The Frying Pan Fable: On Asking the Wrong Questions

Frying pans are really great for cooking things, after all, that is what they are designed for. From scrambled eggs to sautéed vegetables, there are numerous types of foods that can be prepared in a frying pan. However, besides this obvious use, a frying pan can be utilized for a variety of other tasks. If someone breaks into your house, a frying pan can be used as a self-defense tool. If you are concerned about small objects falling on your head, a frying pan could be used as a helmet.

Despite these alternative uses, frying pans are generally just used for cooking. Why is that? What prevents people from seeing frying pans as multipurpose tools and using frying pans for all sorts of tasks? Well, besides the fact that frying pans are not all that good at accomplishing these other tasks, people use frying pans for cooking because they were designed for that task. I could try to use my lawn mower as a fan or my shoes as soup bowls, but these items were not designed for those jobs and would do a poor job.

Economist Gene Callahan illustrates this idea that different tools have different roles and different levels of effectiveness, “Simply because a sledgehammer does a good job breaking up stones does not mean that it’s the right tool for slicing tomatoes” (“Economics For Real People” page 35)

The majority of fabricated items in this world were created with particular purposes in mind. That’s not to say there is no place for experimenting with alternative uses or making do with limited resources. However, I think I’m correct in saying that, generally, things work best when they are put to use according to their design. If I am holding a vacuum cleaner and wondering how to use it, I should ask for what it was designed for. On a bigger scale, if I am wondering how I should live, I should attempt to find out what I was created for.

This leads into the main purpose of this blog post, which is about how to evaluate government. I spent to preceding paragraphs making the point that things in life should (generally) be utilized according to their design. Why do we not apply this same framework to government? Why do we not spend more time considering the proper role of government? From handling education to regulating the food industry clearly government is capable of many things. But, like using the frying pan for self-defense, some of these tasks might be outside of the realm of its design. To evaluate government in terms of capability, or even its propensity to act according to my personal values is to ask the wrong questions. Rather, we should step back and attempt to determine the proper role and purpose of government. From there we can evaluate aspects of government action, such as effectiveness, from a more stable foundation.

When thinking about government involvement in healthcare, for example, I could start by thinking about the effectiveness of government regulated healthcare. Additionally, I might consider my personal feelings on the matter. However, if I don’t start by considering whether or not regulation of healthcare is within the realm of government’s role, I will have missed the fundamental issue.

I would challenge everybody reading this post to think hard about government’s role. Think through why government exists and what purposes it achieves. From there try to determine if the policies that you support agree with this foundational framework. Hopefully, this exercise will enable you to have a more consistent and thoughtful view of government.

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As usual, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Feel free to leave a comment or shoot me an email. Thanks for reading!

Breaking Bad and Human Nature

[Note: the following post is intended for those who have seen “Breaking Bad.” It references characters and elements of the plot without necessarily explaining background information. It contains MAJOR SPOILERS. If you have not seen “Breaking Bad” but you plan to watch it, I would advise reading no further. Otherwise, enjoy!]

“Breaking Bad” is easily my favorite TV show and is the most well written show I’ve ever seen. Besides the stunning cinematography, complicated characters, and intriguing plot line, I appreciate “Breaking Bad” because it gives an accurate depiction of human nature. This picture is not always pretty – it actually is quite jarring, disturbing, and sobering. But it is realistic and offers many lessons for viewers to take away:

  1. Even the most normal, seemingly-moral individuals have the propensity for evil, given certain situations. “Breaking Bad” tells the story of Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher diagnosed with terminal cancer who begins making drugs in order to provide for his family. The writers go to extensive lengths to show just how law-abiding, and averse to violence Walter really is initially. When Walter’s DEA brother-in-law offers to let Walter hold his gun, Walter can barely handle it and looks obviously out of place. When Walter coerces high school dropout/druggy Jesse Pinkman to make meth with him, Jesse cannot believe that someone like Walter would ever do something like create and sell drugs. This example stands as a lesson for viewers that no individual, no matter how seemingly-moral, is beyond acting in terribly evil ways. All it took was a difficult life situation (being diagnosed with cancer) for Walter to justify this awful behavior. This leads right into the next lesson.
  2. The decline into habits of evil is often gradual and can involve a series of moral justifications. Walter decides to begin cooking meth by telling himself that when he dies, his family will need money to survive. While many people would have qualms with this decision, it could potentially be seen as at least somewhat moral. After all, taking care of one’s family is a good thing, and some might see that as the ultimate good in Walter’s situation. However, as the show progresses, Walter’s actions turn from “justifiable, but wrong” to “glaringly wrong.” Walter enters the drug industry with the idea that he can use his chemistry background to cook meth but not really get involved with the gritty, violent details of the drug industry. However, this fairytale is quickly crushed by the harsh realities of the inherent violence of professions in the drug industry. Once Jesse’s former partners attack Walter and try to get him to cook for them, Walter is forced to stand up for himself. He uses poisonous gas to kill one of the drug dealers but only incapacitates the other one. Walter takes this individual captive and wrestles with how to deal with him. Over a significant period of time, Walter goes back and forth between letting him free and killing him. At this point he has at least some sense of right and wrong and is bothered by having to take human life with his own hands. Ultimately, Walter discovers that this prisoner is planning to kill him and in a moment of self-preservation strangles his captive. This action is really the turning point, where, from then on, Walter freely kills, manipulates, and hurts people without much resignation. From making drugs to help his family to killing another to save himself, Walter demonstrates the ability justify almost any wrong action with his shifting, unsubstantial sense of morality.
  3. Justifications for evil often hide the true selfish motives. Walter begins his drug-creating life by telling himself that he is doing it for his family. And throughout almost the entirety of the show, he continues to tell himself (and others) this same thing, even when his actions clearly do not line up with this message. There are numerous points where Walter has accumulated unfathomable amounts of money and could easily stop cooking meth. But he continues which hints that he must be motivated by something other than provision of his family. The final episode makes it clear that Walter was motivated by pride and at some point began to cook meth because of the sense of purpose and power it gave him. During the final episode, tired of hearing his justifications for cooking meth and creating so much devastation, Walter’s wife says, “If I have to hear one more time that you did this for the family…” Walter interrupts and bluntly states the truth, “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And… I was really… I was alive.” Somewhere along the way Walter began to cook meth because of the pride and sense of purpose this craft gave him, rather than merely provision for his family.
  4. Acceptance is not the proper response to realization of the depth of human depravity. Jesse Pinkman, Walter’s sidekick, has an awful life throughout the course of this show. He makes numerous bad decisions, but he is also heavily manipulated by Walter. In one instance Walter convinces Jesse to kill another man (Gale, for those who have seen the show) in order to save Walter and Jesse from being killed. Jesse follows Walter’s orders but becomes terribly bothered and haunted by his actions. After a significant period of isolation and depression, Jesse begins attending a twelve-step group, where the leader of the group preaches a message of self-acceptance, regardless of one’s behavior. After some time, Jesse gets fed up and blurts out, “So I should stop ‘judging’ and accept? So no matter what I do… hooray for me because I’m a great guy? It’s all good? No matter how many dogs I kill, I just, what, do an inventory and accept? I mean you back your truck over your own kid and you like accept? What a load of crap.” Jesse understands that we can’t deal with evil by just accepting it. These wrong decisions have significant consequences that must be dealt with, which leads to the next lesson.
  5. There are consequences for evil, which culminate in punishment. Throughout the show Walter works crazily to accumulate money, however, he can never seem to get enough. At every turn, something comes up to thwart his plans, mess up his operation, and take his money. And as he desperately strives to provide for his family, his relationship with his wife falls apart when she learns of his evil actions. Thus, the very thing he supposedly works for is gradually destroyed because of his actions. And despite Walter’s carefully laid plans, in the end everything falls apart. His wife and son hate him, his brother-in-law gets killed because of him, and ultimately he dies. There is more than just a “crime doesn’t pay” moral to this story. Walt’s decline into a lifestyle of evil culminates in complete and utter ruin.

“Breaking Bad” is a sobering show and is difficult to watch at times. However, it is a good reminder of the extent of the brokenness and depravity of human nature and the terrible consequences of sin. These realities can be easy to forget or gloss over and this show does an exemplary job of acting as a reminder to its viewers. For further reading about the theological/philosophical messages of “Breaking Bad,” I would HIGHLY recommend this article. (Note: for those who will watch this show based on my recommendation, please be warned that there are a handful of inappropriate scenes throughout the series which you would be wise to avoid.)

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Especially if you’ve seen “Breaking Bad,” I’d love to here what you have to say about. Even if you haven’t, feel free to leave a comment or shoot me an email. Thanks for reading!

Love and Faithfulness

Love is a challenging word to define. It doesn’t help that in the English language we use the same word to describe marital relationships (i.e. “I love my husband/wife”) that we use to describe feeling towards food (i.e. “I love bacon”). That being said, if I had to pick out one definitive characteristic of real love that I think sets it apart from “false love” (if that is even a term), I would choose faithfulness.

My favorite poem of all time, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116, does an exemplary job of describing how love without faithfulness is not genuine.

“Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love ’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error, and upon me prov’d,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov’d.”

I really enjoy the powerful wording of this poem! Shakespeare argues that “Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds” (Lines 2-3). According to these lines, love does not change in the face of changing circumstances. Shakespeare calls love “an ever-fixed mark that looks on tempests and is never shaken, ” meaning that real love faces difficulties without wavering (Lines 5-6). Shakespeare notes that genuine love does not give way as time goes by when he writes “love’s not time’s fool,” and “love alters not with his brief hours and weeks but bears it out even to the edge of doom” (Lines 9, 11-12).

This poem provides comfort and encouragement for married couples who undoubtedly  face obstacles in their love for one another. Personally, this poem encourages me through its message that real love is marked by faithfulness. If I say that I love my wife, I show my love for her by remaining faithful to her.

On a different, but related note, if love is marked by faithfulness, then I can have confidence in God’s love because of his faithfulness. The Old Testament, among other things, tells the story of God remaining faithful to his people despite their failure to reciprocate. When I am tempted to doubt God’s love for me, I can find great comfort in the fact that God has a spotless track record of remaining faithful to his people and to his promises (Deuteronomy 7:9, 2 Thessalonians 3:3). I can trust that he loves me and will do what he says he will do because he has proven himself to be faithful.

I realize that there’s undoubtedly a lot more that can be said about this topic. This post has really just scratched the surface of a very weighty and interesting subject. If you have thoughts that expound upon what I said or disagree with what I said, I’d love to hear them. These were just some ideas that I’d been mulling over for a while and thought might be helpful to some.

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As stated above leave a comment or send me an email if you have a reaction to this post. Thanks for reading!