Rocket Man Morality

Fresno Bee, October 17, 2021

When Captain Kirk made it to space, I was driving past a panhandler. The Gil Scott-Heron song, “Whitey on the Moon,” came to mind. We’ve got poverty and pandemics. But Shatner’s riding a rocket.

I say this as a fan of “Star Trek” and William Shatner. I’ve cheered on the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. I’ve even enjoyed Shatner’s campy spoken-word recordings — including his bizarre rendition of Elton John’s “Rocket Man.”

But “Star Trek” sold us a fantasy. They forgot to tell us that only the rich and famous will go where no man has gone before. The rest of us will be stuck in traffic, while poor folks beg for cash on freeway off-ramps.

Of course, Shatner can do whatever he wants. Rich old men have the right to burn up their money with rocket fuel. One part of this story is about Shatner’s health and longevity. At 90, Shatner is the oldest person to go into space. It’s amazing that a nonagenarian can blast into orbit. Good for him that he is sturdy enough to ride a rocket.

But in the background of Shatner’s triumph are tragic inequalities. Rich people live long, healthy lives. Poor people do not. A report from before the pandemic indicated that rich American men live an average of 15 years longer than poor American men.

The whole Earth is afflicted by similar gaps. World Bank data show that in “low income” countries, life expectancy is 64 years, while in “high income” countries, it is 81. It doesn’t seem right to fling old geezers into space while people are dying down below.

So, while I’m a Shatner fan, I also want to say shame on him — and on the idea of space tourism. This is conspicuous consumption run amok. The Earth and its humans need help. But the rich are riding rockets.

Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket latest space passengers from left, Audrey Powers, William Shatner, Chris Boshuizen, and Glen de Vries raises their hands as they talks about snake bites during a media availability at the spaceport near Van Horn, Texas, Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021. (AP Photo/LM Otero) LM Otero AP
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Those rockets emit massive amounts of pollution. The atmosphere is already full of heat-trapping gases. A tourist flight into space leaves a carbon footprint up to a hundred times worse than an ordinary airplane flight.

In case you were wondering, a ticket into space costs about $200,000. It’s obscene to spend that kind of money on a few minutes of weightlessness and the bragging rights you get from becoming a rocket man.

Despite the cost, the space tourism industry is planning to grow. The ultra-wealthy are doing fine and getting richer. I’m sure the wealthy will keep the rockets busy. There are plans for hundreds of rocket flights per year.

The wealthy will survive the climate crisis without much problem. Rich people already generate more carbon emissions than poor people. The rich will ride out the climate storm in air-conditioned summer homes, while the working poor and the homeless suffer under the heat.

It is probably too late to restrict the space tourism industry. If Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and others are prevented from launching their rockets in the U.S., they would just launch them abroad.

That’s where shame comes in. Instead of celebrating space tourists, we should say, shame on them. Rich people should be embarrassed to ride on rockets. It would be better for the rich to donate their 200K to a homeless shelter. Let’s praise them when they do that. And let’s shame them when they binge on rocket fuel.

We also need to question the fantasy that Hollywood has sold us about space. There is no home for us in the stars. Elton John’s vision is more realistic. He said, “Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids; in fact, it’s cold as hell.”

To his credit, Shatner described how the rocket flight humbled him. He said that from the rocket’s window he saw “the vulnerability of everything.” That’s important. But you don’t need to ride a rocket to understand that our planet and our neighbors are suffering.

The “Star Trek” fantasy assumes we are wise enough to venture to the stars. But until we fix this world, we have not earned the right to leave it. Scotty can’t just beam us up. There’s nowhere else to go. Every rocket man must land again on this fragile crust and drive home past the haunted and the homeless.

The Wisdom of Nonviolence

Fresno Bee, October 3, 2021

Violence is increasing. Domestic terrorism is rising, including threats against members of Congress. The FBI just published its annual report on crime. The bad news is that violent crime is on the rise.

So let’s reflect on the dumbness of violence. Violence produces bad outcomes. It is also dumb in a metaphorical sense. Violence does not speak, it growls. Like a roaring lion, it does not argue. It merely threatens and attacks.

Violence can be spectacular. It attracts our attention. But violence does not really seek to persuade. Persuasion requires an argument. Violent acts are not arguments. That’s why violence does not create or convert.

The ugly truth about violence is well-known. Gandhi explained it. So did Martin Luther King, Jr. Both advocated nonviolence as the higher road.

Oct. 2 marks Gandhi’s birthday and is an International Day of Nonviolence. Gandhi said that even when violence appears to do good, that is merely temporary. Nonviolence creates lasting change because, as Gandhi explained, nonviolence is a “process of conversion.” Instead of destroying those you hate, nonviolence builds bridges and finds common ground.

Gandhi demonstrated that organized nonviolence can be a powerful force for change. Martin Luther King Jr. put this method to work in the United States.

In his Nobel Peace Prize lecture in 1964, King explained the critique of violence this way: “In spite of temporary victories, violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones. Violence is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all.”

This truth is reaffirmed as we reflect on the aftermath of the war on terrorism. After 20 years of war, we wonder whether the war was worth the cost. The war in Afghanistan teaches us that violence is a blunt instrument for transforming hearts and minds.

The “Costs of War” project at Brown University provides a recent summary. Totaling deaths from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere, they estimate that almost 930,000 people were killed in the war on terrorism. This includes over 7,000 American military personnel. About 38 million people were displaced as war refugees. The war is estimated to have cost $8 trillion.

We did kill Osama bin Laden and other terrorist masterminds. But terrorists still lurk in the shadows. And the Taliban quickly returned to power. The war did not resolve the social, political, and cultural problems that give rise to terrorism and oppressive regimes such as the Taliban.

War is a destructive force that breeds reactive antagonism. It does not educate, democratize, or humanize. Political violence does not create just or lasting change. Rather, it destabilizes and provokes, causing polarization and pain.

This truth about war and violence is easily overlooked. There is a primal urge to employ violence. We are animals after all. Like the lion, we roar. When pushed, we attack.

The world’s moral traditions teach us to subdue the lion within. We are not merely animals, after all. We are human beings. We can learn to “turn the other cheek” and resist animal aggression. This is the message of Jesus and the Buddha, as well as Gandhi and King.

Our own culture often ignores this message. We celebrate violence. Pop culture is full of gangsters and cops, super-spies and superheroes. Our culture encourages us to falsely believe that might makes right and that in the end the good guys are justified in using violence.

But we are not superheroes. We are fragile and flawed beings. And unlike in a James Bond fantasy, real lives are destroyed when we uncage the lion.

The good news is that we are intelligent beings. We can learn from our mistakes. Violence involves a kind of smug self-certainty. It fails because it treats other human beings as animals and objects to be manipulated by physical force. But human beings are not persuaded by violence. We are motivated by pride and love, reason and morality.

Nonviolence is not always effective. But in the long run it is wiser to keep the lion in his cage. Nonviolence appeals to the better angels of our nature. It treats human beings with the care and respect we deserve.

Solidarity as a Moral Value

Fresno Bee, September 19, 2021

Solidarity is an important focal point of morality. Solidarity involves empathy and emotional connection. But it is not merely a feeling. It is also the understanding that social problems require cooperative solutions. These days many of us feel fragile and insecure. Solidarity offers something solid and enduring in benevolence, justice, and concern for the common good.

The United Nations just published a report described as a “wake up call” for global solidarity. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warns that people are turning their backs on trust, cooperation, and multilateralism. He says, “Humanity’s welfare depends on solidarity and working together as a global family to achieve common goals.” Solidarity arises when we understand that “no one is safe until everyone is safe.”

This echoes the teaching of Pope Francis, who published an encyclical last fall, “Fratelli Tutti,” which basically means that we are all brothers (and sisters). Some want to build walls and retreat into isolation. Francis encourages us to do the opposite. Instead of withdrawing, we should reach out. The pope says that the path to peace and flourishing requires a “global ethic of solidarity and cooperation shaped by interdependence and shared responsibility in the whole human family.”

The COVID-19 pandemic reminds us of our interconnectedness. The virus spread globally. New variants emerge among the unvaccinated. As long as some remain vulnerable, we all remain vulnerable.

The war on terrorism provides another example. Terrorists hiding out in Afghanistan masterminded the 9/11 attacks. Those attacks were a response to American interventions in the Middle East in prior decades. The war on terrorism extends across the globe, involving many allies. It has had far-reaching impacts. We still stand in irritating security lines at the airport. And now we must welcome refugees fleeing Afghanistan.

Or consider climate change. As individuals, we go about our own business, burning fossil fuels. But those individual choices heat up the atmosphere. The result is fire and smoke in California, horrific hurricanes, and rising sea levels that will swamp island nations.

Our struggle with racism provides yet another example. The repercussions of slavery and Jim Crow continue to ripple across our social and political landscape. Historical injustices give birth to contemporary dysfunction. Police brutality in some American cities sparked a global movement against racial injustice.

These examples show that each is connected to the other. If you pull one thread of the social fabric, it changes the whole cloth. We are networked and interdependent. Global and historical interconnections define who we are and what we can become.

Now some people do not like to admit this. They refuse to accept our interconnectedness and insist on living in stubborn isolation. The lonely hermit is a symbol of this kind of refusal. Others draw lines of solidarity that are narrow and exclusive. Some focus on solidarity within their families or within a neighborhood. Others focus on racial solidarity or national solidarity.

Most religious and moral traditions imagine a broader circle of solidarity. Calls for brotherly love spread globally. The parable of the good Samaritan is not only about solidarity with a suffering neighbor. It is also a call to view the world as our neighborhood.

There are remaining difficulties. Solidarity gives us an orientation. But it does not tell us exactly where to go or how to get there. The issues of climate change, racism, terrorism, and the pandemic are complex. Solutions are also complex and evolving. But any viable solution must bear witness to suffering wherever it is found and grow networks of cooperation that are large and inclusive.

When we affirm solidarity we acknowledge that solutions for social problems cannot focus on “us” in opposition to “them.” Any long-term and stable solution to our problems must move beyond “us” and “them.” In solidarity, each of us comes to see that we are responsible for the other. In an interconnected world, what happens to the other impacts me. And my choices and behaviors have ripple effects that extend beyond me.

These ripples fortify us in the face of our common fragility. Life is precarious. But we do not suffer alone. There are problems to be solved. We solve them by opening our doors and reaching out our hands.

Seeking Common Ground: A Theist/Atheist Dialogue

I’m pleased to announce the publication of a new book , Seeking Common Ground: A Theist/Atheist Dialogue, that I’ve co-authored with Peter Admirand, a Catholic theologian at Dublin City University. We worked together to think about our differences and what we share in common.

I’m an atheist. Peter is a believer. We disagree about some important and fundamental things. But we share the belief that dialogue and mutual understanding are crucially important in our polarized and divided world.

The book is framed by seven virtues of dialogue: curiosity, compassion, and courage, as well as honesty, honoring our commitments, humility, and the desire for harmony. If more people exercised these virtues the world might be a better place. The goal is not to erase our differences but, rather, to journey together to find common ground.

The book includes some biographical tidbits. I share the story of how I came to realize that I am more humanist than theist, a nonbeliever who remains interested in all of the world’s religions. As I explain, this was not a spectacular conversion from theism to atheism. Rather, it was a slow realization that the religion I was raised with no longer spoke to me.

Peter, of course, tells a different story. Our differences emerge in chapters that discuss the meaning of curiosity, compassion, and courage, as well honesty, humility, honor, and harmony. It was eye-opening to engage in this process with Peter.

The book ends with an account of letters (well, emails) we exchanged. We discovered a common love of music, a common love of friends and families, and a common concern about the crises emerging around us.

As I say, in the conclusion, I think we succeeded in finding common ground. But this does not mean that the conversation is over. Rather, there is alway more to be learned.

We were fortunate to have Rabbi Jack Moline, the President of the American Interfaith Alliance write a Foreword to the book. Peter and I are both engaged in interfaith and inter-religious work. We both think that this work needs to involve atheists, secularists, and humanists as well as members of the world’s diverse faith communities.

You can buy the book on Amazon or from Wipf and Stock Books.

Abortion Ethics and the Texas Heartbeat Law

Fresno Bee, September 12, 2021

Abortion is a contentious moral and political issue. The new law in Texas, “The Texas Heartbeat Act,” gives us a lot to think and argue about.

One issue is the law’s novel “enforcement” mechanism. The law does not put the state directly in charge of policing abortion. Rather, that is left up to what the law calls “a private civil right of action.” Citizens may direct lawsuits against abortion providers.

Critics have pointed out that this is a kind of vigilante enforcement, where ordinary people are empowered to punish abortion. There will likely be legal challenges to that enforcement mechanism.

The deeper moral question is about where we draw the line that establishes the moral worth of a fetus. The Texas law draws that line around so-called fetal heartbeat. The law states that “fetal heartbeat has become a key medical predictor that an unborn child will reach live birth.” It defines fetal heartbeat as “the steady and repetitive rhythmic contraction of the fetal heart within the gestational sac.”

Critics have pointed out that while rhythmic activity is detectable at about six weeks, this is not a heartbeat. There are no heart valves at that stage of development.

You might think that the question of fetal heartbeat would be easy to answer. But is there a “heartbeat” before the heart is fully formed? Furthermore, why does heartbeat matter?

This is connected to questions at the other end of life. Is a person whose heart has stopped beating really dead? Hearts can be re-started and even transplanted. And blood can be pumped artificially.

So, heartbeat is not the only thing that matters in thinking about the moral status of a body. Indeed, there are deep disagreements about how we determine that moral status.

Some opponents of abortion draw the line earlier than six weeks, claiming that “life begins at conception.” This perspective claims that when there is a unique set of DNA — when sperm and egg unite — a unique person is created. The “life begins at conception” idea opposes abortion as well as “contraception” that prevents fertilized eggs from implanting in the uterus.

On the other hand, some defenders of abortion argue that what matters is “viability,” the ability of a fetus to live outside of its mother’s womb. Others focus on brain development. The brain-based view may be fleshed out in various ways. Perhaps what matters is sentience, the ability of a fetus to feel pain. Or maybe what matters is the development of complex neurological systems capable of desire, intentionality, and higher-thought.

Viability and complex brain development happen much later than six weeks.

A further consideration is what happens when there is a conflict of goods and values. Some pro-choice arguments will admit that a fetus has some moral value while also maintaining that the mother’s autonomy can trump that value. Sometimes this is articulated as saying that an actual person’s rights outweigh the emergent rights of a merely potential person.

Furthermore, there is the legal question of what we should do when there are fundamental disagreements about all of this. In Texas, the state has decreed that what matters is the so-called heartbeat. But what if a woman in Texas disagrees with that? She may think that brains matter.

Or she might think, as they used to in the old days, that what matters is “quickening” — the moment when a woman feels the fetus move within her. Or she may believe that a fetus becomes a person when it draws its first breath at the moment of viability.

How can we restrict abortion without violating a woman’s right to decide for herself about fundamental questions of personhood, ensoulment, and the value of her own autonomy?

Abortion is contentious because we disagree about the answer to that question and the other questions mentioned here. These disagreements are not going away. They cannot be solved by science and medicine. Nor does yelling and protesting resolve them.

These are metaphysical and moral disagreements, involving disputes about the meaning and value of life. As we continue to argue about abortion, we ought to try our best to understand the depth of these disputes and to think critically about our disagreements.