Perfectionism

This article is part of a series entitled Correlates of Religious Impulse.
See also: 1. Purists; 2. Unconditional; 3. Perfectionism

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One of William Sharp’s illustrations for The Brothers Karamazov. Dmitri stands at right.

T. H. Luhrmann is surely correct when she argues, in her New York Times OpEd of the same title, that “Belief Is the Least Part of Faith”. Luhrmann, a Stanford anthropologist, notes, both in her editorial and in her broader work, that the popular vision of the Evangelical Christian who literally believes in God — a fantasy cultivated, largely, by the secular left — is but a fantasy, and that the normal folks at the Baptist service are there, rather, for a collective exercise in faith. They seek a community of fellow worshippers, Luhrmann argues, a group with which they can learn “how to be more aware of God’s presence.” [1]

Though the impetus to religion which Luhrmann describes is certainly empirically dominant, it might leave something to be desired. For one, the image of a group of people coming together for the worship of an entity in which they only tenuously believe has something of an air of dishonesty to it. “Please stand if you’re able” — a church service should perhaps unorthodoxically insist — “to pause for a moment, put your books down, step into the aisleways, and begin to actually discuss the difficult realities of your beliefs.”

Further, the sheer abstractness of these doctrines might leave one feeling empty. Patrons of the New York Philharmonic’s Lincoln Center love Beethoven and Brahms. In the New York Public Library, readers love Nabokov and Tolstoy. In New York’s Trinity Church, worshippers love, well, love. Is that all there is for me?

Deeper investigation will lead us, in time, to rationales for religion with more propensity to induce fulfillment. They’ll also lead us to religious practice’s most imposing problems, and also, I hope, to their eventual solutions. Continue reading

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Inaction in Philosophy, Medicine and Law

Hippocrates famously said that doctors should do no harm–but said nothing about whether or not they should allow it.

If you push a man off a bridge and he drowns, you’re wanted for murder. But if you cross a bridge and see a man drowning in the water below, and you choose not to save him, you’re not wanted for murder. We know that the law punishes action, but not inaction, even if the two produce the same end.

The above case, though, doesn’t tell us a whole lot about why harm caused by inaction goes unpunished. Maybe an inaction that produces harm is inherently less heinous than an action that produces the same harm. Alternatively, maybe inaction is just harder to punish. How could law enforcement hope to track down every innocent bystander that crosses the bridge? Another explanation might be that to punish harm caused by inaction would be to encourage a different kind of harm: the man who jumps into the river to save a drowning man could end up drowning himself.

It turns out that medical case law offers considerable insight into similar questions of inaction. By examining a few cases, we can approach an answer as to why, exactly, harm caused by inaction tends to be tolerated. Continue reading