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Drawing Lines

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Jem says “morality has nothing to do with it,” and Lee says that if somebody didn’t put professionalism ahead of religion, she couldn’t take him seriously as a professional.

Let’s start with “morality has nothing to do with it.”

Morality has everything to do with it–you’re just looking for the morality in the wrong place.

Thousands of librarians across the country put their feet down and refused to comply with demands by the FBI, CIA and DHS that they had over lists of patrons who had tried to check out certain books.  My guess was that, if they had been faced with either turning over those lists or going to jail or losing their jobs, most of them still wuoldn’t have turned them over.

And my guess is that if there was no way not to comply and still be a librarian, several at least would have quit outright or shut down their libraries rather than provide such “services.”

That’s morality–that’s putting a moral commitment above the commitment to professionalism.

And I can think of several other scenarios where something similar would have happened.  For instance, what if your town decided that some books were so evil they had to be burned, and librarians would now have to provide the “service” of book burning for their communities.

Do you really think the proper response to such a thing would be to comply, or to hand the facility off to people who would comply?

Of course not, and I know that from Lee’s response to the question about the state demanding that all animal shelters provide the “service” of executing “unwanted” animals.

As for people putting their professional obligations over their religion–that just means that they do not in fact believe in their religion.

This is an important point in a wider sphere than here, because I think it goes a long way to explaining why we have such a hard time understanding Islamic fundamentalism and the terrorism that goes with it.

A Catholic who puts his obligations as a librarian, or a doctor, or a lawyer, ahead of his Catholiism is not a Catholic–he’s a librarian or a doctor or a lawyer who uses Catholicism as a hobby.

Religious commitments–like all serious moral commitments, including quite a few secular ones–is a primary focus.  It is the single most important thing in a life.

To say that no such person could be taken seriously as a professional is, first, to fly in the face of reality–plenty of such religiously committed people have in fact led highly distinguished and dedicated professional lives, and do so now.

It is second to spit in the eye of the free exercise clause, which says that this government may not “prohibit the free exercise” of religion–trust me, denying religious institutions tax deductions and demanding that “professionals” do things only marginal to the profession in violation of their religion (or their secular ethical code) is tantamount to establishing the State Church of Accepted Conduct and Ideas.

I’m also highly suspicious of claims that such-and-such a profession is acting in “the best interests” of anybody, especially children or old people or the disabled who cannot decide for themselves. 

“Best  interests” is an elastic concept whose fundamental definition seems to be highly subjective–as we speak, dozens of states refuse to allow the placement of black children in white adoptive homes, on the principle that growing up in the really wretched confines of the foster care system is more in their interests than the chance that they might “lose their ethnic idenity.”

That’s a moral premise masquerading as a professional one, as is the demand that all hospitals provide the morning-after pill to rape victims (or to anybody).  The issue is not “professionalism,” but a moral judgment asserting itself against a contradictory moral judgment it finds invalid or abhorent.

I doubt if most people could really put “professionalism” above their core moral commitments–and you wouldn’t like those people if you had to live with them.  They’d be Good Germans, valiantly carrying on the work of the hospital after the government has taken over one wing to murder Jews, because, well, that has nothing to do with them, they farmed out that wing of the hospital to a government-approved “services provider.”

Lee is right, however, that my concern in primarily legal. 

What is not mandated is none of my business.  If the Catholic hospital on one side of town can do what it wants and doesn’t, while the secular one can do what it wants and doesn’t, then it’s none of my business if one of those has policies I do not approve. 

(And yes, I know, there are extreme cases where it would be my business, but let’s stick to the actual for the moment.)

Back at the beginning of all this, I said I had something specific in mind for this set of posts, and I do–and it has everything to do with legality, and also everything to do with real life.

Maybe I’ll get to it tomorrow.

In the meantime–the old canard that Catholic hospitals, faced with a choice of saving mother or child in an either-or situation, automatically save the child is just that, a canard.

There is, in my own family, at least one case dating to 1948 when the father, asked which should be saved, said the mother and was listened to.  In such an either-or situation, that is the usual process–to ask the mother if she’s conscious and capable of answering, the father if not, and to respect the wishes of the family.

That being said, such cases are almost unheard of in our present state of technology, and Catholic hospitals and doctors are required (by the Church, not just the secular authorities) to treat the  patient in front of them.  If, as one result of such treatment, a child in the womb necessarily dies, the doctors, nurses and other professionals involved in the treatment are not considered to have committed any sin. 

But back to legalities, and ‘services,” later.

Written by janeh

December 31st, 2009 at 3:24 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

7 Responses to 'Drawing Lines'

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  1. With the overall post, I’m in complete agreement. I don’t think any of us would care much to have an army or a police force whose membership didn’t let morality trump professional obligations. For that matter, who gets to decide what obligations are professional? And on what basis?

    As the “old canard” I was repeating what I’d been told by my father, who–I believe–told me he’d checked with the hospital. But that was southern Indiana in 1952. Best theological practice is not always what’s done in out of the way places–certainly as true for Methodism as for Catholicism. I did not mean it as a criticism: you can make a decent moral case either way.
    It is important to avoid compulsion and fraud. Given that, the morality of an action is something for the professional and the customer to work out between themselves. Which was my point.


    31 Dec 09 at 5:10 pm

  2. I still don’t agree. When supreme court justice nominees are brought before Congress and asked if their personal beliefs will interfere with the judgements they make, what if they all said yes? In 1960 when John Kennedy was campaigning for president, he was asked if he would put his loyalty to the pope above his responsibilities as president of the United States. One of his responses to this: “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote, where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference, and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.”
    If everyone allowed private beliefs to influence him or her in job performance, we’d have a country of religiously loyal do-nothings.
    And those librarians you refer to who don’t remove books from shelves or burn them and purchase materials they find offensive and help library users locate materials offensive to them are not doing so out of a sense of personal morality. It is professional principle that is involved. It’s objective, not subjective. It’s the professional vs. the personal. If a teacher feels that teaching the literary works of Lord Byron is offensive because she or he objects to his private life, is that a justification for just skipping that part of the curriculum? Don’t we all have to do things we object to in our work lives? I don’t especially enjoy smiling and being agreeable when a library user is extolling the virtues of Glenn Beck but I do it. The Nazi example is an exception and not an ordinary situation. Yes, in that circumstance anyone with the conscience of a magpie would refuse to burn books, persecute Jews and homosexuals etc. I stand on what I said earlier: if you can’t accept government stipulations for your business then don’t expect tax breaks.


    31 Dec 09 at 8:41 pm

  3. My own druthers are that there should be no tax exemptions for churches, as such, whatsoever. Donations directly payable for tightly defined charitable activities are another thing altogether, and should be treated accordingly. That would scotch any of the arguments that start with words to the effect that “you must do this, or else”.

    But what you seem to be saying, Jem, is that there is no place for conscientious objection to government dictat. That smacks of totalitarianism.


    31 Dec 09 at 10:17 pm

  4. Goodness, Mique, whose post have you been reading? Certainly not mine. What I did say is that if an institution–like a hospital operated by Seventh Day Adventists, for example, let’s leave the Catholic church out of it–elects not to provide services such as blood transfusions, which, I expect, are provided by most hospitals, then ok. But they should not expect to receive tax breaks. And I never said anything about government dictat (whatever that means) what I am talking about is professional principles. I don’t recall saying anything about there being no place for conscientious objection. I think if you actually read my post I indicated that in situations where there is government approval of book burning or persecution of a race of people then anyone with an iota of conscience would disobey that law. But professionally if I were to only do what was acceptable to me according to my private beliefs and everyone else did this as well? That would smack of anarchy.


    1 Jan 10 at 1:36 am

  5. dictat

    1. A decree, order
    2. Imposed settlement
    3. decree or settlement imposed without popular consent.

    I admit I reacted to your last sentence,jem, and I take your point about complying with professional standards despite personal conscientious objection to some of the material libraries are required or ought to hold. But in meeting your professional standards, you are not required to be complicit in that to which you have a conscientious objection. If you find and deliver a chemistry book to a potential terrorist, you cannot be held morally or criminally responsible for any possible crimes he might commit using that book. Nor can the government reasonably justify forcing its draconian “security” measures on librarians to identify people who might have accessed certain books or other materials. You are at all stages a passive observer in that activity.

    But Jane’s and my objection remains that to force or to coerce hospitals and/or individual doctors, nurses and pharmacists to perform medical procedures, or supply birth control means, to people against their consciences is different entirely. It requires them to actually perform actions that are morally abhorrent to them. Aside from any personal moral considerations, it amounts to civil conscription, and that is what I meant when I described it as totalitarian.


    1 Jan 10 at 6:39 am

  6. Well, no suprise where I stand on this!

    About the tax-exempt status – it does prevent the government from using taxation to control churchs, but of course the main purpose is to allow charities to put more of their resources into whatever it is they do, and the ‘whatever’ is usually interepreted very liberally, possibly in the interests of fairness. I suspect that it’s interpreted even more liberally in Canada than in the US, but I’m not sure of that, and anyway that’s a side-issue.

    The thing is, if churches were taxed, the charity they perform would necessarily be reduced, and the number of hospitals and the range of services provided in them by Roman Catholics and Jehovah’s Witnesses would necessarily be curtailed, which might not be such a good thing for the public. That is, if you reduce the work done by either changing the financial arrangements or by making regulations that the providers can’t or won’t follow, you end up in the same position overall.

    I also really, really dislike the idea that ‘if you take our money, you do things our way’. It smacks of coercion to me. Of course, unlike a government, I don’t have to be particularly fair to all branches of society, and can choose which charity to give to. I suppose I could say ‘If you want my donation, you have to do X’, but that’s not me, and anyway given the size of my average donation, they’d probably laugh at me.

    And I really, really, really try to avoid the ‘you can’t be a proper if you do/say/think that, but I have to laugh at the idea of any of the Kennedies being put forward as a model Roman Catholic. I mean, I remember JFK and his assassination, and admired him at the time, as much as someone fairly young and uninformed about politics could, and I remember that quote, and I know why he said it. But I don’t think it exemplifies the beliefs of a devout RC in public life.

    Incidentally, that quote came up many years later when I was teaching similarities and differences of the UK, Canadian and US political systems to kids who probably weren’t born when Kennedy was shot. None of them could figure out what the big deal was about him being RC. About 98% of them were RC, but on the other hand, neither they nor I could have named the religious affiliation of most of our politicians. It was one of those minor cultural differences.


    1 Jan 10 at 7:55 am

  7. Purely to be contrary; those librarians, whether motivated by moral sentiments or professional obligations, were wrong.
    I daresay half this group has read about the “pants bomber” and announced that law enforcement and intelligence agencies “didn’t connect the dots.” Ladies and gentlemen, punishment after their crime is not a major deterent to suicides, and a nation of informants is a snakepit. If you want someone to keep you safe, you have to give him dots to connect.

    That means tracking many perfectly legal–even constitutionally-protected–activities, looking for the man who checks out whacky Muslim theology from the library AND attends a mosque with a radical imam AND buys a copy of “The Anarchist’s Cookbook” from Borders AND frequents al Qaeda-related chat rooms.

    At that point, someone had best start bugging chummy’s cell phone and infiltrating his friends. But if one persists in thinking that because an activity is perfectly legal law enforcement should never know about it, I don’t for the life of me see how you can expect anything but posthumous investigations.


    1 Jan 10 at 11:34 am

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