Posts Tagged ‘ethics’

Ben Ferencz, who at the age of 97 is the last living Nuremberg Trials prosecutor, has issued a powerful reminder of the horrors of war, as reported in the Independent in the UK.

He said this:

“…the Nazi soldiers who committed atrocities were not “savages” but “intelligent, patriotic human being[s]”, and that war can make any normal person do horrifying things.

“Do you think the man who dropped the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima was a savage?”, he asked. 

“Now I will tell you something very profound, which I have learned after many years. War makes murderers out of otherwise decent people. All wars, and all decent people.”

A sobering and very insightful statement………

And so we still look to the day when ‘The law will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. (Isaiah 2:3-4).

You can read the article here.

Friday past marked Holocaust Memorial Day in the UK, and the International Holocaust Memorial Day across the globe. Each year people come together, from across religious and cultural divides to remember the genocides that have scarred humanity deeply and irrevocably.


Many moving commemorative events have taken place; some have been very public events, whilst others have been very private.  I watched Auschwitz survivors gather at the former camp in Poland on the 72nd anniversary of its liberation, and I marvelled at the stoicism and dignity of those elderly survivors.  Having visited Auschwitz several years ago – an experience that I will never forget – I simply cannot understand why seemingly ordinary people can inflict such horrors upon their fellow human beings.  But then darkness and unfathomable cruelty are part of our collective human nature; for those that committed such atrocities, I am reminded of Proverbs 6:18 where it is written that there are those with ‘a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that run rapidly to evil’.

We now know the staggering statistics for the Holocaust, where six million Jewish men, women and children were murdered in ghettos, mass-shootings, in forced work camps and extermination camps. The scale of the suffering was, and still is, incomprehensible.

There were other groups of people that were persecuted and murdered by the Nazis.  Consider political opponents, priests, ministers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Gypsy people, Slavic people and gay people amongst others.  But there is one group that is sometimes overlooked: the mentally ill.

The Mental Health Foundation website published a powerful article to remind us that those with psychiatric conditions were deemed, in that most egregious of phrases, to be ‘life unworthy of life.’  The prevailing eugenic ideology in Nazi circles was driven by defective science and woeful ignorance.  The consequence of this was that an estimated quarter of a million people living with varying degrees of mental illness were murdered. That few people spoke up against this outrageous programme is chilling.

As we reflect on the voiceless and the persecuted, the question of speaking up and speaking out against injustice comes to mind.  As the Holocaust Survivor and Author Elie Wisel once wrote: ‘There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest’. This maxim is applicable today as it was before and during the Holocaust. Our world does not want for examples of injustice and persecution; it is therefore our duty as Christians to raise our voices, to challenge and cajole, and to remain informed and vigilant as to what is going on, on our doorsteps and in the world around us.

Every blessing,


A multi-disciplinary research team from Washington DC and Washington State have published an important new study entitled ‘Neural and cognitive characteristics of extraordinary altruists.’

Altruism, and particularly costly altruism toward strangers, such as kidney donation, is poorly understood by science, particularly in the fields of evolutionary biology and psychology. The question has been posed time and time again: ‘How can such behaviour be rationalised and explained?

Although it is fair to say that the propensity to engage in costly altruism varies widely across and within populations,  Abigail A. Marsh and her research team argue that although it may be genetically mediated, very little is known about the neural mechanisms that drive it. In order to make more concrete conclusions, the Washington team used structural and functional brain imaging to compare extraordinary altruists, specifically altruistic kidney donors, and controls. What did they find?  Fascinatingly, it would appear that altruists exhibit variations in neural anatomy and functioning that are the mirror image of patterns previously documented in psychopaths, who by their very nature are callous and lacking in empathy.

Such findings are significant in that they suggest that there are neural correlates that underlie social and emotional behaviour and help us to understand the science of empathy.

The Washington researchers anticipate that their findings will provide the basis for an expanded scope of research on biological mechanisms that enhance altruistic behaviours.

 Empathy, and altruism, is the cornerstone of Christianity; the Sermon on the Mount says it all.  So it’s interesting to note that some of us may be hardwired for empathy and altruistic behaviour, whilst others find it more difficult.  This study raises the interesting question of whether neural mechanisms can be changed by behavioural input, that is, modulated by our own behaviour?  Can neuroplasticity facilitate a more altruistic outlook on life? Science may well provide that answer more quickly than we might think.

You can read the entire article here:

It was Henry Marsh, a celebrated neurosurgeon, who once so perceptively said: ‘what are we if we don’t try to help others…we’re nothing, nothing at all.’ These words were uttered in the closing moments of ‘The English Surgeon’ an emotionally charged BBC film that looks at Marsh’s charitable work in Ukraine.

Marsh, and his fellow surgeon Ivan Petrovich, make a formidable team, despite the limitations placed upon them in Ukraine with respect to equipment and facilities.  The film presents each encounter with a patient as an existential experience for both the medics and the patients.  Unsurprisingly, Marsh is at his most comfortable when he can offer hope to person sitting opposite; but then there are the inevitable encounters with people where there is, medically speaking, no hope.  And then there are the cases where the decision to operate is an agonising one – where the risk of intervening might just be too high. But whatever the situation, Marsh is always looking for ways to help and he is visibly frustrated when he encounters terminal cases, where there is nothing more to be done.

As the film unfolds we see the limitations of medicine and surgery laid bare. Despite the technology and expertise that exists in a consulting room or an operating table, the substantive existential questions remain extant.  What is the value of life? How can people find meaning in their lives when they are terminally ill?

 These questions are posed, but not answered in ‘The English Surgeon’.  More reflection is offered in Marsh’s superb book, recently published: ‘Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery’.  Marsh talks candidly about his failures, his disdain for the National Health Service as it is currently constituted and his frustration with what he sees as its overwhelming and desperately stifling bureaucracy.

Do No Harm

Marsh’s candid account of the agonies of balancing risk, operating where there is little hope and dealing with the aftermath provides a powerful insight into the life of a neurosurgeon and the ethical dilemmas that they face each every day of their working lives. Most of us would find it incredibly difficult to function in such an environment, where existentialism and ethics are brutally real, rather than abstract concepts we have the luxury of debating at a distance.

The life of a neurosurgeon is unique, but embodies those meaningful words of Albert Pike: ‘What we have done for ourselves alone dies with us; what we have done for others and the world remains and is immortal’.

 Check out ‘The English Surgeon’ on youtube: and

Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery’ on Amazon:

Source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 145 Bild-00014770 / CC-BY-SA

Source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 145 Bild-00014770 / CC-BY-SA

Albert Schweitzer (14 January 1875 – 4 September 1965) was unique.  A theologian, musician, philosopher, physician, and medical missionary and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Schweitzer was a Christian who lived out his faith in an intensely practical way.

After giving up a career as a distinguished theologian, Schweitzer dedicated his life to serving God as a physician in the West African mission field, more specifically Lambaréné, now in Gabon, but then in French Equatorial Africa. It was there that he built a hospital that served a multitude of people from far and wide.

I first came across Schweitzer when I read his famous ‘The Quest of the Historical Jesus’, then ‘On the Edge of the Primeval Forest’ and the intriguingly titled ‘The Psychiatric Study of Jesus’. A talented and insightful writer, I always got the impression that as a man, Schweitzer was rather modest and avoided couching his thoughts and philosophies in the strident language of a self-assured academic.

Most impressive though for me, was Schweitzer’s ‘Reverence for Life’ philosophy, which adopted the principle of non-violence and concern for others as a consistent ethic to live by.  And live by this he did, although he was pragmatic enough to entertain slight deviations from these principles when circumstances dictated.

Also noticeable was Schweitzer’s distaste for colonialism.  Indeed he once wrote:

“Who can describe the injustice and cruelties that in the course of centuries they (the coloured peoples) have suffered at the hands of Europeans? … If a record could be compiled of all that has happened between the white and the coloured races, it would make a book containing numbers of pages which the reader would have to turn over unread because their contents would be too horrible.”

That said, by today’s standards he would still be judged as somewhat paternalistic, but judged by the standards of the time, he was socially progressive.

The film ‘Albert Schweitzer’ is a study in Christian Orthopraxy and explores Schweitzer’s journey, showing his ‘Reverence for Life’ philosophy. Part biographical drama/part documentary, this captivating film (with actors playing the characters), traces Schweitzer’s life from birth to about the age of 30 when he makes the decision to devote his life to medical missionary work. The latter half of the film looks at Schweitzer’s busy schedule in the hospital-village and portrays a man who cares deeply for the humans and animals that surround him.

Schweitzer’s ethic is as relevant today, if not more, than it was in his lifetime. In an era of environmental degradation, human and animal exploitation, we surely need to rediscover the power of orthopraxy.

A good place to start is by watching the film which can be accessed here via YouTube:

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles /

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles /

The prospect of a military strike on Syria by the USA is causing consternation across the globe.  The sheer hypocrisy of the US position is staggering; here we have a country that has actually used WMD on a massive scale in Japan during WWII, killing hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, but now finds it convenient to take the moral high-ground on chemical weapons (which incidentally they used in WWI).  What they also conveniently forget is their widespread use of Agent Orange in Vietnam and the devastating consequences this caused, again for the innocent civilian populations.  And then, more recently, there’s the use of depleted Uranium in Iraq – used of course by the British and the US forces).  In a recent article by

  • John Pilger in The Guardian (

Sunday 26 May 2013) he highlights makes the following point:

‘Among the doctors I interviewed, there was little doubt that depleted uranium shells used by the Americans and British in the Gulf war were the cause. A US military physicist assigned to clean up the Gulf war battlefield across the border in Kuwait said, “Each round fired by an A-10 Warthog attack aircraft carried over 4,500 grams of solid uranium. Well over 300 tons of DU was used. It was a form of nuclear warfare.”‘

Frighteningly, when Pilger went on to interview Dr Jawad Al-Ali, an internationally respected cancer specialist at the Sadr teaching hospital in Basra, he received a shocking insight:

‘”Before the Gulf war,” he said, “we had two or three cancer patients a month. Now we have 30 to 35 dying every month. Our studies indicate that 40 to 48% of the population in this area will get cancer: in five years’ time to begin with, then long after. That’s almost half the population. Most of my own family have it, and we have no history of the disease.”‘

If any other country had been responsible for such indiscriminate suffering, they would be accused of perpetuating war-crimes. But of course that hasn’t happened, nor will it because the people who are dying are weak, powerless and bereft of a voice.

It seems to me that unless moral ‘red lines’ are applied across the board, there will never be peace.  Picking and choosing which events to be outraged about is as nonsensical as it is disingenuous. Sadly, in the Christian tradition we all too easily forget what Scripture actually says on these issues: ‘So Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality” (Acts 10:34).  What is wrong for one person or group to do is wrong for all – a simple rule for a consistent ethic that values all equally.

Yes, the US is right in demanding a response to the abhorrent use of chemical weapons, but military strikes are not the answer.  In fact they may even make the situation worse and draw other players into a catastrophic regional war. Moreover, it is inevitable that more lives will be lost and more refugees created in what is already an unstable situation. The conditions for a ‘just war’, which I’ve heard several US decision-makers refer to, have not, and will not. be met.

What will happen in the end is that a negotiated settlement, assisted by the international community, will need to be reached.  Bombing will not bring this to fruition – only diplomacy and sustained pressure from the International Community can do that. And once that is done the perpetrators of chemical warfare can be brought to justice.

‘My pacifism is an instinctive feeling, a feeling that possesses me because the murder of men is abhorrent. My attitude is not derived from intellectual theory but is based on my deepest antipathy to every kind of cruelty and hatred.’ So wrote Albert Einstein with his usual clarity.

But one may ask the question – does this instinctual pacifism as espoused by Einstein have a limit? And are there any circumstances in which it can be breached?  Interestingly, Einstein wrestled with those questions.  When it became evident that the logical out-workings of his groundbreaking formula – E=mc2 – was the development of an atomic weapon, Einstein was appalled by such a prospect. Initially, his fear was that Nazi Germany would acquire the technology first, but events proved otherwise and he was equally horrified when the US used a nuclear device in Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Thereafter he was deeply troubled by the cold war and concomitant nuclear arms race.

Einstein intrigues me.  His ethical dilemma’s stemmed from his love of, and understanding of, a humanity which he understood to be incredibly complex, flawed and nuanced. He also understood the power of science.  As insightful as ever, he once wrote: ‘Science is a powerful instrument. How it is used, whether it is a blessing or a curse to mankind, depends on mankind and not on the instrument. A knife is useful, but it can also kill.’

And so it is.  The use of science still exercises our ethical minds today, perhaps even more so than ever.  The nuclear issue is still as pertinent as ever, but we also face other dilemmas centering on genetic engineering  and the like.

In the end, Einstein’s intuitively pacifist stance became more utilitarian in practice; he had made the very pragmatic decision that a nuclear armed Third Reich could only be countered by a nuclear armed US.

If you’re interested in Einstein’s ethical dilemma, and the history behind it, I recommend you watch the documentary  ‘Einstein’s Equation Of Life and Death‘ on Top Documentary Films.  You can watch it here.

Sacrificing ourselves for others, or indeed the greater good, doesn’t seem to have much currency in our modern society where individualism holds sway.  Or is this really the case?  Are there still people around who live out Jesus’ famous injunction written in John 15: 13 that ‘Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends’?

We are all familiar with stories of people who selflessly give of themselves to make life better for others, both known and unknown to them personally.  Most of us who have families can envisage situations where we would give our all for the lives of our sons and daughters.

But what about literally giving our lives for the greater good? Surely this is far more problematic from an ethical perspective?  Maybe so, but consider the case of a group of men who are largely forgotten, despite their actions saving countless lives, and in doing so, sacrificing their own.  And here I’m talking about the 700,000 or so ‘liquidators’ that worked at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the immediate aftermath of the 1986 accident.

Those who worked at the plant among unparalleled levels of radiation did so knowing that their work was essential to prevent further widespread radiation release and a possible nuclear reaction that would precipitate an enormous explosion.  These men also knew that their very lives were at risk; despite this, they did what they believed was their duty.

Today, many of the liquidators are living with a plethora of chronic health conditions and disabling post-traumatic health disorder.  And they’re just the ‘lucky’ ones who have survived.  And then there’s the fact that their children frequently struggle with serious ill-health too.

It seems to me that the liquidators embody exactly what Jesus was talking about when he uttered those wonderful words: ‘Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends’? Their selflessness is inspirational, but their suffering is severe.  You can watch a moving short documentary on their plight, which emphasises the scale of that sacrifice, but also their suffering, below.  As you do so, ask yourself the sobering question: ‘could I have done what these men have done?‘……………….I’m still struggling to reach an answer……………..

David R. Dow is a fascinating character.  As the Cullen Professor at the University of Houston Law Center and the Rorschach Visiting Professor of History at Rice University, his academic credentials are extensive.   Aside from academia, Dow works tirelessly as a death penalty lawyer and has represented more than one hundred inmates at their state and federal appeals. In addition, twelve years ago Dow started the Texas Innocence Network, an organization that uses University of Houston law students to investigate claims of innocence filed by Texas prisoners.

Such is the backdrop to Dow’s latest book, ‘The Autobiography of an Execution’.  In this remarkable book, Dow talks candidly about his life and the enormous strains placed upon himself, his colleagues and his family.  The pressure his ‘vocation’ exerts is relentless, often stepping in to represent clients at the eleventh hour when there appeals are almost exhausted. What emerges is a deeply moving autobiography, where Dow comes across as someone who is driven to do the right thing by his clients, many of whom have been poorly represented at the initial trial stage. Moreover, he talks with great insight about the deeply dysfunctional backgrounds of majority of those sentenced to death and makes a cogent case for more targeted early intervention strategy.

Refreshingly, Dow is open and honest in the book about his emotions – whether that be the guilt he feels at not being able to spend as much time with his wife and son as he would like, or intensely disliking some of his clients.

An ‘Autobiography of an Execution‘ is an excellent read that charts the sadness, happiness, frustration and hopelessness that accompanies the life of a death row lawyer and a remarkable man.

You can watch David Dow talking about his book in particular, and the issues surrounding the death penalty in general, in this interview with Gary Polland and David Jones:

The moral arguments against capital punishment are well rehearsed, that is: 1) it is wrong because all killing is wrong, 2) it is unjust because it is irreversible (and does not allow for rehabilitation), and 3) it does not act as a deterrent.

This short Journeyman Pictures film from 1996 looks at capital punishment through the eyes of young black man living out what remains of his life on the Texas deathrow.  Glenn McGinniss feels like a dead man walking. He describes how at seventeen he stole money for his mother who was in prison with a crack habit. When a young woman started screaming he panicked and shot her. An all white jury condemned him to death by execution.

Did McGinness receive a fair trial?  He admits to carrying out the murder, but do the moral arguments against execution rule out capital punishment in this case?  Also, is there an issue of deeply ingrained racism at work here?  Whatever the case, this film shows the human side of McGinness – as a young boy living in a dreadful neighbourhood with a mother addicted to crack cocaine; his crime almost had a certain inevitability about it.  Could McGinness have been rehabilitated to eventually become a productive member of society?  We’ll never know.  Glenn McGinness was executed on January 25, 2000.

You can watch the film here courtesy of the Journeyman Films youtube page: