Tag Archives: Ethics

The stakes, cont’d

Another must-read from Bob Cesca:

This is the marquee election for the anti-choice movement. Anyone who can count and anyone who can look up the status of the Supreme Court justices knows full well that the next president will decide the fate of abortion rights and an entire array of issues.

Justice Scalia is 76 years old, Justice Breyer is 74 and Justice Ginsburg, well, she’s a 79-year-old cancer survivor. It’s almost a foregone conclusion that the next president will appoint a justice to replace at least Ginsburg, if not both Ginsburg and Scalia. Reasonably speaking, Ginsburg is almost certain. If she retires or passes, and Mitt Romney appoints her successor, the ideological balance of the Bench will shift to five conservatives, one swing vote (Kennedy) and three liberals — more than enough to decide conservatively on a variety of critical issues. Even if Kennedy were to magically swing left on every decision, it still wouldn’t matter. Conservatives would win the day for an entire generation.

However, if President Obama is re-elected and he appoints Ginsburg’s successor, the balance remains the same as it is now: four conservatives, one swing vote and four liberals (presumably, Obama would appoint a justice with a liberal record). Better yet, if the president is re-elected and replaces both Ginsburg and Scalia, the Bench would be tipped to five liberals, one swing and three conservatives — for a generation.

So this isn’t just about replacing a justice or two. This is about replacing a justice or two and defining the ideological composition of the Court for the next 10-20 years.

[…] I sometimes wonder if everyone else, including many of us who follow these issues closely, is aware of the potential human cost amid the ongoing horserace drama of the political campaign. These are our daughters, mothers, wives, sweethearts, partners and business associates, and I worry that too many voters are unaware that more than half of all Americans are being slowly and deliberately suffocated of their rights and physically targeted by their leadership simply because they have two X chromosomes. This election is the hinge upon which those rights hang in the balance. It might be the most important election of our lives so far, and not because of some relatively disassociated issue thousands of miles away, but because it will determine whether women — American women — will retain purview over their own bodies.

Cesca makes many more salient points and the whole piece is worth reading here.

(Photo via Associated Press)

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The Dalai Lama, “beyond religion altogether”

Wow. Here’s the Dalai Lama:

[T]he reality of the world today is that grounding ethics in religion is no longer adequate. This is why I am increasingly convinced that the time has come to find a way of thinking about spirituality and ethics beyond religion altogether.

And also this, from his book The Universe in a Single Atom:

My confidence in venturing into science lies in my basic belief that as in science so in Buddhism, understanding the nature of reality is pursued by means of critical investigation: if scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.

Fantastic — and this comes from a source I’d never have expected. What other major religious leader would have had the courage, confidence, and humility to make this assertion?

I must admit here that I’m shockingly ignorant of the tenets of Tibetan Buddhism and the beliefs of the DL. More for me to learn and catch up on, hooray!

(via io9; photo via Inquire)

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Humanism and secularism, defined

So what’s humanism? I had a go at this question way back when I started this blog, but this video by the British Humanist Association offers a much clearer introduction:

And from the always-lucid British YouTube user QualiaSoup, here’s a very clear presentation on secularism and its views on church/state separation, gay marriage, and education — as relevant (or perhaps even more so) in the US as it is in the UK:

(via Tim Minchin)

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Community’s final lesson: Changing the whole game with just one move

Underneath all the geeky references, the twisted meta-storylines, the high-concept homage episodes, the weird characters, the gut-busting one-liners, the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Easter eggs, the Doctor Who/Inspector Spacetime fanlove, the paintball wars, the zany Dean outfits, the disturbing Changness of Chang, the Troy-and-Abed credit scenes, and all the rest of the craziness that makes this show so special and so beloved — underneath all of that, Community has really been about a very simple thing: how to be a better human being by discovering the nature of friendship. At the heart of nearly every episode, gift-wrapped in delicious layers of pop-culture sophistication, is an uncomplicated, childlike lesson: about trust, kindness, compassion, and the bonds that connect us to each other and free us from our loneliness. It’s about stepping out of ourselves — out of our own problems and obsessions and self-pity and cynicism — and learning how to be, as the show’s title says, a community. Even Pierce learns this in the end.

And perhaps no other Jeff Winger soapbox speech delivers this message as directly and as profoundly as the one that wraps up Season Three:

Guys like me will tell you there’s no right or wrong. There’s no real truths. And as long as we all believe that, guys like me can never lose.

Because the truth is, I’m lying when I say there is no truth. The truth is — the pathetically, stupidly, inconveniently obvious truth is — helping only ourselves is bad and helping each other is good. […]

It’s that easy. You just stop thinking about what’s good for you and start thinking about what’s good for someone else. And you can change the whole game with one move.

That’s it, really. So simple and idealistic and utterly true that it hurts. And yet it’s such a hard lesson to learn, both in the show and in the real world, where corporate greed and the cynicism of politics and the polarization of rigid beliefs and the general breakdown of trust have made us all hungry for reminders that we can come together to solve our problems — that it’s the coming together that solves our problems. But “coming together” doesn’t mean asking other people to understand you and do something for you — or at least it doesn’t mean just that. It means being willing to understand and do something for them. It requires generosity, empathy, kindness, other-centeredness.

When we forget this — whether we’re religious or secular or conservative or liberal — we fall apart. When we remember this, when we learn how to devote our energy to helping others instead of ourselves, we rise above ourselves. We collectively become something greater.

And we change the whole game with just one move.

Community will return for a fourth season. But without showrunner Dan Harmon — who was unceremoniously fired by studio execs who clearly haven’t learned the show’s lessons — it won’t be the same Community, and it won’t be MY Community. As far as I’m concerned, the Season Three finale was also the series finale, and Jeff’s speech was Harmon’s final word on the subject of how human beings need to treat each other. He couldn’t have gone out on a better note.


(Photo via the AV Club)

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On being wrong, cont’d: Liberals, conservatives, and moral imagination

Jonathan Haidt invites us to step outside the “moral matrix” of our own certainties:

The crux of his argument:

[Y]ou can’t just go charging in, saying, “You’re wrong, and I’m right.” Because, as we just heard, everybody thinks they are right. A lot of the problems we have to solve are problems that require us to change other people. And if you want to change other people, a much better way to do it is to first understand who we are — understand our moral psychology, understand that we all think we’re right — and then step out, even if it’s just for a moment, step out […] of the moral matrix, just try to see it as a struggle playing out, in which everybody does think they’re right, and everybody, at least, has some reasons — even if you disagree with them — […] for what they’re doing. Step out. And if you do that, that’s the essential move to cultivate moral humility, to get yourself out of this self-righteousness, which is the normal human condition.

You can read an interview with Haidt here. And check out YourMorals.org, set up by Haidt and his co-founders, where you can take quizzes and surveys to explore your own values and build up your “morality profile.”

Elsewhere, Andrew Sullivan, writing about Ron Paul’s foreign policy, quotes and expands on Bob Wright:

I’ve long thought that the biggest single problem in the world is the failure of “moral imagination”– the inability or unwillingness of people to see things from the perspective of people in circumstances different from their own. Especially incendiary is the failure to extend moral imagination across national, religious, or ethnic borders. […]

I’d make a further point: understanding your enemy from the inside out is vital if you are to foil him. When your foreign policy is based entirely on abstract arguments about America and ideology, and not also on figuring out how your foe might act rationally (and the Iranian regime has acted quite rationally in its own self-interest since it began), can lead to fatal error. Moral imagination, in other words, is the twin sister of self-interested strategy.

(I have to admit I do not support Paul at all, for the reasons that Bob Cesca lays out.)

Fair enough. We have to always be open to the possibility that we have blind spots, and that “the other side” may have a point. But I should also note that understanding someone else’s position doesn’t necessarily mean endorsing it, a point that Haidt and Sullivan make clear; understanding where your opponent is coming from may not convert you to their point of view (although it can), but it may at the very least move the conversation away from demonization and gridlock, and open doors to compromise and common ground. (And, ultimately, getting at least some of what you want. Open-mindedness is also enlightened self-interest, as Sullivan suggests.)

What I wrote in an earlier post also seems to pertain here: “We should never smugly assume that we’re right merely on the basis of instinct, desire, belief, tradition, or personal feeling; and we should always be open to evidence and the perspectives of others. But if we are to avoid being stuck in paralyzing self-doubt, we should also have the wisdom to determine when we are right; the confidence to decide when certain questions are settled and certain perspectives no longer have credibility; and the courage — after carefully considering the evidence and arguments at hand — to speak and act on our convictions.”

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Why atheists are angry

Greta Christina gets angry, and funny, and magnificent. It’s a long talk but well worth your time, whether you’re an atheist or not; and if you’re about to bring up the usual objections like “Nonbelievers do terrible things too” or “What about Stalinism?” or “That’s not what religion is really about,” keep watching, as she addresses all these points. And, just as importantly, she makes a compelling argument for why anger is an absolutely necessary part of any social movement that wants to bring about real change.

(via Unreasonable Faith)


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Miscellany: Waiting for Irene; Neil Gaiman kicks my lazy ass; girl scientists rock (and so does Kirsten Gillibrand); Harry Potter ends; more atheist fun

Well, I’m back (and wishing I could have brought Idaho’s clear night sky back with me). And now we’re hunkering down in our apartment, bracing for the flooding from Hurricane Irene, which is due to hit New York later tonight: we’ve got all our supplies, we’re a storey above ground level, and we’re not in a mandatory evacuation zone (though we’re pretty close to one). We’ll make it through just fine. Bring it on.

Some old links to share before I start with fresh posts:

In an inspiring interview, Neil Gaiman links writing to punk rock and tells aspiring writers to get off their lazy asses and Just Do It. M. Molly Backes says the same thing, in a post with some wise advice to parents of would-be writers.

Take that, Larry Summers: Girls are excelling in science.

Roger Ebert has a very insightful take on what’s wrong with the Republican party today, why they don’t speak for most Americans, and why, despite any short-term victories, the tide of history is against them. On the other side of the aisle, my awesome hometown senator Kirsten Gillibrand talks feminism, politics, and the next generation.

As the Harry Potter saga comes to an end: Chloe Angyal at Feministing.com talks about Potter and feminism. Michelle Dean at The Millions considers the powerful and sincere appeal of J.K. Rowling’s story to the unjaded reader or viewer in us, despite the literary flaws and the calculations of commercial forces that the series’ critics are happy to point out. Bringing Potter into the messy world of terror and counter-terror, Dan Nexon at The Duck of Minerva speculates on why Harry won; and in the aftermath of his victory, a Foreign Policy article on “Post-Conflict Potter” gives serious consideration to what happens next.

Paul Boghossian’s essay on morality in the Times sparks a fascinating discussion on moral relativism. I don’t think I have (at the moment) a firm opinion on the subject, but I like reading up on both sides of the issue. Sometimes Sam Harris makes a lot of sense, and sometimes he doesn’t…

Which brings us to God and Godlessness territory. The New Statesman compiles statements from many prominent atheists and agnostics explaining why they don’t believe in God. Paula Kirby, pushing back against Governor Rick Perry’s stupidity, sets the record straight on evolution and why it’s a threat to Christianity; Richard Dawkins chimes in. Hemant Mehta links to some great hard-hitting atheist billboards. And, playfully sticking it to Intelligent Design, Paul Simms publishes God’s blog (be sure to read through to the “comments”).

And that’s it for now. More writing soon, after the storm.

(Photo by Kateri Jochum for WNYC)

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