June 2005

Love, Justice, and the Schools

Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report

In facing your own mortality, what final message would you leave to posterity? Steve Allen, one of the world’s most outstanding humanists of the 20th century, asked that question in a speech at the Denver Performing Arts Center on October 22, 1994.

Noel Coward has described Allen as the most talented man in America. Described often as a “true Renaissance man, Allen created and hosted the Tonight show, authored 43 books and created and hosted the Emmy award winning show, the Meeting of the Minds. One of his best books is one called Reflection.

In his speech Allen said that his experience had led him to the conclusion that there is no natural justice in the Universe. People have suffered terrible natural disasters from time immemorial that showed no sign of any just force, natural or supernatural, having influenced the outcome, if one looks at the facts about what caused these occurrences.

Yet now the time of danger has not passed. We face the possibility of a man-made world-wide holocaust, a nuclear one. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there has arisen the danger that nuclear weapons might fall into the hands of terrorists. The list of worries the human race faces is greater than ever. Formerly, serious social problems were confined to certain geographical areas. With the improvements in communications technology and the ability to travel long distances very rapidly, problems that formerly would have been local have become global. The bell of tragedy is now heard everywhere. In earlier times moral atrocities were over and done before news of them arrived in other areas.

For almost all of history, he says, the reaction to saying the kinds of things he was saying in this speech would have been his execution. We do not face such a danger now. Yet all humans face enormous moral questions everywhere. There are dark areas where moral monsters terrorize helpless people, as in Serbia and Haiti. The perpetrators of such monstrous injustices are usually the rich and the military and police forces that support them.

Allen proposes that all humans are entitled to protection from murder, rape, robbery and terrorizing actions. Yet our philosophical advisors about the moral dimension of human activity have been those who are formally religious. But it does not require a professional theologian to clarify simple questions of right and wrong.

Social bias and economic self-interest confers on us the moral judgments of those to whom we turn for instruction. Every culture is affected by such judgments. Ibsen in An Enemy of the People tells of a medical doctor who works in a local resort. He discovers a germ in the water that feeds into the resort that threatens the lives of everyone there. He tells the local officials about it, and they tell him to keep his mouth shut. The doctor’s advice is “bad for business.” Precisely the same trauma is now acted out everywhere (consider environmental warnings). Many die from inhaling tobacco smoke. Reformers are warned against because they disrupt business and might bring on big government intrusion. Manufacturers take your place as the judges of what will be allowed to take place. Again there is no natural justice in the universe; life is unfair. All around us are thousands who do not enjoy good health; they are not free of suffering inflicted by nature and humans.

One of the most foolish assertions we can make is that a vengeful, violent God inflicts such suffering. Ancient scriptures say that God is bent on bloody revenge and violence on us. It is an obligation of every human to oppose this idea, to develop as much justice as possible and never to hurt another human being. Some of us consider such ideals as worthless, seldom or never achieved. But there is never a direction that can be called true north. We sometimes make mistakes about morality, but we should continue to strive for virtue, to set the scale of justice as perfectly as possible. A greatly mistaken notion is that the only virtuous people are those who believe in religion, while unbelievers are unvirtuous.

Is there an all-knowing, all-loving and all-powerful God? This question has never been resolved satisfactorily to the world jury. Almost all of the world’s crimes, says Allen, are committed by those who accept the existence of God. Some assume that if there is no God, there is no reason to be virtuous. “Anything is permitted.” In two of the largest societies in history, both atheistic, the Soviet Union and China, not only is not everything permitted but much less is permitted than in free societies. If there is no God, the entire task is up to human beings. God is content to leave the work of improvement to humans.

Allen spoke of the experience of one of his sons, who converted to a religious cult. After 12 years his son left the cult. Allen says that, if one is converted to a religious belief system, the power of reason to change his mind is ineffective, even if the factual record is inconsistent with his religion. However, in general, whenever science and religion are pitted against each other, science has presented a more reasonable explanation.

Allen expressed a very serious concern about the American family. He says schools should teach people to love one another, but religion has taught love in the abstract rather than how to love in practical everyday relationships. Hitler’s Germany was overwhelmingly Christian and was the best educated populace in Europe. But they displayed blind strong hatred labeled as patriotism.

What is needed is for philosophy and religion to reinforce each other with the emphasis on practice, that is, on morality. Almost all religions teach that love is a supreme virtue. However, we all are gifted in loving what pleases us. The highest and most edifying form of love, and the one which may save the world, Allen suggests, involves loving those who are the most difficult to love.

He says the American family is now largely a failed institution. In our schools we train for almost every skill except marriage and parenthood. We don’t seem to learn anything from our philosophical opponents.

Coping With Life and Death

PhD candidate and chapter member Tawna Skousen gave an informative, rousing presentation at the May meeting of Humanists of Utah about how different laws and people define death and dying, pointing out interpretations and circumstances that make defining death not as simple as we may believe.

What is death?

Death is a term that refers to either the termination of life in a living system or the state of the organism after that event. The traditional definition of death is that the organism stops breathing and the heart stops beating.

Biologically, death can occur to wholes, to parts of wholes, or to both. Individual cells and organs can die yet the organism as a whole can continue to live. Or an organism can die yet its cells and organs continue to live; transplantation is possible because of this phenomenon. Irreversibility is part of the traditional definition where the organism cannot be brought back to life with an irreversible loss of vital fluids.

Irreversible also is cessation of all brain functions where even the brain stem stops functioning but is this death? The permanent loss of consciousness is part of irreversible coma although the heart is still beating and breathing is still occurring. Is this death? Some people believe that life stops when a person loses ability to think [e.g. make decisions, has sense of past and future, is rational and logical, etc.], feel emotions, and interact socially.

Identifying death

Identifying death is important because this a) Allows correct timing on the death certificate. b) Those responsible will act only after the person is truly deceased. c) Allows organ transplantation.

Definitions of death

Differing definitions of death: Prior to ventilators, CPR, and other technological means, death meant cardiovascular failure and breathing cessation. Since the 1960s, death shifted from an event to a process. The law, however, still approaches death as an event rather than a process, and as a matter of status rather than a medical condition.

Since 1968, differing perspectives on defining death began with “brain death,” the entire cessation of cerebral function or the whole brain while the person is still breathing and heart still beating. Few patients meet these criteria, however. The majority of cases are far more complex involving severe neurologic damage. In the 1970s, various statutes were proposed and adopted with brain-based criteria for defining death.

Most of the time, it’s pretty easy for doctors to tell when someone is dead; the person’s breathing and heartbeat stops and can’t be revived. But this changed when Congress passed the Uniform Determination of Death Act in 1981, stating that an individual, who has sustained either a) irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions or b) irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem, is dead.

With this act, the overwhelming majority of organ donors have been declared dead by a very different standard: Machines keep their hearts and lungs pumping, but doctors determine that their brain and brain stem have irreversibly stopped functioning. Now, some ethicists and doctors are beginning to question the validity of the brain death diagnosis. At a minimum, they say, many brain-dead people still have some brain activity, making the declaration of death less clear.

Vegetative States

Persistent Vegetative State and Permanent Vegetative State: These vegetative states are not considered death although the courts may authorize withdrawal of artificial nutrition and hydration after six months of no improvement.

It is considered “persistent” after one month in a vegetative state, considered “permanent” after three months if caused by non-traumatic events such as oxygen deprivation to the brain, and considered “permanent” after one year if caused by traumatic injuries such as a blow to the head. Guidelines for children are different.

Changing Laws

Instead of defined as a moment, death has evolved into also a process. Patients now have the right to refuse life-sustaining treatment, defined as medical procedures or interventions when used by one with a terminal condition serves only to prolong the dying process; this right excludes palliative care. “Terminal condition” is defined as an incurable or irreversible condition for which continuing medical treatment would not improve health but only prolong the dying process. Regardless of treatment, death would be imminent within reasonable medical judgment.

Here the crucial questions are when did the dying process begin, and when is death imminent? Persistent and permanent vegetative state patients are a predicament because they are not terminally ill nor are they brain dead.

In addition is the continuous battle between the “sanctity of life” [all life is equal] versus “quality of life.” Technology creates the imperative that if it can be done, we will do it whereas ethics asks if we should do it and who should decide the best course.

Widely covered by the media, the most recent ethics case has been of Terri Schiavo. Skousen also cited the cases of Karen Ann Quinlan, Nancy Beth Cruzon, Anthony Bland, Trisha Marshall, Terry Wallis, and Marion Ploch.

The Future

Currently the courts are the final arbiters although in the years to come will be continuous debate and discussion involving the patient’s family, the patient’s wishes, social mores, religious traditions, and the medical profession.

Author’s Addendum

The definition and determination of death according to Utah code is:

  1. An individual who has sustained either:
    • Irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem; is dead.
  2. A determination of death must be made in accordance with accepted medical standards.

–Sarah Smith

It Takes a Liberal and Conservative to Run a Nation

Liberal. Conservative. Two honorable adjectives.

At least half of those who made America great were called liberals. The other half were called conservatives. They worked together. They discussed ideas. They made compromises. And the nation moved forward.

None of the policies that make America great are either all liberal or all conservative. Wise leaders and wise citizens adopt the best from both sides of the equation. That’s one reason for the nation’s success.

Now, a few leaders and their misinformed lackeys seek to make half that successful equation unacceptable. For them, “liberal” is synonymous with “evil.”

Sadly, too many of those negative voices are heard on my long-time professional home–KSL radio. Lately, I find myself apologizing for KSL to individuals I hold in high esteem. Some are business leaders. Some are educators. Some are church leaders. They complain about what they hear, and their status lends credibility to their remarks. These are not the nasty “liberals” ridiculed so often on KSL radio. They are intelligent, mostly conservative listeners…or former listeners.

Too bad. The programs originated by KSL here in Utah are excellent. No one operates a more balanced, fair and civil talk show than Doug Wright does each morning. And his weekly “Movie Show” is far better than the officious overreaching of movie reviewers on syndicated television and public radio.

Grant and Amanda may be the most balanced and professional morning drive team in America. They offer thinking listeners a meaningful combination of news, information and entertainment. KSL radio’s news, traffic and weather product outperforms anything else in the region, and the station’s professional radio news staff is strengthened by a large professional television news staff.

But during the afternoon and late evenings, KSL radio sells its broadcast soul for a few pieces of silver.

No doubt, Sean Hannity attracts large audiences. But a large audience for radio these days consists of a few thousand listeners, a small percentage of the total population. Hannity appeals to his audience with ridicule, prejudice, rudeness and anger. Some people find simple-mindedness more entertaining than reason. A prime rule of communication is that we tend to seek those things with which we agree.

Dr. James Dobson, another syndicated regular, pretends to talk about family, but his words are mostly political. He carries so much political baggage that those with opposing viewpoints should demand equal time.

Bill O’Reilly, in the late evening, is not as rude as Hannity, but he consistently ridicules those who disagree, sometimes after they have signed off and can no longer object. Lars Larsen is basically an anarchist who believes the only good thing government does is kill foreigners and put lawbreakers in jail–especially minority lawbreakers.

These broadcasters and their followers brand “liberals” as enemies of the state. Like Hitler’s mind-bending propaganda, they tell listeners over and over again that anyone with a drop of “liberal” blood is evil.

Their approach tarnishes KSL’s image and colors listener reaction to the high quality broadcast services KSL provides locally.

For 22 years, I was honored to write and present KSL editorials–almost 6,000 of them. I was never asked to say anything mean, disrespectful or unreasonable. More importantly, I can’t recall a single time when KSL’s ownership tried to impose its will on editorial comments. And so it is no surprise that the station’s ownership has refrained from meddling in program schedules.

I certainly don’t expect ownership to force changes now. And neither should you. But KSL’s board of directors could reasonably express concerns. Members of the board are business men and women. They must hear from the same critics who corner me more often than I like. And listeners or former listeners definitely have influence over management decisions. Don’t call or write to Hannity and friends; your effort will only be ridiculed. Instead, write directly to KSL. If you like the programming, let them know. But if you don’t like it, express your disappointment. Otherwise, station management looks only at the listening “numbers” and the “bottom line.”

The real bottom line is that those who entertain with rudeness, incivility and misinformation do more to hinder American progress than to help it along.

Reason and good manners are more important than financial gain.

–Don Gale

G. Donald Gale is president of Words, Words, Words, Inc. He was formerly editorial director at KSL. He earned a doctorate at the University of Utah and was awarded an honorary doctorate by Southern Utah University.

(Originally published in the Deseret Morning News, May 7, 2005)

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The Rise of the Religious Right in the Republican Party is documented in great detail. Richard Garrard recommends Theocracy Watch

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