Religion and Mammon

I recently blogged about what I argued was the inverse relationship between morality and wealth, insisting that we have somehow lost the proper perspective — one that the Greeks shared, for example — between wealth and morality. Aristotle, for example, insisted that the accumulation of wealth was a means to an end, not an end in itself, and that too much wealth was a threat to a balanced character. The goal of humans is to be as happy as possible and a certain amount of money is necessary to that end. But when the accumulation of wealth becomes all-consuming it is problematic. In my argument I suggested that the preoccupation with wealth in this country since the Civil War has brought about the reduction of our moral sensibilities. But, it might be asked, what about religion? Folks like Gertrude Himmelfarb insist that Americans are among the most religious people on earth. Doesn’t this undercut my argument somewhat?

I would say not because, as I argued in a blog not long ago, much depends on what we mean by “religious.” If we mean, simply, that many Americans attend church regularly, this is probably true — though there are a great many empty churches in this country and traditional religions are struggling, especially in attracting the young. Furthermore, mere attendance at church hardly sets one apart as a deeply religious person. In any event, William Dean Howells noted in a most interesting novel, A Modern Instance, that religion — even in the late nineteenth century — had become something less than all-consuming and considerably less important than such things as the pursuit of pleasure. Speaking of the small New England town in which his novel was set, the narrator notes that:

“Religion had largely ceased to be a fact of spiritual experience and the visible church flourished on condition of providing for the social needs of the community. It was practically held that the salvation of one’s soul must not be made too depressing, or the young people would have nothing to do with it. Professors of the sternest creeds temporized with sinners, and did what might be done to win them to heaven by helping them to have a good time here. The church embraced and included the world.”

Howells was good friends with Mark Twain and we can see the same scepticism in his novel that I noted in some of Twain’s comments quoted in the previous post. The Civil War did something profound to the ethos of this country. The death of 620,000 young men almost certainly had something to do with it. But the sudden accumulation of great wealth by many who took advantage of the war to turn a profit was simply a sign to others that this was the way to go. And the Horatio Alger myth was born as inventors and business tycoons seemed to appear out of nowhere. The cost to the nation as a whole was the conviction that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Wealth increasingly became a sign of success and even of God’s favor. As I noted, the relationship between the accumulation of wealth and the sacrifices necessary to pursue one’s sense of duty was turned upside down and instead of looking askance at those with fat pocketbooks, as was the norm for hundreds of years, the rich became instead role models for the rest of the country — and the world, as it happens. Simultaneously, as it were, morality was set on the shelf by many who now insisted that right and wrong are relative concepts and virtue is something to be read about but not to bother one’s head about. It certainly shouldn’t be allowed to interfere with pleasure and the accumulation of as much money as possible.

 

Advertisements

The Arts and Morality

I would like to take as my text a brief passage from a lecture Lionel Trilling gave at Harvard University in 1970. His topic is sincerity and he has this to say about literature and the universality of the messages we receive when we take it seriously:

“Generally our awareness of the differences between the moral assumptions of one culture and those of another is so developed and active that we find it hard to believe there is any such thing as essential human nature; but we all know moments when these differences, as literature attests to them, seem to make no difference, seem scarcely to exist. We read the Iliad or the plays of Sophocles or Shakespeare and they come so close to our hearts and minds that they put to rout, or into abeyance, our instructed consciousness of the moral life as it is conditioned by a particular culture — they persuade us that human nature never varies, that the moral life is unitary and its terms perennial, and that only a busy intruding pedantry could ever have suggested otherwise.”

I shall begin by confessing that I have devoted a majority of my life to the defense of both literature and the universality of certain fundamental moral precepts — such precepts as justice and human rights, which I insist are at the core of every civilized (and indeed uncivilized) society and whatever religion they happen to practice. Trilling is suggesting there is a connection and I suspect he is right.

But I would add all of the arts, including dance, painting, music, and poetry to the list of things that demonstrate the universality of what we call “human nature.” The arts, and naturally literature as one of the core elements of the fine arts, prove indubitably that we are all basically alike despite our superficial differences. What this means is that as human beings who share a common nature, we are held to the same ideals regardless of our cultural or historical differences. As Trilling suggests, those differences make no difference. We all espouse justice, fairness and the rights of others as fundamental principles of a common moral code. We may view this code differently or stress different elements at one time or another — shrinking or expanding our grasp of what constitutes justice and allowing or disallowing that some who have been denied also have rights. Moreover, we may espouse those universal principles and yet refuse to act on them. But when push comes to shove, or when we stop and think “what if….?” we realize that we all demand fairness, justice and the recognition of our human rights, though, of late, we may tend ignore the responsibilities that go along with rights..

The fine arts, including literature, attest to the correctness of those demands. They demonstrate as cannot be otherwise demonstrated that we are all fundamentally alike. We share Achilles’ outrage at his treatment by Agamemnon despite the fact that he lived in a different culture ages ago. We commiserate with the seventeenth century French playwright Molière’s character Alceste when he comes to realize that one must play a role to succeed in the real world. We suspect this is a profound truth, even in our day. We can feel the hatred that permeates the soul of Keiko, one of the main characters in Kawabata’s Beauty and Sadness, and share Okonkwo’s outrage over the presumption of the Christian missionaries in their attempts to colonize his country in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.

Moreover, when we view a painting or see our fellow humans dance or hear them sing (despite the fact that we cannot understand the words) we respond, as Trilling says, with our hearts and minds to the same emotions or others very much like those of the artists themselves. We note the presence in symphony orchestras of people of different ethnic backgrounds and from different countries who tap deep into the emotions of the composers of their European music and project it into the audience made up of a heterogeneous grouping of their fellow humans and we share a common experience.

Thus, when we hear that “it is all relative,” and that we shouldn’t be “judgmental” because we are all different, we know this is at best a half-truth, a “busy, intruding pedantry.” We are all different in so many ways as those who would ride the “Identity Politics” horse would insist. But at the core we are all the same and when we do the right thing or the wrong thing we know that this can be seen and recognized by our fellow humans who also seek in their own way to do the right thing or avoid the wrong thing. We all seek the moral high ground — or if we don’t we should.

The fine arts demonstrate in no uncertain terms that we all suffer outrages and seek approval and love in the same way and take delight in the same joys and are repulsed by the same atrocities committed by those who seem very real though they be mere “fictions,” products of an artist’s imagination. This is why we read and why we open our eyes to the beauty that surrounds us in whatever form it may take. Because it deepens our sensibilities and makes each of us a little more human.

 

The Moral Vacuum

I call your attention to a comment made in an excellent post on the website titled “Zenocrat” and written by Ewa Kuryluk. She notes, in speaking of Franz Kafka, that:

Employed by an international insurance company, he watched bureaucracy driven by capitalist efficiency operating in a moral vacuum and imagined how easily it could be turned into a totalitarian death machine.

While somewhat disquieting, this is brilliant sentence that captures the heart and soul of capitalism and the moral problems it raises. The notion that this efficient economic system operates “in a moral vacuum” is precisely why it has come under such close scrutiny by thinkers like Karl Marx and Robert Heilbroner.

Marx talked about “Constant Value” and “Variable Value” which are based on the cost of the means of production, salaries of all employees, including management and owners, deterioration of the physical plant, and the like. But over and above these, insists Marx, there is something he called “Surplus Value,” which is created ex nihilo, as it were, in that it does not correlate in any way to the human labor that went into the production of the commodity, and which (in the form of great wealth) somehow manages to end up in the pockets of the owners of the means of production. In today’s world this is reflected by the salaries of the CEOs of giant corporations in this country who make between 300 and 700 times what their average employee makes. This is usually “justified” on the grounds that the CEO must be paid a “competitive” salary (with benefits) for fear of losing them to another company. Or there is talk about the “risks” he or she takes in running such a giant corporation. But these are pathetically weak excuses in light of the huge disparity they attempt to cover up.

Not many years ago the N.F.L. Players Association struck professional football on the grounds that the players’ salaries should be based on the “take” from the total number of games they played in a season, billions of dollars. Granted, the players were already making huge sums of money — though paltry by today’s standards — but they felt it was only fair that the pie should be cut in such a way that the players got their fair share rather than the amount each individual could bargain for on his own. Interestingly, this is a thoroughly Marxian notion (though the players would be reluctant to admit that). The total pie in professional football, even at that time, was huge, and on Marxian principles the players should have been allotted their fair proportion, even granting that the owners’ shares might remain large.

Robert Heilbroner worried about many of the same things, particularly the moral vacuum of which Kuryluk speaks. In The Nature and Logic of Capitalism he notes that:

“[Capitalism] succeeds in offering definitions of right and wrong that exonerate the activities and results of market activity. This is accomplished in part because the motives of acquisitiveness are reclassified as interests and not passions; in part because the benefits of material gain are judged to outweigh any deterioration in the moral quality of society; and last, and most important, because the term ‘goodness’ is equated to private happiness, absolving all elicit activity from  any need to justify itself on other grounds. . . . The expansion of capital is aided and abetted by the declaration that moral and aesthetic criteria — the only dikes that might hold back the flood tide of capital’s expansion — are without relevance within the realm of economic activity.”

And it is precisely this lack of moral restraint, the loss of any sense that there is such a thing as moral high ground — the notion that “all’s fair in love, war, and business — that provides the grounds for the concern about the “totalitarian death machine” of which Zuryluk speaks. There need to be moral dikes to stem the tide of greed and avarice endemic to capitalism. We have hints of this today in this country in light of a Federal Administration headed by a quasi-successful businessman who yearns to be a despot.

There is no question that Western men and women have benefitted in many ways from capitalism. Adam Smith thought this justified the lack of moral restraints that Heilbroner mentions and Kafka and Marx worried about. Of course, Smith was convinced that human beings had a natural sympathy for one another that would mitigate somewhat the raw forces of competitive capitalism and the subsequent bracketing of moral precepts. In any event, this may be wishful thinking, since it is not clear that we are better off because we now have two SUVs, a powerboat plus a skidoo, and a home on the lake (which require that both husband and wife work full-time) than we would be if we all lived in smaller homes where one spouse lived at home, perhaps with the grandparents living in as well, and where the family could spend time together and the children could get the discipline and structure that they surely miss.

In a word, it’s not at all clear that the benefits of capitalism outweigh the costs, whether the “moral vacuum” of which Kuryluk speaks will not eventually suffocate us.

Conditional Optimism

In an interesting post on his blog, Bruce Schneier comments on Harvard psychology professor Stephen Pinker’s claim that the world is becoming less violent and more moral. Specifically, he tells us:

In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker convincingly makes the point that by pretty much every measure you can think of, violence has declined on our planet over the long term. More generally, “the world continues to improve in just about every way.” He’s right, but there are . . .  important caveats.
One, he is talking about the long term. The trend lines are uniformly positive across the centuries and mostly positive across the decades, but go up and down year to year. While this is an important development for our species, most of us care about changes year to year — and we can’t make any predictions about whether this year will be better or worse than last year in any individual measurement.

Pinker’s claim is based on large numbers and long-term predictions and his provocative thesis (especially in light of the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency) is summarized in the following paragraph from the book mentioned by Schneier:

Beware of headlines. And beware of statistics from advocacy organizations whose funding stream depends on stoking fear and outrage — I’ve learned that they can never be taken at face value.
There are reasons to doubt that we’re seeing a big post-Trump rise in hate crimes. Rates of hate crime tend to track rates of overall crime, and there was an uptick of both in 2015, before Trumpism.
Indeed, Trump capitalized on the crime uptick to sow panic about the state of the nation, and progressives foolishly ceded the issue to him. Moment-by-moment analyses of Google searches by the data scientist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz show that Islamophobia strongly tracks incidents of terrorism with Muslim perpetrators. So hate crimes will probably depend more on overall crime rates and — in the case of Islamophobic hate crimes — on terrorist attacks than on a general atmosphere created by Trump.
More generally, the worldwide, decades-long current toward racial tolerance is too strong to be undone by one man. Public opinion polls in almost every country show steady declines in racial and religious prejudice­ — and more importantly for the future, that younger cohorts are less prejudiced than older ones. As my own cohort of baby boomers (who helped elect Trump) dies off and is replaced by millennials (who rejected him in droves), the world will become more tolerant.
It’s not just that people are increasingly disagreeing with intolerant statements when asked by pollsters, which could be driven by a taboo against explicit racism. Stephens-Davidowitz has shown that Google searches for racist jokes and organizations are sensitive indicators of private racism. They have declined steadily over the past dozen years, and they are more popular in older than younger cohorts.

Regarding Pinker’s claim that racial tolerance is on the rise world-wide, I would add that many believe the movement in this country toward alternative energies has gained enough momentum to withstand the machinations of Donald Trump and Big Oil.  These are good things, indeed. I suggest that we would be wise to listen to Pinker and tone down our collective panic at the thought of Donald Trump just 90 seconds away from nuclear holocaust. Pinker claims he is himself “conditionally optimistic” about the future.

But, at the same time, it is also wise to be cautious and watch the magician’s other hand to see what he is likely to pull out of his hat. It is one thing to predict that morality is improving — what with such things as the reduction of extreme poverty, child mortality, illiteracy, and global inequality together with the spread of democracy — which brings with it (along with widespread apathy in this country) increased political freedom for a great many people previously held in chains. It is quite another thing to turn a blind eye to the fact that our president-elect brings with him luggage filled with racism, hatred, suspicion, and a tendency to act on impulse that does not bode well for the future of this country and indeed the world — short term or long.

On balance, one can find some solace in the words of Pinker and hope that his optimism is well founded and not merely pie-in-the-sky. We need to look back in order to try to anticipate what might happen in the future. And it is good to try to think long-term. But we also know that the future is liable to variables that were not in play in the past — such things as automatic weapons in the hands of growing numbers of frustrated, angry people; indifference disguised as tolerance; and the nuclear codes in the pocket of a rather tempestuous man who refers to those who disagree with him as “enemies.” In a word, we all need to take a deep breath and try to relax, but we also need to maintain our vigil.

 

 

Abortion

I have chosen the title of this post with some fear and trepidation. This is a red-hot topic and there is almost always much more heat than light at the core of the discussion argument. But I do believe that the abortion issue may help us to understand why women would vote for a misogynist such as Donald Trump who regards women as so many trophies to be collected and spoiled in a way only he is privy to. Thus, as we ponder the whys of this election I think at some point this issue needs to be addressed.

The battle between the “pro-lifers” on the one hand and the “women’s rights” on the other comes down to a matter of faith, not reason. This is why the argument becomes so heated so fast. One either believe that life begins at conception or one believes that life begins when the child is removed from its mother. If one does not believe that life starts at conception then there are grounds for the claim that the mother’s rights over her own body are paramount. There is no scientific evidence that either of these claims is the correct one. It all depends on how we define “life.” Those who oppose abortion are convinced it begins much earlier than those who favor abortion. And the courts have determined, somewhat arbitrarily, that is begins after “fetal viability.” Again, there is no evidence that any of these views is the correct one. And since there is no evidence one way or the other the argument comes down to which group has the larger pile of rocks to throw.

The irony, of course, is that many of those who claim to be “pro-life” are also in favor of war and capital punishment which gives the lie to the claim that all life is sacred. And those who argue for women’s rights are frequently quite happy to see women in the workplace held down by a glass ceiling and making less money than the man next to them doing the same job. We are not known for our consistency, we humans.

My thesis advisor at Northwestern, Eliseo Vivas,  wrote a book titled The Moral Life and The Ethical Life in which he said, at one point, “the soldier goes to battle with a heavy heart.” In other words, there are times when we must take another human life. It is a matter of expediency: kill or be killed. St. Augustine insisted that the only time war was justified was to defend oneself and one’s group against direct attack. A “preemptive strike” is not justified. But the moral question is whether the taking of another human life is ever justified. St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that life is a human right and if we take another’s life we forfeit our own and he therefore justifies capital punishment on those grounds. Vivas would say “no.” The taking of a life may be a matter of expediency. But that is not a reason that carries any moral weight whatever. Since we cannot ever justify the taking of another human life under any circumstances (Augustine and Aquinas to the contrary notwithstanding) we can only attempt to reconcile ourselves to the fact once it has occurred: this is a psychological, not a philosophical, problem. The soldier with the heavy heart must somehow learn to live with the fact that what he did was wrong. And societies must seek humane alternatives to capital punishment.

Thus the abortion issue becomes increasingly cloudy as we try to deal with two questions at the same time: when is a human being alive? and once alive are we ever justified in taking that life? I confess that I do not have the answer to either of these questions, though I find the second question the easier one. I think Vivas was correct: we cannot justify taking another life; we can only seek to reconcile ourselves to it if it happens.

In the current frenzy of a political contest unlike any previous political contest I suspect these questions are at the core of the explanation why 30-35% of the  women in this country might want to support such a candidate as Donald Trump: they hope he would appoint a conservative judge to the Supreme Court who might somehow “overthrow” Roe v Wade and make abortion illegal once again. Hillary Clinton is sure to nominate a liberal judge and we will have more abortions and more death, in their view of things. For those who see this election through the wrong end of the telescope, thereby missing all the larger issues, I suspect this argument wins the day for many of the devout — whose faith I shall never question, but only ask that it be recognized as faith, not reason — and wish they would turn the telescope around.

 

The Predatory Rich

The term in the title of this piece is from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s excellent book, The Bully Pulpit, about Teddy Roosevelt, William Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism. I have referred to her book previously, but I wanted to return to it and share some of the excellent points Ms Goodwin makes. I have noted the rough parallels between the “robber baron” days and our own — specifically, the widening gap between the rich and the poor and the almighty power of the corporations, or “trusts” as they were called then. A critic might well point out that we have made great strides from the days of child-labor and the 12 hour work day. And this is true. But we still have a pathetically low minimum wage and there are folks out there who would love to reverse those strides and take us back to the “glory days” of laissez-faire economics, free enterprise, as they imagine it to be — free from governmental interference and those pesky agencies that put restraints on the obscene increase in profits.

Roosevelt himself was very much aware of the mentality of the “predatory rich” (Goodwin’s words) and that is what most interests me, because while many things have changed I don’t think that mind-set has changed much at all. We can see examples of it all around us as the number of homeless and disenfranchised grow, the middle class shrinks, and the corporations and folks like the Koch brothers continue to amass fortunes. It is most interesting to note that Teddy Roosevelt was himself a wealthy Republican and staunch supporter of capitalism who grew to see more and more clearly the moral depravity that is bred by an unfettered economy when the government looks the other way and a small group of men are allowed to take the reins in their own hands and focus exclusively on accumulating piles of gold. He was, of course, a “progressive” Republican, a reformer who saw the need to put restraints on the greed of those who see nothing but profits and losses, whose world has shrunk to the size of a gnat’s testicle and who seem to have no conscience whatever. Describing his notion of the balance that is needed, Roosevelt noted in a speech to the Union League Club:

“Neither this people not any other free people will permanently tolerate the use of vast power conferred by vast wealth, and especially by wealth in its corporate form, without lodging somewhere in the government the still higher power of seeing that this power, in addition to being used in the interest of the individual or the individuals possessing it, is also used for and not against the interests of the people as a whole.”

One would hope, wouldn’t one? In any event, after McKinley was shot and Roosevelt became president — much to the chagrin of the Republican bosses who tried to bury him in the Vice-Presidency to get him out of the governorship of New York where he was a pain in their collective ass, — he faced one of his major challenges. The miners in Pennsylvania went on strike; as the strike grew in size and violence and as Winter approached and coal became increasingly scarce, he wondered what the Constitution allowed him to do. He was in sympathy with the miners as he was with those poor folks in crowded New York tenements whom he visited, living together, five in the same room where they rolled cigars in sweat-shop conditions struggling to eek out a living. He knew the miners worked 10 hour days from the age of ten until they died at an early age from black lung disease, seldom seeing the light of day. And he knew that the owners were bound and determined to see that their plight did not improve at the owners’ expense.

One of the things that outraged him, as it did so many others, was the arrogance of the owners who had banded together and refused to listen to the legitimate grievances of the miners until they went dutifully back to work. The owners had already turned down an agreed-upon raise of 5% that would have cost them a mere $3 million dollars a year against their estimated profits of $75 million. Their attitude was clearly expressed in an open letter published by mine-owner George Baer which included the following paragraph:

“I beg of you not to be discouraged. The rights and interests of the laboring man will be protected and cared for — not by the labor agitators, but by the Christian men to whom God in His infinite wisdom has given the control of the property interests of the country, and upon the successful management of which so much depends.”

Needless to say, these words threw gas on the fire. They aroused the anger of thousands of people around the country, including the president. And they drew dozens of angry responses from newspaper editors around the country. Eventually Roosevelt was able to work a compromise by some brilliant machinations which drove the Republican bosses mad while reducing his chances of gaining the Republican nomination he so dearly sought. But he knew what was right and he knew he had to act accordingly. And he knew how to use the power of the press against those who ruled the Republican party. And that knowledge proved pivotal.

But what I want to focus attention on is the attitude reflected in those extraordinary words written by George Baer. As one editor noted, it smacks of the notion of divine rights of kings, except the sentiment here, strongly felt no doubt by his fellow fat-cats, is that property owners have a divine right to their property and to what is done with it — regardless of costs in human lives. Indeed, it is doubtful if men like Baer had any idea about the moral costs of their stunted perspective. In this comment he seems to be lost in his own convictions about Christian his right to lord it over others, if you can imagine such a thing.

It is one thing to insist that folks have a right to determine what happens with their property, but even John Locke, who was one of the first to defend free-enterprise capitalism, realized that there must be moral restraints on the amassing of great wealth. He insisted that one had a right to amass wealth only to the point where it interferes with the possibility of others amassing wealth as well. Adam Smith, who wrote the Bible on free-enterprise capitalism, agreed. They both simply assumed that human sympathy, fellow-feeling, would enter in and make the rich realize that there are limits to how much wealth they can collect without making life miserable for others. How naive! On the contrary, Baer’s letter reveals an attitude which we can see to this day among the predatory rich, which rests on the unquestioned assumption (on their part) that they have a right to as much money as they want and any interference with the steps they might take to gain that money are to be squashed, whatever the cost. I give you the predatory rich. You can have them.

Right Or Wrong?

One of my favorite episodes of the excellent British detective series “Foyle’s War,” which takes place during World War II, involves the master detective in a moral  dilemma. He has caught the man who murdered a German woman, the wife of a wealthy English landowner. The evidence is overwhelming, but the problem is that the murderer is a naval officer who is working with the British navy to crack German codes. He is one of the few men in the country who has the background to make it possible for his country to achieve this, and if he does he will save countless British lives. He puts it squarely to Foyle who is faced with the moral dilemma: arrest the man for murder (of a woman who was, after all, German), or let him go to continue to work on the codes that may save lives. He arrests the man. It’s who Foyle is: he is convinced that even in wartime it is only the law that separates us from barbarians such as the Nazis they are fighting and he has sworn to uphold the law.

This is a most interesting moral dilemma and it gives rise to the question: Did Foyle do the right thing or did he not? Whatever we decide in this case, we cannot determine that he BOTH did the right thing AND he did the wrong thing. It’s either/or. Ultimately, all moral dilemmas are of the same type: it’s not possible for there to be an answer that is both right and wrong at the same time and the same respect — any more than it is possible for my computer to be both a computer and a telephone at the same time and the same respect.

The problem is that in our age a great many people deny that moral issues are like computers and telephones. The common view is that ethics is all a matter of opinion and when it comes to opinions you have yours and I have mine. This is, of course, true, but irrelevant. Our opinions are simply the starting point, not the end, of discussion.  Someone who has never watched a tennis match may have an opinion about who will win the match they are now watching. But that opinion doesn’t count for much, because the person knows nothing about tennis. In the case before us we may have our opinions, but the answer — somewhere out there — is that Foyle either did the right thing to arrest the murderer or he did not.

In a seemingly unrelated topic, Abraham Lincoln wrote what has come to be called a “Meditation” during the Civil War that was only recently published. He was wrestling with the question why God was permitting the war to happen. Ultimately, he was wrestling with the question of free will versus determinism. Regarding the war, which was not going well and eventually cost America 630,000 lives, Lincoln muses thusly:

“The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time.. . .”

Lincoln picked up the same theme in his Second Inaugural — regarded by many (and himself) as the  best speech he ever wrote. And this suggests that he was still wrestling with the dilemma at the end of the war. And well he should. But he knew one thing: either the North or the South was right in fighting the war, they could not both be right. They might both have been wrong, as Lincoln suggests, but they cannot both be right. It is not a matter of opinion; it is a matter of fact. But it is a fact that we may not be able to make out clearly, groping as we do through a thick mist of bias and confusion with our limited perspective, prejudices, and meager intelligence. From God’s perspective, there is one right and one wrong and perhaps only He knows which is which. So as we struggle to determine which side was in the right we may never see the answer clearly, but we can be certain, as Lincoln was, that one side or the other is right — they cannot both be right. Lincoln expresses this difficulty at the end of his famous Cooper Union Address when he famously says, “Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.” (Italics added).

This is the nature of ethical argument. It parallels arguments that require evidence and careful thought which we might come upon in history (what would have happened if Chamberlain had not been so conciliatory toward Hitler?) or even in the hard sciences (does light consist of waves or particles?). But above all else, ethics is not simply a matter of opinion. Again, Foyle was either right to have arrested the murderer or he was wrong. He cannot be both. Ironically, it is precisely this fact that makes dialogue possible in ethics and takes us beyond the shallow realm of gut feelings and hunches.

Is Tolerance A Good Thing?

I have encountered few minds I would readily call “brilliant.” I must confess a prejudice on my part to restrict the term to those who lived and wrote long ago; contemporary writers seem to be satisfied to skim the surface for the most part. One exception is Christopher Lasch, whom I have referred to repeatedly in these blogs. I find myself drawn back to his books when I feel the need for insights into our current cultural malaise. I have read no one who seems to have his finger on the pulse of today’s difficulties more than this social historian who seems to have read, and understood, everything. He has a great deal to say about what bothers us most these days and in his book The Revolt of The Elites he talks about intolerance in the context of the question whether our democracy is worth saving — an interesting question in itself. Lasch is convinced that our democratic system is in serious trouble and while democracy is in principle certainly worth saving, it is not clear that today’s version of democracy in this country is. He is especially critical of the shallow relativism that is widespread today together with the growing tendency to refuse to critique other cultures; he worried about the tendency of intellectuals to avoid the really important questions, such as the place of religion and belief in today’s world. On the subject of tolerance, which we like to think is the major virtue of our democracy, he has much to say and I can do no better than to record him at some length.

“In the absence of common standards . . . tolerance becomes indifference, and cultural pluralism degenerates into an aesthetic spectacle in which the curious folkways of our neighbors are savored with the relish of the connoisseur. However, our neighbors themselves, as individuals, are never held up to any kind of judgment. The suspension of ethical judgment, in the conception or misconception of pluralism now current, makes it inappropriate to speak of “ethical commitments” at all. Aesthetic appreciation is all that can be achieved under current definitions of cultural diversity. . .  The deeper question [we should address] is the question How should I live? [which today] also becomes a matter of taste, of idiosyncratic personal preference, at best of religious or ethnic identification. But this deeper and more difficult question, rightly understood,requires us to speak of impersonal virtues like fortitude, workmanship, moral courage, honesty, and respect for our adversaries. If we believe in these things, moreover, we must be prepared to recommend them to everyone, as the moral preconditions of a good life. To refer everything to a ‘plurality of ethical commitments’ means that we make no demands on anyone and acknowledge no one’s right to make any demands on ourselves. The suspension of judgment logically condemns us to solitude. Unless we are prepared to make demands on one another, we can enjoy only the most rudimentary kind of common life.

“Democracy requires a more invigorating ethic than tolerance. Tolerance is a fine thing, but it is only the beginning of democracy, not its destination. In our time democracy is more seriously threatened by indifference than by intolerance or superstition. We have become too proficient in making excuses for ourselves — worse, in making excuses for the ‘disadvantaged.’ We are so busy defending our rights (rights conferred, for the most part, by judicial decree) that we have given little thought to our responsibilities. We seldom say what we think for fear of giving offense. We are determined to respect everyone, but we have forgotten that respect has to be earned. Respect is not another word for tolerance or the appreciation of ‘alternative life-styles and communities.’ This is the tourist’s approach to morality. Respect is what we experience in the presence of admirable achievements, admirably formed character, natural gifts put to good use. It entails the exercise of discriminating judgment, not indiscriminate acceptance.

“There are far more important issues confronting friends of democracy [than the issue of cultural pluralism]: the crisis of competence; the spread of apathy and a suffocating cynicism; the moral paralysis of those who value “openness” above all. In the 1870s Walt Whitman wrote: ‘Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness at heart than at present, and here in the United States. Genuine belief seems to have left us.’ Those words are as timely as ever.

“. . .it is our reluctance to make demands on each other, much more than our reluctance to help those in need, that is sapping the strength of democracy today. We have become far too accommodating and tolerant for our own good. . . Democracy in our time is  more likely to die of indifference than intolerance. Tolerance and understanding are important virtues, but they must not become an excuse for apathy.”

Lasch owes much to his reading of Hanna Arendt. Indeed, she insisted that our failure to exercise judgment is one of the most serious shortcomings of an age in which “being judgmental” has become a thing to avoid at all costs. As Arendt pointed out in her writings, if the Germans in the early years of the last century had been more judgmental, (and therefore less tolerant) then perhaps Hitler would never have risen to power. Like Arendt, who is another brilliant mind, Lach gives us all a great deal to think about. And that is what great writers do.

At year’s end, then, it might be a good thing for us all to resolve to be tolerant only of those things that do not warrant condemnation in ourselves and in others as well. We must beware that our tolerance not degenerate into indifference and apathy, lacking any sense of real concern about the world in which we live. Lasch reminds us that we must have convictions, and have the strength to speak out about those convictions. Otherwise we are simply taking up space in an increasingly crowded world.

Obscene?

It was recently announced on ESPN, the voice of sports that only seems to grow louder yet rarely says anything worth hearing, the Indiana Pacers’ talented player Paul George, who recently broke his leg in two places, injured himself on the day of the delivery of his $370,000 custom-made Ferrari. In its report, the irony of the car being delivered the day of George’s injury was noted, but not the slightest hint that in this day and age such a thing is just a bit obscene. Karma? Divine retribution? Or is it none of my business?

There are those who say that a talented basketball player who makes mega-bucks is entitled to spend his money the way he wants to. It’s his. He earned it honestly, and it’s no one’s business how he spends it — except, obviously, ESPN’s. They make pretty much anything remotely related to sports their business.

But from where I sit, it seems not only obscene, but even a bit immoral — if something can be a “bit” immoral. Given that there are millions of people on the planet who can’t put food on the table and/or have no place to call home, it seems wrong for any one person to spend that kind of money on a car. I would argue as follows: a person’s responsibility is a function of his ability to act. For example, if I see a crime being committed and have an operable cell phone, I have an obligation to call 911. Recall the outrage expressed over the murder of Kitty Genovese in New York which was witnessed by a number of people who took no action whatever. Responsibility is a function of ability, which includes knowledge, though ignorance may not be an excuse. Presumably, I know that 911 is the number of the police. If I don’t know it, I should.

Analogously, if a person makes a great deal of money and is able to make a difference, no matter how small, it seems he has an obligation to do so. If one insists that Paul George may not know about the people in need, I would say this is irrelevant. He should know, especially in an age of information overload. It’s not a huge secret and we all have an obligation to know as much as we can about the world in which we live — if for no other reason than to try to make it a better place. After all, it’s what it means to be a civilized human being, isn’t it?

But, it might be the case that Paul George gives a great deal of his money to charity and this instance of self-indulgence may be a rare example of his lack of concern for others. This is possible. ESPN hasn’t told me whether or not Paul George is a charitable person. I doubt  they will, since it lacks the sensational element that that their many sponsors are eager to pay for. But the purchase of this particular “custom-made” car is self-indulgence on a grand scale, and that alone makes it worth reflection. It just seems to me that if a person is in a position to help another who is in need, he ought to do so. Further, at some point, buying expensive toys that we simply don’t need is obscene. I’m just sayin’……

Thick and Thin

One of the more interesting books I read in my checkered past was written by a sociologist. I say that because it is remarkable given the fact that the man had more interesting things to say about my field in philosophy, namely ethics, than most of the philosophers I have read since Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill. The author, Michael Walzer,  begins with an anecdote and expands his argument into broader territory.

“I want to begin my argument by recalling a picture (I have in mind a film clip from the television news, late in that wonderful year 1989) . . . It is a picture of people marching in the streets of Prague; they carry signs, some of which simply say “Truth” and others “Justice.” When I saw the picture I knew immediately what the signs meant — and so did everyone else who saw the same picture. Not only that, but I recognized and acknowledged the values that the marchers were defending — and so did (almost) everyone else. . . .How could I penetrate so quickly and join so unreservedly in the language game or the power play of a distant demonstration?”

Imagine, I might add, we are sitting in our living room watching the news and we are confronted by a story about some folks on the other side of the world who are taken from their homes at night and locked up without a trial and never heard from again. Despite the fact that this is happening in another part of the world, we would not hesitate to judge that this is wrong. Walzer calls this part of “thin” morality — a few basic principles (he focuses on justice) that are binding anywhere and at all times. He makes a strong case, since any child can tell when injustice has reared its ugly head: just give one of them a smaller piece of birthday cake than their sibling! “It’s not fair,” they would shout! And since justice is essentially a matter of fairness, none would really argue with the child. That is the nature of thin morality: it is straight-forward and compelling to any open mind.

Of course, when it comes to morality we are not dealing with open minds. In this egalitarian age where all are regarded as equal in every possible respect and “discrimination” has become a nasty thing, we are admonished not to be “judgmental” and we are asked repeatedly “who’s to say” what’s right and what is wrong? Walzer argues that in the region of “thick” morality, namely those hundreds of morés that are peculiar to specific cultures, things are, indeed, relative. We don’t really care what the marriage customs are in far off countries, how people dress, whether they shave their faces, or whether kissing is considered unacceptable in public. Nor should we. It’s none of our business. In fact, when it comes to thick morality, the only people in a position to judge are those actually living in the culture making the judgment.

And this is where folks go wrong: they lump all of morality together, thick and thin, and draw the hasty conclusion that it’s all relative — to particular cultures or even to particular individuals. It’s part and parcel of our anti-intellectualism that has fostered a deep distrust of experts and our unwillingness to acknowledge that some people know more than others and some things are simply wrong. In itself, this may not be a matter of concern. But when we reflect that the war in Iraq, as an example, was undertaken by a small clique of small-minded people who were on a power trip and who refused to confer with known experts about the dangers such a war would invariably entail, we can see how this sort of blindness can lead to tragedy on a broad scale — thousands of lives lost and millions more displaced or out of mind. The war was wrong from the git-go.

In a word, ethics is not relative and there are some who know more about the world and what things might lead to catastrophe (and are therefore clearly wrong) than others. I would only add to Walzer’s notion of justice as the central concept in “thin” morality the related concept of human rights, which seems a bit broader. It would rule out such things as lying to Congress and the rest of the country about so-called “weapons of mass destruction,.” since we all have a right to the truth.  In any event, human rights certainly include justice, since all persons clearly have the right to be treated fairly. This does not mean people are all the same, or that everyone knows as much as everyone else. It simply means that all persons are equal before the law and are entitled to being treated the same way. It is a “thin” precept that is so simple a child can see it clearly.