Swearing Off Swearing

In a nation that cherishes choice, most of the time a decision between alternatives is made on a non-consequential basis.

It’s simply a matter of preference.

Should I choose one brand over another? One store over another? One size over another? It really doesn’t matter, so I go with an inclination or what’s become habit.

But there are times when I think I’m making a rational choice – a decision based on the merits: the quality of one product over another; the better service at one store over another; the savings achieved by one size over another.

That’s actually the case occasionally. I actually choose one thing over another on the merits of the product, the store, the size…whatever the choice involves.

A little self reflection, however, can evoke second thoughts about how rational I am in making choices.

How many of my choices are determined by factors I’m not aware of? – by marketing based on psychological research that reveals how consumers can be manipulated in their purchases, on how to appeal to baser instincts in decision-making, on how to draw on deep prejudices and sub-conscious motives in reaching a judgment.

There’s some comfort in realizing that such manipulation usually involves choices that aren’t all that important in the wider scheme of things.

But are those same manipulations operative on issues of consequence?

In that sphere of consequential choices, one can add how unexamined ideologies play a key role in making decisions.

This all came to mind with an announcement recently that the nation’s largest chain of drugstores, CVS/Caremark, had made a startling choice: that it would no longer sell cigarettes and other tobacco products in their stores.


“Put simply, the sale of tobacco products is inconsistent with our purpose,” answered Larry Merlo, the president and chief executive officer of the company. (Chicago Tribune, 2/8/14)

I tend to be suspicious (to say the least) of claims of moral rectitude by members of the corporate community, since most corporations operate on the foundation of an unquestioned ideology of profit making.

But here is a corporation that seems to be willing to forego in the range of $2 billion in sales so that it can concentrate on changing itself into becoming a health care provider.

Now I’m not so gullible as to think that the decision-makers at CVS/Caremark were being overcome with an alternate ideology of self-sacrifice. I’m quite sure they have a well-developed plan to become even more profitable in their converted state.

As the Wall Street Journal put it: “The move is a bold and expensive one for CVS, a unit of CVS/Caremark Corp. It reflects a major push by retail pharmacies away from simply dispensing drugs toward a more integrated role of providing basic health services to Americans – including millions of newly insured – amid an expected shortage of primary care doctors.” (WSJ, 2/6/14)

But even with that acknowledgement, it is enough for me to make a rational choice, and one that is in keeping with my civic values and Christian faith: from this point on I’m doing my drug store shopping exclusively at CVS.

And if this example from the corporate world were not enough, now comes the news from the political front that the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, John Boehner, actually set aside the so-called “Hastert Rule” (a principle supposedly instituted by former Speaker Dennis Hastert that no vote would be taken on a piece of legislation unless a majority of members of the majority party supported that bill).

That conversion by Speaker Boehner means that the United States will actually be able to pay the bills it has already incurred and not go into default – a perfectly reasonable decision but one that was in doubt based on past congressional actions.

Moreover, the bi-partisan vote was achieved without adding any conditions being extracted from those who recognized its importance for the national and world economies.

Speaker Boehner acted decisively and rationally in the interest of the nation and the world, rather than on narrow partisan grounds (the vote was 221-201, with 193 Democrats and 28 Republicans in favor, and 199 Republicans and 2 Democrats opposed).

Now if the Speaker could be as decisive and rational on other crucial pieces of legislation that he personally supports – e.g., immigration reform – we might see an increasing number of the voting public actually making rational choices at election time, rather than deferring to preference, or manipulation, or habit, or unquestioned ideologies.

In his Sermon on the Mount Jesus taught that we should swear off swearing – swearing in the name of anything earthly or divine – but simply let our choices be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No.” (Matthew 5: 37) No choices, that is, that have as their defense and veracity based on something other than what is true to one’s self and what one understands to be the common good.

Anything more, Jesus said, “comes from the evil one.”

That applies, I’m confident, especially on matters of consequence not just for ourselves but also for what is good for everyone.

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