Not Me!

The coronavirus has much of the world holding its breath –as it were. And while we read about more case in Italy than in China (where the virus seems to have weakened somewhat) many people in the United States fail to take the warnings seriously. For me, the main reason to take the warnings seriously and keep “social distance” is the fact that there is so much we do NOT know about this virus. It appears to be relatively mild in many cases while in others it is fatal. It doesn’t only attack the aged and infirm — though that is the main target — but is now attacking the young, especially in this country.

Despite our ignorance and the rapid spread of the virus the young in this country appear to be ignoring warnings and have decided to carry on as usual. I recently saw an ATV packed with six high schoolers (out of school because of the virus) bopping around our town of 1200 refusing to allow that the virus could possibly affect them. It reminded me of the photo in the paper of several youngsters in a convertible driving around after the leak in the nuclear plant at Three Mile Island. In any event, at present the Florida beaches are crowded with Spring-Breakers perhaps because Florida has been reluctant to take the warnings seriously and close down public venues. And the Mardi Gras in New Orleans has seen a tremendous upsurge of cases of the virus which is being called a “disaster.”  Heaven forbid that these events should be cancelled. After all, there is a great deal of money at stake and that’s what it’s all about!

So in this regard a recent story on Yahoo News was of more than passing interest. It said, in part:

At least five students from the University of Tampa have tested positive for coronavirus after traveling with other students from the school for spring break, the university announced on Twitter. This comes after crowds of spring-breakers in Florida were criticized for ignoring social distancing guidelines and packing beaches in complete disregard of the potential risk.

University of Tampa announced on Friday that it learned that one student, who resides off-campus, tested positive for the virus. Just a day later, the school confirmed that five students, who were part of a larger group traveling together during spring break, had tested positive.

In a word, eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die. Or, rather, don’t you dare to tell me what I can and cannot do! Whatever the reasons given, this sort of mental blindness is a serious problem. Those young people, who are, presumably, among the better-educated in this country, will doubtless carry the virus back to their homes and spread it among those who would otherwise be safe from it. But they don’t seem to care — and this is the heart of the matter.

The steps that have been taken (lacking as they do any real sense of urgency from our feckless leader who holds science in very low esteem) are small and probably not terribly effective. But they are steps and they ask us to keep a safe distance from others and not to travel unless absolutely necessary. Above all else, they ask us to show some concern for others. If we get the virus it may be a fairly weak form and not in the least debilitating. But at the same time we may transmit the disease to someone with a weak immune system who could quite possibly die from it. That seems not to worry the young on Spring Break who are working on their carcinomas and melanomas and increasing their capacity to drink beer.

It is a sad commentary on us as a people that there are more young people — seemingly healthy people — carrying the virus in this country than in any other country in the world. For the most part the virus ignores the young and healthy, but not so in this country. At least, this is what we are reading from the World Health Organization. I put it down to the widespread use of antibiotics in the very young which weakens the immune system, unhealthy food, and a self-absorption that borders on delusion.

I have argued in a previous post that we should be the ones making the decisions about what we do with our own lives. Others should butt-out. But in this case it is evident that there are a great many people in this country at least who have decided to ignore the relatively weak guidelines and go on with things as usual. This is simply stupid. As I say, there is much we do not know about this virus. It could mutate and become as serious as the Spanish Flu. We just don’t know. There’s a point at which folks must be forced to do what is good for them and for others.

Safety in this case is a necessary, though not a sufficient, condition of good health. Anyone with half a mind should realize this and act with caution. The rest need to be told, sad to say.

Good People Doing Good Things — In Times Of Trouble

Need we remind ourselves that there are good people out there doing good things to make life easier for others?

Filosofa's Word

Wow … I have been writing a lot lately about the dark side of human behaviour in this time of pandemic crisis, but tonight when I pulled up my first resource in search of good people, I realized there is a whole ‘nother side!  Many, many people are doing things to help one another these days.  Some famous people, such as the heads of companies like Lowes and Carnival, and entertainers like Rihanna have done some wonderful things to help others, but for this post I am going only with the everyday people who have stepped up to the plate to help their fellow humans.  I find that I can relate more to the ones who don’t have anything more than you and I, who aren’t billionaires or millionaires, but just people with good hearts.  Now, grab your box of tissues and read on …


Helping seniors ‘stay in touch’…

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I And The Boys

I noted that recently several people visited a post I wrote in 2014 and I went back and read it myself. It’s not too bad and I thought it also relevant to today’s world — though focused on a book written by John Steinbeck many years ago.

John Steinbeck apparently believed that there is some good in all of us — no matter how degenerate we appear. He was fond of writing about the scraps and bits of cast-off humanity that others ignored. In Cannery Row, for example, he writes about a small community of people who are likely to be unnoticed and dismissed as beneath contempt, if not avoided at all costs. The main group of five men, led by Mack, are “bums” in the eyes of most of us. They don’t work unless absolutely necessary — and then only as long as they must. They live with their dog they love too much to train or restrict in any way in a deserted warehouse, called the “Palace Flophouse,” owned by a Chinese man who has decided he is better off letting them live there rent-free than to turn them away and possibly suffer unseen consequences. The only “respectable” character, and the central character in the novella is “Doc,” an educated marine biologist who collects specimens along the California coast, prepares them for dissection and study in America’s colleges and universities, and lives a quiet and sober life among his jars, his books, and his beloved records (remember them??)

Midway through the novella a bizarre incident occurs in which Mack and his boys drunkenly trash Doc’s laboratory and home in their well-meaning desire to throw him a party because he has been good to them; Doc is indeed beloved by all in Cannery Row because he is gentle, caring, and only too willing to put himself out for others. Mack and the boys (“I and the boys,” as he says) feel awful about what their excess of enthusiasm has brought to Doc’s doors — it takes Doc, who arrives after the party is over, a day to clean up the mess they have left behind. Accordingly there is a rift between Doc and Mack’s crew, but it is one they are determined to mend — by throwing him another party (at the suggestion of the madam of the local whore house)! In the meantime, as they go about planning the party in secret, Doc is having a beer with one of his friends and reflecting on Mack and his boys “the Virtues, the Beatitudes, the Beauties,” as Steinbeck calls them; Doc comes up with the following speech which strikes me as worldly-wise:

“Doc said, ‘Look at them. There are your true philosophers. I think,’ he went on, ‘that Mack and the boys know everything that has ever happened in the world and possibly everything that will ever happen. I think they survive in this particular world better than other people. In a time when people tear themselves to pieces with ambition and nervousness and covetousness, they are relaxed. All our so-called successful men are sick men, with bad stomachs, and bad souls. But Mack and the boys are healthy and curiously clean. They can do what they want. They can satisfy their appetites without calling them something else.’ This speech so dried out Doc’s throat that he drained his beer glass. . . .

“‘It has always seemed strange to me,’ said Doc. ‘The things we admire in men, kindness, and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism, and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.’”

And they elect the latter to high public office. Can I hear an “AMEN”!!??

Revisiting Heroes

A few years ago I wrote a couple of blogs about heroes and the fact that we are a bit confused in this country as to just what a hero is. At the time I was especially hard on the young people in camouflage who prance about — especially at athletic contests — and who are all referred to as “heroes” by the media. And we buy into it.

At that time I knew of a couple of young men who joined the National Guard for the bribe money the government provides in order to convince them that they can “be all they can be” only in the Army or the National Guard. I knew that one of them only wanted the up-front money to buy himself a truck and he never left the country or risked his life in any way. I tended to dwell on young people like him and to ignore the many who really do make sacrifices. I should know better than to generalize from a few samples.

So, since then I have come to realize that young men and women like him are heroic in that they are willing to do something they don’t particularly like to do for something larger than themselves. Yes, there was the truck, but after that there were days and weeks of sacrifice. I was wrong. Those who are willing to give of themselves for others are the real heroes. And this doesn’t even scratch the surface when we think of those same young men and women who serve in the Armed Forces around the world and, many of them, risk their lives for the rest of us. They are, indeed, heroes.

Why do I say this? I say this because our culture has become increasingly self-absorbed and those who commit themselves to something other than themselves are the true heroes. It takes courage, determination, and a willingness to be different — all heroic traits, I would say.

Thus, to continue, there are also the quiet ones whose lives are heroic as well. I am thinking of a former student who now teaches and who loves his job and the students he works with. Like so many others who teach he works hard for little pay in order to help others realize their true potential. These folks are legion and they, too, give of themselves so others can benefit. And let’s not forget the health-care workers who risk their own health to take care of others — and the emergency responders such as EMT teams and the fire department.

And we must not forget those folks that Jill reminds of us each week who are very special because they do extraordinary things to better their world and help other people who are in need. We are surrounded by these people who go about their quiet lives without making a stir but also making the world a much better place — at a time when there are many out in front who are calling attention to themselves and reminding us that there are also buffoons as well as remarkable people.

The media, which tend to ignore the meaning of words, have mislead us into thinking that folks like the athletes who make millions of dollars are the true heroes and the kids lap it up and want to be like them. But those who should provide the role models are ignored because they are quiet and refuse to call attention to themselves. They just go about their business helping others.

 

Paternalism II

I was recently accused of sounding like Donald Trump in suggesting that the tendency on the part of the “powers that be” to tell us what is good for us is “paternalistic.” I argued that those who cherish their freedom should be outraged that the state, or any other agency, should tell us what is the best course of action. In saying this I noted that the freedom that is so highly prized carries with it the responsibility to act with respect toward other people. Indeed, my point was that in taking this giant step toward paternalism in the case of the caronaviorus we are being told we are too stupid to decide what steps we should take for ourselves.

My position is closer to that of John Stuart Mill in his essay “On Liberty” than it is to Donald Trump — if anyone is in a position to say exactly what it is that the man is saying. I confess I don’t understand much of what he says. But from what I do understand the two men seem to be at polar opposites on any intellectual scale with which I am familiar. Mill’s “very simple principle” says, in effect, that there are no moral grounds for stopping a person from doing something unless it is clear that his or her actions will harm another person. And let’s be clear about this: we are talking about intentional harm — as when a woman is abused or a thief holds up another at gun point. Mill is not talking about “incidental” harm, that is, harm the person cannot possibly be said to know he or she is inflicting on another — as in the case of attending a sporting event while one (unknowingly) carries the virus.

Now it might be said that by telling people not to attend sporting events the state is prohibiting us from infecting others with the virus, thereby harming them. But this assumes that we have the virus and that those who do have it, or might have it, are unable to make the decision to stay at home and seek medical attention. Or, as noted above, it ignores the case of the innocent carrier who infects others without knowing it: in that case the responsible thing to do is to make sure one is not a carrier before attending a packed event. The claim that we need to be told when to attend or not to attend a sporting event rests on the assumption that we are all a bunch of lemmings who blindly follow the latest leader who wants us to attend next Friday’s NBA Basketball game between the Wolves and the Clippers. We don’t have enough sense to stay at home and watch it on television. We are too stupid to know that helmets do protect those who ride a motorcycle, seat belts do protect those in car crashes, and infant car seats do protect the very young. Thus laws are written and enforced.

But, and here’s the heart and soul of the comment that accused me of Trumpism (the worst thing anyone can say about another person): We ARE too stupid. I can’t disagree. My argument, like Mill’s, assumes that reasonable people will make reasonable decisions and act rationally. And this assumption cannot hold up to empirical evidence. Folks really are too stupid to do the sensible thing. We must be told.

But what this means is that the libertarian dream and the argument against paternalism is based on a “best of all possible worlds” scenario. In that world people would do the smart thing. In this world, sad to sad (and increasingly) we do not. Thus steps taken to protect us all from the coronavirus are justified — and those who scream about their freedoms have no idea what they are screaming about. They certainly do not want to accept the responsibility that goes along hand in hand with freedom. You cannot have one without the other.

Paternalism

The coronavirus has the world in a dither — like a Christian Scientist with appendicitis (as Tom Lehrer might say). Despite the fact that a very low percentage of those who contract the virus actually die, steps are being taken that must give us pause.

Italy has banned all spectators from all sporting events during the month of March. There’s even talk about cancelling all sporting events. Around the world, and increasingly in this country as well, events are being cancelled right and left. Additionally, we read that the ASEAN Conference, Google News Initiative, Geneva International Auto Show, various concerts in Asia and elsewhere, and the Mobile World Congress, among many others, have been cancelled despite the fact that many of these events bring a great deal of money to the region and are immensely popular. Some companies in the United States are prohibiting their employees from air travel — even for personal vacations!

And so it goes. Big Brother is taking care of us. The assumption appears to be that we are not able to decide for ourselves whether we can take a chance to be with other people in the face of a growing pandemic. But isn’t that our decision? On what grounds can we defend the determination by various agencies to keep us indoors and away from others who might pass the virus along?

Most of the expert opinion I have read suggests that if we take precautions we can avoid contracting the virus. But apparently we are not trusted to take those steps so we are being told how to behave. This is what is called “paternalism.” Daddy is taking care of us because we are too stupid to take care of ourselves.

There are other instances of paternalism, of course, such as laws enforcing the use of infant car carriers and, my personal favorite, the law requiring helmets for motorcycle riders. Laws are generally made to protect us from others who might harm us, but in the case of helmet laws one hears the claim that when a person is thrown from a motorcycle he or she may incur health costs that will eventually be passed along to us all — as will the increased insurance rates. But this argument is weak and we simply look the other way as someone with Big Hands puts our child in a car seat or a helmet on us before we take off on our motorcycle.

What’s the problem here? It is, among other things, an attempt on the part of those in power to tell others how they must behave: it is a diminishing of our freedom. And while we love to kick and scream about our freedom, we seem perfectly content to have various agencies tell us what is good for us. I do wonder if it comes down the the fact that we really would prefer not to take the responsibility that freedom involves.

There seem to be a great many forces in this culture that deprive each of us of our autonomy. Many of the laws we obey are not only well-meaning but also necessary. There are the things we do that might harm others and which ought therefore to be prohibited. But when our behavior affects no one but ourselves — such as wearing a helmet when riding a motorcycle or attending a sporting event — those restrictions seem to me to be well-meaning but unacceptable. We must presume not that folks are too stupid to take care of themselves; we must presume that folks can take care of themselves. And if they can’t so much the worse for them.

Paternalism is one of the many hidden forces that operate upon each of us and are based on the faulty premise that we cannot take care of ourselves. We should be much more upset about those restrictions than we are. And this is not an angry young radical speaking. This is an aged somewhat moderate but occasionally outraged retired person who is simply astounded by what is going on around him.

I do not mean to belittle the seriousness of the coronavirus. It is something we need to take seriously. But it is also something that we really ought to be able to handle with expert advice and not by needless restrictions on our behavior based on the assumption that we are even more stupid than we are in fact.

Moral Sense

One of the many schools of philosophy I had to study on my way to the PhD in philosophy was the “Moral Sense” school of philosophy in Scotland. Preeminent in the eighteenth century, it was headed by Francis Hutcheson and included such luminaries as David Hume and Adam Smith. And, by the way, many people who read Adam Smith and regard him as the father of free enterprise capitalism forget (or never knew) that his roots were in the Moral Sense school that taught the rudimentary truth that all humans are born with an inherent moral sense that tunes them in to their fellow humans. This moral sense was supposed to restrain human greed that was otherwise let loose in a capitalist system. When, for example, we see another person do something courageous or generous we naturally approve, even feel pleasure. And we do not accumulate wealth in the face of the fact that a great many of our fellow humans are starving and have no place to call home. This sense often takes the form of a lively conscience, but in any event it leads us toward virtuous actions (since we want to imitate those virtuous acts we see around us) and away from vice.

I only found out recently in reading Gary Wills’ excellent book on Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence that Thomas Jefferson was also a member of the moral sense school of philosophy. Jefferson was taught by a student of Hutcheson by the name of William Small who worked with Jefferson at William and Mary College for four years and later became a close friend and frequent correspondent. In fact, there were many scholars and teachers on the faculties of several American colleges (especially Princeton) who had ties to Scotland and the moral sense school of thought. James Madison, who went to Princeton, was also greatly influenced by that school of thought which was dominant while he was there.

When Jefferson states  in the Declaration that “All men are created equal” he is drawing on the moral sense school. This is because men (and women) are equal in having a moral sense even though they might be unequal in strength or intelligence. Jefferson even included slaves and Native Americans in his pronouncement.

This lends the lie — so often heard — that Jefferson was a hypocrite in talking about the equality of all humans while refusing to free his slaves. But, despite the fact that he knew it was morally indefensible, he spent a great many hours defending the maintenance of slaves on economic grounds; so many of the plantation owners were land rich and cash poor. Freeing the slaves, Jefferson thought, would ruin him financially and would also leave the slaves with nowhere to go and no hope for survival. Moreover, Virginia had a law that required that freed slaves must be provided with a means of making a living. In any event, he worked hard to oppose the continued importation slaves to this continent. This may sound like a rationalization, but Jefferson was deeply convinced that even in their lowly state as property of others his slaves, like all slaves in the South and elsewhere, were equal to him and his well-educated fiends. He was not enlightened enough, sad to say, to admit that they were also just as intelligent as his well-educated friends, but this can be explained (though not justified) by the fact that the slaves were generally not in a position to shine intellectually. It also ignores the obvious fact that many of his white friends, like mine, are not all that bright.

In any event, the original Declaration of Independence is full of claims about the brotherhood of all people (including his English “brethren” who failed to put pressure on the Parliament in order to prevent the Revolution); he saw these claims as simply a way of drawing attention to the fact that those in the Colonies were equal to their British cousins. But much of what Jefferson wrote in this regard was struck out by the Congress who weakened the document and made it seem as though the author was a thorough Lockean individualist — Locke having taught that we all begin as individuals in a state of nature and, driven by self-interest, agree to live in common under civil law in order to protect our property. Jefferson was convinced that humans need to be together in order to become fully human. Jefferson was therefore not a Lockean and while many (including myself) have insisted he was there are solid grounds for insisting that the moral sense school had a profound influence on Jefferson and John Locke very little — though Jefferson had high regard for Locke’s scientific principles.

In the end, Jefferson really did think that all men are equal and he spent much of his time defending that view and trying to act on his beliefs. He’s received some bad press lately from the PC police, but much of that is misguided.

O.K. Bouwsma

It’s time for an anecdote to help us forget serious business (and the coronavirus) for a few minutes! This one is about a well-known American philosopher. And with a name like that you know he must have been unusual.

I didn’t know him personally, but he was a godfather to the daughter of my first chairman at the University of Rhode Island. They had met and become close friends while both are teaching at Calvin College. My chairman used to tell me stories about O.K. Bouwsma that I thought were delightful. Apparently he was quite the character — brilliant but very funny as well.

Bouwsma was an acknowledged expert on the thought of René Descartes. He didn’t write much, but what he wrote was after months and months of deep thought and careful study. His books were mainly collections of his excellent essays — many of them on Descartes. Very tight and always insightful.

He was asked to deliver a paper at the annual meeting of the American Philosophical Association (now THERE’S a dry meeting if ever there was one!). He delivered his paper and, as was usual, listened carefully to the rejoinder read by a brash, young man who had a very high opinion of himself. After his critique Bouwsma asked the young man where he found the evidence for one of the major points and he responded: “In the Third Meditation” — (of six Meditations). Bouwsma smiled and nodded and then said: “Oh, I see. I haven’t gotten that far.” Needless to say  the young man was silenced!

The only time I ever had anything like genuine contact with the man was when we were searching for a new person to add to our philosophy department at the university where I was teaching at the time. We poured through applications for the position — and there were a great many as young folks coming out of graduate school were desperate to find work. In fact we eventually decided upon a man who was working at a men’s clothing store in Philadelphia! A man with a PhD from a major university who turned out to be an excellent teacher and a good friend. And there he was measuring men’s inseams.

In any event, we had to read more letters of recommendation than you can imagine when I came across a letter supporting a candidate from The University of Texas at Austin — a very good school with a strong philosophy department. As it happened, O.K. Bouwsma was teaching there and he wrote the young man a letter supporting his candidacy. It consisted of three brief paragraphs, tight and not overly wordy. It was a strong recommendation as it happened and it finished with a brief statement: “What else can I say? He also has very nice hair.” I thought it wonderful, but we passed on that candidate for other reasons.

In any event, Bouwsma is one of those characters who flits into and out of our lives — in reality or in our imagination. And I enjoy thinking about him from time to time. I hope you enjoyed this brief retreat from reality as well.