One of the ways I cope with the vagaries of life, from mundane, day-to-day stressors to major events and tragedies, is to focus on one of several life projects that I have cultivated over the years: reading, gardening, aquaculture, and, of course, blogging. These and other activities give me something to look forward to each morning, and serve as a form of therapy, allowing me to suspend all other worries and focus on something as simple yet gratifying as completing a chapter in my favorite book, or watching my plants bear fruit.
It has become something of a cliche that liberty and security are at inherent odds with each other, and that strengthening one necessarily requires weakening the other. Most citizens of a democracy would ostensibly prefer less security in favor of more liberty — better to die free than to live as a slave, etc. But it is more complicated than that, because clearly one needs security — be it from war, civil unrest, or even natural disasters — to allow the conditions for democracy to emerge and function.
It is no coincidence that democracy historically, and to this day, takes roots in places that are stable and mostly free from existential threats. The United Kingdom, whose liberal and constrained parliamentary monarchy formed the basis of the United States’ owns democratic ideals, was an island nation that had not been successfully threatened or invaded since the early 12th century. The U.S. enjoyed, and continues to enjoy, an entire hemisphere without any remotely hostile, let alone viable, competitor, and has two big oceans to buffer it from the rest of the world. Both countries had the fortune of being able to experiment with freer forms of government without needing to rely on iron rule to protect them. Continue reading
Evolution by natural selection is blamed for promoting ruthless competition as a way to succeed in life — hence concepts such as “survival of the fittest” and “Social Darwinism”, which are seen as rooted in evolutionary theory but, are in fact perversions and misunderstandings of it. Take it from the man who formulated the theory of evolution:
The conclusion that cooperative groups will flourish at the expense of more selfish ones, and that as a result moral instincts will gradually evolve, was at the heart of [Charles Darwin’s] evolutionary writings. In The Descent of Man (1871) Darwin wrote about loving and cooperative behaviours in dogs, elephants, baboons, pelicans, and other species. He thought that sympathetic and cooperative tribes and groups would flourish in comparison with communities made up of more selfish individuals, and that natural selection would thus favour cooperation.
Another tendency that Darwin shares with more recent scientists is his willingness to leap from the world of natural selection to the language of morality. Writing of the evolution of human cooperation, Darwin predicted that “looking to future generations, there is no cause to fear that the social instincts will grow weaker, and we may expect that virtuous habits will grow stronger, becoming perhaps fixed by inheritance. In this case the struggle between our higher and lower impulses will be less severe, and virtue will be triumphant.”
The idea that evolution makes selfishness and immorality pivotal to survival is not only factually wrong, but a key reason why so many people — particularly the religious — are so reluctant to accept it as true. But mounting scientific evidence has verified Darwin’s early observations that prosocial behaviors are vital to our species’ flourishing: Continue reading
Philosophy has something of a bad rap. While associated with high mindedness and culture, it popularly perceived as an armchair discipline with very little real-world application. (Nevermind the research showing how surprisingly lucrative a philosophy degree can be.) But philosophy has more to give us than interesting thought experiments to chew on, or intellectual credibility among our peers. Even as we speak, it is being utilized in some very potent ways, as philosophy professor
Today innovative work in philosophy combines philosophical analysis and rigor, with organizational acumen and leadership. Much of this innovation is taking place in applied ethics. Typically, applied ethics involves identifying and analyzing social problems; sometimes it also proposes means for solving those problems in an ideal world. It rarely creates mechanisms capable of solving problems in the real world.
Personally, applied ethics is the part of philosophy that matters most to me, given how very relevant it is in a world beset with so many problems yet also so many potential solutions. Why humanity still struggles with hunger, poverty, war, and exploitation despite unprecedented abundance and freedom (by historical standards) must necessarily lead us to consider reflecting upon, and tweaking, our own moral and ethical foundations.
That said, here are some of the ways philosophers are seeking to improve the world by applying philosophical principles and discoveries:
- Lisa Fuller helps Médecins Sans Frontières (a.k.a. Doctors Without Borders) ground its missions and goals “on the basis of sound moral principles”, as informed by field research and the voices of those it has served. She helped refine the group’s values, such as organizational independence, solidarity, and integrity, and fleshed them out more transparently so as to improve moral and decision making, as well as set the bar for other humanitarian organizations.
- Thomas Pogge’s Health Impact Fund (HIF) addresses one of the most glaring yet little discussed injustices in the world: why so many sick and poor people are deprived of medicines for often treatable diseases. The HIF incentivizes research on neglected diseases by rewarding research and development funds to pharmaceutical firms that demonstrate quantifiable good health outcomes. This model is already being tested in Mumbai, India with regards to tuberculosis.
- The Life You Can Save organization, founded by Peter Singer, encourages people of all incomes to give more money to charity, and to do so in a way that will have the greatest impact. Through extensive and rigorous research, it highlights the best charities for donors to consider, and even offers a public forum through which people can pledge — and be accountable to — a certain promised amount. The group’s efforts have spawned the “effective altruism” movement, which emphasizes evidence and reason as guides towards high-impact giving.
- In the book Blood Oil, (which is on my reading list), Leif Wenar makes the case that the “purchasing practices of affluent countries, guided by the rule of might makes right” leads to untold human suffering in resource-rich countries. He advocates two solutions: the Clean Trade Act, which would make it it illegal to purchase oil from mis-governed nations; and the Clean Hands Trust, in which countries that purchase oil from exploitative regimes are subject to taxes that are then used to fund trusts in the interests of citizens of resource-cursed countries.
These are just some of the appreciable ways in which philosophy is being applied. They may not all prove effective or viable, but the point is to expand the limits of what we think we know in terms of evidence, reason, and ethics so as to continually improve the world and the human condition. The more analyze, debate, and reflect upon the state of the world and how we can better it, the closer we come to a fairer, more just, and more prosperous global society.
What are your thoughts?
The concept of consciousness — broadly speaking, the state of being aware of one’s self and the external world — is so complicated that a clear, universal definition is difficult to pin down. Indeed, the consensus within neuroscience seems to be that we will likely never have a solid, totally provable theory of consciousness — though one idea does come close, and it validates an observation made over two millennial ago.
As Quartz reports:
In 2008, neuroscientist Giulio Tononi at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Sleep and Consciousness put forward his “integrated information theory,” which is currently accepted as one of the most compelling explanations about what consciousness is.
One of the central claims of the theory is that, for consciousness to exist, it must have “cause-effect” power on itself.
Neurologist Melanie Boly, a resident at UW’s School of Medicine and Public Health who has worked with Tononi, explains that for anything to exist, it must be able to have an effect; it must be able to make some small difference to something else.
“Consciousness exists for itself and by itself”, says Boly. “Thus it should have cause and effect on itself”.
Boly is currently working with other researchers to develop a mathematical framework to test the predictions of integrated information theory.
The neurologist goes on to note that this promising theory they are working on testing follows a stream of conjectures going back at least to Plato, the famous fourth century B.C.E. philosopher. As he wrote in the dialog Sophist in 360 B.C.E.
“My notion would be, that anything which possesses any sort of power to affect another, or to be affected by another, if only for a single moment, however trifling the cause and however slight the effect, has real existence; and I hold that the definition of being is simply power.”
So if integrated information theory remains the most credible explanation for consciousness, as many neuroscientists believe is the case, we will have yet another example of pre-scientific philosophical conjecture managing to get at the fundamental nature of humanity and the metaphysical. Very interesting stuff, to say the least.
The iconic film critic, who died in 2013, redirected his talented writing from film to public reflections on his own mortality. His thoughts are relevant to any one of us who has ever contemplated the inevitability of our demise and how we come to terms with it, especially within a secular worldview (as Ebert himself prescribed to).
The following excerpt from his book, “Life Itself: A Memoir”, courtesy of Salon, reads as an ode to the humanist approach to life and death.
“Kindness” covers all of my political beliefs. No need to spell them out. I believe that if, at the end, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.
One of these days I will encounter what Henry James called on his deathbed “the distinguished thing”. I will not be conscious of the moment of passing. In this life I have already been declared dead. It wasn’t so bad. After the first ruptured artery, the doctors thought I was finished. My wife, Chaz, said she sensed that I was still alive and was communicating to her that I wasn’t finished yet. She said our hearts were beating in unison, although my heartbeat couldn’t be discovered. She told the doctors I was alive, they did what doctors do, and here I am, alive.
Do I believe her? Absolutely. I believe her literally — not symbolically, figuratively or spiritually. I believe she was actually aware of my call and that she sensed my heartbeat. I believe she did it in the real, physical world I have described, the one that I share with my wristwatch. I see no reason why such communication could not take place. I’m not talking about telepathy, psychic phenomenon or a miracle. The only miracle is that she was there when it happened, as she was for many long days and nights. I’m talking about her standing there and knowing something. Haven’t many of us experienced that? Come on, haven’t you? What goes on happens at a level not accessible to scientists, theologians, mystics, physicists, philosophers or psychiatrists. It’s a human kind of a thing.
Zen Pencils has an excellent and touching comic told through Ebert’s words on kindness. It is well worth giving a look.
Needless to say, as a self-identifying secular humanist, I subscribe to wholeheartedly to the idea that a contemplative, ethical life is the one most worth living. Regardless of one’s theological or metaphysical views about the nature of our universe and our place in it, trying to make the world a better place in any way is a relevant and life-affirming cause. It fills us and others with hope, meaning, and happiness, and allows us to face the prospect of death with greater courage — a life well lived makes death less scary, for we can die knowing that we did the most with our finite time on Earth.
What are your thoughts?
What bad habit have you put right today? Which fault did you take a stand against? In what respect are you better?
Ideally, these reflections would be part of everyone’s daily routine. We should begin everyday with the mindset that there may be some injustice that we must remedy, a flaw or problem that we must work on, an internal or external challenge that we must persevere against. We should end everyday reflecting on what we did or did not do, what we learned, what we changed for the better. Being a good, productive, and life-affirming person requires constant effort and mindfulness; it means making ethical conduct a habit, something to incorporate in one’s day-to-day activities, interactions, and decisions, big and small.
This is of course difficult to do on a consistent basis; it requires effort and force of will. And certainly, anyone with the time and mental clarity to devote themselves to thinking deeply about how they live and behave is likely in a position of socioeconomic privilege — financially stable, able to enjoy a certain amount of downtime, etc. But that just means we have all the more reason to make the most of our fortuitous circumstances, to apply ourselves in a meaningful way in the lives of others. It not only makes the world a better place, it makes us happier and more well-adjusted people.
Each day that we can count some measure of progress in some area of our lives — in our personal goals, moral character, etc. — is a day of gratification, of life affirmation, of hope that the next day will bring more opportunity, growth, and meaning in our lives. And if you are unable to cite any instance in which you did right by others or for yourself, then ask yourself why and learn from it. None of this is easy to do consistently, but few good things worth doing are.
What are your thoughts?
The fact is that, despite the emphasis we place on good intentions, we do routinely pass moral judgment on ourselves and others for outcomes that were not intended, not foreseen, and influenced by factors beyond our control. Philosophers call this
“moral luck”, by which they mean that the judgment we deserve often depends not only on our intentions, but on how our actions happen to turn out.
This moral vulnerability to luck is pervasive, because nothing at all that we do as parents is fully under our control.
The moral quandaries we face aren’t dissolved when we find their neurological and evolutionary basis any more than our appreciation of art is undermined by the neurological and evolutionary basis of our perception of depth and color. But the knowledge that we are influenced by these competing psychological processes supports the somewhat comforting philosophical idea that we will never find an entirely coherent, tidy, systematic view of our moral responsibility. We see that it is problematic, unfair, even tragic, to burden people with responsibility for outcomes beyond their control. But equally it would, in the words of philosopher Bernard Williams, “be a kind of insanity” never to experience sentiments like Ariel Castro’s mother—never to feel a need for forgiveness, a need to atone, a sense of being at fault—when our otherwise blameless actions (like giving birth to a child), or our nearly blameless actions (like parenting a child imperfectly) cause unforeseen disaster for others. Rather than attempting to reason ourselves into coherence, we should embark on the more modest task of reflecting on the actual experiences that are the stuff of our moral life so that we can see our untidy morality in all of its contradictory richness. Since we can neither eliminate our responsibility for chance outcomes, nor find clear criteria for when we should accept blame, we ought to shift our focus and ask how we can live with parenthood’s painful uncertainty. What obligations does it place on us? What consolation can we seek?
— Claire Creffield, “Parenthood, the Great Moral Gamble“, Nautilus
One of the nation’s finest debate teams lost to a group of New York inmates. It reads like something from a feel-good movie, but it happened back in October, and I had only recently heard the news. According to The Guardian:
The inmates were asked to argue that public schools should be allowed to deny enrollment to undocumented students, a position the team opposed.
One of the judges, Mary Nugent, told the Wall Street Journal that the Bard team effectively made the case that the schools which serve undocumented children often underperformed. The debaters proposed that if these so-called dropout factories refuse to enroll the children, then nonprofits and wealthier schools might intercede, offering the students better educations. She told the paper that Harvard’s debaters did not respond to all aspects of the argument.
The Harvard team directed requests for comment to a post on its Facebook page that commended the prison team for its achievements and complimented the work done by the Bard initiative.
“There are few teams we are prouder of having lost a debate to than the phenomenally intelligent and articulate team we faced this weekend, and we are incredibly thankful to Bard and the Eastern New York Correctional Facility for the work they do and for organizing this event,” the debate team wrote days after their loss.
Aside from Harvard, the team has beaten rivals from West Point and the University of Vermont.
Launched in 2001, Bard Prison Initiative is a privately funded program by nearby Bard College that offers inmates over sixty courses in the liberal arts; it has already expanded to six prisons. Anyone with a GED or equivalent can apply, and there is so much interest in it that each available spot has almost ten applicants.
While in prison, Kenner said students are encouraged to “make the most of every opportunity”.
Carlos Polanco, a 31-year-old from Queens and a member of Bard’s winning debate team, is among the roughly 15% of inmates at the correctional facility in Napanoch who has taken advantage of the education program.
“We have been graced with opportunity”, Polanco, who is in prison for manslaughter, told the Wall Street Journal after the debate. “They make us believe in ourselves”.
Indeed, only 2 percent of Bard’s graduates return to prison within three years (the usual assessment period) — compared to 40 percent statewide. It is amazing what an education, particularly in the humanities, can do for the human spirit. Here’s hoping more programs like this emerge around the country.
In a previous blog post, I shared the case for teaching philosophy to children. In the almost two years since, the idea of having such a seemingly esoteric and irrelevant subject as part of grade school curricula seems to have gained traction.
One case in point is an article in The Washington Post by , who not only advocates for more philosophy in school, but stresses that such courses are as important now than ever, given recent sociopolitical developments. Continue reading