was surprised and delighted by her experience of the annual Greenbelt Festival, commenting that its practical vitality and intellectual energy was far from the stereotypes of Christianity she had often met, and the stuffiness of the church she had personally encountered.

Tributes have been pouring in from across the world for green and ethical business pioneer Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop chain and supporter of Fair Trade, who died on 10 September 2007 aged 64 after a major brain haemorrhage. Ekklesia reports on Dame Anita, the daughter of Italian immigrants, who set up the first Body Shop in Brighton in 1976 - when its approach was regarded as radical and new. She pioneered cruelty-free beauty products and turned them into a highly profitable enterprise.
Simon Barrow, co-director of the Christian think tank Ekklesia, said that the best way to honour the memory of Anita Roddick was to take forward the case for corporate responsibility as a human obligation, not a luxury option.

"It is easy to be cynical about 'ethical business' now that it has become mainstream and trendy", he commented. "Of course there is a lot of hot air around it. But developing alternative practices for doing business as if people and the planet matters is a tough call. Roddick recognised that massive injustice in trade, corporate greed and unfair debt often confounded efforts to take the world in a different direction. But she wasn't daunted or deceived. Nor should we be."

Ekklesia has also praised Roddick for bringing people together from different belief and non-belief backgrounds to work for a better world in spite of their differences.

"She didn't feel easy with 'religion' and she was highly critical of a lot of established religious institutions", said Barrow. "But Anita Roddick also saw the value of spiritual development bringing about material change to the way we live and act - and she was surprised and delighted by her experience of the annual Greenbelt festival, commenting that its practical vitality and intellectual energy was far from the stereotypes of Christianity she had often met, and the stuffiness of the church she had personally encountered."

Ekklesia relates how Roddick changed her mind about religion in her participation with the Greenbelt Christian Arts Festival:
Speaking to the Church Times newspaper ahead of her appearance at the Greenbelt Christian arts festival back in 2004, Dame Anita Roddick - who died yesterday - declared at the time: “What’s wonderful about being my age is having to face your prejudices."

She continued: "I had no idea how big Greenbelt was. I had no idea how organised it was; how free it was; how joyful it was. And I had no idea that there was such a strong activist, trade justice plank in its platform."

She said: “It’s really hard, when you have had your antennae up for most of these movements, to have completely ignored it. I have fallen for the zeitgeist that says anybody who has a religious inclination has no sense of rationale or intellectual understanding and therefore should be dismissed."

“I am cheering the Greenbelt festival from the top of every bloody mountain…for me, it’s like a heartbeat. And it’s youth. I’m ashamed of my bloody prejudices, but I’m delighted to be a convert. I find it wonderful.”

Read more here and here.

Greenbelt Festival website here


Fallibilism as a philosophy was advanced by Kwame Anthony Appiah in his Commencement address at Swarthmore in May 2006. Perhaps it applies to Anglicans.

Appiah began his address:

Often I find myself seated next to a stranger on an airplane who asks me what I do. Sometimes I say I'm a philosopher. The commonest responses are:

(1) An expression that combines boredom and alarm, and the end of the conversation (which leaves you with the pretzels and the soda, and the really fascinating article from the Review of Metaphysics you've been meaning to get to for a couple of years) and

(2) "So, what's your philosophy?"

To that question, I usually reply: "Everything is much more complicated than you first thought." In philosophy at least, that really is my philosophy. So, I can tell the truth and we can both get back to those wonderfully inviting pretzels.

The truth, I said: I happen to be a great believer in objective truth. But one way in which things get more complicated than you thought is that I am also a great believer in what philosophers call fallibilism. Fallibilism is the idea that our knowledge is imperfect, provisional, subject to revision in the face of new evidence. Fallibilism says: Here's what I know to a moral certainty, know well enough to live by. But I could be wrong.

He continues on the subject of tolerance:

Yet tolerance, too, is more complicated than it looks. We can't suppose that mindless tolerance of cruelty and repression is a virtue. Yet how much evil is done by fanatics who can't countenance the possibility that their beliefs, sanctioned by ideological or religious authority, might conceivably be mistaken! Here, then, is one of the uncompleted tasks of our era: to spread fallibilism - not skepticism about the truth or indifference to it, but just the glimmering recognition that one may not be in full possession of it - from the empyrean of scientific fact to the hardpan of moral conviction: to make it as common as Coca-Cola. People say that common sense is the ability to see what's in front of your eyes. But even madmen and extremists can see what's in front of their eyes; so, again, I think it's more complicated than that. Common sense, I'd prefer to say, involves the ability to see what's in front of the other fellow's eyes. That's what makes it something we might have in common.

Read the address here.

Read more on Appiah here

Fair Trade crops increasing

The New York Times business section highlights the increease in Fair Trade programs around the world. Although there remain questions of certification and participation, the movement to Fair Trade products are an increasing part of the economy.

Fair Trade in Bloom by Andrew Downie:
Rafael de Paiva was skeptical at first. If he wanted a “fair trade” certification for his coffee crop, the Brazilian farmer would have to adhere to a long list of rules on pesticides, farming techniques, recycling and other matters. He even had to show that his children were enrolled in school.

“I thought, ‘This is difficult,’” recalled the humble farmer. But the 20 percent premium he recently received for his first fair trade harvest made the effort worthwhile, Mr. Paiva said, adding, it “helped us create a decent living.”

More farmers are likely to receive such offers, as importers and retailers rush to meet a growing demand from consumers and activists to adhere to stricter environmental and social standards.

Read it all here

The Episcopal Church, through Episcopal Relief and Development, supports Fair Trade and offers a variety of blends of coffee. Pura Vida is the supplier for the coffee and they have teas and cocoa available as well. Does your church use Bishops Blend or other Fair Trade coffee and tea?

Lessons the Church needs to learn

An editorial in the Anglican Journal begins by recounting the history of a case of alleged abuse against students at a school connected to the Anglican Church of Canada. Leanne Larmondin, the author, then lists some specific recommendations for all churches in terms of how they work with institutions inside and alongside them.

First a bit of the history and background of the allegations being made against Grenville Christian College and the way the Anglican Church of Canada responded:

"Initially, when the story broke in the secular media, the church tried to distance itself from the school, saying there was ‘no direct relationship at all between the Anglican Church of Canada and Grenville Christian College.’ Yes, church officials said, three of the former headmasters were Anglican priests, including the most recent holder of that office, but they were there in a private capacity. Yes, the school used Anglican prayer books and hymnbooks, but it used other forms of worship too. Yes, bishops and other Anglican church dignitaries presided at ceremonial functions, but church officials are invited to many events."

Later on, Larmondin makes some specific recommendations:

What lessons should the church have learned from the residential schools affair?

For one, the church ought to be scrupulous about the groups with whom it associates. Regardless of whether the Anglican church was a founding body of Grenville, there appeared to be a close relationship between church and school that was cemented with the regular worship “in the Anglican tradition” in the school’s chapel, with the regular visits from church dignitaries and the Anglican flag that flew on the campus. Any rumours of misconduct at the institution should have been investigated. It was not a matter of whether the school was an Anglican school, it was thought of as such and the church must protect its integrity and care for society’s most vulnerable members.

Additionally, an Anglican priest on leave is still a priest. Although the allegations have not been proven in court, the strange stories about cultish practices at the school did reach the diocese; failure by the diocese to investigate those claims when the school headmaster was a member of the clergy seems pure folly.

A week or so after the story broke in the media, the church did make an effort to redeem itself. By mid-September, it appeared to be making more of a pastoral effort, with the bishop meeting with former students to hear their complaints and the diocese launching an investigation of the incidents.

Read the rest of the editorial here.

Self righteous in the extreme

New research suggests that those who say the believe they are moral are likely to take extreme actions. The Washington Post reports:

Scott Reynolds and Tara Ceranic of the University of Washington said their research highlights the idea that people with exceptionally strong convictions about their moral goodness are likely to follow extreme courses of action because they can convince themselves that whatever they do is good. When the right course of action is ambiguous, they added in a paper published in the November issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology, such people are likely to gravitate to opposite ends of a range of behaviors. When there is wide social consensus that something is wrong, they tend to conform to social norms.

When the researchers tested their hypothesis on managers who were asked to make a judgment call involving a conscientious employee who needed to go home early one day, they found that the managers who believed most strongly that they were good people came to extreme conclusions: They either let the employee off for the rest of the day with full pay, or insisted the employee stay and work full hours. The managers who did not think they were particularly good people tended to reach moderate conclusions: They had the employee finish some work and then leave early.

Read it all here (scroll to the end).

Robin Hanson has some thoughts and a link to the research at Overcoming Bias.

Does this research have any implications for the church?

Stem cells and ethics

AP science writer Malcolm Ritter yesterday reported, " Scientists have made ordinary human skin cells take on the chameleon-like powers of embryonic stem cells, a startling breakthrough that might someday deliver the medical payoffs of embryo cloning without the controversy."

The method promises not just to be a substitute for embryo cloning but to be superior to it medically and ethically:

The new work shows that the direct reprogramming technique can also produce versatile cells that are genetically matched to a person. But it avoids several problems that have bedeviled the cloning approach.

For one thing, it doesn't require a supply of unfertilized human eggs, which are hard to obtain for research and subjects the women donating them to a surgical procedure. Using eggs also raises the ethical questions of whether women should be paid for them.

In cloning, those eggs are used to make embryos from which stem cells are harvested. But that destroys the embryos, which has led to political opposition from President Bush, the Roman Catholic church and others.

Those were "show-stopping ethical problems," said Laurie Zoloth, director of Northwestern University's Center for Bioethics, Science and Society.

The new work, she said, "redefines the ethical terrain."

Richard Doerflinger, deputy director of pro-life activities for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, called the new work "a very significant breakthrough in finding morally unproblematic alternatives to cloning. ... I think this is something that would be readily acceptable to Catholics."

The story is frontpage news today at the Washington Post and the New York Times. Another article in the Washinton Post asks whether this vindicates President Bush's policy of refusing to fund embryonic stem cell research. The NYT also looks at the politics, reminding readers that Bush "steadfastly maintained that scientists would come up with an alternative method of developing embryonic stem cells, one that did not involve killing embryos. Critics were skeptical."

Clean up your computer

Ekklesia reports that electronics workers in Mexico are regularly subjected to denial of labour rights and dignity by companies - practices which needed to be challenged and changed, says a new report from the England and Wales Catholic development agency, CAFOD.

The report from the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development, which operates autonnomously but is recognised by the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales, says workers are exposed to toxic materials.

It also claims that safety rules are ignored, contributing to the alarming incidence of accidents, and it says workers are denied other rights, including being banned from joining trade unions or trade unions being taken over and controlled by companies.

CAFOD's 'Clean Up Your Computer' campaign in 2004 persuaded leading electronics manufacturers like Dell and IBM to sign up to Codes of Conduct aimed at improving conditions for workers across their supply chain.

Interviews were conducted with almost 2,000 workers within the supply chains of electronics companies, including Hitachi, Hewlett Packard, Nokia, Philips, Dell, Motorola, Lenovo and Intel. 236 cases of alleged abuse were documented.

AFOD's partner in Mexico, CEREAL who wrote the report, found disturbing cases including a woman whose hands were severed by a company machine because of a fault with the machine Other workers described how they were still worried about exposure to toxic materials and requests to switch roles were turned down.

One woman worker died after being hit by a car in the work car park. Her family were asked to withdraw their compensation claim against the transportation company but after CEREAL's intervention the transportation company relented and have paid compensation to her family.

Electronics equipment is Mexico's main export and the industry employs 400,000 workers who earning on average 100 pesos (US$ 9.25) a day. The industry was worth US$46 billion in 2006 and Mexico is the tenth largest exporter of electronics equipment in the world.

The report also reveals that some workers were forced to stand during the whole of their twelve hour shifts and requests for chairs were denied. Even a six-month pregnant woman was forced to stand for the whole of a seven hour shift. The report also highlights other bizarre rights abuses including employees being asked in interviews if they had tattoos and another worker described how she was asked about her sex life during an interview.

Read it all here.

Saving the world while staying at home

Allison Schrager writes:

Regardless of how you feel about why we are in Afghanistan, many of us would hope to improve the daily lives of those who live there. But how can we help the citizens of a country so far away? How do we even know what they might need? I could join the military or find work with an NGO there. But really, I am far too selfish to do either of these things. I have endless admiration for those who are willing to disrupt their lives and put them on the line. I, however, want to be able to offer help from the comfort of my own home.


But it is hard to deny that aid can do harm when given too enthusiastically to countries in need. However, putting the ever-sceptical economist in me aside, the fact remains that I do want to help people in Afghanistan. How can I do this effectively, and without offending my professional sensibilities?

The best way is to find an organisation that has local knowledge of the country and a thorough understanding of its economic needs. Also, target individuals and leave the big macro-development projects to the government and large aid organisations. I find the Global Partnership for Afghanistan (GPFA) appealing. It is a New York-based charity, founded by Afghan-Americans and Americans, which offers micro-loans to Afghan land owners to plant fruit and nut orchards. It also provides agricultural training and support to the Afghan farmers, particularly women. The group's goal is to spur economic development by empowering individual farmers with a source of income and food.

I usually recoil at talk of agricultural subsidies. But in this case the farmers receive micro-loans, which require some discipline and accountability. Micro-loans, when administered properly, provide an institution that developing countries generally lack.

Read it all and More Intelligent Life.

Usury prevalent in Christian conservative states

A new study from a University of Utah law professor shows a high correlation between concentrations of pay day lenders, notorious for high interest rates, and the political dominance of Christian conservatives.

Payday lenders, creditors that charge interest rates averaging about 450 percent, are more prevalent in Conservative Christian states, according to a new study coauthored by University of Utah law professor Christopher Peterson. The study, which is based on the most comprehensive database of payday lender locations yet compiled, maps a surprising relationship between populations of Christian conservatives and the proliferation of payday lenders.

“We started this project hoping to find out more about the spatial location of payday lenders and were surprised when a pattern reflecting a correlation with the American Bible Belt and Mormon Mountain West emerged,” said Peterson, who conducted the research and coauthored the article with Steven M. Graves, an associate professor of geography at California State University, Northridge. “The natural hypothesis would be to assume that given Biblical condemnation of usury there would be aggressive regulation and less demand for payday loans in these states, but ironically, the numbers show the opposite is true. It’s sad that states with a pious and honorable religious heritage now disproportionately host predatory lenders.”

Read it all here.

Usury flourishing where conservative Christians exercise political power

As reported yesterday in The Lead there's a new study out that finds payday lending is prevalent in the Bible Belt.

Robert Parham, executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics, has an editorial in today's Ethics Daily. He writes specifically of Baptist efforts at reform of state law in Virginia:

Given the clarity of the biblical witness and the crippling reality of payday lenders, some Baptists are addressing the issue.

Religious Herald editor Jim White encouraged Virginia Baptists last fall to urge state legislators to place a cap on the interest rate payday lenders can charge. White called payday lending a "great injustice" and called a cap on interest charged "the least we can do."

White returned to payday lending in a January editorial, beseeching readers to contact their representatives supporting specific pieces of legislation that would cap payday lending. He wrote that these bills "will not eliminate the suffering of the poor. But, it will end one way the oppressed are being further impoverished."

The Baptist General Association of Virginia spoke out against payday lending in a November 2007 resolution, denouncing "the payday lending industry and its practice of further impoverishing the poor."

BGAV's Christian Life Committee members have contacted their own legislators, supporting reforms in payday lending. The committee is now preparing a report to present to Virginia Baptists that will identify the negative impacts on families of predatory lending and offer steps for advocacy.

The committee is also interfacing with the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, which has a campaign to combat payday lenders, including a pledge for action designed to lobby state legislators.

BGAV is clearly the moral exception among Baptist state conventions. Most appear so morally malnourished that payday lenders flourish and impoverish the poor.


A visit to the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy is recommended.

The Episcopal Diocese of Virginia passed its own resolution at its January 2008 council:

R-6 Payday Lending

Whereas, God calls us to compassion; to alleviate the suffering of the poor; to speak up for those who have no voice; and to protect those who live closest to the edge; and

Whereas, our faith compels us to connect our values with the moral issues of the day, leading us to abhor usury, to turn away from greed, and to reject profiting from another's vulnerability; and

Whereas, we believe that reducing or eliminating poverty is a faithful mandate, that creating opportunity for all people is an achievable goal, and that predatory payday lending undermines our values and our mission; and

Whereas, the 2002 Payday Loan Act provides a special exemption for this one industry from Virginia's usury cap law; be it therefore

Resolved, that the 213th Annual Council of The Diocese of Virginia expresses its deep dismay at the usurious practices of the payday lending industry and the exemption granted this industry by Virginia's General Assembly, and be it further

Resolved, that this 213th Annual Council calls upon the people of this Diocese to contact their senators and representatives in the Virginia General Assembly and urge them to cap these small loans at thirty-six (36) percent.

Here's some background on how payday lending works and how it compares to alternatives -- like a late fee on a credit card or a bounced check.

Here are some questions. If payday lending is removed as an alternative, would those "closest to the edge" be better off? How so -- in a paternalistic way that it forces them to better live within their means or borrow from lenders who ask more invasive questions?

An examination of philanthropy

Who gives how much to whom? Why? And to what end? The New York Times Magazine published an in-depth exploration of the world of philanthropy on Sunday and still somehow managed to get a beautiful young actress on the cover.

We looked at one of these articles on Sunday. Today we call your attention to two pieces by Jim Holt--one on whether philanthropy is genetically rooted, and the other on the role of celebrities in putting charities on the map, are especially good. The second of these focuses on micro-finance.

The politics of dignity

Stephen Pinker writes in The New Republic:

This spring, the President's Council on Bioethics released a 555-page report, titled Human Dignity and Bioethics. The Council, created in 2001 by George W. Bush, is a panel of scholars charged with advising the president and exploring policy issues related to the ethics of biomedical innovation, including drugs that would enhance cognition, genetic manipulation of animals or humans, therapies that could extend the lifespan, and embryonic stem cells and so-called "therapeutic cloning" that could furnish replacements for diseased tissue and organs. Advances like these, if translated into freely undertaken treatments, could make millions of people better off and no one worse off. So what's not to like? The advances do not raise the traditional concerns of bioethics, which focuses on potential harm and coercion of patients or research subjects. What, then, are the ethical concerns that call for a presidential council?

Many people are vaguely disquieted by developments (real or imagined) that could alter minds and bodies in novel ways. Romantics and Greens tend to idealize the natural and demonize technology. Traditionalists and conservatives by temperament distrust radical change. Egalitarians worry about an arms race in enhancement techniques. And anyone is likely to have a "yuck" response when contemplating unprecedented manipulations of our biology. The President's Council has become a forum for the airing of this disquiet, and the concept of "dignity" a rubric for expounding on it. This collection of essays is the culmination of a long effort by the Council to place dignity at the center of bioethics. The general feeling is that, even if a new technology would improve life and health and decrease suffering and waste, it might have to be rejected, or even outlawed, if it affronted human dignity.

Whatever that is. The problem is that "dignity" is a squishy, subjective notion, hardly up to the heavyweight moral demands assigned to it.

Read it all. Hat tip: Arts & Letters Daily.

Should bio-ethics focus on dignity

The always provocative Steven Pinker takes on the use of "human dignity" as the basis of making bio-ethic decisions:

This spring, the President's Council on Bioethics released a 555-page report, titled Human Dignity and Bioethics. The Council, created in 2001 by George W. Bush, is a panel of scholars charged with advising the president and exploring policy issues related to the ethics of biomedical innovation, including drugs that would enhance cognition, genetic manipulation of animals or humans, therapies that could extend the lifespan, and embryonic stem cells and so-called "therapeutic cloning" that could furnish replacements for diseased tissue and organs. Advances like these, if translated into freely undertaken treatments, could make millions of people better off and no one worse off. So what's not to like? The advances do not raise the traditional concerns of bioethics, which focuses on potential harm and coercion of patients or research subjects. What, then, are the ethical concerns that call for a presidential council?

Many people are vaguely disquieted by developments (real or imagined) that could alter minds and bodies in novel ways. Romantics and Greens tend to idealize the natural and demonize technology. Traditionalists and conservatives by temperament distrust radical change. Egalitarians worry about an arms race in enhancement techniques. And anyone is likely to have a "yuck" response when contemplating unprecedented manipulations of our biology. The President's Council has become a forum for the airing of this disquiet, and the concept of "dignity" a rubric for expounding on it. This collection of essays is the culmination of a long effort by the Council to place dignity at the center of bioethics. The general feeling is that, even if a new technology would improve life and health and decrease suffering and waste, it might have to be rejected, or even outlawed, if it affronted human dignity.

Whatever that is. The problem is that "dignity" is a squishy, subjective notion, hardly up to the heavyweight moral demands assigned to it. The bioethicist Ruth Macklin, who had been fed up with loose talk about dignity intended to squelch research and therapy, threw down the gauntlet in a 2003 editorial, "Dignity Is a Useless Concept." Macklin argued that bioethics has done just fine with the principle of personal autonomy--the idea that, because all humans have the same minimum capacity to suffer, prosper, reason, and choose, no human has the right to impinge on the life, body, or freedom of another. This is why informed consent serves as the bedrock of ethical research and practice, and it clearly rules out the kinds of abuses that led to the birth of bioethics in the first place, such as Mengele's sadistic pseudoexperiments in Nazi Germany and the withholding of treatment to indigent black patients in the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study. Once you recognize the principle of autonomy, Macklin argued, "dignity" adds nothing.

Pinker goes further than Macklin. "Dognity" does not merely add nothing to the debate; it actually has problems of its own as a concept for ethical decisionmaking:

First, dignity is relative. One doesn't have to be a scientific or moral relativist to notice that ascriptions of dignity vary radically with the time, place, and beholder. In olden days, a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking. We chuckle at the photographs of Victorians in starched collars and wool suits hiking in the woods on a sweltering day, or at the Brahmins and patriarchs of countless societies who consider it beneath their dignity to pick up a dish or play with a child. Thorstein Veblen wrote of a French king who considered it beneath his dignity to move his throne back from the fireplace, and one night roasted to death when his attendant failed to show up. Kass finds other people licking an ice-cream cone to be shamefully undignified; I have no problem with it.

Second, dignity is fungible. The Council and Vatican treat dignity as a sacred value, never to be compromised. In fact, every one of us voluntarily and repeatedly relinquishes dignity for other goods in life. Getting out of a small car is undignified. Having sex is undignified. Doffing your belt and spread- eagling to allow a security guard to slide a wand up your crotch is undignified. Most pointedly, modern medicine is a gantlet of indignities. Most readers of this article have undergone a pelvic or rectal examination, and many have had the pleasure of a colonoscopy as well. We repeatedly vote with our feet (and other body parts) that dignity is a trivial value, well worth trading off for life, health, and safety.

Third, dignity can be harmful. In her comments on the Dignity volume, Jean Bethke Elshtain rhetorically asked, "Has anything good ever come from denying or constricting human dignity?" The answer is an emphatic "yes." Every sashed and be-medaled despot reviewing his troops from a lofty platform seeks to command respect through ostentatious displays of dignity. Political and religious repressions are often rationalized as a defense of the dignity of a state, leader, or creed: Just think of the Salman Rushdie fatwa, the Danish cartoon riots, or the British schoolteacher in Sudan who faced flogging and a lynch mob because her class named a teddy bear Mohammed. Indeed, totalitarianism is often the imposition of a leader's conception of dignity on a population, such as the identical uniforms in Maoist China or the burqas of the Taliban.

Read it all here. So is autonomy the critical concept for our decisions about bioethics? Is it sufficient? Do concepts of "human dignity" have a role? What else should be considered?

Peter Singer on giving boldly

Peter Singer, Princeton professor of bioethics, thinks Jesus got it wrong about giving to charity in secret. We should give to charity boldly and in public:

Jesus said that we should give alms in private rather than when others are watching. That fits with the commonsense idea that if people only do good in public, they may be motivated by a desire to gain a reputation for generosity. Perhaps when no one is looking, they are not generous at all.

. . .

From an ethical perspective, however, should we care so much about the purity of the motive with which the gift was made? Surely, what matters is that something was given to a good cause. We may well look askance at a lavish new concert hall, but not because the donor's name is chiseled into the marble faade. Rather, we should question whether, in a world in which 25,000 impoverished children die unnecessarily every day, another concert hall is what the world needs.

A substantial body of current psychological research points against Jesus' advice. One of the most significant factors determining whether people give to charity is their beliefs about what others are doing. Those who make it known that they give to charity increase the likelihood that others will do the same. Perhaps we will eventually reach a tipping point at which giving a significant amount to help the world's poorest becomes sufficiently widespread to eliminate the majority of those 25,000 needless daily deaths.

That is what Chris and Anne Ellinger hope their Web site,, will achieve. The site tells the story of more than 50 members of the 50 percent League - people who have given away either 50 percent of their assets or 50 percent of their income in each of the last three years. Members of the league want to change expectations about what is a "normal" or "reasonable" amount to give.

. . .

We need to get over our reluctance to speak openly about the good we do. Silent giving will not change a culture that deems it sensible to spend all your money on yourself and your family, rather than to help those in greater need - even though helping others is likely to bring more fulfillment in the long run.

Read it all here. Hat tip to Economist's View.

So, is Professor Singer correct? Does the fact that our giving in public will cause others to give a reason to ignore Jesus' admonishion? Or is this yet another example where utiliarian fails to provide the full answer?

What do your bumper stickers reveal about you?

Watch out for cars with bumper stickers.

That's the surprising conclusion of a recent study by Colorado State University social psychologist William Szlemko. Drivers of cars with bumper stickers, window decals, personalized license plates and other "territorial markers" not only get mad when someone cuts in their lane or is slow to respond to a changed traffic light, but they are far more likely than those who do not personalize their cars to use their vehicles to express rage -- by honking, tailgating and other aggressive behavior.

It does not seem to matter whether the messages on the stickers are about peace and love -- "Visualize World Peace," "My Kid Is an Honor Student" -- or angry and in your face -- "Don't Mess With Texas," "My Kid Beat Up Your Honor Student."
Szlemko and his colleagues at Fort Collins found that people who personalize their cars acknowledge that they are aggressive drivers, but usually do not realize that they are reporting much higher levels of aggression than people whose cars do not have visible markers on their vehicles.

Read more »

Should we allow sale of organs

The Economist has a fascinating essay on whether it makes sense to allow the sale of transplant organs. Would this increase the supply of donated organs? Would it save more lives? Or would it cause the exploitation of the very poor?

“PLEASE don’t take your organs to heaven,” reads the American bumper sticker. “Heaven knows that we need them here on earth.” Last year more than 7,000 Americans died while awaiting an organ transplant—almost double the number of American soldiers killed in Iraq since 2003. In Europe, too, thousands of people whose lives could be extended or transformed (by having sight restored, for example) through transplants forfeit the opportunity for want of available organs.

Research by the World Health Organisation (WHO) has found that only one in ten people in need of a new kidney, the body part most in demand, manages to get one. In the poorest places, of course, a complex transplant—which in the American health system costs $500,000—is unthinkable for most people anyway. But the gap between supply and demand for organs affects the poor too, by creating a market in body parts where abuses are rife.

. . .

The latest of many organ-harvesting scandals is now raging in India, one of several poor countries where the sale of organs used to be legal but has now been banned, with the apparent effect of driving the trade underground. A doctor, Amit Kumar, is awaiting trial after reportedly confessing to having performed hundreds of illegal transplants for rich clients from America, Britain, Canada, Saudi Arabia and Greece. He has been accused of luring labourers into his clinics with job offers; victims were then offered up to $2,000, a princely sum, to part with a kidney. Some who refused are said to have had kidneys removed anyway after being drugged.

Another kidney racket flourished in South Africa between 2001 and 2003. Donors were recruited in Brazil, Israel and Romania with offers of $5,000-20,000 to visit Durban and forfeit a kidney. The 109 recipients, mainly Israelis, each paid up to $120,000 for a “transplant holiday”; they pretended they were relatives of the donors and that no cash changed hands.

At least until very recently, a key destination for such “transplant tourists” was China, where—according to human-rights groups—there used to be a ready supply of organs plucked from the bodies of the thousands of people who are executed every year. China insisted that the prisoners’ organs were only used with their “consent”. But under global pressure, it agreed a year ago to stop the practice; in theory, only blood relatives of the executed can now get their organs. The sale of any human body part was banned in 2006. Before the change, about five Australians a year bought organs from the bodies of Chinese who had been executed, according to Jeremy Chapman, the Australian head of the International Transplantation Society.

. . .

Just why is there such a lack of donors in rich countries, given that, according to opinion polls, most people like the idea of donation and are ready in principle to participate? One big factor has been a stream of media reports that give people the impression of widespread malpractice by the medical profession and the funeral and biomedical industries.

. . .

But it is Iran (with a low deceased-donor rate) that has the highest living-donor rate in the world—23 per 1m. It is also the only country where monetary compensation for organs is officially sanctioned. Iran began paying unrelated living donors for their kidneys in 1988. Just 11 years later it had eliminated its kidney-transplant waiting lists—a feat no other country has achieved. Under the Iranian system, a patient wanting a kidney must first seek a suitable, willing donor in his family. If that fails, he must wait up to six months for a suitable deceased donor.

. . .

In practice, Iran also has a market in kidneys (allowing buyers and sellers to agree a price that tops up the sums officially available). In addition, there are altruistic donors, who offer up kidneys anonymously as an Islamic duty, or in gratitude for a prayer that has been answered. In fact, Iran’s reality runs the gamut of approaches from commerce to state support to kindness. It somehow works; Iranians no longer go abroad for kidneys.

. . .

Gavin Carney, a professor at Australia’s National University Medical Hospital, suggests paying each donor around $47,000. This, he says, would save thousands of Australian lives and billions of dollars in the cost of care for patients, some of whom wait seven years for a kidney. The government “shouldn’t just let people rot on dialysis”, he says. Nadey Hakim, a London transplant surgeon and ex-president of the International College of Surgeons, also favours some form of compensation. “There really is no other option,” he says.

Read it all here. What do you think?

Two crises: financial and moral

The current financial crisis is also a moral and ethical crisis. Michael Smith says the current crisis is a result of separating capitalism from conscience.

For one thing, Smith says, many people have heard of Adam Smith's "invisible hand" but very few of us remember that he was more than an economist, he was a moral philosopher.

Never has a financial crisis focused so starkly on moral, ethical and even spiritual issues. The words used by commentators have run the gamut of emotions: greed, dishonesty and fear, panic replacing confidence, risk and hubris versus prudence, and faith in the banking system or lack of it. Never have the virtues of trust and integrity been more needed in the global economy....

...those who are driven solely by the profit motive and “the love of money”, described by St Paul as “the root of all evil”, are discovering that security based on material wealth is an illusion. A curious weakness of human nature says that the more we have, the more we still want. When Rockefeller was asked “How much is enough?” he is said to have replied, “Just a little more”. Yet the roots of security and satisfaction lie elsewhere, not in amassing wealth but in seeking the divine purpose for our lives....

...As Stephen Young, of the Caux Round Table group of business executives, argues in his book Moral Capitalism, the separation of Smith’s two texts has given us a distorted notion of how capitalism should work.

Capitalism cannot be separated from conscience and even a divine providence, a guiding hand. For without conscience, without the “invisible hand” of divine grace, untamed capitalism too easily leads to corruption — and to the greed and dishonesty, the loss of humanity and common sense, that we have recently seen in the financial markets. To rescue capitalism and the banking system, we need to revisit Adam Smith’s moral philosophy — and our own consciences.

hat tip to Thinking Anglicans.

What is death?

Last week, a Washington, D.C. court heard the case of Motl Brody, an Orthodox Jewish boy that a hospital declared dead because he has no brain function. Because his heart and lungs are still functioning, however, according to his parents' religious beliefs, he is still alive. Slate used this case to discuss how various religious communities are beginning to accept the lack of brain function as an appropriate definition of death despite long traditions focused on vital signs:

How is death defined in other religions?

Usually, the same way it has traditionally been defined in all cultures: by a lack of vital signs. Most world religions lack a clear doctrinal statement that certifies when, exactly, the moment of death can be said to have occurred. For most of human history, there was no need for one since prior to the invention of life-support equipment, the absence of circulation or respiration was the only way to diagnose death. This remains the standard of death in most religions. By the early 1980s, however, the medical and legal community also began to adopt a second definition of death—the irreversible cessation of all brain functions—and some religious groups have updated their beliefs.

. . .

Christians who ardently support the traditional circulatory-respiratory definition of death tend to be fundamentalists or evangelicals. They may point to Leviticus 17:11, which states that "the life of the flesh is in the blood," or Genesis 2:7, which describes how God "formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being." Most mainstream Protestant groups in the United States accept brain death as a valid criterion for death, as does the Roman Catholic Church, though that ruling is not without controversy.

In 1986, the Academy of Islamic Jurisprudence—a group of legal experts convened by the Organization of the Islamic Conference—issued an opinion stating that a person should be considered legally dead when either "complete cessation of the heart or respiration occurs" or "complete cessation of all functions of the brain occurs." In both cases, "expert physicians" must ascertain that the condition is irreversible. However, the academy's statement was merely a recommendation to member nations, not a binding resolution, and the question remains an open one for many Muslims.

Read it all here.

Singapore may legalize compensation for human organs

Singapore's Ministry of Health is seeking public input on proposed amendments to the country's Human Organ Transplant Act. The amendments would

(a) Lift the upper age limit for cadaveric organ donation;
(b) Allow donor-recipient paired matching for exchanges of organs; and
(c) Compensate living donors according to international ethical practices.
Regarding compensation,
To protect the welfare of living donors, MOH is proposing that these donors be compensated for direct costs incurred as a result of the donation, and indirect losses such as lost earnings and future expenses due to the donation. The compensation framework will be in line with international and local ethical recommendations.
Thus, someone with lower earnings would receive less compensation.

The ministry says it would not be creating a market for organs:

HOTA will continue to prohibit the buying and selling of organs. To protect donors and recipients from exploitation by unscrupulous middlemen, MOH is proposing to raise the penalties to deter organ trading syndicates and unscrupulous middlemen.
In a well-functioning market every donor would receive equal compensation for an organ of equal quality.

The National Kidney Foundation in the U.S. says it is "in the process of evaluating our position on financial incentives for organ donation."

There is some suggestion that Singapore is seeking to expand its medical tourism sector.

Thanks to Marginal Revolution.

Finally, in a world first, a woman has had a body part replaced using stem cells. Her own stem cells.

The Vatican issues bioethics document

This week, the Vatican issued a far-reaching document on bioethics that took issue with many common fertility treatments. The Scientific American offered this coverage:

Read more »

How should we respond to the poor?

The bloggers Wormwood's Doxy and Under There have had a moving dialog on what we owe those less fortunate than us, and it is worth reading in its entirely.

A sample from Doxy, whose essay is prompted by an encounter with a homeless man named William who lost everything in Hurricane Katrina and its wake:

It is one thing to talk about “homelessness” or “the homeless”--it is quite another to look into the weary eyes of a human being who tells you that he slept in a bus shelter last night because he had nowhere else to go.

The Wall of Doubt is what I encounter every time I am faced with the failure of common decency--and let’s be honest and acknowledge that this is what is at the root of homelessness and abject poverty. These things are based in the failure of human beings to love and care for one another in the most basic ways.

That Wall is the rock on which my faith is tested--the stone that threatens to shatter what little confidence I have that there is a good and benevolent God in this universe.

Much better minds than mine have wrestled with the theodicy problem through the ages. I am under no illusion that I will be the one to solve the puzzle. But the problem takes on new urgency as I consider the fact that there is nothing I can do to help William.

And from UT's response:

You see, I approached the whole ministry to the poor and homeless thing with some very flawed assumptions. Back then I really thought it was my mission to change people and make them ready to fit into society. “Housing readiness” is the technical term for the model that says let me “fix” you so you will no longer be homeless. If I can make you more like me then you can finally be a respectable citizen. The hubris of such a position is staggering and yet it was shamelessly my position. That was before I came to realize that “society” is a cultural/geographic construct that is very fluid over time and space. There will always be people who do not fit into what society terms “normal.” I also know that the kingdom of God has most often been hidden among the “freaks and the misfits.” Today we in polite society would, like both of their families did, try to have Jesus and St. Francis committed and stabilized on medication.

Please join in their conversation, either here on the Cafe, or at either of the blogs quoted above.

Bishops oppose reinstituting death penalty in Maryland

An op-ed article by Bishops John Bryson Chane of Washington and Eugene Taylor Sutton of Maryland will appear on the Close to Home section of tomorrow's Washington Post, but it is online now:

For decades, many religious groups have voiced strong public opposition to capital punishment, believing that every human being is given life by God and that only God has the right to deny life. Of course, we understand that the state must seek justice and prosecute wrongdoing, but we cannot condone the state pronouncing a sentence of death for wrongdoing -- no matter how violent and brutal the crime. There is simply no moral justification for the state to execute a child of God in the name of justice.

The Episcopal Church has carefully studied the application of the death penalty in many states. In every case, it has concluded that the death penalty is unjust and ineffective. It is immoral to any who are seriously committed to the ethics of Jesus, who continually forbade violence as a means to solve problems caused by evil. It is unjust because of the hugely disproportionate number of poor and black defendants who receive the death sentence. It is a sad truth that many who are wealthy in our society are able to "buy" their way out of being executed by the state. When it comes to the death penalty, true justice comes with a price tag: "Justice paid is justice won." It is ineffective in that it has never been shown to deter the commission of violent crime, nor has it lowered the murder rate in any state that regularly executes its most violent criminals.

The neo-Thoreuvians

It turns out that foresaking material possesions is as likely to turn you into a crank as a saint, writes Michael Agger in a book review for Mother Jones magazine.

I don't mean to throw cold water on earnest self-improvement. But maybe we should set about such tasks in a way that doesn't reek of personal branding. Thoreau, after all, left the cabin behind, which earned the respect of Robert Louis Stevenson: "When he had enough of that kind of life, he showed the same simplicity in giving it up as in beginning it. There are some who could have done one, but, vanity forbidding, not the other; and that is perhaps the story of hermits; but Thoreau made no fetish of his own example." While that doesn't mean not writing a book, it may mean not letting the rigor of your experiment get in the way of the lessons.

Towards a moral diet

What we eat affects not only our health, but our planet, says Mark Bittman, food columnist for The New York Times. So are you eating morally? Listen to this NPR interview and find out. Bittman's new book is called Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating. Here is an excerpt.

A creche full of ethical questions

The single woman who delivered octuplets already had six children under the age of seven. What was her fertility doctor thinking?

USA Today poses some ethical questions.

There are even doubts that she was infertile.

She wants to sell her story and she's got offers.

Comment below, or head over to USA Today's Faith&Reason where Paul Root Wolpe, professor of bioethics and medicine at Emory University, Atlanta, and director of Emory's Center for Ethics is today's guest moderator.

Peter Singer on affluence and ethics

The Wall Street Journal this week featured a new book, The Life You Can Save, by Princeton philosopher Peter Singer about the ethical obligations of the affluent to help the very poor:

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Tails I win, Heads you lose

Natasha Mitchell of ABC (Australian Broadcast Corporation) interviews two experimental philosophers, Joshua Knobe and Eduoard Machery about our judgments of a person's actions -- specifically whether we are consistent in judging their intent to do good or bad.

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Economists are good for something

Many in need of a kidney transplant die before they ever get to the top of the queue waiting for transplants. The problem would not exist if each person in need had a family member willing to donate who was a good tissue match. But that is not true. But what is true is that for each person in need of a transplant there are many in the general population who are good matches.

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Who says we haven't done the theology?

The Anglican Theological Review has made its Summer 2008 issue available online, thanks in part to a grant from the Chicago Consultation.

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Better GBLT at work than in church

A new report on the state of the workplace for LGBT Americans shows that the Fortune 500 is way ahead of churches when it comes to equal rights. In some cases it’s easier to be gay at Chevron than in church on Sunday morning according to Religion Dispatches.

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An increasingly secular country that is becoming increasingly "pro life"

What if anything does it tell us that while a majority of Americans still say abortion should be legal, a majority now considers themselves pro life? Nancy Gibbs of TIME writes

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Gallup updates "moral acceptability index"

According to Gallup's annual "moral acceptability" index, updated this month:

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Obama disbands Bush-era bioethics group

President Obama has disbanded the President's Council on Bioethics because the Bush-appointed group was focused more on "philosophy" and advice, and Obama wants a group that will tackle policy questions.

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Revisiting the trolley dilemma

British Psychological Science Research Digest:

Moral psychology gets more tricky when the interests of the many are pitted against the few, as in the classic "trolley dilemma", in which a person must divert a hurtling trolley towards a lone victim, so as to save the lives of five others.

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Few wish to be more kind

Preferences for Psychological Enhancements: The Reluctance to Enhance Fundamental Traits:

We found that people were much more reluctant to enhance traits believed to be highly fundamental to the self (e.g., social comfort) than traits considered less fundamental (e.g., concentration ability).

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Ethics of neuroscience

Neuroethics is an emerging field of debate over research into how the human brain works and the proper use of the discoveries. Faith World's Tom Heneghan, explores this new field with University of Pennsylvania cognitive neuroscience professor Martha Farah, head of Penn’s new Center for Neuroscience and Society.

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Death rights case reaches Montana Supreme Court


Kathryn L. Tucker, co-counsel for Mr. Baxter’s estate and the other plaintiffs, says this case is also about boundaries. At a time when the limits, if not failings, of medicine are part of the national debate about health care reform, Ms. Tucker said, what is the power of the individual to set his or her own course?

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Marketing aid to the poor

At their respective blogs, Robert W. Radtke, President of Episcopal Relief & Development, and William Easterly, NYU professor of economics, make some cogent observations about methods used to boost aid to the poor of the world:

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Obama preaches the moral "we" - Diana Butler Bass

The Constitution of the United States begins with "We the people," and the the Nicene Creed begins with "We believe." Seeing the world through eyes that recognize our interconnectedness is a deep one in political and religious life. Episcopalian Diana Butler Bass notes that President Obama urged the nation to see health care through the lens of the "moral we""

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Religious leaders offering input to G-20

Religious leaders told their input is valued
By Ann Rodgers, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Standing in the lobby of a Downtown hotel, a key adviser to the U.S. delegation to the G-20 Summit promised an array of religious leaders that he would carry their concern for the poor into the economic conclave.

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Moral in tooth and claw

Jessica Pierce and Marc Bekoff in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Animals are "in." This might well be called the decade of the animal. Research on animal behavior has never been more vibrant and more revealing of the amazing cognitive, emotional, and moral capacities of a broad range of animals.

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Thinking aloud about clergy professional standards

The job of ordained ministry in congregations is big, complex and hard to nail down.

The Rev. Elizabeth Keaton began to think about this and she talked about it with local colleagues and others. She writes:

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Jailhouse conversions and clemency

Did then-governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas pay more attention to a jailhouse conversions and the testimony of pastors than the concerns of therapists and corrections officials when he granted clemency to man who is alleged to have killed four Tocoma-area police officers?

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Rev. Kapya Kaoma on Rachel Maddow

Rev. Kapya Kaoma, the Project Director of the progressive think tank PRA (Political Research Associates), was on MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show on Wednesday night to discuss Uganda's anti-homosexuality legislation and the U.S. Right's involvement.

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Indoor storm in Copenhagen?

Ekklesia's blogger, Pascale Palmer, reports that storms are brewing within the conference center in Copenhagen:

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GLBT notables from D.C., Houston, California


With 53 percent of the vote, Annise Parker, Houston's openly gay City Controller, has been elected the city's next mayor. In her brief victory speech, she noted:

This election has changed the world for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities, just as this election is about transforming Houstonians’ lives for the better.

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Death and taxes meet again

If you lower the tax on death you'll have less of it:

Starting Jan. 1, the estate tax -- which can erase nearly half of a wealthy person's estate -- goes away for a year. For families facing end-of-life decisions in the immediate future, the change is making one of life's most trying episodes only more complex. On Jan. 1, the one-year halt to the estate tax begins....

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Is it ethical to walk away from a mortgage?

Is it ethical to walk away from an underwater mortgage? The Church of England and its partners in a massive New York City real estate deal gone sour just did. By doing so the church cut its loss to $78 million or 1 percent of it portfolio.

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When are you dead?

Religion Dispatches discusses the new scientific reports on allegedly "brain dead" patients a few of whom have an active life of the mind:

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Fairtrade sales up despite recession

Despite the recession Fairtrade products have shown sales growth according to Ekklesia

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Three virtues needed for public life

Philip Pullman, author of often controversial science fiction/fantasy books on God and the church writes of three virtues: "Courage, modesty and intellectual curiosity that can cultivate delight in daily life, and protect our liberties."

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Former speechwriter claims torture is not immoral

A former speechwriter for George W. Bush is saying that torture, including waterboarding, is permitted by the teachings of the Catholic Church. Not so fast say theologians, journalists and Catholic bloggers.

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Labels don't stick

The New York Times' "Public Editor" Clark Hoyt points to the dangers and frustrations of using shorthand descriptors in public communication, especially when religion plays a role.

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Family Research Council co-founder hires baghandler

Cofounder of the Family Research Council, and board member of the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality, George Alan Rekers recently returned from a European vacation in the company of a male escort he found at

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A different model of church authority

The Rt Rev. Alan Wilson writes in The Guardian about Margo Kässmann, resigned German bishop and a different model of authority:

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What's a non-believing pastor to do?

A fascinating report titled "Pastors Who Are Not Believers" was released in March. Here is its setup.

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Conscience over big coal: Wendell Berry says no to his alma mater

Has the work of the university, over the last generation, increased or decreased literacy and knowledge of the classics? Has it increased or decreased the general understanding of the sciences? Has it increased or decreased pollution and soil erosion? Has it increased or decreased the ability and the willingness of public servants to tell the truth? Such questions are not, of course, precisely answerable.

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The dilemma of euthanasia

Michael Attas, physician, medical humanities professor, and Episcopal priest, writing in the Waco Tribune discusses the ethics of euthanasia and issues surrounding end of life decisions. He concludes:

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Radical homemaking & stewardship of creation

Barbi Click reflects in an Op-Ed at Episcopal Life Online about the challenges and joys of being a steward of creation in homemaking:

Stewards of Creation
Posted at Episcopal Life Online

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Religious views influence doctor's clinical decisions

The Lead may be one of the last religious blogs to point to today's BBC report on research which finds the religious views of doctors influences their clinical decisions on end of life treatment for their patients:

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The United States of Inequality friend Tim Noah of Slate has written a ten-part series on rising levels of income inequality in the United States. In the final part he asks whether income inequality is actually a bad thing, and concludes that at current levels, it is:

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How will the future judge us?

If hindsight is 20/20, wouldn't it be nice to see what people in the future would think about us? What present day practices will future generations condemn as "evil"? The New York Times blogger Ross Douthat points readers to K. Anthony Appiah who has some thoughts on the subject. It's well worth some consideration.

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'Trolleyology' and moral decision-making

Prospect's David Edmonds reports on a thought experiment rising in popularity among moral philosophers: "trolleyology."

Moral philosophers have long debated under what circumstances it is acceptable to kill and why, for example, we object to killing a patient for their organs, but not to a distribution of resources that funds some drugs rather than others.

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Income inequality: too big to ignore

Robert H. Frank, economics professor at the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University, wonders in The New York Times why economists don't have much to say about the morality of the huge disparity in income levels in this country:

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Hauerwas on just war

Stanley Hauerwas reflects on Just War in the ABC News Religion and Ethics website:

Just how realistic is just war?
By Stanley Hauerwas in the ABC News Religion and Ethics site:

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Class decides whether professor will donate a kidney

From National Public Radio:

Most college students write papers and read academic journals as class assignments. But how often does 5 percent of a final grade depend on deciding the fate of the professor's internal organs?

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The ethical issues surrounding the Mississippi sisters

Two sisters, convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to life imprisonment are at the center of controversy now that Governor Haley Barbour decided to suspend their sentence contingent on one sister giving the other sister a kidney in transplant.

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The morality of income inequality

Nobel laureate Paul Krugman writes:

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Faith and medicine

The Washington Post's OnFaith blog has offered the question, "When faith and healing collide?" and have a variety of responses. What is your take?

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'The sun will come out tomorrow'

February 14th is not only Valentine's Day in celebration of romantic love: it's also National Standing on the Side of Love Day, when the radical notion of accepting people for who they are gets the play it deserves.

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Victims of the budget battles

Tom Ehrich reflects on the ways that our battles over the budget leave out the needs of the vulnerable.

Budget battles disregard the vulnerable
By TOM EHRICH in Religion News Service

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Expanding the moral circle - considering my iPhone

What are the ethical implications of the iPhone in my pocket? Of the MacBook Pro on which I type these words? What are the ripples in the great pond of the world that I'm sending out through my use (overuse, abuse?) of technology? How might we consider globalization and the "expanding moral circle"?

Globalization and the Expanding Moral Circle

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Unapologetically Catholic, unapologetically for same-sex marriage

Of a certain age, Glen Arm, Maryland's Erma M. Durkin says there are plenty of Catholics who support gay marriage, and that it's the logical conclusion of a life spent soaked in the best teaching of Catholicism:

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Is Sojourners afraid of the big bad backlash?

Intersections International has expended considerable resources creating Believe Out Loud, a campaign that's

... a collection of clergy and lay leaders, LGBT activists, and concerned individuals, working together to help the Protestant community become more welcoming to gays and lesbians.

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'... that God loved them precisely as they were'

Why is it that when we talk about clergy ethics, we tend to think about the kinds of behaviors in which clergy should *not* be involved, rather than the kinds of moral stands they should take?

From the Jesus in Love Blog:

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What matters?

Peter Singer, writing at Project Syndicate, asks "Does Anything Matter?"

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Ethics and the prairie vole

Christopher Shea writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education reviews Patricia S. Churchland's new book, Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us About Morality (Princeton University Press)

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Hating: Ethically

Keith Kahn-Harris, writing at Comment is free in The Guardian, discusses How to hate ethically.

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NY Senate passes amendment on marriage equality bill

36-26 for amendment on marriage equality bill in New York state to make sure that religious groups do not have to do marriages. Stay tuned.

Will the NOM disclose donors?

Minnesota says the National Organization of Marriage must disclose donors...but will they? ... Nope

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Technology to aid the autistic has other uses

New Scientist reports on technology aimed at improving the emotional intelligence of the autistic. Much like corrective lenses for the near sighted or far sighted, these glasses signal to the wearer the emotions transmitted through facial expressions:

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Do we have a right to die on our own terms?

Dudley Clendenin, the elegant stylist who was once a national correspondent for The New York Times writes of his impending death:

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No ethical dilemma for NewsCorp's Zondervan

Zondervan, owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, does not see any ethical dilemma for them in the wake of the revelations of the phone-hacking scandal according to the Church Times:

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Disparity on the way to the debt ceiling

Michael Gerson writes:

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Deader than dead?

How do we understand PVS, persistent vegetative state? One researcher finds that people in these states are deader than dead

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Corporations balance irresponsibility with responsibility

Economists Matt Kotchen of Yale University and Jon Jungbien Moon of Korea University find that corporations offset bad actions with good actions.

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The god of the gut

Writing at the Pangea blog, Kurt Willems (who calls himself an Evangelical reject) arrives at this conclusion after telling a few stories about how his relationships with animals have changed his views about food:

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Rich get richer; the poor...not so much

What should the church's role be when we hear that the rich are getting richer ... a LOT richer, and the poor are getting poorer?

Land of the free, home of the poor
From PBS Online

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If it feels right, is it right?

David Brooks has written another fine piece that explores whether we have become so reluctant about ethics that our young people can't even identify moral dilemmas, let alone be equipped to wrestle with them:

If it feels right
From the New York Times

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Giving forgiveness a try

CNN has begun a series on the book The Devil in Pew Number Seven by Rebecca Nichols. Devil is known in the part of the country in which it's set as simply The Book - as auspicious a nickname as it is potentially stress-inducing.

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Dispatches from the atheism debates

In The New York Times (remember - you only get so many free views per month unless you subscribe), Gary Gutting describes a series of perhaps subtle points of thought being refined within self-selected spheres of atheism.

Gutting takes us to Columbia philosophy prof Philip Kitcher, who's trying to find a way through the Dawkinses and Hitchenses and the chilling bluntness of their God-is-not-so-get-over-it routine:

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Responding to those who approach us for money on the street

Jesus instructed his disciples to give to those who asked of them. Does that extend to panhandlers? Churches in Sacramento find themselves mulling this issue.

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Episcopal School of Dallas found grossly negligent for millions

The Episcopal School of Dallas is liable for $9 million for how it dealt with the sexual abuse of a 16-year-old female student by a 34-year-old male teacher.

The jury found that the school was not liable for failing to prevent the relationship, but was grossly negligent in how it handled the incident when the relationship was discovered.

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Ethics and the ballot box

At the "art of theory" blog, Jason Brennan says it's not enough just to vote; that in fact, voting in the absence of knowledge or without an ethical fundamentum is a deeply moral problem that can do far more harm than good. Moreover, "How other people vote is my business. After all, they make it my business."

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The Lululemon murder and the "bystander effect"

People of a certain age--mine--will remember the story of Kitty Genovese who was stabbed to death near her New York City apartment in 1964 while 38 of her neighbors allegedly watched and did nothing. The recent "Lululemon murder" in the Washington D. C. suburb of Bethesda has once again raised the question of how bystanders (in this case two employees of an adjoining store) could hear cries for help and do nothing.

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Bishop Robinson: OWS isn't anti-capitalist, Wall Street is

Updated: Bishop Robinson will be on the Rachel Maddow Show tonight at about 9:45 p. m., talking about Occupy Wall Street.

Bishop Gene Robinson says that the protestors occupying Wall Street aren't anti-capitalist. Rather, they are protesting the ways in which the capitalist system is corrupted by the financial industry.

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Study finds signs of awareness in 3 'Vegetative' patients

The New York Times, in an article written by Benedict Carey, reports on a study that finds signs of full consciousness in three severely brain-injured people.

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How doctors die

Ken Murray writes on how doctors approach death and life saving measures for themselves in How Doctors Die:

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Bishop Packard says he will occupy Trinity Wall Street property

An interesting confrontation is brewing between Bishop George Packard, retired Episcopal Bishop to the Armed Forces and Chaplaincies, and the leadership of Trinity Church, Wall Street.

In his most recent blog entry, Packard writes:

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Trinity v. Occupy hits front page of The New York Times

The New York Times today carries a front page story by Matt Flegenheimer on the impasse between Occupy Wall Street and Trinity Wall Street.

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The whole world was watching

The mainstream media paid quite a bit of attention to the confrontation yesterday between Trinity Wall Street and Occupy Wall Street.

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Bishop Packard in the paddy wagon talking Occupy v. Trinity

Here is a new video of Bishop George Packard in the paddy wagon speaking with other Occupy Wall Street protestors who were arrested after scaling a fence and entering Trinity Wall Street's property at Duarte Square.

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The Rev. John Merz, Occupy-arrestee, writes his bishop

Updated at bottom with Bishop George Packard's latest blog entry.

The Rev. John Merz, priest in charge at Ascension, Brooklyn has written a letter to his bishop, the Rt. Rev. Larry Provenzano, and it has been posted on the website of the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island.

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Giles Fraser looks back without anger

The Guardian profiles the Rev. Canon Giles Fraser, who resigned as canon chancellor at St. Paul's Cathedral in London rather than be part of the team that assented to a once-planned, but since-dealyed police action against Occupy London.

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Occupy, Trinity and the meaning of "private property"

Tom Beaudoin, who teaches at Fordham University has written an extremely insightful essay about the impasse between Trinity Wall Street and Occupy Wall Street on one of the blogs maintained by America, the Jesuit magazine.

He says, in part:

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Eleven principles for medical conscientious objection

What has been missing from the on-going controversy over contraception and conscience--beside the voices of women--has been a useful way of thinking through how to balance equal and competing claims. In this case, the claim to equal and quality access to health care has run into the claim that the caregiver should violate ones own conscience in providing care.

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Vatican to curtail nation's largest org of Catholic women religious

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has overhauled the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, many news sources are reporting.

From AP:

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"Same-sex parent study" is not what it claims

A study by University of Texas professor Mark Regnerus which claims that children of gay parents fare worse than others raises numerous red flags that do not support such a conclusion.

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Halfway through a task, we're more likely to cheat

When we cheat, we apparently do so in the middle of a series of events, rather than at the beginning or end. This extends even to religious observance, apparently. Wall Street Journal blogger Christopher Shea reports:

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What if the boss' "North Star" is not yours?

How does one judge a CEO? On the one hand, amoral leadership can lead one to excessively take advantage of the system. Immorality in pursuit of profit leads to News Corp behavior. We want CEOs to have a good moral compass. But what happens when that compass comes with "faith" that conflicts with ours?

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Olympics and exploitation

War on Want is pressuring the Olympics to stand for fair wages for those who make the athletic clothing for the games according to Ekklesia:

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Who chooses assisted suicide?

The New York Times reports on assisted suicide and who chooses and uses it:

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Rat visits General Theological Seminary

In a scenario similar to one experienced by the Episcopal Church Center, General Theological Seminary was visited by a giant inflatable rat according to DNAinfo:

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Rape can make you pregnant (and why some want to say otherwise)

Dr. Aaron E. Carroll, in an op-ed to CNN, begins with the scientific basics: Rep. Todd Akin is simply wrong with his idea that women do not get pregnant from rape:

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Cub Scouts cannot meet at St. Luke's

A Cub Scout group can no longer meet at St. Luke's Church according to a story in the East Greenwich Patch:

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church told Cub Scout Pack 4 last week it can no longer use church facilities because of the Boy Scouts of America’s reaffirmation earlier this summer of its exclusion of gay men and boys.

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Fraser to Tutu: Morality is not about having clean hands

We carried an item on Saturday about Desmond Tutu's contention that former President George W. Bush and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair should face prosecution at the International Criminal Court for their role in the war in Iraq. Tutu has also written an op-ed essay for the Guardian in which he says:

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Why do people cheat?

Dishonesty is complex. Dan Ariely explains why people cheat. With an excursion into the confessional.

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Where do you fall on the "world wage scale?

The BBC's News Magazine asks: If there were no rich and poor, and everyone had an equal share of the world's total pay packet, how much would they earn?

You can find out where you fall on the world wage scale.

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Do you tend to feel guilty? Congratulations!

As a former Catholic and devoted mom, I work to encourage my adult children to feel guilty at every turn. So I was delighted to see this item today at the Wall Street Journal, asserting that people who are guilt-prone are actually pretty awesome.

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Fraser column marks anniversary of Occupy London

The Rev. Giles Fraser, who left his job as canon chancellor of St. Paul's Cathedral in London rather than assent to the cathedral's plans to forcibly remove Occupy London protestors from its property has written a forceful column to mark the one-year anniversary of the movement. He writes:

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"God's intentions" creates more political controversy

Tom LoBianco of the Associated Press:

Indiana Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock said Tuesday when a woman becomes pregnant during a rape, "that's something God intended."

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Ancient bones show a culture of compassion

From the New York Times:
While it is a painful truism that brutality and violence are at least as old as humanity, so, it seems, is caring for the sick and disabled. And some archaeologists are suggesting a closer, more systematic look at how prehistoric people — who may have left only their bones — treated illness, injury and incapacitation. Call it the archaeology of health care.

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Death notification training valued in the grieving process

Jaweed Kaleem writes on Huffington Post that training in notifiying someone of a death, an often overlooked part of a job, is starting to be more valued:

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Public confession and reconciliaton

In a secular, connected world, how does confession and absolution fit with the media-guided public apology?

Baptist pastor Alan Rudnick looks at Lance Armstrong and thinks about confession.

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Beloved immortals: science, miracles and ‘jellyfish time’

Beatrice Marovich writes about "jellyfish time" in Religious Dispatches:

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Whether swords or guns: what they have "is enough"

John Fugelsang writes on Luke 22:36:

Jesus says to disciples in this verse:

"And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one."

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Ethical business questions: not hiring smokers, fly by weight

A couple of business decisions raise ethical questions:

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Ethics on the basketball court

When Faith Baptist played Grinnel on the basketball court last November, Grinnel's Jack Taylor shot an NCAA-record 138 points as his team went on to win 179-104. Was their star a hero blessed by God or did the winning team--representing an evangelical Christian school--simply humiliate their opponents?

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Supreme Court to hear gene patent cases

The Supreme Court is going to consider the questions around gene patenting. What ethical and moral issues are arising. Where should the church stand? The New York Times reports:

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Episcopal priests arrested on Moral Monday

Update on our earlier story on Moral Monday protests being held in North Carolina. Several Episcopal priests and laity have been arrested on trespass charges during the Moral Monday protest.

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How much inequality is too much inequality?

From Why Poverty?:

740 Park Ave, New York City, is home to some of the wealthiest Americans. Across the Harlem River, 10 minutes to the north, is the other Park Avenue in South Bronx, where more than half the population needs food stamps and children are 20 times more likely to be killed.

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Even doing good can be all about me

At The Lamb's War, Micah Bales writes:

So often in my life, I have told myself that I was working for a righteous cause, justice, or even God, but far more often than I would care to admit, my most compelling motivation has been the surge of energy and affirmation from taking a stand, leading the charge or doing the right thing. In the end, my good deeds were more about me than about anything transcendent.

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Doctors call for independent Guantanamo care

An open letter in The Lancet medical journal was sent to President Obama concerning medical care for Guantanamo detainees who are undertaking hunger strikes. An excerpt:

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Theology and casino gambling

Rt. Rev. Douglas Fisher, the Rev. Chris Carlisle and Steven Abdow have written an essay on why casino gambling is bad news. Episcopal News Service has the story:

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The pitfalls of investments by churches

Andrew Brown writes in The Guardian on Welby, Wonga and the moral dilemma of financial investing:

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The parable of the dishonest manager

If you follow a lot of priests on social media, you overhear them talking with one another about the sermons they are preparing. Last week much of the conversation was about how difficult it is to make sense of the parable of the dishonest steward (yesterday's gospel). I happened to be up late on Saturday when the Rev. David Sibley, of St. John's Episcopal Church in the Fort Hamilton section of Brooklyn, tweeted that he had suddenly seen something in the parable that he had missed before, that he finally had something to say, but that it would take him longer than usual to say it.

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Dealing with the "Poor Father" syndrome

Mark Silk at Religion News Service writes about clergy sexual abuse and misconduct in Dealing with the "Poor Father" Syndrome:

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My son is not a poster child for the right-to-life movement

Emily Rapp, author of Poster Child: A Memoir about her own experience of disability and being a poster child for March of Dimes, writes to those who would use her experience and her son's life and death to promote the "right-to-life" cause. From Salon:

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Brandon Marshall and the culture of the NFL

The last week has seen a lot of discussion of bullying in NFL locker rooms and the effects on players as highlighted in the incident featuring Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin. Brandon Marshall, receiver for the Chicago Bears and mental health advocate, has made a strong statement about the need for the culture of the NFL needs to change. He says for that to happen there needs to be a cultural shift for men and boys.

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Beware of air travel with your pet

Barbara Liston of Reuters on the perils of pet air travel:

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Foodies can help bring change in workers' rights

Amy B. Dean at Al Jazeera America writes on how those rightly concerned about the source of their foods can similarly become champions for workers' rights:

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Life and death and Jahi McMath

Writing at Religion News Service Cathy Grossman explores the collision between family, ethics, law and medicine in the tragic events surrounding Jahi McMath:

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Examining unexamined privilege

David Creech is aware of his own privilege, and how little he has done to earn it. In a new blog post at Dying Sparrows, he writes:

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Seminary buys NAO robot to study ethics of technology

As people engage with technology in new ways, the study of ethics in human-robot relationships and in all manner of relationships between man and machine is becoming more significant.

In an effort to understand the relationship between Christian ethics and technology, the Christians Southern Evangelical Seminary and Bible College in Matthews, N.C., has purchased a humanoid NAO robot:

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Edward Snowden and Civil Disobedience

Do you believe that Edward Snowden's acts of civil disobedience, in revealing details about the National Security Agency's electronic spying program, are ethical?

At Santa Clara University, the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics recently looked at this question in a conference called, "Conscience, Edward Snowden, and the Internet: Has Civili Disobedience Gone Too Far?" David DeCosse, director of campus ethics programs at the Markkula Center, writes:

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Secret life of W.H. Auden

New York Review of Books tells of the secret life of W.H. Auden:

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Task Force Study on Marriage Report

The Episcopal Church Task Force on the Study of Marriage has issued the following report:

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Ethics and religion talk on legalizing prostitution

Rabbi David Krishef, in his "Ethics and Religion Talk" in Michigan Live, had three clergy panelists make arguments either for or against legalizing prostitution.

Here was the argument (against) made by The Rev. Nurya Love Parish, an associate priest, St. Andrew's Episcopal Church:

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The problematic rise of voluntourism

Rafia Zakaria takes on the rise of "voluntourism" vacations, or vacations which combine foreign travel with a helping of charity work, in a column on Al-Jazeera English.

She points out that these vacations fuel the white-savior complex that already runs rampant in much of the West, while doing little permanent good for those who actually need help.

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Is it time to repeal the death penalty?

Sally Kohn argues that the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma on Tuesday night should persuade Americans once and for all that the death penalty is immoral and unfair.

Here is an excerpt of her column from Vanity Fair:

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Most physicians would choose non-invasive end of life care for themselves

A new study says that nearly 9 in 10 young physicians just finishing up their residencies or fellowships would not want to receive life-prolonging CPR or cardiac life support if they were terminally ill and their heart or breathing stopped, even as they would continue to order such procedures on most of their patients.

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Mirror, mirror on the wall: thinking one is attractive supports inequality

A new study from Stanford seems to indicate that "Thinking that one is attractive increases the tendency to support inequality:"

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World Council of Churches divests from fossil fuels

The London Guardian reports that the World Council of Churches, which represents over 500 million Christians, has divested from fossil fuels:

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How to defend your neighbor in a bold striped maxi dress (with discussion questions)

The activist and editor Rose Berger has taken the video of a confrontation that took part in a Washington D. C. neighborhood this morning as her text for a little adult education exercise called How To Defend Your Neighbor In Bold Stripe Maxi Dress (With Discussion Questions).

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Spelling out end of life views: a spiritual act

Religion News Service, Spelling out your views for end-of-life care is a "spiritual’ act:

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Brittany Maynard has died

Brittany Maynard, a 29 year old woman who moved to Oregon with her family in order to take advantage of that state's Death with Dignity law, died yesterday. She had been diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme--a rare and aggressive brain cancer, in which the median survival rate with treatment is 14 months.

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85 percent of Americans give away less than two precent of their income

Vox carries an excellent excerpt from the new book "The Paradox of Generosity" by Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson. Using data collected with the Science of Generosity Survey, they determined that three precent of Americans give away at least 10 percent of their income and that 85 percent of give away less than two percent of their income.

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