Mother’s Love: The Heart of Ethics

Fresno Bee, May 8, 2022

Motherly love is different from other kinds of love. Brotherly love is connected to the Golden Rule. It tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves. Maternal love is stronger and more intimate. It focuses on the unique personality of those we love.

Fraternal love is about reciprocity. It asks us to respect each other’s rights. But maternal love is deeper and more intimate. It is not always reciprocated. It is not about equality. Rather, it is concerned with the concrete needs of the one who is loved.

The language of brotherhood is common in ethics and politics. The French Revolution celebrated liberty, equality and fraternity. The UN Declaration of Human Rights says, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” Martin Luther King Jr. said, “We must either learn to live together as brothers or we are all going to perish together as fools.”

The language used here is gendered. Perhaps we should also say that there should be a spirit of sisterhood. Some go so far as to talk about “pregnant persons” instead of mothers.

But on Mother’s Day, we celebrate the spirit of motherly love. Motherly love is oriented toward the well-being of each particular child. Rather than treating all children the same, maternal love focuses on the uniqueness of each child.

Motherly love is emotionally stronger than brotherly love. It is also less egalitarian. Brothers are supposed to treat one another fairly and equally. But mothers love their children in a way that is biased and partial.

Mothers have special relationships with their own children that they simply do not have with other children. Of course, that special relationship works both ways. Most of us are biased when it comes to our own mothers. Toddlers seek their mother’s arms for comfort. And adult children give special care to their mothers.

I wrote about motherly love in a blog post last year on Mother’s Day. A friend suggested that this seems a bit sexist and old-fashioned. To say that motherly love is partial and biased may imply that mothers are ethically flawed.

But this only makes sense if we believe ethics is only about impartiality and equality. Motherly love is as important as brotherly love. Brotherly love gives us equality and respect. But motherly love gives us comfort, care and belonging. Each kind of love is needed.

The impartiality of fraternal love responds to inequality and intolerance. But a mother’s personal love helps us thrive in a world that is cold and indifferent. It is sexist to say that maternal love is inferior. The remedy is to understand that motherly love is important and that brotherly love is not the whole of ethics.

The Golden Rule of fraternal love remains a guide for morality. But what if we also said that we should learn to love other people as mothers love their children? That seems to be the heart of an ethic of compassion, to learn to care for others as our mothers cared for us.

And what about fatherly love? Well, our culture imagines a father’s love as that of a strict and dispassionate disciplinarian. Paternal love is the equality and impartiality of brotherly love taken to a higher level. The image of “God the Father” often portrays Him as loving us despite our failures, while reminding us that we need to straighten up and fly right.

But mothers don’t love us despite our failures. They love us because of our flaws, since it is our flaws that make us unique and special. Motherly love is focused on the personality of the one loved, while fatherly and brotherly love emphasizes the abstract personhood behind the personality.

We have to be careful in thinking this through. This gendered language includes stereotypes that can be hurtful and divisive. The truth is that men can love like mothers. And women can be dispassionate and impartial. We all have the capacity for each kind of love.

On Mother’s Day we celebrate motherly love. Let’s reflect on what our mothers taught us about love—and thank them for those lessons.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article261144842.html#storylink=cpy

Love and the Golden Rule: An Ethical Valentine

Fresno Bee, February 13, 2022

Valentine’s Day is a great time to reflect on the beauty of the golden rule. This principle tells us that love is the key to morality. But love and ethics are complicated.

Morality often involves lists of do’s and don’ts. The golden rule seems to tell us how to construct such a list. It says, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” A negative version says, “Don’t do to others what you don’t want them to do to you.”

But ethics is not only about do’s and don’ts. Ethics also involves a transformation of the heart. It includes character and disposition, emotion and relationship.

That’s why the most inspiring version of the golden rule focuses on love. It says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This links altruism and egoism. It demands that we transform self-love into love of the other. It also suggests that ethics is not only about complying with a set of rules. Attitude and orientation also matter.

It is possible, for example, to do the right thing, but with a grudge. A person who is angry or resentful about doing good is less praiseworthy than someone who is benevolent, kind, and generous. Someone who tells the truth in order to avoid a penalty for lying is less admirable than someone who is fundamentally honest.

In reality, these things are complicated. Sometimes truth can be cold and biting. And sometimes a white lie can be kind. There is a difference between lying for malicious purposes and lying for the sake of the other person.

Love demands that we consider those complexities. The golden rule orients us toward the well-being of those we love. This goes beyond obedience to a list of commandments.

Rule-following is easier than loving. And strict compliance can betray the spirit of love. Consider fidelity and adultery. A grumpy lover whose faithfulness is stubbornly obedient is less praiseworthy than a lover who is happily faithful. The loyalty of love is not supposed to be a grim duty. There should be joy in fidelity.

Or consider the duties of parenthood. There are long lists of things that parents should do (or not do) for their children. But we wouldn’t really use the word “good” to describe a parent who obeys the rules of parenting without actually loving their children.

Some critics will say that love is too weak and mushy to be a reliable guide for ethics. Erotic love is a mercurial emotion that overwhelms rational thought. Romeo and Juliet were swept away by love. But (spoiler alert!) that story does not end well.

Ethical love is more mature than adolescent infatuation. It is supposed to be steady and enduring.

Christian texts provide us with a clue. The famous account in First Corinthians tells us that love is patient, kind, trusting, and hopeful. Love should not be proud or boastful, angry or resentful.

This account of mature and stable love can be traced back to Plato, who wrote several dialogues about love. Plato thought that love should be oriented toward higher goods. Erotic love focuses on the fleeting pleasures of the body. But platonic love is spiritual. It directs us toward enduring and essential goods.

Consider again, parental love. Loving parents do not love their children because the kids are useful or fun. A parent’s love is not about the parent’s happiness or pleasure. Rather, loving parents should want their children to thrive for their own sake.

The same is true of mature romantic love. It is not merely about pleasure and desire. Nor is it about financial partnership or some other pragmatic concern. Rather, romantic love ought to be focused on the spiritual well-being of the other person.

Of course, it is easy to misunderstand love. And we often love poorly. Poetry and literature are full of tarnished love. But the golden rule encourages us to polish up the way we love.

Love is not merely about feeding the fires of selfishness and sensuous pleasure. Rather, the beauty of love is found in the way it leads us beyond ourselves. True love is for the sake of the other. It ought to make us happy and also better and wiser.

Practice gratitude and live a grateful life

Fresno Bee, December 26, 2021

The holiday season encourages us to practice gratitude. One way to lean into gratitude is to celebrate the lost art of writing thank-you notes. A good thank-you is more than a text message saying “Thanx.”

I learned this from the women in my life who are role models of gracious gratitude. My grandmothers always sent handwritten cards and notes. My mother’s artful cursive gives style to her thank-yous. My wife writes lots of thoughtful thank-you notes.

We forced our children to put pen to paper after Christmas and birthdays. They seem to have learned the art of saying thanks. As young adults, they write heartfelt expressions of gratitude.

This little ritual is an ethical and spiritual practice. It is important to take time out and really think about what you are grateful for.

Gratitude is often in short supply in an impatient world. Envy, anger, and other negative emotions can undermine the spirit of gratitude. And sometimes we get grumpy, even about the need to write a thank-you note.

The good news is that in expressing gratitude, grumpiness dissolves. Positive virtues are often developed by a kind of “fake it until you make it” contrivance. Even if you are not feeling particularly thankful, the emptiness of the blank page forces you to conjure up some gratitude.

Giving thanks is an important social ritual. You are expected to say thanks in certain situations. When the server brings the meal, you say thanks. After a job interview, you ought to write an email saying thanks. And so on.

Parents ask their kids, “What do you say?” in response to Grandma’s gift. The child knows that the correct answer is “Thanks, Grandma.” This compliant response to a parent’s prompting is an important start. But it is not yet gratitude.

Gratitude is deeper than saying thanks.

That’s where a thoughtful thank-you note plays a role. A decent thank-you note should have at least three sentences. First, you say what you are thankful for. Then you explain why you are thankful. Finally, you express good wishes toward the person you are thanking. By the time you’ve written those three sentences, the spark of gratitude may be kindled.

That’s why a hand-written note is better than a texted “Thx.” Mechanical expressions of thanks have little to do with gratitude. Pre-printed thank-yous often arrive in our inboxes, in response to charitable donations, bill payments, and the like. Sometimes they even arrive in response to wedding gifts or graduation gifts.

A mechanical thank-you acknowledges a gift or payment. The note lets you know that the check was not lost in the mail. But acknowledgement is not gratitude.

Gratitude is an expression of heartfelt gladness. It is not simply a receipt. It is also an appreciation. The word “appreciate” has the word “precious” concealed within it. Genuine gratitude involves reflecting on what you appreciate.

Philosophers have thought about gratitude for thousands of years. The Stoic philosopher Seneca suggested that true gratitude is not simply mechanical or self-interested. Ritual thankfulness occurs in religion and in business. This is often a superficial formula without thought.

Even worse, there are people who ingratiate themselves with sweet talk. Gratitude can be used to manipulate and take advantage. Slick salesmen express gratitude while picking our pockets. True gratitude is not like that at all. Rather, it is linked to generosity, friendship, and love.

Seneca also suggested that a good life should be imbued with a spirit of gratitude. He said, “we wish to depart from human life as full of gratitude as possible.”

A good life would be one in which envy and resentment give way to gratitude. To live well is to be grateful for this moment and this life. We should live in such a way that when the end comes, we can be grateful.

In the new year, then, let’s resolve to be less resentful and more grateful. One way to do that is to put pen to paper and write an old fashioned thank-you note. This reminds us of the generosity and good will of our friends and relations. It spreads goodwill by letting other people know that we appreciate them. And it encourages us to count our blessings, even in the dark of winter.

Artificial Intelligence and Moral Judgment

Fresno Bee, November 7, 2021

Artificial intelligence can do many things, but only humans can build a decent society.

There is a difference between answering a question and having a soul. Computers answer questions in response to queries. They process information. Machines are getting smarter. But they lack the depth of the human soul.

If you’ve used Apple’s Siri or some other smart device, you know how limited these machines can be. They will get better. But their limitations are instructive.

I’ve been experimenting with Delphi, an Artificial Intelligence (AI) machine that mimics ethical judgment. Created by the Allen Institute for AI, Delphi responds to questions about values.

The company’s website explains: “Delphi is an AI system that guesses how an ‘average’ American person might judge the ethicality/social acceptability of a given situation.” The machine gathers information from the Internet to respond to queries.

It is fun — and sometimes funny — to see what the machine comes up with. I tried several queries. One line of questioning had to do with eating.

I asked about eating chicken. Delphi said, “It’s OK.” Delphi said the same thing for cow and pig. But Delphi said it was wrong to eat chimpanzee, bear and snake.

Of course, reality is more complicated than this. Some people eat bears. Others eat snakes. In some cultures, it is wrong to eat cows or pigs. And vegetarians don’t eat any animals.

I asked about eating a dead human body. Delphi said, “It’s wrong.” Delphi also said it was wrong to eat children. Thankfully Delphi answered those questions correctly.

But the machine is limited. I asked about not eating. Delphi said, “It’s bad.” But when I asked about fasting, Delphi said, “It’s good.” This seems to be a contradiction.

One problem is that the system responds with simple answers. It does not ask for further clarification — say, about the reason why someone is not eating. And it does not offer subtle explanations that account for cultural differences or exceptional circumstances.

Human beings understand that the questions of ethics are invitations for deeper conversations. We also know that culture and context matter.

One of the most important features of our humanity is the fact that we have to live with our decisions. Ethical decisions involve social and psychological pressures that machines cannot feel. If you make a bad ethical decision, you will feel guilty. If you do something good, you will feel proud. The machine can’t feel those things.

Consider ethical emotions such as compassion and gratitude. Compassion connects us with others who are suffering. Gratitude is a positive feeling to those who support us. These emotions color our judgments. Computers don’t have emotions.

Human beings also struggle to overcome negative emotions such as anger, resentment, and hate. To be human is to be engaged in a process of taming negative emotion. Computers don’t have that challenge.

I asked Delphi about hating people. It said “It’s wrong.” I asked Delphi about hating evil. It said, “It’s good.” That makes sense. But when I asked about hating enemies, things got interesting. It said, “It’s normal.”

This was a subtle answer. Did the computer know that humans are conflicted about hating our enemies? Jesus told us to love our enemies. But most of us don’t live up to that ideal. It’s normal to hate enemies, even if it is not good.

I continued to ask Delphi about hate. I asked about hating Biden and hating Trump. In both cases, the computer said, “It’s fine.” This shows us another problem. The computer gathered its data from the Internet. Undoubtedly there is a lot of hate direct at both Trump and Biden. So, the computer concluded “It’s fine.”

This reminds us that browsing the Internet is a terrible way to reach conclusions about ethics. The hate we find online is not fine. It’s a sign of social dysfunction.

The machine’s answers reflect the values it discovers in the human world. An AI created in a carnivorous society will be different than one created by vegetarians. An AI in a hate-filled society will reflect that hate. Our smart machines are mirrors. They summarize who we are and what we believe.

It remains a human responsibility to create a decent society. No smart machine can do that for us. Computers answer questions. They cannot cultivate the human soul.

Rocket Man Morality

Fresno Bee, October 17, 2021

When Captain Kirk made it to space, I was driving past a panhandler. The Gil Scott-Heron song, “Whitey on the Moon,” came to mind. We’ve got poverty and pandemics. But Shatner’s riding a rocket.

I say this as a fan of “Star Trek” and William Shatner. I’ve cheered on the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. I’ve even enjoyed Shatner’s campy spoken-word recordings — including his bizarre rendition of Elton John’s “Rocket Man.”

But “Star Trek” sold us a fantasy. They forgot to tell us that only the rich and famous will go where no man has gone before. The rest of us will be stuck in traffic, while poor folks beg for cash on freeway off-ramps.

Of course, Shatner can do whatever he wants. Rich old men have the right to burn up their money with rocket fuel. One part of this story is about Shatner’s health and longevity. At 90, Shatner is the oldest person to go into space. It’s amazing that a nonagenarian can blast into orbit. Good for him that he is sturdy enough to ride a rocket.

But in the background of Shatner’s triumph are tragic inequalities. Rich people live long, healthy lives. Poor people do not. A report from before the pandemic indicated that rich American men live an average of 15 years longer than poor American men.

The whole Earth is afflicted by similar gaps. World Bank data show that in “low income” countries, life expectancy is 64 years, while in “high income” countries, it is 81. It doesn’t seem right to fling old geezers into space while people are dying down below.

So, while I’m a Shatner fan, I also want to say shame on him — and on the idea of space tourism. This is conspicuous consumption run amok. The Earth and its humans need help. But the rich are riding rockets.

Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket latest space passengers from left, Audrey Powers, William Shatner, Chris Boshuizen, and Glen de Vries raises their hands as they talks about snake bites during a media availability at the spaceport near Van Horn, Texas, Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021. (AP Photo/LM Otero) LM Otero AP
Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article255018227.html#storylink=cpy

Those rockets emit massive amounts of pollution. The atmosphere is already full of heat-trapping gases. A tourist flight into space leaves a carbon footprint up to a hundred times worse than an ordinary airplane flight.

In case you were wondering, a ticket into space costs about $200,000. It’s obscene to spend that kind of money on a few minutes of weightlessness and the bragging rights you get from becoming a rocket man.

Despite the cost, the space tourism industry is planning to grow. The ultra-wealthy are doing fine and getting richer. I’m sure the wealthy will keep the rockets busy. There are plans for hundreds of rocket flights per year.

The wealthy will survive the climate crisis without much problem. Rich people already generate more carbon emissions than poor people. The rich will ride out the climate storm in air-conditioned summer homes, while the working poor and the homeless suffer under the heat.

It is probably too late to restrict the space tourism industry. If Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and others are prevented from launching their rockets in the U.S., they would just launch them abroad.

That’s where shame comes in. Instead of celebrating space tourists, we should say, shame on them. Rich people should be embarrassed to ride on rockets. It would be better for the rich to donate their 200K to a homeless shelter. Let’s praise them when they do that. And let’s shame them when they binge on rocket fuel.

We also need to question the fantasy that Hollywood has sold us about space. There is no home for us in the stars. Elton John’s vision is more realistic. He said, “Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids; in fact, it’s cold as hell.”

To his credit, Shatner described how the rocket flight humbled him. He said that from the rocket’s window he saw “the vulnerability of everything.” That’s important. But you don’t need to ride a rocket to understand that our planet and our neighbors are suffering.

The “Star Trek” fantasy assumes we are wise enough to venture to the stars. But until we fix this world, we have not earned the right to leave it. Scotty can’t just beam us up. There’s nowhere else to go. Every rocket man must land again on this fragile crust and drive home past the haunted and the homeless.