Sign of the Age

I’ve decided I must be old. A song came on the radio yesterday. My daughter bounced along as though she like it. I thought it was mindless–Sign one that I’m OLD. I think much of “today’s” music is hopelessly banal, lacking any musicality, and far too dependent on computer programming and pop media hype. Since my musical sensibilities came of age in the 80’s I do recognize the irony in all of it.

Then the song hit the “bridge” maybe the “chorus” I’m not sure. The “singers” repeatedly said, “Shush girl, shut your lips/Do the Helen Keller and talk with your hips.” I didn’t know who the band was at the time. I guessed they were young and mean-spirited. The song was recorded by a Colorado band called 3Oh!3 and is entitled “Don’t Trust Me.” I quickly told my daughter to turn the station. She’s fourteen and is going to listen to what she wants but I can at least register my disapproval and bad moral content. I rattled off some diatribe against a culture in which nothing seems sacred. Sign two that I’m old–I actually think some things ARE sacred.

Today, I watched the video on MTV’s website–Sign three (only old people still use the internet to “research problematic manifestations of abhorrent pop culture
“). I read the lyrics of the song (sign four). And then I decided to write this blog–sign five. Old people write blogs. Young people have discovered how to express themselves adequately in 140 characters or less.

But I remember, here’s the big sixth sign that I’m old. I thought it disrespectful to say “do the Helen Keller” as though this American woman who confronted being both blind and deaf yet managed to learn to communicate, inspire and lead could be reduced to a spasmodic dance move. But I also remember retelling those really insensitive jokes back when I was young. I remembered and I regretted past young, mean-spirited, dumb-ass things I said a generation ago (I’m now 20+ years removed from my 18th birthday).

So, there you have it. 3Oh!3 has served one useful purpose in the world. They have opened my eyes to the fact that I’m old.

Moral Behavior

David Brooks April 6, 2009 column reflects on the relationship between moral reasoning and moral decision-making. He quotes Michael Gazzaniga’s book Human. “It has been hard to find any correlation between moral reasoning and proactive moral behavior, such as helping other people. In fact, in most studies, none has been found.” Contrary to making moral decisions based on moral reasoning Brooks writes, “Moral judgments . . . are rapid intuitive decisions and involve the emotion-processing parts of the brain. Most of us make snap moral judgments about what feels fair or not, or what feels good or not. We start doing this when we are babies, before we have language. And even as adults, we often can’t explain to ourselves why something feels wrong.” Consequently, he suggests, that moral reasoning is a subsequent process once decisions have been made and not the guiding discipline moral philosophers had hoped it would be.

He goes on to label this understanding of humanity morality as the “evolutionary approach to morality” and names three “nice things” about the approach. These nice things include emphasis on social construction of morality or cooperation, a humanizing of humanity, and a reasonable explanation for the irrational nature of human decision making that does not destroy individual responsibility. Brooks assesses this new approach to morality as “an epochal change” as it challenges among other things those of us who are invested in the “hyper-rational scrutiny of texts.” I have not invested time in studying the developments and reports which Brooks bases this development on so I can only respond to how he summarizes it. However, I am not convinced that this approach is either new nor particularly contrary to the way I understand a Christian view of morality.

First, I’m not sure the idea is all that new. Cicero wrote in De Oratore, “Men decide far more problems by hate, or love, or lust, or rage, or sorrow, or joy, or hope, or fear, or illusion, or some other inward emotion, than by reality, or authority, or any legal standard or judicial precedent, or statute” (2.41.178). So if I am correct in linking the view expressed in Cicero’s rhetorical dialogue with the evolutionary approach to morality, then it does not seem to be as revolutionary as it appears. The explanation of human behavior has been with us as least 2100 years. NOTE: It could be that what Brooks thinks is epochal is not the concept itself but its widespread acceptance.

Similarly, the Apostle Paul lamented, “The good that I would do, I do not. And that which I hate, I do” (Romans 7). Pauline anthropology resembles this view of the dominance of emotional reaction over moral philosophy in actual moral behavior. The modification brought by a New Testament understanding of humanity is simply that people can—through conversion and sanctification—cultivate new emotional reactions through processes of the spirit.

So, this may not be as challenging to existing models of moral reasoning as Brooks suggests. Among those challenged by this approach include new atheists who may naively assume the purity of their reasoning, the “Talmudic tradition, with its hyper-rational scrutiny of texts” and traditional moral philosophy. I’m not sure why Brooks chooses to name only the Talmudic tradition among those who approach moral reasoning via hermeneutics. Perhaps it’s so that when Christians like me object he can say, “Well, I wasn’t really talking about you; now was I?”

However, I would say that if I have understood what Brooks’s is labeling the evolutionary approach to morality correctly then it is not much different than the views of Howard Stone and Jim Duke in their basic text, How to Think Theologically. Stone, a pastoral care professor and Duke a Christian theological historian both a Brite Divinity School (my alma mater) provided this text as a basic introduction to applied theology (i.e., the kind of theology you practice in the church). They introduced the concept of embedded theology and critical theology. Embedded theology is the theology that governs our prayer life and those snap moral decisions. Our critical theology is an intentional identification, assessment, and critique of our embedded theology. However, they stress that the influence of critical theological work to our embedded theology is never direct. Critical theological work impacts embedded theologies slowly and over time.

I cannot name a serious Christian theological thinker and certainly no practicing minister who believes that moral behavior can be instantly changed through the cognitive processes of moral philosophy. It takes disciplined practice to reform embedded theological reactions and behaviors. Only behavior can reform behavior. Brooks seems to want to say that the evolutionary view of morality is not deterministic. People can make choices. I believe Christian spiritual formation view of people would argue that making new moral choices is about re-shaping the human emotional structures through specific practices not through complex moral philosophy.

I have no interest in defending the traditional practice of moral reasoning which Brooks thinks is jeopardized by these new developments. Ministry is not applied philosophy but applied theology and the two are not synonymous. But, I also don’t know that what he’s said challenges much in terms of the way practicing ministers approach the moral formation with people.

Possible Research Project

Pundits are those journalists who make a living offering opinions. In our culture war mentality, we have pundits on the left and right who offer their opinions for mass consumption. In doing so, they engage in argumentation.

Argumentation is serious business but it is not an exact science. Rhetoricians and others who study argumentation try to provide some guidance and part of that guidance comes in the form of identifying reasoning fallacies, moments where speakers/writers/advocates shortcut reasonable thinking and build an argument using questionable building materials. I learned about these from what remains my favorite public speaking textbook The Speaker’s Handbook by Jo Sprague and Douglas Stuart. Short, concise, unadorned. Truth be told, all of us who communicate with any regularity succumb to reasoning errors. Ultimately most arguments break down somewhere along the line. At some point, we make the leap from verifiable fact to value judgment that is at the heart of inferences. Inferences are necessary if we are going to do anything with facts. That leap is often emotional and difficult to justify. So, reasoning fallacies happen as a natural course of communicating.

But it seems to me that reasoning fallacies are especially common among pundits particularly among pundits who view America as divided between liberals and conservatives in an intractable culture war. I’d like to test a hypothesis. Here’s my hypothesis: Pundits whose frame for moral/political/ethical/religious discourse is shaped by the culture war metaphor commit logical fallacies as part of their rhetorical strategy.

Testing this hypothesis involves several steps.
Step 1–creating an operational definition of “culture war metaphor.”
Step 2–identifying pundits whose frame for moral/political/ethical/religious discourse is shaped by the culture war metaphor.
Step 3–code samples of pundits work for examples of reasoning fallacies.

If it can be shown that the norm among culture war pundits is to rely on reasoning fallacies, then I can conclude that reasoning fallacies are indeed engaged as culture war rhetorical strategy.

I may need to add a step of identifying those who reject the culture war metaphoric frame and code their work as well. Compare sample groups.