Take care in making judgments about morality

Fresno Bee

March 21, 2014


A report published last week by the Pew Research Center concludes that many people think that belief in God is essential for morality.

In the U.S., 53% of respondents believe that belief in God is essential for morality. These numbers are higher in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The numbers are high in the Middle East, with the exception of Israel, where only 37% link belief in God with morality. In European countries the numbers are lower. In France only 15% affirm the religion-morality link.

This data seems to correspond with research done by Will Gervais and other social scientists who indicate that nonbelievers have a bad reputation. People tend not to trust atheists. They don’t want their children to marry one. They are reluctant to hire one. And many will not vote for one.

These sorts of surveys are interesting — but limited. Morality and religion are complicated topics. We should be careful about reducing a millennia-long conversation about religion and morality to a few factoids taken from public opinion polls.

The morality-religion linkage is quite complex. One approach — the Divine Command theory of ethics — holds that morality is based upon God’s commands, understanding moral rules as created by God’s will. Related to this is a claim about moral knowledge: that without a revelation from God, we would not know the moral rules. Furthermore, the motivation to be moral is thought to come from hope for an eternal reward or fear of final judgment.

Critics of atheism may think that since atheists do not believe that there is a judging God, atheists have no reason to be moral. They may think that since atheists reject revelation, they can have no knowledge of morality. And they may think that without God as the source of morality, morality becomes completely groundless.

But this overlooks much. Many religious people do not simply ground morality in God’s literal commands. They interpret and apply moral rules using reason and common sense. It is also true that many atheists are not anti-religious zealots who think that there is nothing to learn from religion or traditional morality. Indeed, many atheists are careful and attentive students of religion.

Atheists and theists can agree that morality makes life easier and better. Murderers, rapists, liars and adulterers lead difficult and miserable lives. Generous, truthful, caring and courageous people tend to be happier. Eternal rewards and punishments raise the stakes. But morality and happiness are closely linked in this world.

A further problem is posed by religious diversity. Those who maintain that belief in God is necessary for morality still have to explain whose God and which morality. Even within a religious tradition such as Christianity, there are big disputes about morality. Christians themselves disagree about a variety of issues, from gay marriage to abortion to the death penalty.

Disputes about religion and morality are deep and contentious. In a world of religious diversity, a broadly tolerant and humanistic approach to morality may be our best hope for finding common ground. We might agree, for example, that everyone is entitled to believe what they want about religion, so long as they respect others’ right to the same freedom of belief. Belief in God is not necessary for belief in religious liberty.

As our awareness of religious diversity increases, we must avoid simplifying the morality-religion question in the way that the Pew Center poll does. Simplistic thinking and stereotyping of this sort can foster intolerance.

Atheists are not necessarily immoral. Nor is it true that religious people are close-minded bigots. Such gross generalizations are disrespectful, unkind and unhelpful. Despite our fundamental differences, we are each struggling to make sense of life and live it well. If we acknowledged our common struggle to live well in a difficult world, we might learn to be more tolerant, generous and caring toward those who do not share our understanding of religious or moral truth.

A global morality of respect for persons and love of our neighbors is fundamental to a free and peaceful world. Morality in this sense is not the exclusive possession of any particular religion (or non-religion). Instead, it is a condition for cooperation among people who disagree about life’s hardest and most important questions.



Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/03/21/3835573/ethics-take-care-in-making-judgments.html#storylink=cpy

Happiness, Compassion, Dalai Lama, and Maternal Love

Happiness comes from caring for others

Fresno Bee March 7, 2014

Compassion is deeply rooted in our biology. Human beings are conceived in love. We are carried in our mother’s bodies. And for the first days of our lives, we are nurtured by mother’s milk. How is it, then, that we become exploitative, selfish and unhappy?

That question was raised by the Dalai Lama when he spoke recently at Santa Clara University. I was fortunate to attend that event, which began with the 78-year-old monk recalling the nurturing love of his own mother. He argued that compassion grows from the experience of maternal love.

In one of his writings, the Dalai Lama suggests we should learn “to view all sentient beings as our dear mothers and to show our gratitude by loving them all.” The idea of reincarnation in Tibetan Buddhism may help. If a stranger may have once been my mother or my child, I might view that stranger differently. In another place, the Dalai Lama writes that he tries to treat each person he meets as if she were an old friend.

Religious metaphysics aside, there is no denying that we are social animals. We possess a basic tendency toward community and cooperation. But the seeds of compassion are fragile. They must be nurtured and can easily be destroyed. The Dalai Lama suggested that our mode of life promotes selfishness, which increases anxiety and undermines community.

Indeed, the Dalai Lama’s presentation was surrounded by the stresses of modern life. The Bay Area traffic was difficult. The audience had to endure long lines and security searches before entering the building. Police roamed the hall. Protesters gathered outside. The political situation in Tibet remains complicated. Before his visit to California, the Dalai Lama met with President Barack Obama. The meeting outraged the Chinese government.

The Dalai Lama’s message is a deceptively simple antidote to all of that turmoil. On Thursday he delivered a prayer in the U.S. Congress, where he said: “Speak or act with a pure mind and happiness will follow.” Easier said than done in the U.S. Congress!

At his Santa Clara speech he said that compassion reduces stress, produces inner peace, builds trust and engenders happiness. Selfishness destroys relationships, breeds anger and leaves us lonely. He indicated that much of this has been confirmed by medical science. Indeed, some studies show that smiling can decrease anxiety and that happiness is contagious. Compassion is linked to health and longevity.

When we concern ourselves with the happiness of others we become happier. When we give happiness, we get it in return. When we ignore others, we suffer more. There is a paradox here: To get what you want, you have to give it away. But by giving happiness, your attitude changes so that you no longer selfishly desire your own happiness. You find happiness when you are no longer obsessed with it.

It is easy to dismiss this, along with the idea of reincarnation, as silly, superficial and superstitious. Some horrors cannot be cured with love. The causes of unhappiness are biological, social and political. Compassion is important. But it needs to be organized and mobilized.

Compassion cannot eradicate traffic jams, security queues and war. Hardness and cynicism are coping strategies in a broken world. Most of the time, we live quite far from the nurturing simplicity of mother’s love; and some people, like the Dalai Lama, live in permanent exile.

But strategic cynicism should not undermine imagination and hope. Love is difficult to imagine before it happens. I never imagined the transformative power of love until my own children were born. My desire for their happiness is strange and unexpected. I am happy when they are happy. I suffer when they suffer. How odd! But here is a kernel of hope.

The Dalai Lama’s focus on maternal love is a reminder that each of us can discover a capacity for care that was previously unimagined. What if we could learn to love all of our neighbors as we love our own children? What if we could see strangers as relatives and old friends? A story about reincarnation may help. Or we may simply need to remember that each of was loved and that each is worthy of love. And we might thank our mothers for that.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/03/07/3809766/ethics-dalai-lama-reminds-us-that.html#storylink=cpy


Washington’s Story and Slavery

Washington’s story teaches to learn from mistakes


Fresno Bee February 22, 2014

George Washington was born Feb. 22, 1732. Washington was a great man who owned more than 300 slaves. Washington expressed regret for slavery. His will stipulated that his slaves should be freed after his death.

Despite his regret, his slaves were emancipated only after he died. Washington’s fortune was built on slavery, and his enlightenment dawned a bit late. Is Washington a saint for freeing his slaves posthumously? Or is he a hypocrite for keeping slaves his entire life?

It may be anachronistic to apply contemporary standards regarding slavery to Washington. But we should also note our tendency to burnish the reputations of our heroes. No one — not even Washington — is perfect. Entire cultures can be mistaken. Favorite stories are often biased, incomplete or untrue.

Consider the story of Washington’s confession regarding the cherry tree. Young George chopped down his father’s favorite tree. When confronted by his father, he confessed saying, “I cannot tell a lie.”

The story is most likely not true, despite its edifying lesson about the importance of true confession. The purpose of this story — with obvious parallels to a story about a father and tree in the Garden of Eden — is to inspire and teach children about virtue. And so it goes with hagiography. Convenient stories, told for a variety of purposes, turn human beings into saints.

True stories are more complicated — and more interesting. Here’s a true story about Washington. As a young man, he copied down a code of conduct as part of a writing exercise. The code, known as Washington’s “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior,” concludes: “Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.”

Perhaps that call to conscience influenced Washington during the rest of his life. Washington’s posthumous emancipation of his slaves is a sign that the celestial fire did enlighten him in the long run. But does this late act adequately atone for the injustice of a life built upon slavery?

One lesson of the story of Washington and his slaves is that we are each subject to circumstances that we do not choose and cannot master. Even the best of us can be tainted by the corruption of the cultures into which we are thrown.

The 110 rules that young George transcribed represent decent behavior as imagined in a culture based on rank and deference. The rules tell us when to stand up, when to bow, when to take off our hats and how to blow our noses. These are the rules of a hierarchical society. The rules were given to George and he copied them down — as we do with all of the rules of the cultures we inherit.

Central to this code is the idea that some people are better bred and have greater “quality.” Those of lesser quality are instructed to avoid looking their betters in the eye. Lesser persons are told to walk behind their betters, to defer to men of quality and step aside, allowing their superiors to pass.

Washington inherited his first slaves at age 11, at about the same time that he was copying down these rules. It is interesting to imagine young George thinking about these rules, practicing his penmanship and learning to manage his slaves at the same time. The rules and the slaves were part of a cultural legacy Washington inherited and did create.

This story tells us much more than the story of the cherry tree. The story of George and the slaves is a tale of moral and cultural blindness. The founding fathers were unable to see the wickedness of excluding slaves from the exalted goods of rights and equality.

Washington is not alone in suffering from moral blindness. Hypocrisy is a common human affliction. It is difficult to see injustices in our own lives and in our culture. The light of conscience flickers dimly and we simply accept the world we inherit.

Washington’s enlightenment came too late to benefit the men and women he owned. But his story is a reminder of the need to keep the flame of conscience burning. In the long run, we may be able to get things right by regretting and confessing our mistakes and by breaking the old rules when we need to.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/02/21/3784492/washingtons-story-teaches-to-learn.html#storylink=cpy


We must learn to live in harmony with nature

We must learn to live in harmony with nature


Fresno Bee February 7, 2014

Some have prayed to God to end our drought. But drought is not about God’s will. It’s about our habits. Human beings choose how to use the rain that falls. Despite the recent showers, we still need the wisdom to adapt to changing conditions.

Drought is a relative term that depends upon long-term average rainfall. Drought in the Olympic rain forest is different from drought in California. But we may have misjudged California’s long-term average. The 20th century was wetter than previous centuries. Less rain may be the new normal.

We must respond to local conditions and new circumstances. But we often ignore the constraints of our ecosystem, insisting on our own preferences, failing to harmonize with the land and its changes.

Aldo Leopold, the great conservation ecologist, warned that contemporary American life was out of synch with the land. Unsustainable practices do not respond to the unique beauty and integrity of the local environment. Leopold’s famous “land ethic” aims to find harmony with the land.

Harmony is an interesting concept. Musical harmony joins together different tones to make a synchronized and beautiful whole. Harmonizers respond to change in creative, sympathetic and peaceful ways. They don’t insist on their own tone. Rather, they learn to blend by listening and adapting to what’s unfolding around them. Grace, balance and harmony are essential for a happy life.

Harmonious living is a central idea in the Chinese philosophy known as Taoism. Taoist myths explain that Lao-Tzu, the old master of Taoism, despaired of the disharmony of political life and left civilization behind. But before he retreated to the wilderness, he reminded people to be less like rock and more like water: to flow with the world. Taoism links harmony with flowing water. The Tao Te Ching warns that without harmony, valleys dry up and life withers.

This discussion of harmony may sound frivolous in the face of the hard reality of drought. Drought forces tough choices about distributing harms and benefits. Do we need more dams and reservoirs? Should old rivers be restored? What about the fish? What about the farmers? Ask those questions around here and you’re bound to find conflict.

That is part of the problem. We’re in conflict with one another and in conflict with the land. We don’t listen, and we don’t blend.

A Taoist would suggest that toughness and hardness are part of the problem. To adamantly insist on living in a way that is not responsive to the natural world is to miss an opportunity to harmonize.

Green summer lawns, to cite one obvious example, are out of tune with the reality of our dry summer climate. To live harmoniously in California we may have to give up green summer grass. Someone might object, “A lush, green lawn is central to our way of life. And we’ll be poorer without them. Let someone else sacrifice. I want to live how I want to live.” When each party insists, conflict ensues.

We become adamant when asked to reassess our idea of what is needed for a good life. Drought, however, requires a reassessment of priorities. A different way of living would be beautiful in its own way, so long as it harmonizes with the world.

The point is not to advocate asceticism, self-denial and miserable subsistence. Nor should we prioritize fish over farmers or vice versa. The goal is to find a way to prosper while listening and blending. To live well is to live in balance. We forget that because we’ve been taught to insist and resist, to fight and accuse. That discordant approach is typical of our disharmonious political culture. It is the same sort of culture that led Lao-Tzu to despair.

Many prefer strife and struggle. We hammer each other, proudly displaying our resoluteness. But unyielding hardness only produces short-term gains. It does not delve into the difficult process of learning to blend with each other and conform to the land.

In the long run, the weather will change us, despite our resistance — just as water wears away the hardest stone. Human civilization is a tiny pebble in the river of time. Wisdom is learning to listen and harmonize with the changing chords of the natural world.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/02/07/3756489/we-must-learn-to-live-in-harmony.html#storylink=cpy

It’s time to stop privatizing our grief

Fresno Bee

January 10, 2014


In December, Jahi McMath, an Oakland 13-year-old, was declared brain-dead. Her family refused to pull the plug. After court intervention, Jahi was moved into a care facility. Her prognosis is grim.

It is easy to sympathize with Jahi’s family. It is always difficult to believe someone we love is dead. It must be more difficult when your child’s body is warm and her heart is beating.

There are deep questions here about death, dying and grieving. These perennial issues are made tougher in a culture like ours that is often in denial about death.

I spoke about this with Nate Hinerman, a professor at Golden Gate University. Hinerman is an expert on dying and grieving and the editor of a book about the presence of the dead in our lives.

Hinerman suggests that pop culture makes dying appear as something unnatural — it happens by accident, at the hands of criminals or as a result of medical malfeasance. We no longer see dying as something natural or normal.

Dying happens in institutional settings, instead of in our homes. We don’t see it happening. As a result, we don’t know how to think about it or fit it into our worldview.

Hinerman is also critical of our tendency to pathologize and privatize grief. Instead of viewing grieving as a normal process, we view it as a disease that should be quickly gotten over. When it lingers too long, it can be diagnosed as depression and cured with a pill. But Hinerman suggests there is no right way to grieve.

We also think it is polite to leave the grieving alone. We avoid talking about death and loss because of our own discomfort. We use euphemisms like “passed away” to speak around the issue. And so death and dying recede from ordinary experience, leaving us speechless and clumsy around the bereaved.

Dying and grieving are thus devalued. The whole process is seen as shameful and bad — to be staved off and hidden away. The solution, Hinerman suggests, is to take these things out of the closet. We need more education about dying and grieving. We need to see the process and think about it before it happens to us. And when it does happen, we need quality care both for the patient and for those left behind.

I suspect we also need to simply admit that there is no way out of this life except through the door of death and grief. The world’s philosophical traditions have always made this clear. The path to wisdom is to admit our own mortality and to recognize that everyone we love will someday perish.

But this admission is made harder by the promise of medical science. In December, as Jahi’s case was unfolding, scientists at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging announced that they had extended the lifespan of a nematode — a small worm — by five times. A similar increase for humans would mean a life of 400-500 years.

With the elixir of immortality near at hand, death appears unfair and irrelevant. We don’t expect people to die anymore or want to think about it. It seems fatalistic and pessimistic to accept dying and grieving. Maybe modern science will fulfill the dream of the ancient alchemists and finally cure us of our mortality.

I’m not convinced that longevity would be all we imagine it to be. Life without death might leave us unable to experience the depth of care and love. Love is unique to mortal beings who are aware of our need for care and the potential for loss.

One risk of love is grief. To love someone is to be indelibly affected by their presence. We will be damaged when our loved ones die. But they will also remain present with us. Grief resonates in the empty places in our hearts where those we love uncannily dwell.

Scientific miracles and the alienating institutions of death and dying can confuse us about this. Death is not a good thing. But accepting our mortality may increase the intensity of love and life. Our lover’s beauty, our parents’ twinkling eyes and our children’s joyful laughter are accentuated by the bittersweet awareness that for all its wonders, life is usually far too short.


Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/01/10/3707618/its-time-to-stop-privatizing-our.html#storylink=cpy

New Year: Look both ways before you cross

Fresno Bee

December 27, 2013


January is named after the Roman god Janus. Janus is a two-faced god, who looks backward and forward at the same time. Janus was also the god of doorways and gates, a reminder that every entrance is also an exit and that what passes away can also return.

As the calendar turns, it’s easy to think of time as a circle. Nature is made up of repeating circular patterns. A year is how long it takes the earth to complete its orbit around the sun. Life itself makes a cycle from ashes to ashes, dust to dust. An old one dies and a new one is born.

Holiday traditions heighten the sense of recurrence. We sing the same songs, eat the same food, tell the same stories and visit the same people. We feel the stabilizing depth of decades of repetition: in the echoes of Christmas carols, in the homey spice of tannenbaum and in the flavor of Grandma’s cookies. Each Christmas reverberates with the ghosts of Christmas past.

But a week after Christmas, we resolve to leave these ghosts behind. We enter the new year with a kind of moralistic optimism, determined to make progress. Modern people tend to be forward-looking. We view nostalgia as a lazy distraction. We celebrate the progress we have made. We expect growth and expansion to continue, without decline or regress — as if things can always keep getting better.

We would certainly not want to circle back to slavery, to the subjugation of women and to superstitious mythologies. A fitting new year’s resolution is to work for further progress in terms of social justice and enlightenment.

The ritual of making new year’s resolutions celebrates the progressive, linear understanding of time and of life. To make a resolution affirms hopeful confidence and ambitious self-assertion. We think it is possible to innovate and revolutionize.

But this optimistic anticipation of improvement can cause frustration. Some things cannot be changed, despite our best efforts. There is wisdom in learning to accept things as they are. We cannot change history — or our own past biography — no matter how hard we try.

The ancient Stoic philosophers are associated with this sort of accepting resignation. They also held that time was circular. The Emperor Marcus Aurelius explained, “all things are of like forms and come round in a circle.” Things happen in regular repeating patterns. Even empires rise and fall. Complaining about this won’t change it. So Marcus advises us to find our place within the patterned whole, to do our duty, and to accept all that happens with Stoic indifference.

In the nineteenth century, this idea was explored by Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche thought that there was an eternal recurrence of the same thing. The idea that everything repeats, including this very moment, can be a burden — especially if we are not happy with our lot in life. The goal, then, is to create a life you would be willing to live again … and again. The challenge is to learn to love this world just as it is.

On New Year’s Day in 1882, Nietzsche made the following resolution: “I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who make things beautiful. Amor fati (“love of fate”): let that be my love henceforth!”

Love affirms the beloved for what it is, without judgment or reserve. It accepts what is. An ambitious new year’s resolution is to learn to love things as they are.

On the other hand, this can be a recipe for stagnation and conservatism. Stoic resignation may encourage the slave to love his chains. If you are doomed to be a slave, perhaps that is the best you can do. But resigned affirmation does not break the chains that bind us.

In the end, wisdom is Janus-faced, a matter of ambivalence and ambiguity. Time is a circle but also a line. Resigned acceptance is beneficial but so is progressive work for social justice. The door to the future is open: we can begin again. But we’ve also been here before: we carry the past with us. January is a time of looking both ways. And it’s always wise to look both ways before crossing any threshold.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2013/12/27/3686555/new-year-look-both-ways-before.html#storylink=cpy


Rest required for sound moral judgment

Fresno Bee

December 13, 2013


As the dark nights come early and the sun rises late, it’s tempting to feel the urge to hibernate. The natural world goes dormant in the dark months. Perhaps human beings should also indulge our winter lethargy.

Sleep is necessary for mental, physical and moral health. Research shows that sleep deprivation undermines moral judgment. One recent book — Penelope Lewis’s “The Secret World of Sleep” — argues that sleep deprivation distorts our emotions, leaving us “frustrated, intolerant, unforgiving, uncaring, and self-absorbed.”

And yet, our tradition is not fond of sleep. We celebrate early-risers for their ambition. Benjamin Franklin maintained that wealth, health and wisdom come from rising early. Moralists like Franklin tend to scold the lazy, indolent and slothful.

Criticism of sleepiness has deep roots. Aristotle held that wakefulness and knowledge were the highest goods. Sleep leaves us senseless and unaware — more vegetable than human. Aristotle seems to view sleep as an inconvenient necessity of the animal body.

Aristotle also suggests that we are only happy when we are awake. It makes no sense, for Aristotle, to say that sleeping people or plants are happy. The Greeks understood happiness as an activity enjoyed while conscious, not something to be experienced passively.

Aristotle even suggests that God does not sleep. The deity is constantly active, engaged in eternal contemplation. Human enlightenment is modeled on this sort of alert and attentive contemplation.

Given this background, it is no wonder that our scientific and technological culture tends in the direction of 24/7 wakefulness fueled by coffee and electricity. Some even want to hack their brains to reduce the need for sleep. We light the night and fill our eyes with glowing screens, craving stimulation, experience and knowledge.

But wisdom may require us to shut our eyes. The natural world has obvious cycles of wakefulness and sleep, including long hibernal periods of dormancy. Nature and health seem to require that we power-down and become unconsciousness.

This may explain so-called seasonal affective disorder. The winter blues might reflect a biological need for sleep in the dark and cold months. Imagine our ancestors dozing through long winter nights in their dark caves. Maybe it’s natural to snooze away the winter.

Furthermore, there are things to be learned from darkness, silence and sleep. There is more to human life than wakeful happiness. We are not gods, after all — we are mortal animals. Life ends in the long sleep we call death, when we finally might rest in peace, as the saying goes. Learning to accept the dark, sleepy and silent parts of life may be part of the process of finding peace and accepting death.

Author Peter Kingsley explains this in the book “In the Dark Places of Wisdom.” Kingsley describes an ancient practice — called incubation — through which people sought mystical dreams and healing by sleeping in dark caves and holy places. Mystical insight supposedly arises in prolonged incubation and experience of sleeping, dreaming and darkness.

The insight that Kingsley thinks we find in the dark is that “all is one.” He thinks that dark silence helps us understand the unity of the world, the illusory nature of consciousness, and the dreamlike quality of the world of appearances.

This is provocative. But it runs counter to the sort of enlightenment we associate with science and morality. Moral judgment appears to require clarity and discernment — shown in the light of reason. While the capacity for moral judgment may be improved by a good night’s sleep — we want our judges to be awake, not dreaming.

Nonetheless, the mystical insight that “all is one” may have moral importance. It points toward the brotherhood of man and goodwill to all. After all, in the dark we are all the same.

As the winter solstice approaches, we might find some wisdom in letting ourselves join the rest of the natural world in sleeping long and sleeping late. If someone like Benjamin Franklin were to criticize you for spending a few extra moments in bed these days, tell them you’re recharging your moral batteries, seeking wisdom and exploring solidarity with all things. You might even ask them to join you under the covers, to incubate a bit before the alarm clock rings again.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2013/12/13/3665865/ethics-sleep-long-and-late-it.html#storylink=cpy


The naughty and nice of gift giving

Fresno Bee

November 29, 2013


Imagine that your Aunt Clara gives you a pink bunny suit for Christmas, when you really wanted a Red Ryder air rifle. Chances are you’ll smile and say thank you. It’s the thought that counts. You can’t blame Aunt Clara for her bad taste or delusions. Her intentions were good.

But this may let Aunt Clara off too easily. Consequences matter in addition to intentions. We don’t usually think that it’s only the thought that counts. Performance matters in most social endeavors. Good gift giving requires substantial effort beyond merely having good intentions.

Gift giving sends a signal about the status of our relationships. There are a lot of uncertainties here. To begin with, you have to decide who merits a gift. Should you give a gift to your neighbors, co-workers and distant nephews?

Then you have to decide how much to spend. Should you spend as much on your nieces and nephews as you do on the collection for the office assistant or janitor at work? And what about reciprocation? If you gave someone a $10 gift last year and she reciprocated with a $50 gift, what should you give her this year?

Can you give everyone on your list the same gift — perhaps an iTunes gift card? Or do you have to find the perfect gift for each person? Maybe Aunt Clara had a big stack of bunny suits in her closet. Can we blame her for being efficient in her shopping?

Aunt Clara could just send cash. As my grandmother said, cash is always the right color but rarely the right size. But the gift of cash can seem more like a tip than a gift. You can give the mailman a few bucks. But that’s not a proper gift for your wife.

These problems were discussed long ago by the Roman philosopher Seneca. In his treatise on gift giving, Seneca explains that giving must be done for the sake of the recipient. It’s not merely the thought that counts — we also have to try to give an appropriate gift.

Seneca also suggests that genuine gift giving should be done for the sake of giving itself. That sounds like abstract moralizing. But an old Christmas song tells kids to be good for goodness’ sake. The idea is that it is naughty to be good for the sake of something other than goodness.

To give for the sake of giving we must cultivate a spirit of charity, kindness and care. But that generous spirit only creates the right disposition. It still doesn’t tell us what to give or how much. The spirit of pure generosity certainly sounds nice. But without some common sense it can be naughty.

An old proverb states that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Aunt Clara may be on that gilded path. She may think she is being generous for the sake of generosity. But unless she takes your needs and interests into account, giving you a gift for your sake and not merely for the sake of goodness, she’s being lazy and thoughtless.

A further problem is that good giving should not merely give you what you want — it should also give you what you need. If Aunt Clara is really concerned with you for your sake, she shouldn’t give you the air rifle, since after all, “you might put your eye out.” It’s wrong to give someone a gift knowing that the gift might injure him — even if he wants it.

That’s why it is wrong to give wine to a hard drinker — as Seneca notes. When you do something for the sake of someone else, you should carefully imagine the consequences. You’ve got to put yourself in the place of the other.

And that’s the point of gift giving. It encourages deep social interaction grounded in moral imagination. Giving ought to be focused on the unique needs and interests of the individual, done for her sake.

All of this makes shopping harder. But better shopping is not the only solution. The real challenge is to take the time to love those on our lists, without putting another frivolous bunny suit or hazardous air rifle under the Christmas tree.


Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2013/11/29/3638620/ethics-breaking-down-the-naughty.html#storylink=cpy

Be thankful our country allows all beliefs on prayer

Fresno Bee

November 15, 2013


George Washington declared that a Thursday in November should be directed to “the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.” President Obama reaffirmed this last year, declaring that Thanksgiving is a time for Americans to “be mindful of the grace bestowed upon us by God.”

Where does that leave nonreligious Americans? The issue of nonreligious prayer came up recently as the U.S. Supreme Court considered a case where citizens protested the use of prayer in public meetings in a New York town. During the hearing, Justice Antonin Scalia asked, “What is the equivalent of prayer for somebody who is not religious?” That pregnant question was left unanswered by the court.

To pursue this matter, I contacted professor Daniel Dennett at Tufts University, a prominent defender of humanism. Dennett explained in an email, “In silent soliloquy or public pronouncement we can resolve to ourselves to do better, to suppress our bad habits and natures, and we can express, silently or aloud, our allegiance to some cause or institution or group. We can ask for forgiveness, make promises, declare love. All these highly important — maximally important or sacred — themes can be laundered of all religious overtones and remain as solemn, life-defining speech acts.”

Dennett is right. Nonreligious people can make public affirmations and engage in silent soliloquy. They can make solemn, life-defining pronouncements. But are these nonreligious speech acts really prayers?

A prayer is a petition to the deity, usually soliciting a blessing. To pray means literally to ask, beg, request or plead. Prayers can also express admiration, worshipful awe and thanksgiving. Prayers can be shared in public. They can also be unspoken and private.

Whether spoken or silent, religious prayer has an intended recipient. Prayerful words are directed toward a deity, who is presumably powerful enough to hear even our silent supplications. This divinity is supposed to respond to our entreaties and to appreciate adulation. Religious people from different faiths may disagree about who is being petitioned, thanked or worshiped. But they agree that there is someone out there to whom their prayers are addressed.

And that is where the nonreligious will shake their heads instead of bowing them. Atheists do not think there is a divine recipient of prayerful words. Although atheists can appreciate tacit reflection and benefit from public reminders of key values, atheists deny that a divinity can hear our prayers.

Humanistic atheists may be grateful to be alive. They may admire the complexity of the universe. They may have a sense of appreciation and awe. They may see the psychological benefit of guided meditation. They may even enjoy the poetic force of devotional words. But they won’t accept the metaphysics of prayer.

An atheist can whisper to herself before an exam, “I hope I do well on this test.” A team of atheists could affirm before a match, “Let’s work hard and do our best.” But it would be nonsensical for atheists to ask for God’s assistance in these endeavors.

There is a fundamental conflict here. This topic will inevitably offend somebody. There is no way to resolve a dispute in which one person’s deepest convictions are viewed by others as nonsense.

The best we can do is agree to disagree. Let’s admit that Scalia is right to suggest that nonreligious prayer is an oxymoron. But that’s exactly why, in our diverse society, we ought to be careful with public prayer.

On this issue, Thomas Jefferson may be a better guide than Washington or Obama. Jefferson refused to declare a public day of prayer when he was president. In a letter from 1808, he explained that the Constitution prevented him from meddling with religious exercises. He also explained that religious sects have an interest in this protection, since the right to decide about prayer should remain in the hands of citizens and not be foisted upon them by the government.

Thankfully, the First Amendment to the Constitution provides this protection to religious and nonreligious people. The government should not prohibit private prayer. Nor should it tell us when or how to pray (or not pray). Americans should be grateful for that protection, even though we will fundamentally disagree about the ultimate question of whom we ought to thank for the rest of our blessings.


Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2013/11/15/3611459/ethics-this-thanksgiving-be-thankful.html#storylink=cpy

It’s fall and there’s a spirit of debate in the air

Fresno Bee

November 1, 2013


The changes of autumn prompt metaphysical speculation. The leaves turn colors, as if by magic. The mists linger in chill hollows like ghosts. Living things hibernate and die. It’s a good time to wonder about spiritual things.

The pagan Celts called this time of year Samhain. Christians focus on Halloween, All Souls’ Day, and Dia de los Muertos. Some think the living and the dead intermingle in the transition from autumnal equinox to winter solstice, the midpoint between life and death.

Scientific materialists will see this as mere silliness. The change of seasons is determined by astronomical events. The cycle of life involves dormancy and death. But the dead do not return. We miss them. But they cannot harm us. And we cannot communicate with them.

Skeptical materialists will note that ghostly metaphysics don’t work out. How can a spirit being interact with the material world? If ghosts can pass through walls, then they cannot grasp and move material objects, make sounds, or be seen. Movement, sight and sound occur in the world of matter, light and sound waves. Immaterial entities cannot be seen, heard or felt. There can be no trace of the existence of a ghost in our material world.

Despite this common-sense objection, quite a few people still believe in ghosts. Some of this may be merely for fun. Ghost stories provoke a thrill — especially at this time of year. But some people are quite sincere in saying they’ve experienced a haunting.

According to the Pew Center, nearly one-third of Americans say they have been in touch with the dead. A Huffington Post/YouGov poll reports that 45% of Americans believe in ghosts. A report from Public Policy Polling claims that half of Americans believe in demonic possession. And in an interview in October, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia affirmed that the devil is real and that demonic possession can occur.

We might think that people are entitled to believe what they want about these things. But materialists might be reluctant to trust judges and other public servants who affirm spiritual nonsense. And spiritualists may not trust authorities who deny that the world is enchanted and visited by spiritual forces.

Skeptics and spiritualists are often living in quite different worlds. For the believers, the world is a mysterious place haunted by things unseen. In a spooky and uncanny universe, magic may be required to manipulate spectral forces — in the form of talismans and good-luck charms to ward off evil. Some believe in the power of sacrifices, offerings, prayers and exorcisms. Others will invoke demonic powers to explain bad behavior, accidents and natural disasters.

Skeptics will see such magical thinking as ridiculous and dangerous. David Hume, an 18th century Scottish philosopher, argued that superstition developed out of weakness, fear, melancholy and ignorance. Hume also suggested that superstition empowered priestly authorities who say they possess the ability to manipulate the spirit world. And he thought this undermined the liberty of superstitious individuals who submit to the magical maneuvers of the priests.

Skeptics also will point out that there is no way to figure out which account of ghosts and demons is the right one. There is no agreement about pneumatology (a fancy word for the study of spiritual beings). Is the Catholic account affirmed by Scalia true? But what about shamanistic spiritualism? What about Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, and other beliefs? Unlike in the material sciences, pneumatology is unable to produce consensus.

It’s a good thing that we no longer burn witches. We generally agree to disagree about ghosts, demons, and magic. It is possible for spiritualists and skeptics to coexist, so long as we don’t try to impose our beliefs on one another.

Our ability to coexist may indicate that these metaphysical disputes are not really that important.

Spiritualists and skeptics must each rake the autumn leaves and mourn their dead.

But on the other hand, nothing is more important than the meaning we give to these activities. Whether we affirm magic or materialism, we want to make sense of a world of change and death.

We all share the deeply human project of making meaning in a mysterious world.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2013/11/01/3585052/its-fall-and-theres-a-spirit-of.html#storylink=cpy