On the wisdom of not clinging to power

Fresno Bee, Feb. 18, 2024

We have entered an era of bumbling gerontocracy. The crusty old codgers clinging to power are embarrassing.

Consider the recent report of the special investigator in the Biden classified documents case. The report said that since Biden is a congenial old duffer, a jury would not convict him of mishandling official documents. The special counsel said, “Mr. Biden would likely present himself to a jury, as he did during our interview of him, as a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory… He is someone for whom many jurors will want to identify reasonable doubt. It would be difficult to convince a jury that they should convict him.”

This has been red meat for the “Let’s go Brandon” crowd. And the Biden backers claim it is a partisan hit job. But the other side is no better. Trump is accused of fomenting an insurrection, among other crimes. And left-leaning pundits have chronicled Trump’s gaffes and mental slips, including how he confused Nikki Haley with Nancy Pelosi, and his bizarre recent claim that liberals want to rename Pennsylvania.

In a better world, both candidates would step aside. This will be a depressing dumpster fire of an election year. But perhaps we can learn something along the way about leadership and power.

A good leader should be smart, truthful and thoughtful. He or she should be courageous and compassionate. And a leader should not cling to power.

Plato explained, over two thousand years ago, that the best leaders are usually the least eager to lead. Would-be tyrants lie, cheat, and cajole their way into power. Virtuous people will not play that ugly game.

Plato said that wise rulers must be compelled to rule by a sense of justice and duty. He concluded that the best rulers are those who are “most reluctant to govern.” This sounds bizarre and almost impossible. Can we really imagine a person who serves as a matter of duty, and not because they desire glory?

George Washington may provide a model. When asked to consider the presidency, Washington said he would rather stay home. He said, “it is my great and sole desire to live and die in peace and retirement, on my own farm.” But if he were called upon to serve, he said, “I hope I shall always possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain (what I consider the most enviable of all titles) the character of an honest man.”

Perhaps this was a kind of false modesty on Washington’s part. It is possible for a manipulative person to say “no” to power as a strategic ploy. They might deviously hope that a public display of humility will be persuasive.

But Washington’s writings reveal a man who was focused on questions of virtue. Washington wanted to be remembered as a man who dedicated his life to the service of his country with “an upright zeal.” This is how he put it in his Farewell Address, as he voluntarily left office after two terms at the age of 65.

Washington’s decision not to run for a third term established the basic norm of the two-term presidency. This norm was put into law after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s four-term presidency.

Scholars debate the reasons for Washington’s refusal to run for a third term. But most seem to think that he really did desire to retreat to a private life at Mount Vernon. The consensus view seems to be, as one scholar put it, “in turning away from further service, Washington established himself as a model of selfless leadership.”

Selfless leadership is a noble idea. The best leaders should be reluctant to serve — but do so willingly, out of a sense of duty. They should want to be known as honest people. And they should have the constancy of character, and orientation toward virtue, that Washington called upright zeal.

They should also possess wisdom. Wisdom is different from quickness of wit. Young people are quick and witty. But wisdom comes with age and experience, and with a mellowing of the passions.

So, the age of our leading candidates is not the only thing that matters. What matters more is whether these old-timers are wise and virtuous, and whether they insist on clinging to power.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article285541682.html#storylink=cpy

Gratitude as A Mindful Virtue

Fresno Bee, November 26, 2023

Tis the season of gratitude. Gratitude is an important virtue that helps us live well. Like other virtues, gratitude can be found in the middle between vices. Too little gratitude is grumpy and rude. Ungrateful Scrooges live narrow and cramped lives. The ingrate is egoistic and resentful, too focused on what he doesn’t have to give thanks for what he has received.

But too much gratitude is servile and smarmy. Sycophants and suck-ups are effusive in their gratefulness. Sometimes this is manipulative, as the suck-up says thanks to ingratiate themselves to others. The overly grateful seem to lack self-respect and a sense of proportion.

Gratitude demands mindfulness and care. And it involves a kind of reciprocity. When a slave thanks his master for scraps, gratitude is being abused. So, too, when the boss fails to thank his employees for their hard work.

There are other ways that gratitude can misfire. One example is the mass-produced thank-you note. “Dear sir/madam,” the pre-printed note says. “Thanks for the gift.” An anonymous thank-you is better than nothing. But transactional acknowledgement is not authentic gratitude. An anonymous note is a mechanical response devoid of personality. It does not recognize the gift you gave nor the time and thought you put into it.

Genuine gratitude recognizes the person behind the gift. It is more than a transactional exchange. Of course, some gifts are merely transactional — say, an automated donation to a charitable organization. But soulful gifts deserve a personal thanks that celebrates the thought and care of the giver.

On the other hand, some folks go overboard with their thank-you’s. Gratitude goes wrong when it is out of proportion with the gift. It would be odd, for example, for a friend to bring you an expensive souvenir as a thank-you gift for a quick ride to the airport.

You might suspect, in a case like this, that the excessive thanker is buttering you up and preparing to ask for another favor. Virtuous gratitude ought to be free of ulterior motives. You shouldn’t give thanks to show off or to butter up. Genuine gratitude is not selfish or manipulative.

Gratitude is an important part of the project of living well. It is correlated with positive neurological states. Some studies even suggest a grateful spirit can help with longevity and psychological well-being. A grateful way of living is open and receptive, humble and joyful— and healthy!

A generally thankful mindset is not merely a response to a gift. This is not gratitude for something or toward someone. Spiritual gratitude is broader than that.

Religious people thank God as the source of goodness with prayers before meals and at day’s end. This can be linked to a general “count your blessings” attitude. You can overcome a gloomy mood by counting your blessings, and by recognizing that things could be worse.

But gratitude is not the only thing that matters. It misses the point to tell a slave to overcome resentment and count his blessings. Critics of gratitude say it is too passive and acquiescent. Other virtues are also important: justice, courage, and self-respect.

But the saints of gratitude approach life with an accepting and grateful spirit. The grateful saint does not view gratitude as a boring duty, or as a mere transaction. Nor does she use it as an opportunity to show off or suck up. Rather, the paragons of thankfulness experience a kind of unconditional gratefulness that is happy to receive whatever is given.

The affirmative gladness of deeply grateful people overcomes resentment. They view each moment as a gift. They treat every day as Thanksgiving. They seem to believe that we ought to be grateful because things are fundamentally good.

But is it always good to be grateful? Should we give thanks for everything — even for wars and toothaches? Or is gratitude properly reserved for gifts that are genuinely good?

We have wandered into deep questions here about the wisdom of gratitude and the state of the world. These questions can provide food for thought to accompany the pumpkin pie. And thankfully, every year at this time we have the chance to ask ourselves what we are grateful for, and why.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article282215153.html#storylink=cpy

What makes good people good?

Fresno Bee, September 3, 2023

I have had the good fortune to meet a number of good people. As director of Fresno State’s Ethics Center, I help organize an annual ethical leadership award, in collaboration with Fresno State’s Lyles Center and the Better Business Bureau. This year we are recognizing Pete Weber, a man who has dedicated much of his life to service. Among his contributions is his work founding the California Bridge Academies, an organization dedicated to lifting families out of poverty.

This is significant work. But what I am interested in here is the personality of people like Pete Weber. What makes good people tick? There are lots of good people in the world. What makes them good? And how can we learn to be like them?

These questions are ancient. Socrates puzzled over them. He suggested that goodness depends on knowledge. But if we don’t already know what’s good, then how do we know which teachers to listen to, or which models to follow? Maybe we are born with a kind of innate knowledge of the good. Socrates says that critical thinking can help reveal this. But he also hinted that we might need divine intervention to point us in the right direction.

Christians would likely agree. A Christian account of moral education tends to hold that we need God to give us the moral law. And because we are sinners, we also need grace, the support of a good religious community, and forgiveness when we fail. This idea can be traced back to Augustine, who suggested that human souls are fundamentally disordered and in need of the grace of the Christian “inner teacher” who guides us toward the light.

All of this is complicated by the fact that people, cultures and religions disagree. Those who think we need help from the gods to be good may still wonder which gods we should turn to.

A different approach is more concrete and intuitive. We might begin by consulting our own experience of the good people we know. If you think about your role models and mentors, you will likely discover some common truths about good people. They are stable and sincere, patient and kind, generous and caring, courageous and truthful.

We can look at moral exemplars and generalize from their model. Good people exhibit virtues like loyalty, honesty, and compassion. We can list the character of good people, and then follow their example.

But there is also something mysterious in the presence of goodness. Good people have a kind of aura or charisma. Their goodness can be felt, even if it is difficult to describe.

This sense of the other person’s goodness is intuitive. We respond to their goodness spontaneously. Their presence resonates with us, and leaves us feeling inspired and energized. It’s hard to explain. But we can feel the presence of moral excellence.

Philosopher Ruth Grant puts it this way, “It is exceptionally difficult to define goodness or the good life, but it may nonetheless be possible to recognize it when we see it.” This may sound mysterious and even incoherent. But it also seems right.

And yet, our intuitions are limited and sometimes confused. Some people admire cult leaders or are seduced by wicked deceivers. This is why we need to go beyond intuition and think critically about goodness. In our complicated world there are diverse experiences and manifestations of the good. And charismatic liars can pull the wool over our eyes.

Critical thinking provides a remedy. Careful reflection shows that there is a common thread of goodness in the world. This involves the kinds of virtues discussed above: kindness, truthfulness, and the like. Good people serve others and build them up. They are modest about their achievements. And they are honest with themselves and others.

To discover these truths about goodness, it helps to meet good people. We can study their stories, and learn from them. No one is born knowing how to be good. We need mentors, models, and teachers.

Of course, we also need to think critically. No human being is perfect. We all have flaws. And we can improve. We do this by seeking out good folks, learning from them, and then looking carefully in the mirror.

Fresno State’s annual Celebration of Ethics event will be broadcast on KSEE-TV at 7 p.m. on Sept. 6. More information: https://www.celebrationofethics.com/

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article278870059.html#storylink=cpy

The Trump Indictment: On Lying, Fraud, Incompetence, and Delusion

Fresno Bee, August 6, 2023

Trump’s indictment spotlights the nature of lying and duties of leadership 

The recent Donald Trump indictment should cause us all to worry about the stability of our democracy.

The leading Republican candidate for president is charged with three conspiracies: to defraud the United States, to obstruct official government proceedings, and to deprive people of their right to vote. It is undisputed that Trump actively attempted to overturn the 2020 election. But Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) said in response, “President Trump did nothing wrong!”

The indictment claims that Trump “knowingly” lied in the conspiracy to overturn the election. The indictment uses the word “knowingly” 36 times. It declares that Trump’s claims of election fraud were false, and that “the Defendant knew that they were false.” The indictment is full of examples purporting to show that Trump knew he was lying, or should have known. Among these is an interaction in which Trump said to Vice President Mike Pence, “You’re too honest.”

I have no idea whether Trump will be convicted, or what will happen in 2024. But the case prompts difficult questions about lying, leadership, and the future of our country.

Lying involves deliberate deception, which assumes that the liar knowingly tells falsehoods. But if an accused liar is confused, stupid, or out of touch with reality, is he really lying? The most convincing liars never flinch. Some liars lie to themselves. And pathological liars believe their own lies.

It’s not really lying if a person is brain-damaged or brainwashed. Mentally deficient folks lost in delusion are not lying. Nor are those caught up in conspiracy theories or cults really lying. These dupes inhabit a self-reinforcing web of falsehoods that sees the truth-tellers as lying enemies.

Punishment is misplaced for people lost in delusion. It also seems cruel to punish a brainwashed cult member. We might forgive these folks and offer them compassion. But we should not put them in positions of power

We expect our leaders to be intelligent, honest, and virtuous custodians of truth. There are no guarantees that truthful people will be elected. That’s why we have a system of checks and balances, and regular elections.

The Trump indictment accuses the former president of subverting that system. But what if he really believed the election was fraudulent? If Trump knew the election was legitimate, then he is a liar and a danger to democracy. If it was not legitimate, then Trump is a heroic truth-teller and champion of democracy.

Many loyal Trumpians believe that the election was actually stolen. Recent polls from Monmouth and from CNN show that about a third of Americans, and two-thirds of Republicans, believe the 2020 election was fraudulent. This explains why Trump’s defenders think the Justice Department has been “weaponized.” Trumpians do not think Trump is lying about the election. They see the current indictment as an anti-Trump conspiracy.

The indictment shows how claims of fraud were systematically refuted. So, it seems obvious that Trump is wrong to claim otherwise. But the Trumpians won’t believe the facts laid out in the indictment.

And what if Trump believed his own lies because he is pathological, delusional, or brainwashed by the right-wing echo-chamber? This question is important both because it is connected to possible punishment and because it tells us something about the character of the man who is likely to be nominated for the presidency by the Republican party next year.

If Trump lost, but he really believed the election was stolen, then he did not knowingly lie — and there is no deliberate fraud. Maybe he just couldn’t believe he lost. Maybe he is a pathological liar who believes his own lies. Maybe he was caught up in a cult-like world of right-wing conspiracy. Or maybe he is a senile old man, unable to discern the truth. But these excuses mean that Trump should never be elected again.

If Trump knowingly lied, then he is corrupt and culpable. If he didn’t know he was lying, then he is deluded or incompetent. And in either case, if we assume that the 2020 election was legitimate, Trump seems to lack the virtue and honesty we expect of our leaders. Trump loyalists see things otherwise, which is why our country is on the verge of disaster.

Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article277966113.html#storylink=cpy

Anxiety is the spice of life

Tranquility is often viewed as the goal of spiritual training. But serenity is not the only thing that matters in life. Conflict is productive. Struggle is exciting. And anxiety is the spice of life.

Arthur Brooks wrote an essay recently pointing out that suffering, unhappiness, and anxiety are unavoidable experiences. He was responding to the apparent growth of mental health disorders, including a recent increase in depression and anxiety. This is alarming. And I don’t intend to minimize the problem.

But there is some wisdom to be learned from the world’s wisdom traditions, and from how we imagine a good life. Here’s the point: life is difficult. The key to living well is not to find a peace place and to avoid conflict and struggle. Rather, the goal is to manage conflict and create a harmonious whole.

Dialing in the virtues

In his essay, Brooks asks us to see that our emotions are not regulated by simple on-off switches. Rather, they are like dials. They can be adjusted upward or downward. The goal of living well is to adjust these dials and to balance our emotions with one another.

I would add that this is also true of the virtues. The four Platonic virtues—justice, courage, moderation, and wisdom—are not binary switches. Rather, they are like dials that are adjusted in relation to the world. The virtues must also be balanced with each other. Aristotle reminds us that the key to happiness is to find the right amount of a virtue, at the right time, and in the right way.

A familiar example involves courage. Would we say that a criminal is couragous when he robs a bank? Not really. Courage does not occur in isolation. It must be connected to the other virtues. Sometimes courage needs to be dialed up: say when you need to defend what’s good and what’s true. But at other times, it needs to be dialed down: when you are selfish, resentful, and mean.

In the Greek tradition, wisdom helps us adjust the dials. But there is no recipe or rule that helps us figure out how best to adjust these dials. This is more art than science, which leads us to a culinary and aesthetic metaphor.

Cooking up wisdom

The challenge—and the fun—of adjusting our dials is obvious for anyone who is familiar with music or with cooking. Consider the process of cooking, eating, and drinking. The pleasures of dining involve contrasts and balance. Red wine is good with pungent cheeses. Hot chilis pair well with lime and sweets. A delicious meal involves the interplay of lots of flavors, textures, and smells. And these unfold over time—from the appetizer to desert.

Life is like a complex meal. There are spicy parts, and mellow times, salt and vinegar, sweetness and light. The key is balance. But also play and innovation.

So too with music. A single note is boring, as is a simple rhythm. Symphonic music and jazz demonstrate the joy and beauty of complex harmonizing. The bass line runs in contrast to the melody. The chords change. Those changes include dissonance, odd little grace notes, and tonic resolution. There are slow movements, staccato outbursts, and groovy backbeats. Sometimes there is a key change. Other times the bridge introduces a whole new concept.

What if we viewed our lives as musical compositions? We would strive for a complex balance of fast and slow, resolution and dissonance. Sometimes life is marked by sad blue notes. Other times it rings like a bold major chord. The goal is to weave it all together with a sense of harmony.

Harmony v. tranquility

The goal of life is not, then, to rest quietly, serenely, and in peace. Some spiritual traditions do seem to point in that direction. We might imagine a monk alone on a mountaintop, sitting in quiet contemplation.

But that vision is other-worldly, and inhuman. It takes us to a summit far removed from the joys and the sorrows, the anxieties and loves of real human life. A life well-lived includes fear, sorrow, and grief. Those are necessarily components of a life that includes ambition, love, and compassion. The key is to dial these things up in the right way and in the right amounts.

If you love others and yourself, there will be anxiety and sadness. Love exposes us. When others hurt, you hurt as well. This is appropriate, and real. If you love yourself, there will also be anxiety. Our goals and ambitions matter. It is good to feel proud of what you’ve achieved and who you are. It is also right to feel resentful when the world turns against you. And it is appropriate to feel sad, when the world disappoints.

The challenge of a life well-lived is to weave anxiety and sadness into a harmonious whole. Life includes a variety of ingredients: joy and worry, sorrow and pride, love and grief. We don’t control everything that life gives us. But we can adjust the dials. Every life will include substantial amounts of bitter seasoning.  The goal is not to stop eating, or to live in quiet serenity. Rather, we ought to aim to create a symphony of the sweet and the spicy.