Tuesday, May 24, 2005

The Question

“To be on a quest is nothing more or less than to become an asker of questions.” ~ Sam Keen

One of my most venerated professors, someone I am very glad I knew, would say in every class that he taught: “When I teach, we are student and teacher. When you ask me a question, we both become philosophers.”

This idea of asking questions is not as simple as it may sound. As a teacher I have often found students who have been reluctant to ask a question. I suppose there are several possible reasons for their reluctance, but now isn’t the time to speculate on those. Perhaps I’ll do that at a later date.

Sam Keen, a man I wish I could meet, wrote in (I believe) Hymns to an Unknown God that questions are more important than answers. A well phrased question leads to another question and so forth. That is, perhaps, they way we truly get to the bottom of things, whether they be historical, political, or spiritual.

When I think of questions, I recognize that there is one question the always needs to be asked: cui bono?—“who benefits?” It is, to me, one of the most important questions on can ask and perhaps the most ethical of all. It is a question related to justice—God’s justice, not human justice. Bertrand Russell (1872 - 1970) once wrote: “In the part of this universe that we know there is great injustice, and often the good suffer, and often the wicked prosper, and one hardly knows which of those is the more annoying.” I believe that the problem of injustice is more than simply annoying, it is characteristic of evil. And where justice is concerned, determining who benefits from any act is paramount in discerning justice and injustice.

When I read or hear news, I habitually ask the question, “cui bono?” For example

If the House of Representatives votes to relax the Bush administrations restrictions on embryonic stem cell research, who benefits? If President Bush vetoes the House’s actions, who benefits?

If the Senate confirms President Bush's right-wing, religious fundamentalist judicial nominees, who benefits?

When 25 Georgetown University students declare that they would not eat until the university administration agreed to give its support staff a living wage, who benefits?

When cities close shelters for the homeless, who benefits?

When tax rates are reduced for corporations and increased for the middle classes, who benefits?

When U.S. theaters refuse to show films such as the British documentary, Injustice, who benefits?

Those are just a few of the questions that reading today’s news bring to my mind.


  1. One might also ask, Does anyone have to benefit, perhaps something happens to teach a lesson, learn a thing or it just happens and benefits or non-benefits are merely a side effect.

  2. Prill, the principle is that probable responsibility for an act or event always lies with someone having something to gain. I don't think it can be used to refer to an act of nature, but only to a human action.

    In ancient Rome, it was the primary question asked when investigating a crime. I suppose, if the TV detective shows have it right, it still is. They generally call it "motive."

    For example, as I read today's news I find that there is what is being called an epidemic in South Africa of women being murdered by their partners. A study reports: "A woman is killed by her intimate partner in South Africa every six hours. This is the highest rate (8.8 per 100,000 female population 14 years and older) that has ever been reported in research anywhere in the world."

    To get to the cause of these murders, I would first as the question "cui bono?" And I might be very surprised by the answer!

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