Ethical Whiplash and Learning to Dance Like Socrates

Fresno Bee, January 31, 2021

Rapidly shifting values create confusion and distrust. To live well in tumultuous times you need strong character and a supple spine. Stability and strength should combine with flexibility and the creative imagination. As we seek our way in chaos, we need to learn how to think critically and also how to dance.

This is an era of ethical whiplash. The Trump-Biden seesaw has been bewildering. One bizarre manifestation was the appearance and disappearance of President Trump’s 1776 Commission report.

On Monday, Jan. 18, President Trump released a diatribe against the liberal academy, written by conservative pundits. Among other things, the report concluded that American universities are “hotbeds of anti-Americanism, libel, and censorship that combine to generate in students and in the broader culture at the very least disdain and at worst outright hatred for this country.

Historians panned the Trump report. The American Historical Association said that its authors “call for a form of government indoctrination of American students, and in the process elevate ignorance about the past to a civic virtue.” As soon as Joe Biden was inaugurated, on Jan. 20, the report disappeared from the White House website.

These gyrations are disorienting. This tumult at the top breeds cynicism, polarization, anger, and even violence.

The solution is to combine toleration with love of truth, to think deeply but also to take things lightly. Historical and ethical truth should resist the shifting winds. But these truths are complicated. So as we search for truth, we must also learn to leave each other alone and take disagreement in stride.

This requires a difficult balancing act. A model can be found in the idea of a Socrates who dances. Socrates criticized the mythic history of his day. But Socrates also danced and played.

Socrates lived in an era of ethical whiplash. A plague had ravaged Athens, along with a brutal war. There was profound moral, political, and religious uncertainty. Socrates was accused of being part of the problem by the Athenian equivalent of Trump’s “1776 Commission.” His accusers claimed he taught unpatriotic doctrines and that he corrupted the youth. They sentenced him to death.

Socrates was legendary for his simplicity and strength. He was a war hero. He walked barefoot in the winter. He drank, but never got drunk. And according to his friends, he danced, even in his old age.

Or so the story goes. This transpired over two millennia ago. Did Socrates really dance? Who knows? But the legend inspires us to seek strength and grace and poise.

Socrates remains a hero because he lived and died with courage, integrity, and good humor. Physical and mental strength helped him endure. Spiritual flexibility helped him thrive. He challenged authority and stuck with the truth. He also knew when to yield and how to maintain his equilibrium.

For those of us who are tired of the squabbling, perhaps the best thing we can do is hold fast to truth while letting loose with a dance. Socrates provides a model of a limber soul that is deeply rooted. The Socratic soul is well-balanced and resilient.

In our disembodied world of social distancing and virtual reality, we rarely dance. Instead, we hunch over our screens and surf our silos of information. It is no wonder that anger and resentment fester. Bodies are built to move. Voices are made to sing. And thought needs the freedom to wander.

Socrates teaches us to defend the truth. But he also takes things lightly. History shows that human nature includes nobility and absurdity, cruelty and grace. It also teaches us that wisdom is a dance.

Is it ethical to laugh at a train wreck? What can ‘Tiger King’ teach us about the tiger within?

Fresno Bee, April 19, 2020

It seems wrong to take pleasure in other people’s suffering and degradation. But our culture encourages us to watch people do strange and shameful things. There is a continuum from porn to Tiger King.

Tiger King is a documentary about a dysfunctional subculture. It involves sex, drugs, suicide, murder, and exotic animals. At one point during the show a commentator says, “Even if it’s a train wreck, you can’t help but look.”

But shouldn’t we at least try not to stare? The Golden Rule applies in train wrecks. Gawk at others only to the extent that you would have them stare at you. In addition to turning the other cheek, we should also learn to avert our gaze.

Some viewers may tune into Tiger King for noble reasons. Perhaps they are concerned about animal welfare. Others may want to know what’s going on in the American heartland.

But most viewers are just looking for laughs. We watch this stuff with smug self-righteousness. “Hey, look at these idiots,” we say. “At least I’m not as dumb as them.” Or we experience the vindictive pleasure of thinking, “Those morons got what they deserved.”

But it is mean-spirited to think that stupid people somehow deserve their suffering. It is cruel to cheer on their pain. Sympathy is destroyed by smugness. Contempt undercuts compassion.

It is not exactly evil to watch this kind of stuff. Consenting adults can watch what they want, so long as they don’t deliberately harm others for their pleasure. To watch something is not to cause it to happen. The spectator is not responsible for what he observes.

But there is something degrading about a whole culture of “disaster voyeurism.” We watch “fail videos” on Youtube. We consume coverage of tornados and hurricanes. Reality shows and documentaries display a world full of weirdos. We linger on social media waiting for politicians and celebrities to say stupid stuff.

The late-night comedians serve up a daily dose of mockery. We shrug and laugh and sip our wine. Rarely do we mourn or grieve, or take action.

Philosophers use a German word to describe this, “Schadenfreude.” This means to take pleasure in someone else’s suffering. Schadenfreude is woven into the human psyche. It helps us feel better about ourselves to see other people fail. If you can’t beat ‘em, mock ‘em.

Sarcasm and mockery have ancient roots. Ancient Greek dramas ridiculed the stupid and the powerful. Shakespeare has the gods say, “what fools these mortals be.”

Mocking laughter is also a sign of freedom and enlightenment. Authoritarian societies ban poetry, art, and criticism. And really stupid people usually don’t get the joke. They are immune to irony. Some fools think we are laughing with them, when we are really laughing at them.

There is wisdom in laughter. Pompous idiots deserve to be lampooned, especially those in power. And in bad times, sometimes the only thing left to do is laugh.

But ridicule corrupts the soul when it becomes habitual and one-sided. It becomes dangerous when it kills compassion. Racism, sexism, and fascism are often fueled by cruel jokes and heartless mockery.

When we mock “them,” we hold ourselves apart. The risk of Schadenfreude is that in making fun of other people’s misfortunes, we become callous and indifferent to their suffering.

Compassion grows when we understand that stupidity and misfortune afflict everyone. We all stumble and fall, and do stupid things. We should laugh at the absurdity of the human condition. But we must put our own failures on the table and learn to laugh at ourselves.

Mean-spirited laughter says, “Thank God I’m not as stupid as those fools.” But sympathetic laughter says, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

Each of us is as foolish as the other. There is a Tiger King within each of us. But rather than feeding our narcissism and cruelty, we should tame it. Rather than hoping for the idiots to fail, we should want them to become enlightened.

Each person’s enlightenment is their own business. That’s why it is wise to look the other way and leave people alone. It is wiser still to look within and learn to laugh at the fool you know best.

Quarantine Ethics

Fresno Bee, February 9, 2020

Coronavirus quarantines are spreading. Fifty million people have been quarantined in China. Hong Kong has quarantined people from the Chinese mainland. A cruise ship remains quarantined in Japan. The U.S. banned entry for people traveling from China while slapping a 14-day quarantine on Americans returning from China.

The Chinese government has warned of fear-mongering. But a pandemic is a scary thing. Contagion conjures images of the Black Death and the zombie apocalypse. But quarantines are also frightening. Imagine desperate people pounding on the gates that lock them in with the disease.

Quarantines may not seem controversial, when viewed from the standpoint of public health. The goal is to prevent infected people from spreading the disease. To defend the majority, some people’s liberty is limited.

China, a country of 1.4 billion people, may not be overly concerned about violating the rights of 50 million. But it would be difficult to imagine this happening in the U.S. If the disease spreads here, would we be willing to restrict the liberty of 50 million Americans?

One concern is people in the quarantine zone who are not yet infected. A quarantine that puts healthy people at risk seems to violate the basic principle of medical ethics that demands that we “do no harm.”

Some may simply bite the utilitarian bullet and say that in the name of the greater good, some healthy people’s rights may be violated. But the healthy person may disagree. Would a healthy person in quarantine be wrong to try to escape? And if they got infected, would they have a right to sue for damages?

Quarantines are not as easy to justify as we might think. Bioethicist George Annas has argued that quarantine is an “arbitrarily draconian” measure and a “relic of the past that has outlived its usefulness.”

The practice has medieval roots. Centuries ago, plague prevention required 40 days of isolation. The name “quarantine” comes from the Italian word for forty. But why 40 days? Well, in the Bible, the number is connected to a mystical process of purification. It rained for 40 days and nights during Noah’s flood. Moses wandered for forty years in the desert. And Jesus fasted for 40 days.

We no longer believe in supernatural numerology. The proposed quarantine for coronavirus is based upon a 14-day incubation period. But scientific and political judgment can be influenced by cultural factors.

Consider the exotic source of recent pandemic threats: Ebola comes from Africa; coronavirus from China. Racial and cultural assumptions may make us think in terms of preventing “them” from infecting “us.” Quarantine can reinforce discrimination and prejudice.

A long-run solution to pandemic threats must work in the opposite direction. We ought to improve the sanitary conditions and general health of people in the developing world — and here at home. If people everywhere had access to adequate health care, the risk of contagion would be minimized. Quarantine is a short-term solution to a problem that is ultimately about global justice in health care.

A related consideration is science education. In the background is the anti-vaccination crowd. An outbreak of measles that killed at least 63 people last year in Samoa was blamed on anti-vax messaging. A prominent anti-vaxxer was arrested. In the U.S., the First Amendment would seem to prevent the arrest of those who dispute the science of public health. Nonetheless, science literacy and education about preventive health care are essential.

Finally, it is worth considering whether we have an obligation to give special care to those who are quarantined. It would be wrong to shut the gates and leave people in quarantine to suffer. In fact, since we are violating their liberty and putting them at risk for our benefit, we may even owe them special compensation.

Critical thinking about all of this is made more difficult by panicked responses. Unfortunately, these are reactionary times. Fear of contagion is exacerbated by zombie movies and rising animosity toward immigrants. Feverish overreaction must be moderated by common sense and careful consideration of medical ethics.

A quarantine is a morally problematic emergency last resort. We should work harder to prevent those emergencies in the first place. We ought to care for the sick. And we must address the long-term challenges of global public health.

Year in ethics 2016

2016 was a year of ups and downs in ethics

Fresno Bee, December 31, 2016

This was a stimulating year for ethical reflection. Incivility marred the election. Scandals emerged. And haters continued to hate.

But good Samaritans took risks to help others. Just this week, two students, Emily Elmerick and Sydney Antles, rescued crash victims from drowning in a canal on Highway 41.

Such courage should be applauded. We should also celebrate the steadfast decency of the majority of people who worked hard and paid their taxes.

Common decency often goes unnoticed. Nor do we notice the steady progress we are making toward alleviating poverty, improving health and advancing literacy around the globe.

Instead we fixate on hot button issues. This year, transgender rights and Black Lives Matter grabbed headlines. Assisted suicide became legal in California. Some states restricted abortion rights. And marijuana legalization was in vogue. Any of those issues will provoke heated conversation.

SELF-DRIVING CARS NEED MORAL ALGORITHMS TO GUIDE THEM. BIOTECHNOLOGY IS OPENING A NEW WORLD OF GENETIC ENGINEERING. THE SIXTH MASS EXTINCTION IS BEING CAUSED BY POACHING, POLLUTION AND HUMAN POPULATION PRESSURE. GLOBAL TEMPERATURES AND CO2 LEVELS ARE AT ALL-TIME HIGHS.

Major moral problems loom on the horizon. Self-driving cars will require moral algorithms to guide them. Biotechnology is opening a brave, new world of genetic engineering. The sixth mass extinction is being caused by poaching, pollution and human population pressure. Global temperatures and carbon dioxide levels are at all-time highs.

Despite these new challenges, some things don’t change. California voters retained the death penalty. War, crime and terrorism continue to afflict us. And men continue to disrespect women.

This year, we heard Donald Trump brag about grabbing women’s genitals. Anthony Wiener sent more lewd photos. New allegations emerged against Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes and others.

Meanwhile, the White House’s glass ceiling remains intact. Some blamed misogyny, racism and xenophobia for Hillary Clinton’s failed presidential bid. Others saw conflicts of interest in the Clinton Foundation, dirty deeds in the DNC and that pesky email scandal.

The sports world was a welcome distraction from politics. The Cubs inspired hope, as did Olympic champions. The moral highlight of the Rio Games occurred when Abbey D’Agostino helped an injured Nikki Hamblin complete the 5,000 meter race.

But the Olympics were marred by Russian cheating scandals and fear of Zika. Social unrest in Brazil haunted the Games just as racial tensions in the U.S. prompted Colin Kaepernick’s flag protests.

Sex scandals emerged in USA Gymnastics and in British soccer clubs. And in Rio, Ryan Lochte got drunk and vandalized a service station. He lied about it and got caught, demonstrating that the cover-up is often worse than the crime.

NEPOTISM AND GREED ARE A VOLATILE MIX, WHICH IS KEEPING ETHICS WATCHDOGS ON ALERT AS DONALD TRUMP HEADS TO WASHINGTON, D.C. CRITICS WARN OF POTENTIAL CONFLICTS OF INTEREST.

In addition to liquor and lust, greed also caused moral disaster. Several corporate scandals emerged this year. Wells Fargo opened phony accounts for 2 million customers. The scandal has spread to Prudential insurance. Thousands of employees were fired, and CEO John Stumpf stepped down.

Profiteering was a problem for makers of the EpiPen, whose price rose by hundreds of percent in recent years. The CEO of the company that makes the EpiPen is Heather Bresch. Her father is a U.S. senator. Her mother headed the National Association of State Boards of Education, which urged schools to purchase these devices.

Nepotism and greed are a volatile mix, which is keeping ethics watchdogs on alert as Donald Trump heads to Washington, D.C. Critics warn of potential conflicts of interest. Others, such as Newt Gingrich, argue that a billionaire president should not be bound by customary ethics regulations. Meanwhile, prosecutors have blocked Trump’s attempts to close his charitable foundation, since it is under investigation.

So what have we learned this year? Most scandals involve the same basic causes: sexual desire, drunkenness, overweening pride, a penchant for secrecy and deception, conflicts of interest, and the unbridled pursuit of profit.

The basic lessons of ethics are simple. Keep your ego in check and your pants on. Value sobriety and self-control. Tell the truth. Keep your promises. Don’t cheat. Respect people and treat them fairly. Don’t enrich yourself or your family at the expense of others. And apologize when you do something wrong.

As we enter the new year, let’s resolve to be moderate, humble, honest and kind. Let’s remember that decent people and good Samaritans do exist. Let’s celebrate the progress we have made in improving ourselves and our world. And let’s be slow to blame and quick to forgive, since everyone is tempted by pleasure, profit and pride.

http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article123792204.html

The robots are coming

Is the world ready for sex robots?

Fresno Bee, October 16, 2015

  • Robots cannot replace some genuinely human activities
  • Sex robots and robot soldiers are morally problematic
  • Human life involves humane labor and loving relationships

The robots are coming. Robots can manufacture consumer goods, milk cows, defuse bombs, fight fires, prepare food, and serve it. Soon we’ll see self-driving cars, robot soldiers, and yes, even sex robots.

Some argue for a ban on certain robots. A group of scholars and tech experts – including Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, and Noam Chomsky – has called for a ban on autonomous weapons. More recently, computer scientist Kathleen Richardson started a campaign against sex robots.

The impending robot invasion creates a brave new world of ethical problems. One hyperbolic fear is that robots will turn against us, as in the sci-fi scenarios of “Terminator” or “The Matrix.” Robot defenders argue, however, that there is no need to fear a robot apocalypse. Since robots are basically rule-following machines, they will not turn on us unless programmed to do so.

But there is no perfect system of rules. Conflicting rules force hard ethical choices. Robots programmed to save humans may have to kill some to save others. For example, driverless cars programmed to avoid pedestrians may swerve into traffic, putting other humans at risk. Rule-following is no guarantee of safety in our complex world.

Robot enthusiasts will argue, nonetheless, that robots are more rational than we are. Machines can calculate probabilities and maximize outcomes in a way that human decision-makers cannot. A robot soldier might be better than a stressed-out human soldier at following the rules of engagement. Robot cars may minimize the overall harm of high-speed collisions better than frantic, angry or self-interested human drivers.

But the fact that robots do not feel squeamishness, fear or doubt is a concern for those who value the emotional component of ethical decision-making. Feelings of guilt, remorse, fear, joy and hope are important components of the moral life. A robot who feels no joy in saving a child and no guilt at killing one is a kind of moral monster.

Another worry is that robots make it too easy to do dirty work. Robot soldiers would make war easier. Since robots don’t suffer PTSD or leave behind orphans and widows, it would be easier to send them into battle. But if robots can kill without risk, we might take combat less seriously and thus be more permissive about going to war.

Furthermore, the robot revolution poses problems for human agency and identity. This is the danger of sex robots. Do we really want people having sex with machines? Proponents imagine sexbots as a humane substitute for human prostitution. But critics worry that sexbots may increase the demand for sex objects, thus contributing to sexual violence and putting women and children at risk. What would we think of pedophiles who build childlike sex robots?

Robot enthusiasts argue that robots will decrease risk, increase productivity and improve human happiness. Smart machines can kill, drive and flip burgers with more precision and less danger than sleepy and disinterested human beings. Unlike human beings, robots don’t get tired, depressed, jealous or drunk. Nor do they complain when they are ignored, mistreated or disrespected.

But creating robots to do dangerous and degrading work is only a deflection from deeply human problems. The scourges of war and sex-trafficking will not be solved by robotic soldiers or cyber prostitutes. We need human solutions to these problems grounded in humane values such as love, respect and self-control.

We also need to remember that good work is intrinsically valuable. Happiness is found in a job well done. In our effort to speed up work and create efficiency through mechanization, we forget that work is what we do and who we are. There are pleasures and virtues to be found in cooking, driving and milking cows. We need productive occupations. When the robots take over, what will we do all day besides fondle our phones and poke at our apps?

Some activities that are so important that we ought not have robots do them: killing and sex are obvious examples. A fully human life is more than mechanical tasks and rule-following behavior. Human experience includes emotional, ethical and spiritual depth, as well as concrete embodied relationships. There is no robotic replacement for the labors and loves that make life worth living.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/article39484851.html#storylink=cpy