How Much Alike?

“The fact that man knows right from wrong proves his intellectual superiority to the other creatures; but the fact that he can do wrong proves his moral inferiority to any creature that cannot.” (Mark Twain)

Back in the early 90s of the last century Carl Sagan co-wrote a book with Ann  Druyan (Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors) that bears directly on what Mark Twain had said nearly a century before. In that book the authors stress the similarities between humans and other animal species, perhaps with the object of letting some of the air out of human puffery.

Aristotle insisted that humans are “rational animals,” thereby seeking to differentiate our species from the rest because of our abilities to reason, our use of tools and also our use of language. Subsequent studies have shown that many other animal species can not only reason, and even use tools, but also many of them do so remarkably quickly; some even use language. There have been studies of chimpanzees that have not only learned several hundred words but have shown and  ability to teach that language to their young! Jane Goodall studied the amazing Lucy, a chimpanzee brought up by humans who showed many of the signs of being human herself:

“No longer pure chimp but yet eons away form humanity, she was man-made, some other kind of being. I watched, amazed, as she opened the refrigerator and various cupboards, found bottles and a glass, then poured herself a gin and tonic. She took the drink to the TV, turned on the set, flipped from one channel to another then, as though in disgust, turned it off again. She selected a glossy magazine from the table and, still carrying her drink, settled in a comfortable chair. Occasionally, as she leafed through the magazine, she identified [in Ameslan] something she saw. . . .”

This doesn’t sound, to my ear, much different from the description of a great many humans we can observe pretty much any day, a condition that has been worsened by the addition of mind-numbing electronic toys that are putting our minds to sleep and causing even greater Lucy-like behavior. But the one thing that Sagan and Druyan missed when trying to make the case for the similarity between humans and other animal species, was the presence in humans of the capacity to act morally.

In saying this I am aware of the studies that have shown macaque monkeys, for example, that are unable to inflict pain on others of their species, refusing treats when asked to turn a dial that will increase an electronic charge connected with another monkey and causing him to scream in pain. They simply will not do this. This would appear to be evidence of a moral sense, a determination to do the right thing. And it is in sharp contrast with studies of humans put in the same, or similar, situations who are perfectly willing to turn the dial and inflict pain on other humans when asked to do so by another human in a white coat.

However, the behavior of the monkeys does not show the presence of anything more than an instinct to act, or refuse to act, in a certain way. It provides no evidence that there is a reasoning process involved. On the other hand, humans have a reasoning capacity and, as Kant insisted, also the capacity to ask the pivotal ethical question “what ought I to do?” And yet many of them will turn the dial. This would seem to prove Twain’s thesis stated at the outset of this post: we are inferior to other creatures. But does it?

What the experiment shows is that some humans are simply unable or unwilling to do the right thing — not that they could not do so under different conditions. Kant does not say that humans always do the right thing, he says we have the capacity to do the right thing. Often we do not do it. And this does help Twain make his case. Moreover, as Sagan and Druyan note at the conclusion of their careful study:

“The many sorrows of our recent history suggest that we humans have a learning disability.”

And yet we are the species who now have nuclear arsenals at our disposal, weapons numerous and powerful enough to end all life on earth. In addition, in this country any certified moron can walk into a gun shop with a credit card and ten minutes later walk away with an automatic weapon with the capacity to kill dozens of other humans in a matter of seconds. And our only solution to this situation is to insist that more morons arm themselves against the possibility that they might be the next target. This seems to be the best we have been able to come up with so far, though if this plan were to be realized it would surely mark the end of any pretense that we are a civilized society and announce to the world that we have once again returned to a state of nature where life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

I do agree with Kant that humans have the capacity to act morally and that this is what separates us from the other animals on earth. But the evidence is overwhelming that increasing numbers of us tend not to exercise that capacity and are becoming less and less inclined to do so as our species becomes more numerous, more self-absorbed and disinterested in others. However, if we fail to exercise our inborn capacity to do the right thing we have no instinct to fall back on, as do the macaque monkeys. This is a difference that makes a real difference.

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Reading Great Books

I received an email from a friend and former college classmate recently that highlighted a program initiated by several major universities, including Stanford University, that will involve young people in reading and discussing great books during the Summer. This was encouraging in an age that seems determined to dumb-down the curriculum at our schools until no pupil is left behind — a system that is certain to turn out numbskulls and leave the bright students totally bored and stupefied by their electronic toys. The notion that our kids simply cannot do tough intellectual work is utter nonsense; it sells them short and is a self-fulfilling prophesy. If we expect very little from them we will get very little in return. The fault is ours, not theirs.

I taught at several colleges in two of which I required students, including so-called “marginal students,” to read selected great books and was constantly delighted by the results. But unfortunately there are two problems with expanding such programs into our schools and colleges. To begin with, we don’t think that our kids can read challenging books, even though the books were written in the first place for anyone who could read and not just for supposed experts. As John Stuart Mill said, we won’t know what is possible for people until we ask them to do the impossible. Having young people read great books is not impossible, however, as is shown from my own experience and from numerous experiments around the country — including a remarkable program run in a women’s prison in New York a few years back in which a dozen women were encouraged to read and discuss great books; they not only took to the work like ducks to water, they all turned their lives around and several of them went to college and got their degrees after they were released from the prison. A similar program has been introduced in three prisons in Tennessee that is very promising indeed and there are other such programs sponsored by the Great Books Foundation involving prison inmates and former inmates as well. One can, after all, select works carefully with the reader in mind (hint: read Candide, skip Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason).

The second problem is that there are growing numbers of intellectual leaders in our colleges and universities who deny that “greatness” can be defined and reject the notion that any books are great. Instead they prefer the ones they themselves have read that promote whatever political agenda they happen to have up their sleeves at the moment. But, as my friend “Jots” has noted in a recent blog, “greatness” can be defined. She defines it as “ageless and recognized in a multitude of shapes, sizes, and forms.” Indeed. I would only add that greatness can be recognized by those who have been exposed to it and know whereof they speak. And whether or not you accept Jots’ definition, we have the testimony of Robert Pirsig who noted in his seminal book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, that value (and greatness) can easily be recognized when we encounter it — if we know what we are looking for. Many of those who reject the notion of greatness in books and the fine arts have never bothered to look closely at what they reject, if they looked at all. But there are books that are “ageless,” and these books can be read by anyone who is willing to make the effort. And they are great because they enliven the minds of those who read them.

One problem that stubbornly remains, however, is the fact that fewer and fewer of our young people read at all and are rapidly losing the ability to read and comprehend what they do read. Thus the reading of books, great or not, becomes an ongoing challenge. But it can be met. Take it from me. Or take it from the folks at Stanford University and other such places of higher learning who are placing the books before young, inquiring minds and expecting great things. And, I predict, they will be pleased by the results. As I said, we sell our kids short — and we should really take the toys out of their hands and replace them with books.

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.

Psychology and Literature

I have often thought (and have been known to remark in public) that there is more insight into the human psyche in a good novel than there is in many a psychology text-book. I would modify that somewhat and now remark that there is considerable psychological insight even in the short stories of consummate writers such as Anton Chekhov.

Indeed, in “A Calamity” written by this medical man only about eight years after he started publishing his short stories, Chekhov presents us with a wonderfully understated  study of a young woman who finds herself suddenly at war with herself. His heroine, Sofya Petrovna, is a happily married woman with a husband she loves and a daughter she adores. But she is pursued by a suitor, Ivan Mihailovich, who worships the ground she walk on. Despite her conscious repulsion from the fact that she finds the man’s advances flattering and even desirable, she finds herself drawn toward Ivan and unable to shake herself loose from her fascination with him and his love for her. She attempts to push him away, with little effort and no effect whatever, and begins to look at her husband and even her daughter differently. The husband she has loved now appears dull and insipid. “My God,” she thinks to herself, “I love and respect him, but. . . . why does he chew his food so disgustingly?” Later as she examines him napping after dinner, she notices “his feet, very small, almost feminine, in striped socks; there was a thread sticking up at the tip of each sock.” Even her daughter puts her off; as she picks her up she finds her “heavy and irresponsive.” Clearly, her perspective has altered and as she admonishes herself, calling herself “shameless thing,” and “vile creature,” she leaves her husband and “choking with shame” finds herself “pushed forward” by something “stronger than shame, reason, or fear” away from her husband and daughter and toward a clandestine meeting with Ivan.

There are a number of things that strike the reader about this remarkable story. For all its brevity, it is beautifully written and a subtle study of the battle that is going on inside this young woman as she struggles with her sense of propriety and respectability coupled with her mindless conviction that her respectable marriage is really all she could possibly want — and the compulsion to go to the man who loves her deeply and provides her with the excitement and deep feelings she has never previously allowed herself to feel. We have one of the early suggestions, before Freud, that there are unconscious urges that fight against reason and habit and which compel us in directions we would really rather not take.

David Hume once said that reason is the slave of the passions and Chekhov seems to be presenting us with a test case that demonstrates this profound truth. We might want to think that we can be directed by reason and what we think is the right thing to do — and we may even spend our lives trying to follow that path. But at times there are urges beneath the conscious level that draw us in directions we find repugnant. The struggle was studied in depth by Immanuel Kant who insisted that the right thing is always to follow one’s sense of duty, as dictated by reason, and fight against inclination. But as Chekhov suggests it is sometimes not quite that simple. Fight as we might, the inclinations are often stronger and do not allow reason to rule. Sometimes we do what we really (unconsciously) want to do rather than what we ought to do, despite the fact that we know it is wrong.

Long ago Socrates was convinced that if we knew what was the right thing to do, we would do it. But he had no clear notion of what we now call “will” and he doesn’t seem to have been fully aware of the battle that goes on inside us when we fight against inclinations that we might regard as “vile” and “shameless.” Aristotle faulted Socrates for his simplistic take on this issue. But I don’t think either Aristotle or Kant gave the struggle full measure. Chekhov did, and in this very short story, a mere fifteen pages long,  he makes it clear that at times we simply cannot muster the “willpower” to do the right thing, much as we might think we want to.

Lost Wisdom

Many years ago, when I was working my way through J.D. Salinger’s novels, I recall that Franny (of Franny and Zooey)  dropped out of college because she hadn’t heard anyone speak about wisdom. That impressed me at the time and I heard it later echoed in T.S. Eliot’s provocative question, “where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?” Indeed. Our schools teach information and knowledge, but they do not teach about wisdom. Where, then can it be found? One would think the philosophers would have a firm grasp of the elusive creature, because they are, presumably, “lovers of wisdom.” But aside from Socrates, and perhaps Kant and maybe Albert Camus, I can think of few philosophers whom I would regard as truly wise. In fact, the wisest person I have encountered in my intellectual journey is a woman who called herself George Eliot — because she wanted to be taken seriously by those who read her works. Indeed, Eliot was so wise that readers sent her scores of letters asking her advice about everything from soup to nuts. And, apparently, she always attempted to answer the queries.

The “Book of Job” tells us that the price of wisdom is above rubies, yet as Franny says, no one seems to want to talk about it. There are books that contain a great deal of wisdom, including but not limited to the Bible and George Eliot’s novels. Cervantes was a supremely wise man, as was Jonathan Swift, in his way. The writers are out there as are the books from which we can learn a great deal about our world and the folks who people it. But we waste so much time reading whatever is the latest fashion on the supposition that what is newer is better, or what confirms my predispositions is what is worth reading. To which I say “bollocks!” What is older is better, whether we like what it says or not, since it has withstood the test of time. We know, or can soon find out, who the wise writers were. They are the ones who have been read by the wise persons who have followed them, like Winston Churchill, who learned at the feet of Shakespeare.

I have said some demeaning things in past blogs about the military mind, questioning whether the phrase “military intelligence” might be an oxymoron, for example. It is a concern I share with many. But there have been a few wise military men, including George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower. And I would hasten to add to the list Omar Bradley who had this to say about wisdom: “If we continue to develop our technology without wisdom and prudence, our servant may prove to be our executioner.” Now that’s worth pondering. And it is precisely those insights and profound observations that comprise wisdom. They disturb us and force us to think, whether we want to or not.  They go well beyond mere information or knowledge  — which is what we teach in our schools to Franny’s chagrin. Perhaps it is time to return to those who have looked long and hard at the human condition and returned to us on the pages of their books with words that will enable us to stand on their heads as we seek to look further.

We hear at every turn that there are so many books and so little time. This is true, but the important question is how many of those books are worth reading? I suggest there is plenty of time to read good books because most of what is out there is not worth reading. Not even if Oprah makes the recommendation!

Being Judgmental

[This is the second of two “re-blogs” resulting from the visit of our granddaughters last week. I have reworked it a bit.]

I have been reading Hannah Arendt’s excellent book, Responsibility and Judgment. In that book, like so many of her other books, she draws lessons from the debacle that occurred in Germany before, during, and after the Second World War. Chiefly, she reflects on the nature of evil, which she thinks is “banal,” and the fact that so many of us seem to be capable of it. Evil comes, she is convinced, from our unwillingness, if not our inability, to think.

Arnold Toynbee once said that thinking is as difficult for humans as walking on two legs is for a monkey and we do as little as possible the more comfortable we are. We all assume that if we open our mouths and utter an opinion the process involves thought. Such is not the case, however. As Socrates showed many times, our opinions most often are mere “wind eggs,” unexamined prejudgments that  prevent real thought by convincing us that we know when in fact we do not. To make matters worse, we are urged these days not to be “judgmental,” when, in fact, it is precisely judgment that is at the heart of thought.  For Socrates, as for Arendt, thought requires a constant dialogue within oneself, a conversation with oneself, if you will. It requires doubt and an insistence that we do not know in spite of our pretensions. As Socrates was fond of saying, we only know that we do not know — at least that is the claim he made for himself. We don’t seem inclined to take on his mantle of humility.

Evil is “banal,” precisely because it issues forth from men and women who do not seek evil ends, but who simply don’t want to be bothered to think about what it is they are doing. Those few who opposed Hitler in Germany, for the most part, were not the intellectuals (who are supposed to be the thinkers), but the ordinary men and women who carried on an inner dialogue with themselves and simply decided they could not “look themselves in the mirror,” i.e.,  cooperate with those who would do terrible things. They would rather die than cooperate with evil men.

Hopefully we will never be called upon to make decisions that make us party to evil; but we are called upon daily to question, to doubt, to consider, and to think about the things we do and the things we choose not to do. And when we have reached a conclusion, the doubt and thinking should begin again. When we have reached a point where we no longer feel doubt is necessary, we are in danger of falling into a dogmatic trap. As Kant would have it, “I do not share the opinion that one should not doubt once one has convinced oneself of something.” Doubt must be ongoing if it is to rise to the level of real thought. This is why engaging with people who disagree with us is so terribly important to real thought. Arendt is convinced that if the German people had been more (not less) “judgmental” during the 30s of the last century Hitler never would have risen to power and the Second World War and its atrocities would never have happened. Today it is precisely the tendency we show not to think and to associate only with others of like minds that is the greatest danger as we are surrounded by the bloat and rhetoric of the salesmen, politicians, and demagogues who would capture our minds and take them prisoner.

Our best hope for staying out of this prison is, of course, our schools. But it is clear that they have taken a wrong turn and are now preoccupied with job preparation instead of mental preparation, and with cultural diversity rather than intellectual diversity. This trend feeds into the lethargy that makes it just too much trouble to think seriously about what is going on around us. That is the trap it would seem we have indeed fallen into, preoccupied as we are with our own agendas and with creature comforts. We need to recall Socrates’ words, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

The Unexamined Life

In Hannah Arendt’s superb book Responsibility and Judgment she draws lessons from the terrors that occurred in Germany before and during the Second World War. Chiefly, she reflects on the nature of evil, which she calls “banal,” and the fact that so many of us seem to be capable of it. She is convinced evil comes from our unwillingness, if not our inability, to think — to exercise our faculty of judgment.

Arnold Toynbee once said that thinking is as difficult for humans as walking on two legs is for a monkey and we do as little as possible the more comfortable we are. We all assume that if we open our mouths and utter an opinion the process involves thought. Such is not the case, however, as a moment’s consideration of “talk shows” on radio and TV will attest. Socrates showed us many times that our opinions most often are mere “wind eggs,” unexamined prejudices that prevent real thought by convincing us that we know when in fact we do not. To make matters worse, we are urged these days not to be “judgmental,” when, in fact, it is precisely judgment that is at the heart of thought. For Socrates, as for Arendt, thought requires a constant dialogue within oneself, a conversation with oneself, if you will. It requires doubt and the insistence that we do not know in spite of our pretensions. As Socrates was fond of saying, he only knew that he did not know. We don’t seem inclined to take on his mantle of humility.

Evil is “banal,” precisely because it issues forth from men and women who do not seek evil ends, but who simply don’t want to be bothered to think about what it is they are doing. Those few who opposed Hitler in Germany, for the most part, were not the intellectuals (who are supposed to be the thinkers, like Heidegger), but a few ordinary men and women who carried on an inner dialogue with themselves and simply decided they could not cooperate with those who would do terrible things. They would rather die than cooperate with evil men.

Hopefully we will never be called upon to make decisions that make us party to evil; but as responsible individuals we are called upon daily to question, to doubt, to consider, and to think about the things we do and the things we choose not to do. And when we have reached a conclusion, the doubt and thinking should begin again. When we have reached a point where we no longer feel doubt is necessary, we are in danger of falling into a dogmatic trap. As Kant would have it, “I do not share the opinion that one should not doubt once one has convinced oneself of something.” Doubt, and even skepticism, must be ongoing if it is to rise to the level of real thought.

Arendt is convinced that if the German people had been more (not less) “judgmental” during the 30s of the last century Hitler never would have risen to power and the Second World War and its atrocities almost certainly would never have happened. The refusal to be “judgmental” is irresponsible. Today it is precisely the tendency we have not to think that is the greatest danger as we succumb to the bloat and rhetoric of the salesmen, politicians, and demagogues who would capture our minds and take them prisoner.

Our best hope for staying out of this prison is, of course, our schools. But it is clear that they have taken a wrong turn and are now preoccupied with job preparation instead of mental preparation. This trend feeds into the lethargy that makes it just too much trouble to think seriously about what is going on around us. That is the trap it would seem we have indeed fallen into, preoccupied as we are with “making a living” and the attendant creature comforts. We need to recall Socrates’ words, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Morally Impaired

I recently wrote a blog focusing on a comment made by an anonymous blogger who characterized the poor as “folks who are usually smoking crack and pumping out babies at 1 a year..” The blog drew a very incisive comment from MFB (My Favorite Blogger) newsofthetimes who said “I don’t understand how people can be so sure that they are not going to be the next person in line asking for help. . .” I was going to jot a quick response to MFB, but decided it warranted a longer response. So here goes.

Some years ago during the Summer I was a visiting professor at the University of Rhode Island and taught a course in Ethics to a class of about 30 students. It was a good class and we had some lively discussions. At one point we were discussing Kant’s Categorical Imperative: “Act so the maxim of your will can serve as a universal law.” We tried to unpack the peculiar words in order to make some sense of them and perhaps see how they might help us resolve moral perplexities — which is the purpose of an Ethics course, after all. We decided that Kant was saying something like this: adopt a moral principle that would affect both yourself and others equally. In a word (though somewhat of an oversimplification) Kant was saying something very much like the “Golden Rule” — do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

The interesting part of the discussion came about when we were trying to use examples to see how the rule might be applied in a particular case. We finally came around to the case of a poor person who required assistance and we decided that anyone who was in the position of the person in need would want, even welcome, assistance. We all pretty much agreed — except for one student who simply could not imagine that he would ever be the person in need. He denied that it was morally right to help those in need if the rule depended on the one making the rule supposing himself or herself to be the person in need. He simply would not allow that the right thing to do was to help the other person. The entire class went after the young man to the point where I was genuinely concerned about his well-being. He never did change his mind.

It is possible the young man was just trying to draw attention to himself, or make a scene. But I suspected that he honestly could not imagine himself ever to be a person in need of assistance from someone else. He was not stupid by any means, though he certainly lacked sympathy. But above all he lacked the faculty of imagination. He simply was incapable of putting himself in the place of another person — even for a moment. As a result after the discussion was over and I reflected on the class, I decided that this young man was incapable of acting morally in Kant’s sense of that term. If he were to do the right thing it would have to be by habit, training, or accident.

I think this is the case with the anonymous comment to my previous blog: the author of the comment, “Auth” by name, simply cannot imagine that he might be poor and in need of assistance. Otherwise, how could he possibly take such a narrow, superior, unfeeling, condescending attitude toward another human being? I suspect that in this person’s mind, the poor are less than human — certainly nothing like him! Perhaps this is what allows such people to adopt the superior air. In any event, most of the comments on the blog suggested that “Auth” is in the minority: most people responded with feeling to the possibility that they might themselves be poor, given the uncertainty of today’s economy for example, and that we do have an obligation to help those in need. I just hope that the majority of those who responded to the blog are typical of the rest of the people in this society. If they are like “Auth” or the student in that class then heaven help us!

Enslaving Recipients

A few days ago I wrote a blog in which I suggested we need to alter our mind-set regarding the payment of taxes. Instead of the pejorative overtones the word has now we should try to give it a positive spin and bear in mind the immense good our taxes do — regardless of the abuses of the system that are inevitable. The blog received a most interesting comment from William Thien who appreciated my take on the question but who worried that recipients of tax relief for food, clothing, shelter, and schooling might in fact become “enslaved” by the money thrown their way: they might become dependent on the government’s largess. This is an excellent point and one I have worried about for many years.

In fact, Dostoevsky and Nietzsche both worried about it as well, and they had much larger minds than mine. They worried that “socialism” (which Dostoevsky regarded as the bastard stepchild of Catholicism, which he hated for the same reasons) deprived humans of their freedom by making them dependent on the generosity of the state (or the Church). In any case they insisted that freedom was the core of humanity: without it we are less than human, “denizens of an ant heap,” as Dostoevsky would have it.

The idea comes from Kant’s notion of autonomy which he regarded as essential to our humanity: it is what makes us human, The fact is that we, of all the animals, are the only ones who can make and follow (or ignore) our own moral precepts. This is real freedom — from which comes our responsibility — and it is the heart of our humanity according to Kant. To the extent that we initiate our own moral precepts to that extent are we human. It is a rich and very persuasive point of view.

But in the “real” world, where philosophers often stumble over the furniture, people suffer from lack of necessities for their survival. They can hardly be expected to achieve freedom in Kant’s sense. Are they then less than human? Certainly not. Further, in the face of human suffering doesn’t it behoove each of us to do what we can to alleviate that suffering and care about our fellow humans who if ignored must go without? Those who suffer from chronic malnutrition and lack of adequate clothing are not really in a position to realize their full human potential in Kant’s sense of that term. One could argue that those who lack adequate schooling cannot be said to be fully autonomous human beings, either — again, in Kant’s sense of that term. These people are too busy just trying to survive in an unfriendly world. It’s not clear that in the extreme case the chronically disadvantaged should even be held responsible for their actions. These people deserve more. And if we are in a position to provide more it would appear we have an obligation to respond by being generous.

If it is wrong to alleviate suffering because it “enslaves” those who are the recipients of our generosity (or our tax money), it is much worse to look the other way and ignore the suffering of those we might be in position to help. I would say it is the lesser of two evils, except that I fail to see that the option of helping others is in any way “evil.” Furthermore, as I look deeper into the issue I wonder whether this sort of dependence, this “enslavement” that is associated with social programs that help people in need is any different from the perfectly ordinary forms of dependence that we associate with “free market” capitalism — to wit, the dependence of the wage earner or the salaried employee on the largess of his or her employer, or even the independent business person on his or her customers. I dare say the “fat cats” at the top of the capitalistic pyramid depend on tax breaks and subsidies to help them increase their already obscene wealth. We are all tied by numerous bonds of interdependence in this or any economic system. But the major impediments to real independence, the achievement of autonomy, are poverty and ignorance. And we are in a position to do something about those if we choose to do so.

In the end I still contend that we need to rethink our take on taxation. Despite the abuses our tax money does immense good: it eliminates a great deal of human suffering and frees many people from dehumanizing conditions. Surely, these are good things.

Offensive Defense

Can you believe it? The story begins, SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – The civilian attorney representing the U.S. soldier accused of murdering 17 Afghan villagers wants to replace the military lawyer assigned to the case after disagreements over how to handle his defense.

“You are fired, sorry, but we have much more experience than you,” Seattle-based John Henry Browne, the outspoken lawyer who has been the public face of the defense of Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, said in an email to military lawyer Major Thomas Hurley.

One recalls Shakespeare’s pithy comment in Henry VI, Part II where Dick says “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” That seems about right. The man accused of killing 17 Afghan citizens in a blind fury and who might well have been suffering from brain damage and battle fatigue after seven tours of duty in two different war zones is now depending on warring lawyers to save his own life. How ironic. It would be funny if it weren’t so sad. One of the lawyers was appointed by the military, the other selected by Bales himself; each has his own ideas about how to conduct the defense.

You have to love the way the firing of Major Hurley (which must be approved by Bales and the military before it becomes a reality) is accomplished by a terse, grammatically incorrect, self-promoting email message. And while the lawyers fight among themselves about the best way to save this man’s life, the accused is about to undergo a psychological examination to determine whether or not he knew what he was doing when he went out, twice, and allegedly shot seventeen civilians. The one bright spot in all this is that our system of law (despite the wranglings of the lawyers) still maintains a person’s innocence until proven guilty. Let’s hope the system prevails in spite of the lawyers. As Kant noted long ago: without courts of law we are barely above the level of the brutes.

Be that as it may, the story goes on, There was also disagreement over the decision to put Bales’ wife on the Today show, where she said her husband showed no signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, potentially damaging Bales’ most likely defense. What’s going on here? The defendant’s wife is dragged on a talk-show and attests that her husband seemed perfectly normal, though in an interview with ABC earlier she said he didn’t seem to know where he was or why. In any event, it is easy to understand why this must frustrate a lawyer who knows full well that Bales’ wife is not a trained psychologist and also sees that the best way to save his client’s life is to claim temporary insanity. But that’s the way we do things these days: we try the defendant in public while the public is still interested — interest does indeed wane rather quickly, as we know — and then we take the defendant to court.

So we have the man’s wife going on talk shows offering her unprofessional opinion about her husband’s mental condition. Meanwhile, wrangling lawyers argue publicly over the way to try their client who waits to see if he is found guilty, first in the public eye, then in the eye of 12 good men and women who are supposed to be impartial and presumably have not already judged the man before the trial begins. Again, if it weren’t so serious it would be funny — and if the families of the murdered victims back in Afghanistan weren’t waiting to see that justice is done.