Archive for category Ethics
In a famous feud, Voltaire and Rousseau argued about the nature of God. Both were Deists. Deists didn’t doubt that there was a God. Following Newton, a “world in motion” had to have a first mover. Moreover, how could such an intricate and elaborate universe have come into being without a creator? Beyond that, though Deists had different views.
Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) believed that God was a loving God, with nature being God’s true Bible, his message to humans. Rousseau was convinced that the worst mistake humanity ever made was to leave the state of nature and form communities, generating artificial “needs” and desires. He would no doubt be sickened by how humanity is now literally poisoning the planet and producing genetically altered plants and animals.
Voltaire (1694-1778), the pen name of François-Marie Arouet, did not share Rousseau’s optimistic view of God. On November 1, 1755 Lisbon Portugal had a massive earthquake. It was as strong as 9.0 on the Richter scale, destroyed 85% of Lisbon’s buildings and killed perhaps 50,000 of Lisbon’s 200,000 inhabitants. It inspired the philosopher Immanuel Kant to develop the concept of “the sublime.”
(At the same time the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria was in labor – on November 2, 1755 she would give birth to her daughter Marie Antoinette, who would later be married off to the future king of France).
Voltaire, who already was suffering from personal tragedies, visited Lisbon and was sickened by what he saw. Utter destruction, massive death, and survivors in misery. Horrific suffering thanks to nature. How could this be the handiwork of a loving God? Why would God allow such misery to occur?
Rousseau offered an answer. Nature is God’s message, and God is love. So the problem must be humans. God clearly doesn’t want us congregated into huge crowded cities. People living on the country side could avoid the massive suffering caused by the earth quake. It was a message: cities are unnatural, if humans create them and natural disaster hits, blame people, not God.
This infuriated Voltaire. He had seen the suffering with his eyes and could not believe that Rousseau was blaming innocent victims for their peril. But Voltaire was not sure how to respond. Could God really be a horrific brute that reigned terror on humanity? But if God was loving, how could he allow such suffering?
He pondered Gottfried Leibniz’s (1646-1716) explanation for the existence of evil, that of all the possible worlds that could exist, this one was the “best possible.” Yes, bad stuff happens, but you could not have humans with free will without the potential of negative consequences. Thinking of the scenes from Lisbon, Voltaire wondered, “is this is the best of all possible worlds?”
So Voltaire did what most writers do when stymied, he wrote. And wrote. The product of his work was a book called Candide, or Candide or the Optimist. It is long, humorous, fast paced and satirical. Candide is studying with Pangloss, a teacher who follows Leibniz and Rousseau in saying that all works out for the best. Within the book they even visit the scene of the Lisbon earthquake. Candide asks if he should save a man who is drowning and Pangloss replies that he need not bother – if God wants him saved, he’ll be saved. (Pangloss in Latin means literally “all word”).
By the end of the book Candide rejects Pangloss’s argument that all turns out as it necessarily must, for the best. Instead, Candide says, “we must cultivate our own garden.”
That still inspires artists and thinkers to this day – click below to watch a video of Rush’s song “The Garden,” which lyricist Neil Peart said was inspired by Candide:
To be sure, there’s considerable debate over what exactly Voltaire meant. I read it to suggest that while there may have been a creator, it’s not at all clear that the creator cares about or even pays attention to his work. Perhaps God is out creating other worlds. In any event, God doesn’t need our love, other humans need our love. Rather than worshiping God or looking to him for salvation or support, we should be help each other.
Voltaire’s pragmatic argument was the beginning of what is now called “secular humanism.” It is humanist because humans are the center – we are to help others, improve the world and use reason to take responsibility for the world we construct. It is not the best of all possible worlds, but a world in need of improvement. It is secular because God is irrelevant. Praising God does nothing to help feed the poor or take care of those in need. Better to put our energy towards making the world we find ourselves in a better place.
Voltaire marked a move towards truly putting reason first for creating ethics. We are to use reason to figure out how to make the world better, improving conditions for humans. Given conditions in France at the time, Voltaire could correctly blame the Church and its traditions for a good portion of human suffering going on in cities like Paris – suffering that would ultimately lead the people to revolt.
Yet perhaps there is a middle ground. This may not be the “best of all possible worlds,” but that doesn’t mean that reason alone provides meaning. Reason only leads one to work to better humanity when you take as a goal a humanist belief that the well being of humans is the ultimate value. Yet reason does not give us proof for that value; reason can be used by fascists, Nazis, racists, nationalists and communists to justify their ideology. Reason is a tool, not a means to discover principles and value. Indeed after the French revolution people who thought they shared common principles turned into bitter enemies and society broke down.
It does not have to be religious belief nor a traditional concept of God (though it can be). But the fact we are alive in a world with no clear purpose or reason — the fact there is something rather than nothing — strongly indicates that we are only glimpsing part of reality, and not the part that tells us the “answers.” Modern physics in fact says light is both a particle and a wave, and particles are actually just ripples in fields and not actually “stuff.”
Atheists often say that only things with measurable material consequences are relevant for understanding our world. Yet that materialist view ignores the fact that perhaps the parts of reality we don’t experience in material terms do come through in our emotions, intuition, and inner sense. For lack of a better word we call that “spiritual,” and it runs the gamut from magic new age crystals to Buddhist meditation and both traditional religious and non-traditional beliefs. Perhaps we can use a “God concept” to explain whatever power gives substance to the universe.
That still doesn’t settle Rousseau and Voltaire’s dispute. Rousseau believed that civilization muted our natural compassion. Voltaire believed that civilization could be guided to better the human experience. Perhaps both were right in their own way. We must cultivate our own garden, but to do so we need to look both to nature and that voice inside, a voice that may have its origin outside the material reality we can perceive. God? Spirit? Does it really matter?
The idea that a new year represents rebirth, renewal and change is on its face silly. Every day is a new day, the year is just a human construct, making days numbers and delineating them in an arbitrary fashion. The idea that this is a time for resolutions and transformation is irrational – it’s just a new day, like every day.
Yet perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss that ideal of a new beginning. Yes, every day is potentially a chance for rebirth and renewal, but usually we squander those opportunities, living hypnotized, following the same routines. Instead of asking what would make life truly joyful, we check off our “to do” lists and take care of the mundane tasks at hand.
And that’s OK – life is a series of moments and we need to shop, cook, clean, work, and take of things that just need to be done. Yet we can do those things thinking the mundane is life – that life is about making money, paying bills, achieving success and consuming products. Or we can work through the mundane with a higher ideal in mind – happiness, love of both nature and others, and a sense of magic. The world unfolds for us, we just have to trust it.
So my resolution for 2013 is simply to live awake.
To try every day to look out the window and see nature as magical and beautiful. Not to get used to it or take it for granted. To feel blessed to live in foothills of western Maine, a place of pure beauty. To be sure, the wide open plains of South Dakota, where I was last month visiting family, has its own magic and beauty as well. Wherever one is, one key to living awake is not to take nature for granted.
To be true to myself. We humans are our own worst enemies, we repress who we are, we say what we think others want to hear, we distrust our ability to simultaneously be true and be accepted. We conform. We decide that our dreams are silly or unobtainable. We settle for a life less than we could have.
It’s not that we humans are stupid. We settle because it’s comfortable. It’s easy to conform, to go with what others want, to push aside youthful ambitions and dreams of happiness. We replace those with stuff – or perhaps with societal approval of us as successful. Prestige replaces joy. To be normal is safe, to conform is to be comfortable.
And then we slowly stagnate.
Please read this “comic”. It is a powerful comparison of two good women who choose different paths. One was true to herself, one conformed. The price of conformity isn’t always so high – and there is nothing wrong with being like others if one is at the same time true to oneself.
But too often we drown our inner voice and make choices out of fear of not fitting in or somehow missing out. We fear lacking income, making others mad, or ending up alone. Fear can’t guide life, to be truly happy one must be true to oneself. We need to trust our conscience and inner voice, even when it goes against what most people seem to be thinking and doing. And that is my resolution for 2013. To live awake, to listen to the voice within, to live true to myself.
I’ve always had a very logical argument as to why I am not a vegetarian. Vegetables are living entities just like animals. They feel in different ways, experience the world in manners we cannot comprehend, but they are life forms just as we are. Since in the animal kingdom it is natural for creatures to eat both plants and animals, there can’t be anything inherently wrong with eating meat. A cat could never become a vegetarian and survive, for example. As long as we do not over-indulge, eating other living entities, plant or animal, is natural.
Lately, though, I am rethinking my argument. Not that I’m doubting the logic, but there is another factor to take into account: corporate farming. Consider: In the Laura Ingalls Wilder book Little House in the Big Woods, Pa butchers a pig that they have been raising for some time. Every part of the pig is used, Laura and Mary even use the pig bladder as a balloon. Plants are sown and reaped, tended to by the family. In one book a locust attack ruins the harvest, such were the risks of life on the frontier.
That seems a healthy relationship between humans and nature. You may eat the plants and animals you raise, but you raise them with care. Certainly you should not be cruel to them. The food tasted better too – most of us will never know just how good natural food tastes.
This year many things are changing in my life, I feel like I’m entering a year of personal transformation. One change is to stop closing my eyes to ramifications of how I eat. I plan to think about where the food comes from, buy local, and move away from fast foods and the chemical laden processed foods that are so easy and convenient.
I was thinking about this as I walked through my local grocery store, seeing the packages of meat and vegetables, processed and ready for sale. Everything designed to entice you to buy; packages with idyllic farm scenes or products labeled “organic.” The bananas had a sticker that said “no cholesterol.” I’m glad they told me! It’s all marketing.
Then I look at the shoppers, behaving much like I have always behaved. Looking at different foods, picking them up, dropping in them in the cart. The intercom switched to the song “King of Pain” by the Police. I forced an ironic smile.
When I teach about the rise of fascism in Germany I try to explain it in a way that most people in the class end up admitting that if they lived in Germany in 1936 they’d probably have supported the Nazi government. The reason you can get something like fascism is that the culture accepts as natural and mundane that which should be condemned. It’s normal to eat genetically modified food. It’s normal to eat animals who have lived in ghastly conditions, genetically manipulated to increase profits. Assembly line cars, assembly line chickens. The fact they are alive is irrelevant, profit comes first.
How cruel are we to the plant kingdom when we manipulate every crop, altering the very nature of the environment. Farming itself is a violent act, taking the free form of nature and forcing an order to it in order to feed ourselves. But that’s the same kind of violence that a lion undertakes when he cuts down and devours a zebra. It’s part of who we are, it’s what we need to survive. We have brains that make it natural for us to move beyond hunting and gathering.
I can’t help but think that in a generation or two people will look back and see us as barbaric and ignorant. They’ll look at how factory farms treat animals, the way big corporations play with plant genetics and our penchant to not give a damn about nature if we can make money by manipulating it. They’ll wonder how we could have been so brutal.
But to us it’s normal. We don’t think about it. We’re good consumers, programmed to spend and to believe that Monsanto’s main goal is to end world hunger and that the chickens who will make up our McNuggets are happily scampering around the coop as a loving farm girl throws them seeds.
So I’m going to shift towards farmers markets, local food, and try to stop my long running contribution to the cruelty being undertaken against plant and animal. There are many family farms struggling to get by, working hard and treating their animals right. I want to give them my business, as much as possible.
Ultimately, that cruelty is really directed at ourselves because everything is connected.
Such is our culture – close our eyes, mock those who think differently and see the world as full of objects to use for our own self-interest, no matter how much damage it does to the planet – to the humans, the animals, the plants, the atmosphere, the land and sea. But I believe we are connected. Every bit of cold cruelty that we engage in or enable comes back to bite. And every bit of love we share or show returns in time to empower.
UPDATE: The comment from La Kaiser below suggests that my post may read as too broad. There are a lot of family farms here — the Daku dairy farm just up the road, Sandy River Farms that have their own store, and Marble Family farm, to name a few. These are the good guys! People struggling to produce quality food. I’m concerned about the mega-corporations that look only at the bottom line and are removed from the process. I hope that the practices shown in those images are more rare than common, but I fear that as the mega-corporations grow, it’ll be all about money.
Today is Easter, a day Christians celebrate due to their belief that a Jewish spiritual teacher named Jesus was actually the son of God, was crucified and rose from the dead, thereby granting Christians a promise of eternal life.
While I am not a Christian (I do not subscribe to any organized religion, though I try to show all of them respect), the emphasis Christians put on forgiveness is very powerful. If people could learn to actively forgive the world would be a much better place. If you want happiness in life a good first step is to embrace the principle of forgiveness.
Forgiveness comes on many levels. The first is to forgive others for causing us harm. That’s the kind of forgiveness most of us think of first. Some people have trouble with that. When they’ve been wronged they hold resentments, or believe that the other person has to make some gesture of attrition or regret before they can forgive. Moreover, in most disputes both sides interpret themselves to have been wronged more than the other, so with each waiting for the other to show regret and remorse, nobody gets forgiven.
The secret is to let go and forgive anyway. If one takes the first step and reaches out the other person is more likely to respond and return the gesture. In some cases the other person can’t let go of resentment. There forgiveness is powerful in that it frees one from the emotions of the conflict. If the other person wants to wallow in anger and resentment, that’s his or her problem. That’s the power of forgiveness. Once you forgive you cease to allow others to have power over your emotional state.
How often do we spend time frustrated, angry and upset about things others have done? People can give up hours of time each day to feelings of anger and resentment. Yet what is gained? That simply gives others power over our state of mind and turns what could have been a productive and contented day into one of frustration and irritation. Forgiveness allows us to deny others that power. We can let go of anger and resentment and engage in positive pursuits. Simply, forgiving others, even those who don’t deserve forgiveness, is in our own self-interest.
The second type of forgiveness is to forgive mistakes. When someone unintentionally does something wrong or does harm the natural inclination is to be upset. “He should have known better,” or “if she’s holding a cup of hot coffee she should make sure it doesn’t spill.” Yet if it’s a mistake, even a stupid one that should have been avoided, there is absolutely no reason to be angry. If something is unintentional, then anger is misplaced. Forgive mistakes.
To be sure, if you’re a boss you may have to fire or discipline an employee who makes too many mistakes. Forgiveness is a personal act, it doesn’t mean erasing proper consequences for mistakes. I can forgive a student for not studying before an exam and not think less of the student as a person, but the student still gets the grade he or she earns.
Most importantly, one has to forgive oneself for mistakes, misjudgments, and misdeeds. This is the perhaps the hardest form of forgiveness for people to learn. People beat themselves up over things that they did or did not do, and cannot let go and focus on the future.
Mistakes, though, are the way people learn. Embrace mistakes as learning opportunities, and see repeated mistakes as a sign of what to focus on improving. One also has to forgive oneself for engaging in malicious misdeeds done out of anger and spite. I believe it’s only possible to accept the forgiveness of others if one has forgiven oneself. That is the first step. Moreover, most people rationalize misdeeds if they cannot forgive themselves for them. The inability to forgive oneself leads to people feeling victimized and justified in doing whatever they do. They don’t see that they are drawing such “persecution” onto themselves by their own unresolved inner conflicts. Self-forgiveness is essential for happiness.
Some people treat forgiveness as some kind of difficult and hard to achieve ideal. How often have you heard people say they want to forgive but can’t let go of a resentment or of anger? How many people refuse to forgive until the other person makes amends? How any people engage in self-loathing rather than self-forgiveness?
Yet it is easy. To forgive one simply has to let go of the past, recognizing that since the past cannot be changed, dwelling on it serves no useful purpose. Learn from it, but don’t let it add emotional weight to your life burden. Forgiveness is an embrace of the present and acceptance of the past. The past cannot be changed, the present is our point of power to make change. We tie ourselves down and waste energy if our emotions are fixated on the past — we become unable to use our present power to improve ourselves and the world.
Forgiveness is one of the most powerful acts a person can engage in. So while I don’t believe the theology and story line of the Christian faith, I celebrate their emphasis on forgiveness as the core of Jesus’ teachings. To me Easter is a reminder of the power and good that forgiveness brings.
Don Henley’s Heart of the Matter has always been one of my favorites. I especially like the lines
“These times are so uncertain, there’s a yearning undefined, and people filled with rage.
We all need a little tenderness, how can love survive in such a graceless age
Ah, trust and self-assurance that lead to happiness
They’re the very things we kill I guess
There are people in your life who’ve come and gone, they’ve let you done, you know they’ve hurt your pride
You gotta put it all behind you because life goes on, you keep carrying that anger it will eat you up inside
Been trying to get down to the heart of the matter, but my will gets week and my thoughts seem to scatter
But I think it’s about forgiveness…”
William James gave shape to a philosophy that would be known as pragmatism, a kind of “grown up” version of Nietzsche’s perspectivism. At base pragmatism recognizes that truth claims are human constructs, tools that we use to manipulate and navigate our world.
This rejects the idea that truth is somehow a copy of reality — that we can have a proposition or claim that mirrors the way the world is. The world is not language. Language is a human construct designed to allow us to interpret sensation and experience. We communicate our experience through language, meaning that linguistic claims reflect the brain’s effort to impose order and understanding on the world we experience.
Linguistic claims therefore cannot be said to able to convey any kind of absolute truth. Some contain definitional truths — 5 is defined as a numeric quantity that comes from adding, say 4 plus 1. We have constructed a useful truth claim that works. The weirdness of quantum mechanics is often denied by those who do not want the kind of bizarre paradoxical reality that the theory implies – some want to believe in a clear mechanical like order. But it works — and so it is accepted as truth.
When one moves away from linguistic definitional constructs to efforts to understand whether humans have free will, is there a God, is a materialist or spiritual understanding of reality correct, or what principles should guide us, we lack the linguistic clarity of mathematical definitions. Instead multiple competing discursive interpretations of reality can be constructed, many internally consistent and able to explain reality, but in contradiction with one another.
For James this was not a weakness of philosophy any more than the protestant reformation was a weakness of religion. Rather it was a humanistic liberation from philosophical absolutism. Just as the Roman Catholic church once claimed that religion could only be received through the Church, traditional philosophy looked to find one absolute truth that all should follow. Just as the reformation created the idea that the individual could have his or her own interpretation of scripture and relationship with God, pragmatism liberates individuals to determine their own approach to philosophy and truth.
For James this was good because he believed that your philosophical predilection was based less on how you rationally analyzed arguments and came to conclusions and more on temperament. “Tender minded” types tended to idealism and rationalism, trying to find principles that yield the one true philosophical system. Moralistic, idealistic and often unyielding, this often created an opening for spiritual and optimistic views on life and nature. Their views might not correspond to reality as they experience it now, but these people believe there is a deeper truth. Tender minded folk can take solace in that, and the fact they do understand truth, even if the world does not.
Tough minded people, on the other hand, tended towards realism, cynicism, skepticism and materialism. This yields a secular, empiricist world view, but one often cold, devoid of hope and pessimistic about the human condition. Both world views can be held, and each can interpret reality consistently and logically – yet each yields a very different view on life. Tender minded types build systems which seem to operate on logical core principles, tough minded folk are positivists and pluralists who question the very existence of core principles or the applicability of theoretical systems.
Pragmatism in that sense tells people that rather than try to figure out what is right (since that answer will come more from your personality than anything about reality), understand what truth claims mean for you and then choose those which work best for you and your experience in the world. This does not mean “work best” in terms of getting what’s best for ones’ self at the expense of others. This means what “works best” in terms of value fulfillment — what kind of beliefs will yield a life that is more full and meaningful for each individual? Pragmatism is not simply an amoral approach to achieving ones’ desires.
James also focused on the mass public rather than specialized circles of philosophers. Specialized philosophers are just people who are very good at developing linguistic defenses of their particular take on reality, debating with others about which take is “right.” Not much is gained by the linguistic sophistication and logical complexity, except that the experts can feel superior with their own specialized jargon. That’s not useful philosophy, that’s just playing intellectual games. Useful philosophy must be accessible to any educated person, meaning James’ books and lectures were far more interesting and popular than those of the “professional” philosophers.
For James different beliefs mean different things. If you believe in a spiritual approach to reality there is hope — there is meaning beyond the material. For a materialist there is hopelessness — no matter what one achieves all will be demolished someday, the sun will explode all we know will be forgotten. There is at base an essential meaninglessness to existence. If you believe in free will there is a chance to improve the world; if you are a determinist all is as it must be, also a kind of hopelessness.
All these beliefs are possible — you can interpret reality to fit any of them. Which you choose leads to certain conclusions. Choose that which fits your temperament and intuition. Go with it. But don’t expect others to share the same view.
The pragmatist at base is about liberty — we are all free to choose how to look at reality and how to understand it. There is no “right” answer that we should have. That would be a kind of totalitarianism. Those who think they have the “true” ideology will usually think that all should act in accord to what they see as the “truth.” These are the equivalent of intellectual despots. They think they have the right answer and condemn those who don’t think properly. Since humans are fallible and the idea that one fallible human has somehow come up with the absolute truth is the height of arrogance and irrationality; a philosophical absolutist is a kind of intellectual Stalinist. You can have your truth, but don’t pretend that it should be my truth.
Which means that the fundamental principles behind pragmatism are liberty and tolerance. If there is no absolute truth — if truth is just a human constructed tool to use in the world — then dogmatism and intolerance are wrong. They are wrong because they don’t work, they impede value fulfillment and the ability of people to make free choices about what to believe and how to act in the world. Truth claims are all simply interpretations of reality, human linguistic constructs that can’t be measured against the world to see if they are ‘accurate.’ The world is not a linguistic construct. Constructs are things we create, and are necessarily subjective and interpretivistic. They are tools which can be judged only by how they work for each individual, how they allow value fulfillment and the ability to make sense of the world.
The claim that this necessitates tolerance and liberty is therefore not a claim of absolute truth, but a proposition based on the belief that dogmatism and absolutism are not only indefensible (no philosophy can prove itself true, since its truth is based on contingent definitions and assumptions), but yield a result that doesn’t work – it prevents value fulfillment and individual liberty. The truth of this claim is not one that is asserted as a logical and necessarily truth, but has to be championed as a political and chosen truth: seeing the world this way is preferable to people than looking for some sort of “answer key.” It is a normative belief that liberty trumps dogmatism and orthodoxy.
So pragmatism is, at base, the actualization of the principles of liberty and tolerance. It is the quintessential American philosophy, justifying our belief in democracy and pluralism, similar to Nietzsche’s perspectivism, but more optimistic and positive. It appears relativistic, but rests on a key insight: embracing subjectivity is to embrace freedom, to strive for objective truth is to risk tyranny.
Rawstory reports on how one State Senator put in an “every sperm is sacred” amendment proposal to a controversial “personhood” bill in Oklahoma that would make all forms of abortion and some forms of birth control illegal.
The above Monty Python classic song, from the film The Meaning of Life exemplifies why I find arguments opposing contraception and abortion to be so weak.
If one really believed that all human life, even very early stages, was sacred and not to be interfered with, then one would have to question any sort of non-pregnancy related use of male ejaculation. Masturbation, anal sex, and even sex when a woman is not likely ovulating is questionable. One could also argue that women are obligated to have sex when they are ovulating because not to do so does not give the egg a chance to grow. Indeed, birth control during ovulation would be a clear denial of the chance of life.
The idea that abortion or contraception interferes with God’s will is utterly absurd. Humans do all sorts of things ranging from mass murders, wars and genocides to bad diets and dangerous sports. If those things don’t hamper God, not having a baby isn’t going to be some kind of disaster.
The claim that human life is inherently valuable is also a canard. Consider: why do we choose to consider human life valuable? It can’t be valuable just because cells with human DNA are reproducing and creating the building blocks for a later human birth. There is nothing inherently different about those cells than any reproducing cells of any creature, except that given time they will become something else. Moreover, in terms of feeling, intelligence, and capacity to endure pain, the born creatures we slaughter and devour are more like us than early stage human fetuses.
So when someone gets indignant about how abortion is murder, I simply shake my head and think “their imagination is running wild.” The cells that get aborted are no more human or inherently valuable than any creatures early cells. One can imagine a child, a baby, and think about what it could achieve and say that this is being ruthlessly stifled. The same when an ovulating female gives her partner a condom to wear before sex. Or when that same woman chooses not to have sex.
Life is valuable because we choose to value it. Humans have value because they have emotions and thoughts, we can empathize and imagine what it would be like if it was ourselves being killed and not another. Humans ban murder because they want to live in peace, and murder creates threats to our existence. We choose to have a world with stable social systems, customs, traditions and laws.
Abortion and contraception do not kill or harm anything that is truly human, at least in the sense of what it is about being human that causes us to consider human life valuable. The fact that cells can become humans does not alter that fact.
Forcing women to keep a pregnancy to full term or not to use birth control is a violent and repressive form of control, one that does real harm to human dignity and value. Real existing humans are repressed in such cases, and often psychologically abused in order to be made to feel guilty about their choice.
I realize that religious and philosophical reasons many people disagree strongly with what I wrote. I can accept that and respect the difference of opinion. I also find the arguments against abortion when the child is viable outside the womb to be persuasive for a variety of reasons. But the radical anti-abortion argument just seems inherently weak.
Today there is snow on the ground. Normally that would be a matter of course statement in the foothills of western Maine this late in December. The local ski slope would be gearing up for winter break skiers and we’d pity all those in the south who don’t enjoy a white Christmas. Alas, yesterday the ground was still dry, a small dash of snow over Thanksgiving weekend long forgotten. But now it is looking like Christmas! It won’t be enough for skiing, but it’s a start.
I want to wish everyone who stops by this site a wonderful Christmas. Yet as we settle in to celebrate, there is a nagging question of what Christmas is really about. The easy answer is that it is a Christian holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. That’s partially true. Early Christians choose this as their holiday in order to coopt the traditional Winter Solstice holidays everyone else was celebrating. Even traditions ranging from Christmas trees to mistletoe pre-existed the holiday’s Christian identity.
Therefore, while Christians are on solid ground proclaiming Jesus is the “reason for the season” in their eyes, non-Christians don’t have to wash their hands of the holiday, or even phrases like “Merry Christmas.” This time of the year remains a kind of universal holiday, celebrating as days start to grow longer and humans find joy in the depths of winter.
Moreover, the Christian/Christmas values of love, peace, joy, forgiveness are universal. The magic of the season transcends theological dogma and even whether or not one believes in Jesus, Muhammad, Hussein, Buddha, the Brahman of Hinduism, or a personal sense of spirituality that defies organized belief.
I put myself in that last category. I’ve long believed that human religions tell more about the cultural state of a society than about God and the meaning of life. Individual beliefs about God usually reflect that person’s temperment. Humans create God in their own image, a strict stern man sees a judgmental, harsh God. A loving caring man sees God as being primarily about forgiveness and inclusivity. A woman focused on the material world sees God helping those who help themselves. A woman immersed in charity work sees God as wanting us to care for the least in disregard of material success.
That doesn’t mean religion is meaningless. There are reasons why books like the Koran, the Bible, the sayings of Buddha, and the Upanishads are compelling across time. The same is true for philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, or great poets such as Petrarch and Dante. In various ways ideas that cut to the core of who and what we are as humans have staying power. They touch something inside our souls and remind us that we are part of a world far more mysterious and meaningful than our senses and minds can comprehend.
As we trudge through our daily routine who cannot help but be inspired by the parables of Jesus Christ, the wisdom of the Buddha, and the power of ideas of love, faith and joy? Anyone who has chosen to forgive rather than hold a grudge, or show friendship rather than disdain to an adversary, cannot help but attest to the power of forgiveness. One even pities a person locked in negative, mean spirited behavior. The co-worker that stabbed you in the back becomes less someone whose actions arouse anger and drive you to revenge than a poor pathetic fool sacrificing principle for short term temporary gain.
Moreover, the longer I live the more I believe in some form of karma. What comes around seems to go around, though in ways that aren’t materially obvious. Someone who steals $100 may not lose $100 later, but at some level the spiritual cost of the act is extracted. I also am a firm believer in the power and ubiquity of coincidence. Often small, sometimes dramatic, I do not believe they are random. There is a greater force at work in our lives than material cause and effect or quantum probability.
And this brings me back to Christmas. If “Christian” was something one could be by believing the basic principles of ethical behavior, I could be called one. If it means someone who believes that Jesus was the son of God who died for my sins and by believing in him I’d be saved, I’m not one. But I still claim the right to regard Christmas as my holiday too, including religious carols, long standing traditions, and the core values of peace, joy, love, tranquility, forgiveness, and a sense of awe at the majesty of a world whose true depth and meaning I cannot more than slightly glimpse.
In so doing I respect Christians, Jews, Muslims and others who celebrate their holidays with religious reverence. I say “Merry Christmas” to a Christian with knowledge of what it means to them, just as saying “Happy Hanukkah” has particular meaning to a Jew. But I also recognize that Christmas has become more than just a religious holiday, but a part of our culture, with values that transcend religion.
To the business woman it may be a secular holiday where as much as 90% of a year’s profits are earned in some businesses. To the atheist it might be a time to fight organized religion, battling nativity scenes on public property and religious songs in schools. I disagree with each; this isn’t a time to either fight against or be threatened by religion. One can acknowledge the role of Christianity in our history and culture even if one doesn’t believe. The nativity scene is still beautiful and powerful.
And yes, this is an important season for the economy and for material prosperity. But to the extent that drowns out the values being celebrated, as shoppers fight each other for the last of an item or keep lists of who and what they received in order to reward the generous and punish the stingy, it cheapens the holiday. People getting up in arms over the innocuous greeting of “happy holidays” should focus on how materialism undercuts the spirit of the season.
So Merry Christmas! I wish everyone love, peace, joy, and happiness this week and beyond!
Listening to Alan Parsons Project during my morning workout, I contemplated the song “Oh Life (There Must be More),” about a woman who has lost hope, whose life is empty and meaningless. I tell students that we live in a psychologically difficult era in history. In the past people didn’t doubt the meaning of life or feel the need to prove their self worth. These things were defined communally and peoples’ identities, values and sense of purpose were part of something greater than themselves.
I wouldn’t want to go back to that more “natural” state — I’m too much a product of the modern world, prizing my individuality and freedom, concepts that emerged as dominant during the enlightenment. Having tasted that fruit, I can’t go back to paradise. The knowledge of the possibilities freedom entails makes it impossible to return to life tied to tradition, custom and community. Pandora’s box has been opened.
Yet this new freedom also creates a sense of despair and uncertainty. What is the meaning of life? Is there a meaning? How do I fit in? Am I lost in the middle of a hopeless world (another APP lyric)? Look at the stress, anxiety and depression rampant in a society with material prosperity beyond what anyone could have imagined just a few generations ago. With no clear answers and with the responsibility to define ones’ own life, people lack the bonds and traditions that gave life clear purpose and meaning. Lacking the deep community and extended family bonds that were a psychological and social support system, it’s easy for people to feel untethered, adrift and without purpose. How do people handle this?
Ideology. One solution is to throw oneself into an ideology, to find a belief about how the world should be and dedicate oneself to living that life and promoting their cause. It could be socialism, anarcho-capitalism, or religious extremism (though religion itself is a separate category). This is an especially appealing solution for those who hate uncertainty and want a clear answer to a question of what life is all about. It gives one a sense of self-esteem (“I have figured out the right way, yet I am surrounded by people either too ignorant or unprincipled to understand or accept the truth) and purpose.
Ideology as a purpose tends to appeal to intelligent folk; they are the true believers. Those who follow along often don’t care so much about the ideology, they’re attracted to the sense of belonging with like minded folk. Ideology creates false certainty, a false sense of superiority, a belief one is more moral and principled than others, and allows one to push uncomfortable questions and dilemmas under the carpet. It’s an illusion (or delusion), but it can be effective.
Religion. Religious extremists tend to be ideological, but most religious folk are not. Rather, they look to their faith for the answer of what life means and how they should live. Yes, they understand that the enlightenment and modern science casts doubt on their beliefs, but they’ve chosen faith. It seems right to them in their heart, it is reinforced by community (people in their church, other believers) and they are able to shut off that part of their brain that might doubt and question their beliefs. This harkens back to pre-enlightenment thought and can give people a profound sense of purpose and meaning. Some who have had a crisis and then “convert” to a religion are so relieved by its capacity to banish doubt about self-worth and personal crises that they are convinced they have found truth.
Throw Oneself Into the World. Some people respond to uncertainty by dashing headlong into life, throwing themselves into the world to experience all they can. Their response to doubts about meaning or self worth is to enhance experience. It might be adventures, traveling, competition in ones’ career, or hedonism. This category includes such diverse folk as those in the business world who compete on Wall Street to try to earn as much money as they can and those social activists to do all they can to help the disadvantaged and alleviate suffering. Whether it’s competition for status or constant efforts to help others, experience in the world defines life for these folk. It can be successful, but also can lead to a kind of hyperactivity syndrome if more experience is constantly needed to quell uncertainty and doubt.
This solution also creates the possibility of crisis. If one defines life by career competition then a career setback or disaster can create personal crisis. Attractive people might define their self-worth by beauty and how others treat them, meaning that as they age they might find themselves unprepared to deal with lifes’ dilemmas. Social activists might end up overwhelmed by the slow pace at which the world changes. People in this category are the movers and shakers, those who change the world. They are not always the most satisfied and content, however.
Friends and family (Community). Other people focus on the more immediate world around them, their circle of friends and family. This is not a mutually exclusive set of “strategies” to deal with modern life. A religious person who also has strong connections with their community can be very resilient against modern psychological ills. Someone who throws himself into the world will be less prone to crisis if that is complemented by a strong sense of community. Like religion this harkens back to the pre-modern support systems that people naturally had; to the extent one can identify with a group greater than oneself, one avoids loneliness and has reassurance of ones’ self-worth and meaning.
Cynical Self-reliance. Many people recognize the inability of the world to provide meaning, reject religion as mythology, and face reality with a kind of cynical “this world sucks, but it’s the only one I have” approach. Such people are honest and critical thinking, meaning they can’t shut down the questioning part of the brain that religious folk silence, aren’t susceptible to ideological dogma, have been disappointed by the world and are too individualistic to lose themselves in community or family/friends. The world has suffering, pain, and despair, yet with a wry sense of humor and resignation to reality — the world won’t change any time soon — they make it through life with their self honesty protecting them from psychological despair.
Uncertain Spirituality. Others believe that there is “something more” to life, and put their faith in a vague undefined spirituality. They are too critical to accept religious dogma or ideology, have decided that the world is transient and offers no deep sense of meaning, tend not to be as connected with community, and yet see the world as beautiful and meaningful. Such people accept uncertainty easily; they may seek an ‘answer key,’ but recognize that it’s OK if they never find it. They are individually resilient, relying on their spiritual faith for their sense of purpose and meaning. Unlike religious folk they don’t claim to have the right belief — if it works for them, that’s all that matters. This includes a lot of so called “new age” thinking. These people tend to be introspective and see life as a way to work on their own emotional (or spiritual) development more than fixing problems in the world.
So my question to my readers: Does this list make sense? Do you fit into any of these categories? What other categories might be added to the list? (I can think of a few, but when a post hits 1200 I try to wrap it up).
“Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
– Yoda, Jedi Knight
Being asked to participate in a panel discussion about 9-11 Monday has caused me to reflect on what that event means ten years on. There are many directions I could take in analyzing the impact of 9-11. What does security mean in an age where technology allows a small group armed with only box cutters to alter the course of the world’s greatest power? Did Bin Laden succeed in causing us to react in ways that harmed our country and the world economy? Is there such a thing as a ‘war on terror,’ and if so, is anyone winning?
But as I reflect, it strikes me that the real lesson is more basic, it’s in the emotions that the events of 9-11 evoked in the public. The strongest were love and fear. I have a theory that most people’s personalities can be explained by the way they handle love and fear. Those with the most fear are distrustful of others, angry at life, and often feel that they are victims of some kind of conspiracy. Those with the most love are helpful, giving and open. Too much love without fear opens one up to being abused and taken advantage of; too much fear and one lives a life of depression and bitterness.
By love I don’t mean romantic love, or even the love one has for family and friends. Love at its purest is the sense that links us as humans. It is what caused New Yorkers to help each other out and comfort each other on that horrific day. It is the connection two people felt on that day when their eyes met and they realized they were sharing the same shock and grief. It is what brought the country together to celebrate American values, it is what caused us to cry at the stories of tragedy and heroism, and feel for those who lost loved ones. That sense of love also created a hole in our hearts as we looked at Manhattan burning. Even if we had never been there, we connected. Similar emotions were felt around the globe as they always are in times of tragedy — love is the core instinct that brings us to want to help and identify with others in times of trouble. It is real and the most pure of human emotions. It cuts through the fog of diverse perspectives, ideologies, politics and religion — it is the recognition that as humans we are linked.
Fear emerges when one believes that the very things that bring stability and order to life are under threat. Fear is important to survival. Our cat has a fear of brooms. Get a broom out and he goes into hiding. No matter what treats are offered or if the broom gets put away, that fear lingers for awhile, until he’s convinced things are safe. For humans fear is similar but due to our complex societies the base reaction to a sense of danger (such as an attack by a sabre tooth tiger) gets applied to social conditions that are more abstract and symbolic.
Shortly after the attacks I heard of how Arabs, Sri Lankans, and people from India were being beat up or intimidated by Americans who thought them a threat. At that point I realized that fear was unleashing the worst of what we are capable of doing. When President Bush called Islam a “religion of peace,” I was shocked to hear countless pundits attack the President and defame a great world religion, trying to associate its one billion adherents to that small pocket of radical extremists represented by Bin Laden. Fear causes one to imagine dangers far greater than they are, and abstract them to whole groups of people, nations, ideologies or religions. Fear allows bizarre rationalizations of what otherwise would be unthinkable. Genocide, war crimes and cruelty are driven by fear.
9-11-01 brought out fear as well as love. Suddenly people felt vulnerable, the images were intense, the perpetrators both strange and yet inconspicuous. Would they strike again? Where and how? We didn’t know. Anthrax, small pox, poisoning of water supplies and chemical warfare dominated discussion. Fear reigns in conditions of uncertainty and ignorance.
Shortly after 9-11 students contacted me saying that they were impressing family and friends with their knowledge of Bin Laden, chemical and biological weapons and Islamic extremism — all from my World Politics class, where these themes were touched on years before 9-11-01. The fact I’d been worried about these issues, and on visiting cities like New York and Washington always thought about the possibility of terrorism just as one thinks of earth quakes in California, made 9-11 less of a shock. For people who thought all was secure and safe, the shock evoked a stronger sense of danger. What other unexpected threats are out there?
After 9-11-01 I started studying Islamic religion and history, since it was clear that many were defining the attack as the opening act of a war between Islam and the West. The more I learned about Islam, the clearer it became that like almost all religions it was focused on good, but had portions that could be used to arose anger and violence. It is no more inherently violent than Christianity or Judaism, and certainly Islamic culture can’t be seen as more violent than that of the West — a culture that has given us colonialism, nuclear weapons and world wars. Over time as a society we went from knee jerk fear to perspectives tempered with more knowledge and understanding.
Consider: Since 3000 people were killed on 9-11, only 33 people have been killed in the US by Islamic extremists. During that same time there were 150,000 murders and 350,000 traffic fatalities. By any rational measure one should fear their car more than Islam! But uncertainty still intervenes — there are Islamic extremists out there, and they can strike again.
So ten years after I’d say that the biggest lesson from that horrific attack is the power of love to unify us, and the danger of fear to get us to act against our values. We showed both. In the time just after the attack I think at times fear trumped love — the treatment of the Dixie Chicks, the journalist Chris Hedges being booed off the stage when he gave a commencement address critical of US policy in Iraq, and admonishings to “watch what you say.” That’s declined as we’ve learned more and worked through the wars and controversies of the last ten years.
But the love that brought us together has also declined. The politics have become more petty and personal, with emotion and demonization replacing a sense of trying to come together to solve problems.
Societies may be like individuals. Too much fear and they become aggressive, afraid of self-criticism, arrogant and unable to cooperate with others. Learning from the strengths and weaknesses learned from 9-11 and its aftermath will help us keep a proper balance as we face future crises and threats. The best way to limit fear to its rational and protective functions is to avoid ignorance and try to limit uncertainty. Fearmongers probably driven by their internal demons, feed on ignorance, emotion and uncertainty to try to push people to embrace hatred and violence.
Clearly there are threats. There are evil doers like Bin Laden, so blinded by fear and hate that they can rationalize mass destruction. The power of love — us recognizing our common humanity and coming together to be more than what we could be separately is the best protection against folk like that. Fear tempered by knowledge and understanding will help us measure how to respond to threats.
For the first time in my life I am teaching a course about the intellectual history of western thought. It is HON 101, the introductory Honors seminar, originally designed by a now departed philosophy professor. The way it was taught at the start was to focus primarily on Plato and the Greeks, as philosophers generally consider that to be core knowledge that all educated individuals should have.
However, that person is gone, and there are no full time Philosophy professors able to teach the course. Moreover, there is no reason why that should be the introduction to the honors program. I offered to teach it in a different way, as a course in intellectual history. In it we’ll read bits from Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, Aquinas, Copernicus, Bacon, Descartes, Locke, Spinoza, Newton, Galileo, Pascal, Grotius, Hobbes, Bayle, Hume, Voltaire, Diderot, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Adam Smith, Vico, Burke, Bentham, Mill, Mazzini, Wallace, Huxley, Chamberlain, Nietzsche, Freud, Heisenberg and Fromm (we’ll actually read a whole book from Fromm — Escape from Freedom).
This may seem a stretch for a professor of Political Science, but for the last 15 years I’ve had a side interest in understanding the development of western thought, realizing that it is impossible to truly understand who we are as a culture without learning about the ‘great conversation’ that has been going on for over 2000 years. I’ve got a good group of students and the course is off to a great start.
To start the course we look at the foundations of western thought: Plato, Aristotle and Jesus (or Hebrew thought brought into the Roman Empire via Christianity). Plato’s idealism (or better, Platonic realism) and Aristotle’s more wordly realism not only set up the core of future philosophical debates but will reflect fundamental directions in western thought via their influence on the Roman Catholic church. Augustine’s neo-platonism will define early Church teachings, while Aquinas will bring in Aristotle.
After that look at the ancient foundations we begin with a film — The Final Days of Sophie Scholl, which I wrote about as “moral courage.” I ask students to watch the film and try to identify philosophical and moral dilemmas and how people on each side look at the issue. I want them to try to understand the Nazi perspective too — it’s easy to just dismiss what we know to be wrong and even evil; trying to understand why people thought that way is important. They are also to think about what freedom meant. The West has created great good with democracy and individual rights; in fact the notion of “individualism’ is a western construct. But it has also been shown to be capable of great evil. The holocaust,communism, and colonialism has all come from the West.
Obviously, a one semester course cannot do justice to the nuances of western thought. But it can give students a kind of scaffolding upon which to plug in their future education. It’s not just learning facts and ideas, but seeing how they fit in the framework of the cultural conversation that’s defined who we are. They’ll learn to understand different perspectives and thus become immune to ideological rigidity. There are a lot of people who waste their lives and minds believing in a “cause” or an “ism,” not realizing they’ve become trapped in a pseudo-religion like Marxism or “Objectivism.”
A lot of people want to find or at least think they have the “right” answer. Psychologically that can be very important for some people, uncertainty is difficult. Others bask in the sense that they’ve figured out the truth and enjoy the idea that they are superior to all those who don’t see the truth they think they grasp. But uncertainty is a fundamental aspect of western thought; certainty only comes with a leap of faith — and even then it’s subjective certainty. If that leap of faith is wrong, then one is certain but wrong.
Grasping that is the real source of wisdom — it goes back to Socrates, and the claim that “I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.” What is delightful about the quote is that it also shows the limits of even logic. The petty logician would say that the quote contains a contradiction — how can he know one thing and yet know nothing? But that’s the point — even our linguistic constructions are frail and limited. What appears to be a contradiction in our linguistic constructions shows only their limits, not a true contradiction in reality. That shows any philosophical system to be a house of cards, built upon language usage which by definition is vague, arbitrary and creates false boundaries and barriers.
Once one realizes that the claim of certainty is the true sign of foolishness and ignorance it becomes possible to understand diverse perspectives and have a true capacity to critically assess and understand how the world can be seen in a myriad of ways, sensitive to context and recognizing the limits of human understanding. We have only our senses and intuition. Our senses perceive a small portion of reality; our intuition is subjective. Beyond that, we have imperfect language to communicate ideas. We do our best with what we have, but if we don’t understand its limits and the diverse ways it can be used we can be deluded into false certainty and blindness.
Yet there is a sense of satisfaction in accepting uncertainty and letting go of the desire to “be right” and “know for sure.” It is liberating to be able to survey a multitude of perspectives and understand them, and then craft one’s own “best guess” with the knowledge that there is no answer card. You bet your life, you make your own choices, and all the dogmatists and ideologues out there are simply deluded fools. Only someone who knows the limits of their capacity to truly understand reality keeps an open mind and recognizes the joy of learning and growing. And that’s the goal of a course like this — to inspire students to recognize the joy of life long learning.