Curing Viciousness by Climbing the Moral Ladder

Fresno Bee, September 20, 2020

At a recent rally in Reno, President Trump said, “Now I can be really vicious.” “I don’t have to be nice anymore.” Trump said, “the Republican party doesn’t play it rough and tough.” “We play it so nice,” he said. “In the end it’s not right.”

Trump’s viciousness can be seen in the way the president applauded the killing of Michael Reinoehl by U.S. Marshals. Reinoehl was suspected of killing a right-wing protester in Portland, Ore. After the marshals killed him, the president said, “that’s the way it has to be. There has to be retribution.” Of course, in the U.S., police are not justified in delivering retribution.

We are on a slippery slope lubricated by viciousness. To avoid that slope we need to hold fast to what I call the moral ladder. The rungs of the ladder tell us to be nice and kind, to seek justice, to limit power, and to develop mercy.

Morality begins with niceness. Parents tell kids, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” We quote Aesop’s fables and teach children that “Kindness is never wasted.” These nuggets of proverbial wisdom create a foundation for morality.

Niceness is about manners. Manners provide a psychological and social root for moral development. In learning to be nice, children develop decorum and self-control. Niceness can be superficial and deceptive. A con-man can be nice while he picks your pocket. But that behavior is an exception. Niceness is the first rung on the moral ladder.

Kindness is also essential. Kindness is empathy and benevolence. Sometimes this can be phony or done for show. But genuine kindness opens the heart. It is the source of charity and compassion. The next rung on the moral ladder involves extending kindness to friends and even to strangers.

Beyond this, ethical maturity requires that we develop a sense of justice and responsibility. The Roman philosopher Cicero said that kindness is optional but justice is necessary. Kindness is a gift. If you withhold charity, no one would blame you or be angry. It is not nice to be unkind, but it is not evil.

Justice, on the other hand, is required. If you fail to be just, you are blameworthy. Failures of justice— from lying and promise-breaking to outright violations of human rights — create outrage and righteous indignation. Injustice is not simply unkind. It is evil. Justice is another step on the moral ladder.

Here is where retribution is found, offering payback that holds criminals responsible for their misdeeds. A traditional scheme requires eye for eye, life for life. But a complex system has developed in order to administer justice. Among the most important features of our system is the presumption of innocence.

Accused criminals in the United States have a right to defend themselves in a court of law. American police are not authorized to deliver retribution. The state’s power to punish is awesome. That’s why we limit it and make certain that those we punish are actually guilty. Recognition of the necessary limitation of the state’s power to punish takes us higher up the ladder. This is the vantage point of democratic political theory, which is committed to basic human rights and the rule of law.

It is possible to climb still higher. Many moral systems teach that forgiveness and mercy are higher than retribution. Mercy asks us to be kind, even to those who deserve punishment. The last rung on the ladder takes us beyond law toward something transcendent.

This moral ladder represents the basic common sense of our civilization. Common sense teaches that when viciousness is praised, virtue gets trampled. When niceness is kicked aside, kindness becomes impossible. When police take retribution into their own hands, democracy is in danger.

It’s time to get off of this slippery slope and climb back up the moral ladder. We do that by adhering to justice and the rule of law. We do that by teaching our children to be nice and kind, fair and forgiving. Our children are watching. They will eventually take control of this vicious country. If we teach them well, they may be kind enough to show a little mercy on us.

Democracy and Faith in Humanity

Without faith in humanity, cynicism grows and democracy becomes mob-rule

Fresno Bee, June 4, 2016

  • Faith in democracy is faith in morality and human freedom
  • American philosophers worry about cynicism
  • Irrationality, rudeness, vulgarity undermine democracy

We seem to have lost faith in our democracy. A recent Associated Press Poll indicates that 70 percent of Americans are “frustrated with the 2016 presidential election.” Only “10 percent say they have a great deal of confidence in the political system overall.”

Most Americans say that the country’s morality is getting worse. According to a recent Gallup Poll, nearly 75 percent of us think we are heading in the wrong moral direction. Almost half of Americans rate our morality as “poor.”

The San Jose Mercury News printed a tongue-in-cheek article about moving to Canada, for those who are not happy with this year’s election. If we are not careful, our cynicism will undermine our democracy. A healthy democracy depends upon trust. It requires faith in human decency and a commitment to the common good.

In 1939, as Europe was exploding, American philosopher John Dewey said that democracy rests upon “faith in the possibilities of human nature” and “faith in the capacity of human beings for intelligent judgment and action.”

Democratic faith is a central idea for John Dewey, one of America’s most important political philosophers. In 1939, as Europe was exploding, Dewey explained that democracy rests upon “faith in the possibilities of human nature” and “faith in the capacity of human beings for intelligent judgment and action.”

Without faith in humanity, cynicism grows and democracy becomes mob rule. Another great American philosopher, John Rawls, explained, “Distrust and resentment corrode the ties of civility, and suspicion and hostility tempt men to act in ways they would otherwise avoid.”

When we don’t trust each other, cooperation becomes impossible. Instead of working for the common good, we work to maximize our own self-interest. Instead of pursuing our hopes, we are motivated by our fears.

Faith in rationality is a key tenet of the democratic faith. Democratic citizens respect each other as rational beings. We give reasons and support them with rational arguments. We expect others to respond in kind. We express our disagreements with civility and restraint, believing that our civility will be reciprocated.

In a healthy democracy, we seek to understand each other. We aim to reach consensus. We listen as much as we talk. We avoid insulting and disrespecting each other. And we believe that each of us is committed to the common good in our own way.

Democratic societies fail when they are plagued by irrationality, rudeness, vulgarity, cruelty and violence. These social maladies cause further distrust and dysfunction, creating a vicious circle of cynicism.

Irrationality breeds mistrust. Instead of deliberating, we connive and cajole. Soon rudeness appears as a strategy and defense mechanism in a world of irrational manipulation. We yell rather than talk. We exchange insults instead of ideas.

The slippery slope of social dysfunction soon leads to vulgarity. In a manipulative power struggle, quick points are scored by playing dirty. Outrageous and obscene remarks soon become normal.

Once vulgarity is on the table, we are one step away from outright cruelty. Vulgar rudeness quickly morphs into nastiness and spite. Soon enough racist, sexist and bigoted comments appear on the scene.

WE HAVE TO BELIEVE THAT HUMAN BEINGS ARE GOOD ENOUGH TO SOLVE OUR OWN PROBLEMS.

The step from verbal cruelty to outright violence is lubricated by the irrationality and obscenity that came before. Violent words quickly lead to violent deeds, when we have given up on reason and civility. And soon enough democracy becomes mob rule.

All of this was understood and predicted by Dewey in 1939 as a betrayal of the democratic faith. He explained, “Intolerance, abuse, calling of names because of differences of opinion about religion or politics or business, as well as because of differences of race, color, wealth or degree of culture are treason to the democratic way of life.”

Dewey’s solution is more and better education, aimed at creating civility and rationality. Education for and about democracy is needed to renew our faith in democracy.

Democratic education relies upon moral education. The basics of moral education have been understood since the time of Plato. Plato said we need four main virtues: moderation, courage, justice and wisdom. We certainly need more of each.

But beyond those basic moral virtues, democracy relies upon faith – in human freedom and in our capacity for self-governance. We have to believe that human beings are good enough to solve our own problems. The democratic faith is a commitment to make a world in which intelligent cooperation produces humane outcomes. Without that faith, we might as well move to Canada – or build a bunker and ride out the storm.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article81572897.html#storylink=cpy

Moral Brain-Hacking and Moral Education

Science not enough, ideas and thought needed

Fresno Bee, May 16, 2014

Perhaps the solution to crime and other social problems is to fix people’s brains or dose them with love drugs. Moral brain-hacking might be a cheap and effective way to produce moral people.

Moral behavior appears to depend upon chemicals such as serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin acting in our brains. Paul Zac argues in his book, “The Moral Molecule,” that oxytocin levels are correlated with empathy, trust and love. A squirt of oxytocin can make people kinder and more trusting.

Brain structure also matters. Magnetic resonance imaging suggests that a sense of justice is located in the part of the brain associated with higher-level cognition. Antisocial behavior is linked to brain defects.

Locating moral behavior in the brain — and not as the free choice of an immaterial soul — may require us to rethink traditional ideas about guilt and responsibility, punishment and reward, praise and blame. If we follow the neuroscience, it might make sense to “punish” people by requiring them to take drugs or have brain surgery. Locking criminals in prisons with other people who have similarly defective neurochemistry may eventually seem, well, medieval.

Spiritually inclined people may be dismayed by this materialistic focus. Brain-based discussions ignore the soul and the moral conscience. Neuroscience dusts the angels and demons off of our shoulders, focusing our attention on the space between our ears.

Those who think that consciousness is distinct from the brain have to explain how Prozac, Ritalin, marijuana, and St. John’s wort are able to change experience, mood and focus. The attitude adjustment provided by a glass of wine or a cup of coffee can make you wonder whether there is anything more to the mind than the brain and its chemistry.

Some may feel that this materialistic focus misses the really big picture of why morality matters. If moral experience is reduced to brain science, traditional metaphysical notions of good and evil may be lost. A brain-based view of personality rules out punishment and reward in the afterlife. The move from the soul to the brain involves a radical reassessment of the meaning of morality and of life itself.

The focus on brains does, however, overlook the importance of ideas and education. Even if we admit that experience is based in the hardware of the brain, we still need the software of consciousness — ideas and theories — that allows us to interpret our experience. A dose of oxytocin may be able to stimulate empathy. But empathetic emotional responses are devoid of content.

Ideas and ethical theories tell us how to act on our emotional responses to the world. Does caring for a loved one mean I should pull the plug and let them die — or keep them on life support? Does empathy for murder victims mean that criminals should be executed — or should empathy extend to criminals?

To answer those kinds of questions we need ideas. Pills, potions and powders can only take us so far. The brain’s capacities and responses are channeled by the stuff of thought: ideas about right and wrong, theories of the good life, models and heroes, and the whole range of issues that arise in the context of moral education.

Ideas cannot simply be reduced to chemical signals in the brain. Does that mean that ideas float freely in a world apart from physical reality. There is a deep mystery here. What is an idea like “good” or “evil” made of? Where do ideas dwell? And how do we know them? Those kinds of questions can really blow your mind (or brain or soul?).

Neurochemical enhancement can’t entirely replace moral education as traditionally understood. Religion, philosophy and literature fill the brain with ideas that guide, bewilder and inspire. Neuro-ethical hacking may make moral education easier. But the neurotransmitters cannot tell us whether brain hacking is a good idea. For that we need moral argument and critical thinking.

Neuroscientific enthusiasm may lead us to miss the moral forest as we gaze in fascination at the neurological trees. Some of us could benefit from a chemically induced compassion boost. But a compassionate brain without moral ideas is empty. A moral person is both a brain and its ideas. And those ideas come from good old-fashioned moral education.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/05/16/3930743/science-not-enough-ideas-and-thought.html#storylink=cpy