Trying Times, Luck, Compassion

Trying Times Remind Us About Luck

Fresno Bee, August 9, 2014

As the horrors of this summer unfold – war, disease and refugee children – we should reflect on how lucky we are. If you had been born in Central America, the Middle East or West Africa, your life would be quite different. Of course, you don’t have to travel far to see bad luck. Violence, illness and homelessness occur here, too.

Einstein once said, referring to the deep structure of reality, that God does not play dice. But it does seem that a dice-playing divinity rules our lives. Life and death, success and failure, are often simply matters of luck. Happiness and destitution hinge on the roll of the cosmic dice.

Some believe that a wise and benevolent providence guides our lives. From this point of view, even bad luck works out for the best in the long run. That’s a nice idea. But it is hard to understand why God allows some to thrive while others suffer. If we can’t discern the reason behind our fortunes or misfortunes, we might as well chalk it up to chance.

Americans like to believe that winners make their own luck. Walt Whitman boldly stated the American faith in self-made luck: “Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune.” Whitman told us to take to the road to find our fortune. To get lucky, you do have to open your heart to the world and embrace opportunities when they arrive. This hopeful idealism makes sense in an open and welcoming world.

But for some, the dice are loaded against them. The plight of the children fleeing Central America reminds us that roads are often closed and that welcome mat can be pulled in. A similar problem stacks the deck against the children of Africa and the Middle East. We might admire the courage of refugees who take to the road to find a better life. But the homeless wandering our streets remind us that fortune is hard to find on the open road.

Hard work and determination cannot guarantee survival for unlucky children born into war, poverty and disease. These afflictions prey equally upon the smart and the stupid. Industrious folks may have a slight advantage in Gaza, Liberia or Honduras. But talent and tenacity can’t overcome the chance occurrences of history and geography.

We don’t choose where or when we are born. Nor do we choose our genetic endowment or cultural heritage. The most important facts of our biographies are entirely beyond our control and subject to the cosmic lottery.

The existentialist philosophers coined the term “thrown-ness” to describe the human condition. We are thrown_like dice_into the world. We find ourselves in a place and time, in a body, and living a life that we did not create or choose. Each moment of our lives involves another throw of the dice.

Our only power is in choosing how to react to the rolling dice. Virtue and character appear in the way we navigate the winds of fortune. We can give up in despair and resign ourselves to fate. Or we can resolve to work hard, despite the odds. But at the end of the day, you don’t control the way the dice fall.

Understanding the role of luck in life should make us more modest about our triumphs and less ashamed of our defeats. Every great achievement contains an element of chance that calls pride into question. Seeing that every loss includes some bad luck can moderate feelings of blame or regret.

The truth of luck is that it is always changing. It can be difficult to appreciate good luck, when you are worried about losing it. But admitting the fragility of good fortune can lead you to savor the sweetness of success. And understanding that bad luck does not last forever can give you solace while you wait for your fortunes to change.

In the end, to understand luck is to develop compassion. The unlucky have usually done nothing to deserve their misfortune. Another roll of the dice and it could be you digging through the rubble, burying your beloved or fleeing poverty. Mercy, kindness and generosity are needed in a hard luck world where, it seems, the gods do play dice.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/08/12/4066312/trying-times-remind-us-about-luck.html#storylink=cpy

 

Death Penalty and War

What do we want when it comes to war or the death penalty?

Fresno Bee, July 26, 2014

Federal judge Cormac Carney recently ruled that California’s dysfunctional death penalty is cruel and unusual because those who are sentenced to death are rarely executed. Since 1978 only 13 people have been executed in California, while more than 900 people have been sentenced to death. The average time spent on death row is 25 years. Execution in California is a matter of luck, not justice.

Carney argues that the arbitrariness of the death penalty means that this punishment is not working to deter crime. Nor is it working as retribution. Neither of these moral purposes is fulfilled when executions are infrequent and random. Carney does not deny that the death penalty can be justified. Rather, he maintains that the current system does not live up to its own standards.

Carney’s argument raises the challenge of idealism and perfectionism in thinking about state-sponsored killing. He concludes that if the execution system does not live up to the ideal, we ought not employ it. One obvious response would be to fix the dysfunction in the system and make it less arbitrary. But until that is done, the judge ruled that executions are cruel, unusual and unconstitutional.

We usually don’t demand this sort of perfectionism. Schools, marriages and sports leagues rarely live up to our ideals. However, we don’t abolish them. Instead, we aim to reform them to bring them closer to the ideal.

Usually it is not wise to let the perfect become the enemy of the good. Perfectionism sets up a false dilemma: either perfection or abolition. The perfectionist false dilemma can lead us to jettison valuable but imperfect things. It can also cause us to give up the effort to reform and improve.

But state-sponsored killing seems to require a special and more perfect justification. If we are bothered by the arbitrary and capricious nature of the death penalty, then we should be even more worried about arbitrary and random killing in war. Consider the problem of collateral damage in war. Enemy soldiers are legitimate targets of justified warfare. But noncombatants — innocent civilians — are not supposed to be killed. Unfortunately, modern wars kill noncombatants in large numbers.

Defenders of the morality of war argue that civilian killing is permissible so long as armies do not deliberately target civilians. Critics of war reject this subtle moral point.

Critics argue that bad luck and accidental factors cannot justify the killing of the innocent. Following Carney’s reasoning about the death penalty, a critic might conclude that war ought to be abolished until we can ensure that wars are fought without creating collateral damage.

The analogy between war and the death penalty is not seamless. We presume, for example, that the convicted criminal is guilty of a crime and deserves to be punished, even though some death row inmates have in fact been exonerated. On the other hand, we presume that noncombatants are innocent and do not deserve the harm they suffer, even though the mothers and children of soldiers can work behind the lines to support the war effort.

A form of skeptical pacifism can result when we insist on perfectionism with regard to state-sponsored killing.

Until state-sponsored killing becomes less capricious and more deliberately targeted, the pacifist will say, states ought not kill.

Those not convinced by this argument will have to reconcile themselves to the apparent conflict between the arbitrary and random nature of state-sponsored killing and perfectionist idealism about justice.

A perfectly just system of state-sponsored killing would only kill those who deserve death and it would kill them in a fair and consistent way. A perfect system of state-sponsored killing would not bomb children or apply the death penalty in haphazard ways. It would give people what they deserve. And it would bring about good consequences. But of course, in a perfect world we would not need executioners or armies.

This line of thinking leaves us with a difficult decision. Should we demand perfection, or can we accept something less than perfection when it comes to war and the death penalty? This is a crucial and serious question for democratic citizens, since in a democracy state-sponsored killing is ultimately done in our names and on our behalf.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/07/25/4040930/ethics-what-do-we-want-when-it.html#storylink=cpy

 

Bears, Bugs, and Backpacking on the John Muir Trail

Wilderness reminds us we’re not the center of everything

Fresno Bee, July 12, 2014 IMG_0469

I am writing this while hiking the John Muir Trail. The Sierra backcountry is beautiful and humbling. The wilderness reminds us that we are not in charge of the world.

When my children were young and we would go camping, I used to joke that after dark, the government turned off the rivers and waterfalls. We are so used to our civilized world, with its regular and predictable system of amenities, that city kids can make believe that rivers have on-off switches.

The wild world is, however, beyond our control. There are no on-off switches in the wilderness. The wind blows, the rain falls and bears come to camp. The marmots and mosquitoes go about their business. We like to think that we are the center of creation. But our narcissism is quickly corrected by a night under the stars. The Milky Way does not glow for us.

There is an old riddle about whether a tree that falls in the woods makes a sound. Of course it does. But usually only the deer and chipmunks hear it. Wild noises resound without any human presence. The birds don’t sing for us. Croaking frogs and chirping crickets don’t croon for our pleasure. And trees fall every day in hidden groves beyond human perception.

The natural world is profoundly indifferent to us. Even in your front yard garden, snails, weeds and worms are busy with their own lives. We work hard to control this wild vitality. But without constant vigilance, wild nature will soon destroy our handiwork.

The business of the birds and the bees proceeds without us. One day we saw two squirrels mating. We stopped to watch. But I felt somehow immodest. The squirrels live, mate and die here. We are just visitors, passing through their homes.

The wildflowers are blooming in the high country. We wandered through meadows rich with color. It is tempting to think that this beauty is on display for us. But flowers don’t bloom for human eyes. Like the squirrels, they are concerned with living and reproducing. Their beauty is not for us.

Not all wild things are charming or beautiful. The backpacker’s bane is the mosquito. These little vampires can quickly ruin a lovely campsite. But the mosquito’s bloodlust is not directed at us. If we were not passing through their habitat, they would find other prey.

One evening a bear came to camp. He sniffed us and circled our camp as we whistled and yelled, working hard to scare him off. I had the distinct impression that he was curious about us, wondering what these humans were doing in his home.

Some people do not to like wild things and wild places. A cold, windy, rainy night at 10,000 feet is no spring picnic. And sleep doesn’t come easy when you know that the bear knows where you are camped. But it helps to know that these wild things are just going about their own business. They do not intend to harm us. We merely happen to be in the way.

A philosopher and fellow backpacker once told me that he was more afraid of the other people he meets on the trail than he was of the snakes and bears lurking in the bush. Animals are merely wild, he explained. But human beings can be wicked.

Most of our fellow backpackers have been kind, generous and interesting. But humans demand recognition. The intensely human urge to be recognized by other human beings can lead to violence. Wars, rape and mass murder are human creations, malicious manifestations of the narcissistic need for recognition. Mosquitoes and bears only want a bite to eat. They don’t want to enslave, convert or conquer. Our species demands recognition, which leads to domination. That may be why we need governments. It may also be why we are so suspicious of them.

The backcountry buzzes and blooms without concern for human needs and interests. One lesson from this is humility, which deflates our vain desire to dominate and be recognized. The bears and bugs carry on without us. The rivers run without our permission. And the sound of falling trees is not made for human ears.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/07/11/4020947/ethics-wilderness-reminds-us-were.html#storylink=cpy

 

Lighten your load

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Lighten your load for a happier journey through life

Fresno Bee June 26, 2014

I am hiking the John Muir Trail as you read this. My 17-year-old son and I will walk over 200 miles through the Sierra from Yosemite to Mt. Whitney. By the time we are done we will have gained and lost some 45,000 feet of elevation.

The key to a long hike is a strong companion and a light pack. This is the truth of the trail. It is also a metaphor for life. Life is long, so lighten your load and find good hiking partners.

Whatever you carry will be on your back the entire way. A useful motto is “don’t bring it, if you don’t want to carry it.” That motto also holds for our psychological and spiritual loads. Leave regret, anger and resentment behind. Those negative emotions only weigh you down. It is sometimes difficult to move forward. But time marches on with or without us.

Our ancient ancestors were nomads, who followed the seasons and the herds. Our ancestors migrated to the U.S. and to California. The freedom of the wanderer is in our blood. Our forebears must have travelled light to get here.

But we are burdened by the weight of our habits. The older you get, the bigger your pack becomes, and the more difficult it is to move on. The longer you stay in one place, the deeper your habits become, and the harder it is to leave them behind.

There is a kind of elegance in traveling light. Traveling light means freedom. Without piles of stuff to weigh you down, you are always ready to ramble. But traveling light requires preparation. You have to pack carefully, with an eye to the difference between luxury and necessity.

What do you really need to lug with you? How much are you willing to carry? Most of the stuff that fills our houses is not necessary. Consider how much we eat — and throw away — during the course of a day or a week. A light pack contains few luxuries, maybe some chocolate or coffee.

But our culture encourages full pantries and stomachs. Advertising creates a need for more stuff. But if you had to carry that stuff around all day, you’d laugh at those who encourage you to buy more. Our nomadic ancestors would be amused.

I’ll admit that I like stuff, too. Even backpackers enjoy shopping for gear and groceries. But the process of trimming down your load forces you to evaluate priorities. You don’t need much to be healthy and happy.

Religions have long cultivated this sort of abstemiousness. Prayer and meditation turn the mind away from the loaded larders of our desires. The Sabbath is a weekly break from busy consumption. Some religions take a monthly break: Ramadan or Lent, for example. Take some time off. Give something up. Let something go. That’s good advice.

In our secular culture, the wisdom of the Sabbath is forgotten. Nor do we celebrate abstinence. A day without shopping is not good for business. Even our vacations are filled with frantic consumption. Indeed, we work harder during the week to be able to afford our weekend getaways.

There is wisdom in simplified daily living. Work enough to live decently. And use the rest of your time to explore and cultivate relationships with family, friends and the natural world.

A long hike is a kind of spiritual walkabout. You discover something about yourself and world by leaving home with only what you can carry on your back. When it all goes right — no rain, no blisters, etc. — the simplicity of the trail is a joy. You watch your step and walk until you find a good place to sleep. Other concerns slip away.

Hiking is walking meditation. Each step is simple and focused. Each creek crossing is a pleasure. Each summit is a triumph. Each night under the stars is a miracle. And each morning, we’re thankful for the lightness of our packs as we strap them on for another day.

It is invigorating to be part of that bustling wonder called civilization. We’ll be glad to get back to town. But there is also wisdom in the simplicity of the trail and the freedom and grace of traveling light

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/06/27/4000349/ethics-lighten-your-load-for-a.html#storylink=cpy

 

Yosemite religion

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Yosemite reminds us to enjoy rainbows while they last

Fresno Bee, June 13, 2014

As the Fresno Bee commemorates Yosemite history, we should consider Yosemite’s spiritual importance.  The Valley is certainly awe-inspiring.  It’s difficult to imagine not being moved by the view of Half Dome or the thundering spray of Yosemite Falls.  In some people, Yosemite elicits an experience that may even be called “religious.”

The “Yosemite religion,” as one of my colleagues calls it, is based in the experience of the transcendent power of nature.  It is connected to an ecological point of view that sees a continuum between human life and the non-human world.

If there is such a thing as the Yosemite religion, then John Muir is its prophet.  For Muir, religious experience is rooted in the beauty of nature.  He explained, “no synonym for God is so perfect as Beauty.”  For Muir, the “sublime wonderlands” of the Sierra were manifestations of divinity.

Muir thought that city religions were weak imitations of the direct appearance of the divine in mountains, trees, and rivers.  Muir explained, “the hills and groves were God’s first temples, and the more they are cut down and hewn into cathedrals and churches, the farther off and dimmer seems the Lord himself.”  Muir saw himself as a modern John the Baptist.  He felt called to immerse people in “the beauty of God’s mountains” and spread the good news of Sierra transcendentalism.

Evangelizing on behalf of wilderness is necessary because most people do not see the value of the wild.  Some of Muir’s companions thought Yosemite was just a big hole in the ground.

As with any other kind of spiritual experience, receptivity and education matter.  Some people view Christian prayer as dull recitation.  Others see meditation as not much more than daydreaming.  And some people, I suppose, can look at a Yosemite landscape and see only a pile of rocks.

Yosemite can also provoke uneasiness and leave people anxious to return to the city.  The cliffs are daunting.  The waterfalls are intimidating.  And the idea of a bear in camp can make it hard to sleep.

Religions often propose a solution to our anxieties—through ritual, law, and spiritual practice, or through the intervention of a savior.  Civilization offers another remedy—by softening the hard parts of life and flattening out the steeps.  Civilization also keeps us so busy, that we do not think about the meaning of life—or the critters who roam the dark.

The Yosemite religion, however, offers no ritual, law, or savior.  The bears still rule the night.  The cliffs remain dangerous.  And the trails are steep.  Muir’s idea was to leave nature alone.  He also encouraged us to know the earth, its ecosystems, and our place within all of that.  Bears are less frightening when we understand them.  And mountaineers learn quickly to respect objective danger and know their own limits.

Ecological understanding does not always satisfy our narcissistic desires.  Cities and city religions celebrate the importance of humanity.  But wilderness reminds us of our mortality.  Earthquakes, glaciers, and rivers will eventually grind even the hardest mountain to dust.  Ancient civilizations have returned to earth, while the Sequoias have endured.

The indifference of wilderness may provoke anxiety.  But understanding can provide solace.  From the standpoint of geological time, the beauty of these rocks, waters, and creatures is as fragile and fleeting as our very lives.

I recently took a photo of my wife standing in the middle of a rainbow beside Vernal Falls.  The rainbow had appeared for a moment as the sun settled in the west.  And then it was gone.  We are incredibly fortunate to experience rainbows and share them with those we love.  But the mountains remind us that nothing lasts forever.

Muir did not lament death and change.  Rather, he celebrated the lavish abundance of nature and rejoiced and exulted “in the imperishable, unspendable wealth of the universe.”

Yosemite does elicit joy and exultation—as well as gratitude and reflection.  Moments of beauty dawn for a moment and disappear.  We can’t hold them.  But we can love them while they last.  And if we continue to preserve these wild places, we hope that tomorrow our grandchildren may find their own rainbows beneath the ever-changing falls.

http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/06/13/3976526/yosemite-reminds-enjoy-rainbows.html

Murder, Resentment, Revenge, Respect, and Recognition

Love, respect cannot be taken by force

Fresno Bee, May 30, 2014

Another awful story of mass violence comes to us from Santa Barbara — another story of promising young lives destroyed by a nihilistic young shooter. The shooter left a manifesto, reprinted in the Los Angeles Times, that contains an example of the typically horrifying moral reasoning used by those who justify violence.

The murderer resented those who excluded and rejected him. He wanted to prove his superiority over those who failed to love and respect him. He equated violence and cruelty with god-like power. He felt he was giving his “enemies” what they deserved. Guns and mental illness are obviously involved. But the flawed moral argument that led to his dreadful and nihilistic conclusion is also to blame.

Physical dominance through violence cannot create love, admiration or respect (or god-like power). Bullies, terrorists and murderers don’t understand this. They resort to violence in an apparent effort to get what they want. But they also seem to know that the tool they employ is incapable of providing them with what they want. So they end up destroying the very thing they desire.

Murder and resentment are nothing new. Homer’s “Iliad” chronicles Achilles’ murderous rampage. Achilles kills everyone he encounters, without mercy, even desecrating his enemy’s corpse. The Bible begins with the envious Cain killing his brother Abel. The terrain of resentment and revenge has been explored in various ways by Dostoevsky, Nietzsche and Shakespeare.

The Star Wars film series provides a contemporary example: Anakin Skywalker’s transformation into Darth Vader is fueled by resentful rage. The Santa Barbara manifesto fits this mold. A young man experiences rejection — and turns his rage against the entire world.

Literature, religion and popular culture remind us that villainous and vengeful pride leads only to the graveyard. But murderous young men seem not to care about this, willing their own deaths along with others — an absolutely nihilistic endpoint along the continuum of social instinct.

The experience of resentment and the desire for revenge afflicts us all from time to time. Who hasn’t felt insulted, excluded or envious? Who hasn’t been tempted to tell someone off or push back against an indifferent world?

When resentment rises, however, most of us are able to control it and prevent it from boiling over as vengeful rage. We learn that anger and revenge simply do not work to get us what we want. Most of us figure out how to soothe wounded pride with positive action. Instead of returning hurt for hurt, we learn that hard work, a sense of gratitude, the spirit of forgiveness, kindness, mercy, humor and love help to heal our wounds and create a better life.

Social philosophers describe the social world in terms of a struggle for recognition. We desire recognition by others. We feel resentment when we believe that we have not received the respect we deserve. Resentment is more than mere anger. It contains a moral judgment and develops when we believe that others should treat us better.

The agony of wounded pride is often deeper and longer-lasting than the pain of physical wounds. Resentment festers and broods, incubating plots for revenge. Revenge aims to pay people back for not giving us what we deserve, to take from them what they owe us.

But that is where resentment and revenge unravel. Violence takes what is not given, attempting to force others to give respect or love. But this destroys the very thing that is sought. Love, respect and recognition cannot be taken by force — we only receive them as gifts from others. Violence annihilates the conditions under which these social gifts can be given.

The struggle for recognition ought to properly lead to mutual recognition and reciprocal respect. This means that to be respected you have to work hard to earn it. To get love, you have to give it. And violence cannot get you what you want.

One moral of contemporary stories of mass murder is found in the resilience and compassion of the survivors. In the long run, positive social instincts such as empathy and care are much more powerful than the dark resentments that fester in the deranged minds of angry young men. Let’s hope that somehow someone will find a way cure these angry young men, so that these horror stories no longer keep happening in real life.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/05/30/3952685/ethics-love-respect-are-given.html#storylink=cpy

 

Moral Brain-Hacking and Moral Education

Science not enough, ideas and thought needed

Fresno Bee, May 16, 2014

Perhaps the solution to crime and other social problems is to fix people’s brains or dose them with love drugs. Moral brain-hacking might be a cheap and effective way to produce moral people.

Moral behavior appears to depend upon chemicals such as serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin acting in our brains. Paul Zac argues in his book, “The Moral Molecule,” that oxytocin levels are correlated with empathy, trust and love. A squirt of oxytocin can make people kinder and more trusting.

Brain structure also matters. Magnetic resonance imaging suggests that a sense of justice is located in the part of the brain associated with higher-level cognition. Antisocial behavior is linked to brain defects.

Locating moral behavior in the brain — and not as the free choice of an immaterial soul — may require us to rethink traditional ideas about guilt and responsibility, punishment and reward, praise and blame. If we follow the neuroscience, it might make sense to “punish” people by requiring them to take drugs or have brain surgery. Locking criminals in prisons with other people who have similarly defective neurochemistry may eventually seem, well, medieval.

Spiritually inclined people may be dismayed by this materialistic focus. Brain-based discussions ignore the soul and the moral conscience. Neuroscience dusts the angels and demons off of our shoulders, focusing our attention on the space between our ears.

Those who think that consciousness is distinct from the brain have to explain how Prozac, Ritalin, marijuana, and St. John’s wort are able to change experience, mood and focus. The attitude adjustment provided by a glass of wine or a cup of coffee can make you wonder whether there is anything more to the mind than the brain and its chemistry.

Some may feel that this materialistic focus misses the really big picture of why morality matters. If moral experience is reduced to brain science, traditional metaphysical notions of good and evil may be lost. A brain-based view of personality rules out punishment and reward in the afterlife. The move from the soul to the brain involves a radical reassessment of the meaning of morality and of life itself.

The focus on brains does, however, overlook the importance of ideas and education. Even if we admit that experience is based in the hardware of the brain, we still need the software of consciousness — ideas and theories — that allows us to interpret our experience. A dose of oxytocin may be able to stimulate empathy. But empathetic emotional responses are devoid of content.

Ideas and ethical theories tell us how to act on our emotional responses to the world. Does caring for a loved one mean I should pull the plug and let them die — or keep them on life support? Does empathy for murder victims mean that criminals should be executed — or should empathy extend to criminals?

To answer those kinds of questions we need ideas. Pills, potions and powders can only take us so far. The brain’s capacities and responses are channeled by the stuff of thought: ideas about right and wrong, theories of the good life, models and heroes, and the whole range of issues that arise in the context of moral education.

Ideas cannot simply be reduced to chemical signals in the brain. Does that mean that ideas float freely in a world apart from physical reality. There is a deep mystery here. What is an idea like “good” or “evil” made of? Where do ideas dwell? And how do we know them? Those kinds of questions can really blow your mind (or brain or soul?).

Neurochemical enhancement can’t entirely replace moral education as traditionally understood. Religion, philosophy and literature fill the brain with ideas that guide, bewilder and inspire. Neuro-ethical hacking may make moral education easier. But the neurotransmitters cannot tell us whether brain hacking is a good idea. For that we need moral argument and critical thinking.

Neuroscientific enthusiasm may lead us to miss the moral forest as we gaze in fascination at the neurological trees. Some of us could benefit from a chemically induced compassion boost. But a compassionate brain without moral ideas is empty. A moral person is both a brain and its ideas. And those ideas come from good old-fashioned moral education.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/05/16/3930743/science-not-enough-ideas-and-thought.html#storylink=cpy

 

Kid Brother Surveillance

Be aware of your actions in this age of surveillance

Fresno Bee, May 2, 2014

We live in an age of constant surveillance, where our words and actions can be made public by anyone with a cellphone and an Internet connection. In the old days, morality was enforced with the thought that God was watching. In the era of totalitarian states, God was replaced by Big Brother.

Today, surveillance has become democratic, as each of us has the power to record and publicize the misdeeds of anyone we meet. Big Brother has been replaced by a billion kid brothers who keep sticking their cameras into other people’s business.

Secret recordings have exposed some egregious stuff. The racist comments of L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling were exposed in this way. A few weeks earlier, a Golden State Warriors assistant coach was fired for making secret recordings of his team.

In 2011, an NPR employee was caught saying that tea party activists are xenophobic racists. Also in 2011, President Obama and former French President Sarkozy were caught speaking privately about their dislike for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In 2012, a secret recording of Mitt Romney caught him saying that 47% of the public were dependent on the government.

The law provides some protection against clandestine recording. But once the cat is out of the bag, the law won’t fix a damaged reputation. It is hard to hide anything in the era of crowd-sourced, pocket-sized surveillance. Racists, sexists, adulterers, and crooks should know that in the Facebook era, your bad deeds are only a click away.

While we might question the motives of the kid brother snoops, there is no denying their power and the serious loss of privacy this creates. But prying eyes can force us to behave ourselves. Whatever you say or do — in a business meeting, on the golf course, or online — can end up being made public.

One solution is simply to avoid saying or doing dumb and immoral stuff; and don’t be a hypocrite. We ought to behave — even in private — in ways that we are proud to affirm. We ought to avoid saying and doing those sorts of things that get the gossips talking and the cameras recording. If you wouldn’t say it in public, then don’t say it at all.

Hypocrites change their speech and behavior to fit their audience. Hypocrisy rests upon a tangled web of lies, masks, secret alliances, inside jokes, winks, and nods. Hypocrites say and do things in private that they condemn in public and vice versa. Gossipy snoops love to expose hypocrisy.

Justice Louis Brandeis once suggested that publicity is the remedy for social diseases. He said, “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.” While this idea is often used to call for greater transparency in government, we forget that sunlight is an equal opportunity enlightener. We are all being observed and recorded all the time.

This is a bit scary. But kid brother surveillance does make it harder to keep immoral behavior and vicious ideas hidden. Some citizens are even turning the cameras on Big Brother himself. Earlier this year, someone smuggled a video recorder into the U.S. Supreme Court, which was the first time the court had ever been recorded. And camera phones have been used to record police brutality.

The prying eyes of a kid brother with a microphone can be irritating to those who value privacy. Sometimes we just want to be left alone. And liberty seems to require zones of privacy. Unfortunately, while it might be nice to imagine retreating to a world of pre-electronic privacy, the cell-cam Rubicon has already been crossed. One consolation is to recall that the good old days were also full of racism, sexism and other hypocritical diseases that fester in private places.

Kid brother surveillance means that privacy is a lost dream. Everyone you meet is armed with a camera. The constant threat of public exposure makes it harder for the hypocrites and racists to hide. The downside is that we each have to confront our own hypocrisies. Each of us now has the capacity to act as our brother’s moral keeper. But we ought to first take a selfie, before we turn the camera on someone else.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/05/02/3907055/ethics-be-aware-of-your-actions.html#storylink=cpy

 

Calendars, Politics, Religion, and History

Culture has deep influence on Easter

Fresno Bee, April 18, 2014

Political and religious histories give shape to our lives. Holidays like Easter remind us of the deep influence of culture. The power of culture extends even into the way we organize and count time.

Consider the mystery of the date of Easter. The Easter date is determined according to an arcane system, which links the phases of the moon and the occurrence of the vernal equinox. This is based upon the ancient calendar for calculating the celebration of Passover. The Easter dating system, codified in the fourth century, continues to influence us. Secular spring break is linked to this ancient notion of ritual time.

To complicate matters, western and eastern churches celebrate Easter according to different calendars (although they converge this year). Eastern churches rely on the Julian calendar, named after Julius Caesar who instituted it. That calendar does not properly calculate leap years. Over millennia, it slowly became untethered from the solstices and equinoxes. Western churches updated their calendars in the 16th century under Pope Gregory XIII.

Popes and emperors determine how we keep time. Two of our months are named after Roman Emperors. July is named after Julius Caesar. August is named after Augustus. And our calendar is the Gregorian calendar, named after Pope Gregory.

Our seven-day week appears to reflect the Judeo-Christian creation story: God labored six days and rested on the seventh. But the Genesis story is not the only source. The names of the days of the week commemorate the seven ancient planetary gods: Moon, Sun, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Saturday is named for Saturn, Sunday for the Sun and Monday for the moon.

The English names for the other days of the week reflect the names of Germanic gods. For example, Thursday is named for Thor. This trace of paganism in our calendar is a reminder that our culture is an impure mixture.

All of this makes one wonder whether we know what we are doing when we commemorate these ancient stories. Does it make sense to celebrate a Christian holiday like Easter on a day named after the Sun in a calendar with Roman imperial residue?

Things could be different. Christians might like to rename the days of the week to purge the calendar of pagan elements. Secularists might want to update the calendar and make it more rational. Is there a good reason for seven-day week that is not connected with ancient theology?

A scientific calendar would fix our odd 12-month year and its irregular number of days per month. A more rational system would make each month exactly four weeks long. We would then need 13 months (plus one day) to complete a 365-day year. (Do the math and you’ll see!). But perhaps superstitions about the number 13 would prevent that.

In the 1790s French revolutionaries attempted to rationalize the calendar. They created a 10-day week, along with a decimal system for clocks. The revolutionaries also introduced a decimal system for measuring other things, which eventually became the European metric system.

Unlike the metric system, decimal calendars and clocks did not catch on. Some traditions are apparently woven too deeply into the fabric of our experience. It is difficult to imagine a week without a Thors-day or Easter not falling on the Sun’s day.

We inherit a cultural matrix of meaning, language, traditions and symbols. Although our cultural inheritance is not permanently fixed, it does form a nearly immovable background for our lives. Imagine how difficult it would be to change our calendar or time-counting methods.

However, the Easter season reminds us of the possibility of freedom and a new future. The Hebrews escaped from Pharaoh during Passover. Jesus escaped from death at Easter. Whether these stories are true or not, one cannot deny the transformative power they symbolize. This includes the most radical change in counting time: the move from B.C. to A.D. Imagine the difficulty of the cultural shift that led from Roman paganism to Christianity.

We are captive to the great cycles of objective time. The motions of the planet — the equinoxes and lunar phases — are all beyond our control. But human beings give meaning to these changes and create a cultural world that is as real as the stars themselves

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/04/18/3884398/culture-has-a-deep-influence-on.html#storylink=cpy

 

Skepticism, Anarchism, and Utopianism

Skepticism of Politicians is Important

Fresno Bee, April 4, 2014

The accusation that a California state senator was involved in gun trafficking is the most recent and appalling in a long list of scandals. Governors, senators, representatives, mayors, and even presidents have cheated on their wives, taken drugs, lied, cheated and misbehaved.

There are good reasons to be skeptical of blundering bureaucrats and pathetic politicians.

We might think that military and security forces are better. But down the road in King City the police took cars from poor immigrants. Scandals have swept national security agencies. Secret Service agents were caught partying on the job. A sex scandal forced former Gen. David Petraeus to resign as head of the CIA. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair’s sexploits were splashed across the headlines. And the airmen tending our nuclear arsenal have been caught cheating.

Decades of dysfunction and scandal include: Watergate, Iran-Contra, Monica Lewinsky, WMD in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, Bridge-gate, IRS-gate and so on. The government even shut down last fall. Our motto “in God we trust” should continue to say, “… in government we don’t.”

This comes as no surprise to students of history, philosophy and religion. The world’s traditions express deep skepticism toward political power. Moses battled Pharaoh. Nathan rebuked David. The blind prophet Tiresias condemned Oedipus and Creon. And Socrates was put to death for speaking truth to power.

The most important story of the Western tradition can be read as an indictment of political power. The story begins with King Herod massacring children. To escape the slaughter, the holy family flees to Egypt. Jesus is finally arrested, tortured and brutally executed under Pontius Pilate. Jesus reminds Pilate and posterity that his kingdom is not of this world.

Some have derived anti-political conclusions from this story. Christian abolitionists in New England in the early 19th Century rejected political power that permitted slavery and injustice. They declared allegiance to the brotherhood of all mankind. Some explicitly refused to support human governments, withdrawing from the mainstream and forming separatist Christian communes.

Henry David Thoreau, the American transcendentalist, was part of that milieu. He criticized slavery and unjust wars. His famous essay, “Civil Disobedience,” explains that the best government is the one that governs least.

Like the ancient prophets, Thoreau aimed to live his life as a counter-friction to the machine, even breaking the law out of obedience to a higher law.

This skeptical standpoint resonates in our era of political crimes and misdemeanors. The wisdom of the ages suggests that we should not expect too much from political power and that enlightenment is to be found somewhere beyond the political fray.

Of course, this skeptical critique has its blind spots. Not everyone in the political barrel is a bad apple. And the legal system is better today than it was in the 19th century or in the time of Jesus. Slavery has been abolished. Women can vote. We no longer crucify dissidents. But it is important to note that this progress often has been the result of the difficult and dangerous work of those who speak truth to power, while remaining committed to a higher law. The prophets, abolitionists and dissidents play a crucial political role.

While anarchist utopianism is inspiring, it is important to note that the flaws that plague our politicians are shared by all of us. People are ignorant; some are evil; and most make mistakes.

Big institutions magnify these human faults. Skepticism about human nature afflicts all utopian dreams. If we can’t trust the politicians, how can we trust our neighbors or even ourselves?

No utopian solution or political scheme can completely straighten the crooked timber of humanity. The Christian anarchist communes of the 19th century did not last long. States and governments also fail.

While it is difficult to imagine a future of anarchist communes united by brotherly love, it is equally difficult to imagine a successful state run by incompetent and wicked people.

It’s enough to make one hope that there is another world in which stability, order and justice might reign.

But in this world, in the meantime, skepticism is in order.

There are no perfect politicians because there are no perfect people. They are us. We are them. And the work of justice is never done.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/04/04/3860782/ethics-skepticism-of-politicians.html#storylink=cpy