U.N. Finds Vast Decline in Global Poverty, Though Big Challenges Remain

Last Monday, the United Nations published details from its final report on the results of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a set of targets established 15 years ago to improve the lives of the poor. The eight goals covered every dimension of extreme poverty, from eradicating hunger and child mortality, to improving environmental sustainability and gender equality.

As the New York Times reported, the results were mixed but nonetheless encouraging.

Dire poverty has dropped sharply, and just as many girls as boys are now enrolled in primary schools around the world. Simple measures like installing bed nets have prevented some six million deaths from malaria. But nearly one billion people still defecate in the open, endangering the health of many others.

“The report confirms that the global efforts to achieve the goals have saved millions of lives and improved conditions for millions more around the world”, the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, said Monday as he released the report in Oslo.

In fact, though, how much of those gains can be attributed to the goals is unknown. The sharp reductions in extreme poverty are due largely to the economic strides made by one big country, China. Likewise, some of the biggest shortfalls can be attributed to a handful of countries that remain very far behind. In India, for example, an estimated 600 million people defecate in the open, heightening the risk of serious disease, especially for children.

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Teaching Philosophy to Children

I have shared arguments for why philosophy should be made a greater part of public life, including primary school curricula. But what would teaching kids philosophy look like? Would it really be feasible for such young and still-developing minds? Freelance filmmaker and philosophy teacher Giacomo Esposito thinks it is both desirable and perfectly manageable to teach philosophy to primary school children.

A member of The Philosophy Foundation, which advocates for and facilitates philosophy courses in school, he makes his case in The Guardian, first by outlining how he goes about it.

…While the number of jobs with the word “philosophy” in their title may be limited, the skills and techniques I learned at university have continued to benefit me since I left – hence why the idea of teaching them to children appealed.

The sessions I run usually begin with a story or short “stimulus” which draws on a traditional philosophical problem, but reframes it to make it more engaging for a younger audience. The story then ends with a question, and a discussion ensues. Throughout the class, I try to take a backseat; I’m there to help draw out the children’s thoughts, but it’s really for them to decide where the discussion goes and, crucially, what they think. In fact, rather than teaching philosophy, a more accurate description of my job is “doing” philosophy with children.

And contrary to popular belief, children are far better suited to embracing and understanding philosophy than their ages would suggest. Indeed, the subject is a natural fit. Continue reading

The Langar of Sikhism

Among world religions, Sikhism is among the most fascinating to me. During my period of religious uncertainty, when my exploration other faiths was at its height (though by no means diminished since), the Sikhs were of particular interest, their history, culture, attire, symbols, and doctrines were all quite engaging (though I admit that in those young years, the exoctiism of it all probably played a bigger role than anything).

One aspect of Sikhism that I deeply respect and admire, especially as a Secular Humanist, is the langara public kitchen and canteen that freely feeds any visitors regardless of faith or background.

Even in communities wherein Sikhs are minorities, the langar tradition is maintained, as the BBC reported:

For the volunteers handing out food here, this is more than just good charitable work. For them this is a religious duty enshrined by the founder of the Sikh religion, Guru Nanak, over 500 years ago. At a time of deep division by caste and religious infighting between Hindus and Muslims in India, Guru Nanak called for equality for all and set forward the concept of Langar — a kitchen where donated produce, prepared into wholesome vegetarian curry by volunteers, is freely served to the community on a daily basis.

Today, thousands of free Langar meals are served every day in Sikh temples throughout the UK. The Guru Singh Sabha Gurdwara in Southall, thought to be the biggest Sikh temple outside of India, says it alone serves 5,000 meals on weekdays and 10,000 meals on weekends. Every Sikh has the duty to carry out Seva, or selfless service, says Surinder Singh Purewal, a senior member of the temple management team. “It means we’re never short of donations or volunteers to help prepare the Langar.”

It is good to highlight the charity and good deeds of other religious or cultural groups, especially those that are often marginalized, misunderstood, or simply unknown.

While I obviously put no stock in religion, I do make a point to acknowledge and support those doctrines that, while grounded in faith, on a deeper level stem reflect a humanistic values. Compassion and generosity are to be encouraged in whatever form they take, so long as the motivation is sincere and altruistic (e.g. not about divine favor or command).

Here are some photos of langar courtesy of Wikipedia.

101 Great Zen Sayings and Proverbs

You do not have to subscribe to Zen Buddhism, or indeed be religious, to appreciate the wisdom of these sayings (many of which are not, in any case, explicitly spiritual or Buddhist in origin or application). I know quotes can seem trite and vacuous, but a lot of these are worth reflecting on.

My personal favorite is the following by B. D. Schiers (whom I oddly cannot find much information on).

If you want to change the world, start with the next person who comes to you in need.

This goes back to one of the first lessons I ever learned on the path to better moral living: that no good deed is too small, and that change on any level, even just the way we treat a stranger on the street, can be the start of a better world in the aggregate.

While the bigger picture is of course important and should not be overlooked, but you have to start somewhere, so why not during the routine interactions and moral decisions we encounter every day?

Feel free to share your favorite quotes from this list and what you take away from them — or offer your own if not mentioned.

Hat tip to Buddaimonia.com for the list.

Living the Stoic Life

Over at the New York Times, noted Italian philosopher Massimo Pigliucci shares his experiences with stoicism, an ancient philosophy and way of life that has deeply impacted him, as well as myself.

The foundational view of the stoic mindset and approach can best be summarized by a quote in the article:

What, then, is to be done? To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it naturally happens.

Like many philosophies, stoicism is timeless in its wisdom and application, especially in a modern world rife with overstimulation, business, and subsequent stress and turmoil. No wonder it is getting renewed attention over 2,000 years after it was first propagated by the Greek Zeno of Citium.

Thousands of people, for instance, participated in the third annual Stoic Week, a worldwide philosophy event cum social science experiment organized by a team at the University of Exeter, in England. The goal of Stoic Week is twofold: on the one hand, to get people to learn about Stoicism and how it can be relevant to their lives; on the other hand, to collect systematic data to see whether practicing Stoicism actually does make a difference to people’s lives.

Stoicism was born in Hellenistic Greece, very much as a practical philosophy, one that became popular during the Roman Empire,and that vied over centuries for cultural dominance with the other Greek schools. Eventually, Christianity emerged, and actually incorporated a number of concepts and even practices of Stoicism. Even today, the famous Serenity Prayer recited at Alcoholic Anonymous meetings is an incarnation of a Stoic principle enunciated by Epictetus: “What, then, is to be done? To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it naturally happens.” (“Discourses”)

From there, Pigliucci cites his own inspiration for pursuing stoicism, which is not all different from own.

As a scientist and philosopher by profession, I always try to figure out more coherent ways to understand the world (science) and better choices for living my life (philosophy). I have for many years been attracted to virtue ethics — a core of Stoic philosophy — as a way to think about morality and a life worth living. I have also recently passed the half century mark, one of those arbitrary points in human life that nonetheless somehow prompt people to engage in broader reflections on who they are and what they are doing.

Lastly, Stoicism speaks directly to a lifelong preoccupation I’ve harbored that is present in nearly all forms of religion and philosophical practice — the inevitability of death and how to prepare for it. The original Stoics devoted a great deal of effort and writing to what Seneca famously referred to as the ultimate test of character and principle. “We are dying every day,” he wrote to his friend Marcia in consolation for the loss of her son. Because of this confluence of factors, I decided to take a serious look at Stoicism as a comprehensive philosophy, to devote at least a year to its study and its practice.

Although not a scientist myself, I came to stoicism following my drift from religion and the subsequent search for new ways to seek truth, purpose, and moral living. I turned to science and philosophy as my guides to the world and the foundations of my ethical framework, and stoicism was among the schools of thought that most stood out to me as both relevant and useful.

And like Pigliucci, for as long as I can remember, I have always had both a fascination and fear of death, which only worsened with time regardless of my religiosity. So stoicism (among other philosophies, like Epicureanism), helped me come to terms with this reality and how to cope with it. I found comfort and solidarity in the fact that humans the world over have historically struggled with and reflected upon these same issues, devising all sorts of solutions grounded in both secular and spiritual thought. (Buddhism, which shares many parallels with Stoicism, emerged in the East around the same time, while various other world religions have developed particular doctrines or lifestyles that take a similar approach to moral living.)

After reflecting on the empirical results of Stoic Week — namely that participants saw a significant increase in their positive mood and overall life satisfaction — Pigliucci weighs in with his own approach to living stoically. It is an informative model to consider.

Nonetheless, I think it is worth considering what it means to “be a Stoic” in the 21st century. It doesn’t involve handling a turbulent empire as Marcus Aurelius had to do, or having to deal with the dangerous madness of a Nero, with the fatal consequences that Seneca experienced. Rather, my modest but regular practice includes a number of standard Stoic “spiritual” exercises.

I begin the day by retreating in a quiet corner of my apartment to meditate. Stoic meditation consists in rehearsing the challenges of the day ahead, thinking about which of the four cardinal virtues (courage, equanimity, self-control and wisdom) one may be called on to employ and how.

I also engage in an exercise called Hierocles’ circle, imagining myself as part of a growing circle of concern that includes my family and friends, my neighbors, my fellow citizens, humanity as a whole, all the way up to Nature itself.

I then pass to the “premeditatio malorum,” a type of visualization in which one imagines some sort of catastrophe happening to oneself (such as losing one’s job), and learns to see it as a “dispreferred indifferent,” meaning that it would be better if it didn’t happen, but that it would nonetheless not affect one’s worth and moral value. This one is not for everybody: novices may find this last  exercise emotionally disturbing, especially if it involves visualizing one’s own death, as sometimes it does. Nonetheless, it is very similar to an analogous practice in C.B.T. meant to ally one’s fears of particular objects or events.

Finally, I pick a Stoic saying from my growing collection (saved on a spreadsheet on DropBox and available to share), read it to myself a few times and absorb it as best as I can. The whole routine takes about ten minutes or so.

Throughout the rest of the day, my Stoic practice is mostly about mindfulness, which means to remind myself that I not only I live “hic et nunc,” in the here and now, where I must pay attention to whatever it is I am doing, but, more importantly, that pretty much every decision I make has a moral dimension, and needs to be approached with proper care and thoughtfulness. For me this often includes how to properly and respectfully treat students and colleagues, or how to shop for food and other items in the most ethically minded way possible (there are apps for that, naturally).

Finally, my daily practice ends with an evening meditation, which consists in writing in a diary (definitely not meant for publication!) my thoughts about the day, the challenges I faced, and how I handled them. I ask myself, as Seneca put it in “On Anger”: “What bad habit have you put right today? Which fault did you take a stand against? In what respect are you better?”

As Pigliucci cautions (and I concur) Stoicism is not for everyone: it can be demanding to put into practice, and for some lifestyles and personalities, it may seem untenable or even undesirable. Plus, given its ancient origins, some Stoic concepts are dated or fail to take into account the findings of modern science or psychology.

Of course, no philosophy is intended to be a catch-all on all matters and concerns of human existence. Stoicism still offers a lot of salient quotes, perspectives, and ideas well worth taking into consideration, at the very least. It can be tweaked, added upon, or altered to suit our own individual goals and worldviews. As Pigliucci rightly observes:

In the end, of course, Stoicism is simply another path some people can try out in order to develop a more or less coherent view of the world, of who they are, and of how they fit in the broader scheme of things.

I think just about anyone who is concerned with living a just and purposeful life would share in that sentiment. This philosophy has greatly influenced my life, not only in giving me purpose and ethical grounding, but  in helping to minimize my anxiety and depression. Of course, applying it correctly and consistently is a continuous process, but one that is well worth pursuing.

If you are interested in learning more about Stoicism, read the works of Marcus Aurelius (namely Meditations, which I have written about here and here), founder Zeno of Citium (what little of it survives), Seneca the Younger, and Epictetus. Best of luck on your journey to a stoic life.

Reflecting On The Killing Of Three Muslim Students

I rarely post about current events or news stories, but I have a rare bit of time and this even merits attention and reflection.

Last night, three Muslim students — Deah Barakat, 23; his wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21; and her sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19 — were shot dead at a housing complex near University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. The perpetrator was Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, who handed himself over to the police afterward. News is still unfolding as of this post, and the motive remains unclear, though some reports claim cite a dispute over parking — of all things to kill lover.

The natural question that comes to mind (or that should) is whether this incident was motivated by anti-Islam bigotry. This would certainly fit the pattern of post-9/11 attacks and harassment towards Muslims or those perceived to be Muslim (namely Sikhs). Opposition to Islam, ranging from criticism of the religion to out-and-out bigotry, have definitely seen an uptick in recent months following high-profile incidents involving Islamic extremists, such as the Charlie Hebdo shootings and the barbarism of Boko Haram and IS.

Given the present lack of information, it is difficult to determine why Hicks killed these people, although some sources have pointed out his open condemnation and mockery of organized religion on social media, as well as his association with atheist groups (albeit mainstream ones like Atheist for Equality that, to my knowledge, do not advocate violence or discrimination against religion people).

Ultimately, whether or not the perpetrator’s dislike of religion played a role in his decision to escalate a dispute into a murderous assault, it remains true that his atheism did not prevent him from such an immoral crime.

This tragic incident reaffirms why I much prefer the label of secular humanist over just plain atheist, precisely because mere disbelief in a deity or the supernatural says nothing about one’s morality or character. Atheism denotes what you do not have — religious beliefs — but not what you have chosen to replace said beliefs or ethical foundations with. Hence why atheists run the gamut from humanists like Albert Einstein to monsters like Joseph Stalin.

It goes without saying that a humanist framework is one that precludes violence against other humans, regardless of their beliefs, religious or otherwise. Of course people will always harm and kill one another regardless of whatever authority or precept they alleged to follow or associate with, whether it is secular or religious in nature. But this fact of human nature, whereby bad actions are caused by all sorts of other factors outside professed belief, does not preclude the creation of a comprehensive and authoritative moral and ethical framework.

Moreover, it is worth pointing out the distinction between being critical of religion as an idea and institution — all while still recognizing the humanity of its adherents — and hating religiously identifying people on such a visceral and hateful level as the perpetrator allegedly did. I myself am highly critical of religion as a whole, but I certainly do not view religious people as this faceless Other without personality, hopes, dreams, feelings, and humanity. Atheist or not, there is a difference between disliking or criticizing beliefs and ideas and taking the next step to hate or kill those innocents who hold such beliefs without harm to anyone else.

That said, it is important to remind fellow atheists to be careful to distinguish themselves (and their atheist leaders) as religious skeptics from religious bigots who incite such attacks or (in thankfully rare cases) directly perpetrates them. I am not trying to make this tragedy about me or the atheist movement, but highlighting the inherent dangers of proclaiming moral superiority by virtue of casting off religion while ignoring that one can still be a bad person, morally or behaviorally, regardless of what one believes.

If we are going to promote a skeptical view of religion, and opposition to its more harmful affects (both institutional and ideological), than we must do so alongside the propagation of a humanist ethic. By all means, critique religion and seek to minimize its harm, as I certainly do, but also recognize and fight the harms of non-religious origin, and more importantly see the humanity of the billions of fellow humans who, like it or not, hold religious views of some form or another.

All that said, I do not mean to read into this senseless act the larger issue of bigotry, lack of empathy, and the like; while likely factors, the details once again remain unknown for certain. It is also certainly not my intention to exploit a tragedy as an opportunity to get on a soap box for my own purposes and movement.

Rather, I am just tired of seeing people kill each other in such wanton manners for one reason or another: ideological, religious, anti-religious, opportunistic, etc. While I know this horror is a fact of human existence (at least for the foreseeable future — I cling to a kernel of utopianism), that does not mean that I want to be indifferent to the large psychological, social, and ideological factors underpinning so much of the killing and harming that goes on everyday somewhere in the world.

Given what little help I can lend to these unfortunate victims, the very least I can do — and in fact, feel obligated to do — is use the opportunity to reflect upon my own moral foundations and those of my fellow humans, both secular and non-religious. Maybe it is my way of trying to make sense of the senseless, or trying to derive meaning from sheer tragedy, but it is all I can do. I like to think that if enough of us continuous reflect on why we do the awful things we do, and what we can do about it, such barbarous acts will become more rare if not extinct.

One can still dream. In the meantime, my heart goes out to the victims and their loved ones. From what reports show, these young people were not only bright and talented, but socially conscious and humanitarian. By all accounts, they were, in other words, what humanists should aspire to be.

The Suffering Refugees Who Can’t Go Home

What do you say to a mother with tears streaming down her face who says her daughter is in the hands of the Islamic State, or ISIS, and that she wishes she were there, too? Even if she had to be raped and tortured, she says, it would be better than not being with her daughter.

What do you say to the 13-year-old girl who describes the warehouses where she and the others lived and would be pulled out, three at a time, to be raped by the men? When her brother found out, he killed himself.

How can you speak when a woman your own age looks you in the eye and tells you that her whole family was killed in front of her, and that she now lives alone in a tent and has minimal food rations?

— Angelina Jolie, A New Level of Refugee SufferingNew York Times

That is just a taste of the awful conditions and circumstances faced by the millions of Syrians and Iraqis fleeing some of the most savage and chaotic conflict in generations — not including the millions more displaced within their respective countries, and the hundred of thousands killed, maimed, or missing.

There can be no doubt that the Syrian Civil War, and the subsequent emergence of IS from the chaos, is one of the greatest humanitarian and moral calamities in decades. It is hard to imagine that this horror is being played out in such a large scale in other crises across the world, from Central African Republic to Burma.

I have no idea how to even conceive of this suffering, let alone face it in person.

Jolie, who has a notable track record as a humanitarian, strikes me as sincere in her observations and humanism. One particular point that was salient to me as an International Relations major:

At stake are not only the lives of millions of people and the future of the Middle East, but also the credibility of the international system. What does it say about our commitment to human rights and accountability that we seem to tolerate crimes against humanity happening in Syria and Iraq on a daily basis?

When the United Nations refugee agency was created after World War II, it was intended to help people return to their homes after conflict. It wasn’t created to feed, year after year, people who may never go home, whose children will be born stateless, and whose countries may never see peace. But that is the situation today, with 51 million refugees, asylum-seekers or displaced people worldwide, more than at any time in the organization’s history.

There is little more to add: after seventy years, it appears little has changed with respect to the plight of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable. While conflicts on the scale of the Second World War have thankfully been absent — and still unlikely, if not ruled out entirely — large international wars have given way to chronic civil strife in certain countries that extend suffering and crisis across generations. It is awful how familiar and intractable this problem remains. I hope that changes in my lifetime.

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.

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?

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?