Optimism, Pessimism, and Meliorism

Bad news bumming you out?
Turn off the TV, go out and make some good news

Fresno Bee, November 10 2017

Every day there is cruelty somewhere in the world. Some days – as after the Texas church shooting – our hearts simply break. But the world also is full of kindness and care.

Our estimation of life is a matter of perspective. Optimism and pessimism depend on where we look. But what matters most is what you do. If you are sick of the bad news, turn off the television and go out and make some good news.

An old truism holds that the pessimist see the glass as half-empty while the optimist sees it as half-full. But active and engaged people don’t bother to measure the contents of their cups. They savor what they’ve got, drink it down, then go looking for a refill.

One name for this approach is meliorism. Meliorists want to make things better – to ameliorate them. Meliorists are pragmatists. They don’t ignore the evils of life. But they see setbacks as challenges to be overcome, rather than disasters that doom us to defeat.

There always are obstacles and work to be done. Pragmatists discover joy in that work. There is meaning and purpose in the process of planning, building and improving things.

BE NOT AFRAID OF LIFE. BELIEVE THAT LIFE IS WORTH LIVING,
AND YOUR BELIEF WILL HELP CREATE THE FACT.
Willam James

This pragmatic philosophy is typically American. It is the guiding idea of American philosophers such as William James and John Dewey.

Dewey said, “Meliorism is the belief that the specific conditions which exist at one moment, be they comparatively bad or comparatively good, in any event may be bettered.” James explained, “Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact.”

This idea can also be found in the philosophical musings of Eleanor Roosevelt. She explained, “The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for new and richer experience. You can do that only if you have curiosity, and an unquenchable spirit of adventure.”

This adventurous ethos makes sense in the context of our immigrant and pioneer heritage. People come to America to build and create, explore and grow. Pioneers and immigrants don’t rest at home, criticizing and complaining. They work and build. And if they don’t like things here, they move on to greener pastures.

Related to this is something we might call zest, gusto, or joie de vivre. The basic love of life fills active people with energy and enthusiasm. They awake in the morning eager to learn, explore and create.

Lack of energy breeds cynicism. The cynic fails to enjoy life. And so he judges and mocks those who do. But vivacious people don’t have time for cynicism. They are too busy living. And they improve life by embracing it with dynamism and imagination.

Pessimists will complain that energetic engagement with the world demands too much effort. Some pessimists see the need for work as a sign of an imperfect world. But this is lazy and short-sighted. Life requires labor. If you don’t work, you don’t eat. There is no way around this basic fact.

THE PURPOSE OF LIFE IS TO LIVE IT, TO TASTE EXPERIENCE TO THE UTMOST, TO REACH OUT EAGERLY AND WITHOUT FEAR FOR NEW AND RICHER EXPERIENCE. YOU CAN DO THAT ONLY IF YOU HAVE CURIOSITY, AND AN UNQUENCHABLE SPIRIT OF ADVENTURE.
Eleanor Roosevelt

Pessimists are disappointed the world is not perfect. But a perfect world would be boring. It is the challenges in life that get the juices flowing. It is work that gives life meaning.

Optimism also involve intellectual laziness. The optimist’s rose-colored glasses screen out tragedy and loss. They look the other way, deliberately ignoring suffering and pain. But this is a recipe for disaster. If we ignore the evils of life, we will fail to take precautions to prevent them.

Loss and pain cannot be ignored. This world includes genuine evils. But sweat and tears provide the salt that helps us savor the sweet times. And kindness and care can make the world a better place.

A good life is never simply given to us. It is built on prudent planning, creative problem solving and hard work.

Optimists ignore the need for prudence, hoping things will turn out fine. Pessimists roll their eyes, disappointed that life requires effort. The rest of us – the majority of hard-working, pragmatic people – roll up our sleeves, wipe away the sweat and tears, and get back to work.

http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article183938506.html

Marijuana Morality

Proposition 64: Discerning the pros and cons of legalized marijuana

Fresno Bee, October 28, 2016

 

There are difficult questions to confront in thinking about Proposition 64. If the polls are right, the pot proposition will likely pass. And if it passes, we will need to think carefully about the morality of marijuana.

Libertarians argue that adults should be free to get high. Gary Johnson, the Libertarian presidential candidate, has long advocated marijuana reform.

Others oppose intoxication on principle. This view is often based in religion. Mormons, Mennonites and Muslims – as well as Buddhists and Baptists – generally oppose alcohol and other intoxicants. Religious folks tend to think that drug-induced rapture is a false idol leading to immoral behavior.

But some traditions do use drugs to achieve ecstasy and insight. An ancient proverb states “in vino veritas,” in wine there is truth. Uninhibited drunks may speak the truth and some find enlightenment in their cups.

William James, the great American philosopher, explained, “Sobriety diminishes, discriminates and says no; drunkenness expands, unites and says yes. It is, in fact, the great exciter of the Yes function in man. … It makes him, for the moment, one with truth.”

James described the “ontological intuition” disclosed by various drugs. That’s fancy language for the sense of wonder and harmony that some drugs elicit. Marijuana often has been associated with spirituality and higher consciousness – by Rastafarians, Indian mystics, Sufis and hippies.

SOBER THOUGHT AND RATIONAL DISCERNMENT ARE IMPORTANT GOODS – OFTEN IN SHORT SUPPLY.
BUT MAN DOES NOT LIVE BY SOBRIETY ALONE. WE ALSO NEED ESCAPES AND RELAXATIONS.

Puritanical types argue that chemical nirvana is cheap and phony. It is debatable whether any drug can put you in touch with God. But there is no denying that human beings pursue altered states of consciousness.

Sober thought and rational discernment are important goods – often in short supply. But man does not live by sobriety alone. We also need escapes and relaxations.

In our culture, alcohol is the drug of choice. A glass of wine at dinner is part of haute cuisine. Art and music often are enjoyed with wine or a cocktail. And beer goes with sports. Libertarians argue for expanding our choices.

But the freedom to alter consciousness runs up against our responsibility to others. Do we want stoned parents – or drunk parents, for that matter – raising children? Impaired driving is an important concern. Drunken drivers kill about 27 people per day. Marijuana legalization likely will increase traffic fatalities.

7ac6746876d20bac10c7ec9c5c7b510d664e5843e8d57a14e4a2f2751c0a1440The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws offers a different opinion. NORML suggests that stoned drivers are aware of their impairment and slow down, focusing more on driving. They claim that drunken drivers are more reckless than stoned drivers.

This is an unlikely story. And even if it is true, legal pot will cause traffic snarls as would-be Cheeches and Chongs creep along in the fast lane. There is no denying that stoned drivers will cause accidents.

A Libertarian will reply that despite drunken driving, alcohol remains legal. From this point of view, what is needed is regulation and education, not prohibition. Self-driving cars and better public transportation also would help.

IF MARIJUANA BECOMES LEGAL IN CALIFORNIA, AS IS LIKELY,
IT IS STILL WORTH ASKING WHETHER DECENT AND RESPONSIBLE PEOPLE SHOULD PARTAKE.
WE WILL NEED SOCIAL NORMS TO GUIDE APPROPRIATE POT BEHAVIOR – A GUIDEBOOK OF MARIJUANA MANNERS.

If marijuana becomes legal in California, as is likely, it is still worth asking whether decent and responsible people should partake. We will need social norms to guide appropriate pot behavior – a guidebook of marijuana manners.

Our culture – our economy, our educational system and our democratic process – is based upon the presumption of sobriety and rationality. Intoxicated workers, teachers and voters are dangerous. If weed is legalized, decent people should only use it in moderation and at appropriate times.

We have a system of social norms governing alcohol. The cocktail hour begins only after work. Responsible drinkers drink moderately, imbibing one or two drinks a day – and not every day. They recognize that alcoholism is a risk. And they understand that drunken driving is wrong.

We do not have a similar system of social norms governing pot use. Stoner culture is often excessive and irresponsible. Snoop Dogg is not a role model.

If pot is legalized, we will need moral guidance on basic questions of where, when and how much. Moderate marijuana use has not been addressed in the mainstream. If Propositon 64 passes, we will need someone other than Cheech, Chong or Snoop to give us advice.

This is probably a lot for a stoned voter to keep in mind. And that may be a reason for further skepticism about whether legalizing pot is good for our democracy.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article111071077.html#storylink=cpy

Racism and Growth Mindset

Fighting racism with faith in the future

Fresno Bee, March 20, 2015

It’s disappointing to see that racism still exists: in fraternity houses, in Ferguson’s police department and in Fresno’s schools. But most of us are outraged by recent racism. And this gives us a reason to hope. Racism is not inevitable. Racists are bred, not born.

A key to making progress on any issue is the belief that it is possible to make progress. If you don’t believe that improvement is possible, you won’t work to make things better.static1.squarespace

Research done by psychologist Carol Dweck demonstrates the importance of affirming that progress is possible. People who have a “growth mindset” believe that since growth is possible, their effort matters. On the other hand, those who believe that talent and intelligence are fixed — something you are born with — give up more easily.

I recently spent the day with Eduardo Briceño, CEO of Mindset Works, a business that is putting Dweck’s research into practice. Briceño had a number of examples of the importance of the growth mindset. Educators, for example, clearly believe that growth happens. The point of education, after all, is to help children grow.

One of Briceño’s most astounding examples comes from the Middle East. Israelis and Palestinians who have a growth mindset are more willing to compromise, less distrustful of one another and more hopeful about peace. The reverse is also true. Those who believe that character is fixed are less willing to compromise. If you believe that people can’t change, and that members of certain groups have fixed traits, then there is little hope for peace and progress.

Racism is connected to the fixed mindset. Racial prejudice is based upon assumptions about the “fixed” traits of members of racial groups. But racial identity is not destiny. Nor are racists destined to be racist. One way to break the stranglehold of prejudice is to remind ourselves that our identities and attitudes are not permanently fixed.

Some of this research sounds too good to be true. Cynics argue that human nature is not really that malleable. The cynical realist shrugs, thinking that recent racism is yet another chapter of the same old story of man’s inhumanity to man. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

But cynicism is defeatism. It rests on the same kind of fixed mindset as racism.

Sure there are limitations to growth. Racism is not the simple result of a bad mindset. Racism is also the result of struggle over scarce resources, demographic pressures, corrupt institutions, media stereotypes and so on.

It is important to recognize the depth of racism. But that shouldn’t stop us from working to make progress. Rather, realism about racism set the agenda for the work we must do to build the world we want.

Racism won’t go away over night. But it is important to see that we have made progress. Outrage about racism is a hopeful sign. As are the institutional responses that we’ve seen in Ferguson and elsewhere. We are slowly growing a better future.

The philosopher William James once explained, “faith in a fact can help create the fact.” When we believe that change is possible, change is more likely to occur. James imagines standing on a mountain pass, confronting a leap across a chasm. If you have faith that you can make the leap, you will jump farther. But defeatism will undermine you. A defeatist will jump weakly or not at all, either falling into the abyss or failing to reach the summit.

Martin Luther King Jr. also emphasized faith in the future. He believed that the universe was on the side of justice. But King also said, “progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability.” Rather, progress comes through “tireless efforts” to combat the cynical forces of social stagnation. King clearly had a growth mindset.

Racists and cynics believe that the world is fixed. But that’s false. The world is always changing. So there is work to be done. There is always a new generation being born, who have yet to be corrupted by pernicious ideas. Like weeds in the garden, racism and cynicism occasionally crop up. So let’s get to work, pulling weeds, planting better seeds and growing a better world.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2015/03/20/4438246_andrew-fiala-on-ethics-fighting.html?rh=1#storylink=cpy

 

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.