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THE GEOMETRY OF CHOICE
July 18, 2006
 
Ethics is a strange business. It's traditionally been an attempt to find what it calls a categorical imperative, a rule that will work in all places at all times, so as to effectively automate moral decision-making. So we won't have to decide things -- all we'll have to do is plug in the data and our ethical choice will pop out of the slot. So we're always for life and we're always against violence and we're always against stealing and always this and always that. Which should make it all much simpler.

And it would, if we were machines and ethical choice was made on paper. But we are not machines; we are real people. We don't live in a theorem: we live in the world. And ethical choice is never made on paper: in ethics, as in geometry, none of the figures we work with are real. There's really no such thing as a point, no such thing as a line or a ray -- none of them exist physically. And there's no such thing as a simple choice. Ethical theory is singular: one act, one result. Ethical practice is always multiple, dozens of causes buffeting every moment of choice, many effects beyond the one effect I ordered when I chose.

We'll kill anyone who tries to kill us. Okay -- that should take care of the problem. But their relatives will live to fight another day, and then there are more deaths for us to avenge. One death leads to another: another bombing, another suicide attack, one on the right, one on the left, more and more until the math starts to break down, and we begin to suspect it's not about math at all. We have the right, surely, to defend ourselves. Surely, yes. Theoretically, yes. Until a missile kills your baby as she sleeps in her crib. And then there is no mathematics to describe how her death fulfills the equation of justice, because there is no longer any equation.

Conformity with a theory or a plan is never sufficient justification for an action. In all I do, I am responsible for more than my intent. I am responsible for what actually happens as a result of what I have done, the accidental things that ensued because of the course I took.

Perhaps I should pray more. And stop looking in nature for things that don't exist in nature -- points, lines, rays, simple choices.

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Next week, July 23-28: the Kenyon Conference, at Kenyon College in Gambier, OH. Sponsored jointly by the dioceses of Southern Ohio and Ohio. Barbara Crafton is keynote speaker, and the theme is "I Will, With God's Help." Register at http://www.kenyonconference.org/
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