Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Buddha commits the Staw-Man Fallacy

I am taking a Coursera Class called Buddhism and Modern Psychology but can't figure out how to upload my midterm.  I am going to park it here and hopefully send them a link.  Comments are always appreciated.

In this essay I contend that the argument of the Buddha may be an important point for contemplation, but is, at best, a straw-man fallacy when used as an attempt to dispute the existence of the self.     Prof. Wright has referred to two arguments made by the Buddha.  As the Buddha's first premise he tries to convince us that the self cannot be unchanging and that the self is not always in control.  His second premise is that we think of the self as unchanging and in control.  Therefore, his conclusion is that there is no "Self."

My point is that even though people intuitively imagine the "Self" to be unchanging and in control, a mutable and relational self who's control varies between contexts is certainly conceivable.  I would argue that such a contingent "Self" actually makes more sense than the kind of self the Buddha argued against.  If I am correct then the second premise of the Buddha's argument fails and his conclusion is not warranted.

I agree that if a "Self" has to be unchanging and in control, then is seems that the Buddha was correct and the "Self" does not exist.  But such a conception of the self seems to me to be philosophically extreme (i.e. A straw-man) even though it may be a commonly held intuition.

I have been persuaded by thinkers within the Evolutionary Psychology domain such as Antonio Damasio that the self has evolved as a faculty which aids the human organism in maintaining homeostasis.  (While Damasio is outside Wright's lecture, he was discussed in the interview with Miri Albahari which seems to license his inclusion in this essay.) As I understand Damasio, particularly in his book, The Self Comes to Mind, there are modular processes at work in in the human organism.  These processes, such as the visual, emotive, memory, etc. are processed in different parts of the brain.  Most of the processes in the human organism are unconscious, but some are represented by thoughts, images, and other mental content in consciousness.  Consciousness has evolved as a faculty to assist in the coordination and focusing of disparate processes toward the end of meeting our needs. 

As Prof. Wright points out, the narratives we live by are often wrong.  Self-consciousness allows us to compare and contrast our narratives the ever accumulating bulk of our own experience.  This gives us feedback allowing the "Self,"  if there is such a thing, to learn and change.  Change in this sense is a good thing.   Self-consciousness allows us to witness our anger and the consequences of our anger in a way that helps us to appreciate whether our angry behavior has assisted or hindered us in meeting our needs.  

Damasio also addresses control and claims that his studies suggest that the rational self stands in relation to control of emotions as a mahout is in relation to control of her/his elephant.  Sometimes the mahout is in control and sometimes the elephant is in control.  When the elephant gets excited there is not much the mahout can do but stand and watch.  Are we the thinker, the feeler or the witness?

In my readings of authors as varied as the Dali Lama and the artist/philosopher Robert Motherwell, I have come across the claim that underlying the contingent self I am describing there is a deeper, pre-conscious "True Self."   I am agnostic about such a deeper self.  

I believe that the best place to look for the self is on the surface of consciousness, ever developing or learning from experience in the attempt to coordinate and organize various processes active within the human organism.  This self is neither immutable, nor always in control, but is developing and maturing as it wrestles with the power of processes within the field of consciousness, process that remain unconscious and its own fallibility.  While there may be some tendencies which seem stable over time such as the introvert / extrovert distinction, most of us can look back on our younger selfs and see vastly different behaviors, values and personal characteristics.  

Another example or perspective that may illustrate my point is the nature of the Autobiographical Self.  The Autobiographical Self, as I understand it, is essentially the narrative or story of the history of our "self" composed out of our self awareness.  We witness our interactions, reactions and judgments about the world we live in and from that awareness we develop our story.  We may intuitively believe that if there is a story, there must be a "storyteller:" some kind of deeper or more basic organizing form of consciousness.  Are we the story or the storyteller?  My point of view is that we are both.  We are biological organisms seeking ways to satisfy needs.  Self-awareness is an evolved biological feature which operates functionally to provide feedback and aid in the fine-tuning of the raw instinctual tendencies.  

The Buddha may be perfectly correct to direct meditators to contemplate the non-existence of an immutable self or an "owner" of the five aggregates.  Such a contemplation may lead to spiritual health.  But as a metaphysical claim, I find the Buddha's claim to be unconvincing.  For me the "self" makes sense as a transient, mutable, fragmented and fallible faculty for making sense or developing meaning out of our experience.  The Buddha's self may not exist, but I believe the kind of self I describe cannot be dismissed.  It may be transient and fallible, but like the flexion of a muscle it is a biological tool which helps us navigate our world.

Mike Mallory
9/25/16 

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Citizens United: A Brief Religious Response


The Text -


Our text  is the 5th Principle: We affirm and promote the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregation and in society at large

Chalice Lighting:

Capitalism as an organizing social structure provides incentives for profit rather than community, wealth rather than wisdom and commerce rather than compassion. Let us be a voice of community values.

 

Readings -

Free and fair elections, as well as honest representation, are essential to self- determination and self-governance as described in The Declaration of Independence and established in The Constitution of the United States. The American people have lost faith in the political process because their voices are not heard and their interests are not represented. Thus, an ever smaller percentage of Americans is motivated to vote.
Initiative 735
Any activity pursued in behalf of an ideal end against obstacles and in spite of threats of personal loss because of conviction of its general and enduring value is religious in quality

.….It is this active relation between ideal and actual to which I would give the name “God.” John Dewey


Sermon:   Citizens United a Brief Religious Response

Tomorrow is Independence Day. I understand the economic and political reasons behind the Declaration of Independence are actually more complex than that presented in High School, but certainly the desire for self-governance was an important factor. I wanted to offer a Sunday talk in-line with this theme.

The United States Supreme Court case of Citizens United v. The Federal Election Commission, decided January 21, 2010, was controversial when it was handed down and the tumult has continued to foment. There are 17 states which have gone on record as supporting a constitutional amendment designed to nullify the court’s ruling. In Washington the WaAmend sponsored Initiative No. 735 would add our state to this growing list of states eager for change.

What’s it all about? Citizens United is a non-profit corporation seeking to reassert the traditional American values of limited government, freedom of enterprise, strong families, and national sovereignty and security. They have directors spread out across the country, but their treasurer, Kirby Wilbur, is a resident of Duval Washington. Their current project is a suit to obtain emails between Chelsea Clinton and donors to the Clinton Foundation as part of a fishing expedition, looking for evidence of influence peddling.

In 2008, just before the Democratic Primaries, Citizens United released a video titled “Hillary: The Movie.” They were prepared to offer it free through an on-demand channel. The video was highly critical of Hillary Clinton.

The Citizens United plan ran into the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 which prohibited corporations from using its general funds to promote or attack a candidate for office within 30 days of a primary election. Not only did the act prohibit the conduct, but it prescribed criminal sanctions for a violation.(1)

Citizen’s United brought a suit seeking an injunction against enforcement of the act by the Federal Elections Commission. Based on the prior case of Austin v. The Michigan Chamber of Commerce, 494 US 652, decided in 1990, the District Court denied the injunction and ruled in favor of the FEC in a short-cut process known as summary judgment. Citizen’s United appealed to the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court issued its controversial decision.

The Supreme Court, reversed the ruling the court below and held in favor of Citizen’s United. By deciding the case in favor of Citizen’s United the Supreme Court had to overrule its prior ruling in Austin. In Austin the Supreme Court, in a decision authored by the late Justice Thurgood Marshall, held that a state statute banning corporations from using its general funds to advocate for or against a particular candidate was constitutional. Justice Marshall understood that the constitutional right of Free Speech was at stake, even though the speech was corporate speech. The First Amendment does not necessarily prohibit the government from regulating or even banning specific types of speech, so long as the government can show a compelling interest that justifies the governmental restriction. It is a relative judgment or balancing test. A more significant restriction on speech requires a more important governmental interest to comply with the constitutional right.

The compelling state interest which Justice Marshall relied upon in his ruling in Austin was the distortion of the electoral process by the injection of corporate money. He said of this distortion, and I quote, "[It is a] different type of corruption in the political arena: the corrosive and distorting effects of immense aggregations of wealth that are accumulated with the help of the corporate form and that have little or no correlation to the public's support for the corporation's political ideas."

Justice Kennedy wrote a dissenting opinion in Austin. Justice Scalia joined in his dissent. When we come to Citizen’s United, the composition of the court has changed, the tables are turned and Justice Kennedy wrote the majority opinion.

The majority opinion in Citizen’s United touches on some issues such as the whether the court was bound by the precedence of Austin, whether the case could be decided on narrower grounds than invalidating the legislation and whether the unconstitutionality of the statue was properly before the court, but those issues are largely irrelevant to the points I would like to make and I am moving on.

Once the court dispensed with the preliminary questions it stuck down the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 and decided that Citizens United had a constitutional right to offer their video to the public as a protected act of political free speech. The ruling in Austin was based upon the rationale that the government had a compelling interest in avoiding the distortion of the electoral process when huge amounts of money were poured into the system by corporations. The majority of the court this time held that the concern of distortion was insufficient to justify a ban on political speech and Austin was wrong to hold otherwise.(2)

Justice Kennedy reasoned that the government cannot stand in the middle of a political debate and assure that there is an equal amount of money both for and against every candidate. Not only would the micromanagement of money in politics be onerous for the FEC, but it is not the place of the Federal Government. Presumably, some candidates will receive more backing than other candidates; that’s how politics works. And, while Justice Kennedy has a point, there is a whole range of possibilities between the intrusive regulation of political expenditures and more modest strategic limitations.

The dissent in Citizen’s United, written by Justice Steven’s and joined by Justices Sotomayor, Ginsberg and Breyer raises two other basis which they claim should count as a compelling governmental interest for regulating corporate speech.

First, they claim that it is unreasonable to expect that all shareholders of a corporation will agree with political expenditures and that when a corporation speaks in a political forum the rights of minority shareholders are violated. Justice Kennedy dismisses this governmental interest. He points out that shareholders have internal corporate rights based upon bylaws and the court should not interfere.

Justice Stevens in the dissent also laid out a plethora of evidence showing that corporations both sought and received access, if not political favors in return for large donations. The appearance of fairness, if not actual corruption should justify restrictions on corporate political speech he reasoned. Not so, says Justice Kennedy. The majority ruled that if there is corruption, it can be dealt with when it happens, but the possibility of a political quid pro quo cannot justify banning an entire class of speech.

In short, none of the concerns raised by the FEC or the dissenting justices were accepted as adequate by the majority of the court. They exhibited a stubborn partisanship in their approach to the facts. The court ruled that an attempt to bar corporate political speech in this case was unconstitutional.

At the 2011 UU General Assembly in Charlotte, North Carolina the delegates adopted an Action of Immediate Witness calling for a constitutional amendment that would, in effect, nullify the court’s ruling. The UU statement claims that Citizens United equated speech with money and “enshrined corporations as persons” in an “unprecedented ruling.” http://www.uua.org/statements/oppose-citizens-united%E2%80%94support-free-speech-people The language of WaAmend repeats these points. http://www.wamend.org/initiativelanguage

However, treating corporations as persons and money as speech is not unprecedented. There is a long line of cases doing both. If fact these features of the ruling were not controversial among the judges. “Person” is a technical term in the law referring to entities with agency. People are referred to as natural persons, while corporations are artificial persons. Thus, when there is a law which states, “No person shall commit fraud,” both people and corporations are covered by the restriction.

The equivocation between money and speech has, under the right conditions, been given support by both liberal and conservative judges. This view recognizes that the freedom to speak is meaningless unless a person is also allowed the means to speak.

There are disturbing consequences that may arise from denying the ability of corporations to speak or from any person the right to fund political speech. Almost all of the broadcast and print media is controlled by corporations. You may think that censorship of the press is unlikely, but in Pennsylvania, Florida and North Carolina the Governors have censored agencies from discussing climate change and other anti-fossil fuel positions. If they had the legal ability, censorship of the press is just a small-step away.

Proponents of WaAmend say that the initiative would not interfere with Freedom of the Press. But in this day of YouTube, WebLogs and on-line magazines, what counts as the “Press” is a murky question. Citizens United no doubt thought they were sponsoring political journalism.

When it comes to treating corporate speech as protected by the First Amendment, the concurrence of Justice Scalia makes a serious point when he says that he is not recognizing the First Amendment right of corporations to speak, but the First Amendment right of Americans to speak through a corporate form. The rising threat of inequality and the emergence of an oligarchic class is real, but one of the defenses which the middle class has to counter the speech of the very rich is the ability to form a jointly funded group to speak collectively, e.g. as a corporation. I am surprised how willing people are to prune back our First Amendment rights.

I hope it is somewhat clear that both the UU Action for Immediate Witness and I-735 present some troubling reactions to Citizens United and both miss the important legal question presented by the ruling. The fulcrum of the decision was what counts as a sufficient governmental interest to justify the regulation of political speech.

Actually, I believe that most discussions of Citizens United swirl around but fail to reach the most troubling feature of contemporary American Politics. There seem to be powerful forces at work in the electoral process. When confronted with these forces we feel manipulated and excluded from the sacred act of self-governance. When we look around trying to identify those forces which we intuitively sense are in control, I believe we can mistakenly identify those forces as money or corporations. But, if we are wrong to demonize money or corporations then what, you may ask, is the powerful force which puts our electoral process at risk?

That force, in my opinion, is your own subconscious. Let me attempt to justify this claim. Imagine, if you will, that corporations poured in huge amounts of money during elections, but that money went to provide fair and balanced information that was helpful in making an informed decisions. If that was the case, then I don’t think anyone would care about Citizens United. This little thought experiment shows, I believe, that what is really troubling is the content of political discourse and the way we make political decisions. Both Justice Kennedy in Citizens United and the UU Action statement use the unfortunate metaphor of a free “marketplace” of political ideas. But the notion of ideas in a “marketplace” already assumes that political values are just another commodity.

Antonio Damasio, a professor of neurobiology, in a series of books starting with Descartes’ Error demonstrates that our emotions, often subconsciously, drive our decision-making process. I have read three of his books and am skeptical of the whole idea of “rationality.” Both Damasio and Clotaire Rapaille, French, Ph.D. in Social Psychology and marketing consultant have correlated decision-making and brain structures. They contend that certain emotions such as fear, anger, disgust and surprise evolved early and are processed in the reptilian brain. Emotional states dealing with community buildings such as compassion, nurturance, empathy and love evolved much later and are processed in the mammalian brain. Emotional processing is pre-verbal and pre-rational. The language of emotions is pictures.

Sophisticated marketing operates with this understanding whether selling clothing or candidates. Political strategists attempt to trigger an emotional response which makes one candidate more attractive or another less attractive at a “gut” level. If I ask you to imagine a political advertisement, you are likely to picture an image of a candidate that begins in color and turns to black and white (i.e. it spoils), then the figure freezes in an unattractive facial expression and red text scrolls onto the scene announcing that the person has voted 26 times to cut benefits to disabled veterans or something. These messages are designed to hold a person up to ridicule and contempt which are variations of the primitive emotion of disgust.

Millions and millions of dollars go into attack ads because they are effective. I do not believe a constitutional amendment can address this kind of assault on our emotional subconscious.(4) I believe that as citizens we should demand that political campaigns address our higher emotions, by which I mean our social emotions or community building values which are literally processed in a brain structure higher than our primitive emotions. If campaigns were focused on the shape of the community the candidates are trying to create and the values represented by their priorities, then we could be progressing toward our ideally valued world, as described by John Dewey.

My prescription is difficult. The primitive emotions are processed faster than the higher emotions. Fear and disgust tend to short-cut and preempt the fruition of community building. Damasio says that the non-conscious grip of primitive emotions “can be opposed only by a well-trained and powerful counterforce. Spinoza seems to have the right idea when he said that an emotion with negative consequences could be countered only by another, more powerful emotion.” It is a struggle that requires vision and vigilance.
 

As Unitarian Universalists we are asked to participate in democratic self-governance. We are asked to incorporate our values into that process. While I am not suggesting we should avoid critical discernment, as citizens of the nation and of the world we are better served by focusing on our highest aspirations. As this election cycle inevitably turns ever more negative, Let us stand together on the side of love and the values we have enshrined: Dignity, Justice, Equity, Truth, Freedom, Peace and Compassion. Let us work to redirect our energy from primitive emotionality to a vision of the community we would build.


7/3/16
Mike Mallory

1. When a regulation of speech provides for criminal sanctions the court takes the “chilling” effect on speech into account when judging the constitutionality.

2. The act only banned a corporation from using its general treasury from the specific political speech. The act did not ban a corporation from forming a Political Action Committee from praising or attacking a candidate. Therefore the dissent thought that the characterization of the act’s effect as a “ban” was an exaggeration.

3. A YouTube presentation of Dr. Rapaille is found here:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sIGNV8e1050

4 .David Cole, in the Atlantic Monthly Magazine offers a judicial strategy for changing the Court’s ruling. The article contains the fascinating history of the NRA’s efforts to expand 2nd Amendment Rights to individual gun owners. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/04/how-to-reverse-citizens-united/471504/

 

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

A Moral Ground of Environmental Ethics


Environmental Ethics
Evergreen UU Fellowship – 2/7/16
A UU Worship Service

Gathering Music

VIVIAN
(Rings bell three times)
Please rise as you are able in body or spirit to sing hymn #163 in the Grey Hymnal, “For the Earth Forever Turning.”

BOARD ANNOUNCEMENT

MARILYN
This morning we will be exploring the basis of Environment Ethics.  Environmental Ethics describes the relationship we ought to have with the natural world and includes issues such as pollution, resource extraction and the rights of non-human organisms.

MIKE
 “Ethics” can be defined as  a cultural conversation about the deepest values and obligations arising from the problems of living in community.

MARILYN
The bit about “conversation” indicates that we all have something to contribute to the exploration and that we have not now, nor will we ever reach a point of absolute determination.

VIVIAN
Is that what we are doing this morning?  Having a conversation?

MIKE
Yes.

VIVIAN
I would like to bring the congregation into the conversation.  As a chalice reading please open your grey hymnal to reading number 550 “We Belong to the Earth.”  I will read the regular font and ask you to read the italics.  Mike Mallory will light the chalice.
(reading)

MARILYN
(Children’s Story)

VIVIAN

Where do we begin?

MARILYN
How about the great rift in ethical thinking?  Most ethical systems can be described as either Deontological or Consequentialism.

MIKE
So, deontology judges the morality of actions based on the observance of known or ascertainable rules, which impose ethical duties.

VIVIAN
And, consequentialism?

MIKE
Consequentialism imposes ethical duties or obligations based upon the consequences or outcomes of alternative courses of action.  Both systems can get into trouble when there are conflicts in the underlying values.

MARILYN
Utilitarianism, which only looks to the consequences of an action, imposes a duty to seek the greatest good for the greatest number.

VIVIAN
If you are the weakest person in a lifeboat with six other starving castaways, you might want to hold out a while longer in the hope of rescue or finding an Island, but the others in the boat can reasonably conclude that the well-being of six is a greater good than the death of one.

MARILYN
A typical Deontological rule is the obligation to be honest. 

VIVIAN
A duty to tell the truth has appeal, but if you are Anne Frank, listening in to the Nazis asking your benefactor if there are any Jews in the house, you might conclude that the duty to be honest has its limits.

MARILYN
It seems that there are duties, such as the prohibition against the taking of a life, which should limit the Utilitarian’s efforts to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number.

VIVIAN
Similarly, we would object to the dogmatic obedience to rules of the deontologist when they run up against competing values such as the protection of a child in the case of Anne Frank.
MIKE
One conclusion from these problems is that the consequences of our actions may act as a limit on our principles and, similarly, that our principles may act as a limit on a course of action driven by intended consequences.

VIVIAN
Now is the time in our service for the sharing of deeply held joys and sorrows.  If you would like to share this morning, please line up on either side of the sanctuary and I will call you forward.  I will light a candle for you.  Please tell us your name and speak directly into the microphone. 
(After last person)
  I will light one more candle for the Joys and Sorrow that remain unspoken.

MARILYN
May all beings be filled with loving kindness
May all beings be well
May all beings be peaceful and at ease
May all beings be happy

VIVIAN
What is the origin of morality?

MIKE
One answer to that question comes from such thinkers such as Edward. O. Wilson.

VIVIAN
Natural Selection?

MIKE
Right. He points out that groups which act in cooperative and altruistic ways toward each other will be more cohesive, supportive and ultimately have a better survival rate than groups without this proto-morality.

VIVIAN
If our moral sentiments are formed around this vestigial genetic feature, then they would be limited to a specific group.


MARILYN
Instinctual altruism appears to be tribal without application to outsiders.

MIKE
In fact, the history of ethics has been the story of ever more inclusiveness in the group deserving moral concern. 
MARILYN
The enslavement of members from within the community would be abhorrent, yet making slaves of people from outside the community was much easier to tolerate.

MIKE
The expansion of moral concern has led to the common view that ethical rules should apply to everyone.

VIVIAN
That sounds like the Golden Rule.

MARILYN
Matthew 7:12 “…do to others what you would have them do to you.”

VIVIAN
The Golden Rule, which is found in all cultures, shows up in the Hindu tradition in a negative formulation, “This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you.”

MARILYN
Is there room in the expansion of moral concern to move beyond the human community?

MIKE
Environmental Ethics asks us to go further than the Golden Rule and include the natural world in the sphere of moral concern.

MARILYN
What did Aldo Leopold, the author of the Sand County Almanac say on this issue?

VIVIAN
He said, “The history of the moral development of the human race is the expansion of the sphere of our moral concern…We acknowledge duties to our selves, then our families, our tribes, people like us. With increasing sophistication, we acknowledge duties to those of other races, other nationalities, other sexes, then all creatures that feel pain. Each progressive step is based on the dawning recognition that the qualities that make us worthy of moral concern are qualities that we find also in others, who are not so different from us. The next step in moral development is to expand the sphere of moral concern to include other forms of life.


MARILYN
But if ethics is a developing conversation, how would other life-forms take part?

MIKE
Joanna Macy, a deep ecologist and Buddhist scholar, suggests a Council of All Beings where all life forms would be represented by human spokespeople in a decision-making process by which they would be affected.

VIVIAN
Please rise as you are able in body or spirit to sing hymn #21 in the Grey Hymnal, “For the Beauty of the Earth.”

MARILYN
Do our own principles contribute to this conversation?

MIKE
Our Principles are general and open, but Paul Rasor restates them in a more concrete way in his book, “Reclaiming Prophetic Witness: Liberal Religion in the Public Square.”

VIVIAN
I will read our principles.

MARILYN
I will read the restatements.

VIVIAN
#1: We affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person.

MARILYN
The Restatement: All human beings have the right to a meaningful and fulfilling life, including physical safety and economic and social well-being. All persons have an obligation to help create the conditions within which this well-being can be most fully realized.

VIVIAN
#7:  We respect the interdependent web of which we are apart.

MARILYN
The Restatement: Reality is relational, continuously recreated in a dynamic, open-ended evolutionary process that includes both social and ecological relationships. Human beings and the natural world constitute a single organic community in which the health, security, and well-being of each are intertwined with and dependent on the health, security, and well-being of all. There is no separation between us and them; we are all us. The transforming power of love. We affirm the reality of love as a dynamic relational power within and among us. This power moves us to create relationships of compassion, respect, mutuality, and forgiveness; to love our neighbors as ourselves; and to recognize everyone as our neighbor.

VIVIAN
#2: We affirm Justice, Equity and Compassion in human relations.

MARILYN
The Restatement: Justice concerns the fair ordering of human relationships, including social, political, and ecological relationships. Human beings have an obligation to create institutions, social structures, and environmental conditions that reflect these values and enable all persons to live with dignity and respect.

MIKE
We all seem to be committed to the concept of justice, but we sometimes mean different things. This matters not one bit, because by any definition of justice, forcing others to bear the burden of your benefit is unfair. Consider only one such definition, John Rawls’s theory of justice. Rawls says that if you want to know whether a distribution of benefits and burdens is fair, all you have to do is a little thought experiment. Ask yourself, if I didn’t know what position I would have in the world (whether I would be a present person or a future person, whether I would be rich or poor, whether I would be African or Inuit), would I choose a situation in which rich, mostly white people of one or two generations reap great benefits and impose the costs on other people, notably future people and the poor? Or do it this way: Would I approve of this arrangement, if I knew that my worst enemy would have the power to assign me my place in the world? If the answer is no, then the arrangement in question is unfair. And of course, the answer is no. No one would freely choose to pay, in the currency of their suffering and the suffering of their children, in famine and disease and the risk of human life on Earth, the costs of the reckless adventures of the wealthy nations. We have an obligation to remedy a situation that is currently and patently unjust, and one that will only grow more unjust as time goes on and the future unfolds. (Moral Ground, Kathleen Moor and Michael Nelson)

MARILYN
We are going to take some time for individual reflection.  I ask you to take a minute and consider a human or non-human being that is now or will be adversely affected by the increasing change in our climate.  What would they have to say to us now, if they were fully aware of the looming environmental crisis?   In about one minute Mike will ring the bell.  Then you will have a minute or two to share with your neighbor the voice that spoke to you.  Your sharing might be something like this, “The oyster says the acid in the water is killing my young.  Soon there will be no more of us.”  When Mike rings the bell a second time, we will continue our conversation up front.

MARILYN (Con’t)
So, if we have principles that can be reworded to include the natural world and we check our decisions against the consequences of our actions, what’s next?

VIVIAN
One word we hear a lot in these discussions is “sustainability.”  “Sustainability” certainly has ecological meaning, but I believe the term has an ethical significance by shifting moral focus from individuals to a species as a whole or perhaps a particular ecosystem.

MARILYN
In other words, we might say that the Polar Bears have a moral right to exist, even if we wouldn’t grant that right to an individual bear.

VIVIAN
We might hunt and kill a deer, but have a moral obligation not to kill all deer.

MARILYN
Yes, the endangered species act is legislation which stems from this view.

MIKE
There has been widespread colony collapse among honey bees.  More than 40% of American bee hives died in 2014. A new Harvard study is pointing the finger at a class of pesticide additives known as neonics.  The EPA is issuing new rules to protect the bees.  The top producers of these chemicals, Syngenta and Bayer, are working hard to block regulations.

MARILYN
Because the honey bees are at the center of a billion dollar agribusiness, they will have plenty of support.

VIVIAN
What if, instead of honey bees, it was mosquitoes or yellow-jackets facing extinction.  Would they be given a voice?

MARILYN
Isn’t there a human benefit to avoiding extinctions and maintaining genetic diversity?

MIKE
Most environmentalists would say, “Yes,” but self-interest is not a basis for moral action.  One of the features of morality is that it asks us to act against our self-interest.



VIVIAN
If you find a wallet with money in it and no one is around to see you, it might be in your financial best interest to keep the money, but morality says, “No.”

MIKE
Morality will often demand a sacrifice, financial or otherwise.

MARILYN
Did you know that the word “sacrifice” shares an etymology with the word “sacred?”  When a goat is sacrificed to God, the goat is made into a sacred object.

VIVIAN
This is a good time for the offering
(rise)
Please join me in the unison response to the offertory.
This is a Fellowship of ourselves.
Its energy and resources are our energy and resources.
Its wealth is what we share.
When we contribute to the life of this community
We affirm our lives within it.
            Mary Allen Walden

Would the Greeters, please come forward to collect the offering.
(When the greeters have finished step forward to
the front to collect the baskets.)

MARILYN
What are some of the alternatives in this cultural conversation?

VIVIAN
Grace Cumming in her book, Survival: A Moral Response to Global Warming, suggests that our instinct for survival is a basis for Environmental Ethics, at least as it pertains to Climate Change.

MIKE
I’m unconvinced.

MARILYN
I thought instincts played a part in moral development.

MIKE
Perhaps, but they also play a part in our xenophobia and the altruism they support are limited to a range between kinship and a specific tribe.  Furthermore, our instinct for survival will support the kind of lifeboat morality we are trying to avoid.

VIVIAN
If we rule out our instincts and our own best interest as a moral grounding, then what is left?


MIKE
Another fork in this exploration is the difference between duties of beneficence and duties to avoid harm.

MARILYN
As a culture we have strong values about restricting actions which will or might harm others, but we are more reluctant to demand that some people have a duty to increase the well-being of others.

VIVIAN
It is true that we have clear expectations about not stealing food from a neighbor.  On the other hand, the duty to provide food for a needy neighbor seems optional

MARILYN
People recognize someone who helps others as a good person, but we are less likely to think of someone who is stingy or selfish as immoral.

VIVIAN
Generosity seems to be more about character than morality.

MARILYN
There is a cultural expectation that people will act in the best interest of others when they are in certain relationships such as parent/child or teacher/ student.

MIKE
Without a special relationship, our best chance of grounding Environmental Ethics is probably the duty not to harm others.

VIVIAN
Does that extend to harming plants or animals?

MARILYN
We have talked about extending moral concern to animals and plants collectively by treating a species or an ecosystem as deserving moral consideration in actions which pose a threat. What about individual animals and plants?



MIKE
I personally believe that those species which exhibit sentience should be granted moral individual respect and moral dignity.  The Great Ape Personhood movement sponsored by people like Jane Goodall is working in that direction.

VIVIAN
It seems they have a stronger case than corporations!

MIKE
While a duty of beneficence is problematic, Compensatory Justice which imposes duties of restitution when one person harms another is as strong as any cultural values regarding human interactions.

MARILYN
Moral responsibility for harm has a strong moral attraction, but compensation seems problematic when, as in the case of Climate Change, the harm is done to people in the future or to the increasing numbers of animal and plant species which are driven to extinction.

VIVIAN
Are we morally responsible for the harm foreseen by climate change?

MIKE
Can we agree that climate change is occurring, that the warming of the Earth is now on track to exceed two degrees centigrade by the end of the century, that climate change will likely result in the death of millions, perhaps billions of people due to flooding, declining agriculture and increased pestilence, and finally that ecosystems and species are both dying off at alarming rates?

VIVIAN
Yes.

MIKE
Can we also agree that the cause of climate change is human activity?

MARILYN
Yes.

MIKE
Then we can agree that humans, engaging in activities such as burning fossil fuel for their current well-being and comfort, are causing harm to people of the future and other beings for which compensation is morally due.


VIVIAN
We didn’t realize what we were doing at the time, isn’t that a moral defense?

MIKE
People who cause harm unwittingly may or may not be morally responsible for their actions, but we known for some time what we are doing and have failed to adequately respond.

MARILYN
If compensation is off the table, then it would seem that our moral duty is to make a sacrifice equal to or greater than the immeasurable suffering expected in the next few centuries.

MIKE
I think that’s right, and there is another moral justification for that same duty.  Imagine you are walking by a house and see an infant next to an unattended brush fire.  If it looks as though the infant is in danger, that no one else can rescue the infant and you can rescue the infant without significant danger to yourself.  Do you have a moral duty to act?

VIVIAN
I would say so.

MARILYN
The infant is incapable of saving herself; I think that is part of the equation.

MIKE
Just so, and the plants, animals and people of the future are just as helpless as the infant.  They cannot save themselves.  Only we can do that.  And because compensation for the immeasurable suffering isn’t going to work, morality imposes a duty to make that same compensatory sacrifice toward mitigation of climate change, including a reduction in greenhouse gases and the costs of adaptation, especially for the poor and non-human species that cannot protect themselves.

MARILYN
While I understand the moral injunction against harming others for our own benefit, I have two grandchildren and they set my moral compass. For me, my obligation to the future stems from my love of my children and my grandchildren. Human beings have for millennia sacrificed for their descendants.  Grandparents are in a powerful position to protect their children and grandchildren.  We offer a set of skills, experience, and knowledge gained over a lifetime of productive work. We also have political clout. We vote, and there are a lot of us. We donate to political campaigns, and we have a lot to give. Lastly, we have time. Put these assets together, and grandparents command the power to shape the new world. We can make sure that our children and grandchildren inherit a planet that will sustain their health and nourish their freedom to make a good life. (Moral Ground, Kathleen Moor and Michael Nelson)

VIVIAN
The cultural conversation about ethics will never come to an end, but hopefully every conversation bends the arc of culture closer to justice, equity and compassion.

Please rise as you are able, in body and spirit, to sign with me, Hymn ## 203 All Creatures of the Earth and Sky.

MIKE
(Benediction)
I have heard people say that they are not called to work on the problem of climate change.  Not so.  The people of the future are calling you.  The animals and plants facing extinction are calling you.  You are called.  The question is whether or not you will pick up.




By Mike Mallory
© 2016


Primary works consulted


Climate Matters, Ethics in a Warming World, by John Broome (Norton & Co., 2012)

Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril, Edited by Kathleen Moore and Michael Nelson (Trinity University Press,

Reclaiming Prophetic Witness: Liberal Religion in the Public Square, by Paul Rasor (Skinner House, 2012)

Survival: A Moral Response to Global Warming, by Grace D. Cumming

Thinking Like a Mountain, Towards a Council of All Beings, by Joanna Macy and others, (New Society Publishers, 1988)



Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Social Justice Bullies

This is a response to an article by Aristotelis Orginos, published in Medium.com.  The original article is here:  https://medium.com/@aristoNYC/social-justice-bullies-the-authoritarianism-of-millennial-social-justice-6bdb5ad3c9d3


I thought the article had an important warning about speaking from an ideological entrenched perspective.  Yet some of the absurdities raised in the article flow from differences in terminology.  For instance, take the definitions of “Racism” used by the Unitarian Universalism Association, my religious tradition and that of the pistol-packing preacher, Theodore Parker.

Racism - An institutionalized system of economic, political, social, and cultural relations that ensures that one racial group has and maintains power and privilege over all others in all aspects of life. As such, racism is measured by its economic, cultural, sociological, and political outcomes rather than its intentions (i.e., its effect on both racially and ethnically marginalized groups and racially and ethnically dominant groups).

Individual Racism - Individual behavior, the outcome of which reinforces a dominant/marginalized economic, cultural, sociological, and/or political paradigm, regardless of the individual's good intentions. An individual may act in a racist manner unintentionally.

Under these definitions “racism” is not the same as “bias,” “prejudice,” or “racial hatred.” “Racism,” as defined above, refers to cultural systems which maintain power and privilege imbalances.  Viewed in this way there is no “anti-white racism” in America because the culture perpetuates white privilege.  People may be prejudiced against white-skinned Americans, but that is not the same as “racism” under these systemic definitions.

I tend toward the pragmatic and try to look for solutions based upon the problem rather than ideology.  On the other hand, when entering a cultural conversation about something like racism, it is necessary to commit to a certain amount of ideological translation in order to find a common-ground understanding of the problem at hand.

 

Monday, January 19, 2015

Review of Sages Restaurant

The KMN dinner club, an assortment of six friends who go out to dinner once a month, dined at Sages Restaurant, in Redmond, Washington on Saturday night, 1/17/15. The restaurant makes reservations only for parties more numerous than five. We were glad to have reservations as it was crowded in the entry and we were seated promptly avoiding the wait.

The menu which is on-line offers a generous selection of different dishes. I saw several items of interest, but after imagining the available tastes, I decided not to order an entree but to start with a bowl of clam chowder followed by their ravioli dish. The restaurant was offering a lobster ravioli as a special, but I ordered off the menu and chose a pear and Gorgonzola ravioli topped with candied walnuts because: candied walnuts.

You would be right to question my judgment in ordering two dishes prepared in a cream sauce. And while I admit that it could have ended badly, luck was with me and it all ended well.

The chowder was prepared with a white broth which was only slightly thickened. Rather than the salty sauce as thick as pancake batter which is all too often confronts a diner, the chowder at Sages was on the light side with a slight flavor of clam juice and fresh herbs. The chowder was loaded with tender clams. The complimentary ciabatta bread was rustic with a hearty crust and went well with both the soup and the pasta.

The ravioli was perfect. The pasta was substantial but had lost its chewiness. It was tender without losing consistency. The flavor carried a touch of sweetness which was balanced by the bite of the Gorgonzola. The sauce, in contrast to the soup, was rich and creamy. Every bite was delicious. And did I mention the candied walnuts. My wife ordered the cioppino. I had a sip of her broth and it was rich without overpowering the seafood.

Chef Bart, the owner waited on our table. He is a charming host. One of our party needed clarification about the preparation of a menu item and he knew both ingredients and the way it was prepared. He also helped us select a bottle of Italian Pinot Gris for the table. Those who had a glass were pleased.

When we get together, we like to talk. We are older and a couple of us wear hearing aids. Noise levels and acoustics can be a problem. There are about twenty tables at Sages. The majority of tables are arranged in one large room. We may have been one of the louder tables, as most guests were seated as couples.  We had no problem hearing each other, in part because there was no background music. Music has a tendency to ratchet up the decibels and raise their voices to be heard.

We were not prepared to leave before a little sweet. Other's at our table ordered a walnut cake and a brownie a la mode and were very happy with their dessert. I went with a scoop of their coconut and chocolate swirl ice cream with a little decaf and found it a refreshing finish to a wonderful meal.

The price of the main dishes ranged between $15.00 and $25.00 which, given the meals, was reasonable. When the table check came there was an added gratuity of 18%.  I get stubborn about added gratuity and do not increase the stated amount.  On the other had, we have had checks where it was difficult to determine whether a gratuity was added.  Chef Bart took the time to make a personal note on each of three credit card invoices that the total included a gratuity.  I appreciate the fact that he took the extra effort to make the bill clear to us.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

What is Art?

I am a subscriber to Philosophy Now magazine. https://philosophynow.org/ They have invited readers to submit letters of up to 400 words answering the question, "What is Art?"  They may or may not publish my letter, but I am publishing it herewith.


Music, dance, literature, film and the visual arts are each capable of provoking the full range of human responses.  Specific works of art may elicit a sense of wonder or cynicism, hope or despair, adoration or spite.  Other axes provide qualitative polarities.  The work of art may be direct or complex, subtle or explicit, intelligible or obscure.  The subjects and approaches to the creation of art are bounded only by the imagination of the artist.  Consequently, I believe that defining art based upon its representational content is a doomed enterprise.

            A frequent theme in aesthetics is the claim that there is a detachment or distance between works of art and the flow of patterns in everyday life.   Works of art rise like islands from current of more pragmatic concerns.  Kant talked about a detached or special attitude when making judgments about beauty. 

            I prefer a functional account of art.  There is little time to argue in 400 words, so let me lay it out.  When you step out of a river and onto an island, you come to a stop.  Similarly, the special or aesthetic attitude requires one to treat some experience as an end-in-itself.  Art asks us to arrive empty and simply attend to the way in which we experience the work of art.  This aesthetic experience answers the question, “What do I experience in my encounter with this artifact?”  The benefit of reflection should be beyond question in a group of philosophers!

            While a person can have an aesthetic experience of a natural scene, flavor or texture, art is produced.  Art is the intentional communication of an experience as an end-in-itself.  The content of that experience may determine whether the artwork is popular or ridiculed, significant or trivial, but it is art either way. 

            One of the initial reactions to this approach is that it seems overly broad.  An older brother who sneaks up behind his younger sibling and shouts, “Booo!” can be said to be creating art.  But isn’t the difference between this example and a Freddy Krueger movie just one of degree?  On the other hand my approach would exclude visual graphics used in advertising or political propaganda as they are created as a means to an end.

            Furthermore, “Communication” is not the best word for what I have in mind because it implies an unwarranted intentionality about the content represented.  Aesthetic responses are often underdetermined.

 

Mike Mallory
#aesthetics