Happy Mother’s Day to Momma Bears and Spartan Women

Fresno Bee, May 12, 2024

Mothers need to be tough in loving their kids. Shooting pet dogs is another story.

Let’s give a shout out to all of the tough mothers out there. These strong women work long hours away from the house and then supervise homework and housework. Tough moms keep you honest and teach you courage. They’ll wipe away your tears. Then they’ll kick you in the pants and send you back into the fray. They stand beside you for a time. But they want you to stand on your own two feet.

Mother’s Day can we be sappy and maudlin. The pastel cards and fragrant flowers make it seem that mothers are all sweetness and light. But a mother’s love can also be tough. The momma bear must defend her vulnerable cubs against a vicious world. But she can’t defend you forever. Her job is to prepare you to confront the world with bravery and integrity.

I’ve been reflecting on tough mothers while thinking about the governor of South Dakota, Kristi Noem. As almost everyone knows by now, the governor claimed she shot the family dog in a gravel pit. She explained that it was a “hard decision” but that she did it for her kids. She said, “I had a choice between keeping my small children and other people safe, or a dangerous animal, and I chose the safety of my children.”

The episode has generated a lot of heat. Comedians and critics have piled on. Some clever congressmen started a “Congressional Dog Lover’s Caucus.” But behind the backlash is a serious question for moms everywhere. Who or what would you kill to defend your kids?

The governor added, “Tough decisions like this happen all the time on a farm.” No doubt there is a lot of killing down on the farm — and elsewhere. And moms are part of it. Mothers in war zones around the world have to send their sons and daughters off to war. Tough choices are made by mothers whose children are starving and dying in places ravaged by famine and disease. Motherly love unfolds in a world that can be violent and cruel.

Some of the toughest mothers in history came from ancient Sparta. Spartan mothers were famous for encouraging their sons to be brave warriors. They would rather their sons die in battle than run away in cowardice.

Sometimes the Spartan mother has been turned into a cold and shrewish caricature. Plutarch collected a number of “sayings” of Spartan mothers, which portrayed them as mean, spiteful, and scolding. In Plutarch’s collection, Spartan mothers make fun of weak and cowardly sons in crude and insulting ways.

I doubt those Spartan mothers were as callous and cold as Plutarch makes them out to be. Men often mock strong women because they fear their power and independence. The Spartan women were more liberated than other women in the ancient world. They trained in athletics, owned property and engaged in public life. That’s a threat to men who want women to be soft, weak and dependent.

A saccharine ideal of motherhood disempowers mothers — and women in general. Sometimes moms need to get tough. This does not make them less motherly or feminine. This brings us back to Gov. Noem. It’s worth considering whether the backlash against her involves a bit of old-fashioned sexism. If it had been a man who killed that dog instead of a woman, would the judgment be different?

I’m not condoning shooting dogs. There are better ways to deal with unruly hounds. Spartan mothers don’t need to be cruel. Tough mothers can provide encouragement without being mean. They can defend their kids without being spiteful. The difficult balancing act for every tough momma is to be loving and strong, powerful and kind.

That’s not easy. In a culture that idealizes mothers as paragons of peace and softness, the momma bear will be viewed as unfeminine, and well, overbearing.

But everyday, tough mothers make hard choices, down on the farm and everywhere else in this cold world. This does not make them less maternal, feminine, orworthy of respect and admiration. Good mothers love us. But they also defend us, teach us virtue, and toughen us up. And for that we should be grateful on Mother’s Day.

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War is the problem

The upsurge of protests on college campuses has been too narrowly focused. These protests have picked sides in the current war, without addressing the larger problem of war itself.

The challenge is not merely Hamas or Israel. Rather, what needs to be addressed is the stupidity of war itself. Violence does not solve problems. But we tend to believe it does. This faith in war lies at the root of current controversies, including the growing threat of violence in the protests, counter-protests, and police crackdowns.

Social and political problems are not solved by military force. And yet, many people have a simplistic and foundational faith in warfare. This bellicose faith rests on a false assumption, which holds that physical power is ultimately what matters most. And it is reinforced by a world that celebrates violence in culture, history, and politics.

Violence is animalistic and subhuman. Human beings are animals, of course. Our bodies bleed and suffer. So, we may be coerced in the short run by physical force or by threats of violence. But coercion and violence breed resentment and animosity without resolving spiritual, political, and social conflicts. Physical violence rips through the human world, aiming at the body rather than the spirit. The logic of war is about killing and dominating rather than about changing hearts and minds.

Human dignity demands respect for reason and autonomy. Ultimately what makes us human is our ability to be persuaded by rational arguments and by human emotions linked to justice, compassion, and love.

Some people argue that violence can be justified as an appropriate response to violence or injustice. The “just war theory” maintains that war can be justified in self-defense or to protect others from harm. That theory also teaches that war must be limited, proportional, and only directed at legitimate targets. There are important lessons to be learned from the study of the just war theory (as Jennifer Kling and I have discussed in our recent book). Just war theory would condemn atrocities committed by Hamas on October 7. The same theory also condemns atrocities committed by Israel in its brutal response.

But beyond these obvious judgments lurks the fact that war is subhuman. The current conflict exposes a common historical truth, which is that most wars fail to be just. Limited violence may be justified in theory. But in practice actually wars often exceed those limits. And in the long run the solution cannot be simply to continue to fight wars. Humanity demands a better way.

That better way is the path of nonviolence and the broad commitment to peace that is known as pacifism. Advocates of the nonviolent path have long called for the abolition of war. This way of thinking may seem naïve to those who have faith in war. But pacifism has a strong lineage and has been advocated by thinkers such as Tolstoy, Gandhi, William James, Jane Addams, Bertrand Russell, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Albert Einstein said, in 1952, that “war is no better than common murder” and that “the only solution is to abolish both war and the threat of war.”

More recently, political scientist John Mueller has concluded, “war has come to seem not only futile, destructive, and barbaric, but profoundly stupid.” And Pope Francis said, “the moment has come to abolish war, to erase it from human history before it erases human history.”

The critique of war as a subhuman way of solving human problems deserves much further reflection. But in the media, on campus, and in the congress, pacifism is rarely mentioned. Instead, the hawks hog the stage, egging each other on.

War will not be abolished overnight. The war abolition project demands a radical re-evaluation of our understanding of human nature, political life, the value of nation-states, and the power of the military-industrial complex. This is a multigenerational project.

Nor can war abolition be adequately reduced to a protest chant or slogan. But the tenor of the current protest might improve if war abolition and the general critique of violence were central themes. This would direct our attention beyond current hostility toward the whole system of war and the faith in violence that lies at the root of these conflicts.

Is Justice Impartial or is Trump Right about Power Run Amok?

Fresno Bee, April 21, 2024

Skepticism about the Trump trials extends to cynicism about the entire political system

Can justice be impartial? This is an ancient question raised anew by the trials of Donald Trump, who has denigrated his indictments as politically motivated “witch hunts.” In Trump’s telling, this is all the work of biased prosecutors and “crooked” or “corrupt” judges.

Trump does not say that he will be vindicated in court by showing evidence and making arguments before the jury. Rather, our leading candidate for president casts doubt on the impartiality of the judicial system itself.

For Trump, justice is primarily a matter of power. He has said he will go after “the Biden crime family” if elected. He used to say he wanted to lock up Hilary Clinton. The Trumpian theory is that whoever is in power gets to punish those who are not in power.

This is an ancient idea. In Plato’s Republic, it is articulated by a character named Thrasymachus, a Greek name that means something like “fierce fighter.” Thrasymachus says justice is whatever the stronger party says it is. Plato rejects this as a tyrannical idea.

As I discuss in my book on Trump and tyranny, a tyrant desires the godlike power to create the law in his own image. This way of conceiving justice is based on bad theology and a pernicious view of political life. God is not a tyrant who arbitrarily makes up the law, but human tyrants and tyrannical regimes do behave in this capricious way.

The antidote to the tyrannical idea of justice is natural law and natural rights. Natural law holds that actions are objectively right or wrong, and that the legal system ought to administer justice impartially. On this theory, there is an objective truth of the matter, and punishments are meant to fit the crime.

A related idea focuses on producing good social consequences by using punishment to deter crime. This approach depends upon a general commitment to the rule of law as a good thing for individuals and society. But there are limits to what can be done in pursuit of “domestic tranquility.” Terrifying and arbitrary punishments may work to “scare people straight,” as the saying goes, but the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution prohibits the sorts of cruel and unusual punishments used by tyrannical regimes.

Further, a stable political and legal system depends upon basic standards of evidence and proof. Such a system assumes (for the most part) an objective account of knowledge and truth. This assumption holds that facts exist and that reasonable people — a jury of your peers — will tend to agree about evidence and argument.

But when people do not agree about the status of the evidence, the arguments or the value of the law itself, there is the risk of chaos and violence. Cynics will claim that since the whole thing is a farce and there is no such thing as objective justice, then there is nothing left but struggles for power.

This seems to be the point of the Trumpian effort to muddy the water with regard to proof, evidence, facts and institutions. Trumpians suggest that there are “alternative facts” and “fake news.” They claim that the system is a “swamp” that needs to be drained. In this environment, skepticism about the Trump trials extends to cynicism about the entire political system, including the electoral process. Thus, those jailed for their criminal acts on January 6 become “hostages” captured by those in power, whom Trump has pledged to pardon.

With all of this on the table, it is clear that the Trump trials are of the utmost importance for the body politic. These are public performances of the law in which impartiality, objectivity and justice are themselves on trial. The audience for this trial is “we, the people.” As these trials unfold, we must ask ourselves about our faith in the system: Is the criminal justice system a travesty of power run amok? Or is it possible for justice to be neutral, objective and truthful?

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article287736320.html#storylink=cpy

Critical emotional education: the power of words, language, and thought

Fresno Bee, April 7, 2024

People often respond to ethically charged issues with strong emotions. Anger, indignation, and disgust are a normal part of the moral life. If we didn’t have these negative emotions, we would not be motivated to fight for justice. And if we didn’t have strong positive emotions, we would never fall in love.

Some philosophers think that morality is purely a matter of emotion. But feelings alone are an insufficient guide for moral judgment. We need words, ideas and theories to correct, improve, and evaluate our emotions.

In my teaching and public speaking, I often encounter folks who are overcome with emotion. Recently I was discussing the ethics of war with students. One brave young woman raised her hand and offered a comment on current events. Her emotions were so strong that it was difficult for her to speak.

I gave her time to compose herself and I acknowledged the depth of her passion. She took a deep breath and did her best to talk through her tears. But it was tough. Others in the audience were visibly moved by her effort. Emotions are contagious. We weep when others weep. We laugh when others laugh. We are social animals who communicate with tears as well as words.

After we all caught our breath, I tried to help this young woman articulate the source of her indignation. I encouraged her to consider some of the concepts and ideas from the just-war theory. I don’t know if this ultimately helped. But one of the goals of ethics education is to provide people with a moral vocabulary that helps them understand and evaluate the world and their emotional responses to it.

Indeed, one of the benefits of a broad education is that it helps us learn to describe and assess our emotions. Education teaches us to put words to our feelings. That process of recognizing and naming our emotions can help to moderate and direct them in appropriate ways. A critical moral education helps us transform our passions into coherent sentences and complex judgments. In doing that, we gain the ability to think critically about our feelings and about our responses to the world.

I worry that this kind of critical emotional education is missing in our expressivist culture. Rage and disgust, giddiness and glee drive much of our public discourse. We emote and enthuse without restraint. People whoop and holler at sporting events. They yell and yowl in public meetings. And on social media, emotional complexity is reduced to simplistic emojis requiring no thought at all. But to be fully human, we must move from passion to poetry, from feelings to phrases, and from simple words to complex thoughts and theories.

Language is a unique human capacity. Dogs growl and bark, howl or wag their tails. Those sounds and gestures are expressive. But they only convey a limited range of emotions and experiences. The great gift of human language is that it allows us to clarify, restrain and articulate our emotions. It also allows us to evaluate complex ideas and to communicate the dense and thorny knots of human experience.

Human beings have the capacity to experience and express a large variety of emotions and ideas because we have a complex system of language and meaning. Poetry, music, and religion move us in ways that transcend mere animal behavior. The experience of art takes us quite far beyond the animal’s howl. The arguments of lawyers and theologians allow us to develop complex systems of social life. And scientific theories are infinitely more complex than the dog’s wagging tail.

Words are tools. The more tools we have, the better. If your tool kit only includes a hammer and a screwdriver, you’re not going to be able to build many things. But if your tool kit is broad, diverse, and subtle, you are on your way to creating new and amazing things.

A broad education provides us more words and more tools. This includes a whole range of metaphors, idioms, and paradigms that come from art, history, literature, philosophy, and religion. This linguistic tool kit provides us with the opportunity to clarify, and refine our emotional lives. It also helps us articulate and evaluate things in a way that transcends laughter and tears.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/article287422570.html#storylink=cpy

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/article287422570.html#storylink=cpy

The Power of Thought and the Wonder of Nature

Fresno Bee, April 14, 2024

Far from being fearful, the total eclipse inspires wonder, awe and humility

Last week’s solar eclipse shows us how far we have come in our understanding of nature. We now predict eclipses with precision. The calculations of modern astronomy are obviously superior to primitive superstitions that saw eclipses as omens or as the work of gods and demons.

Western philosophy and science are often traced back to the ancient sage Thales of Miletus, who was famous for predicting an eclipse in May 585 BCE. Some say that Thales was the first ancient star-gazer to correctly predict an eclipse. I doubt that. Ancient cultures carefully observed the sky. Thales likely learned astronomy from the Egyptians. Nonetheless, the ability to predict an eclipse was a sign of wisdom.

As the saying goes, “knowledge is power.” Understanding the causal story behind an event provides us with power. Broad understanding of nature creates a kind of mastery. And knowledge alleviates the anxiety of the unknown and uncanny. Knowing why things happen makes them less spooky. It also allows us to take action to avoid harm, generate benefits and gain control. This is the promise of science, mathematics and natural philosophy.

Despite this promise, it took centuries of cultural struggle for the scientific method to prevail. Religious institutions often resisted that change. The most famous case is the Inquisition of Galileo, which began on April 12, 1633.

Galileo defended the idea that the Earth moved around the sun — the heliocentric model of the universe. He based this on the astronomical calculations of Copernicus and his own observations of the heavens through telescopic lenses. But the religious dogma of the day held that the Earth was the center of the universe and that the other celestial bodies moved around our fixed world.

Galileo challenged that idea. But he was not an atheist. He thought that science helped elucidate the divine order of things. His scientific observations were meant to read the book of nature as a supplement to the holy book of Christianity. But Galileo’s heliocentric model called some of the Bible into question. Galileo lost his struggle with the church. He was forced to recant.

It took centuries of further development to come up with the present model of the cosmos. Today we know much more about our place in the universe. We know that our sun is one star among the billions in the Milky Way and that our galaxy is one among billions of galaxies. We also know that there are other planets orbiting distant stars. It is likely that eclipses happen on other planets as well, since there are other moons orbiting other planets, even in our own solar system.

And yet, there is something special about an eclipse as it occurs on Earth, since there is a kind of symmetry between the apparent size of the moon and the sun. If the moon were smaller or were farther away, there would be no such thing as a total eclipse. Nor would there be a total eclipse if the sun were larger.

Scientists predict that at some point the sun will grow larger and the moon will move farther away from the Earth. This means that at some point in the distant future, there will no longer be total eclipses on Earth.

That fact should inspire wonder, awe and humility. We are fortunate to live here now. On this planet at this time, our satellite and sun work together in a special way. Even if there are other planets out there with other moons, and other forms of intelligent life, total eclipses may be rare.

It is important to dwell in this kind of wonder and awe. Scientific knowledge shows us how privileged we are to be here, now. It reminds us how fragile our existence is. From this we might develop a kind of humility and insight.

Thales seemed to possess that kind of wisdom. He celebrated the unique beauty of the universe as a divine gift. He said that the mind is swift and powerful, since it is able to expand everywhere. And he claimed that time is the source of wisdom, since it brings everything to light. There are moments of darkness. But if we are patient, persistent and wise, the light may dawn.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article287610835.html#storylink=cpy