Tag Archives: tolerance

Moral Benchmarks

U.S. prosecutor Robert Jackson & Russian assistant prosecutor General Uri Pokrovsky listen to testimony at Nurmeberg, 1946.

We needed to buy new computers at my office a while back. Some of our engineering software has specific requirements, so it was important to make sure the new hardware would work well with our software for the next several versions. But in looking at different platforms, each company had their own claim to be the fastest/most-powerful/best-overall, and so on. If there’s a way to split hairs over words to be able to say your product is the best, creative marketers will find that way. After all, if you define your class down small enough, anyone can claim they are “best in class” – especially once they’re the only one in some ridiculously narrow category! So what’s a person to do to cut through the ulterior motives of marketers and objectively rate competing claims? Wouldn’t it be great if somebody compared each company’s product to the same independent standard so you could see if that expensive video card actually renders 3D graphics better, or if it’s just hype? Well, while it’s not perfect, such a protocol is out there, and it’s called a benchmark. Benchmarking takes each computer and runs the same load test on it to try (as best we can) to get an objective measure of how powerful that processor really is, how good those graphics really are, and so on. But the key to a benchmark is that it’s independent of the competitors. If the standard changes from one product to the next, then it’s not really a standard, and we’re back to having to sift through the hype. What about when you’re confronted not with competing computer hardware, but with competing views of morality? Is there a benchmark you can appeal to for that as well? Let’s work through that today.

Like the competing computer companies, competing cultures or nations will try to justify their actions as being right. But can some of these competing claims be right at the same time? It seems like in order for some to right, others would have to be false. Consider an example. The American Declaration of Independence claims that every person is endowed by their Creator with an inalienable right to life. The Nazi regime of Germany in WWII had a different idea. They believed Jews did not have an inalienable right to life. In fact, they believed they were doing humanity a service by “purifying” humanity of people they considered undesirable.  Both of these views can’t be right. If the American view is right, then the lowest Jew in the Warsaw ghetto had a right to life just as much as the highest SS officer in Berlin. That same American protection applied equally to the mentally and physically handicapped that the Nazis also slaughtered (or experimented on).

Of course, whether we admit it or not, we all recognize that some things we do are wrong, or else we would never bother trying to think up excuses to justify our actions. The Nazis were no different. Their justification for murdering various groups of people  was one used throughout history: simply redefine your victim as inherently different from you so that a different standard applies to them. The Nazis did the same as some slave owners in the American South of the 1800’s, who rationalized their ownership and treatment of black people by declaring them subhuman. The Jews were likewise declared subhuman, and therefore killing a Jew wasn’t murder, and trying to kill them all wasn’t genocide. In fact, the Nazi term “untermenschen” – applied to Jews especially, but also to other groups – was taken from the German translation of a book published (sadly) by an American eugenicist named Lothrop Stoddard in 1922, which referred to non-white people as “under-men”. Defining people the Nazis didn’t like as “subhuman” meant there was no problem in the Nazi moral system with experimenting on them, starving them, gassing them, and generally murdering them in any way imaginable. Convenient for the Nazis – not so much for their victims.

But were the Nazis wrong or just different? Many could (and did) say that they were simply following orders. Many could point to the legality of what they did. Many could point to the fact that not only were their war crimes not punishable in their culture, but they were rewarded for what they did to rid the world of those subhuman untermenschen. They could argue that what they did was defined as good in their culture. Who are we to condemn them just because we don’t value racial purity like they did?, they would ask.  Can we just say that we have our morality and the Nazis had theirs, and we should tolerate it? To each his own? Can a relativist society that denies the existence of objective truth and objective morality say anything else? Thankfully, America’s Greatest Generation would have none of that nonsense. They recognized evil for what it was and did not tolerate it. And in the Nuremberg trials, Justice Robert Jackson appealed to that law above all national laws that would supersede any Nazi appeal to their own law, for even rulers are “under God and the law”.[1]  And what was Justice Jackson building on but that foundation of American jurisprudence, Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England?[2] William Blackstone rightly observed that “That rule which natural reason has dictated to all men, is called the law of nations.” But what is this natural law? Blackstone answers that it is to do the will of our Maker. He wrote that what we call natural law that is applicable to all people regardless of place or time, is none other than our own perception of divine law, determined as best we can through our faulty and corrupted human reason. Yet we do not have to rely on that sometimes-distorted perception of divine law, for God has explicitly revealed it to humanity through the Bible. He further comments  that “human laws are only declaratory of, and act in subordination to, the former [divine law]. To instance in the case of murder; this is expressly forbidden by the divine, and demonstrably by the natural law; and from these prohibitions arise the true unlawfulness of this crime. … if any human law should allow or enjoin us to commit it, we are bound to transgress that human law, or else we must offend both the natural and the divine.” [3] That line of reasoning will likely sound familiar to anyone that’s read of the apostles Peter and John telling the Sanhedrin that in a conflict between the Council’s laws and God’s laws, they must obey God [Ac 4:19-20].

So where do we turn to find an independent benchmark for comparing moral systems across the gaps of time and place and culture? How are we to judge between competing claims of morality? Might I suggest we we turn to our Creator, who is above all cultures, all times, all places, all nations, and all philosophies and ideologies, and who is the source of all true law?


[1] Robert Jackson, Opening Statement at Nuremberg, “Second Day, Wednesday, 11/21/1945, Part 04”, in Trial of the Major War Criminals before the International Military Tribunal. Volume II. Proceedings: 11/14/1945-11/30/1945. [Official text in the English language.] Nuremberg: IMT, 1947. pp. 98-102.
[2]Blackstone’s Commentaries are considered “second only to the Bible as a literary and intellectual influence on the history of American institutions.” – William D. Bader, “Some Thoughts on Blackstone, Precedent and Originalism”. Vermont Law Review (1995), p. 8.
[3] William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, 1769 (Kindle edition by Wallachia Books, 2015), Introduction, Section 2: Of the Nature of Laws in General.

 

Tolerance (plus or minus)

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Tolerance. It’s a frequently used term in our society, both as an insult and as a source of pride. We say things like:

  • “You should be more tolerant.”
  • “Why are you so intolerant?”
  • “I consider myself a tolerant person.”

What does any of this mean? Frequently, the heinous charge of intolerance is leveled at someone claiming another person’s actions are immoral or that their beliefs are wrong. After all, “why can’t we all just get along?” Because some things we can tolerate, and some things we can’t because of their consequences. Why couldn’t the Jews just “get along” with Adolph Hitler? Because their view that they should live was incompatible with his view that they should all be killed. The difference in views there preclude any idea of tolerance. That’s an extreme example, but many people today misunderstand what tolerance is, thinking it is to agree with all views (even contradictory ones), and they view it as the supreme virtue. However, to tolerate something inherently means that you do not view it as correct. Nobody merely  tolerates views they agree with; rather they believe them, cherish them, etc. For example, we might enjoy a freshly brewed gourmet coffee, but only tolerate a cheap, bitter “cup o’ joe” at a jobsite where it’s below freezing.

As an engineer with some experience writing 2 quality control manuals for a previous company, I think the tolerances we dealt with in fabrication can shed some insight in this area as well. We used to have a saying at that company that “It’s got to be exactly right!” to which some of us would jokingly add “plus or minus 1/8″…” We knew that despite the best intentions of the slogan, nobody gets things exactly right every time, and especially not in a fast paced production environment. But we also understood that some errors won’t affect the usefulness of the final product significantly. Hence, we specify the value we want, and then add tolerances to it to show what range of actual results we’ll accept. For instance, if I design a roof truss to be 120′ long and it gets built 119′-11 7/8″, that generally won’t impair it’s use. If it’s a foot short, it likely won’t fit, but if it’s somehow “made to fit” by an overzealous worker at the jobsite, people’s lives may be in danger from the roof collapsing.

Just like our truss above, ideas have consequences, and so we put limits on what is acceptable. Yet that range of acceptable values doesn’t necessarily mean they are all correct. Sometimes, it doesn’t matter because it’s a pass/fail criteria – it can pass with flying colors or “by the skin of it’s teeth”. Often, however, the target value is the sole correct value, and we can only tolerate the wrong values that are not detrimental. In the case of values that are both wrong and detrimental, we would be negligent to tolerate those. In fact, a good inspector isn’t going to just go along rejecting products that fall outside of the tolerances while never telling the worker that he’s building bad products. He’ll notify the worker that he’s wrong and needs to change what he’s doing to get back into a tolerable range. In fact, if it’s a gradual decrease in quality, the inspector can see the trend developing and notify the worker before it gets out of tolerance and keep him in line with the company standard.

Going back to the truss example, what would happen if the welds on the truss were half the size they were supposed to be, and the inspector saw this, but let it go without calling attention to it? The next winter when a bad snowstorm hits the now-completed building and truss welds fracture, and the roof collapses and kills people, who’s responsible for those deaths? The production workers who made the bad welds? Sure. But what about the inspector? At the very least we might say he was negligent, but if it came out that he had recognized the welds were defective and let them go anyway, we would surely say that he didn’t act ethically, that he had an obligation to flag the error to be corrected.

So can a person be “tolerant” and still believe something is not correct? Absolutely. Likewise, can a Christian be tolerant and loving, but still tell someone when they’ve stepped outside the standard or are in danger of stepping over that line? Yes, actually, they can. Should they? If our inspector was ethically obligated to point out error in the interest of saving lives (even if it hadn’t been his specific job duty), then it seems that someone who has become a Christian, and now knows the end result of the path we’re all traveling without God, is also obligated to warn people of the danger they’re in before it’s too late.