Ethical New Year’s Resolutions

Have a Philosophical New Year

Fresno Bee, December 27, 2014

As the calendar turns, it is natural to take stock of our lives. Reflecting on the past year and making New Year’s resolutions is a philosophical activity. The ancient philosophers also made lists and resolutions as part of the effort to live mindfully.

Stoic Philosopher Epictetus
Stoic Philosopher Epictetus

The key to a philosophical life is to try to see things as they actually are. We are often deceived by idealism, ideology and emotion. Our hopes lead us astray. Our fears disempower us. And our fantasies confuse us. The solution is to get in touch with reality.

Consider diet — a typical focus of New Year’s resolutions. We fantasize about food and drink, as if a cocktail or a bag of chips has the magic power to produce happiness. A philosophical diet focuses on the reality of eating and drinking. These are merely biological functions, not fantastic cures for spiritual poverty.

Or consider what we learn from typical year-end lists. These lists show us, as they do every year, that human beings are mortal and imperfect. Some people died. Others were born. Heroes inspired us. But violence and war continue to exist.

For every genius, there are a hundred fools — for every murderer, a hundred lovers. Human nature is neither perfectible nor unredeemable. Optimists don’t like to hear the bad news. Pessimists are unable to see the good. But the truth is in the middle.

We live in a changing world. Our characters are not fixed. We make progress and improve. We backslide and degenerate. Life is a project to be lived. That’s why resolutions are useful: they remind us of who we want to be.

It’s a shame that we waste our resolutions on trivial stuff such as losing weight or making money. It would be better to resolve to be more caring, more intelligent, more courageous, more just and more mindful.

Here are a few reminders and resolutions distilled from the teachings of the ancient philosophers. If it is not right, don’t do it. If it is not true, don’t say it. Do nothing inconsiderately. Remember that no evil lasts forever, including pain. Understand that nothing is entirely in your own control, even your own emotions. Acknowledge that everyone, including you, eventually dies. Bear in mind that you have no power over what other people say or do. Understand that human beings share much in common. And see that we all benefit from compassion and justice.

The ancient philosophers emphasized taking active steps to improve life. Those who wait for the world to change may wait forever. The Roman philosopher Seneca once explained that the problem is not that life is too short but that we waste too much of it. Life is long enough and rich enough, if you make a constant effort to live it well.

Of course, not everything works out for the best. Sometimes tragedy occurs. And sometimes we make mistakes. But we cannot give up because of tragedy or fret over our mistakes. Strength, courage, resilience and tenacity are required at all times.

The key is to accept the things we cannot change and focus our effort on the things we can improve. Another Roman philosopher, Epictetus, said that we should stop wishing that things would happen as we want them to happen and learn to accept the world as it does happen. This is a useful strategy, when things don’t go right. But resigning yourself to fate does not mean giving up on the effort to live as well as you can in the life that fate has given you.

The world won’t change until you make it change. And you won’t become better until you put forth the effort. Wisdom, courage, and intelligence are needed to negotiate a world in which every noble and beautiful thing will eventually fade. Enjoy the good things while they last. Grit your teeth through the bad times. And keep yourself open to opportunities for improvement.

The philosophical approach is demanding. There are no quick fixes or super-human saviors here. This is your life, the philosophers teach, your one and only chance to live well. Each new year — each new moment — is a chance to excel. What you do with that opportunity is entirely up to you

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/12/26/4301690_take-a-chance-with-this-years.html?rh=1#storylink=cpy

 

Be thankful our country allows all beliefs on prayer

Fresno Bee

November 15, 2013

http://www.fresnobee.com/2013/11/15/3611459/ethics-this-thanksgiving-be-thankful.html

George Washington declared that a Thursday in November should be directed to “the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.” President Obama reaffirmed this last year, declaring that Thanksgiving is a time for Americans to “be mindful of the grace bestowed upon us by God.”

Where does that leave nonreligious Americans? The issue of nonreligious prayer came up recently as the U.S. Supreme Court considered a case where citizens protested the use of prayer in public meetings in a New York town. During the hearing, Justice Antonin Scalia asked, “What is the equivalent of prayer for somebody who is not religious?” That pregnant question was left unanswered by the court.

To pursue this matter, I contacted professor Daniel Dennett at Tufts University, a prominent defender of humanism. Dennett explained in an email, “In silent soliloquy or public pronouncement we can resolve to ourselves to do better, to suppress our bad habits and natures, and we can express, silently or aloud, our allegiance to some cause or institution or group. We can ask for forgiveness, make promises, declare love. All these highly important — maximally important or sacred — themes can be laundered of all religious overtones and remain as solemn, life-defining speech acts.”

Dennett is right. Nonreligious people can make public affirmations and engage in silent soliloquy. They can make solemn, life-defining pronouncements. But are these nonreligious speech acts really prayers?

A prayer is a petition to the deity, usually soliciting a blessing. To pray means literally to ask, beg, request or plead. Prayers can also express admiration, worshipful awe and thanksgiving. Prayers can be shared in public. They can also be unspoken and private.

Whether spoken or silent, religious prayer has an intended recipient. Prayerful words are directed toward a deity, who is presumably powerful enough to hear even our silent supplications. This divinity is supposed to respond to our entreaties and to appreciate adulation. Religious people from different faiths may disagree about who is being petitioned, thanked or worshiped. But they agree that there is someone out there to whom their prayers are addressed.

And that is where the nonreligious will shake their heads instead of bowing them. Atheists do not think there is a divine recipient of prayerful words. Although atheists can appreciate tacit reflection and benefit from public reminders of key values, atheists deny that a divinity can hear our prayers.

Humanistic atheists may be grateful to be alive. They may admire the complexity of the universe. They may have a sense of appreciation and awe. They may see the psychological benefit of guided meditation. They may even enjoy the poetic force of devotional words. But they won’t accept the metaphysics of prayer.

An atheist can whisper to herself before an exam, “I hope I do well on this test.” A team of atheists could affirm before a match, “Let’s work hard and do our best.” But it would be nonsensical for atheists to ask for God’s assistance in these endeavors.

There is a fundamental conflict here. This topic will inevitably offend somebody. There is no way to resolve a dispute in which one person’s deepest convictions are viewed by others as nonsense.

The best we can do is agree to disagree. Let’s admit that Scalia is right to suggest that nonreligious prayer is an oxymoron. But that’s exactly why, in our diverse society, we ought to be careful with public prayer.

On this issue, Thomas Jefferson may be a better guide than Washington or Obama. Jefferson refused to declare a public day of prayer when he was president. In a letter from 1808, he explained that the Constitution prevented him from meddling with religious exercises. He also explained that religious sects have an interest in this protection, since the right to decide about prayer should remain in the hands of citizens and not be foisted upon them by the government.

Thankfully, the First Amendment to the Constitution provides this protection to religious and nonreligious people. The government should not prohibit private prayer. Nor should it tell us when or how to pray (or not pray). Americans should be grateful for that protection, even though we will fundamentally disagree about the ultimate question of whom we ought to thank for the rest of our blessings.

 

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2013/11/15/3611459/ethics-this-thanksgiving-be-thankful.html#storylink=cpy