Sunday, January 5, 2014

Set 4, Ethics: Pinky, Are You Pondering What I'm Pondering?

[Disclaimer:  You know, Crusty can be serious at times (well, often, actually) and here is a very special message from COD:  These  blog postings are really about me arguing with the questions, and really are not intended to be a kind of GOE forum.  Crusty welcomes comments and feedback, but please do not discuss answers in the comments section, since the GOEs are a double-blind process -- readers aren't supposed to know who you are, God forbid any of them should stumble across this site.  While Crusty thinks the GOEs need some pretty substantial if not radical revamping and restructuring, he's also a firm believer in them, or something like them, and feels we need to follow the process in place while having discussions about what changes might be needed.  We do need a GOE forum, and Crusty has tried at times to try to get one going, and would welcome anyone who wants to grab their torch and pitchfork and join him.]

The mid 1990s were a golden age for cartoons.  Crusty Old Dean was a graduate student then, single, in his 20s, living with other single dudes in their 20s and the occasional, and very brave, subset of female roommates.  Since it was the 1990s, COD (well he was not COD then) used to have to crawl out of bed at the ungodly hour of 10 am on Saturday, to watch cartoons, because there was no TiVO or DVR.  OCOCOD (a condition for which their is no cure, Official Child of Crusty Old Dean) stared at me blankly once when Crusty told him he had to go to bed during Game 7 of the

Language an impediment to understanding?  OMG LOL for realz.
1975 World Series and never saw the end of the game.  "Why didn't you just watch it the next morning on DVR?"  OCOCOD asked.  "We didn't have DVR then."  OCOCOD:  "You mean you had to watch things when they were on?"  COD:  "Yes, and hunt mammoth with nothing more than sharp sticks."  But it was certainly worth it to crawl out of bed on Sunday mornings!  It was a golden age of Saturday morning cartoons in the 1990s.  COD had grown up watching a lot of classics, Bugs Bunny and Tom & Jerry, and thankfully by the 1980s he was no longer watching cartoons when they became nothing more than marketing extensions.  But in the 1990s cartoons resurgenced (verbing weirds language, as Calvin once said to Hobbes): some of Crusty's favorites included Life with Louie, Animaniacs, Freakazoid, and especially The Tick and Pinky and the Brain.  For those unfortunate enough not to have seen Pinky and the Brain, it was about a genius mouse and his less than genius sidekick who attempted to take over the world every evening.  When he got his idea for a scheme to take over the world, The Brain would always ask Pinky, "Are you pondering what I'm pondering?"

Crusty thought of Pinky and the Brain as he readied for the Ethics question.  Ethics questions in recent years have tended to be think-pieces, asking open-ended, complex questions.  The 2011 Ethics question was, for instance, one sentence long: "Is it ever permissible for Christians to be involved (directly, as agents of violence, or 
indirectly/complicitly) in violence?"  In 2012, it was three sentences long, and asked students to comment on a fairly length extract from a theological article.  In 2013, students were asked to "present and expand on a Christian understanding of justice, drawing on your knowledge of sources in Scripture and the tradition of Christian thought."  There's usually really no way to prepare for the Ethics section, so COD usually preps students to review major concepts and principles in Ethics, but prepared for anything -- since these are usually think-pieces, Crusty always imagines the GOE writing people sitting around, thinking up an Ethics question, with one saying to the other, "Are you pondering what I'm pondering?" And the other saying, "I don't know Brain, but can you differentiate at least three forms of justice commonly discussed in Christian ethics and moral theology?"

Crusty also has a particular relationship to Ethics questions.  Crusty had never taken an Ethics class before taking GOEs, he just prepped by skimming the Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Encyclopedia of Christian Ethics resources for two days in the library.  When he took his GOE, COD saw the question and had no idea what they were talking about or looking for, so ended up writing something using the Narnia books as examples, particularly the whole concept of Deep Magic from Before the Dawn of Time to provide grounding to universal concepts such as justice and goodness.  Naturally he thought he bombed the Ethics question, but it ended up being the only canonical area in which he got "Oustanding" on his GOE (back in the day when they had four different possible assessments, rather than the current demonstrates competency/doesn't demonstrate competency in canonical area system).  Crusty, in turn, failed the History, Theology, and Liturgy portions (got the lowest of the four rankings), which he now teaches, while getting an outstanding in the only section he'd never taken a course in.  Crusty chalks this up to the way Ethics questions lend themselves to being think-pieces, and COD's own inherit ability to bulls**t like there's no tomorrow, something Crusty inherited from a long line of Boston Irish bulls****ers.

Well, Crusty Old Dean is going to do today what he does every day during GOE:  try to take over the question!  On to Set 4:

Set 4: Christian Ethics and Moral Theology 


The Preamble of the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes the following statements:

Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women...

Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge ...

Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for
Too bad, because that would be a good skill to have for GOE prep.
these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.

This statement is a representative example of a generally accepted concept, "fundamental human rights," and implies that the Church, as an organ of society, and Christians, as individual members of society, should teach, promote and secure the rights and freedoms described.

In an essay of 1,500 words:
1.    Explain what is commonly meant by the concept "fundamental human rights" and how these rights are generally thought to be established;
2.    Drawing on your existing knowledge of sources in Scripture and the tradition of Christian thought, explain how these "rights," so defined, fit or do not fit within a Christian understanding of moral theology;
3.    Given your response in 2, and choosing one issue generally discussed employing the language of "rights," describe how the Church and its members can best participate in the public discussion of this issue, specifically with regard to the concept of "rights."

Two quibbles about the setup to the question, before Crusty breaks down what students are actually being asked.  For one thing, we have another example of the question just kind of asserting something.  Previously they said "the Church teaches" without ever referencing what or how the church taught what they said it teaches.  Would it kill them to nuance this stuff just a bit? They're not writing telegrams and paying by the word.  Here we have "a representative example of a generally accepted concept."  What's "generally accepted" as a concept?  By whom?  In some places female circumcision could be argued to be a generally accepted concept.  To COD this cries out for another sentence or two, otherwise this question runs the risk of bumping into unexpected assumptions.  If they have an idea of what "fundamental human right" as a generally accepted concept means, then say it.  If not, don't just dangle it out there.  BTW, the UN Declaration defines these rights, as these words quoted here are then followed by an enumeration of exactly how the UN defined those human rights.  But students wouldn't know that unless they'd done the equivalent of memorizing a Yiddish opera, because no external resources are permitted here.

For another, COD harrumphed at the notion of the church "as an organ of society."  Well, the outward manifestation of the church is part of society, sure -- but the church is also the mystical body of all faithful, comprising those past, present, and future of all those who have been baptized into the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  At times the church needs to resist being an organ of society (Crusty thinks we should stop being legal agents of the state when it comes to marriage, for instance) and at times need to engage and embrace (striving for justice in the world, for instance).  The church as an organ of society has problematic aspects ecclesiologically, theologically, and ethically.

But on to the question itself.  COD honestly doesn't really know what's being asked in a lot of this.  

It begins with:  "Explain what is commonly meant by the concept 'fundamental human rights' and how these rights are generally thought to be established."  Crusty could give "an" answer to this, but it would pretty much just be his opinion.  If that's what they're looking for, great, but COD is getting a sinking feeling -- like he did with last year's Ethics question -- that they're somehow looking for students to box-check certain Ethical terms and issues here.  Give the Set 5 question it's due, even though Crusty gave it the dreaded
In case you need a battle cry for GOEs.  Spoon!
WTF ranking, at least it was crystal clear in what it was asking and what students needed to put in their answers.  Dudes, you're the ones who said these were "generally accepted", but now you're asking students to explain how they are established?  Would you be like Elaine and "yadda yadda" human rights? What if I don't agree with what you are asserting here and don't define rights in the way you are asking me to define them?  [BTW:  one of the things Crusty points out in his GOE prep with students -- actually the #1 thing in GOE prep -- is "ANSWER THE QUESTION AS ASKED.  Don't argue with the question.  Don't overthink the question.  If you don't understand it, just do your best to come up with something that fits into the outline and schema as asked.  The single worst thing to do is argue with the question."  This is why Crusty writes this blog, so there can be someone who can argue with the questions but has absolutely no involvement in the whole process, not part of the assessing or being assessed.]  What do they mean by established?  Honestly, COD knows what all the words mean here, but just really thinks they should have been a little more forthcoming and less Sphinx-like in what they're asking. 

Then, in the next part of the essay, "Drawing on your existing knowledge of sources in Scripture and the tradition of Christian thought, explain how these 'rights,' so defined, fit or do not fit within a Christian understanding of moral theology."  OK.  So the whole question is becoming one big game of Jenga -- if a student somehow heads down the wrong track in Part 1, they're screwed, because Part 2 is predicated on what they said in Part 1 -- the "rights, so defined" would seem to indicate the definitions provided in Part 1. COD also laughed at drawing on your "existing knowledge."  Since this is already a "no external resources question", then no use of brain implanting technology allowed?  Damn it!  I was going to get Topher from the Dollhouse to remote implant me with some mad Moral Theology skillz!  Also, what the hell do they mean by "fit" within a Christian understanding?   Really glad they chose such a precise theological word here.  

But putting aside some of the problematic ambiguity of phrasing here, nonetheless Part 2 is onto something really important.  Crusty thinks they are asking: societies/cultures/whatevers may define some things as "rights"; how does this interact with how the church understands ethics and right action?  For instance, at one point, you could argue that the right to have children was not necessarily your own:  many states in the US forcibly sterilized certain groups of people (criminals, those deemed mentally incompetent).   The way a society defines a right may not mesh with how Christians
Crustazoid rescues GOEs/Unless something better on TV!
understand right action in the world.  Crusty thinks they're getting at something very important here.  Crusty just really isn't a fan with how this is being set up.  If this is indeed what they are pondering, the same thing could have been accomplished in lots of more clear and explicit ways -- say, for instance, by actually using the UN Charter, instead of using it solely for the phrases "fundamental human rights" and "organ of society."  What about something like, "The UN charter defined some of the following as human rights...[examples follow].  How do they either conflict with or are consonant with Christian moral theology as derived from Scripture and Christian thought?  What are some way societies/governments/cultures have denied things as rights which would be problematic for Christian moral theology?"  Crusty thinks that would get at what what Part 2 is all about, but just with a lot more specificity and clarity, rather than flowing from the potential the rabbit hole of Part 1.

The game of Jenga continues with Part 3 -- having defined human rights in Part 1, and how that definition intersects with Christian moral theology in Part 2, in Part 3 students are then asked about a specific "right", and how the church and its members would participate in "public discussion."   When Crusty thought about this, he had to say, "You know, COD has not participated in too many public discussions on issues touching about Ethics and rights.  He's preached, he's advocated, he's gone to meetings and
Ah, TV before sound bytes.
demonstrations, he's lobbied elected officials, he's drafted statements."  This phrasing called to mind to Crusty some 1960s talk show where people sat in uncomfortable chairs and smoked on TV and had long conversations about important questions -- not that that's a bad thing, COD is distressed by the degeneration of public conversation and discourse.  It's just amused me to think of clergy or church members sitting around with skinny ties smoking and participating in some "public discussion", perhaps moderated by Charles Kuralt.

But again, if COD is pondering what the question is pondering, then they're onto something.  It seems the question is then asking, "Ok, take an example of a place where one of these 'rights' is consonant with Christian Ethics, and talk about how the church could do something about it."  That's one of the central aspects of ethics/moral theology; how does one relate belief to action, believing to doing, as an individual and as part of different groups? While Crusty thinks he's pondering what the question is pondering, he also thinks things could have been made a little clearer.

Overall, COD therefore gives this question a solid:  Meh.  The general principles here -- societies/cultures/whatevers may define certain things as rights, how does this conflict or flow from Christian moral theology, and then how does the church and individual Christians respond to a particular issue -- are what an Ethics/Moral Theology question should be about.  Yet we should be left, like Pinky to some kind of GOE The Brain, to wonder if we are pondering what the GOE is pondering, which is how Crusty is feeling after reading this.  After all, every single one of The Brain's plans for world domination failed.



  1. I seem to recall in my training that the Church is an organ of the gospel, or an organ of Jesus and specifically not an organ of society. Maybe I am in need of an organ transplant.

  2. POIT! Egads, Brain, you and I have exactly the same taste in popular culture! How many people will recognize that Topher reference, do you think? And I know of only one or two others who have even SEEN Freakazoid! (Remember CandleJack (scream)?) But where are we going to get a duck and a hose at this time of night?

  3. Like the Church History - Eucharist as sacrifice - question, this is too hard a question to try to answer from memory. At the very least GOE candidates should have permission to review the referenced document.

    I was interested to read that the Board has gone back to a "pass - fail" judgment. The five point system derived from a desire to indicate superior answers from the merely adequate - and later to provide some way to differentiate between answers that did not demonstrate proficiency because the information provided was wrong or simply inadequate because the question was not answered, response too short, etc. My memory is that in the early 1990's about 40% of the GOE candidates were women and they received about 60% of the evaluations as "superior" and very few evaluations of inadequate. By 2002 the numbers of men and women were about equal as were the evaluations.

  4. I gave two sentences at the beginning of my answer (1) defining rights (2) saying they were not compatible with Christian language. I then proceeded through an ecclesial and philosophical history from stoicism up to a declaration of the UN in 1976 citing between 10-15 major authors. I was told I didn't answer the question by the first group and thus failed. The second group who double-checked said I did answer the group. I received a fail with contradictory responses. The two seemed to put theoretical and practical reason into contradiction in more ways than one. My comments also seemed to be essentially Emotivist. I guess the Baptismal Rite language and 'virtue' being the language of collects and prefaces, the Liturgy that draws us into the mysteries of the Divine, just isn't enough to say what our 'theory on ethics' is...