The American Dilemma and How We Can Fix It

Posts tagged ‘virtue’


During the Reformation, the concept of monasticism came under serious attack from several of the reformers.  Among those were John Calvin and Huldrych Zwingli.  Calvin, in particular assailed the concept of monasticism and it is in large measure due to him that we have the term “cloistered virtue.”

Christians of that time viewed the world and our place in it as a struggle to enable that which was good in us to overcome that which was evil.  That the world offered many temptations then as it does now is undeniable.  But Calvin believed that only those who confronted evil and overcame it had the potential of being one of God’s elect.  Those who sat in monasteries, far away from the world’s allures could never overcome evil because they were secluded from it.

Allow me a simple example to explain his philosophy.

We will assume that consuming alcohol is a “sinful behavior”.  There are two people involved in our discussion.   One lives on a desert island where there is no alcohol.  As a result, he never consumes any.  But he is not virtuous because he never was in a position to consume it.  The second individual never takes a drink either.  But he lives in a home within a few minutes of six alehouses.  He is virtuous because demon rum was available to him yet he rejected its temptation.

Obviously, the world has changed in the last five hundred years.  There are few uninhabited desert islands left – and virtue is something we leave to dull people who really aren’t with it.  That brings me to the subject of this post which is the horrific shooting spree in Aurora, CO.

If you read my earlier post, you realize that I do not want to talk about the young man who was the perpetrator of this tragedy.  I don’t even really want to talk about the tragedy itself.  I want to talk about why this happened – and how we can minimize the likelihood of such events from recurring in the future.

But I am going to break my own rule for a moment and discuss a specific aspect of this event because it provides a good segue into my main discussion.  That is that there was a three month old infant who was among the injured.

What kind of people are these parents to bring a newborn who needs rest and quiet to a movie theater with sonic-level audio effects when their child should be at home sleeping?  How self-absorbed are these two – and what further damage will they inflict on this child as they “rear” him?  What sort of future is in store for this infant, growing up in a home lacking positive and thoughtful parental direction?

Okay, I’ve gotten that out of my system and I apologize for what may be a rant.  But I know that my parents took far greater responsibility with me than the parents of this newborn.  I was very fortunate.  And I admit that I’m more than a little mad that there are so many people roaming planet earth who possess the genitalia but not the common sense to bring children to life and then fail to nurture them.

We should not be surprised at the incident in Colorado.  We live in and extoll a culture of violence.  We are almost inured to it through the daily reports of how people, whether a rogue individual, a cadre of extremists, a gang or a government inflicts death on others.

When I say extoll, I mean that we stand in line to buy the newest and most violent video games.  We enjoy movies in which there is violence – the more gruesome the better.  We spectate at boxing matches which have produced numerous permanent brain injuries and wonder why some of those boxers go home and physically abuse their spouses and children.

Is there an explanation for our increased embrace of violence in our culture?  Some will suggest that we have abandoned our standards of decency – and I think there is much to argue for that viewpoint.  But I think there is something even more insidious – if you can imagine something that is yet worse.

There is an historical corollary between what is happening in America today and what befell the Roman Empire as it went into decline.  As the Empire started on its way to collapse, so did the moral standards that had been its underpinning.  Depravity and orgies replaced philosophy and reason.  And the games in the Coliseum became more and more gruesome.

“Panem et circenses.”  Bread and circuses.  It was described by Juvenal as a way those in authority used to distract the common people from the collapse that was imminently to befall them.  The uneducated can easily be lead down the path that leads to destruction.  And there is no one more willing to initiate a policy of distraction than a politician who is looking to hold on to his own job.

So is there anything we can do to reverse this trend?

We can elect people to represent us who hold to high standards of ethics and actually serve as examples to the rest of us through their conduct. And we can rid ourselves of those who talk the game but prove through their actions that they are unworthy of our support.

We can refuse to buy any violent computer games and demand of those companies that create them that they stop producing them, explaining our reasons for boycotting their products.

We can stay home and read books that have guided mankind for centuries rather than sit and watch worthless drivel in our movie theaters and explain to Hollywood that unless they elevate the quality of their product we will not patronize them.

We can turn off our cable boxes and instead of exposing our children and ourselves to a constant stream of violence and infidelity, we can support each family member in a loving environment.

We can insulate ourselves and our children, at least in small measure, from some of the atrocities of this world that we have begun to think are the norm rather than the exception.  Or we can allow our exposure to continue to all that is most dehumanizing and destructive.

Do we want to raise the next person who will randomly kill tens of people?  Or do we want to sequester our kids from exposure to the sort of behavior which leads to these acts of violence?  Isn’t that what responsible parenting is all about?

I guess it’s a question of whether we believe in the validity of “cloistered virtue.”  I think you know where I stand on this issue.


A man was attending a seminar and at the end of the day he went into his hotel’s bar to relax with a drink.  He sat down, placed his order and pulled out his notes from several of the sessions that he thought were most helpful.  As he sat there reviewing these a very attractive young lady sat down at the bar several seats away from him.

He couldn’t help notice her as she was truly stunning, very well-dressed and seemed to have an outgoing personality.  Much as he tried to keep his mind on the seminar material he found her too distracting.  So he put away his paperwork and moved to take a seat next to her, asking her if she minded if he joined her.

“Not at all,” she said.

So they introduced themselves and began chatting.  This young lady was not only bright but she was a brilliant conversationalist and the man realized how much he enjoyed her company and how much he desired her beauty.

After he had purchased several rounds for both of them he finally got up the pluck to ask her the question that was foremost on his mind.

“I hope you won’t be offended,” he said, “But if I were to offer you ten thousand dollars would you sleep with me?”

He waited for her reaction, half expecting to have her throw her drink in his face.  But instead, she paused and said, “Why, yes I would.”

“Well, would you sleep with me if I only offered you twenty dollars?”

The young woman looked very offended and said, “What kind of a girl do you think I am?”

The man replied, “Well, we’ve already established that.  Now we’re just negotiating the price.”

Although the intensity of conversation on the subject of Wall Street and banking abuses has died down in recent weeks, there are many of us who feel that financiers who make huge salaries are being overpaid and are taking risks that threaten the collapse of our financial system.  Perhaps there is some truth to those statements.

As our story illustrates, with few exceptions, everyone has a price.  And when the prize is the potential of earning billions of dollars, there is no question that even those of us of the highest morality might find the temptation  too great to resist.  In part that explains the demise of Lehman Brothers and MF Global – among many who have fallen by the wayside.

Although I in no way mean to serve as an apologist for the business of banking, I would say, in their defense, that making money is the sole objective of their business.  But if they do that in an irresponsible way that threatens the well-being and security of the rest of us, it is not only our right but our duty to object.

Speaking of finance, there is another industry which is playing its part in contributing to our outstanding and rising deficits which also threaten our well-being.  That is the business of healthcare.

Now I realize that most of us have a view of our doctors as trained specialists who have spent years learning their craft.  We see them as being charitable good-doers who want nothing more than to see all of us whole and well.  And, of course, there are many in this profession whose focus is exactly that.  They run clinics for the poor and survive through small contributions.  God bless them.  They are true beacons of light who have taken the meaning of their oath seriously and are living it daily.

But if our healthcare system depended solely on these charitable souls, the line to get in to see your doctor would extend across the country.  No, most of us depend on the dispensation of our medical services from practitioners who have a dual mandate – to take care of the sick and to make a profit doing it.  Unless we all suddenly start receiving Manna from Heaven, each of us has to do something to pay our way through life – a practice which we call “earning a living.”

Although it is not our customary way of thinking about it, I believe that it is only fair to call medicine, just like banking, a business.  And just as in the case of egregious behavior on the part of some bankers, we also have the right to call into question the motivation which guides some in the medical industry.

About twenty years ago I remember speaking with the partner in a consulting firm that looked to improve the efficiency of the way in which hospitals functioned.  He was a good friend and the two of us used to share horror stories about our respective businesses.

Randy told me about speaking with two hospitals (the only two hospitals) in a relatively small town in downstate Indiana.  Both of them were struggling to make it financially and they needed his firm’s help.  So he sat down with the administrators and senior staff of the hospitals over a week’s time to review their activities.  He returned to Chicago and spent a few days writing his report and scheduled a return visit to discuss it with both staffs.

Given their precarious financial positions, the first thing on his agenda was to discuss with them the fact that they had both placed orders for a new piece of medical equipment.  It was some sort of imaging machine and the cost which each had committed to incur was over $1.5 million.  The doctors on staff at both hospitals were in agreement that once it was delivered, the equipment would only be used once or twice a month.

So Randy suggested that one of the hospitals cancel their order and that they share the cost of the equipment and decide at which hospital it would be installed.  As he put it, describing the reaction to this recommendation, “You would have thought I was talking to a bunch of nuns and called the Pope the Anti-Christ.”

Despite the frosty reception to this statement he went on to explain the finances which lay behind his thinking.

“You can expect to be reimbursed approximately $2,000 per procedure.  If both hospitals combined do two of these a month, that comes to about $50,000 per year.  With only one imaging machine it would take thirty years to recoup your investment – and with two, it would obviously take sixty years.  But with the progress that is being made in this kind of technology you can expect that this equipment will be obsolete in ten years or less – so the fact is that you will never recover your investment – not even on one machine.  Buying  two is even more absurd.”

He continued his presentation and was gratified that they liked at least some of his proposals on how to improve efficiency.  Sadly, these represented the smallest improvement in the hospitals’ balance sheets.  They rejected all those which would have truly made a difference.  And, simply out of hubris, both hospitals took delivery of their new imaging equipment.  One hospital couldn’t have its rival look more modern and up-to-date than they were.

Several years passed and Randy and I got together one night for dinner.  During our conversation he asked if I remembered his telling me about these two hospitals.  I had.

He said, “Well, the end of the story is that one of them closed their doors last week.”

When we think of holding on to our virtue we often see this in terms of being able to resist the temptations money offers.  But if we really delve into the subject, being able to overcome our egos is just as significant a challenge.  We see that in the behavior of our “celebrities” and occasionally we see that in two small hospitals in southern Indiana.

Does virtue have a price?  Indeed.  And if we forego our responsibility to hold on to it the price is very dear – and it is one for which we all pay.

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