Misogyny, Sexism, and Sex Abuse: Lessons from Machiavelli and Plato

From the White House to town square, men try to dominate without moral restraint

Fresno Bee, December 10, 2017

Sexual misconduct was not invented by the current generation. Before Al Franken and Matt Lauer there was Bill Cosby. In Greek myths the gods often raped young women. Plato wrote a book about the ethics of sex and love, called “The Symposium.”

Men have always desired the godlike power to take what they want with impunity. Male dominance ignores moral restraint. It wants power, pleasure and glory.

One spokesman of misogyny is Machiavelli. In an infamously sexist passage in “The Prince,” Machiavelli says that fortune is a woman. If you want to win fortune, you need to beat and abuse her, like you would batter a woman you want to control. Machiavelli teaches that glory comes to those who are audacious and violent.

The Machiavellian man brags about his prowess. He even boasts about what he has not done, manipulating truth in order to manufacture status. The Machiavellian also manipulates people. He grabs and gropes, swaggers and swears. When accused of misdeeds, he lies and dissembles.

We see numerous examples across the country of men getting caught with their pants down. Some have apologized. Others have resigned or been fired. But the hard-boiled Machiavellians continue to deny and denounce.

The most egregious examples come from the Oval Office. Recall Bill Clinton’s famous false denial, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” Other men would have withdrawn in shame. But not Clinton, who shrugged off impeachment.


Our current Machiavellian-in-chief bragged on tape about grabbing women’s crotches. President Trump has recently suggested that the voice on the tape was not really him, despite the protestations of his accomplice, Billy Bush.

For a Machiavellian, there is no fact that can’t be massaged to serve his purposes. The Machiavellian never flinches. He trades punch for punch. He mocks and belittles his enemies. He traffics in false and inflammatory material. He accuses others of stupidity, fakery and immorality. If he apologizes, his words are insincere. When he makes promises, he offers flattery without substance.

Unfortunately, the Machiavellian strategy pays off. It often works to be a jerk. It often seems that the more shameless one’s deceits, the more glory one attains.

Perhaps the tide is turning on this. But progress will be slow. This problem has been with us for thousands of years.

Plato understood that sex and politics were often at odds with morality. Good men are often destroyed by evil liars. And shameless gropers often keep what they grab.

The Platonic man does not fit well in the world of male dominance. He is reflective and retiring, modest and private. He does not boast. He is not willing to sacrifice his integrity to achieve victory. He is conscious of his own failures. His primary concerns are truth, justice and virtue.


The Platonic man sees no value in taking what is not freely given. He values honesty, friendship and love. He won’t pander. He won’t lie or spread false rumors. He thinks that glory without goodness is not worth the price.

The Platonic man does not view sex and power as ends in themselves to be obtained by any means necessary. Indeed, Plato suggested that lust for sex and power often lead us astray. He taught that sex without restraint is rapacious and that power without justice is tyranny.

The Platonic ideal is constantly at war with the Machiavellian urge. Education and constant effort are needed to develop men of character, who are caring, truthful, just and wise. Young men must be taught to keep their pants zipped.

While we might forgive the immature mischief of an adolescent, we cannot ignore the immoral machinations of mature men. The worst aspect of the Machiavellian man is that he makes groping and glory-seeking a way of life. He models depravity and makes it appear to be good. The tragic fact of political life is that so many Machiavellians have so much power.

The solution is moral education and the empowerment of women. Listen to women’s complaints. And condemn male dominance and misogyny. The point is easy to make today as the rogue’s gallery of gropers continues to grow. Let’s teach our sons to be better men than the Machiavellians currently on display.


Impeachment, The Constitution, and Civics

Is the United States heading for an impeachment crisis?

Fresno Bee, September 10, 2016


Democracy is both inspiring and appalling. This year in California we will vote on initiatives involving the death penalty, firearms, taxes and health care. We also will vote on whether marijuana should be legal and whether porn actors should wear condoms.

There is no guarantee that voting will produce wise and virtuous outcomes. Porn addicts and potheads will cast votes alongside priests and police officers.

The national race does not inspire confidence in the electoral process. The primaries have given us two flawed candidates for president. Each accuses the other of mendacity and incompetence. With this level of animosity before the election, dysfunction likely will follow. Some commentators have suggested that there will be an impeachment crisis in the next few years, no matter who gets elected president.

Democracy can produce good outcomes. Smart and sincere voters can elect virtuous officials who are dedicated to the common good. But the fact of diversity means that we will disagree about what we mean by virtue and the common good. And so democracy also gives us gripes, grievances and gridlock.


Philosophers have often criticized democracy. Plato warned that democracy can quickly turn to tyranny, as the people elect tyrants who make populist promises while plotting to take advantage.

John Adams, our second president, shared Plato’s worry. He warned about the dangers of direct democracy. He said: “Remember democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet, that did not commit suicide.”

The framers of the U.S. Constitution tried to remedy the flaws of democracy by giving us mixed government with a separation of powers. That idea goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks. A mixed government is not very efficient. But it aims to prevent tyranny by frustrating the machinations of those who lust for power.

Another remedy focuses on educating citizens. This idea was dear to Thomas Jefferson. In a letter to James Madison in 1787, Jefferson wrote that education of the common people is the best way to secure liberty.

A similar argument is made in a forthcoming book by educational and moral theorists Nel Noddings and Laurie Brooks. The book “Teaching Controversial Issues” maintains that critical thinking and moral education are essential for democracy.


The authors argue that democratic schools should encourage critical thinking rather than blind obedience. We need to give young people the tools to analyze and evaluate controversial topics, while inspiring them to remain committed to the common good. The goal “is to develop thoughtful, well-informed citizens for a participatory democracy.”

The present election provides a wonderful teachable moment. Civics education includes a discussion of the virtues and vices of democracy as well as analysis of the structure and history of the Constitution.

It is easy and fun to celebrate the myths of uncritical patriotism. But the truth is more complicated. No nation is perfect. There are no utopias. The flaws in political systems reflect flaws in human nature. People are not perfect. Nor are the systems we construct.

On Sept. 17, 1787, when Benjamin Franklin made a motion to approve the Constitution, he acknowledged that there was no perfect constitution. Human beings always bring with them “their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views.” So no human constitution can ever be perfect.

But rather than leaving us discouraged, this should invigorate us. There is work to be done to improve the world. In the end, we get the democracy we deserve. We build the world we live in with our questions and criticism as well as our votes.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article100862147.html#storylink=cpy

Partisan Division, The Founders, and Moral Philosophy

Search for common ground this Fourth of July

Fresno Bee, July 2, 2016

  • Partisan division is explained by philosophy and psychology
  • Founding Fathers warned against factionalism
  • Solution to partisanship is friendship and respect for liberty

Our country is seriously divided. A recent Pew Center report indicates that we distrust and fear one another. Among committed partisans, “70 percent of Democrats and 62 percent of Republicans say they are afraid of the other party.”

This crisis of trust threatens the fabric of civil society. But partisan conflict is not new. The Founding Fathers understood its dangers. Ancient philosophers warned against it. And psychologists have explained it in modern terms.

Committee_of_Five,_1776In the Federalist Papers, James Madison warned against “the violence of faction.” He called this a “dangerous vice” and a “mortal disease.” Partisan division inflames us with “mutual animosity.” We would rather “vex and oppress each other” than cooperate for the common good. Madison located factionalism deep within human nature, as a product of self-love.

George Washington agreed. He warned against “the baneful effects” of the “spirit of party.” In his Farewell Address, he said, “This spirit is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human Mind.” Washington connected partisanship with the spirit of revenge and the lust for power.

Two thousand years prior, Plato offered a similar diagnoses of partisan politics. We wrongly think that might makes right. We believe our primary duty is to help friends and hurt enemies. And we lose sight of the common good.

One recent book uses brain science to explain partisanship. In “The Righteous Mind,” Jonathan Haidt traces partisan zeal to the brain’s pleasure centers. Partisan behavior unleashes a rewarding blast of dopamine. This reinforces preconceived notions and our sense of righteous superiority. Noting that cocaine and heroin operate on those same pleasure centers, Haidt concludes, “Extreme partisanship may literally be addictive.”

Sigmund Freud directs our attention to the power of love and aggression. We love those who are similar and hate those who are different. Our desire to belong to a group of worthy people leads us to exaggerate the positive aspects of our comrades. This also leads us to inflate the negative features of those in the other party.

Partisan fanaticism often occurs among those who share much in common. Freud calls this the narcissism of minor differences. When our differences are minor, we amplify them in order to gain power and prestige.

With this in mind, we ought to note that the differences between Republicans and Democrats are mostly minor. A few differences get magnified. But no mainstream party is advocating a truly radical alternative to the status quo. No one in either party offers a radical revision of the constitutional system.

Republicans and Democrats each represent a different side of the same American coin. But, of course, the philosophy and psychology of partisanship predicts that partisans on each side will deny that this is true. Each side vilifies the other. The result is distrust and fear.

Our nation’s founders realized that you cannot eliminate factionalism without undermining liberty. They designed the Constitution to moderate its pernicious effects. The Constitution prevents tyranny. The rights of individuals are protected. Power is distributed. The nation’s size and diversity makes it tough for any single faction to gain complete control.

This approach is pragmatic. It does not hope for a radical change in human nature. Instead, it seeks to minimize the negative effects of our factional affliction.

Let’s hope the Constitution is strong enough to weather the current partisan storm. And yet, partisan hatred leaves us unhappy. And it causes moderate people to disengage. That’s unfortunate, since partisan rancor is curbed by the common sense of the moderates.

One solution points beyond politics to friendship. The Pew Center report suggests that those who have a friend in the other party are less fearful of the other party.

But our polarization makes it difficult to be friendly. We do not socialize in mixed political company. Our preconceptions are reinforced by a closed loop of one-sided media choices and self-selected social networks. This allows self-love to grow – and with it, distrust and fear.

Here is a suggestion for the Fourth of July. Befriend someone from the other party. Search for common ground. Our disagreements are nothing to fear. We should accept them as part of human nature. And celebrate them as a sign of our freedom.
Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article87055787.html#storylink=cpy

Taking pity on the weak and defenseless

July 26, 2013

The National Institutes of Health is retiring most of its chimpanzees from research. The director of the NIH, Francis Collins, explained that although similarities between chimps and humans has made chimps valuable as research subjects, this very likeness shows the need for greater justification in using them in research. If they are like us in terms of cognitive, social, and emotional experience, it is difficult to justify using them in ways that we wouldn’t use human beings.

This leads to some deep questions about our supposed superiority to animals and the justification of using animals for our benefit. We are like animals in many ways — in physiology and genetic constitution, for example. We reproduce, enjoy basic pleasures, and live in social groups. We explore our environments and become attached to others. While those similarities help explain the usefulness of animal models in research, they also indicate the need to be judicious in using animals.

While animals and humans share many capacities, only human beings seem to be aware of our moral obligations to other species. Our superiority to animals — if there is such a thing — is found in our ability to reflect on morality and our ability to imagine ways to use tools and other species.

This idea has deep roots. Plato tells a creation story in which the Titan, Prometheus, distributed powers and talents to various animals. Some got fur. Others got wings. And so on. By the time Prometheus turned to human beings, all the gifts were given away. Human beings were weak and defenseless, without fur, claws or hooves. As Plato puts it, we were left naked, unshod and unarmed.

But Prometheus took pity on us and gave us gifts that he stole from the gods, knowledge of fire, other technologies and agriculture. The gods punished Prometheus for giving us these god-like capacities. Prometheus’ Titanic pity for humans is a symbolic example of the pity felt for a lower species that is weak and defenseless.

The idea of taking pity on weak and defenseless members of another species is an important one. Some ancient philosophers argued for vegetarianism and against animal cruelty along these lines. The followers of Pythagoras argued that animal cruelty makes us insensitive to suffering and that by pitying the beasts we develop compassion, which can help us develop compassion for human beings.

Most Western religion and philosophy didn’t follow Pythagoras toward his vegetarian conclusion. But the animal question returned occasionally. In the 10th century, for example, Muslim scholars in Baghdad produced a fascinating story in which animals and humans argue before the King of the Jinn. The animals complained that human beings had no pity on them — forcing them to work, stealing their babies and killing them.

The text is very sympathetic to the animals’ complaint. But it concludes that humans are superior to animals because only human beings become sages, saints and prophets. The text also notes that saints and sages often chose to live apart from other human beings — as hermits residing in the wilderness. The best human beings appear to recognize that animal company is often preferable to the corrupt company of cruel and vicious human beings. Furthermore, many of those saints and sages are remarkably kind to animals. The best humans may be those who do not lord their superiority over the beasts.

If we really are superior to animals, that superiority gives us greater responsibility to avoid being cruel to those who are at our mercy. It might be that the truly superior human being is the most modest and the most kindhearted, especially when it comes to the treatment of inferior, dependent and vulnerable animals.

The NIH’s chimp retirement plan recognizes that the suffering of members of other species matters. It is a good thing that we are developing a kind of Promethean pity for those animals who depend entirely upon our mercy. I hope the chimps enjoy their retirement.

But is compassion for animals enough? Pity for weak non-humans is wonderful. But we have even stronger obligations to pity weak and dependent humans, including children, the disabled and our own aged population. A truly superior human species would treat vulnerable members of our own species as well as we treat animals — and vice versa.


Who can be trusted with our secrets?

July 12, 2013

The news about government surveillance and secrecy is alarming. But it is not surprising. Governments have always been interested in controlling information. But democratic governments should be limited in their ability to do so.

Managing information is the primary occupation of many people — in social networks, in business, in sports, in religion, and in politics. When information is scarce, the demand for it goes up. That’s why it’s possible to leverage information for profit — which explains blackmail, insider trading and treason.

Social life consists of a complex game of exchanging information. The best players have a knack for obtaining and revealing information in appropriate ways. And governments have an interest in controlling the process.

Secrets are valuable, and there is power in knowing them. We value those who can keep confidences. And we threaten and punish those who disclose them. But the urge to divulge is often as strong as the desire to know. The joy of the tattletale and the blabbermouth is complemented by the curiosity of the eavesdropper and Peeping Tom. Gossip is as much fun to tell as it is to hear.

There is also satisfaction in keeping a secret. We gain a sense of superiority from knowing something that others do not know. Community develops from the loyalty and trust found among those who keep each other’s confidences. There is solidarity among those who share secrets. We like to receive that sly wink or subtle nod from those “in the know.” No one wants to be left out of the loop.

But secretiveness can be dangerous. Cabals and cults indoctrinate members by revealing secret mysteries. Magical power supposedly flows from access to esoteric knowledge. People are often willing to pay dearly to see what is concealed.

The need for secrecy is often a sign of something rotten. Perverts lurk in the shadows. Criminals whisper conspiratorially. Con men and swindlers manipulate information. Delinquents conceal their misdeeds. And cheating lovers arrange clandestine meetings.

The great American philosopher Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “there must be some narrowness in the soul that compels one to keep secrets.” Good and virtuous things are not done surreptitiously. If we are proud of what we do and who we are, we should do it publicly.

A virtuous personality has no need to weave the tangled webs of deceit that cramp the soul. And a virtuous person has no need to pry into the private lives of others. Speak your mind. Be yourself. Leave others the privacy they deserve.

So much for individuals. But we often make exceptions for government spying and secrecy because we feel it is necessary for law and order. In order to uncover criminal conspiracies, the government may have to secretly surveil the bad guys. But one always wonders, who is watching the watchers.

The philosopher Plato solved that problem by maintaining that the rulers had to be wise and virtuous. Plato assumed that the majority of people were not virtuous enough to govern themselves. But he hoped that a wise and virtuous ruler could be empowered to manipulate and deceive us, for our own good.

Democrats, in the philosophical sense of that term, reject that idea. Democrats tend to think that governments ought to be transparent, because there is no good reason to believe that the watchers are wiser or more virtuous than we are. Democrats reject the idea that governments should be granted exceptional powers. And they believe that government should respect the liberty and privacy of individuals. As Thoreau put it, “that government is best which governs least.”

Individual privacy matters, from the point of view of democracy, because the freedom to keep and tell secrets is such an essential feature of our social lives. But governments ought not keep secrets. If we don’t know what the government is doing on our behalf, how can we claim to be governing ourselves?

Some fear that bad guys will exploit democratic liberty and transparency. They will want to empower the surveillance state as Plato did, for the good of the whole. But followers of Thoreau may suspect that growing state surveillance and secrecy indicates an undemocratic narrowing of the soul of the nation.


Mathematics and Morality

Want to do the right thing? Do the math

   Andrew Fiala

Originally published 2012-08-25

As kids tune up their calculators and complain about their math homework, let’s consider the moral value of mathematics. It is widely known that American students struggle with math and are being outperformed by kids in other countries. In response, President Obama plans to contribute $1 billion to support expert math and science teachers.

Is this a wise investment? Why do we put children through the math wringer: hammering them with algebra, geometry, trigonometry and calculus? At least one pundit has claimed that all of this is cruel and unnecessary.

In a recent essay in The New York Times, Andrew Hacker — a professor at the City University of New York — questioned the need for advanced mathematics. Hacker claimed, “Algebra is an onerous stumbling block for all kinds of students.” He argued that the solution was to change our emphasis on higher mathematics, focusing less on algebra and more on applied quantitative skills.

While I smiled at Hacker’s claim that “poets and philosophers” do not really need to do calculus, I suspect that higher mathematics remains useful. This is not because we use algebra or trigonometry in daily life, but because training in mathematics, like training in music or a foreign language, helps us hone our mental skills. Most adults don’t play the French horn they practiced in middle school, or speak the French they learned in high school. But we are better for having studied these things. Mathematics, like music, is a new language. To learn it, you have to apply abstract rules, think creatively, problem solve, and practice and persevere.

Morality seems to require the same ability to apply abstract rules that we associate with mathematics. Morality involves problem solving, as we come to see how the rules ought to be applied in a variety of complex cases. Of course, ethics involves more than following rules. Moral acuity also involves an emotional and empathetic element. It is a bit more like music in this regard. But as in music, creative and emotional responses must be grounded in a basic understanding of the principles and rules of the art.

The ancient Greeks thought that there was a connection between mathematics (and music) and morality. Plato’s school — the Academy in Athens — was said to have a sign on the door that read, “Let no one ignorant of geometry enter.” The path to enlightenment, for Plato, was prepared by mathematical insight. Mathematics provides rigorous discipline for the mind, which leads to higher wisdom.

There is a parallel between the orderly procedures of mathematical reasoning and the orderliness of a virtuous life. The Greeks thought that a good life was properly proportioned, with each part in its place. Aristotle taught that virtue was a “golden mean,” the middle or average amount: not too much, not too little. He defined justice as giving “equal to equals.” In order to distribute things fairly, you need to understand math.

There is also an analogy between mathematical and moral knowledge. Everyone agrees that 2+2=4. You don’t have to test this claim against the world. Rather, it is true for everyone, at all times, known with certainty. Plato thought moral knowledge was like that: universal and innate.

Unfortunately, people often disagree about morality. Some people don’t eat meat; others do. Some get abortions; others don’t. And so on. Moral principles appear to be quite different from mathematical truths, insofar as people vigorously debate them, even killing one another over them. This leads some people to skepticism about morality. It might be that there are no universally valid moral principles.

But someone like Plato might respond by saying that just as we can make mistakes in “doing the math,” we can also make mistakes in “doing morality.” Disagreement does not prove there is no right answer. If a child adds 2 and 2 and ends up with 5, we don’t give up on mathematics. Instead, we teach him or her how to do it right. And when children have good teachers and do their homework, their math skills improve.

Morality may be similar. We need good teachers who correct our mistakes and teach us how to do better. And, of course, we all need to keep practicing our instruments and doing our homework.

Education and Democracy

Holiday marks promise of education, democracy

   Andrew Fiala

Originally published Fresno Bee, 2012-06-30

We may be created equal and endowed with basic rights, but we are not born knowing this. Education is required to help us understand our rights and the legal structure that protects them. Thomas Jefferson once warned, “if a nation expects to be both ignorant and free … it expects what never was and never will be.” As we head toward Independence Day it is important to recall the essential connection between education and democracy.

American schools and universities have the opportunity to change the world. Consider this remarkable fact: The newly elected President of Egypt, Mohammed Morsi, and the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, were both educated in the United States. Morsi received his Ph.D. from USC. He taught at Cal State Northridge. Two of his children were born in California, which means that they are U.S. citizens. Netanyahu graduated from high school in Philadelphia and later earned degrees from MIT.

This reminds us of the global reach of the American educational system. Not only are we educating our own citizens but also people from across the planet. This is an amazing opportunity to disseminate democratic values.

Since Plato, democracy has been criticized as unstable rule of the ignorant mob. If the masses are uneducated and immoral, democracy can produce negative outcomes. And if the rulers are not properly educated, they become despotic demagogues who pander to the mob. Plato’s solution was anti-democratic. He wanted to educate the best individuals — those of good breeding. This ruling elite would then keep the masses under control through the use of propaganda and force.

The American Founders proposed a different solution: more and better education. Faith in the power of education is a deeply American ideal.

Benjamin Franklin argued that there was nothing more important to the common good than “to train up youth in wisdom and virtue.” He continued: “wise and good men are, in my opinion, the strength of the state.” Franklin even imagined, contrary to the prevailing opinion of his day, that education could be of value for women and blacks. Franklin worked to establish the Philadelphia Academy, a school that played a central role in the intellectual lives of many of the Founding Fathers.

Jefferson wanted the state of Virginia to fund public education for all citizens. The Virginia legislature balked at the expense. But Jefferson persuaded the state to fund the University of Virginia. Jefferson argued that “primary education” should “instruct the mass of our citizens in their rights, interests and duties, as men and citizens.” Higher education was to go further in educating future statesmen, scientists, and business leaders. The university was to “develop the reasoning faculties of our youth, enlarge their minds, cultivate their morals, and instill into them the precepts of virtue and order … rendering them examples of virtue to others, and of happiness within themselves.”

George Washington was also an ardent supporter of education. Washington asked the first U.S. Congress to consider establishing a national university. In his address to that first Congress, Washington stated that among other things, education was essential for “teaching the people themselves to know and to value their own rights.” He went on to say that education teaches citizens “to discriminate the spirit of liberty from that of licentiousness — cherishing the first, avoiding the last.”

The Founders thought that education would produce virtue, wisdom and love of liberty. This would prevent democracy from sinking toward rule of the uneducated, vicious mob. And it would prevent statesmen from becoming demagogues.

For two centuries, Americans have worked hard to improve our educational system. We now have universal and free public primary education. Our schools are less segregated. And our universities are the envy of the world.

But it’s not easy to provide quality education in an incredibly complex society that includes recent and noncitizens. Teachers are supposed to get this diverse group of children to understand their rights and value democratic governance.

Public school teachers are the guardians of the future of democracy. As we contemplate budget cuts and taxes for education, we should ask ourselves how much we are willing to spend in order to educate citizens (and even noncitizens) about the need to secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity.


Animal Play, Religion, and Poverty

All children deserve time to play

   Andrew Fiala

Originally published Fresno Bee 2012-05-19

Most mammals play. We even play with members of different species — as we do with our pets. This is an odd development in a world in which species are supposed to struggle for existence against one another.

Animals at play are not struggling to survive. Rather, they are engaged in imaginative and empathetic activity. Some nonhuman animals even appear to have a basic idea of “fair play.”

At least that is what Robert Bellah claims. Bellah, one of the most important scholars of religion in the U.S., gave a lecture last week at Fresno State on his new book, “Religion in Human Evolution.” The book explains the evolutionary roots of ethics, religion and philosophy.

Bellah argues that play is an important source of these higher goods. Play occurs in a “relaxed field,” when we are not focused on mere existence. Religious rituals, for example, are examples of rule-governed play. Philosophy, art and science develop as we play with ideas. These activities are meaningful on their own, without reference to the struggle to survive. And they provide solace and satisfaction, as a break from the labor of living.

One could argue that a fully human life is one in which there are ample opportunities for enjoying playful and empathetic activity, outside of the concerns of work and survival. All work and no play makes us dull animals — as the saying might go. Bellah suggests that this is true of many species. Animals thrive when they are free to explore, relax and socialize.

The importance of leisure and play is found in our dreams of a perfect world. Our utopian ideals and religious paradises describe a world without labor, struggle or conflict. Christians dream of lions lying down with lambs. And Plato imagined a peaceful world in which we would play at pastimes — “sacrificing, singing and dancing.”

It makes sense that intelligent animals would imagine an ideal world in which the struggle for existence was overcome. We lament the hard work of life. We aspire to freedom from want. We even imagine that after the toils of life, we may be rewarded by resting in peace without the need to labor.

Surplus resources and physical security make it possible for us to play, reflect, explore and create. Bellah explains that even in nonhuman species, play behavior is made possible by protective parents who provide for basic needs. Nurturing parents allow the young to experiment and romp without fear of predators or hunger. This sort of nurturance allows the animal to take a break from feeding and fighting in order to frolic.

During his visit to Fresno, Bellah returned several times to the issue of poverty and injustice. The sad fact is that there are many human beings who are not free to play — people who have little time or energy for singing, dancing, science, art, religion or philosophy. This is unfair, especially when others enjoy substantial luxury.

The idea of social justice, as found in the world’s great religious and philosophical traditions, develops from this basic idea of fairness. Philosophers and prophets have long criticized injustice and inequality. Bellah suggests that fairness itself may have roots in animal evolution. He claims that some animals seem to show a sense of “fair play.” Dogs will take turns, for example, chasing each other.

Bellah connects play with childhood. But he notes that in some parts of the world the play of childhood remains a privilege of the wealthy, unavailable for poor children. Across the globe, millions of children go hungry, while Americans spend more than $50 billion per year on pet food and animal care.

Bellah writes that one way of describing unfairness is to say that “while some work, others play.” We might add that there is something unfair about a world in which dogs are well-fed, while children starve.

We flatter ourselves in thinking we are more highly evolved than the other animals. But a species that fails to provide for its own children is not clearly superior. Bellah’s evolutionary account of religion reminds us that there is still a long way to go to make sure that all human children have the opportunity to live as well as our dogs do.


Democracy, education diminish our cruelty

Democracy, education diminish our cruelty

Fresno Bee, January 28, 2012

People are becoming less cruel and more humane.  This is the thesis of Steven Pinker’s optimistic new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature.  Pinker, a Harvard Psychologist, provides extensive data to support his conclusion, citing a variety of developments from low homicide rates to the demise of dueling and the abolition of slavery and torture.

He attributes some of our improvement to the fact that people are getting smarter.  He notes that rising IQ scores during the past century bode well for a more peaceful world, since smarter people are less violent.  He notes, for example, that smarter people tend to commit fewer violent crimes. He concludes, “people with more sophisticated reasoning abilities are more cooperative, have larger moral circles, and are less sympathetic to violence.”

There are reasons to be skeptical of any straightforward attempt to link intelligence with virtue.  Individuals with low IQ’s can be compassionate and kind; and some psychopaths are exceedingly clever.  But Pinker does provide some reasons to think that better education produces gentler people.

One causal mechanism for this sort of progress is literature.  Pinker thinks that representations of cruelty can change our attitudes toward violence.  And he argues that reading is a useful tool for developing empathy.  Reading demands that we imagine our way into another person’s point of view.  Widespread literacy—made possible by printing technologies and mandatory schooling—may well be a major cause of moral progress.

One sign of this progress is that fact that warfare has become less cruel.  Pinker thinks it is significant that despite the horrors that are still occasionally unleashed in war, we have self-consciously refrained from using our worst and most deadly weapons.  He suggests that nuclear warfare has become “too dangerous to contemplate, and leaders are scared straight.”

This conclusion hinges on the intelligence of our leaders.  Indeed, Pinker claims that there is a correlation between Presidential IQ and deaths in war.  According to Pinker, smarter presidents wage fewer wars and produce fewer wartime casualties.

Such a blithe conclusion should be taken with a grain of salt, since it assumes that presidents wage war in a vacuum without the input of the military or the cooperation of foreign allies.  And such a conclusion ignores the fact that our representatives in the Congress have some control over how wars are fought.

This points toward a central question: do wise and virtuous leaders cause moral improvement?  The Greek philosopher Plato thought so.  Plato rejected democracy as rule of the uneducated and unvirtuous masses.  He thought we would do better under the watchful eye of a wise and benevolent ruler who would protect us from our own vicious and ignorant ways.

We are no longer sympathetic to this idea.  Instead, we tend to believe that we are smart enough and good enough to govern ourselves. Pinker’s analysis gives us reason to trust this democratic impulse.  It is our modern democratic state and its educational system that has made us smarter and better.  Most of the moral progress that we’ve made during the past millennia has occurred under democratic government and has been facilitated by the expansion of literacy and education.

People are not born smart or good.  We are born with the capacity to learn and with a basic capacity for empathy.  But we must learn all of the specifics, including how to control our own violent impulses.  Education is essential for understanding the complex moral and political problems that confront us in our globalized world.  Intelligence and virtue develop as a result of the sustained effort of parents, teachers, and a supporting social environment.  And our moral and intellectual skills develop further, as we exercise our own capacities for self-government.

It is amazing how much moral progress we have made.  We no longer allow slavery or torturous punishments.  Women have been liberated. And we recognize that our most destructive weapons are immoral.  Good for us for figuring this out!

These moral developments were not imposed upon us by philosopher-kings.  Rather, they resulted from democratic procedures and were produced by our system of education.  The key to future progress is to trust ourselves and to continue to believe that democracy and education can make us both smarter and better.

Let’s Raise a Glass for Those Days Gone By

Let’s Raise a Glass for Those Days Gone By

Fresno Bee, December 31, 2011

New Year’s Eve is a time for nostalgia and regret.  It is a time for remembrance about time gone past.  It is a time for dreaming abouttomorrow.  And it is a time for that old drinking song, “Auld Lang Syne.”

We sing that song at New Year’s, even though most of us don’t really know what it’s Scottish words really mean.  The song goes: “For auld lang syne, my dear, for auld lang syne, we’ll take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne.”  Imagine raising your cup and swaying to the music, as you sing it.  The cup is raised in a toast to the old times—the “old long since,” as it might be translated.  We drink a salute to days gone by.

New Year’s Eve is for reminiscing: about both the good times and the bad.  We celebrate our new friends and mourn those we’ve lost.  We count our blessings and chew over our failures.  Along the way, we might cook up some resolutions for the next year: ways of ensuring that the future is more satisfying and less disappointing.

Life is not, of course, without disappointment.  And New Year’s Day often begins with a disillusioning hangover.  A groggy morning is the bitter-sweet remembrance of the previous night’s elation.  A hangover reminds us that no joy comes without pain.

The bleary-eyed melancholy of the morning after also reminds us that we are usually not very good at judging our own future interests. Concerns about tomorrow’s wooziness are rarely considered in deciding whether to get drunk tonight.  That is why we borrow money, overeat, and fail to plan for retirement.  If we were rational about these things, there would be no regrets.  And we would keep our New Year’s resolutions.

Mark Twain mocked this human-all-too-human tendency in a column he wrote in 1863 for the New Year’s Day edition of the Virginia City newspaper. “Now is the accepted time to make your regular good resolutions.  Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual.  Yesterday, everybody smoked his last cigar, took his last drink, and swore his last oath… Thirty days from now, we shall have cast our reformation to the winds.”

Twain was not opposed to drinking or to smoking.  He is often pictured with a big cigar in hand.  He said, “It’s easy to quit smoking, I’ve done it a hundred times.”  Twain routinely mocked the advocates of temperance, who were lobbying to regulate alcohol consumption.  He seemed to think that drinking made it possible to deal with life’s tragedies.  He once remarked: “sometimes too much to drink is barely enough.”

Twain is not alone extolling the virtues of drink.  Human beings have been consuming alcohol and other intoxicants for millennia.  The ancient Egyptians brewed beer.  Hammurabi’s Code includes regulations for tavern owners.  And, of course, Jesus turned water into wine.

This last point is not insignificant.  The origin of religion may have something to do with intoxication.  The human mind craves varied and altered states of consciousness.  We dance, we play, we sing, and we get drunk.  And we willingly suffer from our excesses.  If the original ecstasy is great enough, we can easily accept the suffering of the morning after.

One of Plato’s most interesting works—the Symposium—represents a wine-drenched drinking party.  In fact, the Symposium takes place on the day after a previous night’s round of drinking: most of the participants are already hung-over.  The topic for discussion at this party is love.  Love is another sort of intoxication that we crave, even if it costs us significant suffering.

Plato also links love and drunkenness to wisdom. Drink loosens tongues.  It allows the artistic imagination to wander.  It helps people fall in love.  It lubricates philosophical discussions.  And it opens the memory to those days gone by.

Yes there are dangers here: drunken driving and alcoholism can both be deadly.  Some form of moderation is in order: there is a right time and a right way to get drunk.  We know that there may be hell to pay tomorrow.  But for tonight, let’s raise a cup of kindness for those days of auld lang syne.