Sleep and Ethics

Coming shortly after my blog about the consequences of sleep deprivation, a common issue in our society, Mic.com published an article about a Harvard study that found yet another negative effect from insufficient rest: bad ethics.

Previous research has shown that people are more likely to become more unethical as the day goes on, but the Harvard team wanted to see if people with different sleeping patterns had different responses to temptation. So the researchers separated study participants into morning larks and night owls and gave them two different decision-making tasks that actually tested their honesty.

The Harvard team found that “larks will be more unethical at night than in the morning, and that owls will be more unethical in the morning than at night” — the more tired people felt, the more they were inclined to lie.

Here’s a chart showing the correlation between lack of energy and lack of ethical scruples:

The results are not too surprising, given that lack of sleep has been linked to a wide variety of mental and emotional problems, including increased likelihood of irritability, depression, impaired judgement, and so on.  It stands to reason that a mind weakened by lack of sleep would under-perform in other areas as well.  You simply won’t be thinking as much or as clearly.

As with my previous post on the subject, the implications of this finding take us back to the socioeconomic paradigms of our society: namely a business culture that makes people work increasingly unpalatable hours that are simply not conducive to optimal physical or mental performance. The Mic article makes a similar note:

Studies like this challenge the notion of a traditional 9-5 workday: If people are naturally inclined to be more productive and ethical at different hours of the day, isn’t it inefficient and ultimately dangerous for a company to ask everyone to work the same hours?

The Harvard team think so. “Managers should try to learn the chronotype (lark, owl, or in between) of their subordinates and make sure to respect it when deciding how to structure their work,” they wrote in the Harvard Business Review. “Managers who ask a lark to make ethics-testing decisions at night, or an owl to make such decisions in the morning, run the risk of encouraging rather than discouraging unethical behavior.”

As technological advances make it easier for people to telecommute or restructure their schedules, it’s up to managers to decide whether they want to allow flexible workdays. If you can get people to operate at optimum efficiency and moral uprightness for their shift, does it matter when they do the work?

Unfortunately, Americans employers overall have a bad track record of heeding, much less implementing, such evidence-backed recommendations. There has already been good evidence, not to mention historical precedence, showing that people are more productive when paid better and given more leisure time; yet the trend has increasingly been in the opposite direction, regardless (for their part, most government agencies and school administrations have not followed suit either).

Barring a few forward-thinking and largely niche businesses, it does not seem likely that the average employer will be willing to provide that much flexible without legal and/or organized pressure (though in fairness, I could see some individual local managers in non-9-to-5 jobs designing their schedules to work with their employees’ preferences).

Otherwise, we should do our best, whenever possible, to maintain schedules that are more conducive to the wellness of our minds, bodies, and souls. The connection between our physical health and mental health cannot be understated.

The Enduring Lies About The Iraq War

I began systematically to investigate the answers to those and other related questions, enlisting the help of a team of reporters, researchers and other contributors that ultimately included 25 people. Nearly three years later, the Center for Public Integrity published Iraq: The War Card, a 380,000-word report with an online searchable database. [4] It was released on the eve of the five-year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq and was covered extensively by the national and international news media.

Our report found that in the two years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush and seven of his administration’s top officials made at least 935 false statements about the national security threat posed by Iraq. The carefully orchestrated campaign of untruths about Iraq’s alleged threat to US national security from its WMDs or links to al Qaeda (also specious) galvanized public opinion and led the nation to war under decidedly false pretenses. Perhaps most revealing: the number of false statements made by top Bush administration officials dramatically increased from August 2002 to the time of the critical October 2002 congressional approval of the war resolution and spiked even higher between January and March 2003, between Secretary of State Colin Powell’s address before the United Nations General Assembly and the fateful March 19, 2003, invasion.

– Charles Lewis, in an excerpt of 935 Lies available at BillMoyers.com

On Depression, Suicide, and Being a Good Person

The psychologist Rollo May once noted that “depression is the inability to construct a future”. Whatever the scientific merits of that observation, I believe it offers a reasonable explanation for how someone could do something that most of us would find impossible: consciously ending their own lives, often regardless of their seemingly positive circumstances. If one is unable to see any point to their lives, or to conceive of any future beyond the painful past and present that is all they know, then what other choice to they have, as far as they can see?

Obviously, depression and suicidal ideation are fundamentally personal matters that affect each individual differently, so I am reluctant to generalize about how it feels, where it stems from, and so on. Please take this as the uneducated stream of consciousness of one person and nothing more.

All I can say is that as a sufferer of depression and anxiety (both thankfully far milder than most), as well as someone familiar with the subject through loved ones and personal research, I have learned one valuable thing: no expression of love or validation is too small. Every little bit counts. No matter how futile it may seem, at the very least we must try.

I have heard too many stories of people being brought back from the brink of suicide and despair by the spontaneous phone call of a loved one, or the random act of kindness from a stranger. Humans inherently seek out validation and meaning in their lives; as a social and sentient species, we require both love and a sense of purpose. Simply being acknowledged by another human being, or being given something to work towards — a charitable cause, the making of art, the caring of others — is enough to enrich our lives and keep us going.

There is little I can say that is not already known: that suicide is irreversible, that depression and mental illness are nothing to be ashamed of and suffer alone with, that the people around you care and want you to stay. The unfortunate reality is that no matter how much we remind ourselves of these things, or how much we try to be there for others, the tragedy of the human condition continues. Many of us will be or feel powerless to help ourselves or others. In response to tragedy, we will reflect, act accordingly in the short term, but then move on until the next grim reminder.

Of course, this is not to discourage people from seeking help or offering it — doing good is still valuable and necessary regardless of whether bad things continue to happen. Over the years, I have learned from both personal experience and the accounts of others, that no matter what your mental status — depressed, suicidal, satisfied, etc — doing good for others feels deeply uplifting and self-actualizing. After all, we need to start somewhere, and in such a cruel world, no act of goodness is too small. It will always matter to someone, perhaps enough to save their lives. What have we got to lose in the process?

Ultimately, my point is that we must remain vigilant in our goodness and conscientiousness, to be kind and loving to as many of our fellow humans as possible. As the Scottish author Ian Maclaren rightly advised, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle”. In doing so, we can better our chances at enriching, if not saving, both others’ lives and our own. Even if it does not work out — if people continue to suffer, act self-destructively, or remain unmoved to act morally — at the very least we can say that we did very sincere best, and will continue to do so as long as human suffering on both an individual and societal level remains.

If you have read up to this point, thank you, and remember that I am always here for you, whether you’re an acquaintance or my very closest loved one. Your value as a person is all the same. Try me, you’ve got nothing to lose and no judgement to contend with. I know I can seem distant and unavailable, but believe me, I can and will make the time. It is hardly an inconvenience. On the contrary, it would be my honor. Be well my readers.

The Economic Sensibility of Housing the Homeless

It goes without saying that addressing the problem of homeless on all levels is a moral imperative. The ethical merit of keeping people off the streets, and helping uplift those already there, requires no argument (at least I should hope).

But unfortunately, in our world, morality is apparently not a good enough incentive. Even with all the capital that is available — whether it is wasted on the military industrial complex, sitting in offshore banks, or poured into pork-barrel projects — policies and solutions need to be cost-effective to gain any sort of political currency and public support.

Thankfully, there is a solution to alleviating homelessness that can bring together both moralists and cynics, providing the cost-efficiency that is so imperative to policymakers while legitimately helping those in need. 

Vox.com reported on a study by the Central Florida Commission that compared several approaches to addressing homeless in that region of the state (Florida has one of the highest rates of homeleness, not to mention poverty, in the country). 

[The study indicated] that the region spends $31,000 a year per homeless person on “the salaries of law-enforcement officers to arrest and transport homeless individuals — largely for nonviolent offenses such as trespassing, public intoxication or sleeping in parks — as well as the cost of jail stays, emergency-room visits and hospitalization for medical and psychiatric issues.”

Unsurprisingly, just dealing with the problem ad hoc or in a superficial sense is both costly and ineffective. But by contrast…

[Getting] each homeless person a house and a caseworker to supervise their needs would cost about $10,000 per person.

This particular study looked at the situations in Orange, Seminole, and Osceola Counties in Florida and of course conditions vary from place to place. But as Scott Keyes points out, there are similar studies showing large financial savings in Charlotte and Southeastern Colorado from focusing on simply housing the homeless.

The general line of thinking behind these programs is one of the happier legacies of the George W Bush administration. His homelessness czar Philip Mangano was a major proponent of a “housing first” approach to homelessness. And by and large it’s worked. Between 2005 and 2012, the rate of homelessness in America declined 17 percent. Figures released this month from the National Alliance to End Homeless showed another 3.7 percent decline. That’s a remarkable amount of progress to make during a period when the overall economic situation has been generally dire.

Here is a visual picture of the state of homelessness in the U.S.

Screen_shot_2014-05-30_at_9.26.15_am

Source: National Alliance to End Homelessness / Vox.com.

Keep in mind that this statistical success has taken place during some of the toughest economic times in our country’s history (and Florida’s economy was especially hard hit). As the article notes, there is a good reason why housing the homeless is more tenable than many would think:

When it comes to the chronically homeless, you don’t need to fix everything to improve their lives. You don’t even really need new public money. What you need to do is target those resources at the core of the problem — a lack of housing — and deliver the housing, rather than spending twice as much on sporadic legal and medical interventions. And the striking thing is that despite the success of housing first initiatives, there are still lots of jurisdictions that haven’t yet switched to this approach. If Central Florida and other lagging regions get on board, we could take a big bite out of the remaining homelessness problem and free up lots of resources for other public services.

There you go: a win-win for everyone, especially (and most importantly) he hundreds of thousands of homeless people across the country whose plight needn’t be ignored for either ethical or practical reasons. 

Your thoughts?

Prisoners and the Art of Winemaking

There are many things wrong with the U.S. justice system, but perhaps the chiefest problem is high recidivism: as of 2011 (the most recent reliable data I could find) an average of 43.3 percent of prisoners fall back into crime. Clearly, the rehabilitation system isn’t living up to its name.

One of the key causes of this is the lack of skills and opportunities among the largely poor and marginalized groups that make up the prison population. Easing up on the restrictions imposed on the formerly incarcerated, while imparting them with marketable skills, would go a long way in improving their lives and those of their families and communities (which in turn would help the U.S. economy as a whole, given the size and proportion of this population).

Italy is another country struggling with this problem — in fact, the rate of re-offense is as high as 80 percent, and Italian prisons meet similar criticisms regarding the poor and counterproductive treatment of prisoners. So some enterprising reformers decided to address the matter in a uniquely Italian way: teaching prisoners the art of winemaking, which is being spearheaded in the penal colony of Gorgona in Tuscany. As the New York Times reported:

For the past two years, Frescobaldi enologists and agronomists have imparted their know-how to a group of the island’s inmates as part of a rehabilitation program that aims to provide skills for life after their release.

Recidivism is high, around 80 percent, for the inmates of Italian prisons, “but instead, if you give people education, training, or access to a job, recidivism drops to 20 percent,” said Lamberto Frescobaldi, president of Marchesi de’ Frescobaldi, and the driving force behind the project.

Giuseppe Fedele, an educator at Gorgona, where training programs have been going on for years, said that “the best thanks a prisoner can show when he is released from here is not to be sent back to prison.”

As you would imagine, the details of this program are both interesting and inspiring:

First opened in 1869, the prison operates like a working farm. Some inmates carry out agricultural chores — growing fruit and vegetables, raising livestock, and making cheeses and bread — while others work in maintenance or in the kitchen and commissary.

“It’s still a prison, but the day flies because you’re working. It’s one thing to be in a cell for 12 hours, another to be outside, busy doing something,” said Santo Scianguetta, who has six years to go on a 16-year sentence, adding that the experience of working in the vineyard was building his confidence. “I think a lot about getting out. And now I see hope in the future.”

Most of the inmates here are serving the final years of long sentences for serious crimes, including murder. Prison officials asked that for reasons of privacy, reporters refrain from specifying their individual crimes.

Projects like the Frescobaldi initiative make inmates feel like “the protagonists of their incarceration, and not passive recipients where the state is the enemy,” said Mr. Mazzerbo, the prison director, who has lobbied to extend similar programs to other Italian prisons.

“It costs nothing to change the mentality” of an inmate, Mr. Mazzerbo said. “You can do that anywhere. You don’t need an island.”

Several penitentiaries are already involved in economic activities, and at least two others produce wine. Some penitentiaries are involved in food or fashion initiatives, and products can be ordered from the Justice Ministry website.

Prisoners here receive a monthly wage, about two thirds of what they would get on the outside, based on the provincial agricultural labor contract. “It’s good not to depend on our families for money,” said Ciro Amato, who is serving a 30-year sentence. “At least here you get an opportunity. In many cases people leave prison angrier than before.”

It’s a small start, and not without its challenges, but it is definitely worth trying. While there are similar initiatives in the U.S. (albeit many of which are accused of being exploitative and underpaying), we should definitely take steps to make such programs the norm, along with minimizing such an unusually high rate of incarceration to begin with (although that is a different story for another post).

The Way We Treat Children

If my perceptions are correct, there seems to be a growing sentiment (perhaps typical of each older generation) that today’s youth are needlessly and excessively coddled and “wussified” (to use the kinder terminology). But the apparently prevailing notion that kids nowadays are excessively spoiled is actually dangerously overstated, according to a recent article in AlterNet by Paul L. Thomas, a doctor of education and long-time teacher.

After recalling a few anecdotes regarding personal or observed mistreatment of kids (mostly in the context of school), he makes the following point:

A day or so ago, I received an email from Alfie Kohn about his new book, The Myth of the Spoiled Child. I noticed it was similar to a book I am co-editing, Pedagogies of Kindness and Respect: On the Lives and Education of Children. I also noted that our perspectives on children—on how parents, teachers, and society treat children—appears to be a minority view.

I have been mulling, or more likely stewing, about this for some time: What makes adults—even the ones who choose to spend their lives with children—so damned negative and hateful about those children? That is the source of my palpable anger at the “grit,”“no excuses,” and “zero tolerance” narratives and policies. I grew up and live in the South, where the default attitude toward children remains that they are to be seen and not heard, that a child’s role is to do as she/he is told. If a child crosses those lines, then we must teach her/him a lesson, show her/him who is boss—rightfully, we are told, by hitting that child: spare the rod spoil the child. I find that same deficit view of children is not some backwoods remnant of the ignorant South; it is the dominant perspective on children throughout the U.S.

As Barbara Kingsolver explains in “Everybody’s Somebody’s Baby”:

>>For several months I’ve been living in Spain, and while I have struggled with the customs office, jet lag, dinner at midnight and the subjunctive tense, my only genuine culture shock has reverberated from this earthquake of a fact: People here like kids. They don’t just say so, they do. Widows in black, buttoned-down c.e.o.’s, purple-sneakered teen-agers, the butcher, the baker, all have stopped on various sidewalks to have little chats with my daughter. Yesterday, a taxi driver leaned out his window to shout “ Hola, guapa !” My daughter, who must have felt my conditioned flinch, looked up at me wide-eyed and explained patiently, “I like it that people think I’m pretty.”

With a mother’s keen myopia, I would tell you, absolutely, my daughter is beautiful enough to stop traffic. But in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, I have to confess, so is every other person under the height of one meter. Not just those who agree to be seen and not heard. When my daughter gets cranky in a restaurant (and really, what do you expect at midnight?), the waiters flirt and bring her little presents and nearby diners look on with that sweet, wistful gleam of eye that before now I have only seen aimed at the dessert tray. Children are the meringues and eclairs of this culture. Americans, it seems to me now, sometimes regard children as a sort of toxic-waste product: a necessary evil, maybe, but if it’s not their own they don’t want to see it or hear it or, God help us, smell it.<<

I’ve often noticed — and frankly even related with — the contradictory ways in which we regard children: they’re cute and enlivening on the one hand, but also irritating and burdensome on the other.  Their easily exploitable and powerless status also makes them a tempting target for venting one’s frustration or sense of inadequacy, which perhaps explains why children — along with women and the elderly — are frequently the victims of abuse in households and care centers.

Thomas also notes how the overall negative treatment of children intersects with racist and classist sentiments as well:

A child is not a small adult, not a blank slate to be filled with our “adult weariness,” or a broken human that must be repaired. It is also true that children are not angels; they are not pure creatures suited to be set free to find the world on their own. Seeing children through deficit or ideal lenses does not serve them—or anyone—well.

>>Within the U.S. culture there is a schizophrenia around kids—we worship young adulthood in popular media, but seem to hate children—that is multiplied exponentially by a lingering racism and classism that compounds the deficit view of childhood. Nowhere is this more evident than in the research showing how people view children of color:

Asked to identify the age of a young boy that committed a felony, participants in a study routinely overestimated the age of black children far more than they did white kids. Worse: Cops did it, too… The correlation between dehumanization and use of force becomes more significant when you consider that black boys are routinely estimated to be older than they are… The less the black kids were seen as human, the less they were granted “the assumption that children are essentially innocent.” And those officers who were more likely to dehumanize black suspects overlapped with those who used more force against them.<<

In the enduring finger-pointing dominant in the U.S.—blaming the poor for their poverty, blaming racial minorities for the burdens of racism, blaming women for the weight of sexism—we maintain a gaze that blinds us to ourselves, and allows us to ignore that in that gaze are reflections of the worst among us.

Why do the police sweep poor African American neighborhoods and not college campuses in search of illegal drugs? Why do we place police in the hallways of urban high schools serving mostly poor African American and Latino students, demanding “zero tolerance”? Why are “grit” narratives and “no excuses” policies almost exclusively targeting high-poverty, majority-minority schools (often charter schools with less public oversight)?

Here’s the basic crux of Thomas’ point.

Children are not empty vessels to be filled, blank hard drives upon which we save the data we decide they should have. Nor are children flawed or wild; they do not need us to repair or break them. Neither are they to be coddled or worshipped. They are children, and they are all our children. Yes, there are lessons to be taught, lessons to be learned. But those driven by deficit or idealized views are corrupted and corrupting lessons. Each and every child—as all adults—deserves to have her/his basic dignity respected, first, and as adults charged with the care of any child, our initial question before we do anything with or to a child must be about ourselves. In 31 years of teaching, I can still see and name the handful of students I mis-served in my career, like Billy above. Those faces and names today serve as my starting point: with any child, first do no harm.

What do you think?

The James Bond of Philanthropy

In my view, with great wealth comes great responsibility. It gives you the capacity to do tremendous good or harm in the world, far more than the overwhelming majority of fellow humans. A little-known Irish-American businessman named Chuck Feeney exemplifies the incredible moral potential that the world’s richest can exercise if they so choose. Forbes did a piece on this amazing philanthropist in 2012, likening him to James Bond for his uniquely low-key and strategic approach to charitable giving:

Over the last 30 years he’s crisscrossed the globe conducting a clandestine operation to give away a $7.5 billion fortune derived from hawking cognac, perfume and cigarettes in his empire of duty-free shops. His foundation, the Atlantic Philanthropies, has funneled $6.2 billion into education, science, health care, aging and civil rights in the U.S., Australia, Vietnam, Bermuda, South Africa and Ireland. Few living people have given away more, and no one at his wealth level has ever given their fortune away so completely during their lifetime. The remaining $1.3 billion will be spent by 2016, and the foundation will be shuttered in 2020. While the business world’s titans obsess over piling up as many riches as possible, Feeney is working double time to die broke.

Feeney embarked on this mission in 1984, in the middle of a decade marked by wealth creation–and conspicuous consumption–when he slyly transferred his entire 38.75% ownership stake in Duty Free Shoppers to what became the Atlantic Philanthropies. “I concluded that if you hung on to a piece of the action for yourself you’d always be worrying about that piece,” says Feeney, who estimates his current net worth at $2 million (with an “m”). “People used to ask me how I got my jollies, and I guess I’m happy when what I’m doing is helping people and unhappy when what I’m doing isn’t helping people.”

What Feeney does is give big money to big problems–whether bringing peace to Northern Ireland, modernizing Vietnam’s health care system or seeding $350 million to turn New York’s long-neglected Roosevelt Island into a technology hub. He’s not waiting to grant gifts after he’s gone nor to set up a legacy fund that annually tosses pennies at a $10 problem. He hunts for causes where he can have dramatic impact and goes all-in. “Chuck Feeney is a remarkable role model,” Bill Gates tells FORBES, “and the ultimate example of giving while living.”

I highly recommend you read the rest of the article, as it eventually discusses the nuances of Feeny’s character and his rather sophisticated philanthropic methods. The amount of wealth he is donating in both proportional and absolute terms is staggering enough without the added humility and strategic approach.

It is unfortunate that amid ever-higher rates of inequality — best epitomized by the fact that a mere 85 individuals own more wealth than around half of the world’s poorest people (3.5 billion) — most of the world’s elites aren’t following in Feeny’s footsteps, or at the very least donating more than a mere percentage of their assets. There’s a lot of untapped potential out there, and even a number of us who are comfortably well-off could be doing more.

Reason, Empathy, and Human Progress: A Dialogue

TED Talk has a great 15-minute animation of a conversation between psychologist Steven Pinker and philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein regarding the role of reason and empathy in bettering our species overall (the ending of slavery, alleviation of poverty, etc). Done in the spirit of an illuminating and investigative Socratic method, it’s a very stimulating conversation.

Do you agree with their conclusion? What are your thoughts on the matter?

A Brief Amateur Guide to Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism is a universalistic consequentialist ethical theory that judges the moral worth of an action based on its results. An ethical theory is any system of thought that provides a process for developing moral rules and guidelines and that establishes criteria for evaluating the moral value of particular human actions.

Like every ethical theory, utilitarianism emerged in a particular context which influenced its foundation and development; specifically, 19th century Industrial England. In this era, economic, commercial, and technological innovations were allowing a growing number of people unprecedented access to goods, services, and wealth. At the same time, however, there was widespread inequality, labor exploitation, and social stratification. The potential for achieving individual and societal prosperity was higher than ever, but people remained disenfranchised and abused in order to perpetuate the early industrial and capitalist system. Society was being radically restructured.

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Excellence as Habit

This apt observation was made over two thousand years ago, and it remains as relevant today as it did then. This reflects the universal fact that to be moral and virtuous is a conscious and continuous effort. We have to be as reflective and analytical as possible with respect to the decisions we make and the interactions we have; in this way, we determine the best course of action in terms of ethics, integrity, and self-improvement.

Furthermore, we should never be complacent about our presumed moral character, or assume we’re inherently moral as it is, because that could lead to a blind-spot in our own behavior. To be a moral person is a constant work in progress, because we’re constantly learning new things and expanding upon our understanding (and definition) of what is good, what is ethical, what is excellence, etc.

Of course, none of this is easy, but the rewards are worthwhile, especially if enough people do it at once.

What are your thoughts on this? What do you do to be a better person?Who or what has inspired you or helped you to this end?