Emotionally Laden Decisions: What Would You Do?

This spot is devoted to decisions and decision theory, but that does not mean only considering dry theoretical issues. Theory is worthless unless you can apply the lessons of critical thinking to everyday life. To entice readers to make such applications, I intersperse the theoretical considerations with an occasional puzzle that illuminates some aspect of decision making. In some small way, these exercises might help you decide which computer to buy next or which social media to patronize. After all, the best computer for you might not be the one on sale that week. We all need tools to help make decisions.

Another way to encourage consideration of the decisions we make is to deliberately take on some emotionally charged issues. While some people get fired up over the choice between Windows, OS X, or Linux, you are more likely to get an argument over gun control, abortion, and the proper role of government. But consider an issue with a twist. Suppose a bad action happened in the past. You want to correct it. What do you do? Here is one that involves another topic guaranteed to generate heated discussion: religion. [In what follows, I take no stance on religious observance, but only address a narrow issue that involves decisions. If you want to flame effectively, attack me on the analysis.]

In 1954, which was a very different time with different values, a large (29-foot) Christian cross was erected as a war memorial on government property at Mt. Soledad in San Diego. For years, antagonistic groups have fought to have it removed or preserved. The defenders have resorted to a number of tactics, including an attempt to have the area around the cross put in private hands. But their main argument seems to be that this is meant to be a general war memorial and not a Christian symbol. Non-Christians should be proud to have it as a memorial. There is no attempt to favor one religion or another by its presence. The attackers have an easier task. They simply keep repeating that this is a Christian symbol and constitutes an unfair support of a particular faith on public land.

The main issue is pretty plain to me (in spite of learned lawyers arguing for years). The Christian cross was improperly put on public land in a manner that would not be permitted today. That seems so obvious that I would rather look at a more perplexing issue: What do we do now?

That is, what is best for our society now given that a wrong was done in the past? The cross should not have been erected on public land, but it was, and the act was done by well-meaning people. Hardline attackers say there is no statute of limitations. It does not matter that the cross has stood there for almost 60 years and it does not gain legitimacy by surviving. Tear it down. Hardline defenders reply that this proposition is nonsense, and that it is an important visual aspect of our community and, besides, it is not a religious symbol. (I often wanted to meet these people and ask when they became apostates who do not recognize the cross as a symbol of their religion, but that is another story.)

Should we open the area for the construction of other memorials for whoever wants to erect a monument? Crescents, Stars of David, Wiccan Stars, and the Wheel of the Eightfold Way might suddenly appear along with a statue of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (If you do not know, look it up). Maybe we could modify the existing monument by knocking off the arms and leaving a vertical pillar (a serious proposal that got nowhere).

None of this is meant to represent what is actually happening. The Wikipedia reference to this controversy (linked above) will tell you that. I am simply trying to illustrate the possible solutions without being forced to accept either of the hardliner positions.

Emotionally Laden Decisions: What Would You Do?So now fast forward. Recently, some marines painfully hauled a handmade wooden cross up a hill on federal land (Camp Pendleton) and mounted it as a memorial to their fallen comrades in the current struggle. Now, let us agree these were likely patriotic, well-meaning marines who honestly wanted to honor their fallen comrades who were probably all Christians given the action they took. The same hill has no Wiccan Star, etc.

In the ensuing exchange of letters to the editors in our local newspaper, several Christians asked why the atheists are so hateful toward their cross. An atheist gave an interesting answer. He said that as a non-believer, he couldn’t care less about religious symbols, and what you do on your own hill is your business. He is not offended and not hateful because there is nothing behind the symbol for him to be hateful of. But the cross had been erected on public property, and to let it stay there would be to acknowledge that it is permissible. That would violate constitutional separation of church and state and offend him because it smacks of official recognition of one religion being more appropriate for a memorial than another. He does not hate the cross; he loves the constitution.

So here are a couple of emotionally charged situations selected to show that making decisions is not a dry, boring subject. I am not attacking the hilltop crosses here. If I lived in a country that was predominately another religion, the same issues would arise with other players. Putting a Star of David on top of a hill in Iran would be guaranteed to provoke interesting dinner conversation. And even though I am, by nature, an optimist, I truly believe that none of these issues will be solved in a rational manner trying to take into account the law and the need some people feel to express their religion for everyone to see. Spending some time on these difficult and emotional problems might help you develop the habit of making sound decisions on the simpler everyday issues, but let us be modest and not expect to solve the world’s problems.