Archive for the ‘life’ Category

Hell of a Book

April 28, 2022

Hell of a Book — that’s the title — by Jason Mott — is actually two different novels coexisting uneasily within one cover.

One is a semi-comical first-person account of the author/narrator’s book tour. He’s Black, but that seems only incidental. There’s a segment with a grotesque caricature of his “media trainer” discussing the imperative to avoid making this a “race book,” about the Black experience.

The other interwoven novel is a race book, about the Black experience.

Does this taco-and-spaghetti combo work? I’m not sure. The race book centers upon a kid who strove for literal invisibility as a way to stay safe. His father became victim of a particularly senseless police shooting. The kid himself is later shot too, and shows up in the author tour book — as a ghost haunting the protagonist.

However, while the two seem clearly the same kid, there’s never any line drawn between the dual father-and-son shootings. Not even by the kid’s widowed mother. I found this puzzling and unsettling.

Elements that might be called magical realism are somewhat accounted for by the author/narrator saying often that he has a “condition,” which is an overactive imagination, so he can’t always tell what’s real or not. This produces much tongue-in-cheekiness, mixing David Foster Wallace style satire and self-parody, and a dollop of Hunter Thompson Fear and Loathing, with what are also actually some pretty heavy reflections, even philosophical ones. Yet much is also keystone cops type stuff. Leaving me unsure how to take the whole thing.

One scene on an airplane has the author asked to sign a book for a fellow passenger. Who turns out to be — or appears to be — the film actor Nicholas Cage. “Oh please,” I said to myself, bracing for more slapstick. And then . . . from Cage’s mouth spill all sorts of surreal and thought-provoking profundities. It’s that kind of book.

For most of it, we understand that the novel we’re reading differs from the protagonist’s eponymous one. It seems its narrator was really bugged by something, which propelled the writing, and which his novel is about. That’s left vague until near the end it’s finally revealed to be his mother’s death. This too I found somewhat disorienting, because the novel in my hands still seemed mainly about racial injustice. The mother’s death (from a stroke), however it may have affected her son (not evident, through most of the text), didn’t have much to do with anything, in terms of this book’s contents.

And meantime, the silliness eventually ceasing, the race book takes over, with the tone become all serious. Overly so, I’d say; even maudlin, oppressive. Long before the end, I’d gotten the point, and had had enough. Though the book tour crashes and burns, the race book’s last few dozen pages, rather than building to a climax, add nothing.

There’s much about “the talk,” that Black parents must give their children, and all that sort of thing. Sorry if that sounds supercilious. I myself have railed about police violence, and the whole larger issue of how non-whites fit in America. But as far as books are concerned, it’s been done. A lot. Ta-Nehisi Coates and so forth. Maybe it’s fair to say there can’t be enough books of that kind. But the problem for an author is how to write one that’s not just yet another in a long parade of such race books. Mott tackles that problem in an idiosyncratic way. Leavening the unavoidable tendentiousness with flakier fare. Again, I’m not sure it works.

And forgive me for this too. I am indeed fully cognizant of what non-white Americans endure. But this book reads, to me, like it’s set in some dichotomous, literally segregated alternate reality where suffering and injustice are experienced solely by non-whites. With no recognition that these are human universals. That white lives . . . .

A Life in Poetry

April 27, 2022

There was a nice piece in today’s Times-Union about my wife Therese Broderick’s poetry life. Written by the inimitable Paul Grondahl (head of the NY State Writers Institute), after spending several hours talking with her. I confess it really delights me being married to such an excellent person. Read the the text of the article here:

Is the Self an Illusion? What can that even mean?

April 24, 2022

Jay Garfield’s book, Losing Ourselves: Learning to Live Without a Self, argues that the “self” is an illusion, and letting it go enables living better, more moral lives. He discussed this with James Shaheen (editor of Tricycle: a Buddhist Review) in a podcast. (Here, with a transcript:

Transcending the self is a Buddhist idea. My wife, who’s been exploring Buddhist philosophy, pointed me to the podcast, knowing my own perspective differs.

The self is a key philosophical problem. We know much about how the brain works, in terms of neuron functioning, processing information, and so on. Which must be the generator of consciousness. But how, exactly? Science doesn’t (yet) have a clear explanation. And while we know consciousness is a real phenomenon, the self is more problematic still. A “meta-consciousness” by which we experience the contents of consciousness. What makes one feel there’s a self in there, a captain at the helm, making choices and decisions, experiencing things? What is experiencing, really?

Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio casts a perception as a representation constructed by the brain, with another representation of your self perceiving that representation. And yet a further one of “you” knowing you perceive it. An endless recursion? This does lead some thinkers to posit the self being an illusion. That when you drill down there’s no “there” there. But what exactly does this mean? Even if the self is not really there in some concrete explainable sense, that we can put a finger on, nevertheless our experience of living, with a self at its core, also is a real phenomenon. Something we do experience, even if we can’t explain how.

If you see a ghost, that may be an illusion. But your seeing it is a real event; something that happened in your brain. You can convince yourself there was no ghost, but not that the experience wasn’t real. Similarly, can you convince yourself you have no self?

After all, who or what would do the convincing? Who or what would now hold the belief that the self is an illusion? Saying “I have no self” makes no sense because if true, there would be no “I.”

Yet Garfield, in denying the reality of selves, says “we’re more like roles than we are like actors.” An interesting formulation — however, actors perform roles, following a script. And much of our behavior is actually like that, almost robotic even. Garfield may, if anything, be understating that when he says “we do have these moments of nonegocentric consciousness.” Implying at least moments when an “egocentric” self is in operation.

He also says, “You want your intentions to be caused by your beliefs and your values.” And: “we need to free ourselves from the illusion of transcendental freedom in order to appreciate the kind of freedom that we do have, namely, the ability, very often (my emphasis!), to act in accordance with our intentions and values.”

That doesn’t sound like an absence of self. It’s not fully engaged all the time; we’re often on automatic pilot (probably necessary for sanity). Yet the self is often fully engaged, and that is crucial to one’s lived experience.

While Garfield does, as quoted above, recognize we sometimes act with intentionality, he sees that as a problem: “we focus on the self, and that self is this independent substantial thing different from everything else, free from causality and all that stuff, and that allows us permission to take our own narrow self-interest as motivating. And that’s permission to ignore the demands of morality.”

Wait — what? Sure, having a self does entail motivation to serve its own interests. But that does not trump everything else, and morality is a separate realm of consideration. And it’s precisely because you have a sense of self, and understand what that’s like, that you understand other people have it too, and hence have their own rightful interests. While Garfield says your self puts you at the center of the moral universe, and others at the periphery, that doesn’t make them count for nothing. And evolution imbued us with basic instincts for justice and empathy — constituent parts of our sense of self. Indeed, for most people, acting ethically is actually self-serving because it makes them feel good. So the self is not antithetical to morality.

Garfield’s morality argument fails for another basic reason. Morality is of course all about how one treats others. But if nobody has a self, then who cares how they’re treated? Why would it matter? Without selves, the whole idea of morality is meaningless.

More fundamentally still, without a self, why even bother to live? Garfield intones, “freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.” Saying “we don’t have a self that we have to protect . . . that we have to be afraid of losing. And that is freedom from illusion.”

People do fear loss-of-self — that is, dying — because the self is ultimately all we’ve got. There can be no sort of meaning to life except as experienced via the self. It evolved to make creatures care what happens to them, so they’ll strive to avoid injury, pain, and death. That’s a very real fact of life, an evolutionary adaptation. Calling it an illusion seems a meaningless semantic exercise.

It does appear Garfield is hung up semantically on the word “self.” Because he does advocate a conception of “personhood” — urging readers “to reject the notion that their identity is that of a self and to accept that it’s the identity of a person.” And how do those two concepts differ? “Personhood” he characterizes as embedded in a “very vast and complex and often invisible web of conventions that brings us into existence, not some kind of prior metaphysical fact” (whatever that might mean). Or: an “ever evolving set of psychophysical processes in constant open interaction with the world . . . we exist only as nodes in this interdependent web.”

All true except for the word “only.” We are indeed enmeshed deeply in society and the world, but I would actually say that ultimately we exist only as consciousnesses in the workings of our brains. Without that we might exist in a bare physical sense, but wouldn’t know it. Put differently, we have both interior lives and exterior ones, and through former we experience the latter. All the embeddedness Garfield talks about could not be navigated and negotiated without a self to do it with.

He deems somehow relevant here an analogy to a woman wanting to see his college. He shows her various buildings, facilities, lawns, etc. She responds, “No, I didn’t want to see buildings and lawns. I wanted to see the college.” But there is no such thing, Garfield comments; “And if you think there is such a thing, you have a profound misunderstanding of what a college is.” He elaborates what constitutes a “college,” and says “it’s just like that with the person and the self.” But even if you cannot point to a concrete thing and say, that’s a college, still the word has a clear meaning, it’s a concept word. Surely Garfield’s college analogy does nothing to demonstrate that the word “person” denotes something real while “self” does not — even if those concepts differ. Which is doubtful. More semantic games here.

And there’s another fundamental problem. Buddhism vaunts the supposed benefits when you transcend your self. But what “you” are they talking about? The only “you” that can perform this supposedly beneficial mental jiu-jitsu is your self. And it’s only your self that can experience the desirable state of being that you’re supposed to thereby attain. If the self is illusory, wouldn’t that desirable state be likewise illusory (if not doubly so)? The very idea of happiness or contentment makes no sense without a self.

And suppose you actually could somehow eliminate your self? It would seem like a lobotomy. What would be left? You might be quiet and peaceful — like lobotomized people. But the “you” would be gone.

Freedom from illusion is central to my own outlook. Only on the basis of reality can one live an authentically meaningful life. Free from illusions — like God, and immortality. But if you truly posit that you have no self, how can anything about life matter to you? If nobody has a self, then nothing can matter at all.

“The True” — Machine Politics and Sex

April 12, 2022

February 1977 — Dan O’Connell is finally dead. So begins Sharr White’s play, The True, performed at Capital Rep, directed by its leader Maggie Cahill. (Runs through April 24.)

O’Connell, 91, was still boss of the political machine he’d built more than half a century earlier. I had to see the play, having authored Albany’s O’Connell Machine — now nearing its own half century mark.

The play’s focus is Polly Noonan, “confidante” of Erastus Corning, whom O’Connell had installed as Albany’s mayor in 1941. Polly had been Corning’s secretary when he was a young state senator, and they’d been very close ever since, with Polly as a behind-the-scenes political operative. (Her granddaughter is Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.)

O’Connell’s death occasions something of a power struggle over both the mayoralty and the party chairmanship. But the play is really more about the personal dynamic among Corning, Polly, and her husband Peter Noonan, also a Corning buddy.

It was much better than I expected. Antoinette LaVecchia’s portrayal of Polly was so forceful and compelling, perhaps the play should simply have been titled “Polly.” (“The True” refers to people who are true in their loyalties.)

Audience advisory: the play includes much strong language. Polly Noonan was renowned for her uninhibited tongue.

Particularly riveting was her scene with Jimmy Ryan, an old O’Connell henchman, battling Corning for control. Ryan looks like a slob, in his underwear (?) — but what a powerful personality, another great performance (by Kevin McGuire).

I never met Polly, nor Jimmy Ryan. I did meet Corning several times, interviewing him for my book (he was very gracious), and recall his gratuitously badmouthing Jimmy Ryan as a drunk (in 1972). I also went to Dan O’Connell’s home for an interview, but didn’t get much, he was already very frail. And actually, young fool that I was, I did those interviews before knowing what tough questions to ask.

Michael Pemberton played Corning as a hard-drinking stereotypical old pol. With none of the patrician manner so evident in life.

However, somewhat ironically given its title, the play isn’t presented as all true. Some liberties are taken. Corning’s relationship with Polly is of course central, but there is much talk of his wife; he is told several times to “go home to Betty.” As far as I’m aware, there had been no home with Betty for decades. Corning’s “family life” was entirely with the Noonans.

Not with his own children either. I actually spent time with Erastus Junior, on “numismatic tours” of Russia in the ’90s which he led; and it was strangely evident that his father (by then deceased) was totally a non-person to him.

Late in the play, with Polly hashing things out with Erastus in his living room, Betty finally appears. A ghostly flapper-like figure lurking offstage. Silence. Will she proceed to enter the room? That’s the play’s greatest moment of dramatic tension. Eventually Betty wordlessly exits upstairs.

So — were they ever fucking? Polly and Erastus? The question isn’t skirted, in fact it’s central to the dynamic. Everyone assumed they were. With O’Connell’s death putting Corning under new political pressure, he feels a need to distance himself from Polly. She takes that rather badly.

But the answer to the question was an emphatic “no” — according to Polly. Husband Peter believes her — well, maybe 85% of him does. The question was explored in Paul Grondahl’s magisterial Corning biography, and he came to the same conclusion.

Sex is important. But it’s not everything.

How Do We Know Right From Wrong?

April 9, 2022

Emails between Trump’s Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and Ginni (Mrs. Clarence) Thomas, recently revealed, strategized to overturn the 2020 election. Meadows called it “a fight of good versus evil.”

Did he really believe that? He’s a very intelligent man. Moral judgments can differ. Today’s two American parties each believes itself battling for good against evil. Many Russians view their Ukraine invasion that way. How do we know what’s really right?

In the big picture of human history, we’ve actually made much moral progress, people in general are better than they once were, with societal norms improving. Though of course we’re still far from perfect, often misjudging right versus wrong.

Some might say it’s all subjective, there are no moral verities or absolutes. All just arbitrary human constructs. That seems nihilistic. While it is true no moral guidelines are built into the fabric of the Universe, and we’re on our own constructing them, that doesn’t mean it’s arbitrary. We can use our reasoning minds to apply some compelling basic precepts.

Call the first factualism. There is such a thing as reality, as truth and falsity, and they matter. Judgments premised on falsehoods can only result in unintended outcomes. You cannot get moral clarity from muddled facts. Only by dealing with actual reality can we hope to do right.

Biden’s election was not fraudulent. Ukraine is not a nest of Nazis. Those are facts.

“Wishing doesn’t make it so” is folk wisdom. Yet many people believe things because it suits them. Lincoln used to say, “If you call a dog’s tail a leg, how many legs does it have? Four! Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it one.” But we’ve got a lot of five-legged dogs running around, and those who love them. And others who benefit from that.

Thus one key factual matter is people’s motives, with great bearing on assessing their moral claims. Get the motives wrong and you’re in trouble. Is Putin really motivated to “denazify” Ukraine? Was Trump motivated to protect American election integrity? Or to subvert it, to stay in office and, especially, to avoid facing the humiliation of losing?

My wife and I have been reading together a book discussing the philosophy of pragmatism expounded by William James and John Dewey. It saw a person’s beliefs as valid not based on mirroring reality but, rather, if the beliefs somehow work for the person. Mainly, this was an effort trying to justify belief in God. But religion, grounded in a fundamentally false construct of reality, can only lead us into a moral wilderness, as history has repeatedly proven. Russia’s church totally backs Putin’s regime and its “godly” war.

So facts are fundamental. Also fundamental is the question, what makes rightness? Again, no such concept is built into existence. But we can start by realizing that ultimately the only thing that can matter is the feelings of beings that feel. Thus rightness consists in what promotes happiness and curbs suffering. And in this accounting, all people stand equally. A corollary is that all have rights to decide some things for themselves. The principle might be called humanism or universalism.

It’s not instinctual, for us evolutionarily tribalistic humans, programmed to view different folks very differently. Nazis believed they were serving the greater good by purging people deemed inferior (which also violated factualism). Putin too speaks of “purifying” Russian society by ridding it of — well, its factualists.

There’s also the perennial conundrum about ends justifying means. A strict utilitarianism — “the greatest good for the greatest number” — might sanction anything that increases the overall quantum of wellbeing even if creating some suffering. Justifying, say, killing someone to harvest their organs to save multiple others. But that contravenes the principle of all people equal in worth, with rights over their lives; no way to maximize overall happiness. Who’d want to live in a society where your organs can be taken?

Some Trumpers who plotted what was really a coup engaged in ends-justifying-meansism. Willing to torture truth and torpedo democracy in order to keep Trump in office. Even if you thought those ends worthy, surely the means were inimical to the greater good, again flouting both factualism and the principle that all people (including Democrats, and their votes) stand equally. Yet many Republicans continue down that road.

Honor factual reality. Honor individual human dignity. That’s how to tell right from wrong.

My Greatest Celebrity Sighting Ever!

March 30, 2022

I’m in an elevator in New York with several others. One a tallish woman, in dark glasses, and some kind of concealing headgear. Yet I detect something vaguely familiar. Careful scrutiny produces recognition. I catch her eye and give her a look that says, “You’re Jackie O.”

And, with a trace of a smile, she gives me back a look that silently says, “Yes. Let it be our secret.”

Then the elevator opens and she’s gone. I say to myself, “Wow! But wait — didn’t Jackie O die ages ago? . . . Maybe I’m mis-remembering that.”

Then I think, I should write this up for my blog! Title it “My Greatest Celebrity Sighting Ever!”

Then I wake up from the dream and laugh.

(Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis died 28 years before.)

Being You – The “Hard Problem” of Consciousness

March 21, 2022

What is it Like to Be a Bat?” was a seminal paper by philosopher Thomas Nagel. Implying bats experience their battiness. Like we experience our own existence. How does that work? David Hume said introspection can’t tell us; I’ve tried endlessly, and it’s true. One cannot use the self to probe the self.

My humanist book group is tackling Anil Seth’s Being You, yet another stab at demystifying consciousness. We know a lot about how the brain works, consisting of neurons, extensively interconnected, processing signals, and regulating behavior. We understand pretty well, for example, how visual signals enter the brain and get processed into images one sees. But those last two words embody what’s been called “the hard problem” of consciousness. Who or what does that seeing? How does that neuronal functioning give rise to what we experience as personhood?

Seth harks back to earlier scientists struggling over the question what is life? Even while knowing quite a lot about living things, what makes them “alive” still seemed a hard problem. They spoke of some mystical elan vital or “life force,” that wasn’t understood and maybe never could be. But that problem gradually went away as science grew to better understand the underlying processes, so that today nobody asks any more what makes something alive. And Seth foresees the same thing eventually happening with the hard problem of consciousness.

Thus he writes in terms of what he calls “the real problem.” Not seeking some “eureka” insight explaining consciousness in one neat formulation. Instead — just as science grew to understand, bit by bit, what life is —we’ll demystify how the various manifestations of consciousness map onto physical brain activity, “to build increasingly strong explanatory bridges between mechanisms and phenomenology.”

Perception is central to the problem. Consciousness and the self are all about experiencing and making sense of perceptions of the outside world and also, importantly, what’s happening inside us. That, once more, raises the question of who or what does the experiencing — and how. Taking vision again, it might seem as if there’s a little man inside our brain viewing a screen on which visual signals are projected (the “Cartesian Theater”). Nothing like that is true.

So how do we make sense of perceptions? When it’s raining, of course the brain isn’t wet. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio posits that the brain creates a representation, like an artist’s picture, of the raining. But also needed is a perceiver — the self, which Damasio says is another representation the brain makes. And it also needs yet a third level representation, of the self doing the perceiving.

Seth’s take is somewhat different, writing of perception as “controlled hallucination.” From the signals, the brain constructs its Bayesian “best guess” of reality. And the aim is not representational accuracy but rather utility in terms of what best enables us to function. We must “understand perception as an action-oriented construction, rather than as a passive registration of an objective external reality.” (“Hallucination” seems an unfortunate word choice, connoting seeing something not there at all.)

Seth writes that “the self is itself a perception, another variety of controlled hallucination.” The mind’s role as part of a living system is crucial. It’s all really about keeping that system going. Seth calls this his “beast machine” theory.

He casts moods and emotions as arising from perceptions. For example, if you see a bear, you feel fear. But, says Seth, what your brain actually perceives is not some picture of what the bear could do to you but, rather, your bodily sensations — heart rate rising, muscles tensing, etc. This seems backwards, ignoring what caused those bodily changes in the first place — the brain’s imagining what could happen, to which your body responds.

This points up a more fundamental problem with Seth’s approach. He also brings in optical illusions as showing how perception and reality can differ, again arguing that reality is something our brains create.

I instead believe in the reality of reality. The threat of a bear is no mere brain “hallucination” or construction; and while optical illusions can flummox our perception systems, those are rare, and mostly what we see is really there. Seth’s dichotomy between accuracy and utility is nonsense. If our brains weren’t extremely good at representing a true reality, we’d quickly die.

But digging down deeper, Seth goes on to query what it means for an organism — or anything — to exist.* He says this requires a boundary between it and everything else. Living things must maintain that over time, fending off the Second Law of Thermodynamics and its associated entropy rise. And this, Seth writes, requires “occupying states which it expects to be in” (his emphasis). Which brings in neuroscientist Karl Friston’s “free energy principle” — free energy equates to “prediction error,” the gap between the brain’s expectations and actuality, which must be minimized. By actively working at that, living systems “will naturally come to be in states they expect — or predict — themselves to be in.” And this, Seth seems to posit, is the nub of consciousness — “I predict myself, therefore I am.”

Circling back to his “hallucination” concept, Seth says the “hard problem,” implying “that the conscious self is somehow apart from the rest of nature . . . turns out to be just one more confusion between how things seem and how they are.” He also writes of consciousness as “the perceptual expression of a deep continuity between mind and life.”

This sounds like spinning mysticism, no help on the “hard problem.” Seth is talking in metaphors with no clarity on what the metaphors represent, because that defies being stated.

Let’s not forget that the problem is how neuronal functioning gives rise to what one experiences as the self. It is a mechanistic problem. And in the end Seth seems to acknowledge this. Saying his construct is not really a theory of consciousness but rather a theory for consciousness science — to point the way for tackling the hard problem.

So Seth does not (of course) claim to solve it, and his final line deems it “not so bad if a little mystery remains.” A little! But I would still love to understand what it’s like to be me.

* The very concept of existence is indeed philosophically problematic. I’ve written about this, using the term “isness” to denote the fundamental quality of existing, while also arguing that it’s actually impossible. Though readers of my essay ( did not seem to realize it was a tongue-in-cheek parody.

The Dalai Lama: Ethics for the New Millennium

March 14, 2022

This 1999 book says nothing remarkable. That’s what’s remarkable about it.

The Dalai Lama (Tenzin Gyatso) is known as a religious or spiritual leader. But he is Buddhist, which is more a philosophy than a religion, and there’s practically no religion in his book. No mention of reincarnation (even though it’s central to his own life story — he was deemed the reincarnation of his predecessor). No mention of any afterlife, or God, or references to scripture.

Leaving all that out makes for a book that can speak to everyone, giving us a take on ethics that’s universal. Unlike efforts messed up by dicey religious notions, this book doesn’t ask the reader to suspend disbelief, with propositions not readily accepted by our rational minds, which must be forcibly overridden by “faith.” In contrast, there’s very little here that doesn’t strike a reader as perfectly reasonable and indeed obviously true.

That might be a formula for anodyne platitudes. But not for nothing has this man spent his life thinking about the issues here addressed. Furthermore, in contrast to so much that’s written under the rubric of “philosophy,” here there’s nothing abstruse, difficult, esoteric, convoluted, or subtle. He tells it straight and clear.

But enough of characterizing the book. What does it actually say?

Everyone desires happiness and avoidance of suffering. So much a part of our nature is this (and it would be strange if it weren’t) that it requires no further philosophical justification. “Suffering” is self-explanatory but “happiness” is a much trickier concept (as exemplified by John Stuart Mill suggesting it’s better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a satisfied pig). The key dichotomy is between transitory sensations and feelings about one’s life as as whole. Gyatso doesn’t deny the pleasures of the former; but beware the “hedonic treadmill,” when satisfying a desire merely sets up the next desire.

In his view, the key to happiness — and to ethics — is avoidance of harm to others. Or, more broadly, promoting their happiness. (Recalling the golden rule.) This actually may not seem so obvious a proposition. I get there by positing that the only thing that can matter is the feelings of beings able to feel. Gyatso doesn’t put it that way, but the conclusion is equivalent.

It’s also the essence of ethics — harm avoidance and happiness promotion. But how this figures into one’s own happiness is again tricky. While Gyatso argues that it’s served by promoting the happiness of others, Garrison Keillor queried if one’s purpose is to serve others, then what purpose is served by the existence of those others? It’s not actually a supercilious question. Is “pay it forward” a sort of Ponzi scheme? (But the existence of feeling beings needs no justification. They just are.)

A related issue is whether there’s truly any such thing as altruism. If doing something for another makes me happy, per the Dalai Lama, isn’t that actually self-serving? My daughter and I have had this conversation endlessly about my philanthropy.

I answer this way. My feeling good about philanthropy is not a bad thing that negates the happiness in others it produces. It augments it. If both donor and recipient benefit, that adds to the global quantity of happiness. Which is what it’s all about. And though Gyatso suggests there is a difference between self-serving and selfless altruism, I believe our egos and self-regard are so powerful that the latter cannot truly exist.

Notably, a chapter is titled “The Ethic of Restraint.” I read it shortly after writing about how restraint and its lack creates a power imbalance between good and evil. Moral action concerns not just one’s good impulses, but restraining the negative ones we all experience. Gyatso dilates upon how negative thoughts and feelings — anger, jealousy, resentment, etc. — undermine one’s ability to be happy. While positive ones — kindness, compassion, love — serve it. Thus giving us the lifelong task of controlling the former in favor of the latter. Taming a wild elephant, the book says.

This promotes inner peace, deemed the sine qua non of happiness. And inner peace helps us to restrain our negative feelings.

All fine and dandy. But how does one know when one is doing that? Self-justification is also a powerful force. Even from the standpoint of promoting the well-being of others, fallible humans can get it wrong. Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot believed they were working for human betterment. Gyatso would say they lacked inner peace. I don’t think it’s quite that simple.

Interestingly, he rejects the idea of “karma” as commonly understood, some sort of cosmic force for giving people their just deserts. Gyatso sees that as powerlessness. Instead, he says, what happens to us does depend on our actions, but as direct consequences, not due to some mystical force. (Which of course does not exist.)

I did not agree with every word. He impugns “the culture of perpetual growth” as leading to “discontents.” He seems to mean inequality, then bizarrely says that if Europe were the whole world, the “endless growth” ideology might be justified; but elsewhere people are starving. In fact he takes for granted that globally, poverty is worsening.

A common mistake. Actually, poverty has been plummeting for decades (apart from the recent pandemic effect) — and it’s thanks to economic growth. Not the cause of poverty and inequality, but their remedy. The world will never be equal, but human life can be made better for more people if there’s more wealth available.

That’s an ethical proposition.


March 5, 2022

My blog, “The Rational Optimist,” was started in 2008 while writing my book The Case for Rational Optimism. That now seems long ago, in far-away galaxy.

I have argued that a species capable of living in the Sahara and the Arctic could cope with climate change. But also that while we must do everything reasonably possible to curb greenhouse gas emissions, even reducing them to zero (impossible) would not stop temperatures rising. So we must also work on defensive preparations, and ways to cool the planet. Yet climate warriors seem to wage an anti-industrial jihad, fixated solely on emission reduction. Even there, nuclear power should play a big role; but many oppose that too. And the recent global climate conference, COP26, was pretty much a cop-out.

So our climate action is too little, too late, and global warming looms faster and more severe and harmful than once thought. Humanity may still be resourceful enough to cope, though at great cost. Yet there’s danger of a tipping point to runaway warming that feeds on itself. Earth’s climate has always naturally cycled through warmer and colder periods, but that could be thrown off-kilter by human activity, a significant new factor.

Venus shows what a runaway greenhouse effect can do. Reaching a permanently toasty temperature — high enough to melt metal. Something no life can survive.

Recently I listened to a 2017 public debate, by serious scholars, on “Is democracy committing suicide?” Suicide may not be quite the right word, but the proposition was that democracy does have characteristics dooming it. Those so arguing had much scary fodder to invoke. The other side said things like Brexit and Trump’s election actually show democracy working. Considering it, at least in advanced countries like America, deeply resilient, its institutions strong enough to withstand challenges.

Note was made of Trump’s ominous 2016 refusal to say he’d accept the election outcome. What if, one debater queried, in 2020 he loses but calls on his supporters to reject that result? Well, it happened. Our democracy survived — but just by the skin of its teeth.

Numerous examples tell us a democracy is just one dumb vote away from autocracy. In America it might take two. A recent poll showed Trump defeating Biden.

Our species’ entire progress, from its beginnings, has been achieved through reason. We are very smart, but not smart enough to avoid many pitfalls of irrationality. Rejecting reality is the essence of irrationality. And that’s Trumpism, rejecting the reality of the 2020 election; of his rotten character; of his party whitewashing January 6. The reality of making America not great again, but shredding what makes it great. Yet some voters are turning against Democrats because of . . . mask mandates. Returning Trump to power would slap rationality in the face.

Democracy was so ascendant in the late 20th Century because it fulfills a basic human thirst for recognition of one’s individual dignity and value, as Francis Fukuyama argued in The End of History. And its debate defenders were right that people won’t knowingly give it up — though actually polls show increasing numbers saying democracy is not that important, and they’d be fine with military rule.

Too many fall for the idea of a strongman, to fix everything. (Strongmen never do, one debater observed; instead they find scapegoats.)

And they never come in saying, “No more democracy.” Indeed, democracy has become so entrenched as a fundamental human value that even the worst regimes pretend to honor it. The world’s autocrats, after being caught flat-footed for a time by democracy’s rise, eventually perfected techniques for manipulating it — giving it the death of a thousand cuts — and then to prevent its resurrection. Thus Venezuela’s regime is impregnable despite crashing GDP by 75%; Russians cannot get rid of Putin even as he drives them to catastrophe.

The paragon is China — it too insists it’s “democratic” — taking the surveillance state to heights beyond Orwellian, making life impossible for anyone not the regime’s obedient toady. The picture of the world’s 1984 future?

Even before 2016, I kept saying America’s democracy is not ordained by God, and could not be forever sustained without a citizenry deeply internalizing its values, understanding what it’s all about. Which was already crumbling. Democracy is not just a matter of elections; more importantly it’s a culture. Of which a key aspect is pluralism — accepting people unlike you having a legitimate role, even having power. That ethos is stomped down in today’s America.

The debate questioned whether democracy is its own worst enemy, allowing people to make bad choices. But an enemy at least as dangerous is guns. However strong people’s democratic feelings may be, guns can be stronger, especially when wielded by regimes without scruples. Look at Myanmar’s army, at war with the entire populace. Too many countries have militaries that are good for nothing — nothing — except using force upon their own populations, to entrench their power and privileges. Guns and democracy don’t mix. That’s why America’s ever growing gun infatuation bodes ill.

An important basis for my 2008 optimism was the post-WWII rules-based world order, evolving into the post-cold war Pax Americana. While guns did continue wreaking havoc within countries, at least major advanced nations were no longer using them against each other. That has now changed. Russia’s monstrous crime against Ukraine is another assault on human rationality. And a huge test, whose outcome will be enormously consequential. If Russia, however bloodied, is seen to ultimately prevail, subjugating Ukraine, we’ll be living in a different and uglier world. While if Russia is bloodied and thwarted, the lesson will be salutary. So much hangs on Ukrainians’ strength and courage.

For the moment at least, those inspiring Ukrainians, and a stronger global response than expected, are antidotes to pessimism. On the other hand, it’s always depressing how many dupes will dance to a tune like Putin’s.

And it’s another weakness of democracy that a lot of people “don’t care about politics.” Thus being oblivious when the thousand cuts begin. Disengagement from politics — not having to worry about it — is actually a luxury of living in a stable democracy, under rule of law, cosseting people (as it should). Inhabitants of Myanmar don’t have that luxury.

Yet broadly speaking, it’s true that politics is not everything. Science, technology, and commerce should continue improving quality of life. And America and its people (even most Trumpers) have many great virtues of which democracy is only one. Without it maybe the rest can endure. Even under a Trump dictatorship, most of ordinary daily life might go merrily along. At least half a loaf. I’ve promised my wife we won’t move to Canada unless truly necessary.

The “yes” side won that debate. I once dreamed of living to see a news headline about the ouster of “The World’s Last Dictator.” Now I wonder if it will be the end of “The World’s Last Democracy.”

The Tyranny of Merit — And Trumpist Revolt of the Losers

March 1, 2022

What is justice? People getting what they deserve — for good or ill. Thus talents and efforts being rewarded. That’s meritocracy.

But meritocracy has a downside, argues Michael Sandel in The Tyranny of Merit. In a society where rewards are unconnected to merit, such as a hereditary aristocracy, non-aristocrats don’t feel shamed by their deprivation. However, in a meritocracy, where winners are reckoned deserving, loserhood is compounded by the sting of feeling personal inadequacy.

That, Sandel posits, drives the populist political upsurge — the Brexit vote, the Trump vote, and so forth. A revolt by meritocracy’s losers, against the winning elites. Feeling disrespected, and resenting it. He says idealistic rhetoric about “going as far as your talents and efforts can take you” creates that resentment, in people whose talents and efforts just don’t take them very far.

Aggravated by disappearance of the 1950s kinds of jobs enabling masses to join the middle class. But rather than jobs “shipped overseas,” the far bigger factor is technology and automation. We’re manufacturing as much as ever — just doing it with much less labor. That frees up people to be productive differently, making us collectively richer. Indeed, the middle class is not disappearing; and more people are rising rather than falling out of it. It’s poverty that’s been shrinking; moreover, Americans classed as “poor” today would, in terms of the life amenities they enjoy, have been rated “middle class” not many decades ago. So the problem Sandel sees is not just economic.

He challenges the very idea of deservingness. I myself have flourished, thanks to traits like intelligence, conscientiousness, etc. Thus deserving? But did I deserve to have those winning traits? Was there some innate, pre-existing deservingness in me, entitling me to be so endowed? Or was it just the luck of the draw?*

The Bible’s Job experienced a blitz of misfortunes, and protested to God this was undeserved. But that’s not how it works, God replied, in Sandel’s reading. “Not everything that happens is a reward or punishment for human behavior.” And this Sandel deems “a radical departure from the theology of merit” infusing the rest of the Old Testament. Going on to discuss how Christianity forever wrestled with the deservingness problem, that is, whether you get into Heaven by being good or because you’re so predestined. (A philosophical black hole.)

Sandel extensively discusses what “luck” really means in the context of inequality. He doesn’t even think intelligence has much to do with it. A football star earns more than a ditch digger because society just happens to be set up in a way that rewards the former more than the latter. Should we try to undo that? By bailing out losers? Hobbling winners? They’re not morally equivalent.

And even if we recognize that success is ultimately a matter of luck, which should be somewhat rectified, to negate such luck entirely would seem, well, crazy. If, for example, everyone is equalized no matter their talents and efforts, then why develop skills or work hard? That was the fatal flaw in the communist idea (which no nation ever truly implemented).

The book extensively discusses “credentialism” — how degrees, especially from elite institutions, serve to divide society between winners and losers. That’s meritocracy if you suppose well-educated graduates contribute more to society. Actually a problematic proposition. And the division is perpetuated because student bodies skew heavily to children of the better off. A more egalitarian society would give the rest better college opportunities. (Rather than compounding deprivation via crappy public schools in disadvantaged places.)

As suggested, Sandel bemoans meritocracy because its losers feel bad about themselves. He wants a society where nobody does. But what, you might ask, is really the alternative to what we’ve got? If rewards don’t go to merit, to talents, to efforts, then what kind of bizarre society is that? Is that just? Is it even conceivable?

That’s not what Sandel is proposing. In his eyes, meritocratic equality of opportunity is a good thing, but it’s not enough. It “does little to cultivate the social bonds and civic attachments that democracy requires.”

And, he says, “a sterile, oppressive equality of results” is not the only alternative to equality of opportunity. Another is “a broad equality of condition that enables those who do not achieve great wealth or prestigious positions to live lives of decency and dignity — developing and exercising their abilities in work that wins social esteem, sharing in a widely diffused culture of learning, and deliberating with their fellow citizens about public affairs.”

A nice utopian vision. But the harsh reality is that many people aren’t equipped for the kinds of jobs that “win social esteem” today, or to hold up their end of Sandel’s civic participation ideal.

I’ve long considered the inequality obsession misdirected. It usually comes down to resentment of wealth (the word “obscene” often deployed as a moral judgment). Very different from seeing poverty as morally repugnant. If there were no poverty — no absolute want — with everyone being able to live at least decently — then the very rich are simply not a problem.

Still, just relieving deprivation does not produce the kinds of civic paragons Sandel hopes for. He himself argues that welfare recipients often resent the relationship this puts them in vis-a-vis the rest of society. Part of the overall resentment fueling the populist revolt. Sandel is right that it’s a problem when large population segments feel such alienation. But he doesn’t really have an answer for it.

His concluding paragraphs argue that the problem lies with different societal echelons leading largely separate lives. This recalls Charles Murray’s 2012 book Coming Apart (see my commentary, very relevant here).** Murray basically suggested (naively, I thought) that the upper classes should interact more with the rest. And what Sandel finally calls for is humility on the part of the rich and successful as “the beginning of the way back from the harsh ethic of success that drives us apart. It points beyond the tyranny of merit toward a less rancorous, more generous public life.”

And how to get from here to there? Sandel offers no clue.

The book does, again, attempt to explain Trumpist populism in terms of class resentment. Murray was right that social segregation has grown; Robert Putnam began Our Kids by similarly lamenting that rising barrier. But meantime, increasing egalitarian thinking means people no longer feel deferential toward their “betters.”

Who in past times were indeed widely seen as better, their elevated status accepted as right and natural. A social ethos epitomized by FDR, elite in every bone of his body, yet his leadership was totally embraced by the masses. In a society quite different from ours today. Trumpism is an antithesis of such FDRism.

As such it’s comprehensible. But FDR was a virtuous leader in many key respects, making the political support he inspired appropriate. Whereas Trump, like FDR very elite himself, is the opposite in character. Perhaps his fans latched on to him simply for lack of other alternatives filling the anti-elitist leader role. But it’s still tragically baffling to see unswerving cultist loyalty to a stinking piece of shit.

* Considering it the latter, philosopher John Rawls, in A Theory of Justice, argued for (in theory) setting up a society under a “veil of ignorance” where you don’t know what your status will be. He thought that would suggest an egalitarian system.