Posts Tagged ‘morality’

Why I am an Optimist

March 17, 2013

images-1You know the indictment of humanity: killing and raping each other and the planet. We’re not angels. Indeed, we are animals, and some pessimists actually compare us unfavorably against other, “innocent” creatures. But in the natural realm, from which we arose, morality does not even figure. That considered, we have not in fact done badly, building a world with some justice, kindness, and virtue.

Great Britain was once the world’s top slave trading nation. This was extremely profitable, but Britons came to realize it was morally vile. John Newton, a slave ship captain who repented, wrote Amazing Grace: “I was blind but now I see.” And, seeing, the nation outlawed slavery.

Such moral feeling is not just some superficial veneer painted over our animal nature. While evolution did give us all the nasty traits pessimists harp on, it also instilled social cooperation and even altruism, because that too was needed for our ancestors to survive. That was the foundation of civilization. And while we’re certainly capable of evil, that’s not what really matters. What counts most is what we actually do, in ordinary everyday life, and most of us behave, most of the time, with decency, honesty, and compassion.

Some religions tell us we’re sinners, promoting shame and guilt about natural human feelings; but we are growing beyond this, to arrive at a healthier, more rational, more life-affirming view of ourselves. We are entitled to happiness without a burden of unearned guilt. We do good deeds not from grim duty but from generous free choice. We find meaning through positive efforts, through love, and by using our creative gifts. We take responsibility for ourselves and our actions, making judgments and choices, between truth and falsity, good and bad. This is freedom: we are moral beings with the power to choose.

We’re perennially plagued by utopian idealism, dissatisfied with Man and his world, intent on remaking them. Always after much pain and blood this fails. Yet all the while, we individual human beings, from our own personal strivings, are continuously remaking ourselves. And thusly is the world too remade, in ways the utopian battalions never can imagine. No vast bludgeonings are required. Just let people be, and a new day comes.

UnknownThus, while the past century was full of horrors, its far bigger story was of astonishing human gains. Worldwide average life spans more than doubled and incomes grew fivefold. People are living longer, healthier, and better. There is less poverty and hunger, more sanitation, less pain and disease, more education and literacy. Now, at long last, ordinary people in their billions are able to not merely survive but actually enjoy life. And this all occurred while population rose at unprecedented rates. The explanation is that adding people doesn’t add just mouths to feed, but also hands to work and minds to create, and most people produce more than they consume.

Knowledge, science, and technology are crucial. Population has not outrun the food supply because farming advances made the opposite occur. Our working hands and minds become ever more productive. That spreads wealth and raises living standards, widening our choices and ability to control our lives. It’s a virtuous circle. More prosperity impels people to insist on more democracy. More democracy means less war. As Francis Fukuyama wrote, democratic life and free markets allow people to finally satisfy the age-old human hunger for recognition and self-worth, reducing conflict. Less war means yet more affluence, which in turn slows population growth and enables more education. More education and knowledge means yet more technological advancement and spreading prosperity. Society grows not only richer, but more open, tolerant, humane, and fair.

The German philosopher Hegel said that history shows rationality and freedom on the ascent. It’s remarkable he could see this two centuries ago; even more remarkable that some deny it today, when it’s so much more evident. Progress is not some mystical force pushing us forward, it’s driven by our own efforts. It’s no coincidence that modernity has seen explosive growth in human understanding, and at the same time huge improvements in the human condition.

It is true that all our gains have a cost; there’s no free lunch, hence our environmental challenges. But increasing knowledge equips us to cope with them too. And never forget that this is the unavoidable price for the lives we enjoy. We could never have risen from the caves while leaving the planet unspoiled. Humanity’s central story is our battle with that environment, to overcome its limitations. Our achievement has been stupendous. Be proud of it.

imagesWe arrived here as naked animals, starting with nothing, daring to quest for the great prize of knowledge. By toil and tears, we are getting it. And we are using it to improve the world. Today’s is the best ever; tomorrow’s will be better still.

Is There a Moral Duty to Relieve Suffering?

November 13, 2012

I recently read Christopher Wraight’s book, The Ethics of Trade and Aid: Development, Charity or Waste?* Wraight teaches philosophy, and examines the moral issue of aid, from a philosophical standpoint.

He cites a leading thinker, Peter Singer, who argues that if you see a child drowning in a shallow pool, you’re morally obliged to save her, because it costs you less than the cost to her if she drowns; and it’s no different if the person in distress is a thousand miles away. Thus, he says, you should give your money to relieve poverty in Africa, up to the point at which giving any more would leave you suffering more than the Africans.

Wraight himself actually suggests a moral equivalence between shooting someone and not giving a donation that would save a life; indeed, he says, the moral distinction between “killing” and “letting die” is a close one. And he quotes philosopher Jonathan Glover: “deliberately failing to send money to Oxfam, without being able to justify our alternative spending as more important, is in the same league as murder.”

Are these people out of their minds?

Wraight does acknowledge that deeds of omission are infinite, and one cannot be held morally responsible for not doing all of them.

But there’s a better answer. The shooting victim has a right not to be shot. Shooting unjustly interferes with him. Withholding aid from the starving African does not unjustly interfere with him. Moral obligations do not arise out of thin air, but out of relationships. You have obligations to family and colleagues that arise from your relationships with them. You owe nothing otherwise (except leaving people unmolested).

Moreover, you have a right to things that belong to you. That’s what “pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence means: the right to pursue your own quality of life, and make it better than someone else’s. Working to lift yourself is not morally wrong. It’s the essence of economics that A gets money from B by giving B something B wants more than the money. Thus A has already made a contribution to human betterment, and is morally entitled to benefit himself from his earnings from that effort. And with everyone thusly motivated, that’s how we improve life for humanity as a whole.

The Singer/Glover notion smacks of the Marxist dictum, “to each according to his needs.” Fine for the recipients; but where’s the morality in obliging someone who has earned something through his good honest efforts to give it up to someone who has not earned it? And then why bother to earn anything?

So an African you’ve never met, even if he’s starving, has no right to your money (let alone more right than you yourself). You are not morally obligated to give to the poor till you’re just as poor yourself. And you don’t owe Oxfam a justification for how you spend your money.

None of this means you shouldn’t give donations; but it’s a choice, not a duty. And people do make that choice, for the perfectly rational reason that it makes them feel good, and avoids feeling bad. Wraight’s point about the infinitude of potential good deeds supports this. It cannot be a duty to help A if that means not helping equally needy B (and C, D, E, and a billion others). If not helping B were almost equivalent to murder, then there’d be no way to avoid that culpability. This is moral absurdity. Since there’s no alternative to choosing whom (if anyone) to help, the help must be seen as a choice rather than a duty.

Such altruism is actually a fundamental characteristic of human nature. As I keep saying, we evolved living in groups, where social cohesion was vital to survival. Thus we are programmed to care about others and their sufferings, and wanting to help. We are genetically wired to feel good for doing so, and bad when refusing. That’s why my toddler daughter jumped up, handed off her ice cream cone, and ran to help a stranger’s baby who had dropped a shoe.

* I got it as a prize from Philosophy Now magazine for my answer to their Question of the Month: How does language work? Mine was one of few responses that didn’t mention Wittgenstein. I’ve always thought his work was trivial. Wittgenstein’s most quoted point was that no matter how you define the word “game” you can always come up with an example not fitting the definition. So the word has multiple meanings. So do many words. So what?

Reading Lolita in Tehran

September 8, 2012

Azar Nafisi, an Iranian educated in Oklahoma, taught English literature at Tehran universities. Or tried to. Eventually that became impossible, and devolved into a secret seminar in her apartment, with a selected group of female students meeting weekly to discuss literature free from the regime’s tentacles. Her book is Reading Lolita in Tehran.

Azar Nafisi

We Americans know Iran’s regime is oppressive, especially toward women. Or sort of know. In truth most of us haven’t the faintest idea. So acculturated are we to our version of “normal” human life that we instinctively imagine even a nation like Iran as more similar than different. It isn’t. It’s a totally bizarro inversion of our “normal,” and Nafisi’s book shows this.*

One story concerned a group of girls on a brief seaside vacation together. Relaxing on a verandah, it was literally invaded by one of the “morality police” goon squads. The girls, properly dressed and all, even under Iran’s suffocating rules, were doing nothing “wrong.” Nevertheless, trolling for people to mess with, the goons accused them of acting “Western” and hauled them off to jail, where they remained for forty-eight hours, subjected to repeated virginity exams. After trial, they were each given 25 lashes. But this was actually a comparatively benign outcome. Such stories could end in execution.

Iran’s true believers are obsessed with “morality” – and its supposed lack in the “decadent” West. It’s all about sexual morality. And sexually they are fubar. Male-female relations, compared to ours, are mostly a bitter human desert. They act as though men can’t handle a glimpse of female hair or skin. Of course, they may not have sex with anyone not their wives; but a “temporary marriage” of an hour with a prostitute solves that problem. And supposedly a girl dying a virgin goes straight to Heaven; so they solve that problem too before executing any girl. I guess in such cases even the sham marriage is dispensed with. (Is Allah fooled?)

Khomeini — the real “Great Satan”

This is not sexual morality but perversion, virulent and pervasive.

And of course sex is but a narrow sector of morality; what is conspicuously absent in Iran’s “morality” obsession is any concern for actual human well-being. That is the true alpha and omega of morality and Iran reflects its very antithesis. Nafisi nails it: “Lack of empathy was to my mind the central sin of the regime, from which all others flowed.”

The book also usefully recaps the 1979 events. After the Shah’s fall, there was a window in which Iran’s future was up for grabs. Most people wanted an open, secular, democratic constitution. So how did that majority lose out to Khomeini and his medieval vision? Violence. Sustained, unrestrained, brutal ultra-violence. Many thousands killed. And why not? After all, it was God’s work. That sanctifies any and all horrors. “Lack of empathy” indeed!

Say what you will about America’s religious fundamentalists and their political assertiveness, they don’t even think of shooting opponents, and that’s a very big difference. Non-violent politics is so ingrained in America (and other advanced democracies) that we’re oblivious to how utopian this actually is.


I recently wrote about Pakistan’s being fubar too, again mainly by religious fanaticism. The latest story involves a mentally handicapped Christian girl, Rimsha Misah (said to be 11, her age is disputed), accused of Koran burning. Imprisoned with hardened criminals, she has been granted bail, but still faces the death penalty; her family is in hiding; local Muslims want to burn them all alive. Their imam says he can’t control them. While a Muslim cleric (same guy??) has been charged with planting the burned pages on Rimsha. Meantime the body of a missing Christian boy, Samuel Yaqoob, also 11, has been found showing hideous torture. (You really don’t want to click on that link.) And in Pakistan, most women incarcerated are there for the crime of – get this — being raped.

Western culture is incomparably more moral than Iranian or Pakistani culture.

Reading a book like Nafisi’s always poses the question: why not just leave? But it’s never so simple. Is leaving – and leaving behind all those who can’t leave – a cop-out? In today’s Syria, thousands choose to stand and fight rather than give up and leave. But in Syria at least there is a fight going on. In Nafisi’s Iran, no fight was even possible, and staying literally risked death. Writers and intellectuals are regularly murdered by the regime. Yet she considered it her home, and agonized over the choice.**

In Nafisi’s discussions of literature; of her favorite authors Fitzgerald, Nabokov, Austen, James; the theme of choice looms large. It is through making choices for ourselves that we live our humanity. In the end, Azar Nafisi did make her choice.

Welcome to America.

* She mentions a student who visited abroad and was shocked by the sense of freedom she felt there. In Syria! Everything is relative. (I remember a group of U.S. peace activists, years ago, returned from confabs with Assad and Iranian officials, burbling how decent they seemed. What fools, I thought.)

** My grandfather similarly took his family out of 1930s Germany; but for them, the fortunate ability to leave was hardly a choice at all.

Truth or Happiness: Must We Choose?

August 28, 2012

I recently heard a talk by Gary Brill , who teaches psychology at Rutgers, discussing studies showing religious believers are happier than nonbelievers.

 Defining happiness can be elusive – a feeling that one is happy? Perhaps a more useful concept is well-being, or flourishing, which describes an entire life rather than just one emotion.

Anyhow, Brill did discuss data showing religious believers report greater happiness, suffer fewer psychological disorders (unless you count religious belief itself), recover better from setbacks, cope better with stress, and even have better health and longevity. Religion often does entail rules against harmful behaviors; and imparts a sense of meaning and purpose to life. All this contributes to a positive mental outlook which might affect our immune systems (thus further explaining the health effects). Brill noted that while fervent religious believers get these benefits, weak or conflicted believers are worse off than nonbelievers.

Morality (and feeling moral) is also important to us, and we’re constantly told that religion gives us morality. However, studies have shown that the actual moral behavior of religious believers is no better than for nonbelievers. Furthermore, there is no sign of moral breakdown in those European countries, particularly Scandinavian, where religion has almost vanished from people’s lives. To the contrary, these are among the world’s most orderly societies, with lower social pathologies like crime, substance abuse, teen pregnancy, etc., than in Godly America. (This shows, yet again, that basic morality is built into us by evolution, part of our adaptation of living in groups where social cohesion was vital for survival. We don’t get morality from religion; religion gets it from our human nature.)

Another factor in positive psychology is one’s relationship with truth and reality. We want to feel we are effective agents in negotiating our way through life’s reality. Brill invoked a thought experiment by philosopher Robert Nozick: Imagine a machine that simulates pleasurable experiences, producing sensations and emotive feelings identical to the real thing, or even better. Would you spend your life in the machine? Most people say no. They value truth and reality. This too comes from our evolutionary heritage: for our ancestors, distinguishing reality from illusion could well be a life-or-death matter.

 And of course there is obvious dissonance between this truth tropism and religion. Some of us reject the Nozick machine of religious faith, and prefer living in the real world. Must this mean sacrificing the well-being that religion confers, as described above?

Certainly not.

For all those mentioned studies, you have to be careful what effects are really being measured. As Brill elucidated, a key problem is that these tend largely to be studies of Americans. And when it comes to matters religious, American exceptionalism is very real. Brill showed stunning results from a survey asking, “Are you sure God exists?” About 60% of Americans said yes. But in other advanced countries, the yes percentages were so tiny that that belief could be considered eccentric.

 (An aside: Why America is so religious is much debated. One thesis (beloved of the Left; click here) is that European social welfare systems are so protective that people feel no more need for divine help, in contrast to “harsh” America. I think that’s nonsense. While religion does thrive in poor benighted environments, Americans don’t have materially harsher existences than cosseted Europeans. The real difference is the First Amendment which, unlike in Europe, keeps government’s stultifying hands off religion, and forces churches to compete with one another. That free market in religion has (as free markets are wont to do) made a far more vibrant, dynamic, and user-friendly religious scene in the U.S.)

Anyhow, America’s unique religiosity has a big effect on the happiness studies. People want to fit in; to belong; to meet societal expectations. In America, that means religion. A key element of well-being is social connectedness; we are deeply social animals (again the evolutionary result of living in groups that had to hang together). What the studies really show is that it’s the social and fellowship aspects of religious participation that confer the benefits – not so much the private, inner belief. Socially isolated believers don’t get those benefits.

So, in America, it’s hardly surprising that the religious believer far more easily taps into all the well-being benefits of fitting in with other like-minded people, than does the nonbeliever, who more often feels like a pariah. No wonder religious folks tend to be happier; but, again, it’s not religious belief per se that causes this, it’s the social penumbra of religious participation.

That’s harder for nonbelievers to replicate, but by no means impossible. You just have to work a little more at it. Humanist groups are scarcer than churches, but they exist. And understanding that our life on Earth is the only one we get makes improving that life, both for oneself and others, the central humanist value. That is all the purpose and meaning anyone needs.

 And the rewards of the humanist path are actually greater. One can thereby live authentically, without that annoying tension between belief and reality. For human beings, bio-engineered to care about truth, living in the real world is better than religion’s fantasyland.

What Money Can’t Buy?

August 22, 2012

Scandals everywhere. All about money (or sex, as in Penn State; or was that really about money too?). Is money the root of all evil?

 In truth it was one of our greatest inventions. Barter works fine if each party has something the other wants. Otherwise, it’s far handier if you can sell your stuff for cash you can use to buy anything. This enabled the division of labor, with people specializing in professions – one of civilization’s killer apps.

I’ve written before about greed. It may seem puzzling that a billionaire wants even more – how many mansions and yachts can one use? But that’s not the point. It’s the playing of the game; money is the scorecard. And wealth confers power and status, which humans are biologically programmed by evolution to crave – especially males, to attract more mating opportunities. (Aristotle Onassis said that if women did not exist, all the money in the world would be meaningless.)

The recent supposed “crisis” of capitalism has intensified concern with issues of money –inequality and greed. The cliché is that money can’t buy happiness. Tell that to the world’s billion or so still subsisting (or not) on less than a dollar a day. In fact, money buys a lot of things that make life more pleasant. And longer.

But, beyond a certain point, does it confer greater happiness? Some studies say no. This partly reflects what Barry Schwartz, in The Paradox of Choice, called the “Adaptation Effect.” You adapt psychologically to whatever socio-economic niche you happen to occupy, which you now expect to occupy; and anything merely expected gives no special satisfaction. Win the lottery and you’ll soon adapt to that higher niche. You may not feel happier; yet your quality of life has improved in a thousand ways. Does that not count for anything? Rather, for the world as a whole, surely it’s good if more people can afford better living.

True, pursuit of money for its own sake, rather than for what it buys, may actually degrade quality of life by detracting from pursuit of other desiderata (friendship, love, wisdom, etc.). Yet chasing wealth, for whatever reasons, is the chief motivating factor for all the efforts ever made to improve our lives. Until every human has such a good existence that no further gain is feasible, we should not denigrate the moneygrubbing that fuels such improvement.

In How Much is Enough? Money and the Good Life, Robert and Edward Skidelsky invoke a 1930 Keynes essay foreseeing increased future productivity so people need work only 15 hours a week to maintain their standard of living. We’ve gotten the higher productivity, but don’t work less. The Skidelskys wonder why people don’t claim all that added leisure time. Well, maybe they’re not satisfied to “maintain” a 1930 living standard! We do value leisure, but are motivated to work to afford better leisure activities. Besides, most people’s sense of identity is in their work, not their leisure. They don’t want to be like the useless, frivolous Eloi in H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine.

Then comes philosopher Michael Sandel’s book, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets.* (It ought to be What Money Shouldn’t Buy.) Sandel decries a world where it seems everything is for sale; he doesn’t want poor people selling kidneys to rich ones, for example. Many would indeed see an “ick” factor here.

 But that ignores the fundamental logic, and virtue, of all free market transactions: people buy and sell to each other only when it makes both better off. You can argue that the impoverished kidney seller is not really a free agent in the transaction because his poverty leaves him little choice. Perhaps so. But this is condescending elitism of the worst sort.

Nobody is ever totally free; everything we do or choose is constrained by a myriad of factors – economic, social, cultural, psychological, physical. Poverty is just one such constraint. Still we try to do what improves our circumstances. Thus the kidney peddler may be constrained by dire poverty, but given that reality, he judges that selling the kidney will improve his situation. He needs the money more than the kidney. Where does philosopher Sandel get off telling him he shouldn’t be allowed to make that choice for himself? And what about the other guy who may die if he can’t buy the kidney? Do Sandel’s moral scruples leave either of them better off? No, they do not.

In fairness, Sandel effectively argues that allowing such sales is bad for society; and that’s a legitimate concern. Certainly society may limit freedoms that harm third parties. But are kidney sales anybody’s business but the buyer and seller? Well, you might argue that a society permitting this is in some sense a worse society for everyone. That selling kidneys for money somehow uglifies society, or somehow degrades human life, etc.; again, the gut’s “ick” response. But these are all subjective judgments with no basis other than feeling. Not good enough.

To feel there’s something inherently grubby about selling anything for money is an irrational prejudice. The existence and use of money is a good thing, not bad. Ability to buy and sell things makes people more free. That’s why it’s called a free market. It means having more opportunities to engage in exchanges that make people better off – and kidney sales are in fact a perfect example. Anything that hinders such transactions makes people worse off. If you disallow kidney sales, the seller can’t ameliorate his poverty, and the other fellow will die (the ultimate in being worse off).

Sandel has forgotten what may be the first principle of moral philosophy: whether something is good or bad depends on how it affects the well-being of creatures capable of feeling. The parties to the kidney sale strike a deal because it improves well-being for both. It may put Sandel’s sensitive moral nose out of joint; but I don’t see how his personal feelings come into the matter at all.

*Confession: I have only read reviews, but I did read Sandel’s book Justice making similar arguments.


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