Wednesday, May 27, 2009

While relaxing alone on the patio this holiday weekend, waiting in vain for any of our several invited friends to drop by, my dearly beloved husband and I came to an annoying revelation: we’re boring. Vanilla ice cream boring. Okay, hand-churned, organic, whole bean vanilla, but still plain, easily-taken-for-granted boring. Most of the time that’s fine, I guess, but there are days when I long to be mango pineapple sorbet with chilies – exotic, interesting, different.

“I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t like you,” his boss says. We’re ‘nice,’ which reminds me of the Bernadette Peters song from Into the Woods: “You're so nice. You're not good, you're not bad, you're just nice.” Not completely true; I’d like to think we’re good – whatever that is! – but nice. *sigh*

As I’m writing this, reality hits: we’re boring when we try to be nice. We don’t want to offend, to make anyone uncomfortable, so we hold back. We bite our tongues when a controversial subject comes up. We avoid raising issues about which we are passionate because we know that far too often our opinions are not welcome in the narrow circles we frequent. So we’re nice to avoid confrontation, to avoid being rejected by the in-crowd…how sophomoric!

We’re 50 years old, for goodness sake! Okay, he’s got four weeks yet and I’ve been there for eight months, but when do we drop the high school antics and become individuals with the right, maybe even the duty, to speak our minds? And it’s not like we can’t talk about other things. He’s a computer security expert, an “ethical hacker’ with stories to tell. He raises bonsais and crafts wood and is learning to be a luthier. I read, voraciously. I can discuss books, philosophy, ideas. I write, with stories of my own to tell. Boring?! Far from it!

Maybe we just need to allow ourselves to be ourselves. Either that or find new friends…

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

We are having a hard time living because we are so bent on outwitting death ~ Simone de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity

The Resource Center for Non-Violence published a 2007 reprint of Albert Camus’ Neither Victims Nor Executioners: An Ethic Superior to Murder. In it, the new introduction references Auburn Theological Seminary Professor Walter Wink’s “myth of redemptive violence” which is nearly as powerful as Camus’ statement from 1944. He was watching the end of World War II; Professor Wink is witnessing the ongoing “war against terror.” Both men struggle to convince a heedless society that there is a better way.

Why is it mankind in general does not seem able or willing to move past the ancient eye-for-an-eye mentality? History for millennia has shown us that such a perspective does nothing to resolve the underlying issues. It reminds me of our failing health care system which prefers to treat symptoms rather than causes. Kill the person who did me harm to salve my wounded pride, but watch out for his family/friends…they will be after me for their own pointless revenge. And the violence continues ad nauseum.

Camus calls the twentieth century in which he lived the “century of violence.” Sadly, the label has followed us into the twenty-first and there is no end in sight. The escalation of invasion, war, and attacks by isolated terrorist groups leads only to the “world where murder is legitimate…where human life is considered trifling.” Nations use the often government-inspired instability to keep their citizenry in a state of perpetual dread in order to solidify political power. Camus makes the case for a new social contract based on an international code of justice which eliminates further escalation and takes humanity down a different path:
Do you or do you not, directly or indirectly, want to be killed or assaulted? Do you or do you not, directly or indirectly, want to kill or assault? All who say No to both these questions are automatically committed to a series of consequences which must modify their way of posing the problem.

The spectre of violence, of terror, will not fade until humanity steps out of egoistic self-indulgence and into a community of individuals all working for the greater good. There are those who scoff at such notions as utopian; Camus asks us to “choose between different Utopias which are attempting to be born into reality:” a Utopia where those frightening individuals who have all the answers demand that everyone submit to their superiority, using force as a necessary means to that end; or a Utopia where each of us works together to resolve points of contention before they spiral out of control, where peaceful ends are not justified by violent means.

I’ll take the latter, thanks.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Your laws, my life

Few things raise more hackles than a debate over morality. Religion is often (wrongly) attributed as the sole source of ethical determination. Ideas of right and wrong vary from culture to culture, nation to nation, and person to person, and philosophers over the centuries have parsed the finer points of ethics until it seems no more need be said. But the debate rages. The latest target is criminalizing teenagers for “sexting,” sending nude pictures of themselves via cell phone to attract attention. The issue here is a misplaced desire to keep our children innocent when in fact they are not; a permissive society and lax parenting assures that. Now government seeks to punish the young for being human.

A reading of John Stuart Mills’ On Liberty provides a utilitarian basis for an individual morality from which we could all learn: “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” Laws of the state have no place in regulating personal conduct unless and until it is a harm to others, not for a person’s own good, “because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise or even right.” He speaks out forcefully against legislation of private acts and its “encroachment” on the individual.

It has often been said that morality cannot be legislated; Mills says it should not be. Society may legislation behavior, outlawing certain actions the majority has deemed inappropriate or unsavory, but that behavior will simply be driven underground, adding a layer of deceit and subterfuge to an act that on its face is often no more than disagreeable to a vocal minority. Punishment will not change inward inclinations, only outward actions, and it will create disgruntled citizens more inclined to ignore the strictures of law when next it conflicts with their desires.

“The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” Punish non-support of dependents, not gambling; outlaw slavery and physical assault, not prostitution; prohibit theft and violence of any kind against others, not personal drug or alcohol use.

All of us can recall a school day experience – or even worse, a day at the office – when the whole class was punished for the misbehavior of one or two individuals: loss of recess or playtime, extra homework, a pop quiz. How much more egregious is it to punish large segments of society for the lapses of a few? Because John Doe gambles away his salary and does not feed his family is no reason to keep John Q. Public from the gaming tables. Address the problem where it lies; do not lump all individuals into the category of miscreant because of otherwise benign behavior mishandled by a few.

Mills notes that “Wherever there is an ascendant class, a large portion of the morality of the country emanates from its class interest and its feelings of class superiority,” not from any actual notion of right and wrong. Laws designed to “protect” women, to regulate the actions of minorities, to keep the unpropertied from having a say in governance – all these reflect a morality imposed by the “tyranny of the majority.” Mills uses as the basis for his morality the measure of utility, the “permanent interests of man as a progressive being.” I echo his sentiment. Remove prejudice, passion, and the tenuous hold of custom from the imposition of laws on society. “The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs.” We will all be the better – and more moral – for it.

Monday, May 04, 2009

A Categorical Disagreement

This week’s reading from Immanuel Kant’s The Foundation for the Metaphysics of Morals provided an interesting dovetail to a home conversation on familial obligations. It seems that if a duty is accomplished grudgingly, in order to avoid negative repercussions, it lacks the good will necessary to meet the standards of Kant’s morality. But he disagrees. Kant says acting “from duty” is good and moral; acting “in accord with duty,” no matter the motivation, “has no moral worth.” To assert that to be moral something must be done “for the sake of the law” seems to take all morality out an action entirely and place it under the realm of compulsion. Act properly or suffer the consequences, not because it’s the right thing to do. It makes no sense to me that someone who behaves in a given manner because it is expected of him – it is his duty – is somehow more moral than one who behaves in the same manner because of “inclination.”

We visit family and attempt to maintain cordial relations, initially because of personal inclination. With the recent negativity such encounters have given rise to, the effort has taken on the mantle of duty while the act remains the same. The sense of good will has definitely lessened, yet Kant seems to say the latter actions are more “moral” than those which were originally motivated by good nature. How can that be? And to take this musing a step further, why should it matter? If the action is correct and the motive is pure (or not), why should stamping a label of “moral” on the behavior serve any purpose? Even Kant admits such a determination of duty versus inclination has never been made and probably will never be possible. He is satisfied to “comprehend…the incomprehensibility” of the moral imperative: "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” From this universal law all morality arises and is incumbent on each person as a guide to right action. Consequences of such actions are not a consideration, only the rightness of the act itself. So visiting family out of duty with a resulting disharmony is the better course of action than a loving visit from inclination which leads to a better relationship. Such a concept boggles the mind and seems to destroy the very Reason on which it is supposedly based.

I do not claim to understand Kant entirely; that would take a lifetime, if it is even possible. His writing gives rise to interesting debate and a deeper exploration of personal motivations, and a further step away from that unexamined life of no worth. In support of my position, I take refuge in Kant’s own assertion that “ordinary human understanding in its practical concerns…may have as much hope as any philosopher of hitting the mark” even though he goes on to claim man must have science (i.e., philosophy) in which to ground wisdom.