Not My Problem!

I wrote this more than six years ago, but my readership today, while still small, is quite different, and the point seems to me to be worth repeating. 

Some have said that it is the tendency of conservatives to embrace only those causes that affect them directly, to smile and pretend that everything is hunky-dory until events are so rude as to slap them in the face. As it happens, this is not necessarily a conservative tendency: we all share it. But the case in point is that of Ohio Senator Rob Portman who has recently come out in defense of gay marriage — after discovering that his son is gay. Matthew Yglesias notes that Sarah Palin also embraced the cause of disabled children because she happens to have one. In sports Ernie Els the golfer promotes aid for autism because he has an autistic son and Phil Mickelson began to raise money for cancer research after his wife came down with the dreaded disease. Congress and the wealthy who support this Congress ignore the plight of the poor because as Yglesias says “Congress does not have poor children.” In a word: when it is about us we take notice. Otherwise, it’s not MY problem!

In this regard, I read on Yahoo News about the terrible drought affecting Somalia where we are told that:

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Global warming may have contributed to low rain levels in Somalia in 2011 where tens of thousands died in a famine, research by British climate scientists suggests.

Scientists with Britain’s weather service studied weather patterns in East Africa in 2010 and 2011 and found that yearly precipitation known as the short rains failed in late 2010 because of the natural effects of the weather pattern La Nina.

But the lack of the long rains in early 2011 was an effect of “the systematic warming due to influence on greenhouse gas concentrations,” said Peter Scott of Britain’s Met Office, speaking to The Associated Press in a phone interview.

People are dying in that part of the world, but it isn’t us and therefore we really don’t care. And those deaths can almost certainly be connected to global warming. So many people in our part of the world, including the president and many of those in Congress,  go about their business denying the obvious and embracing fossil fuels as the solution to all of our energy problems and will continue to do so until the drought that is also affecting large portions of this country starts to drive the food prices upwards and makes some foods unaffordable or even unavailable to us. When it is about us we will start to pay attention.

We thus have a complex moral issue here. To begin with there is the convenient attitude that ignores the plight of those in need until someone close to us suddenly becomes one of those in need. Closely related is the moral failure to make ourselves aware of human suffering that requires our attention. Jean Paul Sartre insisted that we are defined by our freedom and since freedom implies responsibility that implies a moral responsibility for everything that happens anywhere on the planet. If we are not aware of a problem, we have a responsibility to find out. While this may seem a bit extreme, he makes an interesting point. And many of these problems are so severe we must make an effort to continue to ignore them, though our electronic devices are a big help in keeping our attention elsewhere (how many “likes” do I have??). Some of the problems we ignore are right next door. Or in the air and water around us.

We are clearly caught up in love of self and the determination to deal only with those problems that affect us directly, forgetting that we are part of a human community and as such have obligations to all who suffer, obligations which require — at the very least — that we not ignore the plight of others.  The moral imperative that seems to weaken as time rolls on is the one that directs us to take action to prevent evil whenever and wherever we see it and also demands that we take notice even when it doesn’t happen to affect us directly. Awareness of a problem coupled with the ability to address it, if not remedy it, implies a responsibility to act. It all begins by opening our eyes to what is going on around us.  Our active concern shouldn’t have to wait until the problem is in our back yard.

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On Being Successful

In a recent professional football game involving the Pittsburg Steelers, one of Pittsburg’s defensive backs suffered a spinal injury because of a head-on tackle in which he exhibited poor technique. He lay moaning on the ground for minutes until he was carted away and sent to the hospital. As of this writing he has had back surgery and is still being observed by the medical experts to see if there is any permanent damage. If there is, it certainly wouldn’t be the first such case. And it will almost certainly not be the last.

This set the networks abuzz with talk about how brutal a game is football — at all levels — and had many a talking head on television wondering what more could be done to prevent further injuries. The NFL is already concerned about concussions, which have had serious consequences for many retired football players; equipment has been improved and there is a great deal more caution after a possible head-on collision than there once was.

In any event, one of the Steelers was interviewed on ESPN and defended his sport despite its violence — trying to calm the waters and assure people that the game is not “brutal” and it would go on. I will not mention his name (because I can’t remember it!) but it matters not. His somewhat disjointed comments defended the sport which he loves because it has enhanced his “family legacy,” i.e., it has made him an immensely wealthy man. There was more to his comments than this, but this was the gist of what he said. And it raises a number of questions.

To begin with, it is a non-sequitur because the violence of the game cannot be dismissed because it makes a number of men very wealthy. In addition, of course, the comments were all about the player himself with little mention of his teammate who lay in a hospital bed trying to recover from a very painful injury. But, more to the point, we heard once again the All-American mantra that identifies success with wealth (his “family legacy”). To be a successful person in this country one must be  tremendously wealthy. Those who dedicate themselves to the well-being of others and make sacrifices every day to make sure that others are healthy and happy, or perhaps simply better informed, are not regarded as successful — unless they can brag about their bank accounts and show you their expensive cars and their overpriced, palatial homes. This is absurd.

In his lectures on sincerity and authenticity, Lionel Trilling points out that the West has struggled for many years with the concept of authenticity, the notion that human beings are truly human when they have achieved not wealth but authenticity: when they are who they truly are. Trilling  focuses on Jean Paul Sartre who spent many pages in his Being and Nothingness talking about “Bad Faith,” the tendency of people — all people — to play roles, to pretend to be someone they are not.  To an extent, Sartre would insist, society demands that we do so. But this does not alter the fact that we wear masks.

Trilling points out that true authenticity has to do with being, not about having. He quotes Oscar Wilde who insisted that “The true perfection of man lies not in what man has but in what man is.” We are truly human when we achieve autonomy, when we are self-directed, not when we become wealthy. In fact, money has nothing whatever to do with it. He notes that this popular misconception, this false identification of wealth with success, stems from the confusion of having with being: it is a type of inauthenticity. We are not what we have; we are what we are within ourselves and in relation to others.

It is not likely that our notion of success, insisting that success is identified with what we have, will change. But it is quite likely that the storm over the violence in America’s most popular sport will quiet down and there will be more injuries in the future. Is it just possible that this is a good thing because it allows Americans to get vicarious pleasure from a violent sport that releases some of the pent-up frustration resulting from lives spent pursuing wealth which they identify with success — though they sense dimly that there is something terribly wrong somewhere?

Perennial Question

One of the most perplexing questions to have worried thinkers for centuries is the question whether humans are truly free. Or are we determined? One of the people to have given the issue a good deal of thought was, of all people, Leo Tolstoy. In War and Peace, he takes time to ponder the question of freedom, suggesting that it is an illusion: everything that happens is pre-determined:

“Man lives consciously for himself, but serves as an unconscious instrument for the achievement of historical, universally human goals. An action once committed is irrevocable, and its effect, coinciding in time with millions of actions of other people, acquires historical significance. The higher a man stands on the social ladder, the greater the number of people he is connected with, the more power he has over other people, the more obvious is the predestination and inevitability of his every action. . . .

“When an apple ripens and falls — what makes it fall? Is it attracted to the ground, is it that the stem weakens, is it that the sun has dried it up, that it has grown heavier, that the wind shakes it, that the boy standing underneath wants to eat it? . . . No one thing is the cause. All this is only the coincidence of conditions under which every organic, elemental event of life is accomplished.

“[The major figures involved in Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Moscow in 1812] feared, rejoiced. boasted, resented, reasoned, supposing that they knew what they were doing and that they were doing it for themselves, and yet they were all involuntary instruments of history, and performed work hidden from them but comprehensible to us. . . .”

 

In this passage, Tolstoy provides us with what appears to be a quasi-scientific account of the deterministic hypothesis. Any action a person commits is inevitable, it is the consequence of thousands and millions of previous actions of which he is simply unaware. The person thinks he is free, but he is not. Later in the novel he will tie this view to the theistic view, which makes the case even stronger. He says, for example,

“To the question of what constitutes the cause of historical events. . .[the answer is] that the course of world events is predestined from on high, depends on the coincidence of all the wills of the people participating in those events, and that Napoleon’s influence [for example] on the course of those events is only external and fictitious.”

After all, if God is omnipotent and omniscient, which is axiomatic in Judeo-Christain theology, then human freedom is clearly an illusion: God not only knows what we do, He brought it about when he created Adam. From God’s perspective, everything that happens is predictable. Leibniz embraced this view, calling it “pre-established harmony.” He insisted that we simply act as though we are free whereas, in fact, everything we do or will do has been determined from the beginning. Calvin also embraced this view, insisting that it is the only possible view of human actions compatible with a Christian God.

Couple these arguments with what we now know about DNA and the effects of the environment on human behavior and it is virtually impossible to escape the deterministic view. In fact, even though they would hesitate to bring God into the discussion, many a social scientist today embraces a deterministic view of human conduct — especially when they excuse a known criminal’s behavior on the grounds of his parentage and upbringing. The problem is that in the deterministic view there is no room for human freedom. As noted, freedom becomes an illusion. At best, in the words of Boethius, freedom is a “profound mystery only a theologian can grasp.” Calvin said we must act “as if” we are free; we are not. But if we are not free, then we cannot be responsible for our acts, either — as the social scientist suggests.

This problem bothered Immanuel Kant so much that he spent his life trying to solve it. Because he wanted to insist that we are free and responsible for our actions he wrote the first of his “critiques” of human reason in which he developed antinomies showing that human freedom can be both proved and disproved by impeccable logic. Thus, freedom is, for Kant, a postulate of practical reason. In a word, we take it on faith, since we can neither prove it nor disprove it, and after positing human freedom we can proceed to develop an ethic based on freedom and human responsibility. And this is what Kant did in his later writings.

The determinist would insist that Kant’s arguments were developed long before revelations about DNA became known. Within the scientific community I doubt there is a person who would allow any wiggle-room for human freedom, convinced as they are that our DNA makes our development and future behavior totally predictable, in principle. Coupled with what we know about the effects of upbringing on the young, prediction becomes simply a function of how much we can know about every individual.

In the end, despite the strong case that can be made for determinism, there are those of us who still insist, as did Jean Paul Sartre in the 1950s, that we have a deep feeling that we are free and that no matter how much is known about us, we are capable of totally spontaneous actions. Sartre insisted that freedom is the fundamental fact about human existence and it implies complete responsibility for everything we do. The feeling of freedom somehow still hangs on despite the arguments of determinism of the scientific or the theistic variety, though we hear very little about the responsibility that goes along with it.

The Content of His Character

I have referenced Christopher Lasch’s thought-provoking book The Minimal Self which is filled with insights along with summaries of various psychological theories and a great deal of psychological jargon. It is hard to quarrel with Lasch’s conclusions as it is many of his seminal points made along the way; after wading through the technical jargon, what his thesis comes down to in the end is that young men and women in this culture no longer can be said to concern themselves what used to be called “character.” This is an old-fashioned word that was the center of Victorian ethics and ultimately came from Aristotle’s notion of areté (virtue) which has to do with the sort of person one happens to be — courageous and honest or cowardly and deceitful.

The reason Lasch thinks we no longer care about character is because we have become a “narcissistic” culture, not one that is merely selfish and hedonistic, but one comprised of individuals who are empty at the center and who take on the various persona of those presented to them by the entertainment industry or the culture at large. The world “out there” ceases to exist; it becomes a “world for me” — an extension of the ego. Values disappear: the beautiful object ceases to be beautiful in itself, it becomes pleasurable for me. The distinction between subject and object breaks down. The act of courage or honesty ceases to have any intrinsic value, it becomes simply an act of which I approve or disapprove — or ignore.

In a word, people are no longer courageous or honest at the core, they are empty at the core and take on the characteristics that those around them happen to exemplify at the moment. It is what Jean Paul Sartre once called “Bad Faith” — the inability of a person to be what he or she is, as a distinctive individual, and their relentless determination to take on roles and play at being something else. Watch the waiter, Sartre said in Being and Nothingness, and you will see that he is playing at being a waiter. He carefully balances the tray and darts between the tables and seems to relish the image he is projecting to those around him. Watch the football coach stalking the sidelines: he is playing at being a coach. Like the waiter or the coach, we lack “authenticity” and take on roles dictated by those around us: we identify with those on the screen or the playing field who are merely a projection of our own “take” on others; so in the end we are playing roles we simply adopt for the sake of getting along in a world we pretty much make up for ourselves. This is the core of narcissism. The Greek character Narcissus fell in love with his image in the water because he mistook that image for himself: the world of objects became the world of the subject. Period. Lasch thinks we do this to a greater or lesser extent and in the end abandon any genuine core of self-hood and are mere role-players in a drama we have invented for ourselves. It’s all about us: the world and the people around us are what we make of them and our concern for them extends only so far as they continue to make our lives pleasant and comfortable.

What I find most interesting and provocative about Lasch’s analysis is his notion that in this process parents and teachers have been removed from their traditional roles as mentors and guides for the young — forming character by way of their own examples, admonition, and their determination to correct and judge in accordance with an ideal of what a human being should be when correction and judgment are necessary. Parents are now perfectly willing to turn their kids over to the “helping agencies,” the social workers and psychologists (not to mention the entertainment industry) who would dictate how the children are raised. In the end the kids grow up to become adults who continue to behave like kids and who lack any real sense of “self” and an inability to make moral choices and resist the charlatans around them who would sell them pipe dreams. Long into adulthood, they remain soft clay waiting to be molded into whatever form those around them choose to make them into.

The solution to the crisis we now face, as Lasch sees it, is for parents to resume their proper parental role and take control of their kids — turn off the TV and take away the electronic toys, take them away from the “helping agencies” and return them to the homes and the blend of love and respect that ultimately comprise the very authority that the kids themselves crave and require in order to become fully human — to mold that core of self-hood that we call “character” and which Martin Luther King Jr once hoped all of us would be judged by, rather than by the color of our skins (or the social roles we happen to play). It’s worth pondering.

Miss America Conservatism

I am borrowing Mark Schmitt’s delightful and descriptive phrase from a blog I recently read by SaltyPoliticalMusings. The phrase suggests the tendency of conservatives to embrace only those causes that affect them directly, to smile and pretend that everything is hunky-dory until events are so rude as to slap them in the face. As it happens, this is not necessarily a conservative tendency: we all share it. But the case in point is that of Senator Rob Portman who has recently come out in defense of gay marriage — after discovering that his son is gay. Matthew Yglesias, in a column quoted at length by “Musings,” notes that Sarah Palin also embraced the cause of disabled children because she happens to have one. In sports Ernie Els the golfer promotes aid for autism because he has an autistic son and Phil Mickelson began to raise money for cancer research after his wife came down with the dreaded disease. In a word: when it is about us we take notice. Congress and the wealthy who support this Congress ignore the plight of the poor because as Yglesias says “Congress does not have poor children.”

In this regard, I read on Yahoo News about the terrible drought affecting Somalia where we are told that:

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Global warming may have contributed to low rain levels in Somalia in 2011 where tens of thousands died in a famine, research by British climate scientists suggests.

Scientists with Britain’s weather service studied weather patterns in East Africa in 2010 and 2011 and found that yearly precipitation known as the short rains failed in late 2010 because of the natural effects of the weather pattern La Nina.

But the lack of the long rains in early 2011 was an effect of “the systematic warming due to influence on greenhouse gas concentrations,” said Peter Scott of Britain’s Met Office, speaking to The Associated Press in a phone interview.

People are dying in that part of the world, but it isn’t us and therefore we really don’t care. And those deaths can almost certainly be connected to global warming. So many people in our part of the world, including many of those in Congress,  go about their business denying the obvious and embracing fossil fuels as the solution to all of our energy problems and will continue to do so until the drought that is also affecting large portions of this country starts to drive the food prices upwards and makes some foods unavailable to us. When it is about us we will pay attention.

We thus have a complex moral issue here. To begin with there is the convenient attitude that ignores the plight of those in need until someone close to us suddenly becomes one of those in need. Closely related is the moral failure to make ourselves aware of human suffering that requires our attention. Jean Paul Sartre insisted that we are defined by our freedom and said freedom implies a responsibility for everything that happens anywhere on the planet. If we are not aware of a problem, we have a responsibility to find out. While this may seem a bit extreme, he makes an interesting point.

We are clearly caught up in love of self and the determination to deal only with those problems that affect us directly, forgetting that we are part of a human community and as such have obligations to all who suffer, which requires — at the very least — that we not ignore the plight of others.  The moral imperative that seems to weaken as time rolls on is the one that directs us to take action to prevent evil whenever and wherever we see it and also demands that we take notice even when it doesn’t happen to affect us directly. Awareness of a problem coupled with the ability to address the problem implies a responsibility to act. It all begins by opening our eyes to what is going on around us.  Our active concern shouldn’t have to wait until the problem is in our back yard.