Ethics and Cucumber Sandwiches

8 07 2012

So anyway, my son wanted to know why I was buying a 2 Tb hard drive so that a close friend could copy several hundred movies and TV shows for me. It is a telling thing that I chose to inform him that Daddy has principles about such things and doesn’t copy intellectual property from others. This is true, just.


The broader and perhaps more complete truth is that I have no idea how to do this simple, if kinda illegal task. Technical incompetence and not a higher moral platform was the reason for the purchase. Wanting to find out more, I finally capitulated the many requests of friends to watch the TV series Breaking Bad, which I had heard about (hell, I AM a chemistry teacher after all!) but had never actually watched. It took me a good week to get through all four seasons, but yes, one heck of a TV show!

It also got me thinking about why we do what we do and not other things. Some Christians I know don’t smoke or drink or gamble yet they may be divorced, gossip regularly and are gluttonous pigs. The former of these issues is a ‘sin’ with a bit of scriptural wrangling. The latter three? Well, let’s just say there’s not a lot of wrangling to the ‘sin’ part, as far as the Bible seems to show.

On the show, Walter White’s wife, Skyler, turns the revelation of Walt’s rampant Methamphetamine production into a story about Walt’s uncontrollable illegal gambling when confessing to her sister, Marie. This explains the large amount of new found wealth they now possess to help pay Marie’s husband’s medical bills.

Needless to say the story washes well, very well, in fact. Illegal gambling is, after all, far more socially acceptable than illegal meth cooking, yeah? So our morals are reflexively influenced by culture? Of course they are. We give people what we want them to digest about ourselves. Presumably, we all do.

What happens when we do this? Firstly, our ‘low bar’ now becomes the lesser of two evils. ‘Hey, I may like a burger or twenty, but I ain’t no crackhead!!’. The fact that this person is far more likely to die (about 250 times more likely) from heart disease than the complications of being a crackhead is not important in this justification. Which brings me to the next point; since when did health become more important than living righteously (or morally, if your superego is currently having a religious wig out!)? It’s certainly easier to do something about harm minimisation than it is to deal with the roots of addiction.

Yep. Apparently we tend to judge the seriousness of a ‘moral lapse’ on the basis of how that would feel if it was happening to us. So, predictably, we get a hierarchy down from grisly homicides, rape, theft, adultery through to.. well, maybe peeing in the shower of a morning. You may get a list extending perhaps a lot further than this if you tend to shower with your spouse and use his or her foot as a target, but you get the idea.

We often assuage the guilt we feel about the crappy way we carry out with ourselves and others by trying to do things for other people that we ‘know’ they enjoy. Sometimes the logic of such actions is lamentable as much as it is common. Let’s say a couple gets divorced and the kids get spoilt rotten by both parents financially. Of course, any divorce is costly in a great number of ways, least of all financially. Both parties would dearly feel happier if they were better off financially and both want the love of their children dearly. So surely the act of giving things to their poor children would make them feel a lot better? Maybe, but I doubt it. So if we judge evil on the basis of how we would feel if it happened to us, perhaps we measure penance on the basis of what might make us feel better about it?

This guy I know was having a rant that he made his wife a cup of tea religiously for decades every morning. Pouring her tea first, in her favourite cup, every day, because he knew that she felt validated through acts of service and it was something she apparently enjoyed. He remarked about his desire to have his shoulders worked on a little after a hard day at work at what that would mean to him, even though this would happen perhaps once every three months and only if he asked for it. Her solution? From then on, he started getting cups of tea made for him most mornings and nary a shoulder rub in sight.


So too, the Queen eats cucumber sandwiches. She most certainly did not make the practice famous; this aristocratic penchant dates well before the Edwardian era but, being a good Queen (or, less likely, a very bad Queen remarkably good at keeping her vices from the tabloids), she would eat them diligently when offered them. Does she really like them? Who would really know? Would she lie about liking them, if pressed, at a high tea held in her honour? Probably, for fear of offending her guests. More correctly, for fear of having others left with a bad impression of her for being so offensive to her hosts.

Yes, we tend to behave in a way that satisfies ourselves first. Then, it is efficacious to justify or transfer that behaviour into those which preserve the best image of ourselves to others in communities we value.

In this sense we subjugate principles for popularity, integrity for acceptance and ethics for ego. It is here that we can make a great deal more sense out of the actions of Jesus Christ. In speaking to prostitutes alone at midday, healing on the Sabbath, having meals with known extortionists and giving wine to people who were already drunk, we see a different model of behaviour here. Instead of confessing to a lesser immorality (like being a problem gambler instead of a meth cook), Jesus makes the more moral of two moral choices. He turns a woman’s family to God instead of shunning her to preserve his ‘righteousness’ before others. He gave a man sight instead of placating the leaders of the law with his pious observance of the sabbath. He put a veil around her mother’s shame as a member of the bridegroom’s family having run out of wine, protected her standing in the community she loved, and did his first miracle.

I trust that, when given choices in the future and confessing the evil I have done, I will give thought to the actions of my saviour. May we all take the road which leads us closer to right standing with God (or ethical integrity if our humanists are still with us at this point!). Not only this, but may we set our bar for evil where it needs to be, at absolute zero, not floating like some mad barometer, rising and falling with the change in pressure to our egos.


Just a thought!




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