Category Archives: Moral Humility

The Plague: A Little Hero

 

 

The first book I have selected as a classic to be re-read is one I read a lifetime ago. Perhaps 45 years ago. I noticed the price tag on the back. I paid 85 cents for this book and have kept it for about 50 years. Not bad. It is high time to return to it.

The Plague, written by Albert Camus, is of course a highly appropriate choice as I and so many others are at this time basically in quarantine facing a plague of COVID-19 that is spreading around the world filling people with dread.

In the novel Camus tells the story of Oran, a city in Algeria, and its people, as they suffer through an epidemic—a plague. Like us they were quarantined in their town amid fear and trembling. Now that many of us have been sequestered in various ways already, for many of us, for more than a month with no end in sight. So we know how the people of Oran felt. We feel like that now.

On one level the novel is a book about that plague and how the people of the town are afflicted by it, resist it, and help each other through it. That really is enough, but there is more to it than this. Much more. It is a novel of ideas. Many ideas. Too many to cover in a short review. I will confine myself to just a couple in this review.

Some critics have suggested that the plague of the novel is a symbol of Nazi occupation of France during the Second World War and the French resistance to it. I have no doubt it is that, but that is not all. It is a symbol of all totalitarian regimes and those who revolt against them around the world. In fact it is a symbol of all oppression and the people who fight it.

Camus was famous for saying he believed in limits. Oppression had to be resisted with limits. He was opposed to politics without limits such a totalitarian dreams which he firmly believed led to the gallows or the guillotine. As a result, he said the hero of the resistance was not the great revolutionary.

Camus basic belief is it was best to be modest and humble. He was deeply suspicious after the rise of totalitarianism in Europe after World War I. He thought it was grand designs that led to totalitarianism or murder. Like Bob Dylan said, “You don’t count the dead with God on your side.” If you are about to bring about heaven on earth, as Marxists believed, any actions, no matter how horrendous were justified in the name of that magisterial distant goal.

Camus rejected all that in favour of humility or modesty. He is satisfied if he can accomplish small good. That is good enough. He doesn’t expect to be a Saint. 

In the book Tarrou used to have grand schemes to be saint, but he gave those up.  He has no grand design any more.  He just wants to help without doing anything to assist someone else in being killed.

Tarrou earlier said he was working towards being a saint. That was his goal. He never achieved it. As a result this is what Tarrou said about the plague to his friend Dr. Rieux:

“That, too is why this epidemic has taught me nothing new, except that I must fight it at your side…each of us has the plague within him: no one, no one on earth, is free from it.”

Later Tarrou says,

“I’ve learnt modesty: All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with pestilences. That may sound simple to the point of childishness; I can’t judge if it’s simple, but I know it’s true. You see, I’d heard such quantities of arguments, which very nearly turned my head, and turned other people’s heads enough to make them approve of murder; and I’d come to realize that all our troubles spring from our failure to use plain, clean-cut language…there are pestilences and there are victims; no more than that…That’s why I decided to take, in every predicament, the victim’s side…”

Rieux asked Tarrou if he knew the path to peace? Tarrou replied “the path of sympathy.” Again no grand designs, no plan to save the world, just follow the path of sympathy and use plain clear language to get there.”

The path of sympathy or fellow feeling seems simple. Camus tries to make it so. But he knows it is not always simple. For example, throughout the book Rambert, a newly wed, was trying to get back together with his wife who was stuck on the other side of the wall surrounding the town. He tries a few times and fails. Then near the end, it is arranged. He can escape. But Rambert changes his mind and stays back to help Rieux to help the victims. Did he do the right thing?

Rambert says no, “For nothing in the world is it worth turning back on what one loves yet that is what I’m doing—though why I don’t know.” To this Rieux responds, ‘a man can’t cure and know at the same. So let’s cure as quickly as we can. That’s the more urgent job.”

Dr. Rieux and Paneloux, the Catholic Priest have a discussion on similar lines:

Paneloux say to Rieux, “Perhaps we should love what we cannot understand.” It is the typical religious response but Rieux does not buy it. He replies, “No Father. I’ve a very different idea of love. And until my dying day, I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture.” Paneloux then thinks Rieux wants grace. Rieux does not accept this either. He wants a simpler more clear answer. “We’re working side by side for something that unites us—beyond blasphemy and prayers. And it’s the only thing that matters.” Paneloux jumps on this and claims, “Yes, Yes, you too are working for man’s salvation.” Dr. Rieux won’t have that either. He says,

“Salvation’s much to big a word for me. I don’t aim so high. I’m concerned with man’s health and for me his health comes first.”

Later Rieux adds this: “I feel more fellowship with the defeated than with saints. Heroism and sanctity don’t really appeal to me, I imagine. What interests me is—being a man.”

Rieux did not want to be a saint. He believed,

“The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding. On the whole men are more good than bad; that, however, isn’t the real point. But they are more or less ignorant and it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of ignorance which fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill. The soul of the murderer is blind; and there can be no true goodness nor true love without the utmost clear-sightedness.”

Camus always fears the logical murderer that he found in his book The Rebel. That is the person who comes up with a big plan and then kills to bring it about. That is what the totalitarians did  in Russia and Germany.  Rieux looked for no grand designs for they could lead to such colossal murders as in the camps of the totalitarians. He wanted more modest goals. He believed the hero was the man with humility.

The man the narrator in the novel looked to as an example or ideal was called Grand. But he was not grand. He was modest. He was “a little hero.” And to Camus that was always the best kind. The Saint with grandiose goals often led to mass slaughter.

Grand was the true embodiment of the quiet courage that inspired the sanitary groups. He had said ‘Yes” without a moments hesitation and with the large-heartedness that was a second nature with him. All he asked was to be allotted light duties…When Rieux thanked him with some warmth for his contribution Grand seemed surprised. ‘Why, that’s not difficult. Plague is here, and we’ve got make a stand, that’s obvious. Ah, I only wish everything were as simple!’

In Camus’ world as in Rieux’s world, the humble man of virtue is the hero not the one who creates the grand designs to save the world. As the narrator said of Grand, “a hero…this insignificant and obscure hero who had to his credit only a little goodness of heart and a seemingly absurd ideal. This will render to the truth it’s due.” We don’t need heroes or saints when we have people like Grand.

2 Popes

 

 

This is a movie about something that could never happen in American politics–2 leaders with deep disagreements finding something elusive–common ground.

In 2005 Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was the Archbishop of Buenos Aires and was summoned to Vatican City in Rome after the death of Pope John Paul II so that the new Pope could be selected. The process of picking a new Pope is arcane.  The people have no say. The decision is made by a group of old men, Cardinals of the Catholic Church. No women vote nor ordinary people. One would think such a system could never work. What could be more undemocratic than that? Yet the Roman Catholic Church has survived for 2 thousand years. Any institution that can last that long deserves some respect. In any event, the Cardinals selected German Cardinal Josephy Ratzinger, and he become Pope Benedict. Cardinal Bergoglio, who later became Pope Francis  came second in the vote. The two priests could hardly be more dissimilar.

7 years later Bergoglio has submitted his resignation, but the Vatican has not responded. The resignation cannot be completed unless Pope Benedict approve its. And he hesitates?The Pope and perhaps his biggest critic from inside the Church meet at the Popes grand Palace of Castel Gandolfo, the summer residence of Popes.

Like American politicians the two churchmen quickly find things to disagree about. But unlike the politicians they debate severely without corrosive rancor. When they are unable to find a way out, they gently agree to disagree.

Bergoglio comments that the churches of Europe are beautiful but empty. Pope Benedict, a traditionalist, opines that “change is compromise.”  It is attitudes like that which make the Church so rigid. How can you improve on perfection? At the end of their first discussion, Pope Benedict says, “I disagree with everything you say.”

Yet, again, unlike so many politicians, they have more respectful discussions. For example, Bergoglio also complains, when seeing refugees on television that we are seeing the “globalization of indifference.” He also says, “Mercy is the dynamite that breaks down walls.”  If only more of our political leaders had such wisdom.

How can you make a good movie out of respectful discussions? It seems impossible, but I would suggest that is what people actually crave and get so rarely. I must admit I found it a great pleasure. I must admit I also enjoyed watching 2 Popes watch a soccer game on television while Pope Benedict drank Fanta.

They even argue about truth. If these were politicians neither would admit any truth in the other’s position.  Pope Francis takes a different approach. He says, “Truth may be vital, but without love it is unbearable.”

Eventually despite a deep chasm between these 2 men, common ground is found. Pope Benedict says to  Bergoglio, that although he was waiting for the voice of God, he heard that voice through him. These 2 men may have been selected by a process that makes about as much sense as the election of American Presidents through the Electoral College , but yet they managed to see more than a devil in the other. I wish more of our leaders could do that. I also wish more of us could learn from these 2 elders.

Social Democracy v. Socialism

 

We heard some Conservative Americans on the radio complaining about the rise of socialism. To them “socialism” is a very dirty word. It is about on par with child molester. I really think the issue of socialism will be very important in the next Presidential and Congressional elections.I hope so.  Many Conservatives think the Democrats are handing them the next election because they are going so radical. Is that true?

I know Trump has already been active in referring to the Democrats as leftists, or, even worse, radical socialists. They point in particular to Elizabeth Warren, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders, and worst of all–the Green New Deal. Talk about a bevy of boogey men. Republicans think they are being handed the next election on a platter. As a result I think it is a good idea for us to be clear about what a socialist is and is not.

What is a socialist?  This is not as clearly defined as one might like. When I went to university we defined a socialist as a person who believed that the means of production should be owned by public. That does not mean there should be no private property, but I still think it goes too far.  I thought the definition had changed since then, but I have not found a better one. According to this definition, a socialist believes the infrastructure of production–such as factories, businesses, and the like should be socially owned, not privately owned.  In this sense of the word I have never been a socialist. Even in the days of my misspent youth.

I have been more attracted to the term “social democrat.” I would say that a social democrat is one who believes that the public should have significant control (not ownership) of the important private property, such as the means of production, but including other things–that can have a substantial impact on society.  Social democrats don’t want to own all these things. But they do want society to have social control exercised in a democratic manner over the vital instruments of social influence. This includes the means of production but many other things as well. “Democratic” means are important to distinguish Social Democrats from Communists. Communists clearly demonstrated how things go awry when democratic means are abandoned. Without democracy the apparatchiks are as bad as the capitalists.That control must be used for significant social goods, such as greater equality (not absolute equality), greater freedom, and greater fraternity. These are really the goals of the French Revolution: Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. Some aspects will have to be controlled fairly tightly. Others hardly at all. The amount of control will vary greatly depending on how influential the instruments are and how pernicious their effects.

Social democrats don’t have a strict ideological position on what needs to be socially controlled and what not. As a result social democrats don’t have a principle such as ‘that government is best which governs the least’—the principle of libertarians and neoliberals.  Nor do Social Democrats believe by rote that people should be allowed to do anything provided it does not harm other people–classic liberalism. The people will democratically decide from time to time, how much control to exercise in particular circumstances and this can always be debated freely in each case under consideration. Social Democrats, unlike Socialists, Communists, or neo-conservatives are not governed by rigid ideology but by rational decision making on a case by case basis based on evidence, data, and careful thinking.

Social Democrats will not hesitate to use government as the means to their social democratic ends. Social Democrats do their best to keep out bias in decision-making. Social Democrats don’t have a recipe; they have a technique–i.e. reasoning based on the best evidence, analysis, and logical reasoning. These goals are humble and modest. That is one of the reasons I like them. Those are some of the reasons I call myself a social democrat.

Wade Davis and the Lessons of Anthropology

 

I never studied Anthropology. I wish I had. I think I could have learned a lot.  I think it would encourage humility. I think a study of anthropology would relieve one of a sense of superiority. For example, the feelings of superiority that westerners brought to the “New World” are truly breathtaking.

One person who knows intimately how unfair and how unjustified these feelings of superiority are is Wade Davis, perhaps Canada’s premier Anthropologist. In June of, 2015 he delivered the Milton K. Wong lecture at the University of British Columbia. The name of the lecture was “Catalogues of Culture.” Part of his talk was aired on CBC radio’s Ideas, my favorite radio show on my favorite radio station. It aired September 22, 2015. It was fantastic.

Davis was an anthropologist, ethno botanist, and an author of 17 books, one of which I have read, The Wayfarers. He talked of being an anthropologist who tried to discover as much of the diversity of human culture as possible. In doing that he came to realize the immense loss that we would experience if we permitted the continued obliteration of cultures around the world. For centuries we in the west have been doing exactly that out of a horribly misguided sense of our superiority that has no justification at all when the evidence is examined and myths scrutinized.

A basic question that Davis asked was ‘what kind of world do we want to live in’?  Do we want to live in a world of monochromatic monotony or polychromatic diversity?  The answer was obvious. Who would choose differently?  That was why Davis had so much respect for a wide variety of cultures. We have a lot to learn from them, but learning is difficult if our minds are chained by prejudice and self-serving misguided beliefs in our own cultural superiority.

As Davis pointed out, one of the great benefits of travel is to live among those people who have not forgotten the old ways, who still feel  truth in the path in the wind, feel it in the stones polished by rain, and the taste of the bitter leaves of plants. He said he was comforted by the knowledge that the Shamans of the Amazon still journey beyond the Milky Way, that to the people of the high Arctic the myths of the elders still resonate with meaning, and that in the Himalaya the priests still pursue the breath of the Dharma.

According to Davis, a key insight of modern anthropology is that the world in which each of us was born is just one model of reality and there are many such realities. As Davis said, “the social central revelation of anthropology: the idea that the social world in which we live does not exist in some absolute sense, but rather is simply one model of reality, the consequence of one set of intellectual and spiritual choices that our particular lineage made, however successfully, many generations ago.”

Anthropologists study people around the world. And there is an incredible variety of people around the world. Davis realized what many anthropologists have learned, that “all these peoples teach us that there are other options, other possibilities, other ways of thinking and interacting with the world. This is an idea that can only fill us with hope.” That is the same insight that travelers around the world have come to realize; tourists seldom understand that.  It is for that reason that Paul Theroux was right when he said, “Travellers don’ t know where they are going, tourists don’t know where they have been.”

Our world in which we were born is just the result of a particular set of adaptive responses that our cultural lineage made however successfully many generations ago. Any claims we might want to assert to cultural supremacy are but “worthless foam from the mouth” to borrow the words of Bob Dylan. If we forget that we we lose the world.

Whether it is a voodoo acolyte in Haiti, a yak herder in Nepal, or an eagle hunter in Central Pakistan, or a thunder hoof shaman of Mongolia, all of these people teach us that there are other waysof thinking other ways of being, other ways of orienting yourselves culturally, in social, spiritual, ecological space. That is an idea that if you think about it can fill you only with hope.

From this insight made Davis concluded, “together the myriad of cultures of the world make up a web of social life that envelopes the planet and is as important to the well-being of the planet as the biological web of life that you know so well as the biosphere.” He called this the ethnosphere. He believed it was just as important as the biosphere.

Liberalism: A response to Extremism

 

I recently commented about the recent uncomfortable rise of violence inspired by religious fervor. This is not a new phenomenon. Our history is soaked in the blood.

The people of Europe have paid a hefty price in lives for disputes over religion. It is estimated that 1 million were killed in the Arian schism, another 1 million  during the Carthaginian struggle, 7 million during the Saracen slaughters in Spain, 5 million during the Crusades, 2 million Saxons and Scandinavians were killed resisting conversion to Christianity, and yet another 1 million  killed in Holy Wars against the Dutch, Albigenses, Waldenses, and Huguenots.  The cost of religion is high.

Of course in the Americas estimated again vary but some have suggested that 30 million indigenous people were slaughtered resisting the benefits of Christianity and perhaps 9 million burned as witches. Of cou8rse religion was usually not the sole cause for slaughter, but often it helped.

Much of Europe was devastated by the Religious wars of the 17thcentury. The conflicts culminated in the Thirty Years War from 1618 to 1648. These were often religious wars at least nominally, but not entirely of religion. Of course we have to remember that these wars were fought by Christian countries and Christian princes. They were not wars against he infidels.  After the Reformation the various Protestant   Christian sects and the former universal Church—i.e. the Roman Catholic Church—were all eager for a fight. These were wars of Christians against Christians.

By the time the major wars of the 17thcentury were over, Germany which was the scene of much of the fighting, was ravaged and one-third of its people were killed. In some areas more than half the population were killed. For example the Swedish army alone destroyed 2,000 castles, 18,000 villages, and 1,500 towns during its 17 years in Germany. For decades mercenary armies and armed bandits roamed Germany like a packs of vicious wolves slaughtering people like sheep.

Most of Europe participated in the wars. It began as a religious conflict between Protestants and Catholics, but ended as a political fight over who would control Europe. Huge swaths of Europe had been scavenged bare and much of Europe by foraging armies. Massive damage was inflicted on churches, monasteries and other religious institutions. By the time the war was ending Catholic France joined the Protestant side because it feared the rise of Catholic Hapsburg power. Many of the European powers involved were bankrupted and famine and disease were rampant.

Although calculations vary, some counted the dead this way:  France and Austria lost 80,000 each, Spain 300,000, Sweden and Finland 110,000, German principalities 400,000. Other countries lost lesser people.

When the wars were over, or at least had subsided, most of Europe was understandably sick of religious wars. Nearly everyone agreed a better way was needed. After that with only minor exceptions, Christianity ceased to be an important motivator for mass scale murder. Someone should be thanked for that, but I am not sure it is God.

I would suggest that as a response to all of this slaughter an important philosophy arose: Liberalism. It is not supported enthusiastically in many places these days. That is a pity, because it is the anti-dote to extremism of all stripes.  And by liberalism I do not mean its bastard offspring such as the Liberal Party or even worse, neoliberalism.  But liberalism was a better way. British philosopher John Locke is often considered the father of Liberalism. He advocated for tolerance, which really means respect for others even if you disagree with them. The world at the end of the 17thcentury and then again at the end of the 20thcentury was in short supply of tolerance. It still is.

The Reformation and the problem of religious minorities were central to Locke’s political philosophy because those were the burning issues (literally burning issues) of his times. Until then this was not an issue at all because values were shared. Everyone in Europe was a Roman Catholic. Until then the issue of minority rights did not arise for there were no minorities.

But after the Reformation and the bloody wars that followed in its wake political theorists had to figure out how can we live together in a society when we don’t all share the same values? That is a problem that continues to haunt us today, as can be seen by the recent spate of religiously inspired murders in the last year.

According to University of Manitoba Professor, Steve Lecce, the key question of modern and contemporary political theory is “How should we live together in society when we don’t all share the same values?[1]Where values diverge, as they now inevitably do in any post Reformation society, and in particular in modern societies that include immigrants from around the world, how can we live together in peace and harmony without resorting to might is right or without resorting to the ability of the majority to crush the minority? Liberals say that there are some things the majority or the powerful should notbe able to do. First we need a method of settling disputes fairly. Fair tribunals such as courts of law. The state has to be like a referee or umpire.

This was very important in the Reformation when religious freedom was the critical issue of the time. It is still important. Until the Reformation a common religion bound us all so that this was not an important issue. Religion until then was the social glue that kept us together. After the Reformation, religion became an explosive issue that could blast society apart. And it often did and continues to do. Before the Reformation religion was the basis of societal trust.  After the Reformation religion became an instrument of distrust. We still live in this post-Reformation world.

There were 2 possible solutions to this problem of religion after the Reformation:

 

  • A religion can be imposed by force to achieve religious unity. This was tried with great vigor in the religious wars of the 17th The result was great misery and abject failure.
  • The second possible solution is the radical idea proposed by Liberals like John Locke–toleration. That had never been tried before. It was truly deeply revolutionary. It is important to remember this when modern liberals are often seen as dull and boring theoreticians. They are considered bloodless. Now we should realize that is a good thing. In the 18thcentury this idea was profoundly revolutionary. Many hated the idea of tolerance because they saw it as capitulation to evil.  Liberals said we had to accept differences.

 

Nowadays toleration, a value that was revolutionary in its day, and I would submit, is revolutionary today, can seem like very thin gruel compared to the spicy virtues reflected by much more aggressive and powerful groups like ISIS, Boko Haram, the alt-right, Antifa, Donald Trump, and their ilk. It can seem wishy-washy just like–well—liberals. It can seem humble. I think that is a good thing. The classic liberals like John Locke stand for permitting others to have their say. This is much less sexy than threatening to ban them, or build a wall to keep them out, or kill them. However, in a world charged with the most vicious of religious hatreds like that of Europe in the 17thcentury or our current world in the 21stcentury, tolerance is not wishy-washy at all. After all the 17thand 20thcenturies were the two most violent centuries in the past 500 years according to Steven Pinker. [2]Tolerance is the most vital of all the virtues! Liberals have to step to the plate with vigor and confidence. I would suggest that liberals actually represent our only chance for civilization to endure.  At least so liberals believe. And I tend to agree (in a wishy-washy way of course).

In the 17thcentury there were those who feared the worst from this revolutionary new idea of tolerance.  Would this not lead to the destruction of public morality?  Personal morality should never be permitted to undermine public morality, it was widely believed. This in fact is the essence of Conservatism! It is stillthe essence of Conservatism.

Liberals challenge this view. Liberals hold that we can each freely have our own personal opinions and morality without challenging the social order or value of society. Let people disagree. We can all get along provided each of us accepts limits. This will not destroy society. In fact modern liberals believe that the diversity of modern society will strengthen not weaken society. That means that we must put reasonable limits on our religious values too. We can hold them personally as much as we want, as vigorously as we want, but we cannot imposethose values on others. Even the majority should not do that. Real democracy is not rule by the majority. It is the rule of the majority within limits. That’s what liberal democracy is all about. The goal of imposing religious values was rightly discredited after the religious wars of the 17thcentury. We don’t want to go back there.

[1]Steven Lecce, “Right Wing, Left Wing, and In between,” April 14, 2016 at University of Manitoba

[2]Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature, (2012) Penguin Books, p. 51

Whisper words of Wisdom

I am still struggling with the concept of moral humility–an elusive but important goal.

A good friend of mine, much smarter than me, told me that he does not feel he can do more than ask gentle questions. He is very effective at avoiding excessive arrogance. He practices moral humility. I aim to move in that direction.

That does not mean I should be silent. I think that if we see someone acting badly, particularly if that person is in power, we should speak. We should do that respectfully, but we may and should do that. I am trying to teach myself to criticize gently, without pontificating. That is not easy.

Today I learned something valuable for a fellow walker in our walking club.  He is a strong Christian—even an evangelical Christian I would guess—and said he had learned something valuable recently.  He said when talking to someone he never tried to convert the other person. Rather, he said,  “I ask questions,” he said, “all I want to do is leave a stone in the other person’s shoe”.

I know that I have been pontificating too much. For example, I have been very critical of capitalism.  I have never denied that capitalism has done a lot of good. It has pulled hundreds of millions out of extreme poverty into poverty. That is a momentous achievement. We need to do even better, but that is not nothing. It is a lot. I doubt that I have converted anyone.

Yet that does not mean we must give capitalism a free pass. We cannot allow capitalists free rein to destroy life on the planet as sometimes they seem bent on doing. We must criticize, but do so with humility always remembering that we mightbe wrong. Recall the uncertainty principle. Act as if we might be wrong.

As the Beatles said, “Whisper words of wisdom. Let it be.”

Jonathan Haidt on Moral Humility

I have adopted the notion of moral humility from Jonathan Haidt, one of the speakers at Arizona State University this year as part of their year long series of lectures on free speech. He is  professor of psychology. He had some interesting things to say on a number of topics. One of them was “moral humility.”  He urged all of us to practice more of it.   He contrasted it with extremism.

The classic failure in the 20thcentury to follow modest and humble goals was of course Communism.  They practiced an extreme form of utopianism.   Albert Camus, another of my favorite political thinkers had a similar way of thinking. He opposed thinking without limits. He wanted political leaders to be modest. Humble in other words. The failure to be humble, he thought, is that it leads to an abundance of graves.  That is the problem with utopian zeal or revolutionary terror.

British philosopher John Gray said, “Terror has been used in this way wherever a revolutionary dictatorship has been bent on achieving utopian goals.” Or as he also said, about the Communists, “the scale and intensity of Bolshevik repression, which was the result of attempting to reconstruct society on an unworkable model.” They wanted to create the perfect human—an impossible goal.

Gray finds even more examples of dangerous Utopian thinking. He finds it on the left and he finds it on the right. He finds in religion–in Christianity, and in Islam. He even finds in the Nazis ideology. They wanted to create the pure Aryan race.

Part of the problem with utopian thinking is that it leads to orthodoxy. After all, if you know absolute truth, then there is only one way to the truth and nothing can stand in the way. There is no need to be modest or restrained when you know absolute truth.

The Buffalo Springfield also got it right when they sang:

“A thousand people in the street

Singing songs and carrying signs

Mostly saying, ‘hooray for our side’

There is no need to be humble when your team is cheering you on no matter what you say. That is a license to be extreme. You can call Hillary Clinton “Satan.”  You can compare Donald Trump to Hitler. You can suggest that Justin Trudeau is the devil. Then you can desire to burn the others at the stake. And you will feel joy at the prospect. This is about as far from humility as you can get. No matter what you say, your side will applaud. And if you listen only to your side, you will naturally begin to think that you are a genius. You deserve the applause. It’s hard to be humble when your side gives you a standing ovation.

Donald Trump is of course a perfect example of this. Recently he said at a rally in front of his fans, “Some have asked me, “Did you have anything to do with the Korean leaders getting together?”  He shrugged, grinned mischievously and said, “How about everything.”  Not much humility there.  Then his fans chanted repeatedly “Nobel. Nobel. Nobel.” And Trump grinned again, as if that was a reasonable suggestion. When your side is cheering you on, no matter how absurd, you accept the fawning.

What amazes me is Trump’s fans accept his abject lack of humility. He says he is the smartest. It does not matter how dumb he is. They lap it up. America, it seems to me, has given up on humility. I wish they hadn’t. Many of us could use more of it. Including me.

The Uncertainty Principle

Moral humility is born out of uncertainty. Bertrand Russell, the great British philosopher was inspired by John Locke. Locke always emphasized that all knowledge is uncertain.  People should always take into consideration that they might be wrong. This should be remembered whenever we deal with others who have different opinions from us. This leads directly to tolerance in practice. Live and let live. Reject fanaticism in favour of moderation.

Russel called this the liberal outlook. it lies not in any particular beliefs but rather in how they are held. Instead of being held dogmatically, they are held tentatively with the understanding at all times that new evidence may show we were mistaken and will then abandon our beliefs. This is the opposite of how theologians hold beliefs.

Critical thinking is not utopian. It adopts instead what I have called the Russell principle, after Bertrand Russell. He said, “it is wrong to inflict a certain harm to achieve a dubious good.The more uncertain the future goal one is trying to achieve, the less the harm one must employ to obtain it.” It might be permitted to inflict violence to avoid a certain greater harm, but it makes no sense to inflict a certain harm to avoid an uncertain future harm unless that future harm is much, much worse than the means. This always requires a rational analysis of the probabilities. The more dubious the future goal the more gentle must be the means employed to obtain it. The problem with many modern revolutionary utopians is that often they inflict a certain substantial present harm to achieve not just a dubious future goal, but an impossible goal!

I prefer modest goals and modest means.  Many believe such views, especially in religion or politics, is too tame. They prefer missionary zeal. I don’t. I prefer moral humility.

 

Moral Humility is not Utopian thinking

Moral humility is the opposite of utopian thinking. It recognizes limits. It recognizes ourlimits, The concept of moral humility is associated with the concept of modesty/pessimism of John Gray one of my favorite modern philosophers.

His concept is a logical consequence of a sceptical attitude.  If one is uncertain then one should be careful about claiming moral superiority over another person. One should hesitate to judge others. That does not mean we can never judge others. It does mean we should not be too quick to judge others. I think I have been too quick in the past.  I yearn to ease up. As Gray said, “ Utopias are dreams of collective deliverance that in waking life are found to be nightmares.”

Utopian projects are by their nature unachievable. As Hume put it: ‘All plans of government which suppose great reformation in the manners of mankind are plainly imaginary.’” That is why we must be modest. We must be constrained in our optimism. Too often it leads to dire troubles. That is why Sir Thomas More, author of Utopia—a term he coined—meant both ‘a good place’ and ‘nowhere.’ That was why he set his imagined community in a far-off land.

We are very unlikely to find Utopia and are much more likely to find dystopia when we try.  Just like heaven is an illusion, unless it is here and now, so too with Utopia. That is a fundamental flaw with utopian thinking. It looks for a non-existent heaven and then frequently imposes great misery on us in a hopeless effort to achieve what cannot be achieved. That was why Gray’s advice was to be wary of those who argued for Utopia. Instead, Gray urged, “it is dystopian thinking we most need.”

Moral humility requires that we abandon the search for perfection and accept the limitations of the human.  As has often been said, but no often enough, perfection is the enemy of the good.

Obama often told his advisors that “better is good.” We can seldom (never?) do the perfect, but we can usually do something that is better or worse. We should always choose the better and we should often be satisfied that this is all we can do.

We can always make things worse. And as Obama also said to himself, “Don’t do stupid stuff.” Going to war in Syria would have been stupid. One look at American misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan make it clear that is very easy to do stupid stuff by going to war in the Middle East.  And the costs of stupid stuff can be horrendous.

It is always important to think things through before jumping into a fray. It is often very stupid to jump in, no matter how tempting it seems. This takes time. This may make a leader look weak. It actually makes a leader look smart.

Utopian thinking is the opposite of critical thinking. It accepts impossiblegoals so it justifies the most brutal means. Nothing is too extreme when the object is perfection. Or as Bob Dylan said, “For you don’t count the dead with God on your side.” The religious pursuit of perfection should be rejected for exactly the same reasons. Murder is always justified if the goal is a higher form of human. Lets abandon that goal.

On Being Judgmental

I know moral humility is something I have to learn. I wish I had more of it. often it is too easy to be judgemental. From my blogging post it is too easy to pontificate. High horses are difficult to get off with grace.

This is what a friend recently posted on my Facebook page in response to one of my epistles, “Some years ago, while working through some structured Spiritual Exercises, I came to the awareness that there is so much depravity in me… that anyone else’s shortcomings were just not properly on my agenda.” (I have changed his words slightly. I think this was a mild rebuke of me. And I appreciate it. I will tell you why.

I hate to use the defence that Trump’s new lawyer  Rudy Giuliani recently used when he basically admitted his client was guilty of all charges. Not the best defence for a lawyer to use.  Yet that is exactly my defence.  I agree with this subtle charge. Not only is this right it is profound.  I should look at my own shortcomings before looking at those of others. After alI have plenty to go around. It is too easy to be judgmental. Remember Omer Simpson’s prayer, “Please God let me go to church regularly so I can learn to be more judgmental.”

Moral humility requires that we abandon the search for perfection and accept the limitations of the human.  As has often been said, but not often enough, perfection is the enemy of the good.

I think one of the most profound passages in the Bible is Micah 6:8 which says, “He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?”Right now I want to emphasize “humbly”, though the other two are important too.I really need more humility and I need it badly.

I have been pontificating too much. That does not mean I won’t criticize others when I see something is wrong in my opinion. I think that would be abdication. After all I think we should point out important errors others are making, particularly if they are powerful people. We all benefit from criticism. But I must always remember that it is just my opinion. I have not found absolute truth. I must remember my own flaws first before pointing a finger at others. If you know absolute truth how can you be humble? If you don’t you mustbe humble.

But I wil continue to speak. I just hope more wisely.