Virtue and Moral Leadership in Interesting Times

Fresno Bee, April 5, 2020

An old curse says, “May you live in interesting times.” These are those times. Let’s hope we develop the wisdom to survive the curse of chaos.

This curse is subtle and understated. It has been attributed to an anonymous Chinese sage. But it likely came from Britain, the land of understatement and the stiff upper lip. Picture Monty Python’s Black Knight, with his arm cut off, saying, “Tis but a scratch, a mere flesh wound.”

The White House warned this past week that between 100,000 and 240,000 Americans will die. Without social distancing and other measures, there could be between 1.5 million and 2.2 million deaths.

Those who think we can simply get back to normal are not paying attention. California school kids will not be able to return to their campuses this school year. Rep. Devin Nunes said the decision to “cancel” school is “overkill.” But closing schools seems a reasonable way to prevent a million deaths.

At any rate, school is not canceled. It is moving online. So these will certainly be interesting times for teachers, parents and students. Let’s help them rise to the occasion. Instead of denial and unrealistic calls for a quick return to normal, kids need computers. Educators need training. And parents need a new model for helping their kids succeed.

Above all, we all need imagination, dedication and courage. Interesting times help us discover what we are made of. We don’t know where our strength lies until it is challenged. Leadership does not emerge until it is tested.

We need our leaders to unify behind a straightforward call for the better angels of our nature. The rhetoric of the American tradition can help. Thomas Paine said, “these are the times that try men’s souls.”

Paine wrote those words in December 1776, as Washington’s army was facing a difficult winter. Paine said that the time of summer soldiers and sunshine patriots was over. He wrote, “Let it be told to the future world, that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet and to repulse it.”

We need statesmen to issue a similar call for hope and virtue today. This springtime may be among the worst in American history. More Americans will die from this disease than died during the Vietnam and Korean wars. The economy has tanked. None of us have ever experienced anything this “interesting” before. We need inspiration.

We also need something to do. Most of us have nothing to do besides grouse and complain. We sit on the sidelines, while the nurses and doctors risk their own health to save the afflicted. Let’s cheer them on and give them the supplies they need. But let’s stop the partisan bickering.

Our passivity creates a paradox. For most of us, the best thing we can do to make the world a better place is simply stay home. This is among the most difficult aspects of our predicament. Virtue seems to require bold action. But in this case, it calls for inaction.

The world’s traditions have often warned against passivity. They say that idle hands are the devil’s playthings. Laziness and sloth are vices. And virtue evokes images of a life of brave effort. Today, inaction is a virtue and activity is a vice.

Can we develop a kind of virtuous passivity? We might cure partisan rancor if we would learn the virtues of silence and patient hope. This is a difficult lesson for Americans. But it is deep in the heart of the world’s wisdom traditions.

During these interesting times let’s rediscover the virtues of quiet and simplicity. This is an opportunity to cultivate calmness and explore solitude. Let’s look within instead of judging others. And let’s encourage our leaders to do the same.

Note to readers: A California law that went into effect Jan. 1 limits freelancers like myself to 35 articles per year. I will be going to a less regular cycle, writing for The Bee only every other week. I will post more regularly on my blog (www.andrewfiala.com). You can also follow me on Twitter (@PhilosophyFiala).

Trump and Machiavelli

Machiavelli and Trump are brothers, bullying their way to power

Fresno Bee, November 12, 2016

Donald Trump’s victory demonstrates that virtue is not necessary for political success. For those who value virtue, Trump’s victory comes as a blow. But we should not be surprised.

We’ve known that virtue is irrelevant to politics since Machiavelli first explained how princes obtain power. A Machiavellian leader is bold, shameless and aggressive. He is not constrained by truth or morality. He gains power using fear, threats and false promises.

And it works. The people love their Machiavellian princes. He flatters their egos and fulfills their desires. The people can quickly turn against him, since their loyalty is based on mercurial emotion. So once the prince takes power, he must continue to manipulate desire and fear, pride and hope.

In his victory speech, Trump claimed he wanted to “bind the wounds of division.” He said, “It is time for us to come together as one united people.” He said he wants to be president for all Americans.

Those words ring hollow for those who remember his divisive campaign. But most people have short memories. And we want to believe him. We also want to believe that there is a united America, despite the deep and obvious divisions that Trump’s victory exposed.

The red states throb in the middle, while the blue states hug the coasts. In California, the Valley bleeds red (with the exception of faintly fuchsia Fresno). But in the true blue Bay Area they are already marching in the streets, yelling “not my president.”

Our disagreements run so deep that Trumplandia must seem a foreign country to the liberals of Berkeley or Westwood. We disagree about the death penalty, abortion, homosexuality, climate change and so on. Some believe in Jesus, others in Mohammed, and some in science. Thankfully, the Constitution allows us to co-exist without killing each other.

But it is inevitable that Americans will continue to take to the streets, the courts and the ballot box. If our team wins, we praise the inherent wisdom of the voters. If our side loses, the system must be rigged. And off we go again.

TRUMP IS THE ULTIMATE MACHIAVELLIAN –
A PARADIGM CASE OF HOW POWER COMES TO THE BULLY WHO GRABS HER BY THE CROTCH.

This generation did not invent political turmoil. Nor did we invent lying, corruption, racism, misogyny, murder or war. Human beings have always been venal and vicious. And Machiavelli has always been watching from the wings.

Republicans obstructed Obama. Democrats hated George W. Bush. Clinton was impeached. Reagan was shot. Nixon resigned. Unprincipled opportunists often rise to power in both parties.

Nor has our polity ever been at peace for long. First-time voters already have witnessed Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and 9/11. Each generation has its riots and revolutions. There are more to come.

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus explained that war is the father of all, and strife is necessary and common. Machiavelli would agree. He described Fortune as a two-faced female dog who must be beaten into submission. A successful prince rides the wild beast of political discord, holding on long enough to triumph.

The ugly truth is that Machiavellians often prevail. They understand that we define ourselves in opposition to others. They manipulate our hatreds, loves, fears and desires. They pander and cajole, soothe and provoke – as it suits their purposes.

There is no permanent solution to this problem. Education can help. But the will to power cannot be eliminated. It can only be channeled and directed by laws and social norms.

Unfortunately, our social norms have been weakened by TV, Twitter and internet trolls. We succumb to shysters and charlatans. And we tolerate outrageous behavior.

IF OUR TEAM WINS, WE PRAISE THE INHERENT WISDOM OF THE VOTERS.
IF OUR SIDE LOSES, THE SYSTEM MUST BE RIGGED.

This is a bipartisan problem. If Trump had lost, Republicans would lambast the Clinton machine. But Trump is the ultimate Machiavellian – a paradigm case of how power comes to the bully who grabs her by the crotch.

It’s going to be a long four years. The comedians are licking their chops. The critics are sharpening their knives. And we’ve got a lot of thinking to do.

We ought to begin by reading Machiavelli. But then we ought to dust off the Constitution and the Federalist Papers. The only known antidote to Machiavellian disease is a division of powers, a system of checks and balances, and the right to protest, criticize and think for ourselves.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article114066188.html#storylink=cpy

David Brooks and the Younger Generation

David Brooks, Rory Appleton remind us to celebrate generations

Fresno Bee, May 7, 2016

It’s tough to be young. In a recent column, Rory Appleton asks us to ease up on criticizing youths. He’s right. Rents are rising and job prospects are limited. Political dysfunction, terrorism and ecological disaster haunt the world that our youths will inherit. Meanwhile, we elders gripe and grumble about their music, technology, fashion and work ethic.

The older generation can’t – or won’t – understand the culture and attitudes of the young. Nor can we seem to get out of their way. Or keep our mouths shut.

Old folks have always lamented the moral failings of the young. Plato criticized Athenian youths. Seneca complained that Roman youths failed to restrain their impulses.

Each generation also regrets its own adolescent indiscretions. The 25th Psalm begs, “do not remember the sins of my youth.” Augustine rued the restless turbulence of his own unbridled youth. We project our regrets onto our children, hoping they will not make the same mistakes we have made.

Brooks_New-articleInlineI have been thinking about this while reading David Brooks’ new book, “The Road to Character.” Brooks is a New York Times columnist and PBS regular. He will speak at Fresno State on May 10. His book outlines a path to moral maturity while providing critical insight into American culture.

Brooks is nostalgic for a time when people were more interested in their souls than their résumés. He thinks that fawning parents have spoiled today’s children by incessantly telling their kids how “special” they are. He laments a narcissistic culture in which shallow self-esteem floats free of depth of character. And he dwells upon the idea that virtue must be built with great effort from the crooked timber of the human spirit.

I don’t agree with everything he suggests. But Brooks does offer perennial wisdom about a meaningful life. Work hard. Don’t crumble with adversity. Find a calling. Devote yourself to others. Be modest and disciplined. Find redemptive assistance from outside yourself. Accept the gifts of grace with gratitude and humility.

Maturity is the final step on the road to character. Brooks explains, “a mature person possesses a settled unity of purpose. The mature person has moved from fragmentation to centeredness, has achieved a state in which the restlessness is over, the confusion about the meaning and purpose of life is calmed.”

I’ve been discussing the book with students. Some feel Brooks unfairly picks on their generation. And like Rory Appleton, they generally worry that moralistic old codgers don’t understand their plight.

TO YOUTHS, I OFFER THIS APOLOGY: WE PREACH BECAUSE WE LOVE YOU.

It’s never easy to be young. Nor is it easy for old people to stop pontificating. Old folks feel that we know something about life and its meaning. But we forget that life is an adventure to be lived.

We want to save our children from regret. But young life is impetuous, audacious and experimental. Dynamic young people run and leap down the road. Sometimes they stumble. But failure is part of the process.

Young people need to make their own mistakes. Regrets and failures provide the soil for success. Maturity is a great gift. But it only grows out of the school of hard knocks.

Of course, youths won’t heed our sage advice. Hindsight only develops after the voracious eyes of youth grow dim. And wise words from graybeards don’t resonate in young ears. To age with grace is to allow the young their day in the sun.

EACH GENERATION REGRETS ITS OWN ADOLESCENT INDISCRETIONS.

The fruits of each season are unique. An unbridled elder is an embarrassment. But a prematurely sober child is tragic.

The glory of youth is carefree enthusiasm and reckless abandon. The exuberant joy of innocent adolescents is something to savor. Too soon, life’s cruel necessities require sober maturity.

Mellow moderation grows from the scars and callouses of life. Eventually life demands discipline, humility and acceptance. But there is no need to rush on the road to maturity.

To youths, I offer this apology: We preach because we love you. We know the challenges you will face in the world we created. If we could spare you tears and regrets, we would. Take our advice when you are ready. And when we finally get out of your way, I hope you make us proud.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article76068392.html#storylink=cpy

A Philosopher’s Back To School Advice

Advice for making the most out of school

Fresno Bee, August 21, 2015

  • Back-to-school is a time to reflect on education
  • Philosophical advice to students emphasizes curiosity, courage and compassion
  • Education requires effort, virtue and a passion for wisdom and justice

 

To my sons and my students, as we head off to school, here’s a philosopher’s perspective on education.

No one can learn on your behalf. Learning is an activity. It requires effort. You must actively seek the light.

Intelligence, virtue, and happiness are not genetic. No one is born smart, kind, or happy. Everyone has the potential to improve – or to fail. But improvement is up to you. Be systematic in your studies. Cultivate a disciplined work ethic. And nurture your passion for learning.

Develop curiosity, courage, and compassion. Curiosity opens the door to new ideas. Courage follows those ideas. Compassion allows you to understand why others choose differently.

Education is supposed to be difficult. It is easy to fill your cup with trivial knowledge. But opening your mind to the ocean of wisdom is a lifelong task.

Listen carefully and question everything, including your need for certainty. Don’t believe everything you read or hear. Test dogma and inquire into common sense. Distrust those who want blind obedience. Ignore those who offer cheap grace and easy enlightenment.

Challenge authority; but remember that rebellion and doubt are tools, not destinations. Cynics are unhappy and friendless. Healthy skepticism is modest. It must be balanced with a sustained commitment to what is true and good.

Find mentors – teachers, coaches, and friends – who inspire you. The best teachers and coaches encourage without indoctrinating. They increase vitality by arousing our thirst for excellence.

Teachers are not entertainers or playmates. They criticize and evaluate. It’s not easy to receive criticism. But criticism helps us improve. Learn from your failures and work harder next time.

Be proud of your accomplishments. But don’t rest on your laurels. Celebrate what you’ve achieved today. Tomorrow there will be new challenges.

Cheer for other people’s success. Friendly competition invigorates. It makes everyone better.

Choose your friends wisely. Find friends who are smarter and more virtuous than you are. Good friends energize and uplift. They support your best efforts and console you when you fail.

Bad friends undermine you and reinforce bad habits. Avoid them. But be gentle with bad people. Some are wicked. But most are misguided and unhappy. Be prudent about social relations. But never lose faith in humanity.

Avoid gossip, rudeness, and disrespect. Be careful and courteous when asserting your own opinions. Think before you speak. But always say what’s on your mind. Avoid know-it-alls; and don’t become one. Remember: no one – not even you – can possibly know it all.

There are no shortcuts for learning to live well. Cheats and liars occasionally succeed. But they cannot succeed forever, since they lack what they pretend to have.

There are no “do-overs” in life. Misdeeds can never be undone. Happiness depends on knowing that that you deserve to be happy. A clear conscience is a necessary condition for a happy life.

Of course you will make mistakes. We all do. Forgive others and forgive yourself. But hold yourself to a higher standard. You are, after all, in control of your own life.

You are not, however, in control other people’s behavior. Help when called upon. But allow others to live as they see fit.

You will be homesick at times. Nothing good lasts forever. You will eventually say good-bye to everyone you love. Grief is a part of life. It is relieved by doing good works, making new friends, and rebuilding what is lost.

Find a cause worthy of your loyalty and stick with. A meaningful life is thick with loyalties and commitments.

Fight against injustice. But avoid rage, which burns without building. Justice also requires kindness, patience, and a creative imagination.

Educational institutions can alienate and frustrate. Bureaucratic authority is often ridiculous. But you are a person, not a number. Don’t become a cog. Demand respect and give it to others.

Life is more important than school. Don’t neglect your health. Exercise and eat well. Make time for love, leisure, and laughter. Create spaces of solitude and seek out spiritual experience.

And remember that education is a privilege. Some people don’t have the chance to go to school. Show gratitude for this opportunity by filling your cup, opening your mind, and creating a good life. And share what you’ve learned with others who are seeking the light.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/religion/article31837581.html#storylink=cpy

 

Sport, Morality, and Trying your best

In life, morality requires a determined effort

   Andrew Fiala

Fresno Bee 2012-08-11

It is often good strategy not to try your best. Several athletes in the London Olympics have reminded us of this. The most notorious case involved badminton players who tried to lose their games, hoping to draw preferred opponents later. The players were officially reprimanded.

Another athlete, Taoufik Makhloufi from Algeria, was disqualified for not trying hard enough in an 800 meter race. He had stopped running because of pain in his knee, which he didn’t want to interfere with a later race. After an appeal, he was reinstated.

We don’t like to admit it, but it is often good strategy not to try your hardest. In swimming and track, sometimes it is wise for an athlete to ease off in qualifying heats in order to save energy for later races. Even worse, sometimes it is good strategy to try to fail. During one of the Olympic cycling races, a British cyclist crashed on purpose in order to get a restart on the race that would benefit his team. His team went on to win the gold medal.

A variety of sports have rules that allow for strategically valuable failures. In baseball, pitchers walk some batters intentionally, rather than trying to pitch to them. In football, quarterbacks throw the ball out of bounds rather than trying to force a completion. In basketball, players try to commit fouls in the waning seconds of a half. Sometimes it is better not to try at all. In sports like gymnastics, trying and failing can leave you with a broken neck.

Knowing when to give up trying is also a good skill in business. Bankruptcy filings can reflect smart decisions about giving up. Successful people have a knack for knowing when to try, how hard to try and when to walk away from things that are not working.

Even though it is sometimes wise not to try your hardest, “not trying” runs counter to a basic moral intuition. We like to think that you should always try your hardest. We tell our children this. The Cub Scout motto is: “Try your best.”

One version of morality focuses entirely on effort. Since we do not have direct control over consequences and outcomes, it seems reasonable to focus on effort and will. This view is associated with the German philosopher Kant. Kant explained that even if you suffered misfortunes, your good will would remain: “Like a jewel, it would still shine by its own light, as a thing which has its whole value in itself.”

The problem is, however, that it is difficult to measure “trying.” How do we know how hard we tried? There is a lot of self-deception and rationalization involved in assessing effort. How do we know how hard an athlete or a co-worker is trying?

Furthermore, the notion that you “tried your best” is often a consolation when you have lost. “Well, at least I tried,” you tell yourself as you stumble across the finish line in the back of the pack. It is often deflationary to tell someone to “go out there and try your best.” That’s the sort of thing we say to people when we expect them to lose.

There is a humane spirit behind praising people for “trying their best.” Sometimes people give up too easily in the face of small obstacles or minor inconveniences. Perseverance is admirable.

But “trying your best” is often not enough. Perseverance without accomplishment is nothing to brag about. We don’t have much patience with people who use “trying their best” as an excuse for poor performance or as a rationalization for moral failure.

There is some truth to the old saying that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. And apparently, the road to Olympic victory is paved with strategic effort: knowing when to try and when to ease up.

But life is not sports. Living well involves more than strategic effort. Morality requires determined effort. We value love, loyalty, fidelity, fortitude and resolve because we know that it is often too easy to give up trying. And we tend to reserve moral praise for those who try their hardest, even when good strategy might point in the other direction.