Exploring the Nature of Evil through the Penn State Scandal – part 1

The sexual molestation of children by adults is unmistakably a case of adults using children to satiate their own prurient desires.  The moral failures of the other adults in the Penn State child abuse scandal, though, are similar in the ethical principle that was violated.  Joe Paterno, the Penn State president Graham Spanier, Mike McQuery (who witnessed Sandusky raping a child in a campus shower), and so on, presumably failed in their moral responsibility to protect children because they put the interest of adults – in this case the economic interests at stake in the reputation of the Penn State football program – not only ahead of the interest of children, but at the expense of the well-being of children.  Though allegations of sexual abuse of children by Sandusky were known for over a decade, these men used their power and influence to protect Sandusky and conceal the problem rather than expose him and put an end to the problem.

Let’s critically examine the basic ethical principle that adults ought to put the interests of children ahead of their own and use their power as adults to serve the well-being of children.  I believe most people regardless of religious commitment or political persuasion would assent to this principle and regard it as ethically sound.  While we revile those who exploit children sexually, and those who enable these offenders, our social conscience is not as troubled by more common instances of transgressing this principle.  I will explore two of these.

1. Financial mismanagement

The national debt is staggering ($15 trillion and growing).  Each citizen’s share is over $48,000.  And this is just the debt of the U.S. government.   The average U.S. household credit card debt is nearly $16,000* (www.creditcard.com). With an average household size of about 2.6, the debt of a typical household just as a share of the federal debt and national credit card debt is approximately $140,800.  Do the adults who have incurred this debt have the intentions, or even the means to repay it?  I don’t believe so.  Our collective debt will be passed on to our children and grandchildren.  Our luxurious, self-indulgent, self-gratifying lifestyles are funded by debt that our children and their children will have to pay for.  We enjoy lives of pleasure, comfort, and ease at their expense.

2.  Marriage

The purpose of marriage is being redefined in our culture from an institution that exists to secure the well-being of children and to raise the next generation to adulthood into to one that exists primarily for the happiness and pleasure of adults.  The high divorce rate in the U.S. is well documented (recent downward trends are result of an increase of cohabitation among young adults).  Though there are justifiable reasons for getting a divorce (the infidelity of one’s spouse, for instance), most divorces are a result of couples “falling out of love” as conflicts mount and they grow tired of each other.  Divorce is almost never in the interest of the children, but is harmful to the children, both in the short and the long-term.  Rather than make the difficult choice of staying together and persevering through relational difficulties, adults often choose what they believe will make them happier (since that’s the point of being married in the first place) regardless of the consequences on the children. The mentality is that my happiness matters more than my children’s well-being.  Sound familiar.

A sure sign of a civilization’s moral decay is when adults make decisions to increase the quality of their lives that result in the diminishing of the quality of their children’s lives.  In ancient times, literal child sacrifice to idols was practiced in many cultures (the Aztecs, Incas, and Canaanite cultures to name a few).  That this practice was common among near-Eastern peoples is evidenced in the biblical commands forbidding the practice among the Israelites:

1The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 2“Say to the people of Israel,Any one of the people of Israel or of the strangers who sojourn in Israel who gives any of his children to Molech shall surely be put to death. The people of the land shall stone him with stones. 3I myself will set my face against that man and will cut him off from among his people, because he has given one of his children to Molech, to make my sanctuaryunclean andto profane my holy name. 4And if the people of the land do at all close their eyes to that man when he gives one of his children to Molech, and do notput him to death, 5then I will set my face against that man and against his clan and will cut them off from among their people, him and all who follow him in whoring after Molech.

Molech was an ancient god worshiped throughout North Africa and the Middle East for whom propitiatory child sacrifice was practiced.  The nation of Israel was to be morally and religiously distinct by not sacrificing their children to the gods.  Throughout Israel’s history the most wicked among its kings violated these injunctions and sacrificed their children to the idols of other nations.  For instance, King Ahaz:

2Ahaz was twenty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned sixteen years in Jerusalem. And he did not do what was right in the eyes of the LORD his God, as his father David had done, 3but he walked in the way of the kings of Israel.He even burned his son as an offering, according to the despicable practices of the nations whom the LORD drove out before the people of Israel.

The practice of child sacrifice to idols was a sign that the nation had descended to the depths of moral depravity.  We might not accept the willful murder of children in religious rituals, but as a society are we sacrificing the economic, spiritual, and emotional well-being of our children to the idols of pleasure, comfort, and money?

*Calculated by dividing the total revolving debt in the U.S. ($793.1 billion as of May 2011 data, as listed in the Federal Reserve’s July 2011 report on consumer credit) by the estimated number of households carrying credit card debt (50.2 million)

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