Humility and Autonomy in the Moral Life

Fresno Bee, October 29, 2023

The moral life unfolds between humility and autonomy. Should we view ourselves as limited dependent beings, who must accept our mortality and fragility? Or should we view human beings as free agents, who can and should take control of our own destiny?

Pope Francis directed our attention to humility in his recent discussion of the climate crisis called “Laudate Deum.” The pope says, “Let us stop thinking of human beings as autonomous, omnipotent and limitless, and begin to think of ourselves differently, in a humbler but more fruitful way.”

Francis is worried about humanity’s arrogant and rapacious relationship to the natural world. Our lack of humility can be applied to a number of contemporary moral problems. Arrogant self-assertion is imposing, cranky and violent. A lack of humility leads to hatred, intolerance, and war. It may explain a general erosion of sexual restraint that occurs when people view other people’s bodies as playgrounds for exploitation. It can explain consumer debt, drug use and other problems of self-restraint.

The pope warns us not to view ourselves as limitless or omnipotent. But we want to do whatever we want, whenever we want to. In doing so, we ignore the suffering we cause to others — and to ourselves. And we cut ourselves off from transcendent sources of meaning. Francis suggests that pride prevents us from finding God in the wonder of creation.

Human hubris has often been viewed as a moral and spiritual problem. Immoderate self-assertion has been criticized by other religious and spiritual traditions. Buddhists warn, for example, that desire and egocentric attachment cause suffering. The basic idea is that arrogance and self-importance get in the way of compassion and enlightenment.

But humility is not the only thing that matters in a meaningful life. A different approach focuses on the importance of autonomy, self-respect and a celebration of human power. Humility can become passive. It can leave systems of injustice in place, while deferring to the status quo. The celebration of autonomy, pride and ambition was behind the American revolution, as the revolutionaries basically said, “We’re not going to take it anymore.”

This kind of assertiveness inspires abused wives to leave their husbands. It encourages oppressed people to flee or fight back. Pride is connected to ambition. It is what causes inventors, artists and entrepreneurs to jump out of bed in the morning and get to work.

Autonomy is fundamental to a number of moral systems, ancient and modern. Defenders of human rights emphasize human freedom, creativity and self-determination. Autonomy is also linked to self-control. The ancient Stoic philosophers claimed that we have the capacity to control our emotions, our thoughts and our behavior. The world may cause us pain and suffering. But the Stoic philosophers claimed we could retreat to the “inner citadel” of the self, where self-mastery always remains possible.

Autonomy is about self-rule or self-government. This is a central idea for modern moral thinking, which encourages us to be self-governing. The great German philosopher Immanuel Kant said we have to have the courage to take control of our own lives. His motto was “sapere aude,” which means dare to be wise.

It is too easy to let others tell you what to think, what to believe, and what to do. But enlightenment demands that we figure things out for ourselves. Kant explained that we should obey moral laws not because they are given to us by some external authority. Rather, we need to obey moral laws which we give to ourselves.

Autonomy is an exciting value that is connected to pride, ambition and a creative and revolutionary spirit. But autonomy alone is insufficient. As Francis warns, there is a risk that in pursuing autonomy we will come to think that we are omnipotent and limitless. Of course, we are not. Human beings are fragile and fallible. We make mistakes. We depend on others. We suffer and die.

The resources of this world are not limitless. We are not omnipotent. We should respect our limits. But ambition and pride are sources of innovation and progress. The great challenge of human life is to weave humility and autonomy together in a way that encourages compassion and innovation, love and ambition, self-restraint and pride.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article281098058.html#storylink=cpy

Just War, Pacifism, and the Abolition of War

Fresno Bee, Oct 15, 2023

As war and terrorism rear their ugly heads, it’s useful to recall basic moral arguments about war and peace. The just-war theory teaches that it is wrong to deliberately target noncombatants. So, the Hamas attacks that assassinated and kidnapped Israeli civilians are wrong.

The just-war theory allows for targeted retaliation in response to aggression. But it does not allow indiscriminate violence. So, if Israel responds indiscriminately, it also is wrong to do so.

Critics may suggest that the just-war theory is a feckless attempt to regulate the inherent brutality of war. So-called “realists” say that moral judgment does not apply in war, where the goal is attaining supremacy. Realists maintain that power trumps morality and anything goes in pursuit of victory, including terrorism and terror bombing.

The just-war theory rejects this. It demands that violence be limited to legitimate targets and minimized by rules of proportionality. These limits aim to prevent escalation and atrocity.

But what does a military force do when responding to those who do not play by moral rules? Some militants and militaries ignore moral limits. They employ terror tactics and commit war crimes, as Russia has in Ukraine. It is tempting to respond in kind. But tit-for-tat retaliation is wrong. An atrocity committed as retaliation for an atrocity still remains an atrocity. And retaliatory violence tends to provoke further atrocity.

Pacifists have often pointed out that the logic of war tends toward escalation and depravity. Pacifists argue that few, if any, actual wars live up to the standards of the just-war theory. Pacifists also suggest that nonviolence can be effective.

The critics of war also argue that war should be abolished. In 1950s, at the dawn of the nuclear age, Albert Einstein said, “the only solution is to abolish both war and the threat of war.” Pope Francis reiterated this idea last year, saying, “The moment has come to abolish war, to erase it from human history before it erases human history.”

War abolition may seem a naïve goal at present. And it is not clear how nonviolence can effectively stop terrorists and criminal armies. The realists will say that in a world at war, the only thing that matters is supremacy. The just-war theorists worry that realism is a recipe for moral disaster. And the pacifists complain that it is all a kind of madness.

To cure that madness, pacifists call for radical change. War abolition would require the construction of just and equitable global systems. More fundamentally, it would require a change of human consciousness such that terrorism and war are simply unimaginable.

Abolishing war would be like abolishing slavery. It would require the evolution of our economic, cultural, and political systems. The analogy with slavery reminds us that brutal systems can be abolished. But it also reminds us of the extent of the challenge. Slavery existed in human culture for millennia. In America it took a terrible Civil War to abolish it. War has a seemingly more permanent hold on the human spirit. War will not be abolished simply because Einstein or the pope wishes it were so.

And yet, the pacifists argue that this is what we must work toward. In his argument against war, Pope Francis said, “War is a cancer that feeds on itself.” Cancer provides another useful analogy. Cancer is avoided by preventative health care, including fundamental changes in lifestyle. By the time chemotherapy is needed, it’s already too late. The same is true of war. To abolish the cancer of war, we need the preventative measures of justice, equity and love. By the time the bombs are flying, it’s already too late.

The just-war theory is a guide for present emergencies. This theory condemns terrorism and war crimes. It allows for limited and targeted responses to aggression. But history shows that war fighting often exceeds those limits. So, the just-war theory is not the end of the story. We must also continue to imagine a better future.

In the long run, we must find nonviolent ways to prevent atrocity and reduce animosity. We must cultivate global justice and a sense of our common humanity so that terrorism and war become unimaginable.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article280473439.html#storylink=cpy

What does it mean to believe in Christmas?

Someone recently asked me, “Do you believe in Christmas?” We were talking about religion. As we wandered in the depths of theology, my friend said, “But what about Christmas? Do you believe in that?”

This struck me as a strange question. What would it mean to believe in Christmas? Is the question about the virgin birth and the metaphysics of incarnation? Or is it about Santa and the elves? Or is it about something else, like love and hope? Maybe it is all of these.

Skeptics have criticized the traditional Christian narrative. Jamie Carter, a science writer, recently asserted that there is no such thing as a supernatural star. Carter suggests the Christmas star may have been a bright conjunction of planets or a passing comet. But that deflationary account ignores the star’s symbolic value. To ask if that star was really a supernova is to miss the point of the story.

Scholars have debunked many aspects of the Christmas story. Bart Ehrman argues, for example, that we don’t really know the year, the date, or even the season of Jesus’s birth. But one need not be a skeptic to understand that Christmas includes myth and legend. Ten years ago, Pope Benedict XVI published a book explaining that there were likely no animals present at Jesus’ birth. The animals were added to the story for symbolic value and dramatic effect.

The current Pope, Francis, wrote about the nativity scene a couple of years ago, recounting the creation of the first Christmas creche by Saint Francis of Assisi. Saint Francis wanted a symbolic representation of the Biblical story. According to the pope, the nativity scene is a symbol that brings light into the darkness.

So were there really three wise men, shepherds, and a baby asleep on the hay? The Bible’s Gospels don’t agree about the details of the nativity. And when I visited the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, our tour guide told us that Jesus was born in a cave, not in a wooden stable. As the years pass, stories are repeated and embellished. Churches are built atop ancient grottos. And tales are retold and repackaged for the present generation.

Much of what we enjoy about that Christmas has been adorned by art and imagination. Christmas includes “Silent Night” and “White Christmas.” There’s also Charlie Brown, Scrooge, and the Grinch. In the shopping malls, Santa gives out candy canes. We hang lights on the outside of our homes and bring trees into our living rooms. None of that is in the Bible. But Christmas is all of this, and more.

But is there a kernel of truth that we might believe in? The theologians tell us it is about the incarnation of God. But what exactly does that mean? And how are we supposed to get our heads around that singular and mysterious event?

Maybe the attempt to nail things down points us in the wrong direction. Human culture and religion are expansive. They grow and develop. New songs, images, and interpretations appear and add to our experience. This creative, hospitable, and joyful spirit is surely part of what it means to say that the angels are singing about goodwill toward all.

Christmas bears witness to the creative spirit. Saint Francis contributed to it. So did Franz Gruber when he composed “Silent Night.” So did Charles Dickens, when he created Scrooge and Tiny Tim. We also witness the Christmas spirit in “White Christmas”, a tune by Isaiah Berlin, a Jewish immigrant from Russia. Charles Schulz showed us Linus caring for Charlie Brown’s sad little tree. And Dr. Seuss reminds us that the Grinch can be redeemed.

And each family has its own traditions and stories, ornaments and favorite foods. When we celebrate Christmas with our loved ones, we renew that creative and joyful spirit. This is what the exchange of gifts is all about. It is a process of sharing joy, hope, and love.

December is cold and dark. Without Christmas, these days would be bleak. But we warm our hearts by filling the night with laughter and song. The Christmas star is more than a passing comet. It is a symbol that reminds us to seek light in the darkness.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article270075617.html#storylink=cpy

Solidarity as a Moral Value

Fresno Bee, September 19, 2021

Solidarity is an important focal point of morality. Solidarity involves empathy and emotional connection. But it is not merely a feeling. It is also the understanding that social problems require cooperative solutions. These days many of us feel fragile and insecure. Solidarity offers something solid and enduring in benevolence, justice, and concern for the common good.

The United Nations just published a report described as a “wake up call” for global solidarity. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warns that people are turning their backs on trust, cooperation, and multilateralism. He says, “Humanity’s welfare depends on solidarity and working together as a global family to achieve common goals.” Solidarity arises when we understand that “no one is safe until everyone is safe.”

This echoes the teaching of Pope Francis, who published an encyclical last fall, “Fratelli Tutti,” which basically means that we are all brothers (and sisters). Some want to build walls and retreat into isolation. Francis encourages us to do the opposite. Instead of withdrawing, we should reach out. The pope says that the path to peace and flourishing requires a “global ethic of solidarity and cooperation shaped by interdependence and shared responsibility in the whole human family.”

The COVID-19 pandemic reminds us of our interconnectedness. The virus spread globally. New variants emerge among the unvaccinated. As long as some remain vulnerable, we all remain vulnerable.

The war on terrorism provides another example. Terrorists hiding out in Afghanistan masterminded the 9/11 attacks. Those attacks were a response to American interventions in the Middle East in prior decades. The war on terrorism extends across the globe, involving many allies. It has had far-reaching impacts. We still stand in irritating security lines at the airport. And now we must welcome refugees fleeing Afghanistan.

Or consider climate change. As individuals, we go about our own business, burning fossil fuels. But those individual choices heat up the atmosphere. The result is fire and smoke in California, horrific hurricanes, and rising sea levels that will swamp island nations.

Our struggle with racism provides yet another example. The repercussions of slavery and Jim Crow continue to ripple across our social and political landscape. Historical injustices give birth to contemporary dysfunction. Police brutality in some American cities sparked a global movement against racial injustice.

These examples show that each is connected to the other. If you pull one thread of the social fabric, it changes the whole cloth. We are networked and interdependent. Global and historical interconnections define who we are and what we can become.

Now some people do not like to admit this. They refuse to accept our interconnectedness and insist on living in stubborn isolation. The lonely hermit is a symbol of this kind of refusal. Others draw lines of solidarity that are narrow and exclusive. Some focus on solidarity within their families or within a neighborhood. Others focus on racial solidarity or national solidarity.

Most religious and moral traditions imagine a broader circle of solidarity. Calls for brotherly love spread globally. The parable of the good Samaritan is not only about solidarity with a suffering neighbor. It is also a call to view the world as our neighborhood.

There are remaining difficulties. Solidarity gives us an orientation. But it does not tell us exactly where to go or how to get there. The issues of climate change, racism, terrorism, and the pandemic are complex. Solutions are also complex and evolving. But any viable solution must bear witness to suffering wherever it is found and grow networks of cooperation that are large and inclusive.

When we affirm solidarity we acknowledge that solutions for social problems cannot focus on “us” in opposition to “them.” Any long-term and stable solution to our problems must move beyond “us” and “them.” In solidarity, each of us comes to see that we are responsible for the other. In an interconnected world, what happens to the other impacts me. And my choices and behaviors have ripple effects that extend beyond me.

These ripples fortify us in the face of our common fragility. Life is precarious. But we do not suffer alone. There are problems to be solved. We solve them by opening our doors and reaching out our hands.

Nuclear war remains immoral, 75 years after Hiroshima

Abolish War with Atom Bomb Image

Fresno Bee, August 2, 2020

The unique immorality of nuclear weapons remains apparent 75 years after they were first used in war. On Aug. 6, 1945, Hiroshima was destroyed by a single bomb. Nagasaki was incinerated three days later. 150,000 died in Hiroshima, 80,000 in Nagasaki. Most were noncombatants.

Nuclear weapons have such a terrible moral stigma that they have never been used again. But nuclear deterrent strategy rests upon a sinister paradox. Deterrence means we threaten to use these immoral weapons in hope of preventing their use.

Ethicists have routinely criticized this devil’s bargain, often condemning the mere possession of nukes. In a speech in Hiroshima last year, Pope Francis said, “The use of atomic energy for purposes of war is immoral, just as the possession of atomic weapons is immoral.”

The immorality of nuclear weapons transcends the question of who is right or wrong in a war. Japan was at fault in attacking the U.S. at Pearl Harbor. But the laws of war provide noncombatants with immunity from deliberate attack.

Today, we possess nuclear weapons that are many times more powerful than“Fat Man” or “Little Boy,” the bombs used against Japan. Typical American nuclear weapons such as the B83 bomb are 80 times more powerful.

As destructive power increased, people saw the moral madness of nuclear war. In the 1940s, Albert Einstein urged America to get the bomb before Germany. But in 1955, he signed a manifesto opposing nuclear war, which asked, “Shall we put an end to the human race; or shall mankind renounce war?” In a speech at the UN in 1961, President Kennedy said something similar. “Mankind must put an end to war — or war will put an end to mankind.”

Attempts have been made to ban nuclear weapons. The UN recently sponsored a Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, signed by more than 80 nations. But the U.S. and other nuclear states have not signed on.

Critics claim the treaty is a pipe dream lacking effective enforcement and monitoring mechanisms. Critics seem to suggest that there is no practical solution other than deterrence.

At one point it seemed that deterrence could coexist with deescalation. After the Cold War ended, there was hope for slow disarmament. But the Trump administration has reversed course, accusing nations such as Russia, North Korea and Iran of nuclear malfeasance. The U.S. now plans to modernize its nuclear arsenal and resume nuclear testing. The last U.S. nuclear test was conducted in 1992. 40 years after the end of the Cold War, a new nuclear arms race seems about to unfold.

The madness of all of this is found in the Cold War phrase “mutually assured destruction.” People have forgotten what this means. But it captures the point of deterrence. To deter a nuclear attack, you threaten to annihilate the enemy in retaliation. The enemy will, of course, threaten the same thing. If the nuclear fuse is ever lit, a chain reaction unfolds, and we all end up dead.

This perverse strategy has worked so far. Nuclear-armed nations have not used their weapons. But the moral logic of the strategy is deeply troubling. It depends upon our willingness to deliberately kill tens of millions of innocent people.

Deterrence also depends upon the rationality, competence and goodwill of those who control the nuclear buttons. But rationality is often in short supply. During the past 75 years, we have witnessed profound failures of leadership and morally suspect uses of force.

In his 1961 speech, President Kennedy warned that nuclear weapons are like the sword of Damocles, hanging over our heads on a slender thread. The fragility of that thread becomes apparent when we consider the extent to which policy is guided by instinct, resentment and wishful thinking rather than by rational calculation.

I have no idea how we might disentangle the vicious web of deterrence or blunt the nuclear sword. But the first step is sober moral reflection. We might begin by reflecting on the horror of Hiroshima as Pope Francis did last year when he said, “Never again war, never again the clash of arms, never again so much suffering.”

MEMORIAL TREE PLANTING

There will be a ceremonial tree planting in the Fresno State Peace Garden to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, cosponsored by the Human Rights Coalition of the Central Valley, Fresno State’s Ethics Center and the Japanese American Citizens League. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the event on Aug. 6 at 8 a.m. is invitation-only but will be streamed on Facebook at FresnoEthicsCenter.