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Virtues and Values

Sam Harris on Not Tolerating Religious Beliefs


Given the link between belief and action, it is clear that we can no more tolerate a diversity of religious beliefs than a diversity of beliefs about epidemiology and basic hygiene. There are still a number of cultures in which the germ theory of disease has yet to put in an appearance, where people suffer from a debilitating ignorance on most matters relevant to their physical health. Do we "tolerate" these beliefs? Not if they put our own health in jeopardy.



Sixteenth-century classic by English ecclesiastic and scholar envisioned a tolerant, patriarchal island kingdom free of private property, violence, bloodshed and vice. Forerunner of many later attempts. Since its publication in 1516, Utopia has provoked a hailstorm of debate. The minute details More ascribed to his "perfect world" make Utopia still a work of the future. • "There were utopias before this book that Thomas More wrote in the early 1500s, including Plato’s Republic. This, however, is the book that gives us the word ‘Utopia.’ The book is brief, barely over 100 pages, and only 60-some describe the place itself. That is enough, and makes me nostalgic for the habit of writing briefly and to the point. It’s easy to sum up More’s heaven-on-earth in a few words. It portrays a communal, democratic society. It is paradoxically unregulated and tightly regulated — overwhelmingly, More’s citizens just want to do what is best for their society, and that covers a remarkably narrow range of possibilities. There are, of course, some who break the laws of the land, and More deals with them harshly. "Harsh" is a relative term, though, and his punishments were hardly harsh in a day when it was a hanging offense to steal a loaf of bread for your starving family. It’s also a strongly religious society. Religious tolerance is a matter of law, a novelty by the standards of More’s day and the standard of his own behavior. ‘Tolerance’, however, meant tolerance of any monotheism that wasn’t too animistic, and certainly didn’t tolerate the unreligious. This translation from More’s original Latin is modern and smoothly readable. Even so, I wonder how another translator would have handled some of More’s neologistic names, like the unpleasant ‘Venalians’ who are the Utopians’ neighbors. No answer is right, but other renderings may convey more and grate less. Those are quibbles, though. It’s a good book as well as being a Great Book, and casts an interesting shadow into modern communism, theocracy, and ideas of the good life. I recommend it highly." ~ wiredweird at

Donald W. Shriver, Jr. on Forgetting


The isolating device of prison guarantees that reconciliation between prisoners and the rest of ‘us’ remains far out of our minds. The case with amnestied perpetrators is different. Their very presence raises the daily question: can the sinning and the sinned-against achieve a new positive relationship. For the sake of new social harmony, the motto ‘forget and move on’ has its utilitarian attraction. But the motto is deceptive. Forgetting is a tricky business, both psychically and politically. Psychically, Kierkegaard was right to suggest that real forgetting requires real remembering: ‘When we say that we consign something to oblivion, we suggest simultaneously that it is to be forgotten and yet also remembered.’

Donald W. Shriver, Jr. on What Trials Cannot Do


Court trials cannot: prosecute the dead, secure direct testimony from the dead, or repair damages done to the lives of the dead; truly match punishments to crimes when the crime consists of the murder of many victims; put institutions and systems on trial; within usual rules against self-incrimination and torture, compel perpetrators to confess; summon classes of offenders newly tagged as such without engaging in the ambiguities of ex post facto prosecution — an ambiguity abolishable by legislative grants of general impunity; avoid, in most societies, the skewing influence of money and power on the effectiveness of prosecution and defence; always implement distinction between retribution and vengeance, especially in response to public demand for the latter; guarantee ‘closure’ or satisfaction among victims that justice has been done once a perpetrator has been punished, a problem further exacerbated by the traditional western judicial system which largely keeps victims on the margins of the whole process; always avoid adversarial abuse of plaintiffs, defendants, and witnesses; avoid scapegoating, especially in trials of leaders who required large constituencies for carrying out their crimes; or escape from the danger, inherent in the adversarial trial system, that the courtroom will become a playing field in which the most skilled, rather than the most truthful, side will win.

Donald W. Shriver, Jr. on America and Its Past


Ominously for some Euro-Americans, analogous discussions are now gathering in the United States. We are not done with the evil legacy of Euro-American treatment of African slaves and native Indians. How a future-oriented culture such as America’s gets propelled into serious moral re-examination of the dark sides of its history is a subject worthy of much future consultation between historians, social scientists, and theological ethicists in America. Already the ferment of new visits to our own ignoble versions of administrative massacres may signal a new openness in our culture to hearing the simmering angry memories of those whose ancestors suffered those events. As he left Atlanta recently to return to South Africa, Desmond Tutu remarked, ‘The United States needs a truth and reconciliation commission.’ African Americans and Native Americans are likely to agree; but, as both the histories of trials and truth commissions described in this essay vividly suggests, every country, with its unique history, must craft its own unique way of reckoning with that history. No one measure will suffice for the making and remaking of a public conscience. Installing negative history in public memory is a multi-dimensional project that has to circle back again and again to old facts from new perspectives.

James Waller on Amorality


One of the striking things in the study of perpetrators is how they live with themselves morally. It’s not that difficult because this really isn’t a moral issue for them. They’ve removed the victims from their universe of moral obligation. What they’re doing to the victims isn’t really a moral problem because the victim’s not part of their moral universe in the way that for some of us a bug or an insect isn’t. Killing it is just not a moral problem for us because we don’t feel that moral obligation.

P.J. O’Rourke on Happiness


Winning the race to happiness is problematic, but so is knowing where to start and finish and which direction to run. Philosophy is no help. “Very little is needed to make a happy life,” said Marcus Aurelius. Tell it to the kids on a rainy day, Marco, when the DVD player is on the fritz, the Game Boy is out of batteries, and the SUV won’t start. “Happiness is activity in accordance with excellence,” said Aristotle, who must have been a better golfer than I am. The Epicureans would be expected to know something about pursuing happiness. Epicurus said, “Pleasure is the beginning and the end of living happily.” I’ll get the gin, you find some olives and vermouth. But then Epicurus went on to say, “It is impossible to live pleasurably without living wisely, well, and justly.” Fine, for people who pursue their happiness by eating oat bran, reading St. Peter’s Epistles, and not ducking out of jury duty. Solon of Athens declared, “Until he is dead, do not yet call a man happy.” And then what do you call him?

P.J. O’Rourke on Happiness and Huggy Love


Happiness isn’t impossible to describe. But, paradoxically, no one can listen to descriptions of happiness for long. Compare Dante’s Inferno with Dante’s Paradiso. Dante’s beloved Beatrice would have died of boredom if he had tried reading to her from Paradiso rough drafts. On a less exalted plane, let any huggy-lovey couple show you their honeymoon slides.

Molly Ivins on Political Correctness


You would not believe the number of sensitivities that have to be kept in mind in public discourse. I once got mad at some Texas legislators over a spectacularly pea-brained stunt and referred to them as “a bunch of droolers.” I was promptly served with pamphlets from an outfit called the Society to Prevent Cruelty to Those Who Involuntarily Drool. (Very sad, actually, people who have had strokes often drool involuntarily.) People make fun of political correctness, but if you’re running for office, left-handed lesbians of Czech descent are out there, and they are touchy.

Jeffrey Satinover on Religious Certitude


I suppose that God Himself is doing just fine, but His earthly defenders are on the ropes, and it’s our own fault. Religion deservedly comes in for more criticism in its failures than does science, because genuine religion claims for itself the ability to know what’s true, whereas genuine science claims for itself only the ability to quantify the probability of a thing being wrong. (Bad science and bad religion simply swap roles, the former proclaiming Truth, the latter worshiping Doubt.) Religion’s bête noire is the fact that a genuine truth arrogantly asserted — that is, without so much as a moment’s consideration that it might be false — is a most pernicious kind of falsehood, far worse in its effects on the humane than a flat mistake. It’s a matter of modesty. It never uses the term, but science itself is a method to insure modesty of claims (however arrogant its practitioners). Religion, on the other hand, speaks constantly of the virtues, and then, on the whole, displays them with no greater consistency than does any other human institution.

Ruth Lessl Shively on Believing in Something


I have argued that if the ambiguists mean to be subversive about anything, they need to be conservative about some things. They need to be steadfast supporters of the structures of openness and democracy: willing to say “no” to certain forms of contest; willing to set up clear limitations about acceptable behavior. To this, finally, I would add that if the ambiguists mean to stretch the boundaries of behavior — if they want to be revolutionary and disruptive in their skepticism and iconoclasm — they need first to be firm believers in something. Which is to say, again, they need to set clear limits about what they will and will not support, what they do and do not believe to be best. … In other words, a refusal to judge among ideas and activities is, in the end, an endorsement of the status quo. To embrace everything is to be unable to embrace a particular plan of action, for to embrace a particular plan of action is to reject all others, at least for that moment. Moreover, as observed in our discussion of openness, to embrace everything is to embrace self-contradiction: to hold to both one’s purposes and to that which defeats one’s purposes — to tolerance and intolerance, open-mindedness and close-mindedness, democracy and tyranny.

Thomas Cahill on an End to the Everlasting Hills


Is not the desire of the everlasting hills that they be saved from their everlastingness, that something new happen, that the everlasting cycle of human cruelty, of man’s inhumanity to man, be brought to an end?

What Do We Deserve?


The concept of desert, which once enjoyed a central place in political and ethical theory, has been relegated to the margins of much of contemporary theory, if not excluded altogether. Recently a renewed interest in the topic has emerged, and several philosophers have argued that the notion merits a more central place in political and ethical theory. Some of these philosophers contend that justice exists to the extent that people receive exactly what they deserve, while others argue that desert should replace such considerations as rights, need, and equality as the basis for distributions. Still others argue that morality involves a fitting match between one’s moral character and a degree of happiness. All of these positions have encountered opposition from egalitarians, libertarians, and those who are skeptical about the coherence of the concept of desert. The first anthology of its kind, What Do We Deserve? is a balanced collection of readings that brings sharply opposing positions and arguments together and stimulates debate over the meaning and significance of desert in current thought. The book begins with eight classical readings on desert (by Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Smith, Kant, Mill, Sidgwick, and Ross), and later turns to contemporary interpretations of the issue. The selections examine the concept itself, analyze its relationship to the ideas of freedom and responsibility, engage in the debate between John Rawls and his critics on the merits of desert, and, finally, study the wider role and significance of desert in political and ethical theory. ~ Product Description

Toleration: An Elusive Virtue


If we are to understand the concept of toleration in terms of everyday life, we must address a key philosophical and political tension: the call for restraint when encountering apparently wrong beliefs and actions versus the good reasons for interfering with the lives of the subjects of these beliefs and actions. This collection contains original contributions to the ongoing debate on the nature of toleration, including its definition, historical development, justification, and limits. In exploring the issues surrounding toleration, the essays address a variety of provocative questions. Is toleration a moral virtue of individuals or rather a pragmatic political compromise? Is it an intrinsically good principle or only a "second best-solution" to the dangers of fanaticism to be superseded one day by the full acceptance of others? Does the value of toleration lie in respect to individuals and their autonomy, or rather in the recognition of the right of minority groups to maintain their communal identity? Throughout, the contributors point to the inherent indeterminacy of the concept and to the difficulty in locating it between intolerant absolutism and skeptical pluralism. Religion, sex, speech, and education are major areas requiring toleration in liberal societies. By applying theoretical analysis, these essays show the differences in the argument for toleration and its scope in each of these realms. ~ Product Description

An Ethic For Enemies


The author, president emeritus of Union Theological Seminary, has produced a work that deserves close scrutiny. The casual reader is likely to conclude that Shriver is addressing, in some flight of fancy, the oxymoronic. After all, political forgiveness seems patently absurd, especially given the history of the 20th century-not to mention our contemporary culture of violence. However, while recognizing that forgiveness is a morally complex concept, Shriver argues that it reaches beyond the realm of the personal to the arena of political ethics. He contends that forgiveness is (or at least should be seen as) an indispensable element in politics and that it is an essential ingredient in our attempt to construct a proper political ethics. Not everyone will be persuaded by Shriver’s attempt to make forgiveness the cornerstone of a political ethic; nonetheless, his argument should not be ignored. ~ Library Journal

Dallas Willard on Cussing

Go Recently cultural observers have noted the overwhelming rise in the use of filthy language, especially among young people. Curiously, few have been able to find any grounds for condemning it other than personal taste. How strange! Can it be that they actually find contempt acceptable, or are unable to recognize it? Filthy language and name calling is always an expression of contempt. The current swarm of filthy language floats upon the sea of contempt in which our society is now adrift.

J.P. Moreland on Intellectual Humility


Humility and the associated traits of open-mindedness, self-criticality, and nondefensiveness [are] virtues relevant to the intellectual life. We must be willing to seek the truth in a spirit of humility with an admission of our own finitude; we must be willing to learn from our critics; and we need to learn to argue against our own positions in order to strengthen our understanding of them… The purpose of intellectual humility, open-mindedness , and so forth is not to create a skeptical mind that never lands on a position about anything, preferring to remain suspended in midair. Rather, the purpose is for you to do anything you can to remove your unhelpful biases and get at the truth in a reasoned way.

J.P. Moreland on the Good Life


From Old Testament times and ancient Greece until this century, the good life was widely understood to mean a life of intellectual and moral virtue. The good life is the life of ideal human functioning according to the nature that God Himself gave to us. According to this view, prior to creation God had in mind an ideal blueprint of human nature from which he created each and every human being. Happiness was understood as a life of virtue, and the successful person was one who knew how to live life well according to what we are by nature due to the creative design of God.

David James Duncan [Peter] on Forgiveness


You, me, before we die we’ll all get nailed, lots of times. But that doesn’t mean we’ll al get turned into witches. You can’t avoid getting zapped, but you can avoid passing the mean energy on. That’s the interesting thing about witches, the challenge of them — learning not to hit back, or hit somebody else, when they zap you. You can just bury the zap, for instance, like the gods buried the Titans in the center of the earth. Or you can be like a river when a forest fire hits it — pshhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh! Just drown it, drown all the heat and let it wash away… And the great thing, the reason you can lay a river in the path of any sort of wildfire is that there’s not just rivers inside us, there’s a world in there… Not because I say so. Christ says so. And Krishna. But I feel it sometimes too. I’ve felt how there’s a world, and rivers, and high mountains, whole ranges of mountains, in there. And there are lakes in those mountains — beautiful, pure, deep blue lakes. Thousands of them. Enough to wash away all the dirt and trouble and wretchedness on earth.

David James Duncan on Sehnsucht


To describe in words makes the kingdom sound stark and empty, like the scrub desert of eastern Washington or something. But this is only because words can’t explain the feeling that everything had. The fullness of things only made you notice this feeling more. The air, for instance smelled something like sea air, but whereas sea air makes you hungry, kingdom air made you full, and it wasn’t a fullness like when you’re stuffed from overeating: it was more like foodless fullness you get at the end of a really good movie. Like when the Captured Girl is about to be killed because she won’t tell The Secret, and she takes a last look at the hills with tears in her huge brown eyes, and here comes The Hero you thought was dead, riding down out of nowhere with his sword flashing or gun blazing, making hamburger out of Evil while the music surges through you and the goose bumps shoot up and down you. That sort of fullness. Like I said, I can’t explain it.

Exclusion and Embrace


Life at the end of the twentieth century presents us with a disturbing reality. Otherness, the simple fact of being different in some way, has come to be defined as in and of itself evil. Miroslav Volf contends that if the healing word of the gospel is to be heard today, Christian theology must find ways of speaking that address the hatred of the other. Reaching back to the New Testament metaphor of salvation as reconciliation, Volf proposes the idea of embrace as a theological response to the problem of exclusion. Increasingly we see that exclusion has become the primary sin, skewing our perceptions of reality and causing us to react out of fear and anger to all those who are not within our (ever-narrowing) circle. In light of this, Christians must learn that salvation comes, not only as we are reconciled to God, and not only as we “learn to live with one another,” but as we take the dangerous and costly step of opening ourselves to the other, of enfolding him or her in the same embrace with which we have been enfolded by God.

Brennan Manning on Open Mindedness

Go When our inner child is not nurtured and nourished, our minds gradually close to new ideas, unprofitable commitments, and the surprises of the Spirit. Evangelical faith is bartered for cozy, comfortable piety. A failure of nerve and an unwillingness to risk distorts God into a Bookkeeper and the gospel of grace is swapped for the security of religious bondage. (63) ... If we maintain the open-mindedness of children, we challenge fixed ideas and established structures, including our own. We listen to people in other denominations and religions. We don't cozy up to people who mouth our jargon. If we are open, we rarely resort to either-or: either creation or evolution, liberty or law, sacred or secular, Beethoven or Madonna. We focus on both-and, fully aware that God's truth cannot be imprisoned in a small definition. Of course, the open mind does not accept everything indiscriminately — Marxism and capitalism, Christianity and atheism, love and lust, Moet Chandon and vinegar. It does not absorb all propositions equally like a sponge, nor is it as soft. But the open mind realizes that reality, truth, and Jesus Christ are incredibly open-ended.

Brennan Manning on Doubting God’s Love


In my ministry as a vagabond evangelist, I have encountered shocking resistance to the God whom the Bible defines as Love. The skeptics range from the oily, over-polite professionals who discreetly drop hints of the heresy of universalism, to the Bible thumper who sees only the dusty, robust war God of the Pentateuch, and who insists on restating the cold demands of rule-ridden perfectionism.