Better than being special

Dear Reader

This post has been removed because it has been retooled for local publication. I have refrained from deleting it because of the time put into some of the comments below. The full article is available on request. Please email



10 thoughts on “Better than being special

  1. caren says:

    True – virtue is truly praiseworthy.It is however very under rated in some of the circles I seem to find myself in, especially when is comes to children. It is far to easy to focus on the gifts our kids have and so very ,very difficult to help them in the area of virtue. It is good to be reminded of the things that count and more then that the things that count for the Kingdom to come. Ta.

  2. debbie hutton says:

    Good post but with all the current material available I can’t wait for the next Malema cartoon ala Jordan!! It’s been a while:-)

  3. LG says:

    (Good) Moral living. So necessary in today’s life. Sometimes one can feel very alone, but my mom always said “Do what you know is right, not what others think right”

  4. Mary D says:

    An interesting post – and one which brings up something that I often wonder about. As Christians, we believe that EVERY good thing is a gift from God. This includes the propensity to do the right thing. God constrains our fallen natures, by common grace, enabling believers and non-believers alike to do good instead of evil. Believers are enabled to do things to the glory of God and please Him by special grace. We are enabled to live for God by the power of the Holy Spirit and are told not to try to do things in our own strength. So, in summary, God is to be praised for every moral act that a person does. At the same time, I know that I’m very much involved in the struggle, against my sin nature, to do good. So how much should we praise a person for moral living? I suppose this is the old struggle of attempting to understand the interaction between God’s sovereignty and our free agency. Any thoughts on this, Jordan?

  5. Hephaestion says:

    As much as I might wish that I was the best left-winger in the business, I am terrible at football. No amount of practice will entirely overcome the fact that I was born with two right feet.

    Oscar Pistorius, an Olympic sprinter, has *no* feet; he doesn’t even have legs. The human spirit demands that we have a go, no matter how pointless or hopeless. We remember the Greeks at the Battle of Thermoplyae because, though wiped out, they had the courage to face insurmountable odds – the greater the odds the greater the glory. It is not whether we prevail, but that we persevere.

    • Jordan Pickering says:

      “The human spirit demands that we have a go, no matter how pointless or hopeless.”

      So, you’re saying I gave up football too soon, and I should have kept at it just for the sake of keeping at it? The same goes, I imagine, for my potential mediocre careers in accounting, classical guitar, sculpture, biology, marketing, tennis, golf, and countless other things I’ve done with limited success? Perseverance is virtuous when something is inherently worth doing. Like fighting for life, such as the Greeks you mention. Persevering at everything without any attempt at filtering what is important is a recipe for unproductivity and futility.

      That being said, my point was that we have abilities that come naturally, and those that don’t. Not really a heavily contested matter.

  6. Hephaestion says:

    It comes naturally to us to look out for ourselves, and it is against our baser urges to work for the good of others.

    It’s not that it’s against our instincts, but rather that we’re particular over the beneficiaries.

    The anthropologist Donald Brown (Human Universals, 1991) has cataloged over 300 universal traits that we humans share – that is, traits that cross all cultural, religious and national barriers. These traits include: Gossiping, lying, misleading, verbal humor, humorous insults, poetic and rhetorical speech forms, narrative and storytelling, use of smiles as a friendly greeting, displays of affection, empathy, sexual attraction, sexual jealousy, childhood fears, manufacture of tools, use of medical and recreational drugs, weaning, living in groups, publicly recognised right of sexual access to fertile women, avoidance of incest, reciprocity, laws, rights, obligations, rape, envy, dancing, music, playing, ambivalence, verbs, violence, vowel contrasts and attempts to control the weather.

    Out of this collection of traits emerges a species that has, over the centuries, become less violent, less bigoted, more civilized and more knowledgeable. We do not have to live and behave as we did 2000 years ago.

    Like all sexually reproducing species, our primary instinct is to have sex. However, we are not slaves to our genes – we can now enjoy a quickie behind the bikesheds without having to reproduce, but choosing when, or indeed whether, to reproduce. Another primary instinct (or “baser urge”) is to eat. But we can control our diet and be aware of what we eat and how it affects our bodies and our minds. Once we are aware of our instincts, how and why they came to be and what purpose they serve, we can begin to control them, rather than just ‘being’ them. But that means turning away from simplistic religious notions of human nature and accepting what science discovers. It means accepting reason over revelation and evidence over authority.

    We can’t change the colour, texture and shape of our bodies like the the octopus; we don’t have as many genes as the bacterium Solibacter usitatus; we can’t sprint like a cheetah; we can’t swim like a shark. But like all extant organisms, we have our own special adaptations that enable us to thrive in a hostile world. One of those adaptations is that we’re good at living in groups. And that means we don’t just look out for number one, but we help people within our group. Some try to expand that group to include sangomas, albinos, Mormons, lawyers, ballroom dancers, taxidermists and so on. As Marcus Aurelius would put it: “We should not say ‘I am an Athenian’ or ‘I am a Roman’ but ‘I am a citizen of the Universe.'”

    One of the really wonderful things about science is that its benefits are not just for scientists. The Christian god only gives goodies to its worshipers; science gives a polio vaccine to anyone, no matter their beliefs, nationality, sexual persuasion or politics.

    • Jordan Pickering says:

      “But that means turning away from simplistic religious notions of human nature and accepting what science discovers. It means accepting reason over revelation and evidence over authority.”

      I will try to respond to your previous human nature comments in a post. I don’t think that the Christian view of human nature is simplistic, and nor are we duty bound to accept the various interpretations of data just because they come in the name of science. Science is forced to leave the comfort of fact and to stray into the realms of speculation whenever it comes to interpretation of fact. Scientific pronouncements are provisional and open to better explanations. When science reaches a conclusion at variance with Christian belief, it is the fool and the coward who dogmatically refuses to listen, but is it equally foolish and cowardly to simply surrender one’s convictions to competing fashions in belief.

      When it comes to evidence vs revelation, one must clearly weigh whatever evidence is offered. On the other hand, if there is a spiritual realm beyond ours, there is every possibility that science has no access to it whatsoever. Even if science has completely mastered the natural (it hasn’t), it does not necessarily say anything about the existence or otherwise of a supernatural. While what sometimes comes calling itself revelation should indeed be squashed by reason, accepting ‘reason’ over revelation on the matter of the supernatural per se is little more than accepting one set of metaphysical propositions without evidence over another. [Although ‘without evidence’ is not what I actually believe. I think that Christianity does have good evidence, particularly in terms of the resurrection of Jesus].

      “One of the really wonderful things about science is that its benefits are not just for scientists. The Christian god only gives goodies to its worshipers; science gives a polio vaccine to anyone, no matter their beliefs, nationality, sexual persuasion or politics.”

      Well, science does make you pay them handsomely for it; and when science makes something not beneficial, such as CFCs or atom bombs, they don’t ask us if we’d like to enjoy the ill-effects. But I get your point.

      However, it is a frequent attestation of scripture that everything good that everyone has is the gift of God. God gives rain to the righteous and the unrighteous, as it says at one point. If there is a God, you are not independent of him; your life and your particular talents and abilities are not accidental. Your station in life, and the fact that you are wealthy and healthy enough to be using a computer right now are gifts that he gave you. The fact that the endless list of human evils in which we all happily participate remain unpunished is a demonstration of God’s patience, in which he willing bears the offence of his creation in order to provide time for us to be reconciled.

      In fact, now that I think of it, it is the central distinctive of Christianity that people can only be worshippers because of God’s hard labour to reconcile them to himself. In other words, God characteristically does not reward his worshippers; on the contrary, he graciously does the work to turn his enemies into his adopted children.

  7. Hephaestion says:

    The answer, as far as I can puzzle it out, is in moral living; the good old virtues.

    The “good old virtues”?

    And what do you mean by moral living? Is it denying gays the right to marry? Is it denying women the right to have an abortion? Is it in preventing stem-cell research? Does it mean terrorizing your children with thoughts of hellfire and eternal damnation? Does it mean teaching your children that the earth is only 6000 years old and that evolution is lie? Does it mean teaching your children that homosexuality is an abomination? Does it mean putting dogma above doubt?

    What is virtuous for a conservative, evangelical Christian might be seen as utterly abhorrent to a middle-of-the-road Anglican.

    For a moral life we need no more than the golden rule. Well, no, that’s obviously not enough. More than that we need to understand how the world works – how we work. And that means we need some understanding of physics, cosmology, geology, biology, evolution and history. As Michael Specter recently said on you can have your own opinions, but you can’t have your own facts. If we don’t know the facts we can’t have an informed opinion.

    Baruch Spinoza once said that the highest activity a human being can attain is learning for understanding, because to understand is to be free. Perhaps we should reserve a little praise for those who took the time to understand polio and measles, who studied the stars, who studied atoms, who saved lives and extended lives. Life expectancy in medieval Britain was about 25. In the early 20th century it had crept up to 50. It is now above 70. What benefits from stem-cell research await? It seems there is plenty worthy of praise.

    • Jordan Pickering says:

      There is indeed plenty worth praising about human enterprise (and at least as much worth despairing over), but that was not really my point. It is worth praising beauty, athleticism, intelligence etc., because those things are good, the hard work that made achievement possible is good, and because the special among us are good. However, my post was a clumsy examination of whether there is anything praiseworthy that is not largely attributable to genetic felicity. I think that pursuing virtue is more praiseworthy, because it comes less naturally (and it is ultimately more valuable than beauty or athleticism too).

      By ‘good old virtues’, I had in mind Plato and Aristotle as much as anything else, and certainly more so than fundamentalist Christianity. The Golden Rule is the summary of biblical law, and so you’ll find no disagreement with me over its central value (though occasionally over its application). However, particular (usually American) pet laws within a sect of Christianity have nothing to do with virtue in principle. If anything, the assumption in such churches that their legal code is backed by scripture guarantees that the code is unquestioned and unmoored from any considered ethical framework. This is why you will frequently read my chastisements of them on this blog. Few of those things that you mention are Christian virtues, and those that I would defend require proper discussion, not sloganeering. Abortion for instance falls foul of the Golden Rule, especially if the unborn can be considered human in their own right, and probably even if they can’t. We would certainly all deny the woman the right to kill her husband; the right to kill a mid-term foetus depends entirely on how we argue a foetus is similar and different to a husband (and none of that is simple).

      Oh, and Baruch was incorrect. ;)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s