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


Technology is not to blame for evils of society

Fresno Bee

October 18, 2014


We live in a culture of mass distraction. It is easy to tune out and look the other way. The ability to ignore things is a useful adaptation. We can’t respond to all of the inputs that assail us. We’ve got work to do and our own concerns to attend to. And mostly, we want to be left alone.

But detachment and dissociation can be dangerous.

In San Francisco recently, a student, Justin Valdez, was murdered on a crowded train. Passengers, engrossed in tablets and phones, failed to notice the murderer brandishing his weapon in plain sight. The San Francisco District Attorney said that bystanders were “completely oblivious to their surroundings.” The police chief warned that people absorbed in technology are vulnerable to crime.

The Valdez murder brings to mind Kitty Genovese, who was murdered in 1964 while bystanders ignored her calls for help. This case is frequently cited in ethics and psychology textbooks as an example of diffusion of responsibility and the bystander-effect. Individuals in groups assume that others will act; and so no one does. The new problem is distracted bystanders, who don’t even notice threats.

But we should be careful about assigning blame. Technology is not to blame for the Valdez murder, nor are the bystanders — the shooter is. And while we might like people to be more aware of their surroundings, we have a right to tune out. It’s the criminals who are wrong to take advantage of the vulnerability this creates.

Electronic technologies make it a bit easier to ignore our immediate surroundings. But there is nothing new about zoning out. Before cellphones, there were books, magazines and crossword puzzles. And in crowded places, it is polite to ignore others. We avert our eyes in hallways and on elevators, respecting the privacy of others.

Some fret that high tech makes it too easy for us to be “alone together,” as MIT social scientist Sherry Turkle put it in a book with that title. Turkle worries that virtual reality and communication destroy real intimacy and human empathy. I share that concern. But there are lots of things that destroy intimacy and empathy: racism, sexism, alcoholism, etc. Virtual reality has no corner on the market of callousness.

Intimacy and empathy are important. But they are also hard work. We can’t be empathetic and aware all the time. Tuning out is a coping mechanism in a hectic, crowded world. Sometimes we need to retreat to solitude, disconnect, and disengage. We nap. We daydream. We meditate or pray. And sometimes we poke around on our cellphones.

As with most issues, the context matters. It’s rude to check email in the middle of a face-to-face conversation or to surf the web in a business meeting. And texting while driving can kill. But public transportation should be a safe place for tuning out. We ride the bus or take the train, expecting to have the freedom to read, nap or listen to music.

The world might be a better place if we were all constantly engaged with one another, if we all acted as good Samaritans all the time. But a world of good Samaritans could also be oppressive. Imagine a world where everyone is watching everyone else, looking for opportunities to help. Imagine a world of incessant empathy, where everyone is trying to connect — even in elevators, on buses, or in other crowded spaces. That world would be exhausting. And it would lack zones of privacy and places where we can be alone, even when we’re together.

A broader culture of intimacy and empathy may prevent random violence. But there is no easy answer or high-tech solution here. There is no app for foiling murder — or finding love. We tend to blame technology and hope for technological solutions to the perennial problems of being human. Our obsession with technological issues may be the biggest distraction of all. We blame our tools or hope for a better tool, while ignoring the persons who use them.

We can’t blame technology for malice or alienation. Nor can we blame technology for making us clueless and oblivious to our surroundings. Evil and obliviousness are human problems. And they existed long before the iPhone was invented.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2013/10/18/3560214/technology-is-not-to-blame-for.html#storylink=cpy


Is college becoming mass-produced?

Fiala on ethics: Is college becoming mass-produced?

By Andrew Fiala

Fresno Bee, Friday, May. 17, 2013 | 05:44 PM

Soon enough, everyone will have access to the latest classes coming out of Harvard or Stanford. Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, can provide students around the world with lectures delivered by leading scholars at top universities. The democratic promise of Ivy League education for everyone is enticing.

But there has been some backlash. Last week, professors in the philosophy department at San Jose State wrote an open letter opposing MOOCs. They worry that administrators “are beginning a process of replacing faculty with cheap online education.” No doubt it would be cheaper to use prefabricated mass-produced courses than to hire real professors.

Some critics worry that online education in general is the problem. Face-to-face communication is important in the Internet age. Something mysterious happens in classrooms as students and teachers think together. Face-to-face encounters give students good practice at listening, talking and thinking in community with others. And caring relationships between teachers and students develop best in a face-to-face world.

But computer technology is not all bad. Videotaped lectures, like textbooks, are useful tools for disseminating information. And serious thinking can happen in online discussion forums. Online discussions are especially useful for shy or disabled students.

The bigger problem with MOOCs is the idea that college education is another commodity to be mass-produced. MOOCs are “massive.” A recent New Yorker article reports that a humanities MOOC at Harvard has more than 30,000 “students.” A MOOC on artificial intelligence had 160,000 “students.”

The issue of scale is significant. At some point the “student” becomes an anonymous unit to be processed, a number rather than a person with a name. Mass education treats students as spectators and consumers rather than as participants in a community of inquiry.

Mass-production generally centralizes authority and standardizes its products. But education should focus on cultivating human persons and celebrating their individuality. It should not be a mechanical process of stamping out graduates.

Decades ago, social critics such as Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno warned that “the culture industry” would create standardization and monopoly. They worried that centralized production of films, music, literature and art would turn culture into a product to be marketed and sold.

MOOCs represent another step in the mass production of culture. Mass produced culture makes all kinds of stuff easily available. Mass quantities of consumer goods can be purchased at big box stores. We can attend mega-churches and read mass media news stories. And now the sages on stages at the big universities are coming to the masses.

Mass culture is fast and efficient. It requires little effort to fill our minds with the latest stuff. Our tastes, our behaviors, even our thoughts are standardized and homogenized, assisted by search engine algorithms, which help us find what we want from among the available products.

Mostly, we like it that way. Standardized mass culture creates regularity, predictability and comfortable conformity. We can order the same food in the same restaurant chain in any city in America. We can watch the same TV shows or read the same news, while sitting in standardized hotel rooms across the country.

Everyone discusses the same celebrity gossip, reads the same bestselling novels and watches the same blockbuster films. We are all concerned about the same scandals and crises. The more of us there are, the more alike we all become. Massive online education appears as an inevitable part of the cultural matrix.

The downside is the loss of idiosyncratic points of view, local differences and diversity of perspectives. There are no more sages hiding on mountaintops, waiting to deliver wisdom to intrepid explorers. Instead, the sage appears to everyone who can click a mouse.

MOOCs bring those mountaintop gurus down to the people. But the mass production of education carries the risk of destroying the mysterious human connection between teachers and students. The most meaningful moments in education often occur when the sage becomes a caring mentor, asking how things appear from the perspective of the student. Can a MOOC do that?

Mass education can effectively disseminate information. But no Harvard genius can replace a responsive and responsible teacher, who is present on campus and in the community and who cares about students enough to learn their names.


Common Morality and Moral Agreement

Let’s not forget our common beliefs

Andrew Fiala

Fresno Bee 2012-11-17

Some people were not happy with the outcome of the 2012 election. Rocker Ted Nugent called it “spiritual suicide.” Tens of thousands of citizens in some states have signed petitions asking for their states to secede from the Union. And Matthew Staver, dean of the Law School at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, explained: “Millions of Americans looked evil in the eye and adopted it … Abortion, same-sex marriage, and immorality carried the day.”

Some states legalized marijuana. Some other states legalized same-sex marriage. And a Democrat was re-elected president. It’s not clear that there is much new, or especially evil here. Ten years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that anti-sodomy laws were unconstitutional. Marijuana has been available for “medical use” in California since 1996. And abortion has been legal for 40 years.

Despite our disagreements about these issues, we tend to forget how much we agree upon. Consider, most importantly, the fact that the election and transition of power proceeded peacefully. We take that for granted. We also take it for granted that most of us agree most of the time about what philosopher Bernard Gert called our “common morality.”

Gert maintained that morality could be reduced to the basic idea of minimizing harm to others. He pointed out that no one thinks that it is morally acceptable to hurt someone simply because you don’t like him. While this sounds trivial, it is the broad heart of our common moral agreement.

It is remarkable, for example, that no candidate or referendum advocated harm to others out of malice or hatred. It wasn’t always so. In the bad old days, it was possible to advocate harming others based upon mere dislike. Racism is the idea that some others can be harmed simply because we don’t like them. But no one in American public life can get away with advocating racist ideas today.

Even those who disagree about homosexuality, marijuana and abortion would most likely agree that freedom matters. No one should be forced into a homosexual relationship. No one should be forced to smoke pot. And no one should be forced to have an abortion.

The abortion question is complicated by the question of the moral status of the fetus — and yes that is a tough question. But if a mother were forced to have an abortion, we would all agree that this was wrong.

It is easy to forget our agreements because we tend to focus on our disagreements. But our common morality becomes obvious when we think about our common ideas about a variety of issues.

Consider women’s rights. We would agree, I hope, that forced marriages and honor killings are wrong. That’s not true in other parts of the globe, where girls are forcibly married and murdered for dishonoring their families. Perhaps this shows us that our “common morality” is not common to all cultures. Much more needs to be said about cross-cultural standards and universal human rights.

A further problem is that our common morality does not extend in the direction of charity. While we agree about minimizing harm, we do not agree that there is a duty to assist those in need.

Gert’s idea of common morality is fairly modest. He only thinks that we have a duty not to harm others. But this does not mean that we have a duty to help them. Of course, people are free to give their money to help others. But the common morality does not require charity. This common morality may not be very useful for dealing with the problem of poverty.

Despite the talk of secession and evil, we will most likely continue to expand our agreement about the need for liberty with regard to activities that do not harm others. But we will continue to disagree about whether there is a duty to help. And we will continue to disagree about specific cases — such as about the moral status of the fetus.

We should not let our disagreements cause us to forget our general agreement that it is wrong to deliberately inflict harm on another simply because you do not like her. And we should not forget that in some parts of the world such ideas are not yet common.

Mean and Irrational Hatred of Homosexuals

Let’s grow beyond our mean-spirited mocking

   Andrew Fiala

Originally published 2012-06-02

The world would be much better off if we could learn to mind our own business and refrain from mocking others. But we are social animals. We meddle and mock as we vie for status in the herd. Unfortunately, it feels good to laugh together with friends while ridiculing others. We enjoy teaming up against the vulnerable.

This has something to do with our fascination with scandalous gossip about the private lives of other people. There is entertainment value in denunciation and condemnation. Many seem to enjoy outrage and indignation, especially when it is directed at marginalized others. We like to tease and torment the weak. Cruelty helps us feel powerful.

Mean-spirited jokes help “us” display power over “them.” The most famous story of jeering ridicule is found in the Christian tradition. Jesus, the marginalized outsider, is given a crown of thorns and taunted as “king of the Jews.” History is full of cruel stories in which the executioners laugh as they murder their victims, desecrating their bodies and dancing on their graves.

Scornful joking continues to plague us. Last year at this time, comedian Tracy Morgan said that if his son were gay, he would stab him to death. Morgan later apologized, saying he was just joking. Earlier this month, a pastor from North Carolina, Sean Harris, said that if your 4-year-old son behaved effeminately you should squash that behavior “like a cockroach.” Harris continued: “Dads, the second you see your son dropping the limp wrist, you walk over there and crack that wrist. Man up. Give him a good punch. OK? You are not going to act like that. You were made by God to be a male and you are going to be a male.” Harris later claimed he was joking–about the violence; but not about God’s condemnation of homosexuality.

It is difficult to understand why people hate homosexuals enough to joke about stabbing or beating them; or why anyone would think such jokes are funny. There are much more important things to worry about than other people’s sexuality. If anything falls into the “none of your business” category, it is other people’s sex lives.

But people are obsessed with the sex of others. Another North Carolina minister, Charles Worley, recently preached that homosexuals should be rounded up behind electrified fences where they would die out because they can’t reproduce. He went on to say, “It makes me pukin’ sick to think about … can you imagine kissing some man?” The obvious solution is not to imagine it, if you don’t like it. But we can’t seem to keep our imaginations to ourselves.

Some might blame our hypermediated culture and a degeneration of morals. Our culture does promote voyeuristic mockery as a spectator sport. Everywhere we turn there are comedians and pundits judging, condemning and ridiculing. Electronic communication makes it easier for us to deride and jeer each other behind the anonymity of a phony screen name.

But the problem of gossip, mockery and meddling has a long history. Some verses in the Bible condemn “idle talk.” The Stoic philosophers taught that it was wise to learn to hold your tongue. The Buddhists encouraged “right speech” and the virtue of silence.

There is also a virtue in minding your own business. The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius explained, in good Stoic fashion, that it is difficult enough to tend to your own affairs. The hard work of ensuring that your own life is honorable leaves little time for gossip and meddling. He wrote, “To wonder what so-and-so is doing and why means a loss of opportunity for some other task.”

Social animals compete for status within the herd. They push the weak specimens around in a game of power. They laugh and bray and howl together. And as anyone who has a dog can confirm, they have a hard time keeping their noses out of each other’s private parts.

Of course, we ought to aspire to be better than animals. We are reasonable beings who can control our imaginations and our laughter. We don’t have to be cruel. We can hold our tongues and keep silent. And we really ought to keep our noses out of other people’s business.