Death by a Thousand Harmless Torturers; why Religious ethics were so effective

The thought experiment originally offered by Derek Parfit about the “harmless torturers” pops up now and again in so many different circumstances, which is why its such a good thought experiment. Take this old article from the New York Times where its applied to online behavior and what we would now call cancel culture, for instance. Parfit’s experiment shows some of the shortcomings of both deontology as well as consequentialism, the main ways philosophers have thought about ethics.

It goes like this: there’s a person in a torture cube (think the Agonizer from the Mirror Universe in Star Trek) and the torturer has a knob which increases the level of pain to the person in the device. One torturer can turn it all the way up, killing the person, and this (stripping away any question of why the person is in the Agonizer in the first place) is clearly wrong. But it is possible for the knob to be adjusted at an imperceptible level; one torturer may turn it up with no obvious effect or consequence and then leave. Imagine, thousands of torturers all have separate access to this control and the thousands of adjustments are equivalent to one person turning it up thousands of times, so the person dies. The ultimate amount of pain and death to the victim is the same, but in the thousand torturers instance each individual torturer didn’t cause any perceptible amount of pain.

The consequentialist says, “well, the individual torturer isn’t doing anything wrong,” since their contribution didn’t result in any real results. The deontologist says, “inflicting pain is wrong,” regardless of the ends or results. The contractualist asks, “well, did you have any sort of agreement about this?” The egoist says, “hey, not my problem as long as I’m not the one in the pain booth.” And so on.

Religion gave us a tidy way to embrace deontology; we have a set of commandments, and they don’t change based on the circumstances or the outcome. Further, religion created a sense of self-interested consequentialism within this deontology: although the ends never justify the means, the ends will bring about a good consequence (heaven) for you personally in the afterlife. Furthermore, by its ubiquity, it created a social contract: all people of faith agree to act the same way, and when they break the rules they know they’ve done wrong.

When we remove the dictum from on high, religious ethics fall apart. Why are certain things bad if it isn’t God that’s telling us the rules? Furthermore, removing the consequence of hellfire, the only real ground for post-supernatural religious ethics is the agreement of all of those religious people about what rules they’ll follow. That’s one reason why contractualism seems to have developed in the 20th century, alongside the death of God and a decreasing reliance on the supernatural. It’s also why the Catholic Church has become so deluded about it’s own approach to ethics.

It’s also why atheists are viewed as bad. They can’t possibly have any ethics at all, the theist says, because there isn’t a rule from on high, a consequence for their action, or a community of people with whom they made an ethical agreement. This is, of course, very silly! Atheists can be moral, by any standard one applies.

The torturers experiment applies so neatly to our current global crisis, too. Individual risky actions (like gathering in a group or shunning a facemask) doesn’t necessarily effect any change in isolation, but everyone’s insignificant choices can have massive effects on public health over all. Voting, too, is closely linked to the thought experiment: one vote never made a difference and one person choosing not to vote will have insignificant effects on the system, but the aggregate of nonvoters makes for an untenable structure.

Catholic Ethical Considerations and a Morally Bankrupt Church

Ever since the sex-abuse scandal the Catholic Church has struggled to maintain its station as moral arbiter. Of course, the Church was slowly falling from grace in that area long ago, but the breadth and severity of the scandal has permanently tarnished the Church’s reputation in the modern era. How could anyone possibly look to the church on more nuanced ethical topics when it couldn’t even get it right in one of the most obviously easy ethical quandaries?

That’s why its funny to see the Catholic Church equivocate on moral issues that are far less dire. The Church’s statement on the Johnson and Johnson COVID-19 vaccine is almost laughable, not for what it concludes but for what it doesn’t say. It doesn’t say, for instance, that since the vaccine was developed using stem cells from aborted fetuses that it is immoral to accept. It doesn’t say the vaccine is immoral. It doesn’t say the research was immoral. The cell lines themselves are “morally compromised,” but we don’t know the circumstances of the harvesting of those cells.

The document does say that other vaccines made from stem cells are morally acceptable, like the Rubella vaccine. There is no alternative to that vaccine, though, and there is to the Coronavirus vaccine, which is how the Conference of Bishops arrive at their conclusion.

Traditional Catholic morality is founded on a Kantian sort of deontology: God tells us what is right and wrong. The ends do not justify the means. Abortion, for instance, is a moral wrong, not because of the consequences, but because it is wrong, full-stop. It doesn’t matter if terminating the pregnancy makes life better for other people, or if the child would unreasonably suffer by being born, it is simply an ethical precept that abortion is immoral.

Yet the Bishops here are asking us to decide that using a particular vaccine is on some scale of morality based on how many people might be saved in so doing. It doesn’t matter if the development process was morally compromised if it is the only vaccine and the only way to prevent that suffering. Even if there are other alternatives, those are only “preferable,” not moral requirements.

Catholic morality has never worked this way, and to see the Bishops slowly arrive at a consequentialist meta-ethic is an incredible demonstration of the collapse of traditional religious teaching, much more so than if the church were to finally catch up to modernity on, say, same-sex marriage. It means that there is no right or wrong, only utility. It means that we can abrogate moral precepts if the ends justify the means. It means that “morally compromised” science (or people or situations or whatever) are acceptable if the outcome is good. Good for whom? The Catholic Bishops, presumably.

Pope in the Times: Francis would be a liberal Supreme Court justice

Of course the Pope showing up in the Old Gray Lady merits comment even in unexceptional times, but when his comments position him as more liberal than half of the United States’ Supreme Court it really becomes headline news.

The Pope’s comments are adapted from an upcoming book, but the timing of his op-ed in the New York Times, just a day after an opinion striking down NY state restrictions on religious gatherings, makes his words seem like a direct response to an increasingly conservative court. In short, Francis doesn’t see restrictions on gathering for worship as being antithetical to personal freedom; these restrictions are part of a coordinated response to a public health crisis. Somehow, the common good was co-opted for political partisanship and became a “prism” through which things are viewed.

Looking to the common good is much more than the sum of what is good for individuals. It means having a regard for all citizens and seeking to respond effectively to the needs of the least fortunate.

Pope Francis, NYT op-ed

This struggle between individual benefit and common good has, of course, been a guiding conflict for the development of all human governments. In particular, the American proclivity towards individual freedom has lead to our country realizing the worst of the pandemic’s horrors as cases and deaths continue to mount.

In particular, the Pope expresses his understanding through a story of his illness when he was younger: having a piece of his lung removed, being hospitalized, gave him the empathy to understand how important it is to control the spread of this virus and think with the common good in mind. It is a common sentiment: something traumatizing happens to you personally, and so you develop an empathy towards helping people avoid that situation.

Humans are at their best, though, when we recognize suffering and extend empathy even without having ever experienced something similar. Indeed, if we’re ever to reach the next level of human understanding or peace in our countries and governments, we’ll need to find a way to respect and empathize with people whose experience we could never understand. That’s the real trick to providing for the common good.

And it is what Jesus taught! That’s the most remarkable thing; that contemporary Christians (or at least the conservative, right/Republican ones) seem to have forgotten that the greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself, to empathize with your common humans as if they were you personally. The fact that the Pope supports this worldview is hardly surprising. But that the religious-leaning conservatives of the court (and the country) would dispute this, that’s the surprise.

Holy Murals: how a new WPA could save the church

We don’t really make murals anymore. Not like we used to, at least. Lots of old post offices or fancy lobbies from a certain era have sweeping wall art, mosaic or hand painted, depicting industrious Americans or verdant farms or, sometimes, nothing specific at all. Most of these are a creation of artists employed by the Works Progress Administration of the 1930s, where artists unemployed by the Great Depression were hired by the federal government to beautify public spaces and enrich American culture.

San Pedro, CA post office

These WPA murals are from the 30s, but if you’re like me you almost think of them in a similar class to the ubiquitous murals behind altars in churches. These reredos or apse walls tend to date more to the 60s, when there was a huge boom in contemporary church architecture. They tend to be gold.

Cabrini Shrine, NYC

Although the WPA had branches funding all the major arts, the murals are the most striking example of that cultural infusion today. There are, of course, the many important buildings created under the auspices of the WPA, but we now consider those remaining structures simply part of the fabric of our cities. The music and theater and writing have been relegated to libraries as trends changed. The murals, though, seem trapped in amber, a relic of a different time; stylized with distinctive Deco details, they remind us of an inter-war America that seems like a story told by our grandparents. There are so many of these murals in part because so much of the WPA budget was allocated for their creation.

Nearly 90 years later, we are, once again, facing wide-spread unemployment amongst artists. The ongoing shutdown has put many out of business entirely, while others survive only on enhanced unemployment opportunities. Additionally, churches have been unable to meet regularly, which has caused communities of faith to struggle both financially and spiritually.

We can look to the past for an answer to this problem. We can create a New WPA.

Georgette Seabrooke working On Her WPA Federal Art Project mural,  Recreation In Harlem, for the Nurses’ Recreation Room in Harlem Hospital.

The WPA appropriation in 1935 was 6.7% of GDP. A similar amount in today would be less than $1.5 trillion. The CARES act, passed in the infancy of this emergency, was well over $2 trillion, and we didn’t get a SINGLE mural out of it. A new WPA could be funded with a fraction of the amount we’re already freely willing to give to mega-corporations who have plenty of money in the bank. Funding artists instead not only stimulates the economy and provides for struggling Americans, but also enriches our culture, furthers artistic development, and beautifies our public spaces.

Of course, the current challenges make music and theater productions difficult, but visual art, construction, and writing can largely be done independently. As we understand more about the risk involved with gathering for performance art, we can fund new and innovative ways in which people in those disciplines create. In the meantime, artists can pass along the technique of their trades by teaching (remotely), and a large scale arts education initiative would both save artists and enrich schools. Other countries are already doing this.

If this New WPA is also allowed to install public art in churches, this could be a way to save our struggling houses of worship. Doesn’t your church need some refurbishment? Maybe a renewed exterior, complete with outside art for everyone to enjoy? Or perhaps there is a large blank wall, waiting for some benefactor to fund a fantastic mural on it. Of course, there are problems in using secular funding for sacred art, and people would probably be more amenable to funding church art publicly if churches paid their fair share in taxes (a discussion for a different time). Still, this could be a productive, creative way to support churches, artists, and communities in a way that doesn’t simply throw money at an ever-increasing problem.

Why Church is Deadly (right now)

It’s easy to exaggerate when we have little information, and nobody benefits from fear-mongering. We are becoming increasingly aware, though, that church itself could be the most dangerous place to be during the current pandemic.

Why are churches so dangerous in regards to the spread of this disease? Because we do all the things the church that are most likely to spread the virus: we sing, we happily greet each other, we recite readings together, we commune, we gather. In particular, singing seems to be especially hazardous, based on information we have from a specific choir gathering in early March. The amazing thing about this specific story is the amount of information we have: one infected individual, who thought they only had a slight cold, unknowingly infected at least 45 of the rehearsal’s 60 participants. Two eventually died from complications with the virus. Several more were hospitalized. They didn’t hug or shake hands, they used hand sanitizer, they even spaced seats slightly farther apart.

The first instinct as this relates to churches is simply to cut the choir. Unfortunately, that isn’t enough, or even the major concern as far as churches go. Churches are one of the few places where we communally sing, even regardless of our interest or ability in music. Singing together, even informally, seems to intensify both the distance and the concentration of the spread. Even spaced 6 feet apart or more in a large space may not be enough to counteract the additional aerosolization of particles.

I had never hoped for this to be a COVID blog and I prefer to read and write about things unrelated to the virus. But this is such a sticking point for churches right now, and it will continue to dog religion for the near future. We’ve already looked at how the foster religious community when you can’t meet, but virtual interaction only seems like a stopgap until we can gather again. How can we sing in a strange land? Must we hang up our lyres on the willows there? How can we experience joy at church when we’re constantly in fear of an invisible spectre? What is church without songs, or speaking, or even greeting one another? And of course, why hasn’t “God’s saving hand” spared us from this?

It represents a cataclysmic obstacle for churches. Of course it doesn’t spell the end of religion, which has survived plagues plenty of times, and it doesn’t even mean things will be different in the future. But how this challenges believers today, and how believers and non-believers alike react and recover, will alter the face of organized religion in our lifetimes.