30 May 2011

Detective novels and moral relativism

When is killing another person legitimate? What criteria do you use to decide? Does the fact that something is legal make it morally acceptable?

This book raises these questions and more.

Spoiler alert: if you have not read this book, and want to read it, stop reading now. This post contains spoilers that reveal important elements of the plot.

Strange AffairStrange Affair by Peter Robinson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Though this is a whodunit, the thing that stands out about it for me is the way it reflects the inconsistent and ever-changing moral values of society. And that makes it indeed a strange affair.

Writers of whodunits like to involve their fictional detectives in current crimes in the news, and so Peter Robinson involves Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks in human trafficking and related crimes. It is hard to imagine such things happening in North Yorkshire, where Banks is based, so the story begins with a mysterious phone call from Banks's brother Roy, who lives in London. Banks, who is on leave, travels to see his brother, who is not at home, and appears to be missing. His brother's disappearance also seems to be linked to a murder victim in North Yorkshire, whose death is being investigated by Detective Inspector
Annie Cabbot, who is in charge while Banks is on leave.

It transpires that Roy Banks hsd been murdered too, in a similar fashion to the Yorkshire victim, who turns out to be Roy's latest girlfriend, whom he had sent to his brother to report their suspicions about human trafficking and prostitution. The girlfriend, Jennifer Clewes, worked in the management side of a chain of abortion clinics, and Roy Banks had met her when he took his previous girlfriend, Corinne, there for an abortion. There are several "late girls", who come to the clinic after hours when they are pregnant. They are prostitutes, many of whom have been abducted in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, brought there by their pimps, and too afraid to speak of their sexual slavery. An exception is Carmen Petri, who does not want an abortion, and is older and more sophisticated than the other girls. She agrees to have her baby adopted by Gareth Lambert, a wealthy businessman who has invested in the human trafficking and other schemes of dubious legality.

The moral cognitive dissonanance comes up when Banks discovers that Gareth Lambert does not intend to adopt Carmen's child and bring her up as his own. He rather wants to use the child as the source of a heart for his own ailing daughter. Banks shows extreme moral revulsion towards this idea, as well as to Gareth's role in the betrayal and murder of his brother.

The moral inconsistency lies in the fact that what Gareth proposes to do with the baby is not all that different from embryonic stem cell research, which many people find morally acceptable. In Britain, according to the novel, abortion is legal up to the age of 24 weeks. So in the book there is no there is no great moral revulsion about killing a child up to that age. But if it happens at 40 weeks, and for the purpose of harvesting organs for a heart transplant, then it suddenly becomes morally repuslive. And I want to ask why?

Surely the same arguments that are used in favour of embryonic stem cell research can equally be used for harvesting organs from unwanted children who are only a few weeks older?

Moral relativism is nothing new, of course, and one can expect detecive novels to reflect the current mores of the society in which they are written. Perhaps a detective novel written 50 or more years ago would reflect the same moral revulsion in the protagonist when confronted with any form of abortion, and those running the abortion clinics might be seen as the villains of the piece.

What stands out in this book, however, is the enormous difference that 16 weeks makes. An act that would be acceptable when the child is 24 weeks old becomes morally reprehensible when it is 40 weeks old. Perhaps in another 50 years, in a more enlightened age, people will see the inconsistency and shift the boundary to allow organs to be harvested from unwanted children up to school age, puberty, or even later, and, if anyone questions it, will say that "this is, after all, the 21st century", and will look down on the quaint ideas expressed by Alan Banks as "so 20th century".

O tempora! O mores!

View all my reviews

28 May 2011

The morality of the assassination of Osama bin Laden

An Anglican bishop's thoughts on the assassination of Osama bin Laden.

Bishop Alan’s Blog: Moral relativism is not enough...:
It follows from this basic theology from page 1 of the Bible, that if I commit an act, like a lynching, that denies the image of God in another human being I not only act out my own fallen nature (thus losing the moral high ground), but I also behave in a way that compromises my own humanity — thank God he gave it as an absolute that no human being can take away, not even me.

The moral relativism of some journalists about this (“Normally, of course, we should respect life, but he didn't so we don't have to”) is a real slippery slope, morally. It betokens not Conservatism, but Pelagianism — one of the oldest heresies in the book. They must not be surprised if bishops, including the Archbishop, do not collude with their Pelagian views.

I'm not sure how Bishop Alan concludes that it is Pelagian, and I find it difficult to connect the dots. But the moral relativism he ascribes to the jounalists (“Normally, of course, we should respect life, but he didn't so we don't have to”) is the same slippery slope on which Western theologians who argue for a "just war" are to be found. Western legalism subscribes to the notion of "justifiable homicide". There is almost an obsession with justification. Whether we kill people by war, assassination, or abortion, there is the need to justify it.

The main consequence of this is that we can kill people and feel righteous about it, and see no need to repent, because our act was "justified".

But there can be no peace without repentance, as Doestoevsky showed in his novel Crime and punishment.

Parents keep child’s gender under wraps - Yahoo! News

If gender is the social construction of sex, isn't this child too young to have a gender yet?

Parents keep child’s gender under wraps - Yahoo! News:
When many couples have a baby, they send out an email to family and friends that fills them in on the key details: name, gender, birth weight, that sort of thing. (You know the drill: 'Both Mom and little Ethan are doing great!')

But the email sent recently by Kathy Witterick and David Stocker of Toronto, Canada to announce the birth of their baby, Storm, was missing one important piece of information. 'We've decided not to share Storm's sex for now--a tribute to freedom and choice in place of limitation, a stand up to what the world could become in Storm's lifetime (a more progressive place? ...),' it said.

That's right. They're not saying whether Storm is a boy or a girl.

Is the use of "sex" and "gender" in this article an instance of what Fowler calls "elegant variation"? Or have the words become completely interchangeable? Or is it just that journalists nowadays don't know what the words mean.

I get mildly annoyed when forms ask for my gender, and offer the alternatives of "Male" and "Female".

"Male" is not a gender; male is a SEX.

Male and female are sexes.
The genders are masculine, feminine and neuter.

24 May 2011

Not the end of the world, but the end of MyBlogLog

Saturday was supposed to be the end of the world, or at least judgement day. It didn't happen, and very few expected it to. Harold Camping, whose idea it was, turned out to be a better as a publicist than he was as a prophet.

Today is the end of MyBlogLog. If only it were to turn out to be a similar non-event, but I suspect it won't.

But to make up for those disappointments, here are some pictures, provenance unknown, which my wife sent me by e-mail from work, allegedly taken from a boat in the middle of the south Pacific.

Though this may look like a beach, it isn't. It is particles of volcanic rock floating on the sea. One used to be able to buy pumice stones that floated in the bath, and this is evidently the same sort of stuff.

And that is the wake of the boat passing through it.

But if that was volcanic rock, where was the volcano?

The crew of the boat looked around, and saw it erupting under the sea, some distance away, and as they watched a new island was formed.

So instead of ending, the earth is renewing itself.

But can we say, "MyBlogLog is dead, long live MyBlogLog?

There were some MyBlogLog bloggers who visited my blog regularly, and I've now put them into my regular blogroll so I can find them again. There were others whose blogs I sometimes visited, but who never (according to MyBlogLog) paid a return visit, so I'll lose touch with them, and not be able to find them again.

But like volcanoes in the Pacific, new blogs will doubtless continue to appear from time to time.

13 May 2011

Seeing old friends

We have visited several old friends on our holiday travels so far, most of whiom we had not seen for quite a long time.

In Clarens we saw Dons and Anneke Kritzinger. Dons was a missiologist at the University of Pretoria, and once produced an interesting series of booklets on the uncompleted missionary task in the Transvaal. Even though they are now some 30 years old, they are probably still useful. Dons and Anneke retired to Clarens some years ago, and Dons is still active in the local congregation of the Uniting Reformed Church, and in an ecumenical clergy group in the town.

We stayed overnight in Barrydale, and saw Dick and Josephine Usher. I had not seen Dick for many years, and had never met Josephine. I knew Dick as a journalist on the Daily News in Durban in 1969, when he was a member of our Christian Institute youth groups, and we produced a magazine called Ikon, which proved far too radical for the Christian Institute, so we had to withdraw the first issue and publish it independently.I went to Namibia and Dick went to the USA, so we lost touch, though Dick later returned to South Africa and worked on the Sunday Tribune and The Friend in Bloemfontein. The timing of our visit wasn't too good, as Dick has cancer, and has to travel to Somerset West for treatment once a week, and found company rather tiring, but it was good to see him.

We went on to Robertson, where we visited a cousin, Sandy Struckmeyer, whom I had not met before, and then saw Fr Zacharias van Wyk (in the world Edmund), who has established an Orthodox centre just outside the town. The centre is described by Archbishop Sergios as almost a monastery, and certainly has the atmosphere of peace one finds in monasteries, Fr Zacharias used to come to Johannesburg to visit our parish of St Nicholas of Japan in Brixton.

We went on to Hermanus, where we stayed at the Volmoed community, and saw two old friends there. One was John de Gruchy, with whom I am writing a book on the charismatic renewal movement in South Africa, and the other is Barry Wood, whom I had met about 45 years ago at student conferences and the like, and last saw in 1982. We spent four days at Volmoed, which was very peaceful and beautiful, and then went to Villiersdorp and Cape Town.

03 May 2011

Deteriorating transport infrastructure

One of the things we have noticed in our holiday travels is the deterioration of the transport infrastructure in the country.

In some provinces, notably the Free State and Mpumalanga, the roads are in poor condition, and the Free State roads were particularly bad, full of potholes. The 700 km drive from Clarens to Graaff Reinet was very tiring, because of the concentration needed to drive along the potholed roads, and that was in daylight and in good weather. At night, or if it was raining, it would have been far, far worse. When we reached the Eastern Cape the roads were a lot better, and likewise in the Western Cape. The Free State roads, however, were beginning to resemble those of Albania 10 years ago, where repairs could never catch up, because as soon as one section was repaired, and the road workers moved on to a new section, the newly repaired section began to deteriorate again.

But it wasn't only the roads; the railways are also deteriorating. Around Villiers in the Free State we saw abandoned railway lines, covered with weeds. There was another abandoned line between Steynsburg and Rosmead in the Eastern Cape, and yet another going north from Graaff Reinet.

The reason for both kinds of deterioration seems to be the deregulation of road transport, which took place about 25-30 years ago, during the privatisation mania of the Reagan-Thatcher years. This led to a huge increase in the number of heavy goods vehicles on the roads, and in many cases the roads were not designed to carry such traffic. Goods that used to be carried by rail now go by road, with a consequent deterioration of both the road and rail infrastructure.

My cousin-in-law in Graaff Reinet, Nick Grobler, told us of a woman he knew who had uterine cancer, and had to go to Port Elizabeth for a hystrerectomy. In the past it was a comfortable overnight train journey, but now, being discharged from hospital within three days, she had to return to Graaff Reinet in a cramped minibus taxi, and though the roads in the Eastern Cape are not (yet) as bad as those in the Free State, it was not a pleasant journey after major surgery.


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