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Weighted Decisions

Human conflicts are the stuff of history. Arabs versus Jews, Greeks versus Turks, Sunni versus Shiites, Hutu versus Tutsis, blacks versus whites, Hatfields versus McCoys, Democrats versus Republicans, communists versus capitalists, labor versus management, for starters, all illustrate the propensity of human beings to be at odds or at war with each other. Fighting appears to be the norm, with peace hardly more than a breather between battles. Taking of spoil or power grabs, reasons usually cited for wars, need not be the case. Generational strife exists on a level by itself. Hatred, retribution, reclaiming honor, proving superiority and other intangible goals of conflict provide adequate reason for the fight.

How is it that combatants in a war, opponents in a debate, dogmatists in different religions or partisans in the political realm gravitate toward such rigidly held views? How can people believe things so totally different from each other? How can they embrace ideas so diametrically opposed to each other? How can many of them espouse their beliefs to the point of sacrifice, destruction or death?

 Eric Hoffer addressed this issue in “The True Believer” nearly six decades ago. A sampling of quotes from his book illustrates how he viewed from the standpoint of the fanatic.

“Members of the fanatic group are taught to have a common hatred, a single foe, a devil. “The ideal devil is a foreigner….Hitler—the foremost authority on devils—found it easy to brand the German Jews as foreigners.” (pp. 92-93).

“Hatred becomes a habit. (p. 146)

When situations reach a state of extreme polarization, meaningful dialogue dies. In its place, raw, irrational emotionalism takes over. I have no solutions to offer, but if we are to resolve at least some of our conflicts, we need to understand how we got so far apart in the first place. Problems don’t just happen, suddenly appearing on the horizon out of nowhere with full grown incisors, claws and a venomous vocabulary. Most problems begin small and evolve in increments to a toxic state. The increments along the journey materialize out of the type, frequency and the impact level of each event. The farther apart the parties to the dispute grow, the greater the intensity and the higher the velocity with which they separate in opposite directions. Eventually, brothers and sisters won’t talk to each other, parents and children hate each other, husbands and wives stubbornly cling to irreconcilable differences, bosses and employees stab each other in the back and entire groups of people escalate their adversarial relationship into a virtual business and way of life.

As conflicts worsen, each incident tends to feed off of a corresponding incident in the enemy camp. The original cause may no longer even be remembered, or it pales in comparison to some subsequent act of retaliation. When a conflict deteriorates to all out war, all the energy gets channeled into evening the score, destroying the enemy or ginning up animosity against the other side. Honor, pride, hatred, anger and the whole gamut of emotions permeate the relationship, often cementing the opposing positions into permanent mindsets. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a classic example. The generations are raised such that to be Palestinian is to be anti-Israeli. As mentioned earlier, many other examples exist throughout history.

When conflicts reach flashpoint, even the suggestion that the two enemies sit down across from each other and seek a level of understanding of their problem sparks outrage. Their bitterness becomes so intense that it equates to their personal, tribal or national identity. History teaches us, however, that both sides invariably lose. Hatred simply recycles back into each succeeding generation, and into an eternal war.

Weighting Decisions

So, how do two parties begin to disagree so profoundly in the first place? If we can cast it in terms of rational thought, it has to do with a process I call “weighting decisions.” In Matthew 23:23, Jesus said, “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.” The scribes and Pharisees ascribed certain weight, or importance, to paying tithes of insignificant substances like mint, anise and cumin. At the same time, they did not weight decisions regarding the law, judgment, mercy and faith with any sense of proportion.

This establishes two principles in the economy of God. First, God compares all things to each other and rates their importance accordingly. Second, he judges us with regard to our priority lists. When we ascribe more importance to something that God considers less important, we displease God. The irony of this error of the scribes and Pharisees is that they thought they were currying God’s favor by their insistence on minutiae. Actually, they were insulting God by perverting the law, denying righteous judgment, refusing to show mercy and sabotaging faith. God is not impressed with pinching pennies when we fritter away dollars.

Even more ominous in the Pharisees reasoning process was that they may have thought their meticulous tithing compensated for giving short shrift to weightier matters. Put another way, they may have been trying to bribe God to ignore their evil treatment of others by duly noting the good that they were doing for God. Their decisions were an affront to the righteousness and justice of God.

Common sense, reasoning, wisdom and balanced judgment seem to be in play into all our dealings in this life. We place a weighted value on every decision we make. Depending upon our beliefs, convictions, desires and motives, we rate these decisions on a sliding scale of importance. For the sake of illustration, let us say we measure everything on a scale of 1-100, with one being least in importance and one hundred being the greatest. This enables us to apply a moral measure to the act of lying by assigning a value to it in terms of the scale. To some people, telling a lie represents an unspeakable act for which there is no excuse. Therefore, they rate the decision to lie from 90 to 100 points in the negative. To someone schooled in the humanistic values clarification model (based on a 1972 book by Simon, Howe & Kirschenbaum, a widely-used text for secondary schools), a lie may rank only 1 to 10 points negative. The question is not “did you lie to me?” That is a given. Rather, the question is “why did you lie to me”, “how offensive is a lie to you?”, or “how important is lying in the entire scheme of things?”

Jesus was very sensitive to judgmentalism. He said, “Judge not, that ye be not judged. 2 For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. 3 And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? 4 Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? 5 Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.” Matthew 7:3-5. In other words, get a sense of proportion to your own faults before you view of the faults of others.

On the positive side, some people believe unswerving loyalty is an absolute necessity in determining one’s integrity. They might rate a person’s loyalty at 90 to 100 points positive. Others dismiss blind loyalty as an unrealistic absolute. They think that loyalty which does not take into account mitigating circumstances is worth little or nothing. They rate the loyalty factor from 1-10. Something that one person believes is a quality worth dying for may only be worth a shrug of the shoulder to another. This weighting variation pushes people into opposite corners of an issue.

Two opposing philosophies underlie weighting decisions. First, some believe that established, absolute standards exist which govern all decisions. Sometimes, as in the field of bioethics or in the adjudication of legal matters, we arrive at the outcome after great deliberation. In the process, several issues compete for dominance in both the intellectual and the social context. But even in such cases, the fixed nature of the baselines allows us to work our way through the maze with a measure of certainty.

The second philosophy rejects pre-determined absolutes. It holds that each individual decision must be a function of a practical outcome, not obeisance to any so-called spiritual law. Those hold this view use protocols, standards, rules, manners and laws in a fluid, flexible way, always emphasizing the result to be superior to the process. Thus, the “how” is always subject to the “what.” When it is determined that the “what” needs to be done, the “how” to reach the conclusion has no moral or ethical quantifier. If the goal is achieved, then the process becomes a moot point.

With regard to human conflicts, lying about an event may be preferred to telling the truth if lying leads to a desired result. Another example involves clannish behavior. If a clan member commits a crime, others in the clan often excuse it, even though they condemn a non-clan member to death for the same crime. A race that claims superiority over another race may tolerate injustice against the enemy while refusing to reciprocate the privilege. Egregious acts like genocide or the holocaust committed by Hitler’s Germany find warped justification in the minds of the perpetrators. The euphemism “ethnic cleansing” implies that wiping out an entire ethnic group somehow has a positive benefit to the world.

To a thinking person, something seems wrong with this picture. Are we right to use differing standards to evaluate the treatment of human beings or to weigh decisions? I think not. Standard measurements serve a universal purpose. Imagine a carpenter having an assortment of different scales in his tool box. He could measure any given space or length by the ruler of his choice. If the length to be measured was too short for the 12 inch scale, he could just find a shorter scale and get his measurement from that. Or, suppose a doctor’s office had several scales to measure the weight of her patients. If a patient’s goal was to weigh 110 lbs., the doctor could just direct him or her to the scale that would produce the desired measurement.

Many of the things we measure—like beauty, success, wealth and happiness—have different definitions depending upon the person or group making the judgment. The 1970’s classic song by Ray Stevens is the quintessential expression of this thought:

“Everything Is Beautiful”

Everything is beautiful in its own way

Like a starry summer night

Or a snow covered winter’s day

And everybody’s beautiful in their own way

And under God’s heaven

The world’s gonna find a way.


There is none so blind as he who will not see

We must not close our minds

We must let our thoughts be free

For every hour that passes by

You know the world gets a little bit older

It’s time to realize that beauty lies

In the eyes of the beholder.


We shouldn’t care about the length of his hair

Or the color of the skin

Don’t worry about what shows from without

But the love that lives within

And we gonna get it all together now

Everything gonna work out fine

Just take a little time to look on the good side my friend

And straighten it out in your mind

(c) Copyright 1970 by Ahab Music Co., performed by Ray Stevens.

But the heady, cultural mythology expressed in this song has little practical application. The sentiment may be magnanimous, but the way it plays out in real life would undoubtedly produce a result that would choke even Ray Stevens. His country music background represents a narrowing slice of Americana values. With increasing connectivity between nations and regions due to both technological advances and rapid transportation, the distance between cultures is shrinking as well. Sensitivities have been magnified to the point of paranoia for fear of offending ethnic groups. The rise of political correctness underscores this trend.

All of man’s moral and ethical dilemmas have been measured against scales of all sizes. Variations in the scales exist from nation to nation, culture to culture and from era to era. Yet, we may still identify many cross-cultural baselines of behavior, despite the wide disparities. Certain social structures like family, village and government still retain their dominance in all cultures. Intangible values like love, honor and respect are also shared. Even though these norms are loose guidelines, we can still arrive at a useful insight into moral decision-making. The heart of the process comes down to values of importance. People must assign the same or similar values to each decision if they want to live in harmony with each other. Otherwise, conflict is inevitable. The wider the disparity, the more volatile the conflict.

If a modicum of agreement in positive values cannot be reached, there must at least be an avoidance of negative values for peaceful coexistence. In other words, if I know that a certain word or action on my part antagonizes someone, I can and should restrain myself in that area. That does not mean failure to do right things according to my value system. It does mean I should not do wrong things according to the other party’s value system. If I cannot bring pleasure, I do not have to cause pain. If I do not believe that you have the right value system, I am not obligated to affirm it. At the same time, I have no right to harm or kill you because of your beliefs.

No amount of logic, analysis or rational thought will supersede the personal values inherent in a decision-maker’s psyche. Algorithms may be neatly graphed out to show the most efficient pathway to follow or demonstrate the most beneficial conclusion to an issue. Narratives may be shared that predicts an all but certain outcome. People of enormous influence and power may be brought into the process to inveigh for or against an action. It does not matter. To use an old adage, people will cut off their nose to spite their face if self-mutilation best represents their identified values.

Overlaying this theory on present day conflicts brings some interesting issues to light. Nations cannot negotiate peace with other nations whose core value is the intent to kill or destroy all who disagree with them. Faith communities cannot live side by side if one religious group believes that infidels should convert or die. Financial contracts cannot be drawn if the consumer does not place the same value on prompt payments that the contractor does. Marriages cannot survive if one spouse believes that adultery is wrong and the other does not. Colleges and universities cannot operate if students scorn good grades and credible work. The military cannot maintain a viable status if new recruits laugh at their drill instructors who give them orders. Industries will fail across the board if employees do not assign the same values to hard work and honest character.

In conclusion, there appears to be only three avenues to a conflict resolution: education, transformation or coercion. If a person or group can be educated to the point of understanding and tolerance of those who differ from them, conflicts can fade away. If a change of heart through a spiritual transformation can happen, then it paves the way for love and forgiveness to grow. This is the only way that the wounds of the past can heal. If these two paths will not work, the only remaining path is coercion. One group will have to subjugate another group by warfare, enslavement or genocide. Coercion, however, only sows the seeds of future conflicts. Somewhere in the world, all three paths are being followed. The best way to judge between them is to compare the results.

I am reminded of the words of the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:17-21: “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. 18 And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committedc unto us the word of reconciliation. 20 Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God. 21 For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.”

Transformation, not mere education nor coercion will lead us to true peace.


c committed…: Gr. put in us

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