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.

The Tough and the Tender-Hearted: Trump, Jesus, and Socrates

Fresno Bee, December 22, 2020

President Trump has a steely spine. He is feisty and pugnacious. Some people admire him for his toughness. But toughness is not the only thing that matters. There is also a need for a more tender-hearted morality.

Trump is a paradigmatic tough guy. The title of Trump’s 2011 book is “Time to Get Tough.” He explained that to fix America “we’ve got to be smart and get tough.” Earlier this year Trump bragged that all of the tough guys are on his side: the police, the military, and the bikers. And in a famous tweet from 2105 he said, “When somebody challenges you unfairly, fight back, be brutal, be tough, don’t take it. It is always important to WIN!”

Trump’s recent letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is a great example of how tough guys operate. A softer man would have apologized, resigned, or attempted to negotiate a compromise. But Trump expressed no remorse or interest in reconciliation. Indeed, he touted his toughness in the letter, saying “I have been far tougher on Russia than President Obama ever even thought to be.”

The letter is scathing and belligerent. He accuses the Democrats of staging a partisan coup. He says the Democrats view democracy as their enemy and are “declaring open war on American Democracy.” He even suggests that Pelosi has weaponized religion, suggesting that she prays for his demise.

Some people admire truculent tough guys. Pop culture is full of them. Americans love movies about cowboys, soldiers, gangsters and cops. We like Robert De Niro, Clint Eastwood and Samuel L. Jackson.

History is also full of tough guys. Plato described a tough guy named Thrasymachus, whose name literally means “bold fighter.” Thrasymachus defined morality simply as helping friends and harming enemies.

That’s how tough guys view the world: divided between friends and enemies. They reward loyalty and show no mercy to their rivals. For tough guys, the essence of morality is power, since power allows you to help your friends and punish your enemies.

The tough world view is self-reinforcing. You assume that your enemies are waiting to pounce and that your allies may sell you out. The solution is to be relentless toward friends and enemies alike. But that causes friction and animosity, which increases the need for further toughness.

In a tough world, even loyal comrades are temporary. The assumption is that people only do favors looking for something in return. This is a world of cronies and accomplices, vendettas and possible violence. It is the world we see in Shakespeare and Sophocles, as well as in Hollywood.

Philosophy and religion provide a critique of toughness. A more tender-hearted morality is espoused by Socrates, who argued against Thrasymachus’s hard-hearted worldview. Socrates said, “we ought not retaliate or render evil for evil to anyone.”

Jesus said something similar. But Jesus went a step further in his advocacy of love. Not only are we to love our neighbors, we are even supposed to love our enemies.

Tender-hearted morality looks beyond the distinction between friend and enemy. It judges things impartially. It sees dignity and worth in all persons. It respects everyone equally. It forgives and shows mercy. It wants to transform enmity into community.

Tender-hearted morality elevates love above power. It thinks that gentle kindness is superior to tough-minded ferocity. Instead of seeking favors, soft hearts give without expectation of payback. Instead of a loyalty and revenge, tenderness calls for hospitality and compassion.

Tough guys will see tenderness as foolish. Softness shows weakness and vulnerability. In a tough world, enemies will exploit weakness. Those enemies must be defeated. And the cronies and accomplices must be kept loyal. The tough cannot yield. They cannot admit wrongdoing. They cannot offer mercy or seek forgiveness.

The logic of toughness is understandable. But unyielding Scrooges and gritty Grinches inhabit a dark and lonely place. The antidote is to soften up your spine and open up your heart. The Christmas message calls us toward charity and joy. Instead of winning and fighting back, this is a time of giving and forgiving. It is a season that encourages us to set aside the love of power and recall the power of love.

Luther’s Reformation: Conscience, Truth, and Modernity

A thriving democracy stems from understanding the power of protest

Fresno Bee, October 20, 2017

These are contentious times. We argue about athletes and flags, racism and sexism. We dispute climate change, economic policy, sex and gender, reproductive rights, and immigration. And of course we disagree about religion.

This is what it is like to live in a thriving secular democracy. The modern world is founded upon the value of individual conscience. We are encouraged to question religious and political authority. We understand the power of protest.

One important milestone in the evolution of the modern spirit occurred 500 years ago, on October 31, 1517. That is when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg Church. This legendary act is the symbolic beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

FOLLOWING LUTHER, WE MODERNS TEND TO BELIEVE THAT TRUTH AND CONSCIENCE ARE MORE IMPORTANT THAN ALLEGIANCE TO INSTITUTIONAL AUTHORITY.

Luther’s protest was based on his Christian faith. But he also asserted a fundamental claim about truth and individual conscience. In the prologue to his Theses, Luther declared his love of truth. He published his Theses in an effort to bring truth to light.

Following Luther, we moderns tend to believe that truth and conscience are more important than allegiance to institutional authority. We believe that protests and questions can help to reform corrupt structures of power.

Truth has often been manipulated by the powerful. Today dishonest leaders deal in fake news, while feathering their own nests. In Luther’s day, crooked clerics enriched themselves by peddling indulgences—a scam through which rich people bought their way out of purgatory.

The antidote for corruption is honesty and decency. Luther suggested that without a commitment to truth and morality, authorities and institutions leave themselves open to ridicule, slander and doubt.

It is obvious that leadership requires respect for the truth and a commitment to virtue. But we also need bold protestors who have the audacity to speak truth to power. We need intrepid gadflies like Socrates and Luther who sting the powerful with probing questions.

When Luther testified at the Imperial Diet of Worms, in 1521, he asked for an open and honest debate about his interpretation of Christianity. If he was wrong, he asked to be shown his error. He declared, “I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.” His speech concluded with the legendary words, “Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise.”

Luther’s request for reasonable dialogue and his declaration of conscience are central features of modernity. We believe that progress is made when free persons debate the truth. But corrupt authorities are not interested in dialogue. They value conformity. And they occasionally resort to violence to enforce orthodoxy.

MODERN FREEDOM IS A REMARKABLE AND RARE ACHIEVEMENT OF THE HUMAN SPIRIT.

To say “here I stand” is to affirm that individuals can discover wisdom without institutional intermediaries. This invites attacks from those who prefer us to sit down and shut up. But progress occurs when we refuse to be silent and stand up for truth.

I’ve been talking about Luther with a group of scholars and clergy who will participate in a discussion of the legacy of the Reformation. One of my collaborators on this project is the Rev. David Norris, a Catholic priest who works at the Saint Paul Catholic Newman Center.

Father Norris sees similarities between Luther’s time and our own. He says, “Calls for reform soon became disrespectful argumentation, power plays and name calling, mutual condemnations and politicization of issues.” In Luther’s time as in our own, he explains, there is “an unfortunate disregard of factual information, as well as a decline in civil discourse.”

Despite these similarities, I think that things are better today. Our secular system respects freedom of conscience. We have established a wall of separation between church and state. And instead of repressing dissenters, we admire those who have the courage to say, “here I stand.”

The modern secular world developed out of long centuries of violence and intolerance. Heretics were burned. Wars were fought. Genocide was invented along with totalitarianism.

Modern freedom is a remarkable and rare achievement of the human spirit. Political and religious authorities continue to want conformity and obedience. But modern democratic people continue to question authority.

Truth is a fragile flower. But it is persistent and perennial. And it flourishes when bold individuals speak their minds and take a stand.

http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article180023061.html

Nature, Beauty, and Morality

The beauty of nature’s wonders can lead to a clearer view of the beauty of morality

Fresno Bee, July 28, 2017

Last week, I wrote about solitude and Yosemite. But solitude is not the only thing that lures us to the mountains. We also seek beauty. Lovers of nature cherish birdsong, gleaming granite and sparkling snow. The rainbow, the lightning and the wildflower fill us with awe and wonder.

The world contains many magical places of immense beauty. If the mountains are not to your taste, then enjoy the redwood forests, the ocean breakers, or the flowing river.

We spend too much time indoors. Americans devote about 10 hours per day to their glowing screens. One danger of this is obesity. As our waistlines expand, our attention spans shorten. The lack of natural beauty in our lives poses a spiritual, aesthetic and ethical danger.

Ethics has long been connected to aesthetics. Plato thought that beauty lifted us toward higher things, encouraging us to give birth to virtue and wisdom.

The good and the beautiful exhibit grace, balance and harmony. Good things have symmetry and order. The ability to experience beauty is connected with the knack for knowing the good.

A key here is what we might call “the aesthetic mood.” In the presence of beauty the mind is attuned to the world in a receptive and reverent fashion. When we pause to wonder at a Half Dome or Yosemite Falls, we shift perspectives. Beauty opens transcendent vistas. It encourages us to see beyond the narrow world of “me and mine.”

Only a perverse soul considers profit in the face of the beautiful. The rest of us smile and celebrate. We are grateful, inspired and humbled.

The beautiful is an end-in-itself. It is priceless and beyond exchange. Beautiful objects should be enjoyed and respected. They have inherent value, dignity and worth. It would be wrong to damage or destroy them.

The parallel with ethics is obvious. Morality requires us to value people for their own sake. Morality asks us to recognize the priceless dignity – and immense beauty – of the human being.

Some claim that all of this comes from God. Theists think that the value of human life is based on the fact that we are created in the image of God. They believe that beauty in this world is a sign of God’s love. John Muir said simply, “No synonym for God is so perfect as Beauty.”

Humanists appreciate beauty and humanity for its own sake. They think that morality and reason give value to life – as does the experience of order and harmony in nature.

Albert Einstein provides an inspiring source of the humanist idea. Einstein said, “Only morality in our actions can give beauty and dignity to life.” He thought that we are held captive by our egos. He explained that we find meaning and hope by “widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

Aesthetic experience is an advanced human capacity. Children do seem to have an innate ability to wonder at sound and light. They are also caring and loving. But we have to be taught to see the beautiful, just as we have to learn to value human beings as ends-in-themselves.

That is why it is essential to take kids into nature and show them the beauty of the natural world. They need time away from their screens. They need to stretch their legs and their minds. They need to learn to develop the aesthetic mood. We help them cultivate reverence, humility, gratitude and awe by exposing them to the wonders of nature.

Adults need that too. Natural beauty provides reassurance and hope. Grace and joy are found beyond the depravity of the daily news. The mind is enlivened. The spirit is soothed. We think better and breathe easier in charming landscapes. We are elevated by the sense that this majestic world offers a secret to savor.

This is not selfish escapism. The demands of justice and love always remain. But we all need a refuge to reinvigorate the spirit. Natural splendor strengthens us for the sorrowful and the sordid. In the presence of the beautiful we want to be better people. Beauty inspires us to want to be worthy of this world and its wonders.

http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article163955142.html

Morality and the drought

Moral lessons from the drought

Fresno Bee, December 9, 2015

  • Special Report: From drought to El Niño
  • Columnist Andrew Fiala says drought exposes conflicting ideas