02/12/2013 04:42 pm ET Updated Apr 14, 2013

Drones vs. Assault Weapons... Relativism vs. Absolutism

As the absolute ban on assault rifles failed to pass Congress, ostensibly for a relatively better, broader set of rules and regulations, the press exposed the relatively vague guidelines for the murdering of potentially dangerous U.S. citizens by drone. No one seems to mention the absolute commandment: "Thou shalt not kill!" So politicians and the rest of us play with truth, between relativism, which came into religious vogue in the 60s with Tillich's Situation Ethics, and absolutism, better known as dogmatism, which sees all things in black and white, ignoring shades of gray or color.

Speaking of color, Lincoln, the movie, is full of such play. It is hard to know how absolutely true to history this snapshot is, but the script seems consciously relevant to current events with its continual push/pull between relative and absolute interpretations of Truth.

For example, before his decision to secretly delay the peace process to give more time for the 13th Amendment to pass and absolutely abolish slavery forever, in the movie Lincoln describes Euclids ancient theorem that claims that it is "self evident that if A=B and B=C, then A must =C." Without saying it out right, Lincoln is referring to Benjamin Franklin's brilliant addition to Jefferson's Constitution: "we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal" inferring to the young men dispatching the message that this is as absolutely exact as Euclid's theorem. On the other hand, the pole of relativism: in the great debate that ensues, the most dogmatic Republican abolitionist turns the tables on the dogmatic pro-slavery Democrats by saying that all humans are obviously not equal as evidenced by his opponent on the floor who is "no better than a reptile!" He clinches his argument for the abolition of slavery by concluding that "only before the law" should we be considered absolutely equal and deserving of equal rights... leaving it for future debate whether or not we are relatively unequal in our individual capacities and even in our requirements.

The impact of this kind of shifting from absolute to relative interpretations of truth can be measured in violent deaths. The eternal search for truth has been externalized into battles over truth for millennia. A chance for peace in our time, with or without drones hovering overhead or assault weapons parading around playgrounds, only can come when opponents agree to collaborate. Peace is an activity toward mutual understanding of various and unequal perspectives, no matter what the issue... to find common ground.

Unfortunately, the predominant and least profound approach to common ground is common interest. Negotiators know that resolution can often be easily reached by focusing on the things both parties want, despite their differences. This methodology works well in a "me-centric" world of watered down possibility, or worse, in a world that simply ignores some of the interested parties (like the poor, or let's say, mother earth).

Impact assessments need to consider the real common ground, which means all interested parties. As Susan Davis describes in her KINS methodology: "a good deal is a good deal when it is a good deal for everyone!" This is not so easy and relativism or plain ignorance can creep in and taint the outcome. A powerful example of misguided impact is described in a recent blogpost by Morgan Simon: An environmentally focused wind project in Mexico would have forced the indigenous tribe in that region off their land (sounds like oil in Ecuador?). Instead they stood strongly opposed and took on the project themselves, benefitting their community financially and the environment at the same time. In a perfect world the originators of the project would also get a "good deal" by providing the equipment and know how.

Oakland's recycling industry is another case in point, where workers are apparently badly paid, work in unsafe conditions and are intimidated against organizing their protests.

The businessmen of the confederacy depended on the slavery system, so for them the 13th Amendment did not appear to be a "good deal." Nor would a ban on assault weapons feel like a good deal for manufacturers or the NRA. The concept of drones may reduce the loss of lives on "our side" but as we have seen, technology tends to spread when it is for sale. Truman probably never imagined a world capable of blowing itself up with nuclear weapons when he ordered bombs to be dropped on Japan (supposedly saving American lives). It is haunting to imagine black specks that were once assumed to be songbirds hovering, now armed with deadly weaponry. We are forcing an early fall from innocence if we choose to have paranoid teachers with holsters on their hips.

The question that must be faced over and over again to stay in balance and avoid extremes is simply: what is important? Then measure that with the common good in mind, if measure you must.