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.

On Fixing Stupidity: Replace Dumb Ideas with Critical Thinking

Fresno Bee, September 5, 2021

Dr. Rais Vohra, Fresno County’s interim health officer, warned this week of an “information pandemic.   He said, people who are “infected by viral misinformation” need to “inoculate themselves with the truth.” 

We are plagued by misinformation, disinformation, and outright stupidity.  Mis-information is mistaken information.  It is not necessarily malicious.  Dis-information is worse.  It is basically a lie.  Disinformation is a malicious attempt to make you believe something that is not true.  And stupidity?  Well, it’s a failure of intelligence.  But it is not only a mental malfunction.  Stupidity also involves actively embracing false and pernicious ideas.

The doctor was calling out people who are reluctant to get the Covid-19 vaccine because of false information.  Almost half of the population of Fresno County remains unvaccinated.  There is also the problem of people poisoning themselves with ivermectin, a horse de-wormer. 

This is dismaying but not surprising.  History is full of terrible ideas and epidemics of stupidity.  Not long ago, kids were eating Tide pods and teenagers were stuffing their mouths with ground cinnamon.  Even worse was smoking, a stupid habit that caused long-term health problems for millions of people. 

The good news is that people usually wise up.  The bad news is that advertisers and propagandists are always working to spread more stupidity.  Ideas are contagious.  They circulate and propagate.  Some catch on.  Some die out.  This is true for all ideas—good ones and bad ones. 

Stupidity has a tendency to attract our attention because it is ridiculous.  It can also cause us to lose faith in humanity.  It is not only the absurdity of dumb ideas that bothers us.  We are also alarmed by the strange sense of certainty that stupid people seem to have.

We may worry that our own beliefs may be just as stupid.  This can prompt a crisis of faith.  As Shakespeare said, the fool thinks himself wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.

Cynics worry that bad ideas are more easily spread than good ones.  But this is not true.  Bad ideas only spread when the intellectual immune system is weak.  And good ideas can be reinforced through conscious effort.

It is disheartening to know that stupidity is contagious.  But we know the cure.  Social distancing helps.  We should isolate dumb ideas and prevent them from proliferating.  The long-term solution is the vaccination we call education.  Education strengthens the intellectual immune system.

The campaign against smoking provides an example of a successful approach.  People were taught that smoking was unhealthy.  Smoking was prohibited in public places.  And taxes were levied on tobacco products.  It took decades, but smoking declined.  In the 1950’s, 45% of Americans smoked.  These days the number is around 15%.

As we fret about the recent plague of stupidity, let’s celebrate the fact that many good ideas have caught on.  And some very bad ideas have died out.  Slavery was abolished.  Women were liberated.  Old superstitions and stereotypes have faded away along with the idea that smoking is cool. 

Technology and culture play a role in all of this.  Human culture is a process of spreading ideas.  We gossip and talk, exchanging stories and information.  In the old days this occurred slowly through face-to-face interactions among friends and family. 

Electronic communication is faster and more volatile.  Memes and trends explode overnight.  Robots and artificial intelligence manipulate the cyber-ecosystem.  They target us with advertising, including misinformation and disinformation. 

The bad news is that misinformation and disinformation can spread quickly in cyberspace.  The good news is that the truth is also out there and is often easy to find.  But we need to be educated about where to look and how to distinguish the truth from a lie.  That’s called information literacy and critical thinking.

It’s not true, as a folksy proverb puts it, that “you can’t fix stupid.”  Nobody really believes that cynical proverb.  Educators and coaches certainly don’t.  And experience teaches us that stupidity can be fixed.  It takes practice and discipline to overcome intellectual laziness and ignorance.  But we can make progress.  This is a lifelong project.  People make mistakes.  But we can learn from our mistakes.  And we can build up an immunity to dumb ideas.

Covid Vaccines, Religion, and the First Amendment

Fresno Bee, August 29, 2021

Most of society is pushing for vaccine mandates. But a small minority is opting out on religious grounds. That’s their right under the First Amendment. If your deeply held beliefs prevent you from getting a vaccine, you can get a religious exemption.

In the United States, the First Amendment allows for “free exercise” of religious belief and other freedoms. These principles are connected to the right to have an abortion, the right to refuse to serve in the military, the right of gay and lesbian people to marry, and the right to refuse to salute the flag.

We value religious liberty in this country and freedom of conscience. This does not mean that religious people can sneeze germs wherever they want. Those with religious exemptions still need to wear masks, to self-quarantine when ill, and to undergo routine testing. But so far, no one is going to force you to get a shot, if you are conscientiously opposed to the idea.

There are complexities here involving what counts as a religious exemption. Some vaccine denial is not of the “conscientious” variety. Instead, it is based on crackpot conspiracy theories. But then again, one person’s deepest religious beliefs may be viewed by another as a crackpot conspiracy theory. That’s why we ought to tread lightly.

Official policies regarding religious exemption show the difficulty. In the California State University policy, for example, it says that a religious exemption can be granted either for “sincerely held religious belief” connected to “traditionally recognized religion” or for sincere beliefs that are “comparable to that of traditionally recognized religions.”

This means that agnostics and atheists can be granted “religious” exemptions. But would a devoted QAnon believer also qualify? It is difficult to decide what counts as a sincerely held belief worthy of exemption.

Religious exemptions in the United States have evolved through litigation. Originally, exemptions from military service were granted only for members of historic peace churches. Over time, the interpretation of what counts as grounds for conscientious objector status expanded along with religious diversity and the growth of non-religion.

The question of what counts as a religion is vexing, especially in the U.S., where new religions grow and prosper. The U.S. has given us Mormonism, Seventh Day Adventists, Christian Science, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Nation of Islam — along with Scientology and the Church of Satan.

When is a group of like-minded folks really a “religion”? And when are your beliefs worthy of accommodation? In the U.S., we are permissive in this regard. If you publicly testify to the sincerity of your belief, we’ll accept that for the most part.

data dump from California State University Chico provides a bit of insight about how this might play out. There are ethical concerns about the breach of privacy that occurred when Chico State’s data was revealed. But the published accounts show the kind of language used by students who were granted exemptions. One claimed, for example, to believe in “natural healing through God’s divine power.”

It would be wrong to force someone with that kind of belief to violate their conscience and take the vaccine. In the same way, it would be wrong to force a committed pacifist to take up arms or a believer opposed to state-idolatry to salute the flag.

Some people will lie about this. But how can we know? It is very difficult — if not impossible — to judge the sincerity of another person’s profession of faith. If someone publicly declares their belief in something, we take them at their word, until evidence is provided that shows they are lying. Of course, if you lie on your application, that’s fraud, and this may have legal repercussions.

It is likely that the number of people asking for religious exemptions will be small. There are few people whose religious beliefs prevent them from saluting the flag or from carrying arms in defense of the country. There are likely also few people whose faith prevents them from using modern medicine.

These religious exemptions provide a great opportunity to educate ourselves about the First Amendment and the complexity of religion. It also provides each of us with a chance to think about what we sincerely believe.

Amateurs, Morons, and Professionals

There’s an ironic critique of amateurs in The Big Lebowski. Walter (played by John Goodman) keeps complaining about “f***ing amateurs.”  But Walter is an amateur.   He is a caricature of the great American “do-it-yourself” ethos. 

He claims that other people don’t know what they are doing.  But neither does he.  And so Walter keeps f***ing things up.

Some things ought to be left to the professionals.  A professional has specialized training, lots of experience, and a certain talent or skill.  But Americans distrust professionals.  We think that since we are all created equal, we should be able to do-it-ourselves.

Our suspicion of professionalism has some connection with Trumpism, the anti-vax movement, and the American distrust of science.  Professionals are elites.  But we don’t like elites.  We’d rather diagnose our own diseases and interpret the data for ourselves.  We think we are smarter than the doctors, the scientists, and the “mainstream media.”

As we’ve seen, this can lead to disaster.

The conflict between professionalism and amateurism is an ancient one.  Plato criticized democracy as a rule of amateurs.  According to Plato, this is a terrible idea.  Plato’s ideal republic is a nation run by professionals.  He describes a rigorous training method for selecting the rulers.  And he suggests that tyrants have not successfully completed the program.

Tyrants are the worst of the amateurs.  The etymology of the word “amateur” gives us a clue.  The root of the word is “love” (ama-).  Tyrants love power.  But they don’t want to develop the skill, virtue, and expertise necessary to rule.  They grab power without training themselves in wielding it wisely. 

This is not to suggest that all amateurs are tyrants.  There is something admirable about a dedicated amateur.  Amateurs do things because they love them.  They are not in it for the money or the fame.  But a virtuous amateur understands that some things ought to be left to the professionals. 

Things have changed quite a bit in recent decades when it comes to the difference between amateurs and professionals.  The Olympics, for example, used to ban professional athletes.  And while amateur athletes are inspiring, the pros are better.

In some fields, the professionals have been kicked to the curb.  In other fields, increased specialization makes it impossible for amateurs to survive.  Often this is about money: who makes it, who controls it, and where it flows.

At one time, Youtube was a place for amateurs to share videos.  But Youtube went commercial and the professionals staged a comeback, elbowing out the amateurs in pursuit of advertising revenue. 

Similar struggles have played out in other corners of the economy.  Ride-sharing apps like Uber compete with professional cab drivers.  Airbnb circumvents the professionals at Hyatt and Hilton.  Amazon allows self-published authors to reach a wide audience.  And so on.

Each of these stories is complicated.  In some cases, the rise of the amateurs has allowed for an outburst of creative entrepreneurship.  In other cases, you end up with crappy self-published books and weird cars driving you around town.

There is also lots of confusion about what’s true, what’s real, and what’s beneficial.  The Covid-19 debacle shows us what’s at stake.  Rather than trust the scientists, the amateurs are playing doctor. 

Early in the pandemic, non-experts claimed that Covid-19 was no worse than an ordinary cold or flu.  Then the amateurs doubted professional advice about masks and social distancing.  And now the non-professionals are skeptical of vaccines.  Meanwhile, the pandemic rages on.

Plato was right that in an ideal world we’d put the professionals in charge.  But in a democratic country that values individual liberty, the amateurs will resist.  The solution is better education.  But that’s a long-term and ongoing solution. In the meantime, we’re left with a mess. 

At one point in The Big Lebowski, the Dude (Jeff Bridges) says to Walter: “Walter, I love you, but sooner or later, you’re going to have to face the fact you’re a goddamn moron.” This is us. Let’s face the fact that we are a bunch of amateurs and morons, mucking things up. What’s not to love?

Covid Karma: The Mask Debate Evolves

Fresno Bee, July 25, 2021

Masks are back, along with protests against them. Fresno County public health officials recommend that everyone wear masks again in public. This includes kids in schools, which prompted parents in Clovis to protest the need for kids to wear masks.

The resurgence of COVID is the vexing result of vaccine skepticism. Experts have explained that this is now a pandemic of the unvaccinated. This is frustrating for vaccinated people. We hoped the vaccine would get us back to normal. But that only works if everyone gets vaccinated.

Unvaccinated people are still supposed to wear masks. But anti-vaxxers are also likely to be anti-maskers. Unvaccinated and unmasked people are at risk. And it is through them that the virus spreads and mutates.

Political polarization is part of the problem. A report from the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that Republicans are less likely to get vaccinated than Democrats. But not every vaccine-skeptic is Republican. And some Republicans believe in vaccines and masks. Ignorance, fear, and selfishness are non-partisan problems.

Vaccine skepticism is more complicated than political ideology. Some religious people refuse vaccines on dogmatic grounds. Some people are allergic or have other health conditions that rule out vaccination. And vaccinations for children remain problematic.

This subtlety is ignored when people start casting blame upon the unmasked and unvaccinated. Some go so far as to invoke a kind of karmic comeuppance for the unvaccinated. I have heard more than one person say something like, “Well, it’s those unvaccinated folks own fault. They deserve what they get. I hope they hurry up and die so we can get back to normal.”

The people who say this usually say it with a wink and a whisper. They take it back quickly, claiming it is a joke or that they don’t really mean it. But it’s an awful thing to say.

This cringe-worthy blame game is a symptom of a profound social malfunction. The anti-vaxxers don’t trust the public health system. The pro-vaxxers don’t have any sympathy for the anti-vaxxers. As the pandemic continues, anger and exasperation are more common than kindness and compassion.

This dysfunction is similar to other rips in our unraveling social fabric.

Productive social life requires thick webs of cooperation. In a well-functioning society, cooperation is contagious. Successful cooperation makes people more cooperative. Cooperators are rewarded. As we share the goods of social life, we become even more cooperative.

But when cooperation breaks down, there is a vicious cycle fueled by distrust and animosity. This has been described by psychologists and philosophers in terms of “the prisoner’s dilemma” and “the tragedy of the commons.” The basic problem is that when we fail to cooperate, we end up with worse outcomes.

This helps explain a number of political and moral problems. Consider climate change. If other people are consuming mass quantities of fossil fuels, why should I cut back? As the climate heats up and the other guy is guzzling gas, I may lose the motivation to regulate my own consumption.

Or consider the controversy about the integrity of the 2020 election. If the other party is stealing elections or undermining confidence in democratic elections, then why should I cooperate? When trust erodes, democracy collapses.

Similar worries hold for COVID restrictions. Those who cooperated for the past year did so with the expectation that if everyone cooperated, things would get better. But the non-cooperators have undermined that hope.

This is a dangerous moment. We risk losing the buy-in of the folks who cooperated in the first place. Their virtuous behavior has not been rewarded. So, the motivation to cooperate fades.

One solution to this problem is moral. If the minor inconvenience of covering my mouth in public can save people’s lives, then I should mask up. Blame and karma ought to play no part in this moral calculation.

But moral concern is not the only thing that motivates us. Our emotions are also involved. That’s why we also need inspiration and hope. More people need to be inspired to get vaccinated. Those who wear masks need to be praised for their virtue. And those who are vaccinated need to be reassured that their cooperation was not in vain