Thoughts on ethics, justice and the upcoming election

I know that there are many who take issue with my politics. That’s ok. This is America. I must, however, give a bit more clarity to my position. I don’t want folks to think that I’m simply being “contrary.” I apologize in advance for the length of this post. But, there are issues that I think are deserving of thought and reflection. Especially, as we are presented with such disparate positions as we are in the current campaign. So, I hope that you are provoked to think and discuss openly and respectfully about things. I don’t presume to think that this will change anyone’s mind about which party or candidate to support. But, hey, why not stir the pot a little?

As the American election season continues to move forward to its climax in November I felt an uncomfortable urge to throw in a bit more of my slightly, (?), biased opinion. I have made it fairly clear that I do not support the GOP platform nor its banner-bearer, Mitt Romney. This has made many of my Evangelical sisters and brothers look at me suspiciously. After all, isn’t Christian ethical and moral identity tied to a politically conservative position? Isn’t it for the sake of a “Christian America” that we contend vigorously with the evils of progressive and liberal thought? I think that there is more to consider in this run-up to November than the current economic conditions in this country, and the world at large. I don’t think that we can separate economic issues from issues of justice and ethics. However, both political parties would have us believe that just such a position is not only possible, but proper. Let me take a quick look at some of the issues I see.
Mr. Obama has, at the very least, been a mediocre manager and administrator. However, I believe that his naiveté and lack of consensus in the other branches of government have been mitigating factors in this. The statements and policies emanating from the current White House have had, if nothing else, an egalitarian flavor. Look at the positions on Mexican immigration, rights for the marginalized, i.e. gay/lesbian, Muslim, and other peripheral groups. While many on the so-called political right see this as a threat to the American ethic, others see this as the practical working of Paul’s view that in Christ there is neither slave nor free, male nor female, Greek nor barbarian. All are equal in the sight of Yahweh and have inherent worth as eikons of God. I think that his desire for equal healthcare availability for every citizen is praiseworthy. However, I’m not convinced that the current method is the best. What is good, however, is that something other than talk has actually been implemented. They say it’s easier to steer a vehicle that’s moving than one that is not. Hopefully, the conversation will continue toward policies that are just and equitable.
The GOP, on the other hand is championing the right of the American people to be free from government interference so that they can move forward and achieve their share of the elusive, if not mythical, American Dream. In promoting this they have become, in my view, ethically utilitarian. In a nutshell, utilitarianism is “The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.”[1]This is long-winded way of stating that the ends justify the means. In the New Testament, Caiaphas stated this idea clearly when he said that it was better for One to die for the benefit of the entire nation. Or, for the trekkies in the crowd, Mr. Spock’s declaration that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few…or the one.
How does this pertain to the current political campaign? The GOP has taken a stance that what benefits the many, namely the white, middle class majority, is the direction that government must take. In their view that is to create policies that make it easier for businesses and entrepreneurs to function. Thus, in theory, this will create job opportunities and an environment for the marketplace to flourish. This is wonderful! But, it is an end that has consequences along the way. Consequences that the GOP thinks are worth the final “good.” Let’s take a look at a few.
Mr. Romney made a statement in Feb. of this year that caused the first red flag to be flown in my mind. He said, “I’m not concerned about the very poor,” Romney said. “There’s a safety net there, and if it needs repair I’ll fix it. I’m not concerned about the very rich, they’re doing just fine. I’m concerned about the heart of America, the 95% of Americans who are right now struggling.”[2]This is as utilitarian a statement as anyone could make. By alluding to a non-existent safety net Mr. Romney can justify putting the concerns of the very poor on a back-burner. So, after 4 years of a Romney presidency, he can conceivably state that the goal of helping the 95% may be successful, but we never got around to fixing the net…it was not the expedient thing to do. Yes, I am speculating here. But, it is a valid question for people to consider.
In response to this I would like to quote one of my professors, Wyndy Corbin Reuschling. She wrote, “this emphasis on the greatest good for the greatest number and what serves their needs is in contrast to the scriptural obligations to care for the least of these, for the minority and for those on margins of social and political power. This is especially problematic if one has even a cursory view of human history, and even church history, and the tyranny of the greatest good defined by the majority and their tyranny over the minority. We know that the majority can be wrong and often have the resources to muster the ideological power and political support to enforce the view that might makes right and the majority always wins.”[3]The case for working for the happiness of all, especially those who have little or no voice in the process, is of paramount importance for those who claim allegiance to the text of Holy Writ. The God of the Bible mandated that it was the responsibility of those who would follow the Way to care for the widows, orphans and aliens among them. Jesus, in his first recorded message to those in the synagogue, quoted the prophet Isaiah saying, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”[4]It seems that there is a kind of ‘entitlement’ that has been proclaimed by divine fiat that we who choose to follow Christ must consider seriously.

Mr. Romney is also on record in favor of the construction of what is known as the Keystone Pipeline. This is a project that will allow oil extracted from Canadian oil sand to be transported across the U.S. to refineries and export facilities. Much ink has been spilled on this issue. Most of which, I fear, most Americans are utterly unaware of. Allow me to share a couple of concerns. While many still think that global warming is simply a political ploy to add regulations and burdens to business and industry, the evidence is mounting to prove it. The extraction of oil from Canada may very well add to the problem of increased greenhouse gases in ways that boggles the mind. One source states,

“The oil sands are Canada’s fastest growing source of GHGs,” said the document. It estimated that the industry’s annual greenhouse gas emissions would rise by nearly 900% from 1990 to 2020. By the end of that period, the oil sands — with an estimated annual footprint of 90 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent gases in 2020 — would exceed the carbon footprint of all cars and SUVs on Canadian roads from 2008, according to the Environment Canada document.
The document also warns of other rising air pollutants that could cause acid rain or other forms of acidification to damage lakes in Saskatchewan and Alberta, along with particulate matter that could be toxic to rivers, the landscape and wildlife.”[5]

Besides the atmospheric threat, there is the threat to the environment from the path of the pipeline itself. It has been the plan of the developers to build the pipeline across the largest fresh water aquifer in the U.S. This link will allow those interested to read just one of many articles that voice concern for this major source of drinking water and irrigation, http://insideclimatenews.org/news/20110811/keystone-xl-pipeline-route-ogallala-aquifer-nebraska-sandhills. Yet, those who favor the project state that the benefits far outweigh the risks. Jobs will be created and money will be made, (at least by those at the top of the investment food chain). There is reason to pause and consider this, though. There are some who would contest the optimistic view of the project. One such sources states,

“According to the U.S. State Department the pipeline would create at most 6,500 temporary construction jobs, and would leave only “hundreds” of permanent jobs, according to TransCanada, the Canadian company that wants to build the pipeline. Claims that the pipeline would employ tens or even hundreds of thousands of people are simply not true. A Cornell University study concludes the pipeline would kill more jobs than it would create, by reducing investment in the clean energy economy”[6]

(On this issue I think that Mr. Obama has taken the prudent position to deny the project’s access and to encourage further study and conversation.)
Utilitarianism is a normative ethical position that may help people when making moral decisions. It is not, however, the best way to proceed. What constitutes the ‘good of the many’? Who is able to render that position for all concerned? Pope John Paul II had concerns about the tendency for utilitarianism to make people, individuals and groups, objects of use. He wrote, “Utilitarianism is a civilization of production and of use, a civilization of things and not of persons, a civilization in which persons are used in the same way as things are used.”[7] It is this philosophy as espoused by the GOP that causes me concern. It does not seem to matter to them what happens to the few, as long as the many benefit. In civilized society we are, in fact, our brothers’ keeper. For those of us who accept as normative the admonition of Scripture, we have a mandate from Yahweh to care for the marginalized in society. And, I feel, that the government that is elected must share in that mandate. To not do so evidences a considered disregard for justice for all.
So, what does that do for my personal position? Well, none of the choices available are ideal, or even really good. However, when presented with a choice between a well-meaning, yet naïve incumbent who seems to be clear on what is just and a challenger who is equally clear in what is unjust, I must choose justice.


[1]Mill, John Stuart, Utilitarianism, in The Basic Writings of John Stuart Mill, (Modern Library: New York, 2002). Qtd. In Corbin Reuschling, Wyndy, Reviving Evangelical Ethics: The Promises and Pitfalls of Classic Models of Morality, (BrazosPress: Grand Rapids, 2008).
[3]Corbin Reuschling, Wyndy, Reviving Evangelical Ethics: The Promises and Pitfalls of Classic Models of Morality, (BrazosPress: Grand Rapids, 2008).
[4]Luke 4:18-19, NIV 2011.

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