Take care in making judgments about morality

Fresno Bee

March 21, 2014

http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/03/21/3835573/ethics-take-care-in-making-judgments.html

A report published last week by the Pew Research Center concludes that many people think that belief in God is essential for morality.

In the U.S., 53% of respondents believe that belief in God is essential for morality. These numbers are higher in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The numbers are high in the Middle East, with the exception of Israel, where only 37% link belief in God with morality. In European countries the numbers are lower. In France only 15% affirm the religion-morality link.

This data seems to correspond with research done by Will Gervais and other social scientists who indicate that nonbelievers have a bad reputation. People tend not to trust atheists. They don’t want their children to marry one. They are reluctant to hire one. And many will not vote for one.

These sorts of surveys are interesting — but limited. Morality and religion are complicated topics. We should be careful about reducing a millennia-long conversation about religion and morality to a few factoids taken from public opinion polls.

The morality-religion linkage is quite complex. One approach — the Divine Command theory of ethics — holds that morality is based upon God’s commands, understanding moral rules as created by God’s will. Related to this is a claim about moral knowledge: that without a revelation from God, we would not know the moral rules. Furthermore, the motivation to be moral is thought to come from hope for an eternal reward or fear of final judgment.

Critics of atheism may think that since atheists do not believe that there is a judging God, atheists have no reason to be moral. They may think that since atheists reject revelation, they can have no knowledge of morality. And they may think that without God as the source of morality, morality becomes completely groundless.

But this overlooks much. Many religious people do not simply ground morality in God’s literal commands. They interpret and apply moral rules using reason and common sense. It is also true that many atheists are not anti-religious zealots who think that there is nothing to learn from religion or traditional morality. Indeed, many atheists are careful and attentive students of religion.

Atheists and theists can agree that morality makes life easier and better. Murderers, rapists, liars and adulterers lead difficult and miserable lives. Generous, truthful, caring and courageous people tend to be happier. Eternal rewards and punishments raise the stakes. But morality and happiness are closely linked in this world.

A further problem is posed by religious diversity. Those who maintain that belief in God is necessary for morality still have to explain whose God and which morality. Even within a religious tradition such as Christianity, there are big disputes about morality. Christians themselves disagree about a variety of issues, from gay marriage to abortion to the death penalty.

Disputes about religion and morality are deep and contentious. In a world of religious diversity, a broadly tolerant and humanistic approach to morality may be our best hope for finding common ground. We might agree, for example, that everyone is entitled to believe what they want about religion, so long as they respect others’ right to the same freedom of belief. Belief in God is not necessary for belief in religious liberty.

As our awareness of religious diversity increases, we must avoid simplifying the morality-religion question in the way that the Pew Center poll does. Simplistic thinking and stereotyping of this sort can foster intolerance.

Atheists are not necessarily immoral. Nor is it true that religious people are close-minded bigots. Such gross generalizations are disrespectful, unkind and unhelpful. Despite our fundamental differences, we are each struggling to make sense of life and live it well. If we acknowledged our common struggle to live well in a difficult world, we might learn to be more tolerant, generous and caring toward those who do not share our understanding of religious or moral truth.

A global morality of respect for persons and love of our neighbors is fundamental to a free and peaceful world. Morality in this sense is not the exclusive possession of any particular religion (or non-religion). Instead, it is a condition for cooperation among people who disagree about life’s hardest and most important questions.

 

 

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/03/21/3835573/ethics-take-care-in-making-judgments.html#storylink=cpy

The naughty and nice of gift giving

Fresno Bee

November 29, 2013

http://www.fresnobee.com/2013/11/29/3638620/ethics-breaking-down-the-naughty.html

Imagine that your Aunt Clara gives you a pink bunny suit for Christmas, when you really wanted a Red Ryder air rifle. Chances are you’ll smile and say thank you. It’s the thought that counts. You can’t blame Aunt Clara for her bad taste or delusions. Her intentions were good.

But this may let Aunt Clara off too easily. Consequences matter in addition to intentions. We don’t usually think that it’s only the thought that counts. Performance matters in most social endeavors. Good gift giving requires substantial effort beyond merely having good intentions.

Gift giving sends a signal about the status of our relationships. There are a lot of uncertainties here. To begin with, you have to decide who merits a gift. Should you give a gift to your neighbors, co-workers and distant nephews?

Then you have to decide how much to spend. Should you spend as much on your nieces and nephews as you do on the collection for the office assistant or janitor at work? And what about reciprocation? If you gave someone a $10 gift last year and she reciprocated with a $50 gift, what should you give her this year?

Can you give everyone on your list the same gift — perhaps an iTunes gift card? Or do you have to find the perfect gift for each person? Maybe Aunt Clara had a big stack of bunny suits in her closet. Can we blame her for being efficient in her shopping?

Aunt Clara could just send cash. As my grandmother said, cash is always the right color but rarely the right size. But the gift of cash can seem more like a tip than a gift. You can give the mailman a few bucks. But that’s not a proper gift for your wife.

These problems were discussed long ago by the Roman philosopher Seneca. In his treatise on gift giving, Seneca explains that giving must be done for the sake of the recipient. It’s not merely the thought that counts — we also have to try to give an appropriate gift.

Seneca also suggests that genuine gift giving should be done for the sake of giving itself. That sounds like abstract moralizing. But an old Christmas song tells kids to be good for goodness’ sake. The idea is that it is naughty to be good for the sake of something other than goodness.

To give for the sake of giving we must cultivate a spirit of charity, kindness and care. But that generous spirit only creates the right disposition. It still doesn’t tell us what to give or how much. The spirit of pure generosity certainly sounds nice. But without some common sense it can be naughty.

An old proverb states that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Aunt Clara may be on that gilded path. She may think she is being generous for the sake of generosity. But unless she takes your needs and interests into account, giving you a gift for your sake and not merely for the sake of goodness, she’s being lazy and thoughtless.

A further problem is that good giving should not merely give you what you want — it should also give you what you need. If Aunt Clara is really concerned with you for your sake, she shouldn’t give you the air rifle, since after all, “you might put your eye out.” It’s wrong to give someone a gift knowing that the gift might injure him — even if he wants it.

That’s why it is wrong to give wine to a hard drinker — as Seneca notes. When you do something for the sake of someone else, you should carefully imagine the consequences. You’ve got to put yourself in the place of the other.

And that’s the point of gift giving. It encourages deep social interaction grounded in moral imagination. Giving ought to be focused on the unique needs and interests of the individual, done for her sake.

All of this makes shopping harder. But better shopping is not the only solution. The real challenge is to take the time to love those on our lists, without putting another frivolous bunny suit or hazardous air rifle under the Christmas tree.

 

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2013/11/29/3638620/ethics-breaking-down-the-naughty.html#storylink=cpy

Is college becoming mass-produced?

Fiala on ethics: Is college becoming mass-produced?

By Andrew Fiala

Fresno Bee, Friday, May. 17, 2013 | 05:44 PM

Soon enough, everyone will have access to the latest classes coming out of Harvard or Stanford. Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, can provide students around the world with lectures delivered by leading scholars at top universities. The democratic promise of Ivy League education for everyone is enticing.

But there has been some backlash. Last week, professors in the philosophy department at San Jose State wrote an open letter opposing MOOCs. They worry that administrators “are beginning a process of replacing faculty with cheap online education.” No doubt it would be cheaper to use prefabricated mass-produced courses than to hire real professors.

Some critics worry that online education in general is the problem. Face-to-face communication is important in the Internet age. Something mysterious happens in classrooms as students and teachers think together. Face-to-face encounters give students good practice at listening, talking and thinking in community with others. And caring relationships between teachers and students develop best in a face-to-face world.

But computer technology is not all bad. Videotaped lectures, like textbooks, are useful tools for disseminating information. And serious thinking can happen in online discussion forums. Online discussions are especially useful for shy or disabled students.

The bigger problem with MOOCs is the idea that college education is another commodity to be mass-produced. MOOCs are “massive.” A recent New Yorker article reports that a humanities MOOC at Harvard has more than 30,000 “students.” A MOOC on artificial intelligence had 160,000 “students.”

The issue of scale is significant. At some point the “student” becomes an anonymous unit to be processed, a number rather than a person with a name. Mass education treats students as spectators and consumers rather than as participants in a community of inquiry.

Mass-production generally centralizes authority and standardizes its products. But education should focus on cultivating human persons and celebrating their individuality. It should not be a mechanical process of stamping out graduates.

Decades ago, social critics such as Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno warned that “the culture industry” would create standardization and monopoly. They worried that centralized production of films, music, literature and art would turn culture into a product to be marketed and sold.

MOOCs represent another step in the mass production of culture. Mass produced culture makes all kinds of stuff easily available. Mass quantities of consumer goods can be purchased at big box stores. We can attend mega-churches and read mass media news stories. And now the sages on stages at the big universities are coming to the masses.

Mass culture is fast and efficient. It requires little effort to fill our minds with the latest stuff. Our tastes, our behaviors, even our thoughts are standardized and homogenized, assisted by search engine algorithms, which help us find what we want from among the available products.

Mostly, we like it that way. Standardized mass culture creates regularity, predictability and comfortable conformity. We can order the same food in the same restaurant chain in any city in America. We can watch the same TV shows or read the same news, while sitting in standardized hotel rooms across the country.

Everyone discusses the same celebrity gossip, reads the same bestselling novels and watches the same blockbuster films. We are all concerned about the same scandals and crises. The more of us there are, the more alike we all become. Massive online education appears as an inevitable part of the cultural matrix.

The downside is the loss of idiosyncratic points of view, local differences and diversity of perspectives. There are no more sages hiding on mountaintops, waiting to deliver wisdom to intrepid explorers. Instead, the sage appears to everyone who can click a mouse.

MOOCs bring those mountaintop gurus down to the people. But the mass production of education carries the risk of destroying the mysterious human connection between teachers and students. The most meaningful moments in education often occur when the sage becomes a caring mentor, asking how things appear from the perspective of the student. Can a MOOC do that?

Mass education can effectively disseminate information. But no Harvard genius can replace a responsive and responsible teacher, who is present on campus and in the community and who cares about students enough to learn their names.

 

Animal Freedom and Cosmopolitan Human Borders

Wildlife knows no man-made political boundaries

   Andrew Fiala

Originally published Fresno Bee 2012-05-05

Editor’s note: Andrew Fiala has just returned from sabbatical, which took him to Israel and Greece.

Birds and other migratory animals are cosmopolitan. They move across borders, following the seasons. Migratory animals remind us that no species owns the world or a particular place. We pass through the world. We don’t possess it. And we share the earth with other humans and species.

Before I returned to Fresno, I visited a Greek wildlife hospital, which treats and houses dozens of injured birds from a variety of species: storks, pelicans, eagles, including many endangered species. These birds fly through Greece from Europe to Africa and back. Even though Greece has many safe havens for such birds — isolated mountains and uninhabited islands — many birds are killed for sport by hunters or inadvertently poisoned. The wildlife refuge houses a sad population of once- beautiful animals who have been permanently disabled by human ignorance.

Healthy birds make amazingly long migrations that take them across heavily contested borders. Every season hundreds of millions of birds pass through Israel and the Palestinian territories. These birds cross borders, which the humans below them cannot cross.

Another important migratory flyway traverses the politically fragmented island of Cyprus, in the eastern Mediterranean. Millions of migratory birds pass over the border that divides Greek and Turkish parts of the island. Unfortunately, many of them are trapped and eaten in a yearly slaughter that appalls bird lovers.

I had a conversation with some Greeks about the conflict in Cyprus and remaining tensions with Turkey. One woman said that she hoped that the Greeks would eventually take back Constantinople — using the Greek name for the city that is now called Istanbul. People around the world continue to hold dangerous ideas about borders, possessions and national pride.

From the standpoint of the animals that roam the earth such things are irrelevant. The great animal migrations existed long before humans invented cities and nations. In fact, we were once migratory animals, following the herds out of Africa. It is only fairly recently, a few millennia, that we have created the borders that corral us into nation-states.

A number of philosophers have been trying to imagine a world without borders, arguing that such a world would be more natural, less violent and more just. The cosmopolitan vision wants justice to apply equally to all people across the globe. Cosmopolitans want to address global problems such as world hunger, poverty and inequality. A cosmopolitan world would be open to migration, allowing laborers to move across borders to find jobs. And it would be less inclined toward nationalism and war.

The cosmopolitan idea has roots in ancient Greek philosophy. The word “cosmopolitan” comes from the Greek. It can be literally translated as “citizen of the world.” Cosmopolitanism is focused on the common interests of the human species, instead of on narrow national and cultural identifications.

One source for this idea is the ancient philosopher Diogenes the Cynic. Diogenes maintained, “the only true commonwealth was one that was as wide as the universe.” Diogenes chose to live according to nature — renouncing the trappings of civilization. His critics said he lived like a dog (the word “cynic” is related to the ancient Greek name for dog). Diogenes claimed that our cultural, religious, and political ideas make us unhappy and unnecessarily confine us.

The Cynics were on to something. From the vantage point of nature, our political differences do not matter much. We often forget that all human beings are members of the same species. Just as we often forget that we share the earth with a variety of other species with whom we ought to learn to co-exist.

Human borders enclose temporary settlements. The ancient Greeks gave way to Romans, Christians and Turks. And now the Eurozone is teetering. Civilizations rise and fall. But the birds and butterflies continue their yearly journey. These migrations will persist long after our civilization is forgotten — unless we kill the animals first.

Human beings like to believe that we are smarter than the other critters roaming the earth. But are we? If we were really smart, we’d stop fighting about names and borders and learn to cooperate with the other citizens of the world. Truly rational animals would strive to live in harmony with all the animals — human and nonhuman — with whom we share this small, fragile planet.

 

Hope and the Wreckage of Civilization

Remember and honor sacrifices before us

   Andrew Fiala

Originally published Fresno Bee 2012-04-21

Editor’s note: Andrew Fiala contributed this column from Greece, where he is doing research while on sabbatical.

Sometimes hope is hard to find. Times are tough. Jesus was crucified. Socrates was killed. And so it goes.

My experience in Israel left me pessimistic. I asked nearly everyone I met — Israelis and Arabs — whether they were hopeful about the future. The vast majority admitted that they were not. A few confessed that they hadn’t felt hopeful since the Prime Minister, Yitzakh Rabin, was assassinated in 1995 by a right-wing radical who was opposed to the Oslo peace plan. That’s a long time to live without hope.

And the turmoil continues, with rocket attacks, missile strikes, protests, arrests, hunger strikes and rattling sabers. One Israeli confessed that he had obtained European passports for his children — just in case.

But Europe is not much better. The economy is so bad in some places that suicide rates are climbing and journalists have described a new phenomenon, “suicide by economic crisis.” Things look particularly bleak in Greece, where I’m concluding my sabbatical research. One in five Greeks is unemployed. There is more austerity to come.

On April 4, just as I arrived here, a 77-year-old pensioner, Dimitris Christoulas, killed himself in Athens in front of Parliament. His suicide was not merely an act of despair. It was a political act. Christoulas left a note calling on people to take up arms and “hang the traitors of this country.” Riots erupted the next day in Athens. And so it goes.

The day after the riots in Athens, I visited the Parthenon, the massive temple to Athena that sits on the hill overlooking the city. Later, I had a conversation about the economic crisis with a Greek woman I had met. I told her I visited the Parthenon. She scowled. She said she hates the Parthenon. “It was built by slaves,” she said, “a symbol of oppression.”

It is possible to draw a dark conclusion from the history of the world. In the end there are only ruins and graves. And much of what is left was built on the backs of slaves who worked and died in obscurity. And so it goes.

I’ve been surprised to discover that many archaeological sites are littered with unfiltered shards and uncounted fragments. There are too many broken pieces of the past to collect them all. The remnants are too small, too insignificant. In many places, crumbling columns and shattered pottery lie piled in heaps, covered with weeds.

The earth is littered with the wreckage of proud ancient civilizations that have vanished. The saddest cases are the relics of cultures whose languages remain un-deciphered, whose rituals and gods and slaves are gone forever.

This can leave you feeling hopeless. The American novelist Kurt Vonnegut once asked, “what can a thoughtful man hope for, given the experience of the past million years?” He answered: “nothing.” But we must be careful with this conclusion and the apathetic shrug of “and so it goes.”

It is better to listen to the words of Rabin, the murdered Israeli Prime Minister: “We will not let up. We will not give in. Peace will triumph over all our enemies, because the alternative is grim for us all.”

If you don’t have hope, why bother to complain — what difference would it make? If you give up hope, then the grim alternative comes true. Hope is an act of solidarity, a protest against evil, and a rebuke to the indifference of the universe.

The American philosopher William James once explained — in an essay called “Is Life Worth Living?” — that a sense of honor and gratitude toward all of those who have lived and died before us should give us a reason to keep working for a better world. He said that we must do some self-denying service in return for all those lives upon which our own is built.

The ruins and violence in Athens and Jerusalem remind us of the long struggle of humanity. How many millions have lived and fought and died so that the world could be a better place? When things look dark, it’s important to remember the sacrifices of those who came before: the prophets, politicians, philosophers, and slaves upon whose shoulders we stand.

 

With 7 Billion of us, Can We Keep Buying Nonstop?

With 7 Billion of us, Can We Keep Buying Nonstop?

Fresno Bee, November 5, 2011

It is difficult to balance individual liberty with concerns of a global nature.  We want to be free to consume and reproduce.  But the choices of free individuals add up, creating significant impacts.  This is especially true now that there are 7 billion human beings on earth—a number that will grow to 10 billion by the end of the century.

We passed the 7 billion mark on Halloween.  This is a kid-friendly holiday, which makes parents glad they have children.  But it also marks the beginning of the typical American over-consumption calendar.  Once the Halloween candy is gone, we turn to Thanksgiving gluttony and then on to Christmas overindulgence.  Imagine the environmental impact of 2 or 3 billion more people gorging themselves as we do every year.

Ecologist Madhu Katti, from Fresno State’s Biology Department put it this way in a recent post on his blog, “A Leaf Warbler’s Gleanings”: “There are many reasons to be worried about the consequences of having so many of us crowding this pale blue dot of a planet.  Especially if so many of us are keen to continue spending billions of dollars on seemingly cheap plastic junk.”  Common sense tells us that as population grows and consumption increases, we will hit a limit.

This point has been known, at least since the time of Thomas Malthus, the 18th Century economist.  Malthus is famous for arguing that as populations grow, they will suffer a dieback caused by environmental pressures.  He is infamous for hinting that it is wrong to support poor people since aid to the poor increases population in counter-productive ways.

So far, we have found technological solutions that have helped us avoid the grim Malthusian limit and reach the 7 billion mark: increased agricultural productivity, new sources of power, better medicine, etc.  But there may be a limit to technological solutions.  And as population and consumption grow, the Malthusian limit looms.

So what can we do?  Policies that use coercion to prevent people from reproducing are immoral.  The right to reproduce is very basic.  It would be wrong for the state to license reproduction or require sterilization.  The morally acceptable response to population pressure is to increase each individual’s sense of responsibility for reproduction.  Perhaps we could do the same for consumption.

This individualistic approach is, however, vexed by the problem of diffusion of responsibility.  When there are 7 billion other people involved, my own choices appear to be infinitesimally insignificant.  It is odd to demand that I should consider global population and environmental issues when thinking about my reproductive life or shopping patterns.

So where does that leave us?  Perhaps it helps to return to Malthus.  Malthus thought that one solution to the population problem was “moral restraint.”  He defined this as celibacy until marriage and refraining from marriage until one is ready to support a family.  Not only would this help to moderate population growth but Malthus also thought it would be good for women, since it would prevent the “evils and unhappiness” that arise from “promiscuous intercourse.”

Malthus was on the right track here, despite his prudish sense of sexual morality.  The key to population pressure is to find ways to empower and educate women, including giving them more control of their own reproductive lives.  Professor Katti explained it to me this way, “the empowerment of women and reduced infant mortality are the key factors” in slowing population growth.  Women choose to have fewer children when there is “greater economic security, better health, and some measure of control over their futures.”  This has helped to lower birth rates in industrialized countries as well as in places like Bangladesh.

So far, so good.  The further problem is that despite lowered birthrates, we continue to consume loads of cheap plastic junk.  Professor Katti continued, “we have figured out how to lower birth rates, but are far from tackling the wasteful consumerist lifestyle that is at the root of so many of our environmental problems.”

Is it possible that some version of “moral restraint” could work when it comes to consumption?  Instead of focusing on promiscuous intercourse, it may be time to begin thinking about how to limit promiscuous consumption.