Religious Freedom Under the First Amendment: Three Supreme Court Cases and the Ambiguous Term “Religion”

Throughout the years, and in various Supreme Court cases, the distinction between “religious/sectarian” and “nonreligious/secular” has been rather ambiguous. In this essay, I will examine three separate Court cases in which the Court had to defend its verdict by employing what I deem “ambiguous” uses of the term “religion.” Moreover, I will argue that “religion” as a phenomenon is virtually impossible to define in any concrete, rigid manner. Given this reality, the Court’s decisions, when attempting to demarcate the line between that which is religious and nonreligious, will always remain blurry. Hence, it is my position that ambiguity will remain ever present in the their decisions so long as the Court continues to deal with an ambiguous phenomenon[1] known as “religion.”

Before examining the three cases, I will first begin by looking at the First Amendment and the surrounding historical context in which it was shaped, a context, as we shall later see, that set the trend for the Court’s various positions on “religion.”

The First Amendment was shaped in the 18th century during a time when several principles were deemed essentially conducive to a peaceful, well-governed society. The principles were: (1) liberty of conscience; (2) free exercise of religion; (3) religious pluralism; (4) religious equality; (5) separation of church and state; and (6) disestablishment. “While many of these terms carried multiple meanings in the later eighteenth century and several other terms were under discussion, these six principles were foundational for the American founders.”[2] The First Amendment—an amendment originally governing only Congress—was first applied to states and local governments via the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause in the pioneering case of Cantwell v. Connecticut (1940).[3] “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”[4] The Founding Fathers initially feared a particular religious institution so close to the State that it would use the State to persecute any dissenting voices.[5] However, in their attempts to articulate a form of government that allowed the flourishing of religion, the Fathers left one fatal void: they failed to define “religion.” What constitutes a religion? Witte writes, “Nowhere is the word ‘religion’ defined in the Constitution or Bill of Rights…”[6] In fact, if “original intent” is observed, it becomes relatively clear that by employing the term “religion” the Fathers meant “a plurality of Protestant Christian faiths.”[7] That is, they probably did not mean to defend the religious freedom rights of Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, or even Catholics. Nonetheless, a few scattered remarks from this time period do exist which help us understand what “religion” was thought to be. In 1802, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “[R]eligion is a matter which lies solely between a man and his God.”[8] Here “religion” was thought to be (a) a private affair and (b) involving a person and some deity. On June 26, 1788, during the Virginia convention on the Constitution, the authors wrote revealingly: “Religion, or the duty which we owe our creator, and the manner of discharging it…”[9] Here it can be seen that “religion” was thought to be something between a person and his or her deity/Creator. What is alarming in these two remarks is the lack of precise terminology. As we shall see, the modern day Court—from the 1940s onwards—has continued to wrestle with its definition of “religion,” having inherited this ambiguous legacy. I now turn my attention to three modern-day cases in which the demarcation between religious and nonreligious has continued, as in the past, along ambiguous lines.

In Frazee v Illinois (1989), the Court decided a case that involved a certain William Frazee who refused to accept a retail position that involved work on Sundays. He claimed that, as a Christian, it was unlawful for him to work on the Lord’s Day. Frazee later applied for unemployment benefits and was denied. Consequentially, the Department of Employment Security’s Board of Review justified its refusal to grant unemployment benefits to Frazee by stating: “When a refusal of work is based on religious convictions, the refusal must be based upon some tenets or dogma accepted by the individual of some church, sect, or denomination, and such a refusal based solely on an individual’s personal belief is personal and noncompelling and does not render the work unsuitable” [489 U.S. 829, 831] App. 18-19.[10] In a rather fortunate series of events, the Supreme Court picked up this case and overturned the earlier decisions made by the lower courts. Justice White, arguing for the majority opinion, wrote:

“While membership in a sect would simplify the problem of identifying sincerely held beliefs, the notion that one must be responding to the commands of a particular religious organization to claim the protection of the Free Exercise Clause is rejected. The sincerity or religious nature of appellant’s belief was not questioned by the courts below and was conceded by the State, which offered no justification for the burden that the denial of benefits placed on appellant’s right to exercise his religion.”[11]

Essentially, the Court said that while it may be true that Frazee was not a part of any church or sect—for all they knew, he might have stayed home on Sundays only to watch Oprah and eat Bon-Bons—nonetheless, it was not the State’s job to verify the sincerity of religious beliefs, or, for that matter, to act as an arbiter in religious affairs. Put simply: if a person stated they were Christian, it was beyond the State’s power to attempt to prove or disprove the sincerity of those beliefs. The State was not a religious organization, and so could not pass judgment on the sincerity of any deeply held—or, for that matter, deeply faked—religious beliefs.

In the above case we see, once again, a continuation of ambiguity when it comes to the subject of religion. Mr. Frazee was not a part of any church or religious organization. And yet the Court overturned an earlier denial of unemployment benefits on the basis that work on Sundays, for Frazee, was an unnecessary burden on his allegedly religious conscience. Justice White wrote, regarding the difficult process of demarcation between religious and secular, “Nor do we underestimate the difficulty of distinguishing between religious and secular convictions and in determining whether a professed belief is sincerely held.” Could one create a religion out of thin air, claim a free exercise violation, and win? In the post-Frazee v Illinois world, it seems so. For here—as much as ever—the term “religion” is not clearly demarcated from the secular/nonreligious. If staying home and watching football on Sundays is, at some future point, considered to be a “religious act,” who would blame the Court for not knowing what to do? Nobody seems to know what religion/religious is to begin with. Next, I will look at yet another pesky issue: just how cozy could the secular State get with religious holiday displays?

Lynch v Donnelly (1984) was a case settled after the groundbreaking Lemon v Kurtzman (1971). In Lemon v Kurtzman the three-pronged “Lemon test,” a test used to determine whether a law had the effect of establishing a religion, was first formulated.[12] In the case we are now considering—namely, Lynch v Donnelly—the city of Pawtucket, R. I. came under fire for erecting a Christmas display on private property owned by a nonprofit organization, property located directly in the center of the city’s shopping district. Amongst the Santa Claus house, Christmas tree and other such holiday objects, there was also placed a crèche, or nativity scene. This crèche was challenged for being an “establishment clause” violation: the State, funded by diverse taxpayers, was using its funds to “promote” a single religion, Christianity. The case ended up going to the Supreme Court, where the Court concluded, “Pawtucket has not violated the Establishment Clause.”[13] What were the Court’s reasons for reaching this verdict?

The Court argued that the now-famous concept of a wall of separation between church and state was a “useful metaphor” but “not an accurate description of the practical aspects of the relationship that in fact exists.” In addition to this, the Court argued that the Constitution did not, in fact, “require complete separation of church and state”; rather, “it affirmatively mandates accommodation…”[14] The Court also recognized how ubiquitous religion was. Religion was a part of the “American life.” Because it was the Christmas season, and because the crèche alone was not the singular focus of the Christmas display, the Court—echoing the “Lemon test”—ruled that “the city has a secular purpose for including the crèche in its Christmas display and has not impermissibly advanced religion or created an excessive entanglement between religion and government.”

As can be seen, the Court argued that religion was already mixed into the American way of life, thus admitting that the line between religious and secular was to be found “in the mix” somewhere. In other words, there wasn’t much of a line to begin with. Nonetheless, the Court still attempted to make that line materialize. Somehow, because of the “national tradition” and our desire to “depict the origins of that Holiday,” Christmas had become a rather secular holiday, with displays serving “legitimate secular purposes.” While the Court was busy employing the terms “secular” and “religious” without defining them, they had also snuck in some Orwellian double-think by referring to Christmas as both a “religious” and, finally, a “secular” holiday. And so the ambiguity continues.

I now want to turn my eyes to my final case. In Employment Division v Smith (1990) the Court back peddled on the “accommodationist logic” it used in Lynch v Donnelly. In this case, the defendants were two members of the Native American Church fired from their place of employment for using peyote on religious grounds. Once fired, they applied for unemployment benefits and were denied. The Oregon Supreme Court initially ruled that denying them unemployment benefits for using peyote on religious grounds violated their right to exercise religion; however, the state refused to pay out the benefits because possession of peyote was deemed a crime—so the case went to the Supreme Court. The Court focused, citing Sherbert v Verner, on whether the employees had a “constitutional right to unemployment benefits on the part of all persons whose religious convictions are the cause of their unemployment.”[15] Smith, one of the members who appealed to the Supreme Court, argued that he was doing nothing different than what we saw done in Frazee. That is, “[i]f Frazee could get unemployment compensation for refusing to work on Sunday, his day of rest but not worship, Smith argued, surely he could get compensation for being fired for engaging in the arduous and ancient religious ritual of peyote ingestion.”[16] The Court, however, was not in agreement with Smith. On the contrary, they argued that this case should be treated not as a case dealing with unemployment per se but rather as a case dealing with “free exercise” and compliance with “criminal laws.” In fact, the Court argued that Oregon State’s law regarding the illegal use of drugs (or which peyote was one) was “neutral” and “generally applicable”; hence, differing from the prior cases such as Frazee, the Court now argued that it was possible for the State to cast a burden upon a religious person so long as it was doing so by means of a generally applicable law that did not single out any particular person or religion.[17] Using the Court’s logic in Smith and applying it to Frazee one could argue that Frazee did not deserve unemployment compensation since he refused to work on Sundays—and “mandatory Sunday-work is required of everyone, being generally applicable to all, religious or irreligious.”[18] Such a statement, however, was not made in Frazee. Why?

Returning to the second case I looked at—that is, Lynch v Donnelly—allow me to remind you that in that case that which was secular and that which was religious was comingled. In Lynch the religious became the secular by means of “tradition.” Since what was initially religious had been around so long, it was no longer really religious; it was, in fact, perfectly secular. “Christmas is not really a religious holiday; it is mostly a secular holiday with ancient, religious roots. But most of us don’t focus on the religious element, so it’s basically secular,” went the argument.

But not so in Smith. Here a couple of men, who were unquestionably religious, were not allowed to exercise their religious beliefs. Like Christians partaking of the Lord’s Supper—sipping on a toxin known as alcohol[19]—the men involved in the Smith case could not exercise their beliefs. Why? Because the state thought their use of peyote, even in what was deemed a purely religious ritual, to be illegal. The line between religious and secular was assumed throughout the Smith case; there was no question that the two men were participating in a religious act. However, the relationship the State had with their so-called “religious activities” was vastly different than its cozy relationship with the mostly Christian activities we saw in Frazee and Lynch. In these cases, whatever was found to be religious was either explained away as the mostly secular (Lynch) or deemed impossible to verify (Frazee)—in both cases the Court allowed the religious to exercise their religious beliefs, no matter how fake (Frazee) or how assimilated into the secular culture (Lynch). What we saw in Smith, however, was what appeared to be a rather concrete, underlying assumption that the Court understood what it meant for something to be “religious.” But even here the “religious” was never defined. And so, despite the dogmatic rhetoric, the Court has yet to define what it means for something to be a religious act or a religion.

In 1912, James H. Leuba published a seminal paper that included an oft-cited appendix listing more than fifty definitions of religion.[20] Today, more than ever, the religious is ubiquitous—we see it in law, in politics, in science classrooms, in our libraries, in our churches, etc. As then, so now, we don’t really know what religious really means—if anything at all. There are a multitude of definitions available to us. Some, like the Founding Fathers, may see religion as that which involves some deity/Creator. Others, like Buddhists, may argue that no such deity is required by religion. Still others may argue that no such thing as God exists. Some may think a church or synagogue plays an essential part in what it means for something to be deemed religious; others, like Frazee, argue that religious acts do not have to involve such structures. Some may argue that religion has so infiltrated our society, it is no longer possible to clearly separate the two (e.g., Lynch). Some may argue that religion is relatively straightforward, involving the use of chemical substances; practices that the State could, in theory, forbid (e.g., Smith). In all of these various cases, involving a plurality of definitions, the distinction between religious and nonreligious, sectarian and secular, remain forever indistinct to our eyes as we gaze into that abysmal sea of religious discourse “through a glass, darkly” (1 Cor. 13:12). So long as the Supreme Court continues to deal with this most notoriously difficult of issues—that is, the ambiguous phenomenon we call religion—so long will we be haunted by paradoxical court cases and unclear decision-making processes.

 

Written by Moses Y. Mikheyev

Dedicated to John Witte, Jr.

 

 

FOOTNOTES:

[1] It is entirely possible to argue that my use of the term “religion” in itself is already misleading; instead, it may be argued, that what I should have written should have been the plural “religions.” However, I use the term colloquially: it encompasses all and every “religion,” whether the various religions have anything in common or not. (Even here one detects a thorough-going ambiguity: what, in fact, do all religions have in common? Or do we just group various phenomena that appear to be ceremonial as being “religious”? What, then, is “religion”?)

[2] John Witte, Jr. and Joel A. Nichols, Religion and the American Constitutional Experiment, 4th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 62-3.

[3] Ibid., 98-9.

[4] Ibid., 1.

[5] Ibid., 30-1.

[6] Ibid., 95.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 56.

[9] Ibid., 74.

[10] Frazee v. Illinois Dept. of Employment Security, 489 U.S. 829 (1989), URL= http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-supreme-court/489/829.html.

[11] Ibid.

[12] The three-pronged approach is as follows: “a challenged law must (1) have a secular purpose, (2) have a primary effect that neither advances nor inhibits religion, and (3) foster no excessive entanglement between church and state” (Witte and Nichols, Religion, 163).

[13] Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668 (1984), URL= http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-supreme-court/465/668.html.

[14] Italics mine.

[15] Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990), URL= http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-supreme-court/485/660.html.

[16] Witte and Nichols, Religion, 146.

[17] Ibid., 146-7.

[18] The words in quotation marks are theoretical, in case that was not made clear.

[19] “Respondents contend that the sacramental use of small quantities of peyote in the Native American Church is comparable to the sacramental use of small quantities of alcohol in Christian religious ceremonies” (Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 [1990], URL= http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-supreme-court/485/660.html.

[20] Jonathan Z. Smith, “Religion, Religions, Religious,” in Critical Terms for Religious Studies, ed. Mark C. Taylor (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 281.

The Murmurings: Human Beings and Our Instinctual Fear of Change and Progress

Change and progress are, inherently, opposed by human nature. Humans do not like change, even if it is change for the better. An ancient text relates what a group of Israelites felt once they were freed from slavery. The story of the Exodus is not just a story of liberation from slavery; it is also the story of how shitty human beings are in response to beneficial change. Michael Walzer, commenting on the Exodus narrative, writes that one response to liberation is that of “murmuring.” That is, murmurings proceed from “not someone who is adjusted to his slavery but someone who complains endlessly about his liberation.”[1] As David Pacini notes, “[T]he greater price of freedom, haunted by evil, is that we live in the permanent possibility of falling apart.”[2] The price of freedom is: “murmurings” and “falling apart.” Or, as Søren Kierkegaard put it, “anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.”

A slave who had been a slave all his life could not be saved overnight from his “slave mentality.” To invoke a popular quip (modified for our purposes): “you can take a man out of slavery, but you cannot take the slavery out of the man.” As the Israelites marched onwards towards the Promised Land, they were out of their comfort zones, marching into a future holding the unknown. Back “home” in Egypt, they had shelter, food, and the comfort of familiarity; up ahead, in the desert regions of Sinai, they faced the “permanent possibility of falling apart.” And so, in the strangest of fashions—or maybe it wasn’t so strange after all?—the Israelites complained. “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?” (Ex. 14:11, NIV). Instead of freedom, the Israelites—upon tasting its bittersweet waters—demanded, quite adamantly, a return to their previous state: a state of slavery.

In light of such reflections, it is certainly possible that, as some claim, change must occur slowly. You boil the water too fast, and the frog jumps out; you heat it up slowly, and you boil it to death. Humans are like that frog: you pressure us into changing overnight—even if the change is in our favor—and we’ll bite your head off. Instead, what is needed sometimes is the slow and steady change of progress towards the ideal. In light of recent events, events which are affecting our country in numerous ways, it’d be wise for both legislature and people to recognize how instinctually frightened the human species is to change.

 

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

 

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Michael Walzer, Exodus and Revolution (New York: Basic Books, 1985), 50.

[2] David S. Pacini, Through Narcissus’ Glass Darkly: The Modern Religion of Conscience (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), 35.

In Defense of Materialism: Philosophy of Language and Employing Material Things as Symbols

Materialism has been criticized on many grounds that I will not cover here. In fact, I have, in various ways, been strongly opposed to materialism. (Read my essay Materialism; Or, The Human in Decay as a case in point.) That is, until now. In this paper, I will attempt to articulate a sympathetic approach towards materialism. More specifically, I will argue that materialism, when seen through the perspective of the philosophy of language, is actually a type of “language” used to communicate certain things (like wealth, power, prestige, responsibility, success, etc.). In fact, “the pursuit and possession of grand material objects” (my modest, working definition of “materialism” in this paper) is beneficial to a human being attempting to communicate and convey certain values and/or facts. First, I will argue that the philosophy of language sheds light on how we humans employ “communication” (and it is not simply reduced to “language” and “writing”). Second, I will argue that materialism allows humans to communicate certain messages rapidly/promptly (without resorting to “proving yourself”). Third, I will argue that this is actually a good thing, that materialism, as I see it, is beneficial to finite human beings.

Paul Ricoeur, a phenomenologist interested in language, once said, “The word is my work; the word is my kingdom.”[1] That is, within our words, within our language, that is where all life and communicating occurs—it is our “kingdom.” Ricoeur defined language as using “symbols,” symbols that functioned as pointers to objective things in reality, myth, etc. Such symbols had multiple meanings, and, hence, could confuse interpreters. Ultimately, all acts in which the reading and understanding of texts—which used symbols—occurred were inevitably going to end up being interpretations. However, it should be noted that symbols in and of themselves need not be inherently reduced to language/writing. A symbol could be a national flag or, as in my case, a luxury vehicle. All such “symbols” communicate and stand-in-for something else. (A luxury vehicle, for example, may communicate to those around you that you are a successful individual who is responsible, who will provide for a future family, etc., etc.) The point here is the following: as we try to communicate things to those around us, we use symbols all the time. In most cases, symbols are words or phrases. I say, “I love you” and that means that I will take you on dates, buy you dinner, send you flowers on Thursdays, be concerned about your wellbeing, etc., etc. The phrase, “I love you,” is a stand-in-for something else. In and of itself it means…nothing. (Of course, this, too, could be debated.) I employ the phrase in such a way that it points to something outside it; it points to actions I will take on behalf of my beloved. The phrase, in this case, is a “symbol.”

Ricoeur writes: “I define symbol as: any structure of signification in which a direct, primary, literal meaning designates, in addition, another meaning which is indirect, secondary, and figurative and which can be apprehended only through the first.” Moreover, he goes on to define the process of “interpretation.” “Interpretation, we will say, is the work of thought which consists in deciphering the hidden meaning in the apparent meaning, in unfolding the levels of meaning implied in the literal meaning.”[2] Ultimately, he writes, “[T]here is interpretation wherever there is multiple meaning…”[3] Since symbols are almost always open to being interpreted in a plurality of ways—and, thus, of being found guilty of “double meaning”—it is the task of the interpreter to discover what the meaning is.

Going back to our luxury vehicle example, the “symbol” (i.e., the vehicle) may also be interpreted to mean, “I am a thorough-going materialist only interested in material things. I care not for relationships and people. Give me a dollar, and I’ll sell you my soul.” Of course, this is one way of reading materialism. It is one way of interpreting the symbol.

But notice what I am saying here, even as I speak the critique: it is merely one way of interpretation. (“One” way implies there are more ways.) It is possible to behold a symbol (i.e., a luxury vehicle) and to interpret it in a different way, another way. It is possible to see its owner as a good person. It is possible to see its owner as being a thoughtful person who goes to work on time, is punctual, cares about his family and tries to provide for them. Notice, then, that there is nothing in this interpretation of the symbol that is utterly negative and/or derogatory. In fact, I would like to be such a person. And maybe you’d like to meet such a person.

The next point I want to make has to do with prompt communication. If I am attempting to—let us theorize here—meet a girl, in what ways should I go about doing it? First, I am a finite human being, bound to space-time. I cannot be everywhere at once, meeting millions of girls in the span of one minute. Being thus bound, I have to make the most of my time. Second, and by implication, if I want to make the most of my time, I have to communicate things clearly and promptly. I could, in theory, be an “anti-materialist,” and resort to explaining to each and every girl I meet that I am successful, that I will take care of her, that I am a responsible human being, etc., etc. That’s one way of doing. It’s a very time-consuming way, but it is certainly an option. (If you have the time for it, go ahead and do it, I say!) In this case, you would essentially have to “prove” to every girl you meet all of the above. Or, you could do things differently.

It is possible to use symbols that communicate more rather than less. A picture says a thousand words. Driving up on a luxury vehicle conveys more than several hours of conversation over coffee. (And what makes you think she’ll believe you when all you’re doing is feeding her “words”?) That is, the symbol (i.e., the vehicle) conveys more than a million words spoken in defense of your alleged success.

Finally, as I’ve already hinted, materialism—as I have defined it here—seems to be something that is possibly beneficial to human beings. It allows us to communicate things to those around us. It allows us to do more with less. It also allows us to spend our coffee dates talking about things like love and romance, loves and hates, rather than trying to prove to the Other that we are responsible, successful, wealthy, etc., etc. In other words, I stand by my word: buy yourself that Lamborghini and enjoy your finite life!

 

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

 

Dedicated to: Petr Bulkhak—for being a good conversationalist regarding this particular subject.

 

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Paul Ricoeur, “La Parole est mon royaume,” Espirit, XXIII (February, 1995), p. 192.

[2] Paul Ricoeur, “Existence and Hermeneutics,” in The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur: An Anthology of His Work, eds. Charles E. Reagan and David Stewart (Boston: Beacon Press, 1978), 98. Italics original for both citations.

[3] Ibid.

This Was Written to Prevent You From Being Bored: 7 Reasons Why Your Life is Interesting; Or, An Ode To Women

Søren Kierkegaard once wrote, “People with experience maintain that proceeding from a basic principle is supposed to be very reasonable; I yield to them and proceed from the basic principle that all people are boring. Or is there anyone who would be boring enough to contradict me in this regard?”[1] I accept Kierkegaard’s challenge, and so take the contrary position: I will be arguing against Kierkegaard’s categorically universal claim “all people.” In my humble opinion, “most people are bores.” I reserve the right to call myself—and a few limited individuals—quite interesting people. I, perhaps, may be a bit pretentious when I say that I am certainly a degree removed from “the bores.” And is there anything wrong with my saying so? As ostentatious as my remarks sound, I, in the most un-humble of manners, beg to differ.

Even on the most boring of days—one which most “bores” would find hugely entertaining—I never cease to surprise myself. Maybe I am closest to boredom when boring people surround me; it is only then that I begin truly contemplating the following thoughts. I think of publishing writings titled something akin to: “On the Ethics of Boredom; Or, How to Be Bored Ethically.” Perhaps something like “The Philosophy of Excitement: How To Wet Your Pants Even While Bored” would serve as delicious entertainment on the most boring of days for a fellow human being struggling to make ends meet. After all, even that bore, Blaise Pascal, managed to dissertate on boredom. “Human beings are so unhappy that they would be bored even if they had no reason for boredom, simply because of their nature. They are so vain that with thousands of legitimate reasons for boredom the slightest thing like tapping a billiard ball with a cue is enough to distract them.”[2]

Take today, for example. Hell, one could even begin with this week. And, while we are at it, let’s just describe the past two weeks. I’ve met swarms of bores. Allow me to indulge myself—and, perhaps, your voyeuristic tendencies would allow you to double-dip in my indulgences. I was smack dab in the middle of Seattle, and all sorts of boring people surrounded me. Some were bored independently—they sat there twitching on their own, possibly undergoing a seizure, while intently gazing at the wonderful artwork being projected from iPhone to eye; others were bored en masse—they twitched together, pulsating to the hypnotic bleedings of TV screens in synch with one another. Some were bored in the most idealistic of manners: they sat absolutely still and drank their (probably) alcoholic beverage. (Well, maybe I’m wrong here: “beverage” should certainly be plural.) Some were so bored they were out chasing Pokémon. And who could blame them? I would be chasing Pokémon too had people chasing Pokémon not surrounded me. So, naturally, I sat back and watched “the Games.” But don’t get too excited: I was bored almost instantly, so I began writing about them. (What else does one do when one is—like everyone else—participating in the act of boredom?)

And amidst the hustle and bustle of boring beings, I eyed a few interesting creatures: women. (This prompted me to forget all about them.) When women are beautiful, a good antidote to male boredom they can be. On my most boring of days—an event that does not occur that often—I go to a coffee shop to write and people watch. But I single-handedly and categorically ignore males. They are too boring to observe for aesthetic purposes.

Women secretly despise me because they know that I know that they are all bores. I go on dates sometimes with this one girl. She’s got two un-boring traits about her: she can hold a discussion with me about virtually anything, and she has beautiful, beautiful blue eyes. If she didn’t have eyes, I’d find her utterly boring. Sometimes I catch myself going on dates with her just to look into her eyes. I’m sure she doesn’t even know it because I’m very tenuous like that. And if she does know, who cares? She probably likes looking into my eyes too. Or maybe she just likes being looked at? I don’t know. I never claimed to specialize in the psychology of women…

Allow me to pontificate still more. I find all women to be utterly boring. I mean, on a scale of 1-10—actually, I prefer not to go there. But on a serious note, men are the least boring conversationalists. My favorite discussions have taken place in the presence of other males. I probably should have been born Ludwig Wittgenstein. And gay. Very gay. But here I am, a very straight male bored with females. Let’s sample a few of the most intellectually satisfying discussions I have ever had. I won’t mention any names, but if I did, they’d all be masculine.

But men are bores too. They talk abstract nonsense all day long. They pretend to know what the hell “the ethics of care” are even when they don’t. They even attempt to write novels that exploit and elaborate upon female psychology. Please! Leo Tolstoy was a man. And Anna Karenina—I hate to break it to you—was a character created by a dude. Enjoy it all you want, fellows, but the girl you’re all drooling over is really “a dude.” And maybe we’re all secretly homosexual anyway…

I like beautiful women for several reasons. In fact, if I must confess, I’d say women are the most beautiful when they are most like themselves. I’ve met some charming debutantes in my life, and all of them have inspired me; that is, they have distracted me from my own self-inflicted boredom.

How many men have inspired me? Nada. Women? All of them. I find women to be singularly beautiful. This means that women are, naturally, the very epitome of beauty. We probably cannot talk about beauty as a Platonic ideal without resorting to a foundational principle, and that very principle is reduced to the female body.

I like beautiful women for several reasons. (Did I already say that?)

First, beautiful women remind us bored males that Platonic ideals probably exist—that is, beautiful women are the very embodiment of Forms (with a capital “f”); they serve as Platonism incarnate, reminding us, males, that philosophy is real. Very real.

Second, beautiful women are distracting. Has anyone read Song of Solomon? Allow me to plagiarize my own work. In the Song of Solomon verse 1:9 reads: “To a mare among the chariots of Pharaoh have I likened you, my darling!” Most people probably read that and react with a “What the hell is he talking about?!” And that’s a very fair reaction. However, the Hebrew poet actually recognized a singular and universal truth; it is to that truth that I now turn my attention. Robert Alter writes regarding this passage:

“Pharaoh’s chariots were drawn by stallions, but the military stratagem alluded to has been clearly understood by commentators as far back as the classical Midrashim: a mare in heat, let loose among chariotry, could transform well-drawn battle lines into a chaos of wildly plunging stallions…The lover speaks out of a keen awareness of the power of figurative language to break open closed frames of reference and make us see things with a shock of new recognition… [T]he sexual attraction she exerts also has an almost violent power to drive males to distraction, as the equine military image powerfully suggests.”[3]

Maybe not all women would enjoy being likened to a mare in heat, but I could think of several Kim Kardashian wannabes. And, personally, I find the Hebraic poetry here quite romantic. But maybe I’m being too much of a male.The truth? Women are distraction par excellence.

Third, beautiful women are always—first and foremost—women. While the adjective may try to annihilate the noun’s place of chief prominence, it serves mostly as a sort of subordinate clause in the phrase “beautiful women”—for even I know that it is “women” here that functions as the main point of departure. Women are, naturally, more beautiful when they are least like men. Because men are brute beasts—and nobody wants to be a man anyhow. The word “women” carries with it a sort of mysterious aura. In the word we meet all the women we have ever encountered. The word reminds us of all the wonderful ladies we have ever met. In particular, the singular “woman” carries the weight of the more universal, plural “women.” It is in her that we meet all of them. (God, how I wish English had a third person feminine plural pronoun—something akin to the Hebrew הֵן!) In the singular woman, we encounter all of the “shes,” all of the “hers,” all of the heartbreaks, romances, and feminine universals we have observed throughout life. So whenever I think of her—or of women in general—I always find the word to be a vast ocean of verbs, adjectives, participles, and conjunctions that I cannot but feel helpless in.

And, finally—if there is such a thing as “finality,” which I emphatically reject—I have one last observation to remark upon. (It’s not my “last,” but let’s pretend it is.) Women are so much better than men. For one, they are genetically predestined to play mind-games. (And that, in and of itself, is a wonderful and delightful distraction from my mind-numbing boredom.) Males, such as myself, read novels and so train ourselves to be weird and strange—“eccentric,” in this case, perhaps. But these traits I have developed, not inherited. Second, women are extremely loyal creatures once you endow them with all things beautiful—be it words of affection or something of a romantic nature. Strange how words have such ethical repercussions!

And there you have it: I have refrained from being bored. I am least bored when I am alone, being surrounded by beautiful women.

And, honestly—allow us, that is, you and I, to have a moment of truth—how many of you read my writing out of sheer boredom? That, right there, is the irony.

(But it is I who had the aesthetic element pleasurably bestowed upon me, not you.)

As for the “7 Reasons Why Your Life is Interesting” part, I have one word: oh please. (It’s actually two words, but who’s counting, right?)

Give me a break, your life is boring. Go out there and be bored en masse with “the bores.”

 

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

When I’m not bored, I can be found writing my thesis in the philosophy of language and religion at Emory University. 

 

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or, Part I, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987), 285.

[2] Blaise Pascal, Pensées and Other Writings, trans. Honor Levi (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 47.

[3] Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Poetry (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1985), 193.

Endowing Life With The Sacred: An Essay on Human Limitations and Exclusivity

Humans have the ability to self-generate “the sacred.” While the Platonist philosopher wishes to universalize human behavior, the human being chained to his or her own existential reality gets through life by making those relations “sacred” that are immediately most close to him or her; in essence, the existential human is concerned with the particular. Humans are finite creatures limited to time and place. We cannot possibly love everyone and make every moment sacred. Hence, we embrace those closest to us—set them apart—and, in effect, make our relations sacred. We are, by all means, an exclusive-making species. We exclude everyone else in the process. We include those we chose, and amongst those chosen, we further make sacred some relations. In this essay, I will argue that exclusivity is essential to the human life, since it is inherent to our finite natures. Moreover, I will argue that we self-generate “the sacred” by (a) a process of exclusion, which is an inherent by-product of our finite nature; and (b) a process of selecting from those included a select few individuals who share a particular act, a particular thing, with us in common. It is this particularity that makes something “sacred.” It is this particularity that makes up what we call “special moments.” The thing that we choose to willfully set-apart becomes holy (“sacred”) unto us.

In this essay, I will deal with the example of sacred sex, something common to many religions. Because sex has taken on this sort of “sacred element,” I have decided that it serves as a clear example of how humans go about excluding others and endowing life with the sacred by a process of particularization. I will first begin by dealing with human limitations. I will then proceed to show how this is inextricably related to our finite natures. After that, I will demonstrate that humans qua humans could only be exclusive-making creatures. Finally, I will argue that sex serves as a perfect example of self-generated “sacredness.” Moreover, I will argue that endowing life with “the sacred” is something all humans could, theoretically, do. In fact, I will argue for all of us to embrace particularity as it alone allows us to value one another as unique individuals.

Humans have limitations. We cannot think omnisciently, for one. And we cannot think for an infinite period of time; instead, we must limit ourselves to time-constrained actions. Let’s briefly deal with the first issue, namely, omniscience.

Let’s suppose that Anna and Mike go on a date. Anna tells Mike that she is a very honest person. Mike values honesty, and does not think that he would be able to love Anna (or any other woman for that matter) who could not make honesty a prioritized virtue. Let us suppose that Anna consciously thinks she is honest indeed. So she tells Mike on their tenth date that she values and embodies the virtue of honesty. Mike, being very keen on finding himself an honest person to date, takes Anna at her word and proceeds with the relationship.

But Mike is not omniscient. He doesn’t know everything. He doesn’t know that even while Anna was speaking honestly—that is, in her subjective opinion she was being “honest” about her “honesty”—Anna was actually not the most honest of human beings. In fact, relative to the rest of the human population, Anna’s “honesty ranking” was somewhere in the fiftieth percentile, making her mundanely stereotypical and average. But Mike isn’t omniscient, so he cannot possibly know that. He doesn’t have access to her thoughts—both conscious and subconscious. He doesn’t have access to her history, to her contextualized-to-self language-games. He doesn’t have access to her worldviews, be they tacit or explicit. He doesn’t have that sort of monopoly on truth. As we all know, none of us do. Given such facts, Mike, by continuing to date her, actually commits a sort of sin against himself: he acts in a way that is not consistent with what he believes.

As boring as this example may sound, humans do this all the time. That’s simply how we approach the world. We listen to people; we give them the benefit of the doubt; we trust their choice of words; we accept their version of themselves; we trust that the words spoken reflect who they actually are, etc., etc.

There is this certain strand of “basic trust” that runs throughout our engagement with other human beings. But, once exposed to critical scrutiny, much of what we believe about one another is misconstrued, misinterpreted, misplaced, misdiagnosed, etc., etc. And it’s not something to be upset about. Why should we be? When a million years is what one needs for perfection, a hundred years could only grant us faint slivers of it. Every decade or so we make a perfect move, a perfect decision; every month or two, we say something that sounds absolutely perfect to someone else. But these are rare glimpses of eternity. These are those special moments in which we strangely find ourselves doing things in a manner almost unnatural to us. We dance in a way that seems to have been written in the stars—for one night only. Again, this isn’t inherent to our natures. This is a misfire. Perfection could never be something we get served on a daily basis. For how could it be otherwise? In a world of omniscient-less beings, we can only expect acts that betray a certain lack of intelligence and thought. This brings us to the second issue: finitude.

For omniscience to be useful, it must also be found conjoined to infinity. Only an infinite existence, coupled with omniscience, could possibly create dates, scenes, vacations, etc., where things turned out perfectly planned. But we are finite creatures, bound to the post-Einsteinian space-time continuum. We spend decades growing up, only to discover that growing-up also involves the inevitability of growing-old. And growing-old also included dessert after the main dish: death. We live a life spending the majority of our youth—years wasted—on simply figuring ourselves out. And while we’re busy doing that, we realize that our twenties don’t last forever—they too shall pass. We hit our thirties and realize that (a) we are much more wiser now; and (b) we are certainly not as visually appealing. And the entire time we are pressured to be something, to do something. We get lost in the hypnotic mazes of our careers. We spend a decade trying to resurface. In the sea of dizzying freedom, we are then forced, by our very sexually driven natures, to find ourselves a companion who would take that road with us.

But our thoughts are lost. Shattered. Heads spinning. Out there in the twilight zone our minds are left wondering. We fall back to earth only to land in a vast blue sea of broken dreams, shitty errands, traffic, and all-things irritating; we get suffocated by the waters of our own lives. Underwater we learn to survive. Then—in the twinkling of an eye—we come up for air. Ah. That shit feels good. Every once in a while we catch glimpses of eternity. We transcend our skin and bones to realize that there’s got to be more to this stuff called “life.” It is in moments like these that we begin to value what little time we have been given.

A thought occurs to us. Call it a sacred thought. “Hmm,” we say to ourselves. “Maybe wasting my precious time on a sea of useless faces isn’t the best way to go about living life. Isn’t it possible to know and be known?” And in such moments we find the existentially appealing idea of particularization, of setting apart, of exclusive-making to be something worth pursuing.

And out of a dizzying array of faces, names, nicotine-stained smiles, tattoos and piercings, I have chosen you.

Here—in the midst of what was once an eternal hole the size of Texas, swirling in galactic black hole space-ness—I have called out, striking chords on imperative notes: you.

Here, falling to the ground like a leaf in dead winter, lonely and single, I have made an impression on someone. It’s a truly singular event. It’s an event where you discover that something sacred is going on. This you that I have called becomes set-apart from all other such yous.

I don’t how many of you feel anything right now, but I’m kind of giddy-all-over typing this, pausing and reflecting on my use of verbs, adjectives, and participles. Just writing this is making this sentence, this paragraph, feel special.

Why you?

And we find our thoughts continuously percolating around this particular individual, this you. Out of an infinite sea of innumerable I-Thou relationships, we find ourselves particularizing. Limiting. Setting apart. Making plans for an exclusive Other. We recognize that our finitude, our creatureliness, our very bad habit of familiarity, drives us into the wastelands of particularity. Moving from the universal, moving from the ideals we have created for ourselves, we zoom in on a specific individual. Moving from all of the contextualized history we have created about ourselves, for ourselves, we become cognizant of a very acute fact. The ideal world is ideal for a very specific reason: it has no boundaries, no realized finitude, no palatable reality to it. We imagine a perfect Other. We concoct for ourselves a dream life. (But allow me to emphasize the word “dream” in the sentence.) All of our ambitions, our dreams, our perfection-driven tendencies, find themselves useless due to one single fact: none of it is real.

Perhaps there is a reason why we do this, perhaps not. What is important to note, however, is that we all do this. These universal ideals, these unadulterated thoughts, only become embodied in an imperfect world, full of imperfect people, forced to make decisions in poorly timed conditions.

Our ideals remain distant to us. They share brain-space with us, but that is all. Most of us, at some point, shed ideals like snakes shed their skins. We let go of our childhood fantasies and move on to conquer the day with Godspeed. Our need for reality, for embodiment, for Incarnation is written in our religious texts, our coffee shop meet-ups, our handshakes, and our face-to-face encounters with the objective Other. We cannot taste without touch. In this perpetual motion, this never-ending desire for a palatable reality, we become aware of just how tangible we want things to be. Our visions take on their own realities, growing hands and fingers as we speak them into life.

This all brings us to the very pressing issue of the process of particularization. We like doing things that are particular. Maybe because it is only in the particular that we find comfort. I don’t know why this is the case, but it is. A universal idea of a perfect spouse isn’t as comforting as the particular reality of an imperfect spouse holding your fragile body while your atoms decay with each collapse of the wave function.

When we particularize our lives, we begin to engage people on a more intimate level. Spending one minute on each individual out of a group of ten thousand persons isn’t as satisfying as spending ten thousand minutes with one person. The quality of our relationships is proportionally related to the amount of time we invest in them.

And so it is in moments like these that we perform what I have called “exclusive-making” actions. We start excluding all other relations in favor of one. Given the fact that we value our time, and given the fact that we have very little of it, the person whom we most value is blessed with the majority of what little time we have. We narrow down our choices. We select people on whom to spend our skin on. Life is short, so we don’t waste time excluding others.

Allow me to remind my readers that I am by no means arguing that this is bad. This is not only good; this is a brute fact of life. It is the only way a finite creature could and (probably) should live.

Finally, this brings us to the issue of sexual relations. If what you value is depth of knowledge, intimacy, and quality in your human relations, I suppose, by implication, you probably are careful with whom you share the sexual experience. (Now, this is not a universal claim that I am making. Some people, I am told, are perfectly fine with loose sexual mores, and say they are genuinely satisfied with them. I am not speaking on behalf of such people. In fact, I cannot possibly relate to them.) The process of particularization brings us to the issue of whom we choose to have sex with. Now, it is evident that relationships are not always sacred. Moreover, it should also be made clear that not everyone cares about the sacred. Some people just don’t give a fuck—and I won’t interrupt their orgy. Having said that, for those of us who do care about the sacred, who do care about investing every second of our time in someone we deeply care about, the rest is dedicated to us…

If the quality of our relationships is directly related to time spent on them, then, quite possibly, the quality of sexual intimacy is directly related to time invested in the person we’re having sex with. We go on dates, walk on foreign shores, and share sunsets—all for the sake of the possibility of loving and being loved. And sexual expression is one way of “doing love.” Generally speaking, we don’t get stark naked for those who do not know us. The act of clothing ourselves symbolizes our act of hiding ourselves from others. We don’t want to be known and seen by those we don’t care to be known and seen by. Most people cannot and do not know us. And so we remain forever “hidden” from their sights.

And then something happens.

We choose someone. Out of the plurality of voices beckoning to us, we respond to only one. Only they see us as we want to be seen; only they experience the nudity we have left impenetrable to others. In essence, then, we—as volitional human beings—self-generate our own notions of the sacred. If sex is sacred to you, you will set it apart. What I am stating here is that sacred sex is not something that religion has a monopoly on. In fact, the atheist could lead a life in which certain acts (such as the sexual act), certain traditions, or certain gestures are made sacred: they are set apart for special people and special occasions. One could, in theory, make sacred the phrase “I love you” and whisper it only to three people in the entire world. It doesn’t take a god to make life sacred. It takes a human being who wants to make it so.

Personally, I already lead a sacred life. I value my time, and try not to waste it on people I don’t care about. And, there, I said it: most people I don’t give a damn about. I don’t think there’s anything special about my not giving a damn. I just see it as something that must be. I can’t have it both ways. To give a damn, I have to spend time with you. But I won’t. For I have already chosen to do that with someone else. And that someone else has had my time graciously bestowed upon them. In the minutes that are leading up to midnight, I have chosen to set myself apart for someone else. Not because I don’t value people; no, it is precisely because of the fact that I do.

I relish every moment spent with a person who is both broken and familiar. I value our shared history, whatever it may include. I do this because I want to, nothing more and nothing less. I have chosen to endow my life with the sacred because I believe that this particular way of leading it is, for me, most existentially satisfying. I also encourage others to think about their lives. I encourage you to revaluate your priorities. What do you spend your finite time on? With whom have you chosen to share the sacred, if anyone? It is only in the particular that we are able to find a human being worth loving. And figuring out who that particular person is takes time. But in taking that finite time and spending it on a particular individual makes for some very good times. It allows us to know the Other on an intimate level. In knowing him or her on such a level, we are allowing them the chance to share their unique individuality with us. Only in experiencing the Other as they really are gives us the opportunity to love them in an appropriate manner. But all of that takes time, which brings us back to the issue of exclusive-making activities, the sacred, and…

 

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

I’m a graduate student at Emory University interested in religion, philosophy, and the philosophy of language. 

A History of Virginity: Purity Culture’s Ideals, Feminist Critiques, and a Philosophy of History; Or, How in the Hell Did We Go From Virginity to Hymens to Purity Balls?

 

It’s a Saturday night somewhere. A warm summer breeze caresses a chiseled male jaw. The middle-aged man with grey streaks splattered in rusty patches on his head walks hand-in-hand with a younger lady. In fact, she’s drop dead gorgeous, dressed to kill, and much younger than he. They make their way to the entrance. It’s a late night and they’re going to a party. No, it’s more like a fancy-pants dance. The speakers are undoubtedly playing Taylor Swift’s “Love Story.” And, to be sure, this is about love: it’s about true love. Banners above the entrance read, like those awful planes-in-the-sky carrying messages, the following: True Love Waits. They enter the building, grab some drinks, and begin dancing. They are dancing away in celebration of the young lady. She’s doing something special: she’s keeping her virginity. And the man dancing away with her is her father. How sensible and how sweet.

Such dances are real. They happen in small towns and big towns just like yours. The evangelical Christians like to call them “purity balls.” It’s like the whole Cinderella story except it goes like this: “Once upon a time there lived an intact hymen. And Cinderella promised to keep it intact. And so one night…” But, of course, nobody really begins the fairytale of Cinderella like that. Instead, we use cute, sanitized words like “purity” and “virginity.”

While such balls may actually be fun—and maybe a little creepy?—they are intimately connected to their culture. The concept of virginity has a history; it has a past, a present, and, almost certainly, a future. It’s a living tradition. Purity culture, an outshoot of the conservative Christian evangelical movement, has some rather black-and-white lines drawn when it comes to defining virginity. In other words, they seem to know virginity’s history and its relationship to the present moment. On the other hand, you also have the feminists criticizing this purity culture stuff. Feminists such as Jessica Valenti have a lot of troubling words to say when it comes to the concept of virginity. To be sure, they’ve even written entire books on the subject. And—oh boy!—believe it or not, does virginity have a past! It’s as creepy as Frankenstein’s bastard child; as beautiful as the Mona Lisa; and is as raw-fully detailed as Andreas Vesalius’ De humani corporis fabrica, an early textbook on human anatomy.

In this paper, I will trace ancient and modern perceptions of virginity. I will then examine how both purity culture and feminism view the concept of virginity, especially paying close attention to the way history intersects with modern culture, and how such a coalescence may have helped each of them shape their unique views on the subject of virginity. I will then examine virginity’s history, as it is treated by purity culture and feminism, from Paul Ricoeur’s philosophy of history.

One of the earliest texts that we have specifically dealing with virginity comes from none other than the good old Bible. In Deuteronomy 22:28-29, we encounter the following passage:

“If a man meets a virgin who is not engaged, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are caught in the act, the man who lay with her shall give fifty shekels of silver to the young woman’s father, and she shall become his wife. Because he violated her he shall not be permitted to divorce her as long as he lives.”[1]

A virgin, once de-virginized by a male is told to immediately marry her rapist. This passage makes perfect sense in an age where birth control and abortion did not exist. The virgin may have gotten pregnant from the rape, gave birth to a child, and would have needed support raising the child. And so, as punishment for the crime, and as a way to serve the rape victim some justice, the Bible prescribes marriage certificates when a female victim is diagnosed with rape. And, as far as we know, this sort of legislation may have prevented males from raping virgins. If you rape her, you marry her. And, as if to settle the case in eternity, the male is not allowed to ever divorce his rape-victim-turned-wife. In other words, here’s to a once-upon-a-time Cinderella story told in epic biblical proportions. Cheers.

The Bible doesn’t stop there. Apparently, the ancients even knew how to verify that a human being—specifically a female—were a virgin. Enter the “magic bed sheet.”

“Suppose a man marries a woman, but after going in to her, he dislikes her and makes up charges against her, slandering her by saying, “I married this woman; but when I lay with her, I did not find evidence of her virginity.” The father of the young woman and her mother shall then submit the evidence of the young woman’s virginity to the elders of the city at the gate” (Deut. 22:13-15 NRSV).

The “evidence” that the parents of the bride would submit would be, it is theorized, the bed sheets from the wedding night.[2] Blood and the loss of virginity apparently go hand-in-hand, according to ancient Jewish customs. However you look at it, the ancient Jews were certainly concerned with the concept of virginity. It was a very important subject, hence it being mentioned in the Bible. The concept of virginity, at least as it stands in Deuteronomy, is not necessarily about notions of purity or morality. It is, rather, about property and economics. The commandments concerning female virginity “see[k] to protect the honor of the father and make the seduction or slander of an Israelite virgin an expensive proposition.”[3] To lose one’s virginity in ancient Israel was to lose one’s socioeconomic standing. Males sought female brides who were virgin. And if you weren’t a virgin daughter, you were an expensive long-term inhabitant of your father’s household. You were not marriage material by any means.

The New Testament, likewise, has some things to say about virginity. One well-known story is the tale of the Virgin Birth. Apparently, being a virgin—and giving birth—resulted in the birth of a god (or demi-god). While the New Testament itself doesn’t describe in detail Mary’s virginity, an apocryphal text that was extremely popular in the second-century, the Protoevangelium Jacobi, does. Bart D. Ehrman, a famous biblical scholar, summarizes the text’s tale:

The midwife is astonished at the miracle and goes off to another midwife, named Salome, that a virgin has given birth. Salome, however, is doubtful and indicates that she won’t believe until she herself gives Mary a postpartum inspection to see for herself. Really. They come to the cave, and the first midwife tells Mary, “Brace yourself.” Salome performs an internal inspection and becomes an instant believer. Mary has not only conceived as a virgin, she has given birth as a virgin: her hymen is still intact.[4]

For various reasons, virginity is seen as something good. To have it even after giving birth is a supernatural event. And, this should be noted, apparently there was an objective referent one could resort to when seeking out whether a woman was virgin or not. (Ehrman thinks this was the hymen, but, as the research shows, we cannot be too sure.) I will later show how even the prized hymen, so well known in today’s culture, was not discovered until the sixteenth century!

In ancient Greece, virginity was prized likewise. One Athenian archon gave his daughter to a “hunger-crazed horse” for nourishment after discovering that she had been de-virginized by some male.[5] In fact, the social custom under Solon was that a father, upon discovering that his daughter lost her virginity, would immediately disown her. “It was the single circumstance in all of Solon’s legal code in which a freeborn Athenian could be forced into slavery.”[6]

Why this obsession with virginity? Why did the ancient Romans, for example, have the Vestal Virgins? Why did Christianity produce an enormous amount of celibate monks, who lived in the desert, battled lustful thoughts and maintained their virginity? Why did the second-century theologian, Origen, castrate himself? Was sex really that bad? While the focus of this paper is not Origin’s psychological status in regards to his perpetual virginity caused by self-castration, this paper is interested in examining how, from a historical perspective, virginity was defined, tested for, and discussed. To that I now turn.

Virginity in females did not always have a relationship with the hymen. In fact, in the past, a good portion of the population believed that virginity had something to do with a tight vaginal canal engulfed by arteries and capillaries. One trailblazer seeking evidence for the hymen concluded that it was a mythical thing, something akin to Ponce de León’s fountain of youth.

In som virgins or maidens in the orifice of the neck of the womb there is found a certain tunicle or membrane called of antient writers Hymen…But I could never find it in anie, seeking of all ages from three to twelv, of all that I had under my hands in the Hospital of Paris.[7]

Those were the words of Ambroise Paré, a French surgeon and anatomist. Apparently, even the professional medical doctors of the day had trouble finding the elusive hymen. The word hymen comes to us from the Greek. It was used by Aristotle to mean “membrane.” “The thick membrane around the brain that we call the dura was one such hymen. The mesentery, which anchors all of our intestines in place inside the abdominal cavity, was another. So too with the sac around the heart we call the pericardium…Hymens, hymens everywhere.”[8] In other words, “hymen” was, in the ancient days, a catchall term for “membrane.” So, if you ever run across it in the ancient literature, it may—or may not—refer to what we now call the hymen.

The first time in the historical literature that we find the use of the word hymen in the sense that we use it occurs in Michael Savonarola’s Practica maior (writing sometime in the 1400s). For Savonarola, “the cervix is covered by a subtle membrane called the hymen, which is broken at the time of deflowering, so that the blood flows.”[9] After Savonarola, the word appeared in the English dictionary produced by Thomas Elyot. He defined it as “a skinne in the secrete place of a maiden, which whanne she is defloured is broken.”[10]

Prior to the discovery of the hymen, some ancient anatomists thought that the blood that sometimes resulted from first-time sex came from the vaginal canal itself. The earliest text describing this comes from third-century Rome, Soranus’s Gynecology.

In virgins the vagina is depressed and narrower, because it contains ridges that are held down by vessels originating in the uterus; when defloration occurs, these ridges unfold, causing pain; they burst, resulting in the excretion of blood that ordinarily flows. In fact, the belief that a thin membrane grows in the middle of the vagina and that it is this membrane that tears in defloration or when menstruation comes on too quickly, and that this membrane, by persisting and becoming thicker, causes the malady known as “imperforation,” is an error.[11]

And there you have it: no such thing as a hymen. But, of course, in retrospect Soranus was wrong. Dead wrong. In 1543, Vesalius finally found empirical proof of the hymen. He dissected a couple of stolen bodies and found it. It was right there in front of him in all its membrane glory.

History has a strange way of interacting with us. On the one hand, we clearly want objectivity when discussing it. On the other, it seems that all too often we simply see what we want to see. For example, purity culture believes in the existence of the hymen because it exists (a) today and (b) existed in the past. The Bible, along with the ancients, apparently knew about the hymen and its relation to virginity, so the thinking goes. But then, as you examine history, and dig through the historical texts, the truth may not be so simple. We now know that not everyone believed in the hymen. In fact, when reading the Bible, and its discussing proofs of virginity, even the Rabbis weren’t so sure that all virgins bled on that fateful wedding day. This is why the Talmud contains debates regarding this matter precisely.[12] They, too, were not sure testing for virginity in females was that simple, that black-and-white.

In the fourth-century, the church father Augustine of Hippo was faced with a particular dilemma. He believed that virginity was physical. It probably had something to do with hymens or capillaries in vaginal canals. But a historical situation—in his day, it was a modern one—caused him to rethink his notions of virginity. Christian virgins were being raped. Were they still virgins even though they were raped, and clearly did not consent? Augustine thought so. The reasoning went that if you resisted with your heart and soul, you did not lose your virginity. For Augustine, virginity was an attribute of the soul—it wasn’t merely physical.[13]

Purity culture has its own particular way of engaging with the concept of virginity. For the mostly evangelical Christian population, virginity is pretty much a female thing. Girls must have an intact hymen on their wedding day. Males, on the other hand, have no such “physical” requirements. They simply must not engage their penis in vaginal sexual intercourse. That seems to be the broad, working definition. For males, there’s no physical proof that they are “virgins.” Women, on the other hand, it is thought, have such proof. In fact, there are even theological arguments made discussing God’s design of the hymen and its theological functions. Dannah Gresh, author of And the Bride Wore White: Seven Secrets to Sexual Purity, writes, “You see, God created you and me with a protective membrane, the hymen, which in most cases is broken the first time that we have intercourse…When it breaks, a woman’s blood spills over her husband. Your sexual union is a blood covenant between you, your husband, and God.”[14] No commentary is needed here; God has spoken: your hymen serves as the crux of a blood covenant.

Gresh may be an unheard-of author, but Joshua Harris is not. It is he, after all, who wrote the best-selling, controversial book I Kissed Dating Goodbye; he, too, places big emphasis on virginity and first-time sex. He begins his book with the following “dream”:

It was finally here—Anna’s wedding day, the day she had dreamed about and planned for months. The small, picturesque church was crowded with friends and family…But as the minister began to lead Anna and David through their vows, the unthinkable happened. A girl stood up in the middle of the congregation, walked quietly to the altar, and took David’s other hand. Another girl approached him and stood next to the first, followed by another. Soon, a chain of six girls stood by him as he repeated his vows to Anna. Anna felt her lip quiver as tears welled up in her eyes.

“Is this some kind of joke?” she whispered to David.

“I’m…I’m sorry, Anna,” he said, staring at the floor… “They’re girls from my past… I’ve given part of my heart to each of them.”

“I thought your hear was mine?” she said.

“It is, it is,” he pleaded. “Everything that’s left is yours.”[15]

As Harris sees it, the stakes are enormously high. The threshold for having the perfect marriage, the perfect wedding night, is set so high, so far up in heaven, even Stephen Hawking with all of his telescopes is having trouble seeing where it all ends. And if you make a mistake—God forbid!—if you even dare lose your virginity (whatever that means), your future is damned: you have effectively rendered yourself useless. “[E]ven the most innocent form of sexual expression outside of marriage could be dangerous.”[16] With teenagers reading such books, and the stakes so high for women with their hymens, it’s a surprise that a majority of them don’t resort to some kind of prison-like state of complete isolation from the male species in solitary confinement.

This obsession with the hymen in particular leads to strange things. This results in young Christian college girls engaging in all kinds of sex acts—oral sex, anal sex, masturbation, implementation of dildos and vibrators, etc.—while remaining virgin. How? One sex act was missing from my list: vaginal sexual intercourse. As long as vaginal sexual intercourse is not engaged in—and the hymen remains intact—one could, theoretically speaking, consider oneself a “virgin.”

The way purity culture has valued virginity, and its notions of virginity, has also influenced the “science” of virginity. Since males are taught, incorrectly, that females almost always bleed upon their first sexual encounter, the males have assumed blood along with pain are good indicators of virginity. The problem is that a good portion of the population does not bleed and experiences no pain during first time sex. One study found that 63% of women experienced no blood after their first act of vaginal intercourse.[17] This is nothing new. Males have been duped all these years. They have believed in “blood and guts” because they so wanted to find them. Women have been using all kinds of tricks to maintain this illusion of virginity. For example, we have ancient texts instructing women how to bleed on their wedding night in order to make certain that the male believes in their virginity. The ninth-century Persian physician Rhazes recommended inserting the intestines of dove’s into the vaginal canal, along with the warm blood of the animal, to make the vagina tight and, of course, bloody.[18] I was not kidding when I said “blood and guts.” Literally. And even women today get what they come looking for. In one study conducted in Germany on 669 patients coming in for a gynecological exam, they found a direct correlation between anxiety and the experience of increased pain.[19] That is, if a girl is taught from a young age that first time sex is painful and bloody, it may not be bloody, but it will almost certainly be painful. Not in an objective sense, of course, but in a subjective sense. You will experience pain because you have duped yourself into thinking it’ll be painful. Hanne Blank writes, “A woman is also more likely to have a painless experience, as well as a more positive impression of losing her virginity overall, research tells us, if she is not coerced or pressured, feels safe and secure with her partner, and is not worried about being interrupted or discovered during sex.”[20]

Reality alone will not change Gresh’s “blood covenant’s theology of the hymen.” If the data is accurate, a majority of women will not bleed during first time sex. I guess God doesn’t bless their intercourse. (Such may be the theological response.) Oh well. However, this is not the only case in which the concept of virginity, as it has been traditionally understood by purity culture, has been scrutinized. The feminists have also criticized this extensively. It is to the feminist critiques that I now turn.

As in Augustine’s time, so today, a real modern issue forces one to rethink traditional concepts. With the rise of homosexuality and the invention of condoms, all kinds of sex acts are now, well, sex acts. Heterosexuals can engage in anal sex in a safe manner by using condoms and some lubricating jelly. Lesbians can use various phallic-shaped devices, be they dildos or vibrators, and engage in, well, sex acts. Gay men engage in anal sex. Traditional conceptions of virginity—that is, no vaginal sexual intercourse either passively [female] or actively [male] engaged in—have been usually accepted because heterosexuality has been accepted as the norm. Jessica Valenti points out how absurd the traditional conception is: “If it’s just heterosexual intercourse, then we’d have to come to the fairly ridiculous conclusion that all lesbians and gay men are virgins, and that different kinds of intimacy, like oral sex, mean nothing.”[21] But, of course, most of us here would be inclined to consider anal sex to be sexual intercourse. So, yes, a virgin with an intact hymen having anal sex with her boyfriend three times a day is, by the modern definition, not a virgin. Did I make myself clear? Or should I say “not” again?

And it’s not only homosexuality that has challenged traditional conceptions of virginity. With the rise of various sex toys, I think it’s high time we reevaluated what it means to be a virgin. If a male, without prior vaginal sexual intercourse, has sex with a blow up doll, isn’t he no longer a “virgin”? On the flip side, what if a “virgin” female with her hymen intact “loses” her “hymen intact-ness” to a dildo, is she still a virgin? (She did, according to the traditional conception of virginity, “lose” her intact hymen. But, in a strange way, a penis attached to a male never penetrated her.) Such scenarios make our heads spin. But it all makes sense. This is why Hanne Blank’s modern definition of “virginity” is so vague and broad. She defines it as “a human sexual status that is characterized by a lack of any current or prior sexual interaction with others.”[22] According to her, losing your virginity occurs when some kind of sex act—whether vaginal, oral, or otherwise—takes places between two (whether gay or straight) individuals. The requirements, then, for being a virgin are: (a) no sexual activity with (b) another human being. (Sexual activities, such as masturbation and/or the use of a dildo in a private setting, do not constitute a loss of virginity.)

The rise of homosexuality, various forms of birth control, and sex toys have not been the only thing that have forced moderns to reevaluate what they mean by “virgin.” Another fact has come to light: all hymens are not created equally. If the traditional conception is to be maintained in the modern era—which I don’t think it can be—it must address the problem the objective science presents us with. Hymens, we now know, are not all the same. They come in various shapes and sizes. Some women, for example, are born with imperforate hymens: that is, hymens that cover the entire vaginal opening. This presents menstruating women with a difficulty, so, naturally, the surgeons have to incise the hymen.[23] “Hymenal tissue itself appears in a number of forms. It might be fragile and barely there, or resilient and rubbery.”[24] Some hymens disintegrate on their own; others are “so resilient that they endure years of sexual intercourse quite handily…”[25] As far as hymenology goes, I think it is safe to conclude that it is unscientific and irrational to make an intact hymen bear the crux of “proof” when it, by no means, can do so. The hymen is not as “universal” as the ancients may have imagined or as “theological” as purity culture may have believed. It’s a piece of tissue that comes in all kinds of shapes and sizes, and, in an odd way, takes on a life of its own: disintegrating, at times; at other times, remaining intact throughout years of sexual intercourse.

The strangest thing, however, is that even animals have hymens. So, they’re nothing special. Yes, you heard me correctly: “llamas, guinea pigs, bush babies, manatees, moles, toothed whales, chimpanzees, elephants, rats, ruffed lemurs, and seals all have them.”[26] God must have been having nasty thoughts the moment He decided that a female rat needed to seal her “marriage” to another rat with a “blood covenant.” Strange gods, those guys.[27]

We have seen how conceptions of virginity were construed in the past, and how such historical conceptions were employed by purity culture only to be criticized by feminism. In both purity culture and feminism, traditional conceptions of virginity—as found in ancient texts, for example—guided the modern discussions. One question we have not addressed yet is the question of how we as people read and understand history. How is it that the history of virginity could be, in some ways, shaped by our own prejudices? How is it, for example, that we perpetrate the myth of “blood and guts” in association with first-time sex? Paul Ricoeur, a philosopher, has some interesting things to tell us.

For Ricoeur, all history is, essentially, an act of living interpretation. In the modern era, prior to Immanuel Kant, people generally believed in an objective world that was “out there,” one which they had access to. They were relatively certain in our ability to grasp the objective. After Kant, a shift occurred: people began recognizing their subjectivity. The mind was limited by its very nature. The world “out there,” the noumenon—that is, the thing-in-itself—was not to be confused with the way we perceived it to be; the perceptions were the phenomena, the thing-as-it-appears-to-us. There lie a vast chasm between the noumenon and the phenomenon. In the modern era, an era in which the philosopher Descartes worked, history was viewed as a collection of objective facts—a collection of noumena—to which we, the people, had access. After Kant dropped his atomic bomb in philosophy, and having initiated civilization into the post-modern era, historians began to recognize how un-objective the historical enterprise itself was. Ricoeur welcomed this more balanced-yet-critical approach towards history. For Ricoeur, a good method was one in which “[a] deep distrust for any simple reductive explanation of man or culture remains constant.”[28] The historical data should not just be seen as objective; no, humans who have subjectivities are engaging the historical data. But the historian must not stop there. Ricoeur believed that we should go even further than Kant: we should not merely criticize objectivity, while emphasizing subjectivity, we should criticize subjectivity too! There are methods and counter-methods, subjects and objects, one must not place greater emphasis on one or the other; instead, Ricoeur argues that they must together remain in dialectic tension, “the dialectic of oppositions.”[29] Out of this tension, Ricoeur was forced to discuss the elephant in the room: language. Language—“words”—are the things we use to write history. Ricoeur became increasingly aware that language should be carefully scrutinized. “The word is my work; the word is my kingdom.”[30] It is only within the sphere of a given language that a historian operates, hence his having called “the word” his “kingdom”—it is the place in which one lives and breathes and does history. Ricoeur takes language to mean a system that incorporates the use of “symbols.” The symbols function as pointers to objective things in reality, myth, etc. Such symbols have multiple meanings, and, hence, can confuse interpreters. And, ultimately, all acts in which the reading and understanding of texts—which use symbols—occurs are inevitably going to end up being interpretations. “I define symbol as: any structure of signification in which a direct, primary, literal meaning designates, in addition, another meaning which is indirect, secondary, and figurative and which can be apprehended only through the first.” Moreover, he goes on to define the process of “interpretation.” “Interpretation, we will say, is the work of thought which consists in deciphering the hidden meaning in the apparent meaning, in unfolding the levels of meaning implied in the literal meaning.”[31]

As one can readily tell, the concept of “virginity” undoubtedly has some grounding in objective fact. There are women who have some form or another of hymenal tissue, which can, at times, be torn during first-time sex. But, as our discussion has revealed—as we have lunged into the issue of history, meta-history, language, and the human experience—we have seen how problematic, how complex the symbol of virginity in our language really is. In fact, it is by no means absurd to conclude that we still have issues with grasping virginity’s “hidden meaning in the apparent meaning.” We are onto something but we cannot seem to grasp it. As Blank remarks in her own work, concluding a chapter on the history of “virginity testing”:

There is no single virginal body, no single virginal experience, no single virginal vagina, not even a single virginal hymen. There is only the question, how doe we know whether this woman is a virgin? The answer has been written innumerable times, with alum and doves’ blood and urine and decoctions of mint and lady’s mantle, with charts and graphs and clinical photography. But no matter how many times someone attempts to inscribe it, no matter how firmly they press the pen to the paper, we are left forever with the same blank page.[32]

In a rather strange turn of events, the history of virginity had become biography. As documented earlier, a woman who believes first-time sex would be painful, experiences pain. A woman who believes she will bleed excessively will, by all means, bleed—probably a little—but she’ll end up exaggerating the event.[33] “Sociologist Sharon Thompson’s research has shown that in telling their virginity-loss stories, some women seem to positively revel in gory (and in some cases clearly exaggerated) details…”[34] The males who expect their “virgin” wives to bleed, end up seeing blood on the wedding night because their new brides plan wedding days when they would be on their menstrual periods.[35] The history of virginity, then, is not really history so much as it is our own biography. We want to see blood, so blood we see. Why? Because we want to see it. And if we don’t see blood, somebody bring me dove’ intestines—or, better yet, make sure coitarche (first-time sex) occurs during a woman’s period! And so the “history” of virginity continues. It continues to write its story in blood and guts. But what were we expecting to find anyhow? Weren’t we all in it for the blood and the guts in the first place? As Ricoeur correctly points out:

The purpose of all interpretation is to conquer a remoteness, a distance between the past cultural epoch to which the text belongs and the interpreter himself. By overcoming this distance, by making himself contemporary with the text, the exegete can appropriate its meaning to himself: foreign, he makes it familiar, that is, he makes it his own. It is thus the growth of his own understanding of himself that he pursues through his understanding of the other. Every hermeneutics is thus, explicitly or implicitly, self-understanding by means of understanding others.[36]

In such a way, we, too, have made the foreign familiar; we, too, have made the gory stories in times past our very own. We, as a people, as those who engage in the task of interpreting history, make the text into something that speaks to us—so long as it speaks to us in a domestic language. We want it all for ourselves.

Objective facts—what happened and how—are less important than communicating symbolic truths. The stories that we tell say less about what was literally experienced than they do about how we felt about the experience, how we wanted to feel about it, and how our culture expects us to feel about it.[37]

From Harris’ I Kissed Dating Goodbye to Valenti’s The Purity Myth, virginity, and its shady history, played a central role. How it was understood in the past—be it in the Bible or in ancient medical texts—shaped and informed the modern discussions. However, as we have seen, the task of understanding history involved engagement with human subjectivities, even as Ricoeur philosophically theorized and as the science now suggests. What was theory in Ricoeur has become a working method in this paper. I hope I have, as Ricoeur suggested, examined the history of virginity while engaging in “the dialectic of oppositions.” Having said that, I do not think that virginity, either as it has been traditionally understood or otherwise, is going to stop engaging us as a culture. Sexuality is here to stay, for better or for worse, and we will continue to read ancient texts, medical texts, and blogs, allowing them to shape how we think about the concept of virginity. For the female, it may remain inextricably linked to her hymen; in males, it will probably remain something abstract, ambiguous and immaterial. Jesus was onto something when he slit the connection between physical adultery and “adultery of the heart.” “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:28 NRSV). Even in the ancient past, a thinker such as Jesus recognized that sexuality was more than just “of hymens and dildos.” There was, perhaps, a spiritual element to the sexual. One could engage in adulterous behavior merely by looking at some woman and imagining a sex act. Jesus—like Augustine after him—must have considered the possibility that sexuality cannot merely be reduced to intact hymens; that virginity—and this is per Augustine—is a characteristic, a virtue even, of the soul. If the ancients could think along ambiguous lines—that is, they were willing to think about more than just the physical—so should we be willing to critically examine our own culturally influenced conceptions of virginity.

Written by Moses Y. Mikheyev

I’m a graduate student at Emory University interested in religion, philosophy, and the philosophy of language. 

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Ehrman, Bart D. Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior. New York: HarperOne, 2016.

Hanne, Blank. Virgin: The Untouched History. New York: Bloomsbury, 2007.

Harris, Joshua. I Kissed Dating Goodbye. Colorado Springs: Multnomah, 1997.

Ihde, Don. Hermeneutic Phenomenology: The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1971.

Knust, Jennifer. Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire. New York: HarperOne, 2011.

Lundbom, Jack R. Deuteronomy: A Commentary. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2013.

Ricoeur, Paul. “Existence and Hermeneutics,” in The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur: An Anthology of His Work. Edited by Charles E. Reagan and David Stewart. Boston: Beacon Press, 1978.

Valenti, Jessica. The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women. Berkeley: Seal Press, 2009.

FOOTNOTES:

[1] New Revised Standard Version.

[2] Jack R. Lundbom, Deuteronomy: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2013), 633. “Other texts dealing with cases similar to the present one—one Old Babylonian and another from Qumran—report (trustworthy) women being called in to inspect the bride and hopefully to settle the matter. A similar procedure is attested among the Arabs. The whole procedure is admittedly primitive and could easily bring unjust verdicts, since women do not always emit blood on their first intercourse, hymens could have been broken for other reasons, and so on” (Ibid.).

[3] Jennifer Knust, Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire (New York: HarperOne, 2011), 62.

[4] Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior (New York: HarperOne, 2016), 33-4.

[5] Hanne Blank, Virgin: The Untouched History (New York: Bloomsbury, 2007), 124

[6] Ibid.

[7] Quoted in Blank, Virgin, 42.

[8] Ibid., 44.

[9] Ibid., 45.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 46.

[12] Ibid., 30.

[13] Ibid., 7-8.

[14] Quoted in Blank, Virgin, 112.

[15] Joshua Harris, I Kissed Dating Goodbye (Colorado Springs: Multnomah, 1997), 13-4. There are so many things wrong with this immature paragraph that I will express what I think, at the very least, in a footnote. Harris was young when he wrote this. And, by all means, it sounds very much like an adolescent writing this, with an inability to see the world outside of hard-drawn black-and-white dichotomizing lines. No, Harris, people don’t give their wives “what’s left.” It is life itself that has created them in the present. Their past is a part of what made them, at any given present moment, who they are. Life is, as Søren Kierkegaard and Heidegger point out, “a becoming.” You never “are” anything. You are always in the process of “becoming.” What the fictional David is giving Anna is who he has become—up until that point. But he won’t remain static. He will continue to grow, develop, share history with others—be they male or female—and continue to “become” something of his choosing. To say that spending time with others is somehow immoral or wrong is idealistic and arrogant. People can’t read the future, neither can we know beforehand whom we are going to marry. In a perfect world, hell, I, too, would prefer to spend my youth on my future wife. But in this world—with all of our limitations—spending time with girls that won’t end up with me comes with the territory. I don’t know which world you live in, but on planet earth, people are not omniscient, do not forecast the weather, and—and this point is important—they make mistakes. But only in retrospect. Hindsight. We don’t always know something is a mistake in the present moment. I, for one, have no such crystal ball.

[16] Ibid., 96.

[17] Blank, Virgin, 89.

[18] Ibid., 91.

[19] Ibid., 114.

[20] Ibid., 115.

[21] Jessica Valenti, The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women (Berkeley: Seal Press, 2009), 20.

[22] Blank, Virgin, 6.

[23] The traditional conception of virginity as being directly related to the status of the hymen must, I assume, have problems with a surgeon “taking” a patient’s virginity.

[24] Blank, Virgin, 37.

[25] Ibid., 40.

[26] Ibid., 23.

[27] I’m rolling my eyes so much typing this; they are beginning to feel like bowling balls.

[28] Paul Ricoeur, “Existence and Hermeneutics,” in The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur: An Anthology of His Work, eds. Charles E. Reagan and David Stewart (Boston: Beacon Press, 1978), 98.

[29] Don Ihde, Hermeneutic Phenomenology: The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1971), 16.

[30] Cited in Ihde, Hermeneutic Phenomenology, 24.

[31] Ricoeur, “Existence and Hermeneutics,” 98. Italics original.

[32] Blank, Virgin, 95.

[33] Believe it or not, but there have been studies done on this too. And women make up “blood and guts” tales about their wedding nights all the time. See Blank, Virgin, pp. 111-3.

[34] Blank, Virgin, 111-2.

[35] Ibid., 91.

[36] Ricoeur, “Existence and Hermeneutics,” 101.

[37] Blank, Virgin, 103.

The Ethics of Virginity: The Bible, Purity Culture, and Feminist Critics

Is purity culture correct when it assumes that premarital sex is immoral due to a loss of virginity, which is thought to be something that should be “saved” for marriage? In this paper I will examine some claims Christians make—from a purity culture perspective—regarding virginity and its intricate link to premarital sex. Next, I will submit purity culture’s claims to a feminist critique. I will then reflect upon the definition of virginity. Finally, I will attempt to synthesize a view of human sexual relationships in which human beings are not reduced to “virgin” or “non-virgin,” where a holistic human being, particularly females, are not reduced to what happened between their legs (or, as in the case of females, specifically their hymens). My synthesis will be predominantly engaging with Helmut Thielicke’s The Ethics of Sex.

In her book Why Wait?: A Christian View of Premarital Sex, Letha Scanzoni summarizes early Christianity’s stance on the subject of virginity. “Virginity was praised with fanatical zeal.”[1] After spending several pages discussing how early Christians essentially abhorred the profane thought of sex, Scanzoni’s comment is fair. Sex, being viewed a degree removed from sin, was relegated to the dustbin of a secular age—for asceticism and self-control were the fruits of the spirit which ascetic monks and hermits cultivated. From Origen’s act of self-castration (a repudiation of sex and the male sex symbol) to Augustine’s claim that if Adam and Eve had not sinned, the “embarrassing” sex act would have resembled something more holy like plant pollination, this ideology infiltrated mainstream Christian thinking.[2] Since asceticism preached a renunciation of sex—something that was propagated as early as the second-century pseudepigraphal Acts of Paul and Thecla—the inevitable culmination of such thinking was virginity as a virtue. But was such a zeal for virginity to be found in the Bible? According to Scanzoni, the answer is an unequivocal yes.

Scanzoni, in her piling of one biblical citation over the other, mentions the oft-cited “virginity text,” Deuteronomy 22: 28-29. “If a man meets a virgin who is not engaged, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are caught in the act, the man who lay with her shall give fifty shekels of silver to the young woman’s father, and she shall become his wife. Because he violated her he shall not be permitted to divorce her as long as he lives” (NRSV). Scanzoni, commenting on this text, writes, “[S]exual relations between two persons who were unmarried (and unbetrothed) required that they must marry one another.”[3] For Scanzoni, virginity is to be maintained up until marriage for the simple fact that premarital sex was forbidden in the Bible. Of course, she marshals all kinds of other evidence—citing Ephesians 5:3-5, Matthew 5:27-30, 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8, etc.—however, reasons for maintaining virginity are not given. The entire argument hinges on an acceptance of divine command theory: the Bible is the word of God, and humans ought to act according to its precepts. A primary principle undergirding her argument is the principle of obedience to God, which is self-evident in her willingness to cite biblical commands even while dismissing reasons one might have for not following them (e.g., they are obsolete, irrelevant, un-loving, anti-homosexual, etc.).[4] She admits, “[T]his book is not addressed to those who do not desire to place their lives in Christ’s hands. Such individuals cannot be expected to understand and embrace the philosophy of sex outlined here.”[5] This is strange for a book that claims, in other sections, to provide “reasons” for “the modern generation’s search for meaning and reasons behind moral-ethical decisions…”[6] Scanzoni appears to contradict herself. On the one hand, she is trying to convince a generation that is obsessed with “reason” that premarital sex is immoral and virginity up until marriage is the moral thing to do, while simultaneously on the other hand recognizing that her book will not convince those who do not accept the Bible as the Word of God. If you do not subscribe to divine command theory, then you cannot buy her arguments. To be fair, Scanzoni is at least honest about “reasons” other Christians present when trying to dissuade young adults and Christian youth from engaging in sexual intercourse prior to marriage. For example, some resort to scare tactics. “[F]ear of contracting venereal disease does not seem to work very effectively as a deterrent to premarital sex.”[7] Moreover, she recognizes that science and medicine is well on its way towards providing treatment options for venereal diseases; hence eliminating the fear that they had once inspired. Another commonly stated deterrent to premarital sex is the risk for pregnancy. “Christians who cite the risk of pregnancy as the chief reason for abstinence before marriage may find their moral standards threatened by such developments [i.e., development of birth control].” In other words, the chief reasons for refraining from premarital sex—such as contracting disease or the risk of pregnancy—are increasingly becoming irrelevant in the post-modern age. And Scanzoni is honest enough to recognize and mention that fact.

So where does that leave us? Why should young people maintain virginity? Scanzoni says, in tout court, “For the Bible tells me so.” Scanzoni writes regarding a sexual ethic, “[T]he Bible does provide clear guidelines and commandments in this important area.”[8] Is that true? Jennifer Knust, a biblical scholar who specializes in sexuality, says that such a statement is not true. For example, when discussing the sexual poem Song of Solomon, Scanzoni unjustifiably describes it as an “exaltation of married love.”[9] For Scanzoni, the Bible is a text singing one message: no sex before marriage; and if there is sex, it’s married sex. Even when there’s no reason to suppose the text is describing married love, Scanzoni imposes her views on the text, committing the sin of eisegesis. Knust, citing the Song of Solomon, suggests the complete opposite: the poem is relating in positive terms premarital sex. “My beloved thrust his hand into the opening, and my inmost being yearned for him” (5:4).[10] She goes on to ask the rhetorical question, “Can the Bible be used to support premarital sex, even for girls? The answer, I have now discovered, is yes.”[11] The point here is that the biblical text does not necessarily sing one message, a message sung by Scanzoni. As Knust points out, the Bible has no single, sexual ethic. For example, the issue of prostitution in the Bible is not explicitly condemned in the case of Judah and Tamar. “According to Genesis, a woman who sleeps with her father-in-law can be a heroine.”[12] Polygamy is the norm in Exodus and Deuteronomy. Exodus 21:10 relates that if a man takes another wife, “he shall not diminish the food, clothing, or marital rights of the first wife” (NRSV). One final, disturbing example: Exodus 21:7 encourages a “master,” after having purchased a woman as a slave, to marry the woman himself or to his son. Apparently, one could essentially own a contractual sex-slave[13]—and that was okay, according to the Bible. In short, sexual encounters that we moderns would probably dismiss as “immoral” are found as the norm in certain “biblical” books. The Bible, therefore, contra Scanzoni, does not produce a sexual ethic; instead, it provides us with a wide-range of various—and often times contradictory—sexual ethics. This sets before us a strange problem: if one even, theoretically speaking, accepts divine command theory, and accepts the Bible as the Word of God, is one able to come to Scanzoni’s “clear guidelines and commandments”? As Knust insists, marshaling biblical evidence, this is simply not the case. What, then, are we to make of the laws regarding virginity?

The concept of virginity, at least as it stands in Deuteronomy, is inextricably linked not necessarily to notions of “purity” as much as it is linked to whom gets paid and how much. The laws around female virginity “see[k] to protect the honor of the father and make the seduction or slander of an Israelite virgin an expensive proposition.”[14] In other words, the laws dealing with virginity—or lack thereof—are questions of economics and not morality per se. The woman, again, has not much say in whom she marries or how she is treated—she is, ultimately, the father’s property. And, may I remind you, the Bible is okay with that, too. The sexual ethic embraced by purity culture is essentially a form of divine command theory: the Bible says that you must be a virgin on your wedding day. That’s how they interpret it. This leads to a strange morality in which women and men are so preoccupied with keeping hymens intact that all forms of sexual expression—such as anal and oral sex—are given the blind eye. So where does that leave us? Having laid out the mostly evangelical Christian case for the maintenance of virginity, being inspired by purity culture, and having articulated at least one view that criticizes the biblical scholarship for maintaining it, I will now turn my gaze towards a feminist critique of purity culture and its cozy relationship with virginity.

Jessica Valenti has a problem with purity culture. In attempting to de-emphasize the sexual in inter-sex, heterosexual relationships, it has perpetrated—in a rather profoundly ironic way—the sexual. Valenti points out how having sex is tantamount to being immoral in purity culture. “Idolizing virginity as a stand-in for women’s morality means that nothing else matters—not what we accomplish, not what we think, not what we care about and work for.”[15]The mostly evangelical, mostly Christian Right, continues to reduce all inter-sex relationships to the sexual. When a male who was born and raised in purity culture engages in a relation with a female, he is, in fact, taught to be interested in one thing, and one thing only: is the female a virgin? If so, she is a “godly” (read: “ethical”) girl; if not, she is a slut/whore/cunt (read: “unethical”) girl. Morality is reduced to sexology; the moral human, female agent is reduced to what happens “down there.”

Valenti laments how women think that what happens “down there” is tantamount to being “moral.” For Valenti, this is a patriarchal reinforcement of women’s “ethics of passivity”; that is, women are only able to be ethically passive—all that matters is that they don’t allow active penetration of their vagina by a man’s hyperactive penis. She condemns this ethic of passivity by stating: “[R]estraint does not equal morality.”[16] If a woman chooses not to have sex—for whatever reason—that does not make her a good or bad person, a virgin or a slut. What matters, instead, is whether she is, indeed, a good or bad person morally—just like a male is judged.

One of the larger problems that we have avoided articulating until now is the definition of virginity. In her groundbreaking book Virgin: The Untouched History, Hanne Blank details her findings concerning the concept of virginity. “What we mean when we say ‘virginity’ is as ephemeral, as relative, and as socially determined as what we mean when we say ‘freedom.’”[17] Having said that, Blank broadly defines the term to mean “a human sexual status that is characterized by a lack of any current or prior sexual interaction with others.”[18] Notice that her definition has nothing to do with a hymen, blood stains on the bed sheets, or females. For, as Blank points out, the moment we begin throwing in hymens and such, we are left with strange consequences. For example, if “virginity” is reduced to “having an intact hymen,” then all males are immediately virgin, whether sexual or not. Moreover, this implies that all gay men and lesbians (who have only resorted to cunnilingus) are also virgin. If you define the term to mean sexual intercourse with the opposite sex, you likewise lose all the homosexual people. And you fail to include the couples that engage in non-vaginal sex acts like anal sex, cunnilingus, and oral sex.

Trying to think about the concept of virginity is nothing new. Augustine of Hippo, in thinking about Christian virgins who were raped by pagan men, could not help but redefine virginity. For him, “being raped did not constitute a loss of virginity, providing one had resisted with all one’s heart and soul.”[19] Without having the space to relate the mass amount of research Blank relates, it should be quite obvious that “virginity,” however one looks at it, is a very elusive term. When purity culture invokes it, they usually mean “a human who has not had[20] physical, vaginal sexual intercourse.” Fantasizing about sex—as in Jesus’ saying[21]—does not constitute the act of sex. You can fantasize about sex day and night, and still be a virgin in today’s mainstream evangelical culture. And we haven’t even begun discussing masturbation, vibrators, dildos, and other sex toys. This leaves us in the precarious position of having to articulate an ethics of sex in which virginity is taken to mean something that we cannot quite grasp. It remains a term that is both vague and elusive. Despite that, I will now attempt to articulate a view that embraces feminist critiques and allows us—both secular and Christian people—to move the discussion forward on virginity and premarital sex.

Helmut Thielicke, in his masterful The Ethics of Sex, believes that the Christian sex act must never be reduced merely to the biological. “[I]f sexuality were merely a function, we would hardly be able to understand why the partners should not be exchangeable at will and why promiscuity should not be legalized and made a social institution.”[22] This leads him to conclude, “[O]nly the ‘being’ of a person is unique, irreplaceable, and unrepeatable.”[23] For Thielicke, a human being must be encountered as a holistic individual, full of emotions, a history, characteristic traits, and, ultimately, as someone who was “bought with a price” (1 Cor.6:20; 7:23).[24] Theology plays a very particular role here: it forces one to view the Other as an individual who is important to God; it forces one to see the imago dei in the Other. “He who seeks only the partial—only the body, only the function, and again possibly only a part of this—remains unfulfilled even on the level of eros, because, having lost the wholeness of the other person, he also loses the other person’s uniqueness.”[25] In addition to engaging with the Other in his or her wholeness, as a being created by an Almighty God, Thielicke also believes that the Bible gives us its own way of interpreting the sex act: in the Bible, sex is a method of “knowing” the Other. Thielicke argues that in the Bible the euphemism for “to have sex” is “to know.” Hence we have the phrase: “Adam knew his wife, Eve” (Genesis 4:1). Why was the verb יָדַע ([yada‘] “to know”) chosen to signify “to have sex”? For Thielicke, this was simply because the act of sex itself was viewed as a process of knowing the Other. Thielicke contrasts this method of sexual knowledge, calling it “knowledge ‘from the inside,’” with mere knowledge of sex, calling it “knowledge ‘from the outside.’”[26] He writes, “Sexual knowledge is qualitatively different from knowledge about sex.”[27] What is important in human relations, from a theological perspective, is to remember what sex is: it is more than just a biological function. To have sex is to engage in the mystery of unveiling secrets—it is about getting to know, to really know, the other human being. It is knowledge of the Other “from the inside.”

The driving factor in Thielicke’s ethics of sex is this irreducible view of it. He wants to continually reinforce the idea that there is something more going on here. He calls it “the mystery of sex.”[28] But there is also another implicit verb running through the book: agape.[29] “[A]gape brings out, ‘loves’ out, as it were, the real person within the other human being.”[30] In the process of knowing the Other, in the process of “loving out” the real person, one encounters the face of God. It is this—and not virginity per se—that makes sex sacred, that makes the mystery of sex a μυστήριον (mustérion). In fact, virginity virtually plays no role in Thielicke’s work. He mentions it briefly on roughly two pages.[31] The reason for maintaining virginity in Thielicke’s opinion is because he believes in the now-discredited view of “the formative power of the first sexual encounter.”[32] Having said that, Thielicke is not reducing the mystery of sex to merely the physical. One could argue that, when discussing female virginity (which usually has to do with the physically intact or non-intact hymen), purity culture is mostly reducing sex to biological function. In contrast to this, Thielicke allows the act of sex to be seen in its totality, in its relationship to everything human beings touch—be it the physical, the biological, the ethical, or the romantic. Perhaps this is why he failed to write a book on hymenology. Instead, he wrote a book on what it means to engage in sex from a theological and ethical perspective.

Whether one is secular or religious, one cannot help but stand in sheer appreciation of Thielicke’s poetic views on the ethics of sex. Yes, if one were to idealize sex, this would be what it would look like. It would be an act of agape coalescing with the act of knowing the Other “from the inside.” Whether his view is “biblical” or not is open to debate, I do not know. What I do know is that whenever a church or a couple want to meaningfully discuss the ethics of virginity—what, how, and why we should remain virgins until marriage—his thoughts on the subject must surely be engaged with. If the purity culture route is taken, one is, as the feminist critique has shown, prone to reducing the human relationship to biological functions and hymenology. That is, one is left merely describing physical traits of the Other. “She is a virgin; her hymen is intact; she must be an ethical person.” Such stringently descriptive accounts of the Other are seldom useful. Moreover, purity culture tends to reduce ethics to sexology. As Thielicke has shown us, the sex act is about knowing the Other on an intimate level. Merely describing what a female’s hymen looks like at any given moment does not imply we have engaged in intimate knowledge of the Other. In fact, it’s probably shallow at best. As Hanne Blank has demonstrated, the idea of what it means to be a “virgin” is a great deal of culturally relative speculation. It is not something set in stone, something we can easily pinpoint and manipulate. The Bible itself, as a collection of books written over many centuries, does not offer us “clear guidelines and commandments.” Likewise, in the spirit of the Bible, this paper concludes by offering no such clear guidelines and commandments. All I can offer are thoughts influenced by the Bible, culture, reason, and science. Pick and choose as you please. It seems to me that the principle of love is more important than naïve adherence to the Bible and some of its obsolete commandments.[33] I would like to close with the following quote from Augustine: “Love…and then do whatever you will.”[34]

Written by Moses Y. Mikheyev

I’m a graduate student at Emory University interested in religion, philosophy, and philosophy of language. 

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Blank, Hanne. Virgin: The Untouched History. New York: Bloomsbury, 2007.

Bloch, Ariel and Chana Bloch. The Song of Songs: A New Translation, with an Introduction and Commentary. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Burt, Donald X. Day by Day with Saint Augustine. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2006.

Knust, Jennifer. Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire. New York: HarperOne, 2011.

Thielicke, Helmut. The Ethics of Sex. Trans. By John W. Doberstein. New York: Harper & Row, 1964.

Scanzoni, Letha. Why Wait?: A Christian View of Premarital Sex. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1975.

Valenti, Jessica. The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women. Berkeley: Seal Press, 2009.

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Letha Scanzoni, Why Wait?: A Christian View of Premarital Sex (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1975), 30.

[2] Ibid., 27.

[3] Ibid., 79. Italics original.

[4] For example, the modern ethical discussion surrounding gay marriage and gay relationships are not considered by Scanzoni. Why? Because the Bible “clearly” instructs against such relations. The principle of obedience to God over-rides concerns such as the principle of “love.” What if two gay people want to have premarital sex in a loving relationship, is that permissible? Such questions are dismissed a priori simply due to the fact that the over-riding principle of obedience to God, being the practical application of divine command theory, stands in direct contradiction to the sort of ethic one may discover when applying other principles, such as love.

[5] Letha Scanzoni, Why Wait?, “Introduction.”

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 50. Italics original.

[8] Ibid., 21.

[9] Ibid., 99.

[10] Some scholars, however, dispute Knust’s interpretation of the Song, see Ariel Bloch and Chana Bloch, The Song of Songs: A New Translation, with an Introduction and Commentary, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995). “Some commentators have attempted to understand this verse as a euphemistic account of sexual intercourse. This is implausible…” (Ibid.). In addition, I’m not sure that Knust is correct in making the assumption that this poem is describing premarital sex. It’s possible the lover and the beloved are married—nothing in the text suggests that they aren’t. (Knust is over-zealous in her want to demonstrate how strange, liberal, and non-evangelical the Bible is even when it isn’t [as it may be in this specific case].)

[11] Jennifer Knust, Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire (New York: HarperOne, 2011), 5.

[12] Ibid., 7.

[13] The slave woman does not appear to have any say in what happens to her. “When it comes to their sexuality, the consent of women, slaves, and foreigners was not sought” (Ibid., 63). The marriage to her master or her master’s son is, presumably, not something she has a say in. Hence, my calling her a “contractual sex-slave” is probably fair—for, at least in the modern world, marriage without consent is not valid. So, contra the Bible, I wouldn’t call her “marriage” to her damn master (!) a marriage! In fact, I am calling this contractual arrangement what it is: sex slavery with some benefits.

[14] Ibid., 62.

[15] Jessica Valenti, The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women (Berkeley: Seal Press, 2009), 24.

[16] Ibid., 25.

[17] Hanne Blank, Virgin: The Untouched History (New York: Bloomsbury, 2007), 5.

[18] Ibid., 6.

[19] Ibid., 7.

[20] The verb here conveys one of two things: (1) the male having sex with his penis penetrating a female’s vagina; and (2) the female having sex with a male who’s penis is repetitively penetrating her vagina. This sounds redundant and maybe unnecessary but that is not the case: one could come up with all kinds of scenarios in which some exception to this rule is created (for example, a man only “sticks it in” once and then abandons the girl, does that constitute the vaginal sex act?).

[21] Matthew 5:28 says, “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (NRSV). Apparently, having sex with someone else “in his heart” is not really sex. But try having sex physically and without one’s heart, that’s sex!

[22] Helmut Thielicke, The Ethics of Sex, trans. John W. Doberstein (New York: Harper & Row, 1964), 23.

[23] Ibid., 24.

[24] Ibid., 25.

[25] Ibid. Italics original.

[26] Ibid., 67-8.

[27] Ibid., 66.

[28] Ibid.

[29] In the New Testament, agape (“love”) is usually the verb used to describe God’s love for humanity. It is a theologically loaded word.

[30] Ibid., 98. Italics original.

[31] The pages are 67 and 83.

[32] Ibid., 85.

[33] I can only make such a bold claim because there are plenty of biblical scholars who have written massive tomes dealing with ancient customs that are, by all means, obsolete (I am thinking of such things as sacrifices and slavery, for example). In this paper, I cited one such scholar: Jennifer Knust. For evidence of contradictions in the Bible and some of its strange stances on human sexuality, I refer my readers to her book.

[34] Quoted in Donald X. Burt, Day by Day with Saint Augustine (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2006), 4.

The Ethics of Dating: Modern Inter-Sex Relationships and Some Advice from an Existentialist

 

The dating scene has become something which late night talk shows and psychologists discuss on a daily basis. With so much talk going on, I thought I’d get onboard and tell you what you’ve all already heard. Well, actually, I’m not sure that will be the case. I hope to offer some advice, which, I hope, may actually be somewhat idiosyncratic. Having said that, I also must restrain any potential surprise by saying that I’m probably not going to say anything too radical. And, as a heads up, I’ll use as few words as possible. Here I go.

Honesty

The first ethical premise I defend in relationships has to be that most foundational of principles: honesty. You’ve probably heard it before, and you’ll hear it again, be yourself. Be honest to those around regarding who you are, how you feel, and what your justifications are. Expect the Other to be honest, too. If everyone lied, we’d not be able to even ask what time it is without getting confused. So, please stay honest in your relationship. If you don’t want to discuss something, be honest and say, “I am uncomfortable discussing this at this point due to X, Y, and Z.” It’s okay to be honest and say, “I simply can’t discuss this with you, babe, at the moment.” It’s okay. We’ll appreciate the honesty. Sure, maybe it’ll leave us searching for answers, feeding our curiosity, but, in my experience, relationships usually fare well with some mystery. An element of surprise doesn’t kill a relationship based on truth and honesty.

Virtually all humans, if not all, want to know and be known. In order for us to know, we must know things that are true. If my attempt is to know a girl named Lily, it would help me if she is being honest about who she is, what she enjoys, what her dreams are, etc. My subjective construction of Lily—who she is, what she likes, what she believes—consists of data. What kind of data? That data could be her body language, verbal content, emotional reactions, moods, her general approach towards life (that is, how does she treat the world on a daily basis?), etc. Already, as a human being incapable of experiencing anything but my own feelings, emotions, thoughts, etc., I am limited as to what I imagine the Other feeling and thinking. I am imprisoned to my subjectivity. This makes all my evaluations of the Other very tentative. (In fact, I’m epistemically agnostic across the epistemic spectrum.) Since I cannot experience what Lily is thinking—I have no access to that—all I can do is take her at her word. If she tells me that she is excited to see me, I simply must accept that datum—the thing she told me—as being true. If she honestly is tired, exhausted, and bored at the moment, it may be better for her to tell me, “Let’s do this another time.” Given the fact that most of us create all kinds of associations on a daily basis, if I associate golf with Lily’s happiness—even though she isn’t really “happy” to play golf with me—this may contribute to difficulties later on in the relationship. We associate things all the time. Because of our nature—we look for cause and effect everywhere (that is, we try to associate anything we come into contact with with something else)—it is imperative that we be honest and allow others to have honest and truthful feedback. I’m giving a lecture on honesty because, frankly, people aren’t honest. Even I am not honest at times. I try to be. However, the shitty human in all of us some days gets the best of us.

Lucidity

The second ethical premise I defend is: lucidity. What do I mean by “be lucid”? It’s actually very much related to being honest: if you’re interested in someone for X reason, tell him or her you’re interested in them for X reason. There’s really no need to beat around the bush. We have no time for that. For example, I once worked with a fellow nurse whom I liked. We exchanged numbers. And then nothing happened. We talked about the weather, her sunroof, good places to eat, and her grandma. When I received texts from her, I would literally get bored. Instantly. “Why the hell were we talking about her sunroof,” I asked myself one day. So I sat her down and asked her to tell me what drives her. I asked her to relate to me what gives her life meaning. In other words, “What do you live for? If you were to live for another year only, how would you spend it?” I asked her some deep shit. Because I cared about her and about myself. I didn’t want to waste her time, neither did I want her wasting mine. If we didn’t see eye-to-eye when it came to core values (for example, I’m very conservative when it comes to sexual relations [no need for me to elaborate]), how the hell would we make it work? But before I could even contemplate such a thing, I need to know what the hell your core values are. And stop feeding me your bullshit “I had a cheeseburger at X restaurant last night” lines! Seriously. We’re not here to discuss cheeseburgers and sunroofs. We could do that for like one second. After that, tell me why you didn’t commit suicide last night. What prevented you? What does your heart ache after? Those are the things I want to know. Expose yourself.

I was recently involved in several bullshit exchanges with the opposite sex. Goddamn! I can’t tolerate the mediocre and the mundane. Drive me up the wall with philosophy, civil rights, whatever, just don’t bore me with platitudes. It, to be blunt, annoys me.

I have the bad habit of valuing my time. I am the guy sitting on the toilet reading three books at once. I cannot even begin to fathom what sort of unproductive waste of time it would be for me to simply not think. I don’t have the time for not-thinking. (I’ll do that when I’m dead.) And then along comes this girl whom I find attractive. I love to spend time with her and such, but she bores me with the mediocre. And so I call it quits. Seriously, bare your soul to me, lady. I’m not leaving until I see you nude. Really nude. That’s some real nudity for you. I want to see your soul bare before me, way before I see your nipples. Please, do enlighten me.

So, in other words, be lucid with one another. Speak your mind. Don’t waste your time or someone else’s. Trust me, when you’re dying, you’ll not regret having read that.

Finitude

The third concept is foundational for all human behavior, including the ethical: we all are finite creatures. This is directly related to lucidity, as we shall come to find out. Because we only have X amount of time for Y, we have to make decisions and judgments—and sometimes our judgments are prematurely made. In fact, in a perfect world, for any given action, I would demand eternity. I would demand to have an infinite amount of time to think about my action, why I would act, in which way, how it would affect those around me, and every possible outcome from the aforementioned action. I think that in such a world I would make little mistakes. Imagine the divorce rate. “Wait, what divorce rate are you talking about?” What would happen if I could take my fiancé out for dinner three billion times before marrying her. We’d probably have each other figured out. We’d probably know all the idiosyncrasies, the things that set us off, etc.

But we don’t have eternity.

Now think about this: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, the Internet, and Match.com have screwed us all over. They have increased our options by infinity while not increasing our lifespan. I now have three million Katherine McNamaras to choose from. But in a short span of time—roughly between the ripe ages of 18-30—I have to figure out with whom to mate, with whom to raise a family, etc. But my time is still very finite.

Take Billy Joe, for example. Back in the sixties, he came from a small town of five thousand. There were two hundred girls his age. He was ugly and dumb, so that increased the pool to two hundred fifty candidates (for marriage). Now most of these girls he had probably never spoken to. Most likely, he spent time with something like 20-30 of them. He could spend a year getting to know each girl after the age of 18. Since there are thirty, and Billy became wiser with age, he decided to spend a year with every individual girl. He really wanted to be fair when deciding whom to marry; he wanted to give every girl a chance. So at eighteen he dated Mary for a year. By the year’s end, ten of the other girls became engaged and five became married. Billy realized he was now stuck with Mary. He became ambivalent. Moreover, he nurtured his attraction to Liza and dumped Mary. After dumping Mary and dating Liza for a year, he realized she wasn’t worth his time. By now all the girls had gotten married. Five had gotten divorced. About ten became pregnant. And, amidst this existential crisis, Billy Joe realized that Mary was his favorite one. But, there was now a problem, since time didn’t stop: she had become engaged to his friend, Mark. So, despite everything that had happened, Billy had no choice but to live with his now-pregnant ex-girlfriend, Liza. And that’s what life looks like for most of us. We spend our elderly years in a rotting rocking chair regretting “the one who got away.”

The point of the funny anecdote is this: time doesn’t wait for us. You don’t have all year long to make decisions. And, of course, that means you’ll probably marry someone you will divorce. That’s life. Accept it. It’s not you, really. It’s your finitude. I’m at a point in my own life where I probably should be dating someone with the hopes of marriage in the next couple of years. I am getting old. It’s a fact of life. And nothing has happened as of yet. (Which is why I am still writing about dating at such a “dirty” age! Not!) But the fact remains: we all are running out of time. Time is such a beautiful thing. We don’t have enough of it. I really wish we had. Please spend your time with the person you love, in an honest manner, being completely lucid and bare. Yes, don’t forget to bare your soul!

 

With love,

Moses Y. Mikheyev

Why I am a Democratic Socialist: Capitalism and its Exchange of Ethics for Economics

I was born in Krasnodar, Russia just before the collapse of the Soviet Union. My parents brought me to the United States a year before the collapse actually took place. I guess you could say I escaped communism by the skin of my teeth. Growing up, I heard all the ridiculously hilarious tales my dad told me about how he ran several businesses at once, all in secret from the government, just to make enough money to live relatively comfortably. To be free from suspicion as to how he made his money, my father worked as a city bus driver. The pay was almost as ridiculous as the things he did to survive. By day, he would drive the bus; by night, he would jack it up, attach a machine to the odometer, and make sure it spun all night! He would get paid for the amount of miles he drove. He didn’t drive many in reality, but his “nightly business” gave the appearance that he drove people day and night. And so his pay was decent. He could put food on the table, as long as his odometer kept increasing its digits in leaps and bounds.

My dad, the entrepreneur, also grew flowers. He grew lots of them. Every March 8th—International Women’s Day, for those who don’t know—was my dad’s version of Black Friday. In those days, even during the relatively oppressive Russian communist regime, people practiced romance. They’d buy flowers for their lovers with money secretly stolen from the government. In those days, virtually the entire expanse of Russia could be considered “government property.” And so anything and everything belonged to “the government.” Nobody really knew who “the government” was but they all knew it was surely not them. And in such a way all theft and every theft became theft from the government.

It would come as a surprise for me to think that “the government” did not know that people were stealing from “it.” Think about it. You give people a salary of sixty rubles a month. But rent is seventy rubles. Food is another twenty. It doesn’t take a mathematician a long time to figure out that people were surviving in Russia against all odds. In other words, you’d be an idiot to think that people who were alive during a famine were not hiding food. The fact that you could survive in Russia should be seen as an impossibility. You had to be stealing. In fact, you, and you, and you over there—all of you—had to be stealing. The communist regime produced a lot of competent thieves—for they all en masse became thieves. This sort of regime could not possibly last long. And—thank God!—it didn’t. On December 26th 1991 the Soviet Union became no more. It vanished—and not a tear was shed…

In the year of 1987, Gorbachev, then president of the U.S.S.R., tried to implement policies that would make the Soviet Union more democratic—it was known in the Russian as the process of “demokratizatsiya.” Implementing a democratic government proved harder than he thought and so nothing ever really came of it.

Anyone living in those days would not have ever called Russia a “democratic” country by any means. The people had no say in government. They could not democratically choose to be a capitalist society, for example. They could not democratically choose to be a socialist society either. The rules that governed their world, their economy, came from a group of elites. And the rules and regulations favored the elites. The common people were left to fend for themselves. This was no America: there was no working democracy in Russia.

To be honest, I’ve always been fascinated with communism, socialism, and capitalism. There was something demonically sacred about communism. It was the thing everybody here feared. And I was born in a country full of communists. I was, to be blunt, “one of them.”

I never actually cared much for politics and economics growing up. Sure, I thought communism was a spooky word, but I never really studied any of it. It wasn’t until I graduated nursing school, and had begun working as a nurse at a hospital, that I started thinking about the way our country did healthcare. And believe me, I was scared shitless. I didn’t know much. And I still don’t know much. (How many people have read the Affordable Care Act? I mean, please, the senators didn’t give a rat’s ass about it—and didn’t bother to read it—so why would a commoner bother to read several thousand pages?) Truth be told, I still don’t know much about healthcare. Moreover, none of the doctors I’ve met, nor the nurses I’ve spoken with, knew much about healthcare policy. No one I’ve asked seemed to know what Obamacare was all about. Nobody seemed to know what it all meant. Not the health professionals, not the therapists, not any of the hospital staff, not the senators. It made me wonder: who the hell wrote this? Well, I never did find out…

The more I worked in the hospital setting, the more I became convinced that we had become a business that was trying to make money. We were all being forced to cut corners, to practice shitty nursing care, just so that somebody on top could make money, get their year end bonus. Most people outside of nursing probably don’t have a clue as to what I’m talking about. Most people outside of doctors probably don’t know what I mean when I say: we have to do a million things at once. And that makes for unsafe nursing practice. In fact, in Washington State we have something called “ADO Forms” we can fill out if we feel the hospital is not staffing us safely. These are “assignment despite objection” forms. Basically this means that I accept this patient load under the condition that my professional judgment is that I cannot safely provide the quality nursing care I believe I would be able to provide had I had less acute patients. In other words, the patients are too acute and I’m going to be swamped. And if I’m swamped, expect errors to be made. The hospital, then, would, allegedly, take liability for any errors committed on that nurse’s shift. Such is a day in the life of a nurse.

I would like to make it clear that none of what I am saying here is controversial. There are no hospitals that I am aware of that staff so safely that their nurses are very satisfied. If you don’t believe that this is an ongoing issue, start reading a little bit about California State law regarding their nurse-to-patient ratios. For different units, depending on acuity, nurses are assigned different patient loads. If you are a nurse working ICU, the law states that there shall be one nurse for every two patients. If you work on the telemetry unit, as of 2008, the nurse to patient ratio is 1:4. Those working on the medical surgical floor are staffed 1:5. This is what the nurses, the healthcare professionals, and, eventually, state law decided is best when it came to staffing at hospitals. A law had to be made because staffing had become an issue. For the majority of states in the United States, there are no state-enforced ratios. The hospitals can literally do whatever the hell they want. If the CEO and the board of directors decide to cut staffing, well, there’s really not much the nurses and doctors could do about that. When was the last time you heard anyone making a fuss about safe staffing at hospitals? You’ve probably heard more about that new stadium the college kids want. Too bad our hospitals are falling apart. So long as we have that stadium built, we’ll all be merry. And so something as critical as healthcare—good, quality healthcare—is left on the sidelines, waiting for some kind of Jesus or Good Samaritan to come around and resurrect it back to life.

I apologize for boring my readers with nursing gibberish and something as essential to life as healthcare: I assure you, I mean well. It wasn’t until I became an angry nurse, one who wanted to do something about the healthcare we provided, that prompted my immersion in the Washington State Nursing Association, my state’s formal nursing union. You see, all of my “socialist” activities since have had their initial birth right there in a hospital setting. The rest of my story is history.

I was angry with hospitals. I was angry with staffing. I was angry that a young, athletic and fast guy like me could not keep up with the system. I could not keep up with charting. I could not keep up with dressing changes. I could not keep up with providing assistance with my patients’ activities of daily living. And certainly I could not provide a shoulder to cry on or a second opinion. I was way too busy to do any of the normal “human” stuff. This was a business, and we had to make money. Money, money, money. Everybody wanted some money.

I understood the need for money. But I never understood something as simple as providing one additional staff member—let’s say a nursing assistant “valued at,” roughly, $40,000 per year—just so that our unit could function well. Because, as all of the nurses know, one fall in the bathroom per year can cost your facility a million dollars in a lawsuit. And we heard about those lawsuits, believe me. And they could have been prevented. All you needed was an extra set of hands. We weren’t asking for much. But what do nurses and doctors know about healthcare, right? I mean, doesn’t the CEO know that a patient admitted to the hospital with a right hemisphere stroke tends to be impulsive, and is at a high risk for falls? And, when left alone in the bathroom, is almost guaranteed to attempt to get back to bed—unsafely—on his or her own. That’s what happens when you have a stroke that affects that part of your brain. But I’m just a nurse.

I joined the union and I ended up being one of the five nurses from the hospital that renegotiated our contract with the hospital. We went through the entire thing, line by line. Unlike the senators, we knew the thing inside out. It was highlighted to the point of becoming so saturated in color that the paper ignited our room in flashes of neon yellow. We underlined words we wanted changed; we looked up Washington State “codes”; we included clauses that we thought would serve the interests of our hospital’s nurses and patients. We did our best, no doubt about that. It was a long seven-month process. Unlike the members that worked “defending” the interests of the hospital, we were not getting paid a penny to be there. In fact, lunch, parking, and all other associated costs, fell solely upon us. If we wanted to make this hospital a good place to be a patient at, and a good place to work, we had to want that. Really bad. And want that we did.

I remember a conversation I had with our labor attorney. She was a middle-aged woman with dirty blonde hair and a gentle smile. She would sit there listening to all the nurses point out the strengths and weaknesses of the hospital. She’d let us rant for minutes and then interject with a brief, “I like that!” She would, then, proceed to write whatever you said down. During one of our lunch breaks, I asked her why she did what she did.

“Why defend nurses?” I asked her.

“Why not work for the hospitals and make the big bucks?” she asked me. “I could never do that,” she continued. “I could not do that ethically. Never.”

For Laura, making a little over forty-thousand a year was more satisfying than making six figures and helping destroy this country by allowing hospitals to essentially become businesses more interested in money than in providing quality healthcare. The attorneys fighting unions in defense of the hospitals were essentially fighting for corporate interests. These guys do not give a damn about you or your health. What matters to them is how much they can get away with while making a fat profit. That’s why hospitals hire the nation’s best attorneys.

Laura did not think that ethics should ever be compromised by economics. In fact, economics should always be subservient to ethics. If you were to be called a good person, you needed to act in the most ethical manner possible. And sometimes, especially in healthcare, this called for acting in a very un-economical manner. “People over profit,” as them dirty socialists say.

I didn’t use the word “socialist” above unconsciously. In fact, I used the term precisely because democratic socialists surrounded me the entire time I was working with the union. Over coffee, during and after meetings, so many of our conversations turned to politics, women’s rights, human rights, and economic equality. The people that surrounded me were some of the kindest individuals I had ever met in my life. These ladies were the very epitome of moral leadership. My sense of morality was being nourished and sustained by these conversations and our work for the nursing union. Every time we met, I thought more and more about politics and economics…

Take Fran, for example. She was a jolly woman, somewhere in her sixties, who participated in women’s rights demonstrations, strikes outside of hospitals, and was a proud participant in the hippie movement during the ‘60s and ‘70s. She would let homeless people into her home, feed them, and rant non-stop about social justice. She never stopped talking. I began calling her “Frantic Fran.” And, as she knew by then, I refused to participate in her “Fran-tasies!” She read books by the socialist writer Chris Hedges and Cornel West. One night I invited her to come with me and see Hedges at an event at the Bing Crosby Theater. She gratuitously accepted and spent the night refusing to eat my popcorn, listening voraciously to Hedges critique the corruption in our government. Outside of her denying me the pleasure of sharing popcorn with one of my professional colleagues, I think Fran qualifies as a moral leader. She is compassionate, she is involved, she knows what she is talking about, and she cares deeply about the things she engages in. Her actions are the direct result of her thoughts and words.

Then there was Cheryl. She was the sweetest and gentlest of the bunch. She had a gorgeous smile and bright eyes. She radiated a certain grace. During one of the times in which we asked nurses to fill out their concerns regarding hospital staffing, one or two nurses—who were Republicans and, naturally, could not stand unions—met us. Prior to us meeting them in person, Cheryl took me aside and said, “Look, Moses, some of these nurses here don’t like the union. They think it’s bad. They will try to hinder our progress. They will monitor our activities and may report us if we do anything that does not comply with hospital policy [such as talking to nurses about the union while they are actively working and involved in patient care]. In such cases, we’ll just smile, offer coffee and cookies, and move on. Moses, don’t be angry at them. You are doing them good—they simply don’t know what you are doing for them.” Cheryl here was echoing that prophet’s words: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Somewhere during my life as a nurse, a college student studying theology, and working with the union, I began reading Robert Reich’s works. The things Reich wrote about struck a chord with me. He was dealing with the same issues I was dealing with. This was real. This wasn’t economic theory. This wasn’t some bullshit Hollywood one-night flick. This was my life. These were my patients’ lives. I watched his documentary Inequality for All and found myself dumb-founded. (The documentary was recommended to me by our hospital’s own medical director. These damn socialists are everywhere!) The economy was rigged and nobody was doing anything about it. CEOs were barely squeezing their fat assess through the bank doors to cash their insane checks—checks they wrote to themselves. A select few were reaping the majority of the country’s money. Big Pharma was having a cakewalk buying out lobbyists, senators, and scientific studies left and right. In fact, the pharmaceutical industry became so successful at purchasing studies that in 2005 John Ioannidis, a Stanford epidemiologist, titled his research study Why Most Published Research Findings Are False. Ever since it has become the single most downloaded technical paper in the history of PLOS Medicine’s existence. This shit was pervasive. Our scientific community was being handed over to corporations who didn’t have any sense of ethics. They didn’t give a damn about right or wrong. They didn’t give a rat’s ass about false research, so long as they made a dollar or two.

They placed profit over people. They made economics subservient to ethics. They did what the democratic socialists feared all along: neglected their sacred duty to be good, ethical people. They had welcomed in the greedy, all-consuming hands of unfettered capitalism. A virus so sickening even an ethical human being—when infected with it—fails to abide by simple, universal principles of right and wrong; simple things like “Don’t lie” fall on deaf ears. But that’s what happens when a society, a democratic community of people, allows economics to be the end-all, be-all of human flourishing. When ethics are thrown out the window, all shit is permissible. If ethics do not exist, all things are permissible. And when unfettered capitalism pits economics against ethics, it doesn’t take an MLK to figure out which one goes flying out the window first.

At our meetings with the hospital we asked for safe staffing. We had all of us deliver “speeches” to the hospital’s attorney. Some of us spoke like a Demosthenes. But that was, mostly, to no avail. The attorney, after one such speech, told the nurses to quit offering her “sound bites.” She didn’t give a shit about patient safety or the concern of the nurses. We spent one such meeting discussing safety concerns for something like ten hours. The following day, the hospital’s human resources administrator sent out an email “summarizing” the efforts of the union (in my own paraphrase):

“The Washington State Association of Nurses is requesting that all employees pay union dues. We believe that employees should be allowed to exercise their right to choose whether they would like to be a member of the union and pay union dues. Therefore, we are not in agreement with the union. Negotiations are expected to resume on…”

Reading the email, I realized exactly what it felt like when biased journalism was being passed as dogmatic truth. Here was a summary of our activities, and, while it stated something that was true, failed to convey the atmosphere of those meetings. We were not emphasizing mandatory union membership for all new employees. We were not asking for wage increases all day. We were asking for safe staffing. And we spent the majority of our time giving reasons why. That, in short, was the real concern of the union and the nurses. (Excepting one nurse who was more concerned with money [she was the only bad apple on our team].)

The email hit me like a ton of rocks. I now was able to subjectively relate to those people who read magazine articles about themselves. And the article had (almost) nothing to do with me.

The emails the hospital sent out had a clear agenda: convince the nursing staff that the union was a thorn in their side. Despite this false propaganda—and it wasn’t explicitly evil, it was mostly subtle—we continued having staff meetings, served coffee, and discussed the need for a strong union at the hospital. Twice a month or so we’d meet at the collective bargaining table with the hospital. In between those times we’d meet separately with our attorney, union representatives, and nurses to discuss the issues we’d discuss at upcoming meetings. We took notes, wrote “speeches,” and essentially came up with every argument and counterargument to safe staffing ratios at our hospital. We had scientific research papers showing how state legislated nurse-to-patient ratios, such as those found in California, in comparison to similar states, actually saved hospitals money due to a decrease in infections post surgery secondary to better staffing ratios.[1] A recent article published July 14th 2015 in Scientific American was titled “Widespread Understaffing of Nurses Increases Risk to Patients.”[2] The blurb below the online version read: “Emerging data support minimum nurse-to-patient ratios, but hospital administrations are reluctant to adopt them.” Such was the state of staffing nationwide. And as of the date of this writing (December 22nd 2015) California remains the only state in the entire country that mandates nurse-to-patient ratios by unit. No other state does this. Why? Aren’t there laws in this country mandating how hospitals should run? Well, sort of. The law you are talking about is probably the shitty 42 Code of Federal Regulations (42CFR 482.23[b]). The section you are thinking of states, and I am not joking, “The nursing service must have adequate numbers of licensed registered nurses, licensed practical (vocational) nurses, and other personnel to provide nursing care to all patients as needed.”[3] That’s it. The nebulous and vague language is as weak as a Tweety Bird facing a Marshawn Lynch in beast mode. What in the hell does “adequate numbers” mean? We all know—and I am using the categorical “all” here—that hospitals nationwide are not being staffed adequately. And who is determining what is adequate? The nurses. And I know that they know that they aren’t being staffed adequately. But the hospital administrators—about as detached from healthcare as a bed bug is from beauty care products—have no idea what the hell adequate staffing is. They sure as hell know how to make a buck or two, but don’t give me the nonsense that they understand nurses, doctors, or the needs of patients. They don’t.

It’s no surprise, then, that we never got safe staffing done at our hospital. We never got ratios put into our contract. Of course we knew it was next to impossible, but a couple of us decided we’d let the administration know just how the nurses felt. Out of seventy-five nurses at this hospital, something like forty-five wrote small cards stating their support for our proposals regarding safe staffing and ratios. This wasn’t, in other words, something controversial at our hospital or something we, like a despotic regime, were trying to force upon a non-compliant majority. In fact, truth be told, we were the majority. But not all stories, as I’ve grown to learn, have happy endings. Ours certainly didn’t. However, there were a few things that we did change. We included a code from Washington State that mandated safe staffing committees at hospitals. We copied and pasted it right into the contract. It would, theoretically speaking, give nurses some negotiating power when staffing went downhill. We could, in theory, at least point to the wording and say, “Look, the safe staffing committee doesn’t think these ratios are safe.” We did do that. We also, somewhat reluctantly, spent time negotiating our wages. In comparison to nearby hospitals, we were behind by something like twenty percent. They ended up giving the entire nursing staff, across the board, a two-dollar and fifty-cent raise. They figured, for unknown reasons, that this was a good idea but increasing staff members was not. I have no idea why they did what they did, but they did. So we took our money—and our real fight (i.e., safe staffing)—packed our bags, and headed home.

In all honesty, I left a better—more informed—person. I may have lost the battle, but I have not lost the war. I took the war with me, brought it home, brooded over it for weeks. The weeks turned into months. And here I am, months later, still contemplating all of these real issues. How is it that unions are so weak? How is it that, in America, we no longer care about unions? How is it that at my own hospital nurses were fighting against us—against their own?

Rewind my life a couple of years and you’d find me standing behind a cash register at a T.J. Maxx store in a white dress shirt, a tie, and khaki pants. I was on my way to nursing school, finished my prerequisites, and was killing time during the long months I spent on the waiting list. After I signed on with T.J. Maxx, the managers gathered us into a room during orientation and played us a video. At that time—and this was a long time ago—they still used videocassettes. So here was this chubby, happy-go-lucky manager with whiskers and a thick Italian accent trying to teach us youngsters why unions were scary. He probably was merely a talking head for the corporation doing his job. I now doubt he had any idea as to what he was talking about. He probably got a memo with a basic script, read it to us, and went home to a nice wife, two kids, a dog, all in a wealthy suburb. Even then I never understood why corporations like T. J. Maxx feared unions. What was so bad about people uniting? What was so dangerous about people having power? What was so bad about a democratic process.

And—there—I said it: this was about democracy. The corporations hated democracy. They hated the fact that regular people like you and I could gather together and tell them—nay, demand—certain rights. We, as a collective bargaining unit, could voice our concerns; we, as a community, could have a say in the way we are treated, the wages we are paid, and our working conditions. And two or three big wigs at the top did not give a rat’s ass about your rights. So long as you left them alone, gave them 300x the amount of money their average employees made, they were happy. But they would not be happy for long. Why should the CEO only make 300x more than his or her average employee? Why not 400x more? Why not 500x more? Eventually the CEO asks himself: Why the hell should we even pay these fuckers at all?

            Robert Reich, in his latest book Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few, writes about what he calls “the meritocratic myth.” This a capitalist myth invented by the rich and wealthy to keep little people sucking on their thumbs for life. Essentially it goes like this: in a capitalist society people are paid what they are worth. So, if you have a CEO making a billion dollars a year and a worker at her corporation making six dollars an hour, well then, so be it: the worker must only be “worth” that much. But there is a historical problem with this. (History tends to reveal all kinds of problems, in my experience.) As Reich writes,

“Anyone who still believes people are paid what they’re worth is obliged to explain the soaring compensation of CEOs in America’s corporations over the last three decades, relative to the pay of average workers—from a ratio of 2 to 1 in 1965, to 30 to 1 in 1978, 123 to 1 in 1995, 296 to 1 in 2013, and over 300 to 1 today. Overall, CEO pay climbed 937 percent between 1978 and 2013, while the pay of the typical worker rose just 10.2 percent.”[4]

Clearly, as history shows, CEOs are increasingly making more as we are, when our wages are adjusted for inflation, increasingly making less. How is it that in a capitalist society, which calls itself a democracy, we have a large portion of people making these corporations what they are but not being compensated for their work? Why is it becoming increasingly common to think that a CEO—somehow in isolation from all the employees working with him—is the only one worthy of his wages? If you think this is the case, congratulate yourself: you’ve bought into a myth they want you to believe. It’s like a child’s belief in Santa Claus. There’s no empirical proof for Santa’s existence, but it keeps the naughty kids in check. And all you naughty workers need to suck your thumbs and suck it up: life ain’t fair. The CEOs make a lot of money. Deal with it. But how do they continue to make so much money? One reason is that they have money, and money gives one access to power. Access to power gives one access to lobbyists and senators. You get those guys to write a bill for you, favoring you, and you’re good to go. This is why even when CEOs screw up, they still get paid—for the majority of people in America believe all kinds of myths, and the myth of meritocracy is one of them. Take Martin Sullivan, for example. He made $47 million when he left his company AIG. The company’s share dropped almost a hundred percent under his leadership. But CEOs are paid what they’re worth, you say? Thomas E. Freston, the CEO of Viacom, ended up getting a severance package of $101 million after being fired.[5] The list goes on and on ad infinitum.

You know you’ve complained about the lazy McDonald’s worker—and rejoiced when he was fired—but when was the last time you complained about the CEOs and their pay? The rich and powerful have always prided themselves on being able to make the little people wage war on littler people. Seldom do the poor gather together and wage war on the elite who enslave them, the ones who are responsible for the majority of their problems. Welfare is an issue? Are you kidding me? CEO severance packages are the issue. Stop comparing fleas with elephants in the room, pal.

And guess who’s paying for the CEO pay? You and I. You heard that right: you and I. Yes, we’re paying. “[C]orporations deduct CEO pay from their income taxes, requiring the rest of us to pay more proportionately in taxes to make up the difference. To take but one example, Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, received $1.5 million in salary for 2013, along with a whopping $150 million in stock options and awards. That saved Starbucks $82 million in taxes.”[6] And you, my friend, the one residing in Washington State, subsidized his pay. We are responsible for the $82 million dollar loss in tax revenue. Congratulate yourself. And next time you pay taxes, remember, some of that money is going to Howard Schultz. Literally.

And while the (mostly) Republican fan base protests an increase in minimum wage, try to swallow the $26.7 billion paid out to the already rich Wall Street bankers in bonuses alone. This “would have been enough to more than double the pay of every one of America’s 1,007,000 full-time minimum wage workers that year.”[7] But enough about the majority of people residing in America. Who cares about those guys, right? All you have to do is work hard. Get a degree. You’ll be fine, they said. Well, that’s no longer true, either. “[B]etween 2000 and 2013, the real average wages of young college graduates declined.”[8] In the past, even a factory worker could provide for his family, stay-at-home wife, and three kids. He could buy a small home in a good neighborhood, and own two new cars. Today, that’s not the case. The worker is making shit, his wife is making shit working full-time, and they can’t afford children or good healthcare. The cars they drive are owned by some big bank. The house they live in is owned by the same bank. The degrees they both hold are in debt—to the same bank. Nothing is theirs. They are, no doubt, slaves to Wall Street. They work, they breathe, they live to pay some dude at the top. That’s the reality of modern America. But what happened? Did our GDP decrease? Did something happen that could explain this profound change in the economic reality of many Americans?

“Since 1979, the nation’s productivity has risen 65 percent, but workers’ median compensation has increased by just 8 percent. Almost all the gains from growth have gone to the top.”[9]

That, my friend, is what happened. No, it wasn’t the Mexicans; it wasn’t the Muslims; it wasn’t the immigrants; it wasn’t the bum that caused your problems. It was the rich and wealthy people mostly populating a small section in New York called Wall Street, and the rest of the Wall-Street-inspired, greedy CEOs.

Let’s play a little game of comparisons. Let’s have Reich take us back a couple of decades.

“Fifty years ago, when General Motors was the largest employer in America, the typical GM worker earned $35.00 an hour in today’s dollars. By 2014, America’s largest employer was Walmart, and the average hourly wage of Walmart workers was $11.22…The GM worker was not better educated or more motivated than the Walmart worker. The real difference was that GM workers a half century ago had a strong union behind them that summoned the collective bargaining power of all autoworkers to get a substantial share of company revenues for its members.”[10]

And there you have it: the solution to our current crisis. It’s been in American history—our history—for a very long time: we need strong unions.

Do we have any real evidence that unionization will save our nation? I think we do. As Reich points out,

“Some argue that the decline of American unions is simply the result of ‘market forces.’ But other nations, such as Germany, have been subject to many of the same ‘market forces’ and yet continue to have strong unions…In contrast to decades of nearly stagnant growth for most Americans, real average hourly pay in Germany has risen by almost 30 percent since 1985.”[11]

Here we see two countries going through the same technological revolution that has engulfed America with vastly different results, on an economic scale, for the middle- and working-class. One key difference is that unions are still alive and well in Germany.

Returning for a brief second to my claim that we need to increase the minimum wage, critics—those people who live in castles made of cloud-stuff and write with immense knowledge from their Ivory Towers—claim that increasing the minimum wage would result in massive unemployment. But has this actually been the case? Not at all.

“Research by Arindrajit Dube, T. William Lester, and Michael Reich confirms this. They examined unemployment in several hundred pairs of adjacent counties lying on opposite sides of state borders, each with different minimum wages (one at the federal minimum, the other at a higher minimum enacted by a state) and found no statistically significant increase in unemployment in the higher-minimum-wage counties…”[12]

There are other reasons why we need to increase our minimum wage. And this one involves the rich and wealthy yet again. (I hope you’re starting to see who’s really causing a lot of our problems.) This may not be news for you but: corporations want to pay as little as they can to their workers. But why? Well, because they can make more money that way. But in paying their workers a minimum wage that is no longer the “living wage” is was meant to be, the rest of us tax payers subsidize companies like Walmart and McDonald’s. Here’s how.

People who get paid a minimum wage are usually on government-subsidized programs like food stamps, Medicaid, and other such programs. Where is that money coming from to pay for these programs? From you and I, yet again. Since McDonald’s doesn’t want to pay their workers living wages—wages they can survive on—they make the rest of us pay for their employees. Next time you walk into a McDonald’s remember that you are helping these workers get their paycheck. Walk in like you own the place (because you do).

If you think I’m kidding, here’s another statistic for you:

“[I]n 2012, 52 percent of fast-food workers were dependent on some form of public assistance, and they received almost $7 billion in support from federal and state governments. That sum is in effect a subsidy the rest of American taxpayers pay the fast-food industry for the industry’s failure to pay its workers enough to live on.”[13]

We the people have come to a point in the crossroads that is crucial. If we were Jesus, this would be our “cleansing of the temple” moment. Somebody has got to stop this. Somebody has got to take a stand and defend unions, fair wages, and stop corporate greed.

In the 1950s, something like thirty percent of the private sector was unionized. Today, that number is somewhere around seven percent. And, not coincidentally, as the union rates decreased, wages decreased along with them.[14] This issue is very personal for me too. I moved from a unionized state (Washington) to a right-to-work state (Georgia). I knew I was in for a pay cut. What followed, however, could have come straight out of communist Russia. I went from making $30.32 per hour (along with evening shift differential of $2.50) to making $27.66 (with no shift differential). That was the best pay I could get—with a letter written on my behalf to the CEO. They said cost-of-living was cheaper in the south. I have found that to be mostly untrue. Starbucks is the same price everywhere you go. And that’s the reality I live everyday. You make less, you spend more. During the time I spent looking for a job, I was offered wages as low as $24 per hour (at my previous hospital, new graduates were started at over $27). The point being that I mostly live paycheck-to-paycheck now. I know exactly they mean when they say, with a meh look on their face, “I live in a right-to-work state.” Wisconsin has this year become a right-to-work state under their governor Scott Walker, a whore in bed with the Koch brothers. Slowly but surely, many Republicans, corporations, Wall Street, and the Koch brothers would like to make a minimum wage obsolete. It would make their lives so much easier. Then they could pay you anything they liked.

In the latest research comparing right-to-work state wages versus non-right-to-work states, those living in right-to-work states (states located mostly in the south) made 3.2% less.[15] The next time you hear a (usually) Republican presidential candidate or senator talk about the beauty of the “free market” and the wonder of “right-to-work” laws, try to do what scientists do: follow the evidence. Don’t let anyone tell you something that is not grounded in reality. The people living in the American South are poorer than those living in the North. That’s the simple truth. If you wish to join their ranks, vote for any Republican of your choosing. If you wish to improve your working conditions and wages, vote for whoever it is that is a big advocate for unions (“collective bargaining”)—and these guys are seldom Republican.

My essay must now come to screeching end. It’s become longer than I initially intended it to be. I thought it’d be short and sweet. Lo and behold, it is long and bitter. I hope my reader is more informed since reading this writing. I believe in democracy not because it is perfect, but because it is the best thing we have. I identify with many democratic-socialist ideals because I think they are the best we have. I do believe in unions and a democratic community of people that isn’t afraid of saying, “Yes, we believe in a government that is not afraid of regulating Wall Street and economics.” Call this a very, very weak form of socialism. Oh well. I’m not here to defend terms or to hide behind words. I identify with many of the concerns Bernie Sanders has. Having said that, I think it’s safe to call me a democratic socialist. I don’t think I, or people like me, have all the answers. We don’t think we do. I’m not saying my ideas will not create problems and unintended repercussions. All ideas do that. I am saying that this—all the words written above—is a good place to start. I am saying that we must not allow ethics to be replaced by economics. I am saying that we need a strong democracy. I am saying that we need to be able to have large—in Trump’s words, “y-uuuge”—unions. Finally, I hope that after you’ve finished reading this—long after—the stench of unfettered capitalism fills your nostrils causing you to increasingly spend a disproportionate amount of time sniffling and wondering what the hell went wrong…

 

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

 

FOOTNOTES:

[1] P. G. Shekelle, R. M. Wachter, and P. J. Pronovost (eds.), “Making Health Care Safer II: An Updated Critical Analysis of the Evidence for Patient Safety Practices,” AHRQ Publication No. 13-E001-EF (Rockville, MD: Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality [US], 2013). Available at: http://www.ahrq.gov/research/findings/evidence-based-reports/ptsafetyuptp.html#Report. See also “Safe-Staffing Ratios: Benefiting Nurses and Patients,” Department For Professional Employees, AFLCIO, accessed December 22, 2015, http://dpeaflcio.org/programs-publications/issue-fact-sheets/safe-staffing-ratios-benefiting-nurses-and-patients/.

[2] Roni Jacobson, “Widespread Understaffing of Nurses Increases Risk to Patients,” Scientific American, July 14, 2015, accessed December 22, 2015, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/widespread-understaffing-of-nurses-increases-risk-to-patients/

[3] 42 CFR 482.2—Condition of Participation: Nursing Services, accessed December 22, 2015, https://www.law.cornell.edu/cfr/text/42/482.23.

[4] Robert B. Reich, Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015), 97.

[5] Ibid., 104-5.

[6] Ibid., 105.

[7] Ibid., 111.

[8] Ibid., 117.

[9] Ibid., 123.

[10] Ibid., 126-7. Italics mine.

[11] Ibid., 127.

[12] Ibid., 136.

[13] Ibid., 137.

[14] Ibid., 89, 131.

[15] Elise Gould and Will Kimball, “‘Right-to-Work’ States Still Have Lower Wages,” Economic Policy Institute, Briefing Paper No. 395 (2015).

The Birth of Moral Leadership: How to be a Moral Leader in the Modern Society

In this paper, I deal with the following question: What does it mean for a person to be a moral leader in our modern society? But what does it mean for our society to have a moral leader? For the sake of this paper, I will make a subtle distinction between ethics and morals. By “ethics” I will generally mean: the external, theoretical principles informing one’s concept of right versus wrong that govern one’s behavior. When using the noun “morals” I will generally mean: the internal, practical activities an individual conscientiously and willfully engages in, activities that reflect one’s own internalized concept of right versus wrong. In layman’s terms, “ethics” has to do with theory, and “morals” has to do with practice.

Given the aforementioned definition of “morals,” what do we mean when we say “right versus wrong”? That is, when speaking of “morals,” what makes an action “right” and what makes an action “wrong”? And, when speaking of “ethics,” what makes a theory “right” and what makes it “wrong”? I do, as many other moral philosophers, believe that theory informs practice. One cannot, generally speaking, have morality without having an ethical rationale. Lawrence Kohlberg, a moral psychologist, discovered empirically that moral education was directly related to moral practice. The more educated one was in ethical theory, the more one would tend to act morally.[1] It is for this reason that I will now briefly attempt to articulate guidelines for an ethical theory which sheds insight on what is right and wrong conduct before developing my thoughts on moral leadership. The following pages, then, are not meant to be exhaustive and dogmatic; rather, in this paper, I merely seek to offer what I think are tentative guidelines for ethics and moral conduct. That is, I modestly can only hope that I will offer some insight on this most thorny of issues.

Ethical theory is not yet unanimously agreed upon or universalized: many ethical theorists do not even share agreement regarding basic elements that make up concepts of right or wrong. Since there are vast amounts of disagreement, as there are also oceans of numerous and contradictory theories, I will selectively articulate my own ethical theory that informs my moral actions.

I like to begin by dealing with J. S. Mill’s “utilitarianism.” This is, perhaps, one of the simplest ethical theories. Mill writes:

“Utility” or the “greatest happiness principle” holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain…[2]

Bentham’s phrase “the greatest good for the greatest number”[3] succinctly reflects this view. Mill would argue that a right action is one which produced, consequentially speaking, increased (relative to a prior state) amounts of pleasure. It is an empirical fact that humans have nociceptors (neurons that send pain signals). It is an empirical fact that humans also have opioid receptors and dopamine, responsible for pleasure sensations and anticipation of pleasure, respectively. It is not hard, objectively speaking, for one to develop an ethical theory regarding that which we should universally do or not do when it is grounded on such a universal fact of human anatomy: virtually all normal, functional human bodies experience pleasure and pain. We, intuitively, seek out pleasure and avoid pain. In fact, the majority of the time, humans mostly have a heightened awareness when it comes to perceiving anything that may cause us pain: we are constantly on the look out for avoiding anything that may result consequentially in the experience of pain.

Whenever anyone develops any kind of theory, it is always a good thing to ask oneself: Is this a model of the world? and Is this a model for the world? Utilitarianism certainly understands the first question well. Utilitarian theory is grounded in objective facts, facts that are accurately portrayed in its “model of the world.” But is it also a “model for the world”? Does it say something not only about what is, but also about how things should be?

In utilitarian ethics, that which causes pain is to be avoided; it is labeled “wrong.” On the other hand, that which causes pleasure is to be pursued; it is labeled “right.” But is this form of ethical reasoning a valid way for humans to think about how the world should be? That is, is utilitarianism a model for the world? Should we wish it to be a model for all of us? I can think of many reasons why utilitarianism alone cannot function as an exhaustive ethical theory. If pleasure is the greatest ethical principle guiding moral behavior, I would argue that, according to utilitarianism, Hugh Hefner and all drug abusers are clearly more ethical than the rest of us: for they alone experience dopamine at rates that most of us have never dreamed of. But maybe, just maybe, consequentially speaking, their actions do not lead to the greatest amount of pleasure for the greatest amount of people? Maybe the drug abuser, consequentially speaking, is going to end up suffering greatly at some future point in life? In other words, would not a utilitarian argue that his actions—namely, drug abuse—are not, consequentially, in the right? But how do we go about predicting the future? How do we detach ourselves from our current experience of pleasure and think about a theoretical, future experience of pleasure? In fact, is it even possible to have this kind of omniscient knowledge beforehand? For example, if sex is a pleasurable experience, and contraception works, why not engage in all kinds of sex acts with the most amount of people? Should I wait for a monogamous marriage and, hence, betray my own principles in favor of something unseen and not currently empirical? (That is, the theoretical, future monogamous marriage is not currently and empirically being experienced by the individual.) Should the utilitarianist ever place pleasurable experiences on hold for something else?

Utilitarianism fails to account for the conflicts which arise between “the greatest good” and “the greatest number.” As Nicholas Rescher has shown, it is possible that Bentham’s statement—“the greatest good for the greatest number”—can produce chaos. Take the following distribution scheme, for example:[4]

Scheme I Scheme II
A receives 8 units of happiness A receives 4 units of happiness
B receives 1 unit B receives 4
C receives 1 unit C receives 1

 

It should be quite evident that Scheme 1 is in accord with “the greatest good,” but Scheme 2 is in accord with “the greatest good for the greatest number.” So which do we honor? Which action is “right”?

Many more such critiques exist. However, it is beyond the scope of this paper to present all of them. Having said that, I would now like to deal with another famous ethical theory: Kantian deontology. It is to this ethical theory that I now turn.

Kantian ethical theory, a form of deontology, has to do with intents rather than consequences. Instead of focusing on the consequences of an action—such as the utilitarian consequentialists—the deontologist, specifically one of a Kantian bent, focuses on the intent behind the action in determining whether the action is right or wrong. If the action was intended to hurt an individual, but accidentally resulted in something positive, according to Kant, that action was not right. (According to some utilitarians[5] it would be deemed right nonetheless, since it ended up increasing pleasure, though the individual had different original intents!) Kant believed, unsurprisingly, that consequences never mattered. In fact, “It is not possible to think of anything in the world, or indeed out of it, that can be held to be good without limitation except a good will” (GMS 4: 3935-8).[6] Kant focused on the autonomous lawgiver, that is, the autonomous individual who followed in all of his or her actions a self-imposed moral law. In Kant’s famous categorical imperative, Kant set out to universalize his ethical theory. “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” If an action cannot be universalized, it should not be committed. This may sound less practical than utilitarianism, but, I assure you, it is not. For example, I was once in an isolated part of northeastern Washington standing on a boardwalk over a lake. I was carrying a water bottle and became quite annoyed with it. I entertained the thought, for a split second, whether I should throw it into the pristine lake waters below. And then Kant spoke to me with that “still, small voice” of his: “Do you wish to universalize this action?” I certainly did not! “What would the lake look like if everyone dropped his or her waste into it,” I thought to myself. I ended up carrying the bottle for the rest of the trip.

But even the divine Kant has his problems. What if two categorical imperatives conflict with one another? What if I am placed in such a situation in which I must choose between one or the other? What if, to invoke Kant’s article On a Supposed Right to Lie Because of Philanthropic Concerns, an individual is faced with a choice between lying and murder, except in this case, whatever the reasons, it is a choice only between lying and murdering someone—you must commit one or the other. What do you do then? Even with Kantian ethics, we run into problems in determining what is the “right” thing to do. What if our intentions are always good and yet, strangely, our actions end up, consequentially, always harming others—are such actions “right”?

I find both utilitarianism (consequentialism) and Kantianism (deontology) useful. However, as one can tell, I also find both ethical theories to be problematic to an extent. How do I, as the moral individual, resolve these problems? In essence, I resort to a via media by attempting to reconcile the two by means of some form of compatibilism.

The theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was perplexed as well by this problem. However, in his theological work Ethics, he found a way out, finding inspiration in Jesus’ saying, “[E]very good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit” (Mt. 7:17, NIV):

There is an old argument about whether only the will, the act of the mind, the person, can be good, or whether achievement, work, consequence, or condition can be called good as well—and if so, which comes first and which is more important. This argument, which has also seeped into theology, leading there as elsewhere to serious aberrations, proceeds from a basically perverse way of putting the question. It tears apart what is originally and essentially one, namely, the good and the real, the person and the work. The objection that Jesus, too, had this distinction between person and work in mind, when he spoke about the good tree that brings forth good fruits, distorts this saying of Jesus into its exact opposite. Its meaning is not that first the person is good and then the work, but that only the two together, only both as united in one, are to be understood as good or bad.[7]

Like Bonhoeffer, I think that for an action to be morally right it must also be ethically right. That is, the ethical theory must be right, the intent must be right, and the consequential action must be right. The greatest good action is an action that produces the greatest good for the greatest number—according to empirical notions of pleasure and pain—being inspired by right intent; an action, at the same time, you would will to become a universal law.

How does all of this translate into helping us become better, moral leaders in a modern society? Moreover, having considered ethics and morality, I now turn to leadership: what does it mean to be a “leader”?

For the sake of clarity and simplicity, I will define “leadership” as the ability of an individual, functioning as a leader, to guide other individuals, functioning as followers, to act in accordance with the desired course of action of the leader. That is, a leader is able to get others to do what he or she desires that they should do. What, then, is moral leadership? Moral leadership, harkening back to our previous definitions, would entail the following definition:

The ability of an individual, functioning as a leader, to guide other individuals, functioning as followers, to act in accordance with the desired course of action of the leader; the “desired course of action” being informed by a theoretical ethic, which are the external, theoretical principles informing one’s concept of right versus wrong that govern one’s behavior. Such theoretical ethics are then acted upon and become moral habits, which are the internal, practical activities an individual conscientiously and willfully engages in, activities that reflect one’s own internalized concept of right versus wrong. The moral leader’s concept of right versus wrong is greatly influenced by the maxim: The greatest good action is an action that produces the greatest good for the greatest number—according to empirical notions of pleasure and pain—being inspired by right intent; an action, at the same time, you would will to become a universal law.

A moral leader, in my opinion, is inseparable from his[8] theoretical ethic (the “stuff” floating in his head) and his practical morals (the “stuff” everyone sees him doing). A moral leader is one who is aware of basic concepts regarding pleasure and pain. A moral leader is aware that not all utilitarian actions are “right.” He is aware that not all deontological actions are “right.” He is acutely aware of the problems one encounters when dealing with morality. However, a moral leader attempts to, nonetheless, strive to do the right thing. He formulates theories and rationales for his actions. He is the guy you find thinking long and hard about his actions and why he chooses to do them. And, most importantly, a moral leader guides others, influencing them to participate in his vision, a vision that he shares both passionately and with rationality with those who follow him. In inspiring others to act like him, to reason like him, to follow his desired course of action, the leader implicitly universalizes his morality. In doing so, one could only hope that he takes Kantian ethics seriously.

Since I have offered my thoughts on moral leadership, I would now like to focus somewhat more specifically on practical ways a leader goes about bringing his “desired course of action” to fruition. In the following paragraphs, I will engage with the popular Bennis and Goldsmith text, Learning to Lead.

Bennis and Goldsmith believe that all successful leaders have the following six “competencies”[9]:

  • Mastering the Context. Leaders are able to get a feel for their surroundings and understand “the big picture.”

  • Knowing Yourself. The leader is aware of his or her ethical commitments, subjective worldviews, being always aware of who he or she is. Such leaders are also always learning about themselves.

  • Creating a Vision. Leaders create a vision so real that “they live and breathe” it.

  • Communicating with Meaning. Leaders are able to understand and function at the level of their followers.

  • Building Trust Through Integrity. Leaders lead ethical lives that those who follow them witness on a daily basis. They are consistent with their actions.

  • Realizing Intentions Through Actions. Leaders are able to bring their ideas to fruition by making them concretely real.

Many of the above “six competencies” are quite self-explanatory; therefore, I will not pedantically engage in making superficial commentary. Rather, I will focus my remarks on a couple of them while discussing things that I believe are of utmost importance, especially for a moral leader in the modern society.

With the continuing increase in technological development—think of social media, the Internet, cell phones, etc.—humans have begun to create a context that is vastly different than all previous contexts in history. We are now living and leading in a society in which a follower may never physically meet a leader; in which relationships between boyfriend and girlfriend may span oceans and be entirely virtual. The landscape upon which we now act has become something else. How does a leader function within the present structures set in place? What is specifically different about our modern society? It seems to me that communication and human relations have now become de-personalized. A Black Lives Matter activist may use all kinds of tools that were not available to Martin Luther King, Jr. This sort of de-personalization comes with its pros and cons. We can have a leader spread her message using social media far beyond her immediate surroundings. But this comes with a cost. Such communicating lacks many features that are necessary for a leader to be successful. I may see a talking head on Facebook. The message may even inspire me. And I may not do anything about it. How do I know that she is telling the truth? How do I know that she really will do what she is claiming she will do? Do I even understand her message? What if I have questions for her but cannot bring them to her since I am not able to communicate with meaning with her? The modern leader is faced with the problem of communicating with meaning. It is common today for all kinds of quotes to be taken out of context. With the creation of Twitter’s 140-character tweets, human beings are now expected to “communicate” messages in under two or three sentences. The twitterization of human language and communication is a death sentence to a modern orator striving to be a Lincoln or a Demosthenes. What is the solution to this problem? One possible response is that we adapt to this. We may simply have to strive to say as much as possible without becoming verbose. Another option is that we try to communicate using a different platform, something akin to TED Talks.

This twitterization of language has also deformed the way we listen and hear one another, too. A leader has to understand the people he is striving to engage. With the little information people are communicating these days, it’s helpful to restate to the other person, in your own words, what you heard him/her say. This allows the leader to clarify any misunderstandings. At all points must one recognize the subjectivity of one’s audience and his/her own subjectivity. Terms and phrases such as socialist, goodness, the right thing, etc. may mean vastly different things to different people. It would be a good idea to have people define thorny terms. Robert Franklin reminds us, “Conversation is the highest form of human activity.”[10] It’s a good idea to communicate meaningfully.

One cannot have a paper on leadership and ethics without making recourse to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. People sometimes forget the basic advice Aristotle left us: “by doing just things we become just…”[11] It’s a pithy truth. One of the ways a leader builds trust is by integrity. And integrity means nothing less than being undivided, consistent, honest, and morally upright. But as with all virtues, one must practice a life of virtue in order to be considered virtuous. To be known as an honest person, one must consistently practice being honest. To be a moral leader, and to be known as one, is to consistently act like one.

While this paper is not as exhaustive as one may like—and many theoretical (and maybe practical) scenarios have not been considered—my hope has been to present a definition of moral leadership that would generally work for many people. My goal has not been to offer some dogmatic truth; rather, I have sought to offer my thoughts on a thorny subject, thoughts which I hope may stimulate my reader to make whatever progress one could towards becoming a moral leader him- or herself.

Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Allison, Henry E. Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals: A Commentary. New York: Oxford, 2011.

Bartlett, Robert C., and Susan Collins, trans. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics: A New Translation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.

Bennis, Warren and Joan Goldsmith. Learning to Lead: A Workbook on Becoming a Leader, 4th ed. New York: Basic Books, 2010.

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Ethics. Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works. Volume 6. Translated by Reinhard Krauss, Charles C. West, and Douglas W. Stott. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005.

Franklin, Robert M. Liberating Visions: Human Fulfillment and Social Justice in   African-American Thought. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990.

Gielen, Uwe. “Kohlberg’s Moral Development Theory.” In The Kohlberg Legacy for the Helping Professions. Lisa Kuhmerker. Birmingham: Doxa Books, 1991.

Lebacqz, Karen. Six Theories of Justice. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1997.

Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism. New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1957.

 

FOOTNOTES

[1] Uwe Gielen, “Kohlberg’s Moral Development Theory,” in The Kohlberg Legacy for the Helping Professions, Lisa Kuhmerker (Birmingham: Doxa Books, 1991), 35, 55.

[2] John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1957), 10.

[3] Karen Lebacqz, Six Theories of Justice (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1997), 25.

[4] Table adopted from Lebacqz, Six Theories of Justice, 25.

[5] Most certainly the “act” utilitarians. The “rule” utilitarian may object at this point.

[6] Henry E. Allison, Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals: A Commentary (New York: Oxford, 2011), 71.

[7] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 6, trans. Reinhard Krauss, Charles C. West, and Douglas W. Stott (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), 51. Italics original.

[8] This is an all-inclusive “his.” I could not come up with a gender-neutral way of articulating the following sentences without making them sound cumbersome and pedantically politically correct.

[9] Adopted from Warren Bennis and Joan Goldsmith, Learning to Lead: A Workbook on Becoming a Leader, 4th ed. (New York: Basic Books, 2010), xxi-xxii.

[10] Robert M. Franklin, Liberating Visions: Human Fulfillment and Social Justice in African-American Thought (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990), viii.

[11] Robert C. Bartlett and Susan D. Collins, trans., Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics: A New Translation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 27.