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

Violence is the problem, not the solution

Fresno Bee, Feb. 5, 2023

Violence is the thread linking recent shootings to the beating death of Tyre Nichols in Memphis. Our culture is addicted to violence. We feel guilt and remorse, the morning after a bender of violence. But we fall back into the same bad habit.

Violence energizes and excites. The thrill of violence was apparent in accounts of the Nichols beating. One Memphis cop said, “I hope they stomp his ass.” Another bragged, “I jumped in and started rocking him.” The buzz of battle is intoxicating.

Not every cop behaves this way. And violence has been turned against police, most recently here in Selma. These atrocities are a sign of a world gone wrong.

The seductive power of violence is leading us astray. Violence is titillating. Its adrenaline rush is why we cheer on brutal hits on the football field and in the boxing ring. The excitement of violence entices us to watch endless hours of violence on our video screens. It’s not surprising that every so often, someone goes berserk in a world habituated to violence.

We won’t root out violence until we confront how it seduces and warps the human spirit. And we won’t overcome violence until we develop other habits.

Band-aid solutions can help reduce harm. We can limit access to guns. We can prohibit militant police tactics. And we can jail those who commit violence. But people need better habits of kindness, patience, and compassion. A band-aid stops the bleeding. But the disease remains untreated.

The world’s moral and religious traditions teach that violence is wrong. Jesus taught his followers to turn the other cheek and love their enemies. Asian traditions celebrate “ahimsa,” a fundamental commitment to nonviolence.

But our culture is fascinated by violence. We watch it and play at it. We spend our money on it. And when violence causes problems, like a gambling addict, we double down, somehow thinking that more violence can solve the problem.

The civil rights icon James Lawson once said, “Our county is trapped, embedded, addicted to the mythology of violence.” Addiction is about pleasure, habit, and meaning. Our addiction to violence is about the kinds of thrills we enjoy. And it is about the kinds of habits we cultivate.

The mythology of violence encourages us to believe that power and prestige, strength and courage, are linked to violence. It teaches us to think that “might makes right.”

But none of this is true. It is false that violence solves problems and is the source of power. Human power comes from respect and love, rather than fear and physical domination. Human strength and courage are expressed through empathy and compassion, not through violence and brutality. And it is simply not true that “might makes right.”

If you overpower an enemy, nothing has changed in the realm of ideas. This is why regime change rarely works in foreign affairs. Violence begets backlash and resistance. We change people’s hearts by appealing to their better angels, not by attacking their bodies.

Physical violence arises from our most basic animal instincts. Wolves bare their teeth and fight without forethought. The violent male takes over the pack. Some humans behave this way as well. But physical dominance is impermanent. The alpha wolf only rules for a season or two. Physical dominance leaves no legacy other than blood, and resentment.

But the wolf doesn’t think about that. He is impelled by instinct and focused on the fight. Violence is the rush of the here and now. It is indifferent to tomorrow. And that’s why it is subhuman. Human beings moderate their behavior while imagining a life that extends into the future. But violence ignores the future. It is a thrilling outburst of a brutal immediacy.

Of course, in the human world, the violent brutes are punished. The momentary rush of violence is subject to the patient reality of human justice, which transcends the law of the jungle. We are not animals or superheroes, despite what we see at the movies.

The lessons of nonviolent humanity must be taught and re-taught. Violence is the problem, not the solution. Love, compassion, and human intelligence provide a higher path. And a culture addicted to violence needs new habits and sources of meaning.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article272052452.html#storylink=cpy

How much carnage is enough?

Fresno Bee, June 5, 2022

Social policy involves managing risks. But we, the people, are not good at this. We fear some things that are unlikely, while ignoring other very real dangers. In some cases, our fears are irrational. In other cases, our fearlessness is rash and uninformed.

Our track record is not reassuring. Over 1 million people in the U.S. have now died of COVID-19. The Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that 234,000 of the deaths that occurred since vaccines became available could have been prevented by vaccination. But some people are more afraid of the vaccine than the disease.

This makes you wonder whether we will make wise choices with regard to gun violence. The schoolroom massacre in Uvalde, Texas was horrifying. One event like this seems to be too many. The good news is that most schools remain safe. Mass school shootings remain rare. An analysis published in Scientific American reports that since 1966, there have been 13 mass school shootings (with four or more victims). But the carnage is horrific, with 146 people killed.

And many more people die in “ordinary” gun violence and from firearm suicide. The Pew Center reports that in 2020 — the most recent year of complete data — more than 45,000 people were killed by guns. More than half of those deaths (about 24,000) were from suicide.

These numbers are appalling. But how do they compare with other risks? One point of comparison is drug overdose deaths. The National Institutes of Health reports that in 2020, nearly 92,000 people died from drug overdoses. This is another appalling number.

We might also consider traffic fatalities. The California Department of Transportation reports that in 2020, nearly 39,000 people died in car crashes. This means that in 2020, more people died from guns than from car crashes. But more people died from drug overdoses than from car crashes and gun violence combined.

So how do we compare these depressing apples and oranges? Well, the benefits of cars are obvious. We need them to get to work. But are guns such an obvious necessity? Some view them as necessary for self-defense. Others enjoy shooting as a fun hobby. And a few believe that an armed populace prevents the slippery slope toward authoritarianism. Are those supposed benefits worth the annual bloodbath? What level of carnage is acceptable?

Some ask whether any of this is acceptable. Earlier this year, U.S. Secretary of Transportation, Pete Buttigieg, announced the ambitious goal of reducing traffic fatalities to zero. Buttigieg said, “We cannot and must not accept that these fatalities are somehow an inevitable part of life in America.” What if we had a similar goal of zero deaths with regard to COVID-19, drug overdoses, or gun deaths? This seems impossible. But that all depends on what we are willing to trade off and what we accept as inevitable.

Imagine what we’d need to do to eliminate automotive fatalities. We’d need safer cars, better roads, and more enforcement. Drivers would need better training. We’d need to eliminate drinking and driving, as well as cell phone distraction. And we might have to change the speed and size of our vehicles.

A similar comprehensive agenda would be needed to reduce gun violence and drug overdose death. Are we willing to make those kinds of changes? Or are we willing to tolerate all of this misery and death?

Some gun control measures seem blatantly obvious. One step would be to coordinate gun ownership with the legal drinking age, as it is in California. The Scientific American analysis indicates that the average age of mass school shooters is 18. The Uvalde murderer bought his weapon legally after he turned 18. It makes little sense for 18-year-olds to be able to purchase assault weapons, as they can in Texas, when they are not old enough to buy beer or cigarettes.

But even that modest proposal is controversial in a world out of whack. I am frankly not very hopeful that we’ll do much to reduce any of this American carnage. Our nation is too polarized. And we are not good at managing risk. But if we are going to move in the right direction, we’ll need to keep asking how much blood and how many tears we are willing to accept.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article262100462.html#storylink=cpy

The Wisdom of Nonviolence

Fresno Bee, October 3, 2021

Violence is increasing. Domestic terrorism is rising, including threats against members of Congress. The FBI just published its annual report on crime. The bad news is that violent crime is on the rise.

So let’s reflect on the dumbness of violence. Violence produces bad outcomes. It is also dumb in a metaphorical sense. Violence does not speak, it growls. Like a roaring lion, it does not argue. It merely threatens and attacks.

Violence can be spectacular. It attracts our attention. But violence does not really seek to persuade. Persuasion requires an argument. Violent acts are not arguments. That’s why violence does not create or convert.

The ugly truth about violence is well-known. Gandhi explained it. So did Martin Luther King, Jr. Both advocated nonviolence as the higher road.

Oct. 2 marks Gandhi’s birthday and is an International Day of Nonviolence. Gandhi said that even when violence appears to do good, that is merely temporary. Nonviolence creates lasting change because, as Gandhi explained, nonviolence is a “process of conversion.” Instead of destroying those you hate, nonviolence builds bridges and finds common ground.

Gandhi demonstrated that organized nonviolence can be a powerful force for change. Martin Luther King Jr. put this method to work in the United States.

In his Nobel Peace Prize lecture in 1964, King explained the critique of violence this way: “In spite of temporary victories, violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones. Violence is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all.”

This truth is reaffirmed as we reflect on the aftermath of the war on terrorism. After 20 years of war, we wonder whether the war was worth the cost. The war in Afghanistan teaches us that violence is a blunt instrument for transforming hearts and minds.

The “Costs of War” project at Brown University provides a recent summary. Totaling deaths from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere, they estimate that almost 930,000 people were killed in the war on terrorism. This includes over 7,000 American military personnel. About 38 million people were displaced as war refugees. The war is estimated to have cost $8 trillion.

We did kill Osama bin Laden and other terrorist masterminds. But terrorists still lurk in the shadows. And the Taliban quickly returned to power. The war did not resolve the social, political, and cultural problems that give rise to terrorism and oppressive regimes such as the Taliban.

War is a destructive force that breeds reactive antagonism. It does not educate, democratize, or humanize. Political violence does not create just or lasting change. Rather, it destabilizes and provokes, causing polarization and pain.

This truth about war and violence is easily overlooked. There is a primal urge to employ violence. We are animals after all. Like the lion, we roar. When pushed, we attack.

The world’s moral traditions teach us to subdue the lion within. We are not merely animals, after all. We are human beings. We can learn to “turn the other cheek” and resist animal aggression. This is the message of Jesus and the Buddha, as well as Gandhi and King.

Our own culture often ignores this message. We celebrate violence. Pop culture is full of gangsters and cops, super-spies and superheroes. Our culture encourages us to falsely believe that might makes right and that in the end the good guys are justified in using violence.

But we are not superheroes. We are fragile and flawed beings. And unlike in a James Bond fantasy, real lives are destroyed when we uncage the lion.

The good news is that we are intelligent beings. We can learn from our mistakes. Violence involves a kind of smug self-certainty. It fails because it treats other human beings as animals and objects to be manipulated by physical force. But human beings are not persuaded by violence. We are motivated by pride and love, reason and morality.

Nonviolence is not always effective. But in the long run it is wiser to keep the lion in his cage. Nonviolence appeals to the better angels of our nature. It treats human beings with the care and respect we deserve.

Violence, Culture, and Character

Fresno Bee, June 27, 2021

Violence is rising. The Washington Post reports that gunfire killed 54 people per day through the first five months of 2021. This exceeds the death toll for the same period in 2020, which was the deadliest year in two decades. Here in Fresno, the story is similar. Last year there were 70 homicides, the highest number in 25 years. This year we are on pace to eclipse that number.

The epidemic of violence is especially tragic here at the end of the pandemic. We have endured a difficult time of dislocation and loss. But the worst is over and the future is bright. How sad that violence is raging when the world is reviving.

There is a general sense that people have become angrier and meaner. Some violence is racially charged. Some is connected to gangs and other crime. But some is merely random spite. In Los Angeles, 6-year-old Aiden Leos was shot on his way to kindergarten by an angry stranger on the freeway. Mass shooters have attacked in San Jose and elsewhere.

Commentators have offered various explanations. Some say this is the result of the stress of the pandemic. Others blame inequality. Pundits on the left blame Trumpism. Pundits on the right suggest that efforts to defund the police have empowered criminals.

Many blame guns. The White House is launching an initiative focused on guns. Biden’s Press Secretary, Jen Psaki, said “We believe that a central driver of violence is gun violence and the use of guns.”

There is no doubt that guns make violence easier. The history of violence is about the evolution of killing power. Cain killed Abel with a club. Achilles went on a murderous spree with sword and spear. Guns produce more killing with less effort.

Technological innovation exacerbates all kinds of vice. Modern chemistry produces powerful psychoactive drugs, including distilled alcohol. The Internet makes porn readily available. Social media makes it easy to gossip. And fast-food chains facilitate drive-thru gluttony.

But technology only explains part of the problem. It is human beings who put technology to use. Most people avoid addiction, debauchery, gossip, and gluttony, just as most people avoid violence. There is some truth to the slogan “guns don’t kill people, people do.” The same is true of other vices. Booze does not cause alcoholism. And French fries don’t cause obesity. Somewhere in the background is human culture and psychology.

What gives people the capacity to resist the supercharged temptations of modern technology?

Virtue and character provide part of the answer. Moral psychology must be on the table as we confront the epidemic of violence. Virtuous people control anger, cruelty and spite. Every human being gets angry. But good people resist this negativity. They resist their vicious instincts. And they find affirmative outlets for negative emotions.

Defective character is an overlooked aspect of the increase in violence. Angry and violent people are lacking in psychological development and spiritual fulfillment.

The good news is that character can be improved. We are not pre-programmed. We can learn to speak a language and play the piano. We can also learn to defer gratification, control spite, overcome hate and become compassionate.

Culture matters in character development. Good culture supports us in doing the right thing, while bad influences contribute to vice. As we analyze the increase in violence, we must consider cultural inputs. What kinds of ideas and images inspire us? Who are our role models? Are we reinforcing kindness or teaching cruelty?

We must also think critically about violence itself. Violence is not natural or normal. Violence decreased during past decades. This shows that violence is not inevitable. People can learn to be less violent. But that requires lessons and reminders about the fact that violence is a sign of moral failure. It is shameful, stupid and sad. Decent people do not celebrate cruelty. Nor do they lionize villains, thugs, and murderers.

Finally, we must give people productive ways to find meaning, purpose, and happiness. Violence is a dead-end for hopeless souls who have lost faith in life. Another antidote to violence is to create a world that provides social connection, creative outlets for the human spirit, and opportunities to experience joy, love, and hope.