Virtue and Moral Leadership in Interesting Times

Fresno Bee, April 5, 2020

An old curse says, “May you live in interesting times.” These are those times. Let’s hope we develop the wisdom to survive the curse of chaos.

This curse is subtle and understated. It has been attributed to an anonymous Chinese sage. But it likely came from Britain, the land of understatement and the stiff upper lip. Picture Monty Python’s Black Knight, with his arm cut off, saying, “Tis but a scratch, a mere flesh wound.”

The White House warned this past week that between 100,000 and 240,000 Americans will die. Without social distancing and other measures, there could be between 1.5 million and 2.2 million deaths.

Those who think we can simply get back to normal are not paying attention. California school kids will not be able to return to their campuses this school year. Rep. Devin Nunes said the decision to “cancel” school is “overkill.” But closing schools seems a reasonable way to prevent a million deaths.

At any rate, school is not canceled. It is moving online. So these will certainly be interesting times for teachers, parents and students. Let’s help them rise to the occasion. Instead of denial and unrealistic calls for a quick return to normal, kids need computers. Educators need training. And parents need a new model for helping their kids succeed.

Above all, we all need imagination, dedication and courage. Interesting times help us discover what we are made of. We don’t know where our strength lies until it is challenged. Leadership does not emerge until it is tested.

We need our leaders to unify behind a straightforward call for the better angels of our nature. The rhetoric of the American tradition can help. Thomas Paine said, “these are the times that try men’s souls.”

Paine wrote those words in December 1776, as Washington’s army was facing a difficult winter. Paine said that the time of summer soldiers and sunshine patriots was over. He wrote, “Let it be told to the future world, that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet and to repulse it.”

We need statesmen to issue a similar call for hope and virtue today. This springtime may be among the worst in American history. More Americans will die from this disease than died during the Vietnam and Korean wars. The economy has tanked. None of us have ever experienced anything this “interesting” before. We need inspiration.

We also need something to do. Most of us have nothing to do besides grouse and complain. We sit on the sidelines, while the nurses and doctors risk their own health to save the afflicted. Let’s cheer them on and give them the supplies they need. But let’s stop the partisan bickering.

Our passivity creates a paradox. For most of us, the best thing we can do to make the world a better place is simply stay home. This is among the most difficult aspects of our predicament. Virtue seems to require bold action. But in this case, it calls for inaction.

The world’s traditions have often warned against passivity. They say that idle hands are the devil’s playthings. Laziness and sloth are vices. And virtue evokes images of a life of brave effort. Today, inaction is a virtue and activity is a vice.

Can we develop a kind of virtuous passivity? We might cure partisan rancor if we would learn the virtues of silence and patient hope. This is a difficult lesson for Americans. But it is deep in the heart of the world’s wisdom traditions.

During these interesting times let’s rediscover the virtues of quiet and simplicity. This is an opportunity to cultivate calmness and explore solitude. Let’s look within instead of judging others. And let’s encourage our leaders to do the same.

Note to readers: A California law that went into effect Jan. 1 limits freelancers like myself to 35 articles per year. I will be going to a less regular cycle, writing for The Bee only every other week. I will post more regularly on my blog (www.andrewfiala.com). You can also follow me on Twitter (@PhilosophyFiala).

Courage, common sense, and fortitude in times of terror

Scary times call for courage

Fresno Bee, December 12, 2015

These are terrifying times. Mass violence plays across our screens. Frightened people want reassurance. And fearmongers manipulate anxiety. But dread is no substitute for deliberation.

The world’s philosophical traditions teach us to temper trepidation. Here is some practical advice from the ancient philosophers. Acknowledge the inevitability of suffering. Don’t dread evil. Accept what is beyond your control. Avoid panic. Minimize violence. Overcome hate.

But panicked, violent and hateful proposals abound. Some call to ban Muslim visitors. Others want to carpet-bomb the Islamic State. Some encourage us to arm ourselves.

Bombs and bans won’t build a better world. For that we need courageous commitment to democratic and humane values. We also need to understand the nature of fear and its role in political and moral life.

Fear undermines mental health. It clouds judgment. And it feeds on itself. Scare mongering is useful as a rhetorical tool. But reactionary panic makes for bad policy and risks betraying central values.

Wisdom requires courage, justice and moderation. Moral decisions depend upon calm reflection. A key to wisdom and equanimity is careful consideration of the object of our fears. It turns out that we often fear the wrong things.

PHILOSOPHICAL FORTITUDE FREES US FROM REACTIONARY OUTRAGE AND ALLOWS US TO BUILD A BETTER WORLD, ONE FEARLESS STEP AT A TIME.

Consider the risk of mass violence. Since 1982 there have been 73 mass shootings in the United States, resulting in nearly 600 deaths. If we add in the fatalities from the terrorist attacks on 9/11 and other terror attacks on US citizens, we end up with fewer than 5,000 deaths from mass shooting and terrorism during the past 33 years.

Even one mass shooting is horrible. We should work to end these atrocities. But there is no reason to panic.

Other things are much more dangerous. There are around 16,000 homicides and 38,000 poisoning deaths every year. Approximately 2,000 people are killed annually by weather-related causes. More than 33,000 people are killed yearly in vehicular traffic.

We accept the risk of driving, while taking common sense precautions: drive carefully and buckle up. But no one is panicking about traffic deaths. No one is calling for background checks on vehicle ownership or radical changes in the speed limit. No one is calling for a ban on alcohol or drunken driving, even though drunken driving is much more deadly than terrorism. Drunken drivers kill 28 people every day – more than 10,000 people per year.

Some fears are magnified because we associate them with evil. Death by terrorism seems worse than death by drunken driving. Fear of evil seems more dreadful than fear of accidental death. But one wonders why that matters: When you are dead, you are dead.

Rhetoricians manipulate our fear of evil. They also manipulate our hopes and dreams. Hope is, in a sense, the opposite of fear. Hope can moderate fear. But unrealistic hope also clouds judgment. We hope that war, crime and atrocity will be abolished. We hope that politicians will behave themselves. We hope that rationality will prevail. We hope that evil will disappear. Or we hope that strangers will conform to our expectations.

BOMBS AND BANS WON’T BUILD A BETTER WORLD.

But history dashes these hopes. We should give up hope for a perfect, risk-free world. Evil people will always exist. Idiocy often overcomes common sense. Politicians routinely fail to impress. And diversity is a fact of life. We may wish things were otherwise. But wishing does not make it so.

Like fear, hope is a tool of demagogues that is used to hoodwink and manipulate. The danger of hope is that when idealistic hope crashes on the rocks of reality, despair sets in. Cynical hopelessness is as dangerous as ruthless idealism.

The key is moderation. Equanimity develops from understanding the nature of hope and fear. Fear is useful – when it is based on facts and prevented from becoming paranoia. Hope is also useful – when it is modest and limited in scope. Without moderation, however, hope and fear overwhelm good judgment.

A temperate mind is immune to the buffeting winds of fortune and the alluring buzz of political hot air. Wisdom teaches that evil is unavoidable, suffering is inevitable, panic is counterproductive, and good judgment is difficult and rare. Understanding this can liberate us from fear. Philosophical fortitude frees us from reactionary outrage and allows us to build a better world, one fearless step at a time.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/article49219050.html#storylink=cpy