Category Archives: reason

Savagery Exposed: Empathy Shredded

 

I already commented how America has abandoned reason. By that I mean to include much of the west, but not always as excessively as America, who seems particularly susceptible to dumbed down politics.

Of course, we have abandoned more than reason. We have also abandoned compassion. Nowhere is that more evident than in America, the self-proclaimed leader of the free world. In that country compassion has been shredded. That has become sickeningly obvious in 2020 with the Covid-19 crisis.

As New York Times commentator, Charles Blow, put it: “This crisis is exposing the savagery of American democracy.” So far, during this crisis the power elite have showed no compunction about putting the poor at the leading edge of danger.

Thomas Friedman of the New York Times quoted a 75-year old retiree from his home state of Minnesota who decried this evolution. This is what she said to the Washington Post:

“We were the leading country in everything when I was young…And what are we now? We’re mean. We’re selfish. We’re stubborn and sometimes even incompetent. … It seems like some of these other countries almost feel sorry for us. … We can’t get out of our own way. … There’s no leadership and no solidarity, so everybody’s doing whatever they want … which means everyone who’s vulnerable is losing big.”

 

Friedman blamed the Republican Party and its erratic leader:

This erosion of our collective societal immunity has been fed by many sources over the years, but none more than a Republican Party that has simply jumped the tracks. Donald Trump’s election was a byproduct of our lost immunity, but his leadership has now become a giant accelerant of it.

At a time when we desperately need to be guided by the best science, Trump’s daily fire hose of lies, and his denunciations of anything he doesn’t like as “fake news,” has contributed mightily to the loss of our “cognitive immunity” — our ability to sort out truth from lies and science from science fiction.

At a time when we need a globally coordinated response to a pandemic, Trump has wrecked every alliance we have.

At a time when we need high social trust in order to have a coordinated response at home, Trump’s political strategy of dividing us and playing everything both ways — even telling people both to rise up against their governors and to lock down according to his guidelines — is the opposite of the “all in this together” approach we need to win this battle.

Sometimes the current administration in the U.S. is doing everything it can do to make things even worse during a pandemic. As this plays out Trump is quietly working to leave many of the front line workers, health care workers high and dry when it comes to health care. At least he is trying to do that. It seems incomprehensible but he is trying to take health care away from millions of Americans who started receiving health care insurance as a result of President Obama’s Affordable Care by challenging it in court. Trump’s administration has brought a case asking the court to through out Obama care entirely and That case is about to go to the Supreme Court this year.

As Friedman said,

At a time when access to affordable health care is extra-important — when frontline workers need to know that if they go to work and fall ill, they will have some safety net to protect them — Trump has been trying to destroy the Affordable Care Act enacted by President Barack Obama without even thinking through an alternative.

It seems crazy but all of this is playing out right now during a pandemic.

Dumb-as-we-wanna-be

 

As we watch America flounder from afar some of us have pity for them. They are led by a President who is the least qualified President in history. He is a man who makes decisions on the basis of “hunches” and “instincts.” He has never given any indication that he ever read a book. He has said that his favorite book is the Art of the Deal which he wrote (with the help of a ghost of course.) He has no respect for science or expertise. He ignores the advice of his best advisors, such as the leaders of the various intelligence services. Instead he relies on people like Vladimir Putin because Putin tells him things “strongly.” That is good enough for Trump. It doesn’t hurt that Putin has no regard for truth either. Added to that, this is a President who has nothing but disdain for government so places no importance to having it run well. He has no respect for career bureaucrats who are often exactly what we need, particularly at times like this when the world faces an economic crisis and health crisis at the same time. He dismisses them as members of something called” the Deep State.”

But this post is not about Trump. Everyone knows what he is like. More importantly the American people knew before they elected him that this is how he was. The American people, even though not a majority of them, voted him in to power. About 55 million people voted for him nearly as many as voted for a much more obviously qualified candidate. Many of those people still support him.

That is the issue. The American people don’t care about science or expertise. They too are content to rely on hunches, instincts, feelings, and above all faith. That is what matters. They have faith in Trump and in fact have religious devotion to him. Trump said, truthfully for a change, that he could stand in Times Square and murder someone and his supporters would still support him. If that is not religious devotion what is?

Ignoring facts, reason, data/evidence, and science can only go so far. I think the United States is nearing the end. And Canada is not that far behind.

Thomas Friedman author and columnist for the New York Times, characterized this attitude as “Dumb as we wanna be.” Then he said the following:

This pandemic has both exposed and exacerbated the fact that over the last 20 years we as a country have weakened so many sources of our strength. We’ve simultaneously eroded our cognitive, ecological, economic, social, governance, public health and personal health immune systems — all the sources of resilience we need to get through this pandemic with the least damage to lives and livelihoods.

 

All these immune deficiencies are the logical outcome of how we’ve let ourselves go as a country, how we’ve let ourselves be dumb-as-we-wanna-be for so many years — devaluing science and reading, bashing public servants for political sport, turning politics into entertainment, not to mention adopting horrible eating habits that have left 40 percent of Americans obese.

Dumb-as-we-wanna-be is epitomized by the guy in Austin, Texas, who last week shoved a “park ranger into the water while the ranger was explaining to a crowd the need for social distancing,” as CNN reported.

Warren Buffett was right: When the tide goes out you see who’s swimming naked. And now it’s us. We are still exceptional, but now it’s in the fact that we lead the world in total coronavirus cases and deaths from Covid-19.

 

It seems remarkable that a country that has so many of the best universities in the world should have turned its back on them. How did that happen? It’s an interesting story. It didn’t happen over night. Kurt Anderson in his book Fantasyland described how that happened over about 500 years from the time of the arrival of Puritans on the shores of North America. It came gradually, very gradually, as a result of 5 centuries of the disparagement of reason in favour of faith and feelings and an array of temptations away from reason. It is an incredible story and all of us are now in 2020 suffering the consequences of that as we face a health crisis and an economic crisis at the same time . This is not a good time to discover that we have abandoned reason.

 

To panic or not to panic

A couple of days ago I suggested to our photo club that we cancel our monthly meeting in the home of one of our members. We usually meet in a small living room and look at slides and discuss them and photography in general.

One of our members suggested we were all overreacting and panicking. My fellow photographer said we should look at both sides.  He suggested we watch a video with Judge Jeanine.  So I watched it and listened to her rant in her typical fashion about those stupid liberals criticizing President Trump and panicking over a flu! It’s just a flu she said.

I agree that most questions have two sides.He said he intended to carry on his life as usual. We need to look at both sides carefully. Important public questions should be based on the best available evidence. Not comments by pundits. And there are many of them on both sides of many questions like this one.

I would suggest that for complex public health questions we consult with experts in the health field, instead of retired judges (or lawyers for that matter.) Trump has some good ones in his camp and we should respect what they say.

And the experts suggest we should be very careful because coronavirus is a very serious health concern. They do not urge panic and they are not overreacting. They have warned that the rate of infection will likely jump sharply in the very near future and they have said “all Americans” (and we should include Canadian in that) should take serious measures to contain the spread and if we do that we have a chance of minimizing the harm. Doing nothing and carrying on as we have always done is not the right approach. If we do that we run a serious risk of making things worse. Much worse.

Trump’s experts have recommend that we keep safe social distances from each other.  Our groups should be small. I think if our entire photo club came to our leader’s home that would not qualify as a safe social distance. It would be dangerous–for someone. If the virus was passed on to someone young and healthy, like our youngest member, for example, he might be safe, but he could pass it on to someone who is not. Like his grandparents or even a stranger he encounters.

Some points made by Judge Jeanine are correct. Most importantly panic is not helpful. I did not advocate panicking. I do advocate that all of us take reasonable steps to protect vulnerable people, including old people with underlying health conditions. I know a  few people like that. The coronavirus can be very serious for them. Young healthy have much less chance of getting seriously sick from it, but they should not take unnecessary chances that risk harm to others. If they just harm themselves I wouldn’t care what they do.

Another expert is Dr. Theresa Tam who has been strongly recommended to me. She is Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer and is a pediatrics specialist in infectious diseases. This is what the World Health organization says about her:

“Dr. Theresa Tam was named Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer on June 26, 2017. She is a physician with expertise in immunization, infectious disease, emergency preparedness and global health security. Dr. Tam obtained her medical degree from the University of Nottingham in the U.K. She completed her paediatric residency at the University of Alberta and her fellowship in paediatric infectious diseases at the University of British Columbia. She is a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada and has over 55 peer-reviewed journal publications in public health. She is also a graduate of the Canadian Field Epidemiology Program.

Dr. Tam has held several senior leadership positions at the Public Health Agency of Canada, including as the Deputy Chief Public Health Officer and the Assistant Deputy Minister for Infectious Disease Prevention and Control. During her 20 years in public health, she provided technical expertise and leadership on new initiatives to improve communicable disease surveillance, enhance immunization programs, strengthen health emergency management and laboratory biosafety and biosecurity. She has played a leadership role in Canada’s response to public health emergencies including severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), pandemic influenza H1N1 and Ebola.

Dr. Tam has served as an international expert on a number of World Health Organization committees and has participated in multiple international missions related to SARS, pandemic influenza and polio eradication.”

This sounds like the sort of person we should listen to on such important health issues. Not television commentators.

This is what Dr. Tam said 3 days ago: “Let me be very clear. Today I am asking everyone to take strong action to help us delay the spread of COVID-19 and protect as many people as possible.” She also said the following: “With cases rapidly increasing in Canada … our window to flatten the curve of the epidemic is narrow.”

Those measures include cancelling non-essential travel outside the country; avoiding large public gatherings, increasing your public space and talking with your employer about working from home, she said. She also said, “This is our chance, right here, right now. We need to act now and we need to act together… You do not want this disease transmitted rapidly. Whatever you can do to decelerate that transmissions and break those chains of transmission is really important. We can do something about this now.”

We don’t want to panic or over react but we should all take the problem seriously not just for own sake, but for the sake of others around us.

While Trudeau said that Ottawa had not ruled out making self-isolation mandatory, Tam said that such a move would be difficult to police. “This is a voluntary self-isolation. It is impossible to be essentially keeping tabs on every single traveller that comes in,” she said.

“This is a social phenomenon, this is a societal response and everyone must take that responsibility,” she said.

I think this is what each of us should do to the best of our ability. For the sake of us all.

“Hoorah for our Side”/”No monopoly on the route to the divine”

Cultural Relativism: There are many paths to enlightenment

Wade Davis, perhaps Canada’s most preeminent anthropologist, has spent years living with and working with indigenous people around the world. This has made him a tireless advocate of understanding traditional cultures around the world. He gave a great talk that was broadcast on CBC’s radio show Ideas. You can  probably hear his entire talk on their archive.

Davis also asserted that anthropology, his field of study, is important. It is important today because “anthropology is the antidote to Trump.” Trump of course is the equally tireless advocate for the doctrine of American triumphalism and superiority over all other cultures. In Trump’s world America is the best of everything. At least it would be if only Americans more uniformly listened to him. Ruth Benedict said that “the purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences.”

As we live in a globalized multi-cultural world “anthropology has never been more important.” Trump of course would never concede that. But that does not make it any less true. America is not the be all and end all. America is one voice among many. We should listen to morevoices. We should listen to many voices.

According to Davis this multi-ethnic world is  “where connectivity is bringing us together into a single human family.” At least if people like Trump are not able to separate us. He wants to deny this connectivity, this solidarity. Too many people fail to see the connections as they look at the differences. People like Trump see “theirpeople” with whatever label you want to use, separate and apart, and superior, from the others.

Davis finds proof for this connectivity in genetics. This is what he said

“Within our lifetimes genetics has shown that the genetic endowment of humanity is a continuum, race is a fiction, we are all cut from the same genetic cloth, we are all descendants of the same handful of people who walked out of Africa 65 or 75,000 years ago and embarked on this journey that carried the human spirit to every corner of the habitable world…By definition every culture shares the same genius and how that genius is expressed is simply a matter of choice. There is no hierarchy in the affairs of culture. That old 19thcentury idea that we went from the savage to the barbarian to the civilized in the Strand of London has been absolutely ridiculed by modern science and shown to be an artifact of the 19thcentury, no more relevant to our lives today than the old idea of clergymen that the world was only 6,000 years old.”

 

Davis finds important corroboration of the fundamental insight of anthropology, which is cultural relativism, from the relatively recent science of genetics.  As Davis said, “It is genetics that allows anthropologists to say without doubt that every culture has something to say, each deserves to be heard, just as none has a monopoly on the route to the divine.”

Davis eloquently points out that this concept has never been more important than today with the astonishing rise of nativism, nationalism and the worst forms of tribalism.  These nationalistic views are held not just by Trump, but millions of his supporters, and by many dictators and demagogues around the world, and their millions of supporters. Each of these leaders is constantly shouting “hurrah for our side” in the immortal words of Buffalo Springfield.

A Better way: Expansive religion

I have been critical of evangelical religion. That is what I am surrounded by here in Steinbach. Some of my friends have suggested that I have criticized a straw man—i.e. a religion that is easy to attack and no one subscribes to any longer.  I disagree.

In North America it a very large religious sector. That is particularly true in the United States, but in other pockets, like Steinbach, as well. It is also rapidly growing. A lot faster than the many more liberal Christian sects. It is also very influential.  Evangelicals were a major source of support for Donald Trump in the 2016 American presidential elections, as odd as that sounds. Evangelicals are by no means a “straw man”.

Because I have been critical I don’t want people to think that I believe everything is bad about religion. Far from it. I don’t want to be a nattering nabob of negativity to quote Spiro Agnew. In fact, I think there is a better way. I refer to it as expansive religion, rather than exclusive religion. It is religion that has jettisoned the old beliefs in invincible superiority of our religion over all others. Instead it sees what is held in common by religions.

Religions are so many and so varied it is very difficult (but not impossible) to find what they have in common. Some religions have dogma; others have none. Some religions believe in an afterlife; others don’t. Some religions have a God; others subsist without one. Some religions have beliefs and those that do have beliefs, they  vary widely, if not extravagantly. What then do religions have in common? I think you have to go back to the original meaning of the word “religious” for an answer.

Religion is based on an Indio-Asian word  “religio” which basically meant connection or linkage.  In other words, religion is what connects us or links us.  To what you might ask?  I think that what religion tries to link us to is first of all other people, but also other creatures, and even, ultimately, all life itself.  What connects us is religious; what severs that connection is blasphemy. That is my fundamental religious belief.

My wife once had a pendant  which she wore that said something to the effect that “if religion leads to hate it’s not religion.”  I have likely mangled the exact wording.  Yet the thought I think is clear and very important.  It goes back to that original concept of the word “religion.”

So religion is closely allied to the concept of fellow feeling or empathy.  If we have fellow feeling for others, or other creatures, or other life forms, we are acting religiously.  If we don’t, we are acting irreligiously. That is because without fellow feeling or empathy we are no longer connecting we are dividing  from each other. That is the opposite of religion.

Thus religion is based on fellow feeling.  The most important part of religion is the golden rule.  Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  In fact, it’s interesting that almost all religions endorse that principle as a fundamental principle.  I think it is the fundamental principle of religion.  All religions!  It is what connects us to others.  Do unto them, as you would have them do unto you. If you do you are acting religiously; if you don’t you are acting irreligiously.

I am not a religious person in any traditional sense of the word “religious.” However, I feel that the so-called “religious people” have hijacked this word for their own purposes.  I want to reclaim the word.  I feel that many people have tarnished the word “religion.” They use it to divide people rather than connect people. In  my opinion, they are sacrilegious no matter how many pious words they use.  In fact, I think it is them that are not religious, not I.

I think these things are important.  I resent those who in the name of religion try to disconnect us from others.  I resent those who try to claim that religion is a matter of us against them.  I particularly resent those that think that religion is a means of saying we’re better than them because our religion is better than their religion. That is the original sin. Worst of all are those who say those who believe like me are going to heaven forever, and those who don’t, are going to hell where they will suffer torment forever. That’s not religion at all. That’s the opposite of religion.

I intend to expand on these thoughts.

Faith, Truth, and desire

 

This may be my most controversial post so far. I urge my friends who will be disappointed in me not to think of me as wicked, but as a fallen brother. I also  urge them to point out to me where I went wrong.

A friend sent to me an excerpt from a well-written article by N. T. Wright.  He argues that as a historian there is convincing evidence that Jesus Christ came back to life after dying. This is what he concluded:

The historian’s task is not to force people to believe.  It is to make it clear that the sort of reasoning historians characteristically employ — inference to the best explanation, tested rigorously in terms of the explanatory power of the hypothesis thus generated — points strongly towards the bodily resurrection of Jesus.

Is that true? I accept it as a principle, that the more astonishing the claim the stronger the evidence must be to support it. I would suggest that someone rising from the dead is such an unusual accomplishment that objectively we would never believe that this had happened without very strong evidence indeed that it had in fact occurred. I don’t know about you, but I have never found such a claim about anyone else was ever true or even mildly convincing. Would any of us accept such claims about Mohammed, for example?  I would suggest that Muslims might believe that, but unless one had been indoctrinated to believe from a very early age it is highly unlikely that anyone would ever reach the conclusion that the evidence “points strongly towards the bodily resurrection of Mohammed”. Only those who already believed in the faith, would feel that evidence pointed strongly in that direction.

Would anyone say that about the evidence that any person at all  rose from the dead? Can you conceive of any evidence at all that might lead one to believe that? I would submit that any such conclusion is highly unlikely. The reason is that such beliefs are not based on evidence, they are based on inculcation or indoctrination and even highly intelligent people are guided, usually unconsciously, by that indoctrination, not by evidence at all. They don’t even realize their belief is based on indoctrination.

For the same reason it is obvious why most Christians were raised by Christians and most Muslims were raised by Muslims. We tend to believe what our parents teach us, especially what they taught us from a very young age. It is not that the evidence for Christian beliefs is so much more available in Christian countries or evidence for Muslim beliefs is much more available in Muslim countries. The key is indoctrination not evidence

I am no expert–but I have never seen evidence for the resurrection of Christ that would actually convince anyone other than a person who already believed it. The evidence is not strong at all; it is extraordinarily weak. At least I have never seen any.  It is not surprising of course that the evidence is weak. After all millennia have passed since the alleged event.  Finding convincing evidence of such an astoundingly rare event would in fact be miraculous, if not impossible. Of course, that does not mean those who believe in the resurrection are wrong, I am only suggesting that they do so not on the basis of belief, but what I call “indoctrination” and they call “faith.”

Of course millions of people believe that Christ rose from the grave and they are entitled to do that but I don’t believe it is  based on evidence at all but faith.  That really means that such beliefs will be held no matter what the evidence. I think it was John Loftus who said, “You cannot reason people out religious beliefs, because they were not reasoned into them”.

Faith is belief without reason.   If you believe something without there being a reason, then you have faith in it. According to the Bible in Hebrews11:1, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” That is precisely what Friedrich Nietzsche objected to about faith.  Hopes are not evidence! The search for truth, he believed, is corrupted by wishes and desires.  If hopes are the “evidence” of truth you know the evidence is tainted. Contrary to the book of Hebrews, it is completely unreliable .

N.T. Wright earlier in the above referenced article said, about the historical evidence for the resurrection of Christ,

 

“The question divides into four.  First, what did people in the first century, both pagans and Jews, hope for?  What did they believe about life after death, and particularly about resurrection?  Second, what did the early Christians believe on the same subjects?  What did they hope for?  Third, what reasons did the early Christians give for their hope and belief, and what did they mean by the key word ‘resurrection’ which they used of Jesus? Finally, what can the historian say by way of comment on this early Christian claim?”

The fundamental problem I see with an approach like that of N.T. Wright is that it is based on hopes. His method is to find evidence to support beliefs he has probably had since the time of his youth and which ground his hopes for a life after death.  Hopes have no place in historical or scientific inquiry. They have a place in theology of course. Hopes are part of faith–a fundamental part of faith in fact.

That is what made Friedrich Nietzsche say, “Faith” means not wanting to know what is true.” The faithful believe what they want to believe. It is extremely difficult  not to believe what you want to be true. Nietzsche also said,  “The craving for a strong faith, is no proof of a strong faith, but quite the contrary. If one has such a faith, then one can afford the beautiful luxury of skeptics: one is sure enough, firm enough, has ties enough for that.” In other words, if faith is strong enough, no reasoning will talk one out of it. No evidence, no matter how compelling will dispel the belief.

All of this reminds me of that great 20thcentury deep thinker—Archie  Bunker. Archie Bunker proudly claimed to have faith. He said,  “Faith is something that you believe that no one in his right mind would believe.”

People who acquire faith usually do so not because of a convincing argument, or a powerful religious experience, but as a result of deep and persistent inculcation or indoctrination by their parents.  Such a faith is therefore nothing more than a very powerful prejudice.  It is very difficult to divorce oneself from one’s parents. It is actually much more difficult than to divorce a spouse. Nietzsche disdained such faith. He said “To accept a faith just because it is customary, means to be dishonest, to be cowardly, to be lazy.”

Nietzsche contrasted this faith with love of reason. He put it this way,

“A kind of honesty has been alien to founders of religions and others like them:  they have never made their experiences a matter of conscience for knowledge. “What did I really experience? What happened in me then, and around me? Was my reason bright enough?  Was my will turned against all deceptions of the senses and was it courageous in its resistance to the fantastic?—none of them raised such questions;  all the dear religious people still do not raise such questions even now:  rather they have a thirst for things that are against reason, and they do not want to make it too hard for themselves to satisfy it.  And so they experience “miracles” and “rebirths” and hear voices of the little angels!  We, however, we others, who thirst for reason, want to look our experience as straight in the eye as if they represented a scientific experiment, hour after hour, day after day. We ourselves want to be our experiments and guinea pigs.”

We have to be “courageous” in “resistance to the fantastic.” I think Wright  lacked that courage. He has instead found convincing evidence where no objective person would have found it. He has been guided not by evidence or “reasoning…tested rigorously” but instead by preconceptions.

Preconceptions are dangerous because they keep us from looking for the truth. After all, if you think you already have the truth why would you search for it? Nietzsche said it was not important to have the courage of one’s convictions. It was much more important to have the courage to attack one’s convictions.” That is what we have to learn to do. That is the basis of critical thinking. This willingness is its most important element.

Nietzsche also said, “Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies.” He said, “I am dynamite.” I think he meant to say that he was on this earth to break up encrusted ‘truths.’ He was here to attack them, to expose them.

Nietzsche’s approach is difficult. He does not deny that. He scorns easier positions.  Unlike Nietzsche, most people do what John Kenneth Galbraith talks about when he said, “Faced with the choice of changing one’s mind and with proving there is no need to do so, almost everyone get busy on the proof.”

It is very difficult to give up our convictions. This is particularly true of those we learn at a very young age from our parents. They seem to be a part of us. To cut them loose is like cutting off an arm. I also like what Albert Pike said, “We believe what we are taught; and those are most fanatical who know least of the evidence on which their creed is based.

Dewitt Jones, the photographer enunciated another  profound concept. He said, “I will see it when I believe it.” Until then our preconceptions or biases can stifle the truth so that we cannot detect it.

Christians keep talking about the importance of belief in Jesus.  I am never sure exactly what that means. Can they mean that we have to believe some particular proposition?  After all why would such a belief be necessary? Or does it mean we should trust him?  Have faith in him. That would make more sense. Is that very different however?

Some Christians even suggest that unless we have some beliefs in Jesus we will be condemned to eternal damnation–whatever that means. Forget about eternal damnation, is it fair to base rewards or punishments of any sort on beliefs–particularly fundamental beliefs that we have had since the time of our extreme youth? In most cases our parents should get the credit or blame for those, not us.

Our parents indoctrinated us–rightly or wrongly–when we were very young. We were so young we had no ability  to resist the indoctrination. We are not good or bad because we accepted the indoctrination. We were vulnerable. There was nothing we could do about it. Just as it is not fair to condemn an accused person of a crime when the person is so mentally ill that he or she cannot resist the impulse to commit the crime, so it is not fair to base any rewards or any punishments, let alone eternal ones, on what we were indoctrinated to believe, or not believe, when we were  young children. I cannot believe any God who would do that. That is why we should never be judged by our beliefs. We should be judged by our actions freely accomplished.

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.

Freedom of Thought and Expression: Civic Friendship

This is the third and final part of the discussion between Cornell West and Robert George at Arizona State University. They have what they refer to as a civic friendship. That is another important concept. Even though they are on opposite ends of the political spectrum, making them what someone called “an ideological odd couple,” they are truly friends. That was obvious by watching them talk. Even more importantly that was obvious by watching them listen–to each other. They really did listen. Clearly they respected each other.

To be civic friends you must have something in common. For example, if one of the two is not interested in seeking truth they will not be able to be friends. The friends must find that something in common to become friends. It can be many things. Truth seeking is just one, but it is a good one. It is hard to find for many of us because our differences today run so deep. After all this is the age of extremes as Eric Hobsbawm called it. Since then the chasm between the extremes has only deepened. The challenge is to find that common ground. Sometimes you have to dig deep to find the common ground. Other times it is just below the surface.

It is not enough for two sides to share something. That was proved conclusively in the United States before the differences led to Civil War. They shared a lot, but for awhile forgot what they had in common or rather, perhaps, until they were overwhelmed by their differences. In fact it certainly looks like Americans are being tested right now. Can they find their common ground or will they let their differences overwhelm them again?

George said that to be civic friends, or a nation, we must believe in some substantive fundamental civil rights and liberties that cannot be compromised. That does not mean we must agree on everything. We can have substantive differences. We can even have important disagreements on very important matters. But we must recognize that we each of us have some common fundamental rights that all of must respect–like freedom of thought and discussion for example. If we have a shared belief in the freedom to think and discuss then we have a basis for a democratic discussion. Then we will respect each other even if we disagree. To do that, “we must have a fundamental belief in the dialectical process of truth seeking.”

George and West both agreed on one more important thing. That is that there is such thing as truth. Both reject relativism. That does not mean we will agree on what is true. We may have strong disagreements about what is true. We must remember that even if we think we have discovered truth, we could be wrong. Like John Stuart Mill said, you must listen to the other no matter how unlikely it is that you will agree with anything the other has to say. All of our ‘truths’ must be open to revision. We always have to remember that we are not infallible. We might be wrong. This is not relativism. It is just a recognition of our fallibility.

West always brings it back to music. “Artists are the vanguard of the people, and musicians are the vanguard of music,” West said. He said that we have a choice of indescribable pleasures or deep joy. He chooses deep joy. “It is the job of the artist to radically unsettle us.” It is the same of education. As West said, “if you have never felt your fundamental ideas rested on pudding, you never had any real education.” He also said, “There is no rebirth without dying first.

To that George added, “If at any University experience is constant reaffirmation of what you believe, you are not being challenged and you have not had a real educational experience.” Only if you think your beliefs through and reach the same conclusion as before is that acceptable.

George added, “We need open-mindedness because we seek truth and want to be challenged. George’s position is, I believe, like that of John Stuart Mill who said, we should thank everyone who tries to dislodge us from our settled opinions. They are doing us a big favor. If they persuade us to change our minds that is great. We are better off because we discarded an opinion that was not defensible. If they do not persuade us to change our minds, at least they have made us think about our opinions and how they could be defended. We come to understand our opinions better. We are actually in a better position to defend them in such a case. So again we should thank them. We should never try to shout them down or stop them from arguing with us. For our own sake we should let them speak.

According to George, after a history of having our opinions challenged “we become our own best interrogators. We become our own best critics.” That should be the goal. It should become our goal if we love the truth.

West took this opportunity to argue in defense of scepticism. Scepticism is not relativism. Scepticism is critical thinking. That is what we need. We do not need absolute scepticism that believes in nothing. The scepticism he advocated was exemplified by Malcolm X. In other words a scepticism that is suspicious of received opinions from power. Malcolm X was sceptical–for good reason–about American democracy, which all around him claimed to be an absolute good when it was filled with flaws. He pointed out some of its flaws to others, and that made him very unpopular with much of America. So be it. Some people don’t like to hear the truth.

John Dewey argued in against wholesale scepticism, but in favor of retail scepticism. Retail scepticism can lead to truth. That is what we are seeking. Wholesale scepticism hides from the truth. As West said, “We have to be sceptical about scepticism.”

George added to these remarks. He said, what is vital is questioning. We must be ready and willing to question all opinions. “Scepticism can become a dogma,” George said. Scepticism should never become so pervasive that it leads to indifference and despair. Then we lose all ability to act.

Henry David Thoreau went to jail because he refused to pay taxes to support the war with Mexico. He called it a land grab. It was colonialism and exploitation at its worst, in his opinion, so he refused to pay and was put in jail for that refusal. Of course, what about the far larger original land grab when Europeans who settled in North America and South America grabbled the hemisphere from the Indigenous people that lived here and in the process caused the death of 95% of the population of the Western Hemisphere? It was the greatest holocaust in history!

West also said we had to leery of micro-suffering. People who take offense at the mere mention of abuse must be challenged. Especially in a University, but not just there, we must be willing to engage in a discussion of all issues, even those that are painful to some people. We must do that with respect and consideration, but we have the right to discuss those issues. No one has the right not to hear offensive things. West said, “As a teacher it is not my responsibility to provide a safe place for learning. In fact, the place of learning should be a place that is unsettling. ” If it is not unsettling it is not doing its job.

As George said, “The point of education is not to show off our learning, or gain prestige, it is to seek the truth. That process should be unsettling even to our most cherished beliefs, even our fundamental beliefs. We must be willing to expose even our religious views to scrutiny. For some of us that will be hard.” West also reminded us, “Education is not indoctrination”.

This puts a heavy responsibility on teachers. They should put forth both sides of a dispute to their students. In fact, teachers should not tilt the scales in favor of their favored views. This means putting forth best arguments for both sides of an argument. This is what Plato did in his dialogues. Try to figure out ‘why do well informed, intelligent people disagree with me?’ We must each do that. We must each be our best interrogators.

George said that he frequently reads Nietzsche because he does not agree with him. He knows that Nietzsche is a brilliant thinker and writer so he wants to contend with the best arguments on all issues. He frequently tests himself to see if he can still contend with Nietzsche. And you have to be honest with yourself if you do this. Otherwise you are just fooling yourself.

George said that each of us needs self-reflection to challenge our most sacred views. We must learn to be our best critics. We should also seek out a good friend to debate issues. This means a friend who is willing to tell us when we are wrong. A deep friendship allows a friend to criticize us. Criticism is always for our own good.

We must expose ourselves to the best counter arguments. This does not show a lack of passion. This allows us to grasp an issue more deeply. And West concluded with this remark, “In the end we talk about living.” Socrates was right: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” We want to seek the truth to make our life better. Even if we don’t find the truth, the search for truth improves our life.