Bernie’s Battles

Bernie Sanders says all the right things — well, almost all the right things. He has been soft on gun control which is troubling. But, then, he is a politician and must say things to get himself elected to the Senate in Vermont that he may not really believe. That’s the name of the game. In any event, he truly wants to do the right thing by his country and he is certainly operating outside the mainstream of politics for the most part. As I noted in a previous post, he knows that the real battle in this country is not between the Republicans and the Democrats. It’s between the very wealthy together with their corporations and the rest of us.

Sanders' Official Senate Portrait

Sanders’ Official Senate Portrait

The problem, of course, is that so many of Bernie’s dreams are just that: dreams. They are pie-in-the-sky. Radical change that flies in the face of present politics-as-usual. He is labelled a “socialist,” which is inaccurate. A socialist wants the state to own the means of production. Karl Marx thought Socialism was a step toward Communism where there would be no private ownership, all would share things in common — not unlike the hopes expressed in the New Testament. So far as I know Bernie Sanders does not want that to happen. He just wants those who own the means of production and who just happen to make 300 times as much money as their average employee to share some of their wealth. He would raise taxes on the rich which, as history has shown, might just help this economy get back on track. We were never as fiscally healthy as we were when the wealthy helped bear their share of the burden of government. You know, before Ronald Reagan’s “trickle down” nonsense. As things now stand there are so many tax loops for the wealthy they hardly help at all. Bernie wants to right the ship.

But, as I say, his are dreams that seem will-o’-the-wisp, hardly the sorts of things the Congress will help him achieve. And, as I have also said in a previous post, without the help of the Congress the president cannot do much of anything. I dare say Bernie knows this and it would appear that he has in his sights a much larger prize: complete political reform. He wants to sweep into office with a majority of the Congress behind him. That would certainly make it more likely that he could actually initiate much-needed reform. And if he can light a fire in the electorate and get enough of the idealistic young on his side he may just do that. It’s a long shot, but it does inspire hope at a time when hope is a slender thread connecting dreams and reality.

The only thing that bothers me about this scenario is whether a Congress, be it Democratic or Republican, would actually put their collective careers on the line for radical change. It is likely that the majority of the Congress any new president would have to work with would still be beholden to the corporations. The wealthy support politicians on both sides of the aisle, just in case. Bernie may succeed in his attempt to free himself of all corporate ties, and might even gain a majority in the Congress, but it is unlikely that those in Congress could get elected — or if elected remain in office — without corporate support. That’s Bernie’s largest battle. It’s not about getting elected. It’s about beating the corporations in order to be an effective president.

Nevertheless, it is a hopeful sign that there is someone in the political arena who has the courage to say the right things, even though they are not the things the wealthy want to hear (because they are not those things?). As I read recently, Hillary Clinton is the person running for president who could work most effectively in the present political arena. Bernie is the one who wants to change the game entirely and play it more or less the way the founders wanted it played at the outset, reversing the current trend toward oligarchy. You have to admire his vision and his courage. Whether he will win the battles ahead remains to be seen.


While Rome Burns

We all know that Nero fiddled while Rome was burning, though we aren’t told with whom he was fiddling . . .(sorry). In any event, we now find ourselves pretty much in his shoes, fiddling while our water dries up. I’m not speaking about the horrible event in Flint, Michigan where thousands of citizens were allowed to drink water contaminated with lead. Nor am I referring to our mindless waste of water as we flush the toilet with a cup of pee in it, take long showers, run the dishwasher for six plates and a dirty frying pan, leave the water running while we brush our teeth, or water our lawns (or golf courses). What I am referring to is the unconscionable act of “fracking.”

A recent story tells us about the steps that the European Union are taking to stop fracking, a procedure to get gas and oil out of the earth while contaminating between 1.2 and 3.5 million gallons of water per well each day in the process:

Studies by the European Commission, released last Friday, find the risks associated with large-scale shale gas development and fracking to be high and in some cases very high. The studies draw special attention to the cumulative environmental impacts of multiple shale gas wells. Eight key pieces of the European Union (EU) environmental acquis (acquis communautaire = agreed upon laws and regulations in the EU) are identified as being ill-equipped to deal with the water, waste, liability, air quality and other issues of large-scale use of hydraulic fracturing.

As a result, four countries in Europe have outlawed fracking. A growing list of others have placed a moratorium on the act. However, with the exception of a few states in this country, we continue to engage in an activity that is known to cause earthquakes in addition to drawing millions of gallons of water from the aquifers daily and rendering the water unusable. We ignore the fact that our water is becoming increasingly precious. Many think it will be the new gold. But actually it is more precious than gold, because we cannot live without it.

Some would chalk up our frenzy to draw oil and gas out of the earth to free enterprise. I would chalk it up to raw, unmitigated greed. As noted, growing numbers of countries around the globe see this as a very dangerous practice indeed, as are so many of the practices in this country we engage in daily — while we fiddle. We can continue to ignore the assault we have initiated against the earth, but we cannot do so much longer. And while I realize that this claim will be dismissed as mere nay-saying, chicken-little pessimism, glass half-empty exaggeration of our present situation, we need to consider that those who reject the dire prediction of scientists have a hidden agenda. The scientists do not. They simply tell it like it is. We need to start to listen to them. The money isn’t going to do even the wealthiest among us any good if they have no water to mix with their bourbon.

In my bleak moments I sometimes imagine that the very wealthy who pursue this deadly path have a jet plane ready to whisk them away from our dried up country to some place safe, one of those countries that has outlawed fracking and now relies on renewable energy — you know, the ones that will manage to hang on a bit longer. It’s not unlike the villain in a James Bond movie with his boat ready to whisk him away to safety before the British Secret Service can put him away. But this is real life, not a fiction: there are no jet planes that can take anyone far enough away.

At other times, in my more dreamlike moments, I imagine that the story in the Old Testament about the Garden of Eden is not a tale about what happened in the past. Rather, it is a prediction about the earth we all share, which is indeed a Garden of Eden. The serpent of avarice has offered us the apple of greed and we have eaten of it and we are now, slowly, being evicted from the Garden as a result of our own stupidity.

Reason In Ethics

One of the most common questions when it comes to ethical disputes is “Who’s to say?” This question reveals the skepticism so many of us experience when it comes to ethics, the conviction that it is really all just a matter of opinion. I have argued in previous posts that it is a good deal more than that, that ethical disputes are capable of resolution, there is a “right” and a “wrong” answer in ethics — if we can only find it. In the end, my claim rests on the notion that some arguments that support ethical conclusions are reasonable and others are not. But, one might say, who’s to say what is “reasonable”? To the goons who took over a federal park in Oregon their behavior is quite reasonable; to the rest of the world (excepting other goons) it is unreasonable, if not criminal. But, then, am I rejecting everyone who disagrees with me with a sweep of the hand as “goons”? Let’s take a look. I might say at the outset, however, that to jettison reason in ethics means that the only way to reject, say, Fascism is with the pathetic cry, “that’s just not the way we do things here in our neck of the woods.” This is absurd on its face.

A reasonable conclusion to an ethical argument resembles reasonable conclusions in any other field of inquiry: there is something stubborn about a reasonable conclusion that is absent in an unreasonable argument. But, who’s to say it’s “stubborn”? Isn’t this a matter of opinion as well? Not entirely, though subjective feelings certainly enter in. But a stubborn argument is one that is regarded as stubborn not only by the one advancing it but also by a neutral person who might be standing by. The British philosophers liked to talk about “the man  in the Clapham omnibus,” but since we are not British and we have no idea what the Clapham omnibus might be, this bears no weight whatever. American philosophers like to talk about “the man in the street,” but we now know that this is sexist and heaven knows we want to avoid sexism at all costs. So what’s left? I suggest that what is left is a jury of your peers.

What this means is that an ethical argument, like any other argument, can be tested for soundness (stubbornness) by asking whether a jury of our peers would be persuaded by that argument. For example, if I make the claim that discrimination is wrong and base it on the factual evidence that shows how discrimination renders the working place unfair to women — because we know about the “glass ceiling,” or that the average wage of the woman in the working place is so much lower than it is for the average male, etc. — and then if I add that this disparity violates the ethical principle of fairness, then I have put together a rather strong argument, one that is reasonable and can stand up to scrutiny by a neutral panel of my peers. But, someone might object, the so-called principle of fairness is itself subjective. I think not, and the case can be made by simply asking one who raises this question if he would regard it as fair if he were paid the same wage as the average woman doing the same job. Is it fair that two people doing the same work be paid differently? In other words, putting the shoe on the other foot engages the imagination of those who argue and makes the “stubbornness” of the argument apparent. In all honesty one cannot insist that he would in fact accept the same wage as another person who was paid less — unless he is perverse and simply wanted to argue for argument’s sake.

Ethical arguments involve ethical principles at some point, and there may be various ways to understand those principles. But the principle of fairness is fairly straightforward: just ask a 6-year-old child if it is fair that he (or she) be given a smaller piece of birthday cake than the child next to him (or her). It’s that simple. And another fundamental ethical principle is the principle of respect for persons. This principle is incorporated in the so-called “Golden Rule” and simply requires that we acknowledge that all persons ought to be treated with respect, ourselves included. It’s what we want and therefore what we can imagine everyone else wants as well. These two principles form the warp and woof of every major religion on earth and our collective social consciousness as well.

Thus, the notion of “reasonableness” in ethics is a notion that has weight. Arguments that are reasonable are ones that we ought to agree with whether we want to or not, even if it is terribly inconvenient. Thus, it is highly doubtful that those who insist that their stand in the federal park in Oregon was morally justifiable could put together an argument that is reasonable, that will stand up to the scrutiny of a jury of their peers. I dare say that will soon become apparent.

Predicting The Weather

Consider meteorology for a moment. It’s a pseudo-science in that it tosses around numbers but ultimately depends on intuition. The meteorologist will have several computer models based on a large number of variables and will choose the one the seems to him or her to be most likely. They also like to say things like “The chance of rain is 0% ” which is absurd. In probability theory 0% means that it is logically impossible. Similarly with the suggestion that “there is 100% chance of snow later today.” That would mean it cannot NOT snow, which is also absurd. Meteorology is a pseudo-science. There are many.

Don’t get me wrong, I love to watch the Weather Channel and see the folks there surrounded by all their elaborate equipment and their L.L. Bean coats telling us with straight faces that there is 0% chance of rain when I know that cannot possibly be the case. But they are pretty people even if they never learned the word “in.” They say things like “It’s raining into Chicago right now,” when we all know that they should say “It is raining in Chicago right now.” The word “into” suggests movement whereas the word “in” suggests place. The Weather Channel folks don’t know that, apparently. But then, they are meteorologists, whatever that means. It certainly doesn’t mean they are scientists, or even that they are well educated.

The pseudo sciences draw on probability theory and the notion that if we have numbers to support our claims, then we can call ourselves a “science.” This rests on the indisputable fact that the hard sciences (the REAL sciences) rely heavily on mathematics. I have a good friend who is a physicist and I once asked him what the latest developments in physics were. He answered that there hadn’t been many lately; the physicist must wait for the mathematician to develop the tools for them. But the social (pseudo) sciences abound in numbers convinced that thereby they will pass muster as real science. We are all suckers for numbers. Just think about the polls!

In any event, disciplines like psychology and sociology are pseudo-science because they have nothing more than probability to back them up, and probability theory is a mere shadow of the mathematical calculations on which the physicist and chemist relies. The latter yield certainties, the former not so much. Albert Einstein, for example, knew that his relativity theory was a certainty well before any experiment was devised to verify it. He knew it because the mathematics was correct and that was sufficient of itself. The hard sciences do not rely on probabilities, they rely on exact calculations. Prediction, when it is made, is certain– or as certain as experiments can be when devised by human agents.

In the end, we can still enjoy the pretty people on the Weather Channel with all their state-of-the-art, fancy equipment and their computer models predicting what will happen tomorrow “into” Chicago while, at the same time, we recognize the fact that they are playing at being scientists. It’s just make-believe, like so much on television.




Educate For Freedom

I have blogged a number of times (some would say “endlessly”) about the shortcomings of our educational system. It is a topic close to my heart, given that I spent all of my adult life in schools and colleges. I have even written a book about the nature of education, focusing mostly on higher education (so-called) but also mentioning in passing what seems to be going wrong in the lower grades.

In any event, I have been consistent in my defense of a liberal education at the collegiate level — though as Robert Hutchins said many years ago there is no reason why we couldn’t pursue a liberal education at the lower grades. And there are some schools that have actually returned to the fundamental notion of the seven liberal arts to form the core of their grade-school curriculum for kids. But, by and large, the liberal arts, which many confuse with the Humanities, are an intellectual challenge and seem to a great many students and their parents to be irrelevant to their real-world needs after college, not practical, not the kind of thing that will lead to a job and success in later life. I would challenge that.

I recently chatted with a professor of cardiology at the Mayo Clinic who majored in philosophy as an undergraduate. When I mentioned that most of today’s students avoid such subjects as impractical he said that philosophy was the most practical course of study he had ever taken and he found himself every day drawing on his undergraduate major at Vanderbilt University. I have also known liberal arts graduates who have been successful in the world of investment banking, business, the ministry, and law. It provides a broad base of study that allows the student to take different directions as times change.

We have known for years that young people growing up in the work force change their jobs many times before they are 40. Nowadays the “millenialists” change jobs even more — perhaps because they don’t like being told what to do! This is a spoiled generation, to be sure, used to getting what they want when they want it. If it requires real work, many are simply not interested. And the liberal arts require real work.

Let’s be clear at the outset, however, that the liberal arts include not only the Humanities but also the sciences. Originally they formed the trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric and the quadrivium of geometry, music, astronomy, and arithmetic. Note the heavy emphasis on mathematics and science (music being regarded as a mathematical science, carefully ordered as it is and reflecting as it does the harmony of the universe!) These subjects seem esoteric these days and those seven original liberal arts — “liberal” because they free the mind held captive by bias, immaturity and shrunken perspective — have given birth to hundreds of college courses all of which claim to free the mind. But, as we know, most of those subjects are really job-training in disguise; they cater to the students’ current whims while putting blinders on them thereby forcing them into a narrow track from which they find it very difficult to escape later on.

But the original liberal arts were designed to free the minds of the young and open to them new horizons to explore. As I like to say, they put the young in possession of their own minds. This seems especially appropriate today, given the changes in career paths mentioned above. The liberal arts prepare the student for a world of change, and change is the only thing we can be certain about in this world of ours. If we ask (demand?) of the young that they take subjects that require that they use their minds, deepen their understanding, gain the ability to manipulate the symbols of mathematics and language, and learn about their past we can expect that they will be best prepared for this changing world.

The claim is often heard that those who follow such a course of study will not be able to find work after graduation; there is growing evidence that this is untrue. In addition, for those students who want to advance in the work place, it has become increasingly clear that a liberal education is extremely beneficial. As a recent study by the Association of American Colleges and Universities tells us:

The majority of employers agree that having both field-specific knowledge and skills and a broad range of skills and knowledge is most important for recent college graduates to achieve long-term career success. Few think that having field-specific knowledge and skills alone is what is most needed for individuals’ career success.
80 percent of employers agree that, regardless of their major, all college students should acquire broad knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences. . . .
When read a description of a 21st-century liberal education, a large majority of employers recognize its importance; 74 percent would recommend this kind of education to a young person they know as the best way to prepare for success in today’s global economy.

Moreover, students who study the liberal arts will be able to adapt should they want to change jobs or if they should happen to be “let go” by an unfeeling company that feels the need to “downsize.” The best possible education for now and the future is a liberal education. The evidence is out there.

The Power of the President

I want to develop an idea I mentioned in passing in an earlier post. It has to do with the limited power of the President and the absurd promises our presidential candidates make about what they will do when elected — given the fact that by themselves they cannot do very much at all. Witness Barack Obama’s pathetic attempts to promote some sort of gun control.

Our Constitution borrows from the pages of Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws in dividing power among the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial. Limiting power was a prime concern among political thinkers in the age of Enlightenment as they sought to wean themselves from the whims of various corrupt Monarchs. If one reads our Constitution one immediately realizes that Congress is the main body in the thinking of those who wrote and later adopted that document. The very first Article in the document deals with legislative powers. There are ten Sections in that Article. On the other hand, there are only four Sections in the Article dealing with the limited powers of the President. Most of them stress the need for the legislative body to “advise and consent” or the manner of election and impeachment of the president. Clearly, those men were worried that they might be creating another monarch. And this they did not want — even with George Washington ready at hand.

The ten sections under Article One describing the powers of the legislative body are detailed and extensive. They go on for pages and outline a body that not only manages the purse strings, but also has the capacity to control the excessive urge to power of any president. And if those latter restraints are insufficient there is always the Supreme Court that further limits the President who might wish to get too big for his or her britches. The document is all about limiting power because these men knew better than anyone how power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, as Lord Acton once said.  And the reason these men put so much faith in the legislative branch is because they were convinced that those elected would represent the will of the body politic. In the small country at that time they envisioned the representatives serving with little remuneration for a very short time and in that time visiting their constituents on a regular basis and merely parroting the wishes of those who voted them into office. If the representatives varied too much from the will of the voters, they would be voted out. That was a given at the time, as is clear from the Federalist Papers.

We have seen how this hasn’t worked out, of course, with no term limits on those elected to Congress and huge salaries now attached to political offices. Men and women get into office and their primary urge is to remain there as long as possible. They don’t give a hoot for the needs of their constituents, since they answer only to the wealthy persons whose money can guarantee them a long term in office. The founders never saw it coming.

This is why, in the end, when we are thinking about which political candidate might make a good president we should be thinking about which candidate could work most effectively with a Congress that holds the purse strings and which is the seat of power in this country. Personally, I think Bernie Sanders stands out above the rest of the presidential candidates, because he has the best sense of what would be good for his country and is willing to take on the powers that be. He realizes, as the rest of the candidates do not, that the real contest in this country is not between the Republicans and the Democrats but between the corporations that would take all the power and the people who are supposed to have it. But, the question is, can he work effectively with what has become a recalcitrant (for want of a better word) Congress tied to the wealthy by their purse strings?  I suspect not, sad to say. I suspect he is regarded as an outsider and would find himself running in place — unless by some miracle the voters manage to alter the make-up of the Congress and give him enough legislators to work with.

That, it seems to me, is the main question.

The Militia

I have mentioned a number of times in earlier posts that the Second Amendment is all about the militia — not about our right to carry guns. It’s clear from the way the amendment is stated that maintaining a militia is of central importance. It’s because the Founders insisted that each state have a militia and that there never be a standing army that they saw fit to mention the “right” to bear arms. Consider, for example, the following Article in the Constitution itself.

In the very first Article (Section 8) we are told that the Congress shall have the power, among other things, to

“. . .provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions; To provide for the organizing, arming and disciplining the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress.”

The concern here, clearly is to guarantee that the states will severally maintain an armed Militia, that there might never be a standing army. When it came time to put down the Whiskey Rebellion in Western Pennsylvania during George Washington’s first term as President, for example, he himself led a group of state militia Westwards. There was no standing army, though Alexander Hamilton worried that the new country might eventually need one. Moreover, the Second Article in the Constitution  that outlines the very limited powers of the President tells us that:

“The President shall be Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States [which were non-existent!], and of the Militia of the several states when called into actual Service of the United States. . .”

Indeed, what is clear from reading the Constitution is that those who wrote and passed on it were primarily concerned that the states would retain power over their own affairs and the Union would intercede only when absolutely necessary. At the same time, given Washington’s difficulties maintaining his army during the Revolution, there is concern that the Militia when called upon  be trained “according to the discipline prescribed by Congress” — i.e., by someone who knew what he was doing. It was assumed that the Congress would appoint someone with experience to initiate the actual training. There is, throughout the document, a concern for what is referred to in the Preamble as “the general Welfare,” or what those men regard as the Common Good, balanced by the determination not to allow the Union to lord it over the several states.

The President, as mentioned above, was to be more or less a figurehead. He is not Dictator as some who are currently running for that office apparently believe: his hands are tied tightly. The Congress, for better or worse (and we are seeing examples of the latter every day) holds the ultimate power. The President, as chief executive officer, has the power to execute the laws, not to make them. But, more to the point, the “right” to carry weapons mentioned in the Second Amendment was predicated on the need for a Militia to protect both the individual states and, if necessary, the Union. And, as the very conservative President Reagan said years ago, it does not rule out hunting weapons, but it also most assuredly does not guarantee every citizen the right to carry “AK-47s,  machine guns.”

How Democracy Works

In a delightful piece of writing from Ireland in response to Bill O’Reilly’s threat to move there if Bernie Sanders were to be elected president, we read that:

The ultra-conservative uh… you could say “news”… channel has hosted O’Reilly’s programme for several years and turned Bill O’Reilly into a household name in the States. He’s now become a byword for blow-hard, over-the-top Republican commentators that basically shout until they get their way. Like children. . ..
Anyway, during a recent segment in his programme about Democrat hopeful Bernie Sanders’ healthcare plan, Bill O’Reilly made a statement that sent fear into the hearts of Irish men and women. “If Bernie Sanders gets elected president, I’m fleeing, I’m going to Ireland. And they already know it.”
Of course, he’s going to love it here. What with our ridiculously strict gun control, marriage equality, the Medical Card system and social healthcare, O’Reilly’s going to have great craic in Ireland.

I had wondered if Ireland would welcome the Mouth That Roars with open arms when I first read of O’Reilly’s threat (promise?). This piece answers my question. But it raises another.

The heart and soul of a democracy, which Bill O’Reilly apparently cannot fathom, rests on the subordination one’s will to the will of the majority. Much like drawing straws, if I am willing to play the game I must abide by the results. I cannot vote, let us say, in a presidential election and then refuse to abide by the decision of the electorate if the election goes the “wrong” way. But so many people echo O’Reilly’s words almost daily. I admit I find myself saying such things: if the Trumpet wins I am moving to Canada. I really can’t do that. Not if I am willing to play the game to begin with. The (ethical) rules require that we abide by the decision of the group otherwise we shouldn’t participate. That’s the strength, and weakness, of a democratic process.

It astounds me how ignorant our leaders are of our democratic system and the constitution. I have spoken many times about the misreading of the Second Amendment,and I have posted in the past about the ignorance of at least one Congressman of the notion of the Common Good, which runs throughout the Constitution. Indeed, one does wonder how these men and women can pledge themselves to serve the United States Constitution if they never read it! They are supposed to be the best of the rest of us when they clearly are not. I do wonder, moreover, how many of them cannot distinguish between freedom and free enterprise and between democracy and capitalism.

In any event, one does wish that those who shout the loudest would take a moment to reflect on the nature of the political process they insist they defend. A Democracy cannot be run by a small percentage of the wealthiest citizens any more than a Monarchy can be run by the population at large. And, as the Founders knew so well, the democratic process demands a literate and well-informed electorate and open discussion of any and all political issues. It cannot descend to the level of special interests and shouting matches. If one simply reads the words of those, like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who worried in the late eighteenth century about the future of this democracy, one would realize that we have become precisely what they feared we would. The fundamental condition they knew was essential, the education of those who elect the chosen few, has never been realized.

Bill O’Reilly, and his friend the Trumpet, is nothing less than a symptom of what has gone wrong.



Hard To Fathom

In the face of the encouraging fact that for the most part Americans are generous in their willingness to help those in need, there is something deeply disturbing about the juxtaposition of the following stories:

On the one hand, there is news of the St. Louis Rams moving to Los Angles where they will play in a stadium complex — referred to as an NFL Campus — that will cost an estimated $1.86 billion. Specifically,

The owner of the St. Louis Rams plans to build an NFL stadium in Inglewood, which could pave the way for the league’s return to Los Angeles.

Rams owner Stan Kroenke, who bought 60 acres adjacent to the Forum a year ago, has joined forces with the owners of the 238-acre Hollywood Park site, Stockbridge Capital Group. They plan to add an 80,000-seat NFL stadium and 6,000-seat performance venue to the already-massive development of retail, office, hotel and residential space, Stockbridge and the Kroenke Group told The Times.

The owner of the Rams who is building the new “Campus” has expressed his willingness to pay the NFL, out-of-pocket, the required $550 million it will cost to move his team. Needless to say, the NFL owners voted unanimously to move the team. On the other hand, there is this harsh reality:

For the past four years, Syria has been in a civil war that has forced 11 million people— half the country’s pre-crisis population—to flee their homes. About 7.6 million Syrians have been internally displaced within the country and 4 million have fled Syria for other countries. The result is one of the largest forced migrations since World War Two.

The refugee crisis began in 2011, when thousands of Syrian citizens fled across the border to neighboring Turkey and Lebanon. By early July 2011, 15,000 Syrian citizens had taken shelter in tent cities, set up in the Yayladağı, Reyhanlı and Altınözü districts of Hatay Province, near Turkey’s border with Syria. By the end of that month, 5,000 of the refugees had returned to Syria. However, by late June 2011, the number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon had reached around 10,000 people. By mid-July 2011, the first Syrian refugees found sanctuary in Jordan, with their numbers reaching 1,500 by December. On 21 September the European Union approved a plan committing itself to taking in 120,000 refugees. The newly elected Liberal Government announced that it would bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by the end of 2015 and struck a cabinet sub-committee chaired by the Minister of Health, Jane Philpott, to fast track their resettlement.

Over the protests of the fear-mongers among us, the United States has also shown a willingness to allow a few thousand refugees to emigrate to this country as well. And as I say, we must read these clips while keeping in mind the fact that Americans are as a rule most generous in donating to causes. It is one of the more pleasing things to note about American character. But there are those very wealthy Americans who seem determined to squander their millions on unworthy causes. In their focus on the here and now of gigantic profits they are content to stand by and watch the impoverished and homeless increase in numbers in their own country, while (one suspects) totally oblivious to the needs of starving people in other countries around the world.

There is something bizarre about the fact that there are those among us who could do so much good with their multi-millions and who choose instead to spend all their time and energy finding ways to increase those millions. There is such a gulf between doing well and doing good.

Good Behavior

I taught ethics for many years. It was my area of primary study in graduate school; I wrote and defended a dissertation on the subject and later published a book trying to convince readers that one could think critically about ethical issues — one doesn’t simply have to go by hunches and gut feelings. But the thing I always found most difficult when teaching and thinking about ethical issues was how to close the gap between the determination of what is right and wrong and actually doing what one has decided is right.

For example, let’s say I live in a border state in the American Southwest. My government has decided to build a wall to keep the Mexicans out of this country and I am aware that the local police randomly arrest Mexicans off the streets, whether they are here legally or not, and keep them locked up for days at a time. I fear for the lives of my family because I am aware that many of these people who are here from Mexico are poor and unable to find work; as a result I worry that they are likely to steal from me and possibly harm my family. It matters not whether these people actually pose a threat to my family: what is important here is the perception that this may be so, because that is my primary motivation. In any event, I know that from an ethical perspective determination to keep “foreigners” out is wrong, as are the racial profiling and the false arrests. But I support the efforts of my government and the actions of the police because it seems to be a way to keep my family safe.

Note the conflict here between the ethical considerations of the rights of the Mexicans to share our way of life if they so choose — certainly as much right as we had, if not more, to take this country away from the native people. Human rights are based on the capacity to make moral choices, according to Immanuel Kant. And the Mexicans have that capacity as surely as I do. So, on the one hand, I must recognize their rights while, on the other hand, I experience fear and suspicion of those who are different from me and I support steps I know are wrong in order to keep my family safe. Here’s the gap between what I know is right and my ability to act on that knowledge. In the best of all possible worlds, where everyone does the right thing, I would welcome the Mexicans to my town and make an effort to ease their transition to a new way of life. But this is not the best of all possible worlds. This is the real world where people base their actions on perceived danger, real or not, and act out of ignorance or on impulse rather than on sound reasoning.

In my book I distinguish between justification, explanation, and rationalization in ethics. The first is the ability to find sound ethical reasons to support a claim. I know, for example, that the right thing to do in my example is to treat all humans, including “foreigners,” with respect. An explanation simply accounts for my determination to act as I do. I can explain my reluctance to welcome those who differ from me even though I cannot justify my actions: I fear for my family’s safety. And finally, I find it easy to rationalize my actions: it’s what everyone else is doing so why shouldn’t I? The latter is an attempt to find bogus reasons for  what we are inclined to do anyway. One would like to find sufficient justification for doing the right thing. But, as Dostoevsky noted in several of his novels, the problem is frequently not one of justification, explanation, or rationalization but of reconciliation —  to the fact that at times we must do the thing we know is wrong.

In the end the gap is still there. I may know what is right, but I am unable to do it even though I can rationalize and even explain it. I cannot justify my actions from an ethical perspective. I know I am not doing the right thing. Knowing what is right and doing what is right are two entirely different things. How to close the gap between thought and the real world which as Machiavelli tells us is full of humans who are “ungrateful, fickle, liars, deceitful, fearful of danger, and greedy of gain.” In the end  I have come to realize that this is not a philosophical problem; it is a psychological problem. Why do we find it so difficult to do the right thing?