Demagoguery

With the vast improvement in the transmission of pictures and words quickly to more and more people, the always present threat of demagoguery increases. We have seen a number of such (whose names will not be mentioned), but all learned their  techniques, directly or indirectly, from Adolph Hitler. And in order to understand the man’s success no one has studied Hitler more closely than Hannah Arendt, a Jew who was forced to leave Germany in her childhood and later became a teacher and writer of international fame. She wrote The Origins of Totalitarianism, a large book that established her reputation firmly as one who had a penetrating insight into some of the most important events of the past which she was convinced should enable us to better understand the present and anticipate probable future events. In a lengthy footnote in that book she reflects on the success of the depressingly ordinary Adolph Hitler “who during his lifetime exercised a fascination to which allegedly no one was immune.” Indeed, anyone who has seen films of Hitler before a crowd, even if he is not fluent in German, finds himself swept up in the emotional theater and inclined to agree with whatever the little man is saying. What is it that makes this possible? As Arendt notes:

“Society is always prone to accept a person offhand for what he pretends to be, so that a crackpot posing as a genius always has a certain chance to be believed. In modern society, with its characteristic lack of discerning judgment, the tendency is strengthened, so that someone who not only holds opinions but also presents them in a tone of unshakable conviction will not easily forfeit his prestige, no matter how many times he has been demonstrably wrong. Hitler, who knew the modern chaos of opinions from first-hand experience, discovered that the helpless seesawing between various opinions and the ‘conviction . . .that everything is balderdash’ could best be avoided by adhering to one of many current opinions with ‘unbending consistency.’ The hair-raising arbitrariness of such fanaticism holds great fascination for society because for the duration of the social gathering it is freed from the chaos of opinions that it constantly generates.”

There are a number of features of this comment that invite our attention. Clearly, Arendt has studied her subject closely and asked key questions about how it is that such a person as Adolph Hitler could hold vast numbers of people spellbound and convince them that black is white. To begin with, as she says, he grabs one of the many opinions floating out there and presents it with absolute conviction as the only possible truth, bringing order out of chaos. Repetition, conviction, and consistency, with the assurance that people will believe what you say if they hear it said often and without doubt or hesitation. This is key. Please note that it doesn’t matter in the least whether the opinion is true or false. What matters his whether or not the speaker says it with conviction. Hitler never doubted himself; he never second-guessed. He simply asserted what he wanted people to believe, knowing they would believe what he said if he said it often enough and without any hint of uncertainty.

But as Arendt points out, it matters also that this opinion must be asserted in a group where there is confusion about what matters and what is true. They seek release from the bewildering array of opinions on every side: they want something firm to grab onto in a world filled with conflicting opinions. In Hitler’s day when the mass media were just aborning, the situation was less chaotic than it is in our day when we are overwhelmed with numberless opinions on every subject. We are bombarded on every side by claims and those who presume to be experts about things we may know little about. We all have opinions, but we also are easily persuaded by one who seems to be certain of the truth, even if that truth runs counter to what we ourselves believe. And even if it is blatantly false. The appeal is always emotional, not intellectual., This is not philosophy; it is rhetoric. The demagogue knows how to “work on” the emotions of his or her listener. And as Arendt points out, when the audience evidences ” a characteristic lack of discerning judgment,” as it does in our day especially, the job is made so much easier.

So we should not be amazed that folks like Rush Limbaugh and, in his day, Paul Harvey are immensely popular: they make complex issues simple by  stating “with unbending consistency” and without wavering an opinion (any opinion) that floats in the air and assert it with smug confidence. Their listeners seem to be sitting at the feet of wisdom itself. How could we not have seen that before? It seems so clear now. The demagogue doesn’t know any more than we do. He simply appears to do so and he does so with swagger and with firmness that seem to make disagreement impossible. So we buy what he is selling, whatever that might happen to be. And we feel a sense of relief in doing so, because by agreeing with the demagogue we are ourselves now also wise. Where we had doubts before, we now have certainty — even if we are “demonstrably wrong.”

The Eye Of The Beholder

After forty-one years of trying to open the minds of college undergraduates to the possibilities of fine art, several things finally dawned on me. To begin with, in the end it is a matter of taste. The fine arts, including painting, poetry, sculpture, literature, and dance, are immensely complex and there is no argument (that I have come across) that will make a person appreciate what they find dull and uninteresting. That’s the first thing, though things are not this simple as I shall try to explain below. The second thing I have learned is that the sensibilities of the spectator, whoever it may be, vary immensely and since no two people are alike, reactions to the same object will vary proportionately.

There are three things to consider when talking about the fine arts. There is the object itself, say, the painting in the gallery. Next, there is the spectator who is gazing at the painting with varying degrees of attention. And finally there is the interaction between the two — which some insist is the actual “work of art.” But we will ignore this third thing entirely (which gets us into metaphysics) to focus attention on the first two. Let’s talk about the object itself, the painting on the wall. There are objective factors that all can see — the canvas, the paint, the arrangement of the figures in the scene, for example — and there is also what some would insist is the tendency to evoke a certain response, say, fear, delight, rage, or perhaps calm. These things can be pointed out and an “expert” is the one to do this because she has had the training and is probably a painter herself.

But when it comes to the spectator things get very complicated indeed. The supposed “tendency to evoke a particular response” may fall on deaf ears (as it were). The spectator may be color-blind, inattentive, or bored. He or she may never have looked at a painting before and doesn’t know how — which may sound strange, but it takes sensitivity,  attention, and concentration to appreciate the many complex factors that go into a single painting, musical composition, or piece of sculpture. Not everyone has these abilities. Indeed, in our age it becomes increasingly difficult to get young people, in particular, to stand and look at a painting that is simply hanging there and not moving and/or making noise. It takes work, in a word, and a great many people simply don’t want to make the effort or have diminished attention spans.

The last thing I have learned is that the quick response to fine art, that it is (just) a matter of taste, is a sign of intellectual laziness, the same sort of laziness that makes it difficult, or impossible, for a person to stand before a painting and open himself or herself to the many qualities that are there for all to see and appreciate. It is easier to shrug one’s shoulders and ask “who’s to say?” This translates into: “don’t bug me. There’s a party Thursday night and I have to get the keg. I have more important things to think about than this damn painting (class,problem, issue, etc. etc.)

Thus, while art IS a matter of taste in the end, there is much that can be said before we reach that point. And taste can be affected by having features of the work pointed out and increasing one’s experience and sensitivity to the things that “go on” in the painting. It can be “improved” as we say — which doesn’t mean “more like mine,” but more aware of what is going on in the work itself. Think, for example, how much more complex is a Beethoven sonata than, say, the latest hit on the top 40. There’s more there for the mind to get ahold of, and it takes an effort and willingness to be open to the new and different. The same complexity is present in all works of fine art and it takes an effort to appreciate this complexity. The unwillingness or inability to open oneself to these complexities results in a flattened world that is devoid of the many features that surround us and can make our world a richer and more exciting place to live. Not only in the fine arts, but also in the world the artist is revealing to us.

More Huxley Snippits

I mentioned in a previous post in which I quoted at length from Huxley’s Brave New World Revisited, that he was very concerned about the loss of human freedom in a world increasingly crowded and tending toward what he calls “dictatorship.” I want to continue to quote from his book because what he has to say is so relevant today and has the ring of truth. Speaking of truth, he thinks the ability to distinguish between what is true and what is false are essential elements in a good education. Imagine!

“An education for freedom (and for the love and intelligence which are at once the conditions and the results of freedom) must be among other things an education in the proper use of language.. . . .Suffice it to say that all the intellectual materials for a sound education in the proper use of language — education on every level from kindergarten to graduate school — are now available. Such an education in the art of distinguishing between the proper and the improper use of symbols could be inaugurated immediately. Indeed it might have been inaugurated at any time during the last thirty or forty years. And yet children are nowhere taught in any systematic way, to distinguish true from false, or meaningful from meaningless, statements. Why is this so? Because their elders even in the democratic countries do not want them to be given this sort of education.”

Indeed, their parents want them to learn a trade, to be able to earn money right after graduation — which is important, to be sure, but not of first importance. Given that the distinguishing mark of the human species is the use of symbols, it is of first importance, as Huxley suggests, that our children learn to use their minds, to learn how language functions and to see how easily facts can be manipulated in order to persuade the unwary. Huxley, as I have mentioned before, understood the nature of freedom and the ease with which it can be taken away from us — without our knowing it has been lost. As he says in this regard:

“It is perfectly possible for a man to be out of prison and yet not to be free — to be under no physical restraint and yet to be a psychological captive, compelled to think, feel, and act as the representatives of the national State, or of some private interest within the nation, want him to think, feel, and act. There will never be such a thing as a writ of habeas mentum; for no sheriff or jailer can bring an illegally imprisoned mind into court, and no person whose mind has been made captive by the methods outlined above [in his discussion of propaganda] would be in a position to complain of his captivity. The nature of psychological compulsion is such that those who act under constraint remain under the impression that they are acting on their own initiative. The victim of mind-manipulation does not know that he is a victim. To him the walls of his prison are invisible and he believes himself to be free.” [Italics added]

The result, of course, is a society like that in Huxley’s novel, a society of captives who think they are free: denizens of an ant hill, as Dostoevsky put it.  When I asked my classes to read Huxley’s novels most had no idea what he was talking about: his world was so unlike theirs. Or so they thought.

“That so many of the well-fed television watchers in the world’s most powerful democracy should be so completely indifferent to the idea of self-government, so blankly uninterested in freedom of thought and the right to dissent, is distressing but not surprising. ‘Free as a bird,’ we say, and envy the winged creatures for their power of unfettered movement in all three dimensions. But, alas, we forget the dodo. Any bird that has learned how to grub up a good living without being compelled to use its wings will soon renounce the privilege of flight and remain forever grounded. Something analogous is true of human beings. If the bread is supplied regularly and copiously three times a day, many of them will be perfectly content to live by bread alone. ‘In the end,’ says the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky’s parable, ‘in the end they will lay their freedom at our feet and say to us, ‘make us your slaves, but feed us.'”

One wonders if the plethora of entertainment that surrounds us and diverts our attention from important matters could possibly be part of an attempt to dull our minds, weaken our critical faculties. Is that far-fetched? In any event, apropos of Huxley’s last comment, the interesting, albeit disturbing, question is what will happen to these Dodos when there isn’t enough bread? They will then be forced to think in order to survive, but almost certainly, as things now stand, they will be unable to do so.

Snippits From Huxley

I have referred a number of times to Huxley’s 1931 “fable” Brave New World which predicted the future with astonishing accuracy. It is still, in my  mind, one of the most remarkable works ever written: prescient if not great literature. But few have read the sequel, Brave New World Revisited, that Huxley wrote in 1958 in which he admitted that he was even less optimistic than he had been when he wrote his classic fable. The newer work is not a novel, but a series of essays about the topics he touched on in his novel and which still bothered him twenty-seven years later. He starts off with the major problem as he saw it then, overpopulation, about which he has this to say:

” On the first Christmas Day the population on the planet was about two hundred and fifty million — less than half the population of modern China. Sixteen centuries later, when the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, human numbers had climbed to a little more than five hundred million. By the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence world population had passed the seven hundred million mark. In 1931, when I was writing Brave New World, it stood at just under two billion. Today, only twenty-seven years later, there are two billion eight hundred million of us.”

As I write this in 2015 the population on earth numbers 7.3 billion. In a word it has more than doubled since 1958. It boggles the mind. As Huxley goes on to say,

“Unsolved, the problem will render insoluble all other problems. Worse still it will create conditions in which individual freedom and the social decencies of the democratic way of life will become impossible, almost unthinkable. . . .There are many roads to The Brave New World; but perhaps the straightest and broadest of them is the road we are traveling today, the road that leads through gigantic numbers and accelerating increases [in the human population].”

It’s bad enough we refuse to deal with the issue of climate change, but it is tragic that we even refuse to discuss the problem of overpopulation.  However, this is only one issue Huxley dealt with in this book. As anyone knows who read Brave New World, Huxley was very concerned about the loss of individual freedom in a society that absorbs the individual  in an increasingly crowded world that is headed inevitably toward dictatorship. In that world a few will be forced by circumstances to take complete control of the reins of government while the rest spend their time seeking pleasures. As he noted in this regard:

“Only the most vigilant can maintain their liberties and only those who are consistently and intelligently on the spot can hope to govern themselves effectively by democratic procedures. A society most of whose members spend a great part of their time, not on the spot, not here and now and in the calculable future, but somewhere else, in the irrelevant other worlds of sport and soap opera of mythology and metaphysical fantasy, will find it hard to resist the encroachments of those who manipulate and control it.”

None knew better than Huxley how insidious are the factors that control the minds of those otherwise preoccupied with trivia such as social media and games. He understood better than most that true freedom is not a function of how many loaves of bread there are in the grocery store, but in the knowledge which loaf is best for one’s health. He knew how important educations is to the maintenance of human freedom and the democracy that is trending, even in 1958, toward dictatorship  — not a dictatorship held together by violence, but a dictatorship held together by subtle psychological manipulation. The kinds of manipulation that gets us to buy things we don’t need.

He understood how good salesmanship, whether one is selling soap or a political candidate, is simply another word for propaganda and he understood how clever propaganda works on the human mind and how easy it is for demagogues (such as Rush Limbaugh, for example) to capture the undeveloped minds of apathetic people.

“The demagogic propagandist must be consistently dogmatic. All his statements are made without qualification. There are no grays in his picture of the world; everything is either diabolically black or celestially white. In Hitler’s words, the propagandist should adopt ‘a systematically one-sided attitude toward every problem that has to be dealt with.’ He must never admit that he might be wrong or that people of different opinions might be even partially right. Opponents should not be argued with; they should be attacked, shouted down . . ..'”

Sound familiar? Huxley examines the workings of propaganda in great detail over two chapters in his book. He thinks we should have learned from Germany’s example; but, of course, we did not. Propaganda still works and it works well, whether the product is toothpaste or  presidents.

“Democratic institutions can be made to work only if all concerned do their best to impart knowledge and to encourage rationality. But today, in the world’s most powerful democracy, the politicians and their propagandists prefer to make nonsense of democratic procedures by appealing almost exclusively to the ignorance and irrationality of the electors.. . .[Their techniques will include] scientific selection of appeals and planned repetition . . . Radio [and TV] spot announcements and ads will repeat phrases with a planned intensity. Billboards will push slogans of proven effectiveness. . . .Candidates need, in addition, rich voices and good diction, to be able to look sincerely at the TV camera.”

None of which has anything to do with the qualifications of the candidate for political office, of course. And this was in 1958. The problem has expanded exponentially and the techniques have improved in their subtlety. Huxley, in this book, predicted that America would eventually elect an actor for President of the United States. Imagine that! And yet, the book has been largely overlooked.

Sparing The Rod

A good friend of mine was recently enjoying the visit of his son and his son’s wife and their 3 year-old son. My friend’s wife had undergone surgery a few weeks before and was still tender, but she was enjoying the visit very much when her grandson decided to punch her in the stomach — thinking it great fun. My friend grabbed his grandson and held him by the arms and sternly told him that hitting people is wrong. The boy’s mother clutched her son, glowered at my friend, and said “he’s only a child.” (I told my friend he should have smiled and said,”You’re right, he’s just a child. We have raised two quite successfully. How many have you raised.” But, of course, he wouldn’t say that. No grandparent would. It just isn’t done.)

In fact, that was the end of the incident as my friend and his wife, like most grandparents, simply bit their tongues and kept quiet. After all, whatever they told their son about raising his child would fall on deaf ears. It matters not to the young that their parents and grandparents have lived a long time and had a great many experiences: the young know better. We moan about how little we learn from history, but we are simply echoing our behavior as young folks when we also ignored our elders.

But the interesting thing to ponder about this incident is that it is all-too-common. Our kids are being raised by parents who have been told that any sort of corporal punishment, or even strict discipline, will damage their child irreparably. But this is not the case. I’m not advocating corporal punishment, but it’s a psychological fact that little or no discipline will damage the child irreparably; strict discipline may result in a neurosis, but it is treatable. In a word, lack of discipline results in a character flaw, which is permanent. The pop psychologists who write the books that busy parents read and take as gospel have led several generations of parents down a blind alley: their children are growing up severely flawed — a situation compounded by the added damage the schools are doing by reinforcing the notion that children should be praised but never criticized.

I was a camp counsellor in Maine for five summers. The owner of the camp was a wise man and seemed to know everything there was to know about raising kids. After all, he worked with 110 boys every year for more than twenty years and had raised two girls of his own. During the very first meeting with the counsellors he told us to be sure to mean what we say when we reprimand the kids in our charge. “If you tell them to stop doing something or you will kill them and they continue to do it, you will have to kill them.” He was obviously making a point: mean what you say. If the child is misbehaving and you threaten him — by insisting you will take away his dessert that evening, or confine him to his cabin– then you will have to take away his desert or confine him to his cabin. The worst thing you can do is make the threat and fail to carry it out. In this case the child becomes confused and ceases to believe the authority figures in his life. Lines that should be drawn are not and he doesn’t know what is appropriate action. As a result he eventually learns to ignore authority figures generally, even though his psyche desperately needs authority figures in order to allow him to fully develop his personality. The camp owner didn’t go into detail, but he made his point. And when parents disagree about the punishment their child deserves the child becomes confused and his world is scrambled. Consistency is essential to good child rearing.

My friend’s grandson was getting mixed messages. He was being told that hitting is wrong and he was also told it was OK because he is “still a child.” There is a glaring inconsistency between what his grandfather said and what his mother said in return. And his father said nothing, to make matters worse. One wonders how long he will remain a child in his mother’s mind. But one thing is certain: he will grow up a spoiled brat and a young adult with little or no self-restraint and a terribly weak character. How sad.

Then And Now

I live in the Southwest portion of Minnesota which is big farm country. The spaces are wide and the fields these days are full of young corn and soy beans, with a few fields of wheat or even beets for the sugar-beet plant nearby. For generations these have been family farms, but the corporations are taking over as we can see by the number of old homes and groves going the way of the bulldozers. But there are other signs of change as well that are equally disturbing.

Our two sons are now in their late forties and have children of their own. But when they were in high school they worked every summer “walking the beans” — pulling up weeds in the soybean fields. The town paid a young person to collect names of kids who wanted to make some money working for the farmers and that person took calls each day from the farmers and then arranged with the kids to work the next day. The farmer would pick them up and drop them off after lunch — which they usually called “dinner.” Occasionally they  joined a team of kids who rode a tractor and sprayed the weeds with poison. But we discouraged that and mostly they walked the beans for local farmers. Or they helped the farmer remove rocks from his field that had appeared over the winter. Those farmers always fed them a big “dinner” and the pay was pretty good. They usually worked in the mornings, ate “dinner,” and were then driven home. They kept what they earned and usually put most of their earnings into a savings account. One time they worked for a corporation de-tasseling corn. But they both hated that (my wife had to literally drag my younger son out of bed one morning to make him stick with a job he hated). The day started very early and the fields were still wet with dew that soaked them through their shirts. And their faces were scratched by the sharp edges of the corn plants. But they did stick with it until the job was done, working full days and hating every minute but making more money than the farmers could pay them.

But no more. The kids don’t walk the beans these days. Or pick up rocks either, except the rare farmer’s son or daughter helping out Dad. As for the rest of them, they stand around on street corners looking bored or drive their cars and pickups around making noise and waiting for something to happen. This is the age of entitlement, after all, and very few young people in this area seem to feel it necessary to earn money to pay for what they want. They simply charge what they want on their credit cards (so they won’t have to wait) or they ask their parents who (out of guilt??) pretty much give them what they want. As a result, farmers either douse their genetically modified crops with Roundup or hire migrant workers who dot the fields this time of the year while the kids are nowhere to be seen. With few exceptions.

People will say that when old codgers like myself complain about the younger generation they are forgetting what it was like when they were kids — things don’t really change that much, they say. Old folks have always complained about the young since the time of the ancient Egyptians, forgetting what it was like when they themselves were young. But that is a bunch of hooey, because things have changed considerably — not only since I was a kid, but since my sons were young. And I don’t see that the change is for the better. On the contrary, it is far worse because these young people are not learning “life-lessons” about responsibility and patience, doing jobs they don’t particularly want to do, waiting for the things they want, and saving money until they can afford them.

Things have not stayed the same at all. Just ask the folks around you who are trying to hire young people to work and can’t find any who are willing to do a full day’s work for decent pay. The young — including recent college graduates —  want shorter hours and larger paychecks. These things I hear from those who are in the know. Things do change, and change is not always for the better. And old codgers like me may have good grounds for complaint.

The Lone-Brain State

I am so happy not to live in Texas where stories like the following are commonplace:

Despite Tesla’s best efforts, the Texas legislature this week opted not to pass a bill which would have allowed the electric automaker to sell cars directly to consumers. Instead, if Tesla wants to sell its highly revered vehicles in the lone star state, it looks like it’s going to have to do it through local franchise dealers, something the company has no intention of doing.

Unfortunately, this is a story we’ve seen play time and time again in many states over the past few years. Tesla, which prefers (read: demands) to sell its cars directly to consumers, is forced to lawyer up and fight against powerful and influential auto dealer lobbyists who want to protect their cash cows.. . . .

The following criticism from Texas state Representative Senfronia Thompson highlights the challenge Tesla is up against.

“It would have been wiser if Mr. Tesla had sat down with the car dealers first,” Thompson said.

Yes, if only Mr. Tesla came back from the dead to sit down for a nice little tete-a-tete with car dealers, perhaps then they could have hammered out a mutually beneficial agreement.

The losers in all of this, per usual, are the citizens of Texas who continue to have to jump through hoops if they want to purchase what Car and Driver recently called the “Car of The Century.”

Tesla, of course, is the electric car that now boasts it can go 250 miles on a single charge. This is well beyond the range that was previously thought possible for electric cars and now makes it reasonable to expect those cars to go from coast to coast, timing their stops at well-placed charging stations. The fact that the cars cost a small fortune makes them rare, but the latest news is that they will soon have a smaller model that sells for around $35,000, which is not out of reach for a much larger buying public.

The CEO, Elon Musk (not Mr. Tesla!) has insisted that the cars be sold directly to buyers in order to bypass dealers who would tack on unnecessary costs and he has announced that he will make his technology available to other car manufacturers — in order, no doubt, to make electric cars more available to a wider buying public, and to guarantee that there will be more charging stations in this country. He is also building a large plant in Sparks, Nevada (powered by solar energy) to manufacture his batteries in this country rather than to continue to import them from Japan, and the efficiency of his batteries continues to improve. This plant will not only employ a great many people, it will help to reduce the costs of his automobile. He is a very astute business man and is so far ahead of the rest of those who make and sell gas guzzlers that Car and Driver are not exaggerating when they call Tesla the “car of the century.”

But with moron legislators in Texas making decisions like the above, cars like the Tesla will not sell as rapidly as they should — given the benefits they bring with them to the environment — and this is, once again, a sign of short-term self-interest trumping wisdom; steps backwards rather than forward toward solutions to our environmental problems.

Bogus Christians

The following story caught my eye. Jesus threw the money-changers from the temple. He should return and throw this guy out of his plane….

You may have heard the story a few months ago about an Atlanta-based minister who claimed he needed a $65 million private jet so he could “safely and swiftly share the Good News of the Gospel worldwide.” But almost as quickly as Pastor Creflo Dollar asked his 200,000 followers to each donate $300.00 [each] towards the purchase of a luxurious jet, the campaign vanished and was removed from his website.

But now, the board of World Changers Church International — which also operates as Creflo Dollar Ministries, has announced it is ready to purchase the plane.

“We plan to acquire a Gulfstream G650 because it is the best, and it is a reflection of the level of excellence at which this organization chooses to operate.”

This has got to be one of the biggest shams ever, and there’s so much delusion it’s hard to even figure out where to begin.

Let’s start with the money. Imagine what could be accomplished with $65 million! That’s a lot of money. Do you think Jesus would have wanted his earthly representatives travelling the globe in luxurious accommodations? Or do you think Jesus would have wanted to see that $65 million used to feed the poor, help the homeless, improve education, or just make some kind of huge impact to help humanity?

The final paragraph says it all: think of the good that money could do, especially since “World Changers Church International” presumably was organized to help the poor. But this is an old story and isn’t restricted to this man or this obscene expenditure. The Christian Church since the days of Constantine, at the very least, has sold out to Mammon. Victorian Bishops lived in palaces and we read often about corrupt and selfish church officials that are bent on living in a grand style. Dante put numerous Popes in Hell because of their corruption which resulted from their succumbing to the lure of money and power. It is possible, I suppose, that Pastor Dollar (how’s that for a revealing name??) is a decent man, but it defies logic and history to suppose for an instant that he cannot be corrupted. If Dante were only alive today….

But, again, when one considers how much good the filthy rich could do with the money they buy trinkets with and hide away in off-shore accounts and homes in Europe one’s mind is already boggled. There is no argument I know of that allows us to say that the rich ought to help others. But there are religions that all agree this would be the right thing to do. It’s not a question of logic and argument; it is a question of conscience.

Hippocratic Oath

I’m not totally convinced by this argument, but I want to put it out there to see what others think.

Supposedly the so-called “Hippocratic oath” was written by Hippocrates (“the father of Western medicine’) or one of his students in the early part of the fifth century B.C.E. It is widely recognized and is an oath that is taken by most, if not all, practitioners of the science (art?) of medicine, though in this country a more modern version is sworn to rather than the antiquated version. The modern version was written in 1964 by Louis Lasagna, Academic Dean of the School of Medicine at Tufts University, and used in many medical schools today. So far as I know it does not require the swearer to pay allegiance to the almighty dollar, but many physicians seem to have taken that oath as well. In any event, the oath, as written by Dr. Lasagna is (in part) as follows:

I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this covenant:

I will apply, for the benefit of the sick, all measures which are required, avoiding those twin traps of overtreatment and therapeutic nihilism.

I will respect the privacy of my patients, for their problems are not disclosed to me that the world may know. Most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death. If it is given me to save a life, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to take a life; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty. Above all, I must not play at God.

I will remember that I do not treat a fever chart, a cancerous growth, but a sick human being, whose illness may affect the person’s family and economic stability. My responsibility includes these related problems, if I am to care adequately for the sick.

I will prevent disease whenever I can, for prevention is preferable to cure.

In a word, the physician vows to take “all measures which are required” to preserve and enhance the lives in his or her care. The question I have is ethical, if not moral: should physicians be required to take this oath in this day and age — given the fact that the world population as of this writing has exploded to 7 billion 319 million (and counting). The growth of the human population so far this year is 34,962,750. Many theorists who have studied this phenomenon insist that the earth has already reached its carrying capacity. And with global warming making future food production problematic, at best, one needs to seriously ask whether it is ethically right to prolong life when it is attacked by a deadly disease. I admit that there are serious questions about who chooses to terminate life and when the decision should be made, but I shall ignore those questions to simply ask the central question: why prolong human life?

The spiritually certain, of course, insist that human life is sacred and they abhor such things as abortion (while at the same time a great many of them support war and capital punishment). Many of us on the fringes of Judeo/Christian belief might agree. But just because large numbers of people think that human life is sacred doesn’t make it the case. It may simply be a strong feeling we have all grown up with and we have been unwilling to question. I question it here, not to be facetious but because I do believe that such hard questions will soon be forced upon us by factors beyond our control — such as major storms, drought, famine, and super viruses that attack living organisms and which are not treatable. Indeed, at some point physicians may not be able to prolong life. The question before us is whether it makes any sense today to be blindly embracing a policy that may increase, rather than decrease, human suffering on this earth.

I’m not advocating a program of enforced euthanasia — though if such a program were in place I would suggest we take a page from Shakespeare and start with the lawyers, or at least the politicians! But we need to keep an open mind about the possibility of euthanasia for the terminally ill; take a more vigorous approach to family planning, including the promotion of the virtue of having small families; keep in mind that abortion is the woman’s choice; and accept as a given fact that there are people in this world who do not want to have children (or shouldn’t have them if they do) and may even want to choose a partner of the same gender. Our thinking about the so-called “sanctity of human life” is little more than a deep-seated prejudice — not shared by many other cultures, as it happens, and relatively recent if we take history in the large. Think about it: why should human life be considered any more sacred than that of other living creature?

So we might want to alter the Hippocratic oath to simply ask physicians to seek to prolong life as long as reasonable, rather than keeping folks alive at huge expense to their families and with little or no hope for recovery in a world where increasing numbers of people are crowding their way to a rather small table.

Doing The Right Thing

There is a fundamental distinction in ethics that I have never seen anyone make  — not even the professional philosophers who study the subject. That is the distinction between what is right and what a person would actually be likely to do in a given situation. Indeed, I have seen professional philosophers quibble with Kant, for example, and dismiss his entire ethical edifice on the grounds that no one could possibly act that way in fact. But, as Kant himself said many times, he was not doing “anthropology,” he was doing philosophy. And the job of philosophers in ethics is to try to determine what is right, not what people would actually do. We can take it as a given that people don’t always do the right thing.

Take the case of capital punishment, which I posted about in a recent blog. If my wife or child were killed and the police caught the killer who was then tried and found guilty I would almost certainly want that person drawn and quartered. That’s what I would want — because I am angry and resentful. But I have never seen an argument yet that persuaded me that capital punishment is the right thing to do — especially, as my friend BTG points out, now that DNA tests are showing how often we find the wrong person guilty. All of the arguments, including Francis Bacon’s pithy statement quoted recently about revenge being a sort of “wild justice,” tend the other way: capital punishment is institutionalized revenge. It is brutal and may make us feel good — “give us closure,,” as we like to say — but it is not right.

Admittedly, the attempt to determine in a given case whether an act is right or wrong is immensely difficult. It is so difficult that many intelligent (and especially unintelligent) people shrug their shoulders in dismay and then abandon the effort. But the attempt to determine right and wrong is like a jury trial: there is a correct answer (the defendant is either guilty or he is not, he can’t be both guilty and innocent) and we simply need to think about it until we can see what the correct answer is. Similarly, a given act is either right or wrong, it cannot be both. We will never reach the plateau of certainty in ethics — as Aristotle famously said it is the mark of an educated person to look for the degree of precision that the subject allows — but we can reach a tentative answer that stands up to criticism. That’s the best we can do, and it is a hellova lot better than shrugging one’s shoulders and giving up, resorting to a sort of mindless relativism where all ethical answers are matters of opinion: you have yours and I have mine.

This sort of relativism, as I have noted in previous blogs, leads us away from the challenge of trying to find the right answer — like raising one’s hand and excusing oneself from a jury trial. If we stay around and weigh the evidence, look at the issue from both sides, and think about possible courses of action, we might reach a level of confidence that seems solid and assured, at least until further examination. From where I sit, capital punishment is wrong — even though I may want to see it done if someone close to me were murdered. What I want and what is right are two entirely different things and the two only coincide perfectly in the case of the Saint. Or, perhaps, Immanuel Kant.