Living in Accord with Nature

Technology is amazing, but happiness comes from accepting life as it is

Fresno Bee, May 15, 2015

  • Technology promises infinite possibilities for improvement, while creating a challenge for happiness
  • Stoic wisdom encourages us to take the time to love and accept the world
  • Philosophical reflection on infertility, gender transition, and other technological innovations points toward deep questions about human life

Mind Your Own Business

Love, death and the spice of life

Fresno Bee, May 1, 2015 

  • Gay marriage, assisted suicide and marijuana reform point in libertarian direction
  • Meddling busy-bodies often breed unhappiness
  • Liberty and diversity allow for human flourishing21381_815893

We would all do much better if we would learn to mind our own business. Sometimes we need help and guidance. Children certainly do. But with regard to the moral and religious commitments of adults, it’s best to keep your opinion to yourself.

Recent issues point in this direction. Lawmakers in California are considering new legislation that would legalize physician-assisted suicide. The U.S. Supreme Court is debating gay marriage. Marijuana has been legalized in a variety of places.

Our multicultural society is becoming more complex as we work our way through the question of how much liberty we ought to permit. Liberty breeds complexity, creativity and conflict. When we leave people alone, the world becomes more interesting.

But it is not easy to leave others alone. We have a natural compulsion to meddle. If I believe that my ideas are right and good, it is reasonable to think that others can benefit from them. All true believers have the urge to evangelize.

But in a pluralistic society, our evangelical urges collide with the equal and opposite energies of those who have different ideas. Disagreement is a natural law of liberty. We can measure our freedom by the extent of our disputation.

Some like alcohol. Others like marijuana. And others abstain. A similar diversity is found with regard to the question of who we love and how we want to die. There is no consensus about these topics. The best we can do is agree to leave each other alone.

A friend and mentor of mine, the philosopher John Lachs, wrote the recent book “Meddling: On the Virtue of Leaving Others Alone.” Lachs encourages us to “curb our desire to rule over other people.” He says we must abandon the supposition that ours is “the only natural or worthy way to live.” We must resist the evangelical urge.

For that to happen, we need humility and a bit of historical perspective. People have disagreed about religion, morality, culture, and politics for millennia. Most attempts to impose rigid homogeneity have produced suffering. The solution is to allow as much liberty as possible.

In the end Lachs suggests, most of what other people do simply doesn’t matter. Does it really matter what other people do in the bedroom, who they love, how they recreate, how they pray, what they eat, or how they end their lives? It’s obnoxious to think that your neighbor’s private choices are your concern.

Of course there are some difficult questions. There are risks and benefits that must be weighed. It is possible, for example, to imagine insurance companies profiting from permissive suicide laws. Drug addiction and intoxicated driving are serious concerns on the marijuana frontier.

Such problems should make sense to everyone involved, even proponents of these ideas. Legislation and regulation should aim to minimize these risks. But the most significant goal of a secular political system is to prevent government from meddling in our moral and religious beliefs.

Liberty destroys conformity. There is no denying that. Those who value a dull, bland sameness will be disappointed by what happens when liberty is unleashed.

We often forget that libertarian political systems are new and innovative. In the old-days, a priest-king would decide what everyone had to do. Conformity was often enforced under penalty of death. And even when busy-bodies don’t have political power, meddling moralists make life miserable.

In a free, pluralistic society, we will often dislike the choices that others make. But as long as we leave each other alone, we’re making progress. We don’t have to agree about sex, marriage, death, dying or drug use in order to get along. We simply need to stay out of each other’s business.

Living, loving and dying are hard enough for each of us. Tending your own garden is work enough for a lifetime. And when we are left alone to cultivate our gardens in our own way, we may be pleasantly surprised by the result. Some will plant tomatoes. Others will grow carrots. Some will invite the wildflowers to bloom.

Freedom gives birth to variety, which is, as they say, the spice of life. Liberty, diversity and social conflict make life exciting, nutritious and often unexpectedly beautiful.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2015/05/01/4504941/andrew-fiala-on-ethics-love-death.html#storylink=cpy

 

The Vegetarian View

The vegetarian view

Fresno Bee, April 17, 2015 

  • Environmental and health concerns point toward vegetarian diet.vegetarian-mark-620
  • Concern for animal suffering leads some away from meat.
  • Vegetarian morality has deep roots.

 

Vegetarianism is on the rise. Actress Pamela Anderson recently served vegetarian meals to inmates in an Arizona jail. Anderson explained that vegetarian meals help promote compassion and nonviolence. The sheriff was less idealistic: he touted meatless meals as a cost-saving measure.

Not only is a meatless diet compassionate and cheap, it is also good for the environment. The Los Angeles Times recently reported that avoiding meat saves water. According to the Times’ data, it takes about 22 gallons of water to produce one ounce of soy burger, compared with 106 gallons of water to produce one ounce of beef. Earlier this year, The U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee concluded in a draft report that vegetarian diets are both better for the environment and better for human health.

The health argument is complex. Another study, from a medical university in Graz, Austria, concluded that vegetarians are less healthy. Exercise, affluence and other factors matter with regard to health. If you double down on French fries, you don’t benefit from skipping the burger. Despite the Graz study, the consensus seems to be that vegetarian diets are healthy and environmentally sustainable.

My own journey to vegetarianism began 20 years ago when my sister asked me to clean a chicken. She liked to eat chicken, she said, but the preparation grossed her out. That got me thinking about my own disconnect from the meat I ate. I decided that if I wasn’t willing to kill it and clean it myself, I wasn’t going to eat it. I haven’t eaten meat in 20 years. And I’m healthy and happy.

I discussed vegetarianism with a carnivorous dinner companion the other night. He told me of growing up on a poultry farm, where he’d killed more than his share of chickens. He had also slaughtered goats and cows. He admitted that it’s not pleasant to kill and bleed a cow. But he happily munched his steak. Disgusting but delicious, he suggested.

There’s no doubt that some disgusting things are necessary and justifiable. But meat eating is not. You can live quite well without it. But an argument based upon our feelings of disgust is fairly weak. A deeper moral argument focuses on the question of animal suffering.

Now some deny that animals suffer, claiming that animal pain is merely a physical response without moral meaning. But pet owners will disagree. Dogs wince in pain and wag their tales in delight. If I care about the suffering of dogs or cats, then I should care about other critters.

Some carnivores argue that the pleasure of meat offsets the suffering of the animal. But vegetarians claim that the pain of the pig outweighs the pleasure of bacon. We should be more humble, I think, about causing suffering in the name of pleasure. Related to this is the idea the we should “live simply so that others may simply live.”

Vegetarianism also has mystical and ascetic overtones. In Hinduism and Buddhism, for example, a commitment to nonviolence can be extended toward compassion for all living things. In ancient Rome, the philosopher Porphyry made a similar argument. He thought that learning to be considerate of animals helped us learn to be compassionate to one another. He also thought that taming the appetite for meat helped to liberate the soul.

You don’t have to be a mystic or monk, however, to understand that it is good to avoid causing suffering. Nor do you have to think that animals are equal to humans to reach vegetarian conclusions. Human interests matter more than animal interests. If I were trapped with my dogs and my children on a desert island, we’d eat the dogs. But in a world with plentiful vegetarian options, one can eat well without eating meat.

I’m not dogmatic about this. I eat fish and eggs on occasion. I don’t nitpick the ingredients in food served by friends or in restaurants. And I don’t mind sharing a table with amiable meat eaters.

There are vicious vegans and caring carnivores. There is no necessary connection between diet and morality. But vegetarianism reminds us to think about reducing suffering and simplifying our needs. Vegetarianism can improve the world, one bite at a time.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2015/04/17/4482343/andrew-fiala-on-ethics-the-vegeterian.html#storylink=cpy

 

Digital Immortality and the Promise of Eternal Life

Fresno Bee, April 3, 2015

Modern technology makes the Easter promise of eternal life look a bit old-fashioned. Businesses such as Eterni.me promise virtual immortality in the form of a “digital avatar” or “mind-clone.”IMG_3018

A mind-clone is a smart digital replica of your self, based upon a collection of your memories, thinking habits, and values. Future generations would be able to interact with your mind-clone as if they were interacting with you: hear your stories, get your advice, or ask for your blessing.

Advanced mind-clone technology would build a profile of you by tracking your preferences in music, videos, or news — just as Google and Amazon already do. The program would analyze your tastes, interests, and writing style. You could also upload value preferences and stories, training your clone to think and respond like you.

Your descendants could chat with your virtual avatar. You could program it, for example, to send birthday greetings to your grandchildren long after your death. If the technology works, it would be difficult for your grandchildren to tell the difference between you and your mind-clone in a chat-room or email exchange.

But is this really immortality? That depends. When we say that someone like Shakespeare has achieved immortality, we mean that his works and ideas endure. Maybe that’s all we mean by immortality. When viewed from the outside, the self is, after all, merely a collection of habits, actions and thoughts that are observed in the world. All we really know about the immortal bard is what he wrote down.

Shakespeare himself told us (in Sonnet 55) that what lives on against death and oblivion is “the living record of your memory.” As long as memories of you remain alive in someone’s mind, a part of you continues to exist. An interactive mind-clone would keep your memory “alive” in cyberspace.

But, most will protest, the self seems to be more than a collection of data piled high in defiance of the encroaching sands of time. From the inside, I experience my self as soulful conscious being. Death ends my consciousness, even if my mind-clone lingers in its small corner of the Internet.

Moreover, human relations are spiritual — an exchange of souls that is more than a mere transfer of data. An email from the virtual “you” would be a sad echo of genuine communication. From this perspective, digital immortality is a false promise.

As we spend more of our time in virtual reality, however, the spiritual side of things is being transformed into a digital alternative. What, after all, do you really know about the humanity of your Facebook friends besides the images they deposit online?

Leaving these existential questions behind, the ethical question remains: Should we pursue digital immortality? Answers depend upon the motivation for creating a mind-clone. Hope for immortality may be a narcissistic wish. Or it may be a celebration of love.

A narcissist may think he is so important that the future needs him, as if the loss of his point of view will make the universe worse. But it’s presumptuous to think that my great-grandchildren would care to have my mind-clone around, emailing them my opinions about the news, while they are busy leading lives I cannot imagine. On the other hand, it could be cool to have a virtual Shakespeare to consult when we need inspiration.

The best reasons to consider digital immortality are grounded in love. We, the living, may want a virtual clone of our dead loved ones, just as we want pictures and videos of them — as a way of keeping their memory alive. This technology could ease grief and mourning.

It may seem unhealthy to keep oneself focused on interactions with the dead. Chatting online with your dead spouse’s mind-clone may prevent you from moving forward. But this may not be so different from reading a poem written by the dead or whispering a word to the dead in silent prayer. What matters is the dosage and degree of our concern with the departed.

Our lives leave traces in the minds of those we love. That may be all that matters in terms of an afterlife — to be loved in the memories of those we leave behind. Beyond that, there are mysteries that the human mind and its technologies cannot fathom.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2015/04/03/4459250_fiala-on-ethics-digital-immortality.html?rh=1#storylink=cpy

 

Racism and Growth Mindset

Fighting racism with faith in the future

Fresno Bee, March 20, 2015

It’s disappointing to see that racism still exists: in fraternity houses, in Ferguson’s police department and in Fresno’s schools. But most of us are outraged by recent racism. And this gives us a reason to hope. Racism is not inevitable. Racists are bred, not born.

A key to making progress on any issue is the belief that it is possible to make progress. If you don’t believe that improvement is possible, you won’t work to make things better.static1.squarespace

Research done by psychologist Carol Dweck demonstrates the importance of affirming that progress is possible. People who have a “growth mindset” believe that since growth is possible, their effort matters. On the other hand, those who believe that talent and intelligence are fixed — something you are born with — give up more easily.

I recently spent the day with Eduardo Briceño, CEO of Mindset Works, a business that is putting Dweck’s research into practice. Briceño had a number of examples of the importance of the growth mindset. Educators, for example, clearly believe that growth happens. The point of education, after all, is to help children grow.

One of Briceño’s most astounding examples comes from the Middle East. Israelis and Palestinians who have a growth mindset are more willing to compromise, less distrustful of one another and more hopeful about peace. The reverse is also true. Those who believe that character is fixed are less willing to compromise. If you believe that people can’t change, and that members of certain groups have fixed traits, then there is little hope for peace and progress.

Racism is connected to the fixed mindset. Racial prejudice is based upon assumptions about the “fixed” traits of members of racial groups. But racial identity is not destiny. Nor are racists destined to be racist. One way to break the stranglehold of prejudice is to remind ourselves that our identities and attitudes are not permanently fixed.

Some of this research sounds too good to be true. Cynics argue that human nature is not really that malleable. The cynical realist shrugs, thinking that recent racism is yet another chapter of the same old story of man’s inhumanity to man. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

But cynicism is defeatism. It rests on the same kind of fixed mindset as racism.

Sure there are limitations to growth. Racism is not the simple result of a bad mindset. Racism is also the result of struggle over scarce resources, demographic pressures, corrupt institutions, media stereotypes and so on.

It is important to recognize the depth of racism. But that shouldn’t stop us from working to make progress. Rather, realism about racism set the agenda for the work we must do to build the world we want.

Racism won’t go away over night. But it is important to see that we have made progress. Outrage about racism is a hopeful sign. As are the institutional responses that we’ve seen in Ferguson and elsewhere. We are slowly growing a better future.

The philosopher William James once explained, “faith in a fact can help create the fact.” When we believe that change is possible, change is more likely to occur. James imagines standing on a mountain pass, confronting a leap across a chasm. If you have faith that you can make the leap, you will jump farther. But defeatism will undermine you. A defeatist will jump weakly or not at all, either falling into the abyss or failing to reach the summit.

Martin Luther King Jr. also emphasized faith in the future. He believed that the universe was on the side of justice. But King also said, “progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability.” Rather, progress comes through “tireless efforts” to combat the cynical forces of social stagnation. King clearly had a growth mindset.

Racists and cynics believe that the world is fixed. But that’s false. The world is always changing. So there is work to be done. There is always a new generation being born, who have yet to be corrupted by pernicious ideas. Like weeds in the garden, racism and cynicism occasionally crop up. So let’s get to work, pulling weeds, planting better seeds and growing a better world.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2015/03/20/4438246_andrew-fiala-on-ethics-fighting.html?rh=1#storylink=cpy

 

Lying in the Media: Cynicism, and Hope

Truth is complicated in today’s fast-paced world

Fresno Bee March 9, 2015

The truth is often stretched in the name of a good story. But that rarely bothers us. OpwvX.AuSt.8Some nitpicking quibblers demand accuracy in every story. But the truth is often boring or complicated. So we embellish or simplify.

Journalism and nonfiction writing are, however, held to a different standard. The fibs of Brian Williams, Bill O’Reilly and Rolling Stone’s Sabrina Rubin Ederly are worrisome. So are other scandals involving authorial confabulation. Greg Mortenson, author of “Three Cups of Tea,” embellished much of his story.

One of the challenges of truth-telling is that gullible audiences rarely question heroic and inspiring stories. We like tales that fit our preconceived notions. Liars often tell us what we want to hear. Through repetition, untrue stories come to be accepted as true — perhaps even by the liar himself. The best liar is, after all, the one who believes his own lies. Lying and self-deception go hand in hand. Audiences deceive themselves, too. Once trust is given, it is difficult to admit you’ve been duped.

This points toward troubling questions about the foundational stories of culture and tradition. The same social and psychological forces that explain lying and exaggeration today were also at work in the past. The witnesses of history most likely embellished in the name of a compelling narrative. Those with vested interests bent the truth to their own purposes. The victors told heroic stories at the expense of their victims. Meanwhile, credulous and captive audiences repeated what they were told.

George Orwell warned that when lies pass into history, they become truth. Cynics will conclude from this that history is mostly hogwash. The cynic sees power, propaganda and self-promotion at work in politics, religion and culture. Given our recent experience of liars, phonies and frauds, it’s possible that much of what passes for true history has been warped in Orwellian ways.

On the other hand, perhaps P.T. Barnum was correct when he said, “You can’t fool all the people all the time.” We hope that the truth eventually comes out. But of course, even that quote from Barnum is in dispute — some attribute it to Abraham Lincoln. And so it goes.

Truth is complicated. Knowledge takes diligence. And perfect certainty is rare. In important cases, we set up elaborate procedures for finding the truth. The courts use an adversarial system and assumptions about the burden of proof. Scientists engage in methodical experimentation, while subjecting their conclusions to peer review.

Philosophers advise us to doubt everything. We know that our senses can deceive us. Eyewitnesses and experts exaggerate, misremember, ignore evidence and misinterpret data. Occasionally the experts deliberately lie. Truth only arrives at the end of the long, deliberate process of sifting and winnowing, which includes a substantial dose of self-examination.

But gossip, public opinion and the media work differently. In the world of tweets and pompous posts, there is little time for fact-checking or deliberation. Self-examination and expressions of doubt are rare in the public sphere.

The speeding flow of contemporary information leaves little time for study, reflection and inquiry. Each scandal, crisis and event seems to require an immediate response. But truth is a tender flower. It dies in the hot house of instant opinion and incessant self-promotion.

Truth-seeking requires nurturing attention, quiet reflection and open-minded inquiry. Truth results from attentive listening and careful observation. Truth-seeking is not glamorous. It looks like a scholar in her study, the scientist in the lab, and the jury in the jury room. This is quite different from the breezy certainty of the celebrity blowhards and vain pundits who stand to profit from the tales they tell.

We know that people stretch the truth. Healthy skepticism is always in order. But we should resist cynicism. The fact that we know that there are so many disgraced liars gives us a reason to hope. These scandals may be viewed as an encouraging sign that, in the long-run, most liars will be caught with their pants on fire.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2015/03/09/4417448_ethics-truth-is-complicated-in.html?rh=1#storylink=cpy

The Ethics of Death

Don’t avoid the big questions about death

Fresno Bee, February 20, 2015

Death prompts serious reflection. If death is a dreamless sleep, there is no reason to fear it, since “you” won’t know you are dead. But if death opens the door to another life, where God metes out justice, evildoers ought to fear death and good people should look forward to it.the-death-of-casagemas-1901-1.jpg!Blog

These issues are the focus of a new book, “The Ethics of Death.” The book provides an interesting dialogue between Lloyd Steffen, a scholar of religion, and Dennis Cooley, a humanist philosopher. I am on a panel with the authors this weekend at a conference in Southern California, discussing the meaning of death.

This big question has deep roots. The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus argued that death was annihilation. He thought this was a liberating idea, since it cured the anxiety created by religious stories of reward and punishment. Don’t worry about being dead, Epicurus advised, because your own death will literally be nothing to you. Epicurus and his followers ignored religion and focused on living long and living well.

The early Christians argued directly against the Epicureans and their indifference about death. Augustine argued, for example, that the Epicureans vainly pursued merely fleeting satisfactions. Augustine thought that real happiness is only found in eternal blessedness after death.

Epicurean affirmation of mortal finitude may help us savor the pleasures of life. If the Epicureans are right, ethics becomes a matter of prudence: clean living helps us prosper in this life. But Christians and others who long for eternal life will argue that the joys of this life are shallow and worthless. If we believe in an afterlife, ethical action takes on infinite weight.

A variety of concrete moral implications flow from this dispute. For example, if death means annihilation, then the death penalty is not much of a punishment, since once the criminal is dead he is no longer being punished. A harsher punishment might keep the bad guy alive in order to cause him to suffer as long as possible. On the other hand, if there is an afterlife, then execution speeds the criminal on to final judgment.

Or consider suicide and euthanasia. If death is nonexistence, then death could provide relief in the face of terrible suffering. But those who believe in an afterlife tend to think that suicide is immoral because our lives are not entirely our own to dispose of.

Despite the import of these issues, we often ignore them. Perhaps they are too difficult to think about. But the fact of the matter is that you can’t grow younger and you can’t avoid death.

Phillip Levine, Fresno’s beloved and recently departed poet laureate, once lamented the fact that it takes a very long time to believe the simplest facts of life: “that certain losses are final, death is one, childhood another.”

In another poem Levine said, “no one believes that to die is beautiful.” Levine suggested that in death we might join the waters of the world, flowing into every crack and crevice. Perhaps something beautiful happens when we give up the ghost and join the flow of nature. A poet’s ear may be needed to hear this.

Reflection on death naturally gives way to poetry. In his last days, Socrates wrote poetry and composed hymns. But he also philosophized until his final moments, talking with his friends and speculating about the afterlife.

Music, poetry, religion, and philosophy are expressions of the depth of the human spirit. Consciousness transforms brute experience into meaning. Awareness of death gives urgency to the soul’s need to express itself. We sing and talk and write because we want to leave a fluttering trace of ourselves in the void. If we never died, would we bother to think or talk at all?

To be conscious is to be surrounded by darkness. We do not recall the nothingness before life. Nor can we see beyond the shadows of death. The great religious and philosophical dialogue is an attempt to shed some light on this surrounding gloom.

Death gives meaning to life. Unfortunately, we each have but one lifetime to pray, argue, and sing, while the light still shines. At stake in this discussion is simply everything.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2015/02/20/4387659/ethics-dont-avoid-the-big-questions.html#storylink=cpy

Individual Conscience and the Common Good

When conscience and common good collide

Andrew Fiala, Fresno Bee, February 6, 2015

There is no easy way to reconcile individual conscience and the common good. The argument about the measles vaccine makes this clear. Some have refused vaccination, despite the dangers this creates for public health._55524133_friedrichwandererabovetheseaoffogoriginal

Similar disputes play themselves out in a variety of contexts: Ebola quarantines, eminent domain, and the like. During the past half-century, exceptions have been carved out for individual conscience with regard to military service and a variety of other issues. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court granted a corporation, Hobby Lobby, an exemption to federal insurance laws requiring contraception coverage, based upon a claim of conscience.

Society demands that individuals should serve the greater good and conform to the norms of social life. The risk of allowing conscientious refusal is significant, as we are seeing in the current measles outbreak. Those who are not vaccinated put themselves and others at risk.

But individuals (and apparently even corporations) can refuse to comply. The advocates of conscience might quote Shakespeare, “To thine own self be true.” Or they may assert with Emerson that nothing is sacred but the integrity of your own mind.

Human beings are fundamentally conflicted. We are social animals. But we are also individual persons. Each of us views our own life as special, unique and infinitely valuable. And yet, each of us is merely a replaceable member of the herd, subject to biological forces that flow through our bodies and affect the whole.

Human life is fractured by this irreconcilable rift. Life is lived in the first-person: you are the hero of your own drama. And yet from the outside, each of us is merely a bit player in a much larger story. You will be entirely forgotten in four or five generations. And yet, this life is the only one you’ve got.

Your own death is one of the most important events in your biography — the final, defining moment of your life. But from the perspective of the species, your measly life is inconsequential. Nature will digest your flesh. The planet will not notice your departure. But for you and your loved ones, your departure to the undiscovered country will be an infinite loss.

Our heroes have often been conscientious refusers: Socrates, Jesus, Martin Luther King. But refusal antagonizes the herd. It is not surprising that these heroes were killed. Occasionally the moment is ripe for a refuser to make a difference, especially when the herd is obviously wrong. But most of the time, the tidal movements of society and nature sweep individuals along, and away.

Some individualists claim that individuals should never submit to society’s demands. On the other hand, collectivists claim that social welfare always trumps the right of conscience. At one end is lonely egoism. At the other end is totalitarianism.

Neither solution is acceptable for those of us committed to a democratic social life. Individuals should not lose themselves completely in the herd. Nor should we live in defiance of society. To be human is to suffer in the middle. The tragedy of being human is that we are pulled in multiple directions by opposing forces and conflicting duties.

Religion appears to offer one sort of resolution. An omnipotent God can hold all of this together in his benevolent hands. God is big enough to love each of us infinitely, while also understanding the substance of the common good. But the mystery of divine omnipotence gives us little to go on. We live this side of paradise, without access to divine omniscience.

Does God want us to vaccinate our children, to provide contraception, or to serve in the military? Religious people disagree about the answer to those questions. Every act of conscience is a leap of faith.

Another solution appeals to science. Scientists understand how vaccinations help prevent epidemics. But science can’t tell us how to live in the first-person or how to balance our values, duties, and commitments. Individuals must still interpret the data and apply it to their own lives.

There is no way around this dilemma. Claims of individual conscience can cause outbreaks of measles. But each measly individual also has a claim on infinite value. And a democratic society of conscientious individuals is as dangerous as it is inspiring.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2015/02/06/4367159_fiala-on-ethics-when-conscience.html?rh=1#storylink=cpy

 

Climate, Consumption, and Self-Control

Global-Climate-Change3Looking down the rabbit hole

Fresno Bee, January 23, 2015

The earth’s climate is changing. Last year was among the hottest on record. And human population continues to grow. Current projections estimate that the human population will grow to around 11 billion by the end of the 21st century, reaching 9 billion well before then. That’s an increase of between 25% and 50% from the current population of 7 billion.

Imagine 100 people crowded into a warm room. Now put 25 or 50 more people in that space. Now imagine them all wanting to live and consume resources at the level that Americans enjoy. If the scientists are right, we are heading toward a hot and crowded future.

The good news is that by now nearly everyone admits that the climate is changing. President Barack Obama mentioned climate change in his State of the Union speech. Pope Francis will address the issue in an encyclical to be released this year. And the U.S. Senate voted 98-1 this week to affirm that climate change is real.

Unfortunately, 49 senators voted against the claim that human activity causes climate change. This includes Sen. James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, chair of the Senate Environment Committee. According to Sen. Inhofe, the Bible shows that humans can’t cause climate change — only God can.

A similar sort of denial occurs with regard to population growth. Pope Francis said this week that people should not “breed like rabbits.” But Francis backtracked a bit, later in the week, explaining that every child is a gift from God.

One obvious solution to both issues is birth control. Unfortunately, this solution is often taken off the table on moral grounds. The Pope, for example, opposes artificial birth control, advocating only natural methods for controlling sexual urges and channeling them properly within marriage.

Birth control is not the only solution. Another solution would be to reduce consumption. We could fit more people onto our crowded planet if each person consumed less. This is especially true if those of us in the developed world consumed a whole lot less. The earth could support a large human population if we all became vegetarians and lived much more simply.

But the difficulty of this solution is clear. The vegetarian option runs counter to our culture’s love of meat. And the idea of simplifying our needs runs counter to capitalism, which is based upon a model of continuous growth.

Carnivores, Catholics and capitalists do not appear to be inclined to change their thinking. We are creatures of habit, who remain committed to old ideas, even when they no longer make sense in present contexts.

We are also not very good at controlling our desires. Our inability to restrain ourselves helps explain a lot: from credit card debt to obesity and addiction. We readily sacrifice long-term goods for short-term pleasures. This explains why birth control — whether artificial or natural — fails. In the heat of the moment, passion undermines good judgment.

Good judgment also encounters resistance from strong cultural forces that are slow to change. When ideology is connected to self-interest, profit, and political gamesmanship, it is even more difficult to respond rationally.

The big question here is whether human beings are rational enough and virtuous enough to regulate our own behavior. Perhaps we are not much better than the rabbits of the Pope’s memorable analogy. Rabbits will continue to breed until they outstrip their food source, at which point the population declines. If human beings are like rabbits — unable to limit our reproductive or consumptive behavior — we may be doomed to a similar fate.

We often continue blithely along, ignoring reason and morality. We don’t change until we run out of money, until we are rushed to the emergency room, or until our addictions destroy our lives. We may be more like rabbits than we like to believe.

The ultimate solution is to stop hopping along the bunny trail. We should restrain our sexual activity, curtail consumption, avoid greed and profligacy, and live in balance with the world. Those are old moral ideas that make even more sense in light of the contemporary science of ecology. But these ideas will only prevail when we stop living like rabbits and start behaving like rational human beings.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2015/01/23/4344634_ethics-looking-down-the-rabbit.html?rh=1#storylink=cpy

 

Boredom, Loneliness, and Committment

Fight boredom and loneliness by making a commitment

Fresno Bee, January 9, 2015

Boredom and loneliness are awful afflictions. Bored and lonely people bide their time in office cubicles and nursing homes. There have even been reports of people calling 911 simply to talk to someone. Boredom can lead people to kill time with dangerous and malicious activities. Loneliness easily becomes despair.home-alone-loneliness-seascape-paintings-screen-319027

Love and responsibility provide a remedy. The cure for loneliness and boredom is found in ethical relations, in the cares, concerns and connections that make us fully human. We are curious social beings who need human connection and meaningful activity.

Consider, for a moment, an unfortunate inhabitant of a desert island. That lonely castaway would have no ethical obligations whatsoever. You can’t even be un-ethical on a desert island. To be a liar you need someone to talk to. You can’t cheat, steal, rape or murder when you are alone. Nor can you care, love, teach or learn. A moral life is a social life.

It is natural to dream of escaping from society. Adolescents long for a world without constraints. Busy adults occasionally dream of solitude and silence. But without a supporting social world to return to, solitary freedom becomes dreadful and desolate.

The horror of loneliness and boredom becomes clear when we recall that we use isolation and inaction to punish people — from kids on “time out” to criminals thrown into dungeons. Even dogs get bored and lonely when left home all day.

It is true that there is much to be learned from being alone and mindfully doing nothing. We can be refreshed by meditation, by silent retreats or by hiking alone in the woods. But solitude should properly inspire solicitude and renew our social lives. Voluntary seclusion is quite different from the loneliness and boredom of those who are abandoned and excluded.

Some people confuse freedom with happiness. We often celebrate the free, unencumbered individual — the carefree traveler who roams the world without loyalties, limits or cares. But freedom without responsibility is lonely. Friendships and families are destroyed by those who refuse to limit their freedom and commit to the constraints of social life.

Boredom is also the result of too much freedom. Boredom arises when we have too much time, too many choices, and not enough responsibility. Those who must balance a variety of social duties don’t have time to be bored. Duty and obligation may be irritating and difficult; but they rarely leave us bored.

It is true that we quickly tire of dull, repetitive drudgery. But the worst kind of boredom is experienced by those who have nothing to do and all day to do it. This is why unemployment is devitalizing. It is no surprise that those who are lonely and bored turn to drugs, alcohol or sexual promiscuity, looking for short-term fixes to their existential problem.

We also turn to the flickering images of the digital world for a substitute for social connection. Television and other media provide a surrogate social experience. Many of us know more about the characters in our favorite shows than we know about our neighbors. We may not feel lonely in the digital age. But watching other people — fictional people — live is a lonely substitute for actual social life.

The Danish philosopher Kierkegaard once claimed that boredom was the root of all evil. Kierkegaard suggested that this is the lesson of Genesis. Adam was lonely and needed Eve. Eve was bored, so she flirted with the serpent. And so on.

The punishment of being expelled from Eden was the need to work for a living and raise children. The moral is this: when we are engaged in productive work and burdened with social responsibilities, there is no time for boredom or mischief.

If we do not want to be bored and alone, we must constrain our freedom by making commitments and taking on obligations. We are social animals who find meaning and purpose in responsibility, in caring for others, and in work. So the next time you feel bored or lonely, make a commitment, take on a burden or create a social obligation. A good way to start would be to turn off the TV and reach out to someone who is as lonely and bored as you are.

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