Is It Relative?

Throughout my teaching life I fought an ongoing battle with ethical relativism. My job was to help young people take possession on their own minds: to help them learn how to think. But everywhere I turned in the ethical domain I ran into the mindless question “Who’s to say?” In ethics, so it is said, it’s all a matter of opinion. You have yours and I have mine — and mine are just as true as yours or even Plato’s. So I heard. It’s difficult to get people to think about things when an easy escape is ready at hand: “that’s just your opinion.”

And yet.

Surely the events of the past few weeks and months — if not the past four years — have taught us something about ethics and the notion that it’s all a “matter of opinion.” We have been witness to a series of events involving the violation of most, if not all, of the basic ethical and religious values that have sustained us as a people for centuries. Lies, violence, bigotry, hatred — the list goes on.

And it is precisely the ethical principles involved here that are at the heart of the matters: principles such as respect for persons and fairness, universal ethical principles that separate us from the other animals who act purely on instinct.

One would think that having endured the travesties of recent months we would have learned that there are things that matter, things that go beyond simply my opinion or yours. We have lived through the reductio ad absurdum of ethical relativism. here are things that matter, things that make us “civilized” and take us out of ourselves and into the lives of others where we find there are things that can be done to make the world a better place — and displace the hatred and fear that have haunted us of late.

Or so one would think.

Good Folks

One of my favorite blogging buddies has a regular feature in her weekly blog. It’s called “Good People Doing Good Things,” and she culls stories about folks around the country and even the world who do good things each day — to remind us all that there are good people out there doing good. We need the reminder and I always enjoy reading about those remarkable.e people.

But one need not venture far to find good folks. Consider the following:

A few months ago a started chemo treatment to deal with a nagging cancer. I live in a small town and word soon got out. And then remarkable things started to happen. We looked out one morning after a snowfall to discover that the driveway had been plowed. I have no idea whatever who did that. But there’s more. A neighbor cut our lawn and shows up after every snowfall to offer to clean up the driveway and the sidewalks. He insists that we call him and he will be there. So far so good.

Another neighbor loaned me a walker to help me with my rehab after I fell twice and couldn’t leave the family room downstairs. She also went to the grocery store twice and brought back groceries since my wife thought it best not to leave me alone ion the basement! She also picked up prescription drugs for me. Twice. Another neighbor spent two hours also shopping for groceries. Several other people have offered to help out any way they can.

All of this is voluntary and simply a sign of good folks doing good things.

We really don’t have to look that far.

Have a great New Year!

Revisiting Faust

I have been deactivated of late due to health issues, but I want to end the year with this repost in order to let those who read my blog know that I am still on this side of the grass. I return to a post that features one of the greatest books ever written — as is my tendency! Like any “Great Book” it has much to tell us about ourselves and about our times.

While many who even think about the character Faust and the bargain he made with the devil confuse Christopher Marlowe’s Faust with Goethe’s — as I noted in an earlier post — the Faust of Goethe resembles in remarkable ways many of us and is thus more worthy of serious consideration. Marlowe’s Faust simply sells his soul for pleasure and wealth (and that does describe many of us, I confess). But Goethe’s Faust agrees to give up his soul only if the devil can provide him with an activity that is so engrossing that he will no longer experience the ennui, the boredom, that is deeply affecting him as the play opens. He is a thoroughly cynical and jaded person, bordering on the suicidal. As he makes his bargain with the devil, Faust says:

“If I be quieted with a bed of ease,

Then let that moment be the end of me!

If ever flattering lies of yours can please

And soothe my soul to self-sufficiency,

And make me one of pleasure’s devotees,

Then take my soul, for I desire to die:

And that is the wager!

To which Mephistopheles says “Done!”

According to Arthur Schopenhauer (who had read his Faust carefully) this is a profound and meaningful bargain that so many contemporary men and women have made with the devil. According to Schopenhauer, most of us are lead primarily by a will that seeks pleasure and satisfaction., We confuse pleasure with happiness and after willing satisfaction in a certain pleasure — say a good meal — afterwards we are bored and must find another motive to direct the will elsewhere. And so on. Life for most of us, as Schopenhauer sees it, is a relentless attempt to avoid becoming bored, seeking one pleasure after another, one diversion after another to keep us from being alone with our thoughts, much like Goethe’s Faust. The only escape, for Schopenhauer, is to find release in poetry, philosophy, and music, the world of Ideas:

“the beauty of nature, i.e., pure knowing free from will, which certainly as a matter of fact is the only pure happiness, which is neither preceded by suffering or want nor necessarily followed by repentance, sorrow, emptiness, or satiety.”

Of course as a philosopher Schopenhauer would say that! Many a philosopher has said the same thing before and many a critic has noted that this is self-serving. But it is worth considering, since it is possible that he is correct and that the rest of us are missing something. One thing is certain, and that is that until we have experienced what he is talking about we cannot possibly be in a position to judge him to be incorrect.

In any event, Goethe’s Faust finds happiness, not in “the beauty of nature,” but in immersing himself in the problems of others and working toward a solution; he finds happiness in “the Deed.” Toward the end of his life he becomes engrossed in helping the citizens of Holland keep the ocean from swallowing up their land. As he lies dying he says :

“And so, ringed all about by perils, here

Youth, manhood, age will spend their strenuous year.

Such teeming would I see upon this land,

On acres free among free people stand.

I might entreat the fleeting moment:

Oh tarry yet, thou art so fair!”

Mephistopheles is delighted because he thinks he was won the bargain! He has gained Faust’s soul. But, wait! God intervenes and takes Faust up to Heaven because he has not actually said he wishes the moment to tarry, he only has said that if certain things take place he might then want the moment to tarry. It’s a verbal trick and it infuriates the devil as it has puzzled commentators over the years. Did the devil win Faust’s soul or did he not?

Whatever the answer to this question, and I have my own theory, it is clear that in Goethe’s mind the man who loses himself in helping others is worth saving. Such a man can find true happiness not by seeking pleasure or endless diversions (as Schopenhauer correctly pointed out), but by directing the will toward the happiness of other people. True happiness consists in forgetting about our own happiness and committing oneself to the well-being of others.

An interesting notion and something worth pondering as the year comes to a close.

The New Honesty

Time was when honesty meant telling the truth. Period. If one said what was true, regardless of the consequences, he was being honest. Indeed, the more serious the consequences to the speaker the more courageous seemed to be that person’s honesty — even rising to the level of “honorable.”

But no more.]

Now the word “truth” has been leveled to mean something entirely subjective: it’s what we want to be the case.It’s not about what is the case; it is all about what we want to be the case. If I believe it , it is true.

Honesty, on the other hand, now means “gut feelings.” If it comes from the heart or the gut — or somewhere in the nether regions of the human body — then it is honest. It’s about emotion, not about facts. The rawer the emotion the better. We admire those who are being honest with their feelings and regard them as in all instances “honest.” They become our role models. For the most part.

In fact, the man who leads this country at present is popular, I believe, because he is honest in this new sense of the word. Millions of people are willing and apparently happy to disregard his disdain for the truth because he is, in their view, honest. And remember: it’s all about perception, not about reality. He “tells it like it is.” It matters not that the man cannot recognize the truth and lies fall from his mouth without number. It matters only to millions of people that he is “honest.”

There are numerous problems with this new meaning of the word, of course. For one thing it reduces the other person to a non-entity. We owe them nothing, not even the truth. And as long as we are being “honest” little else matters. Even if in being honest we hurt another person’s feelings and, as I said, reduce them to a cipher. As long as I tell it like it is, as long as I speak from the heart, or the gut, or the anus — whatever — that’s all that matters.

Thus does the truth lie dormant on the scrap heap of so many other virtues, such as honor, courtesy, courage, and temperance. The other person does not matter; only I matter.

After all, I’m just being honest.

Dumbing Down America III

Here’s another oldie but goodie!

During the middle of the last century when Walter Cronkite was at the height of his popularity — “the most trusted man in America” — he spoke out against the growing tendency of journalists, especially TV journalists, to confuse news with entertainment. He noted that “television is too focused on entertaining its audience,” insisting instead that the job of the journalist is to present the news as objectively as possible — both sides of complex issues, with the broadcaster keeping his bias to himself or herself. “Objective journalism and an opinion column are about as similar as the Bible and Playboy magazine,” he quipped. In order to make news hold the viewer’s attention, he thought it was sufficient that the journalist simply make it more “interesting,” focusing on “good writing, good reporting, and good editing.” Even though his words were widely anthologized and incorporated into the curricula of numerous schools of journalism, they pretty much fell on deaf ears. It is clear that not only television, but also print journalism, has gone the route of entertainment, big time. It’s all about competition among the dozens of news programs that demand our attention and attracting the viewers to your news program in order to sell your sponsor’s products. And entertainment sells the product.

So, what’s wrong with news as entertainment? It has to do with what entertainment is: it is essentially fluff. It is designed to grab the attention of a passive spectator, demanding nothing of him or her in the way of intelligent or imaginative response. It doesn’t seek to engage the mind. It is less concerned with informing than it is with holding the viewer’s attention long enough to deliver the sponsor’s message by way of thought bites — which is what TV news has become, for the most part. And as attention spans shrink, the entertainment must get more and more sensational and more graphic in order to keep the viewer’s mind from wandering. The same phenomenon takes place in the movies. [And has recently occurred in the political arena.]

Hollywood has never really understood the difference between film as art and film as entertainment. With the exception of people like Woody Allen and Orson Wells, directors and producers in Hollywood for the most part opt for the blockbuster, with the latest technical gimmick demanding nothing of the spectator whatever, except that she pay for a seat and then sit glued to it with eyes on the screen. The movies that seek only to entertain, again, do not engage the imagination of the spectator: they require no mental effort whatever. Films that seek to rise to the level of art, films made by filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, and Federico Fellini, insist that the spectator make an effort to follow the plot and connect pieces, and think about what went before and how it connects with what is happening now — and what the implications are for human experience outside the movie theater. In a word, they teach.

And that brings us to the final point I want to make: thanks to TV shows like “Sesame Street,” teaching has also become an entertainment medium. The teacher is now supposed to engage the pupil’s shrunken attention span long enough to get bits and pieces of information into a mind that is frequently engaged elsewhere. The content is less important than the way it is delivered. Students are often asked to evaluate teachers and much of the evaluation has to do with “performance.” The popular teachers are the ones who put on the best show. The worst thing that can happen in the classroom is that it be deemed “boring” by a group of disinterested students who are surrounded by media that inundate them with noise and rapid-fire visual and aural sensations that overwhelm the mind and leave it spent and confused.

This is what people are used to and what they expect on a daily basis. What could be worse for such a mind than to be asked to sit and listen to a lecture that consists of nothing more than a man or a woman standing there reading from a text — or even speaking extemporaneously, without visual aids? Can we imagine an audience of thousands standing for hours in the hot Illinois sun to listen to a debate between two politicians on the pros and cons of slavery, as the folks did to listen to Lincoln debate Douglas? On the contrary, we demand thought bites, snatches and slogans. The quick 30 second news bite or political ad that tosses out a couple of bromides that are designed to fix themselves in the memory and guide the finger that pulls the lever in the voting booth. The point is not to inform, it is to entertain. And it’s not just Fox News, which is simply the reductio ad absurdam of the whole process.

That’s what bothered Cronkite years ago: news that lowers itself to the level of mere entertainment demeans the audience, and renders it a passive vehicle for any message that can be delivered quickly and effectively in order to somehow alter behavior — buy the product, pass the test, vote for this candidate. It lowers us all to the level of idiots who are waiting to be told what to do. It certainly doesn’t strengthen the mind by expanding its powers of imagination, thought, and memory. It is all about the dumbing down of America.

Failure?

The wag on “Get Up!” — a weekly sports show on ESPN — put it best when he said: “Failure is a good thing. It teaches us valuable lessons.”

The topic surrounded the recent loss of a football team that had been sailing along beating their opponents fairly easily. They lost the most recent game and the question for the table was weather or not this might be a good thing in the long run. It was generally accepted that it would in fact be a good thing as it would make the losing team more determined and work harder to avoid losses in the future. Indeed, it is a maxim — if not an axiom — in sports that losing can be the best thing for a team that begins to feel it is invincible.

This is one of the reasons why sports is so important a part of our culture, since sports teach important life-lessons. As a whole, we tend to think that losing is the worst thing that can happen. In our schools, for example, we hear that “no child should be left behind,” and I even had a colleague years ago who refused to give grades to his students because it would mean that some would fail. As you can imagine, students flocked to his classes and did absolutely nothing in order to simply be passed along — and get valuable college credit.

But the disparity between the sports axiom and the common notion in the schools (and in the home) regarding failure or success is worthy of thought. I maintain that the sports world knows what it is talking about and the rest of us should simply shut up: failure can be a good thing. It most often is as most of us would attest if we are honest.

Years ago I wrote a post about George Washington who reflected on his losses late in his life — the experience with Braddock in the French and Indian wars, for example — and insisted that they were the most important lessons he learned and steeled him later in life for future disappointments and losses and made him able to win out in the end.

So let it be agreed: failure can be a good thing. Let the kids lose and hope they learn from those losses and become future winners. Because, like it or not, there are winners and there are losers in life.

Change?

“The more things change the more they stay the same” as some wag said at some point in the past. And it does appear to have a kernel of truth at the center of it.

I am reading The Personal Memories of P.H. Sheridan, one of the three central figures in the victory of the North over the South in our Civil War. We know him as General Sheridan and together with Grant and Sherman, the Yanks were finally able to prevail — after one of the bloodiest wars in history.

But after Lincoln’s death the nation went through even greater trials in an attempt to bring the tattered Union together again. After the war was officially over — and while renegade troops of Rebels continued to fight and cause havoc in the South — Sheridan was sent to head up a peace-keeping force in New Orleans and Texas. Neither of these states, together with the other Rebel starts, wanted back in the Union. In New Orleans in 1866 there was a “massacre” (to use Sheridan’s word) in which nearly 200 black citizens together with Northern sympathizers were slaughtered by a large group of angry Southerners — including the New Orleans police.

Sheridan wrote about it after the fact:

“No steps have been taken by the civil authorities to arrest citizens who were engaged in this massacre, or policemen who perpetrated such cruelties. . . As to whether the civil authorities can mete out ample justice to the guilty parties on both sides, I must say it is my opinion, unequivocally, that they cannot.”

We are now engaged in a “Black Lives Matter” movement in which we are reminded that the history of racism in this country goes back many years. Many do not like being reminded, but it is assuredly the case — as this incident shows cleary. Today we still have instances, more than we care to count, in which those hired to protect and serve shoot defenseless black people. There does seem to be something deep in the collective DNA of a great many people in this country that drives them to hatred and contempt of those with different colored skin.

We just need to remember that when we are tapped on the shoulder and asked to do whatever we can to help eradicate racism that (a) it may not be possible and (b) we need to do it anyway.

Ethical Dilemma

One of my favorite British mysteries is “New Tricks” which is both engrossing and, at times, funny. One of the episodes also provides considerable food for thought — which I want to share with you.

The chief detective, call her Sasha (because that’s her name) has a grudge against a criminal who is at present in jail — call him Jack (which is not his name). He is in jail, however, for a crime he has not committed despite the fact that he had, in fact, killed Sasha’s partner years before and is a thoroughly bad man. But he is not guilty of the crime he has been punished for.

During the course of the investigation into the basis for the prosecution of Jack for this particular crime it becomes apparent that he is not guilty and has been set up by a detective years before who simply wanted to get him behind bars.

The young woman who is, in fact, guilty for the crime that he is being punished for killed a man who had abused her cruelly many years before. She killed him with an empty bottle of wine during an altercation in a hallway at a party.

Sasha’s dilemma is whether or not to let things stand as they are — since Jack is not only willing but eager to take the rap for the young woman for whom he has a special bond (we won’t go into that) — or prosecute the young woman and let Jack go free. And to make things even more interesting, Jack tells her that he will plead guilty of the murder of her former partner and thus that crime will have been resolved.

But Sasha decides to prosecute the young woman, who is guilty (in some sense of that word) and let Jack go free. My question is: did she do the right thing?

From a Kantian perspective she did. Kant tells us that we are to respect all persons and the truth is a paramount value in any system in which the moral person stands at the center. The strict Christian would agree with Kant.

But the Utilitarian would argue that the consequences of letting Jack go free and prosecuting a young woman who has turned her life around and is guilty of nothing more that manslaughter of a known predator is the wrong thing to do. The greater good in this case is to keep Jack in jail where he clearly belongs and let the young woman go on with her life.

But Sasha took the former option. Dud she do the right thing? What do you think?

Not My Problem!

At a time when the grand old dame of the Supreme Court recently died and the Congress lines up to make sure that this president gets to name a new Justice, I divert my attention away from the recently unpleasant and return to another example of the gross stupidity and the sad way that politics have of dictating this country’s course. I refer, of course to our collective tendency to abandon our critical faculties and look everywhere but where we should be looking. I have updated this post.

In his remarkable book, Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free, Charles Pierce quotes Norman Myers of the Climate Institute who estimated that in 1995 [over twenty-five years ago!] there were already “25 to 35 million environmental refugees, and that number could rise to two hundred million before the middle of the next century.” The 600 residents of the town of Shishmaref in Alaska are already making plans and attempting to raise money to relocate their town because the permafrost is thawing and the town itself is slowly disappearing into the ocean. They may eventually follow many of the refugees that Myers mentions who have left their disappearing homes in the South Pacific for the same reasons and are flocking to already overcrowded cities where they must learn entirely new (and alien) urban ways.

And yet 64% of our population — and an alarming percentage of those in Congress, not to mention our president — still doubts that climate change is a reality and/or that humans are largely responsible. Folks look out the window and see the snow falling and the temperatures dropping and forget that we are talking about global warming. We might note that the term “climate change” is part of the reason there are still doubters. It is a euphemism that was invented by special interest groups as a substitute for “global warming,” which they regard as unduly alarming. They are intent upon calming fears and directing attention away from serious problems. And they have been very successful.

How can they do this? They do it because people tend to believe what they want to believe and because they generally have lost any critical acumen they might have once had because of poor schooling and the barrage of bullshit they are being fed daily by the media, 91 % of which are in the pocket of the corporate interests — along with most of those in Congress, funded and elected by those very corporations.

According to Pierce, it all started in the 1950s with the tobacco companies. They realized that people were getting nervous about the reports emerging from scientific researchers about the dangers of smoking cigarettes. The CEOs of all the major tobacco companies met in New York in December 1953. Allan Brandt, in The Cigarette Century, describes the strategy:

‘Its goal was to produce and sustain scientific skepticism and controversy in order to disrupt the emerging consensus on the harms of cigarette smoking. This strategy required intrusions into scientific process and procedure. . . . The industry worked to assure that vigorous debate would be prominently trumpeted in the public media. So long as there appeared to be doubt, so long as the industry could assert “not proven,” smokers would have a rationale to continue, and new smokers would have a rationale to begin.'”

In a word, they would cloud the air with half-truths and blatant falsehoods posing as hard science in order to confuse the general public (which doesn’t know science from Shinola) and be assured of continued profits. If this sounds familiar it is. In fact it is precisely the strategy the vested interests have adopted in the debate about the dangers to our planet. As Pierce goes onto point out, in 2002

“a Republican consultant named Frank Luntz sent out a memo describing how Luntz believed the crisis of global warming should be handled within a political context. ‘The most important principle in any discussion of global warming is sound science,’ wrote Luntz. ‘The scientific debate is closing [against the skeptics] but not yet closed. There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science.'”

In a word, get your PR folks to cloud the air with half-truths and blatant falsehoods masquerading as science and keep the uncertainty alive in the minds of as many as possible for as long as possible in order to assure that lackeys remain in political office and that corporate profits continue to rise.

What is remarkable about this entire scenario is that there is healthy skepticism in this country about the nonsense politicians spew forth — politicians are right down there with used-car salesmen as the ones we are least likely to trust. Yet so many of us are willing to believe what they say when it allows us to go on with our lives as usual and not have to bother about such disturbing truths. In fact, what many of us do is reject as false those claims we find uncomfortable and embrace those claims (true or not) that are most reassuring. Indeed, the word “truth” no longer has any fixed meaning, since it simply refers to those claims that we choose to believe, even though our basis for believing those claims is nothing more than a gut feeling or the word of an inveterate liar.

Because of this, I have devised a new law. “Only those scientific claims are to be believed that are made by those who have no vested interest  whatever in the public response to those claims.” In a word, don’t believe anything that is put out there by a company that stands to increase its profits by having you believe those claims. We may not understand the scientific claims (they can be complex); what’s important is who is putting them forth. Real science is engaged in by those disinterested folks who have nothing to gain or lose by the certainties they uncover. The rest of it is a shell game.

Hedonism

At the very end of her brilliant novel Romola — to which I have referred previously — George Eliot shares the following insight:

“There are so many things wrong and difficult in the world that no man can be great — he can hardly keep himself from wickedness — unless he gives up thinking much about pleasure or rewards and gets strength to endure what is hard and painfiul.”

There is much food for thought here (as there is in all of Eliot’s novels) and I do wonder in this age in which pleasure sits on a throne  worshipped by so many of us how much we have lost by ignoring those things that once were thought to build character, those things that give us “strength to endure what is hard and painful.”

Eliot was writing toward the end of the nineteenth century when capitalism and the industrial revolution that gave it birth were making it possible for all men and women to pursue those things that made life easier — or at the very least to dream about such things as real possibilities in the not-so-distant future. Surely, humans have always sought pleasure. Some would argue that we all do all the time (more about that later). But there were times when a great many people worried about things that pleasure cannot assure us, such things as what used to be called “the good life,” or the pursuit of “virtue.”

Eliot sees human life as a struggle between pleasure, on the one hand, and our duties to one another, on the other hand. I wrote about this previously because I do think it is true, though I doubted at the time (as I do now) that very many of us worry much about our duties to other humans and to the world at large. In any event, it is worth pondering why it is that we have simply bought into the notion that what we want is invariably what we need, that the purpose of a human life is to pursue pleasure. As the bumper-sticker says: “He who dies with the most toys wins.” Indeed, it is all about toys for so many of us. And this at a time when there are “so many things wrong and difficult in the world.”

Those who insist that all human motivation is about pleasure and talk about duty is bogus are referred to as “hedonists.” And there is considerable evidence that we all do, to a degree, pursue pleasure, and seek at all costs to avoid pain. But I do wonder if that’s the end of things when it comes to the question human motivation.

Of all the things I have thought about over the years, the question of what is is that motivates each of us has caused me the most difficulty. To be sure, most of our motivation can be seen to be an attempt to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. But what about the starving mother clutching her starving and crying baby who finds a crust of bread and gives it to her baby rather than eat it herself? Is she motivated by pleasure, or is it more accurate to say that giving her baby the bread gives her pleasure but it was not the reason why she gave the bread to the baby? She gave the bread because it was her maternal duty to do so — and probably because of what we are told is the maternal “instinct.” But the motivation is not about pleasure or the reduction of pain. It is more complicated than that: it is about doing the right thing, even if little thought is involved in the decision.

There are other examples one might point to that raise the question of whether the hedonist is correct in her thinking. But we need only read novels by great writers such as George Eliot — who are in many cases great psychologists — to make us think again. As I say, human motivation is terribly complicated. How many of us know why we do what we do most of the time, much less all of the time? But, in then end, I conclude that possible to do a thing because it is the right thing to do — even if it causes us pain to do it.

I think Eliot is on to something.