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Posts Tagged ‘Marc Hauser’

Cruelty has a Human Heart,
And Jealousy a Human Face;
Terror the Human Form Divine,
And Secrecy the Human Dress.

William BlakeSongs of Experience Additional Poem

The issues I have been looking at lately – war, the economy, the rigid approach to mental health – all raise the question, ‘Why do we find it so difficult to fix such problems, even when we can see that something is seriously wrong? One factor, among many, is discussed with great insight by Jonathan Haidt, whom I quote from in a short sequence on conviction, which I have decided to republish now. This is the first: the second will come out on Thursday and the last on Friday.

Terror and the Human Form

The situation in Iran would be enough to set me thinking about intolerance and extremism. Family members of good friends of mine are being persecuted because of their beliefs. Because of my shared beliefs I also feel strongly linked even to those with whom I have no other connection.  The current perilous situation of the seven Bahá’ís who have been arrested reinforces that feeling. (See link on this blog for more details.)

The Seven Bahá’ís in Prison

The Seven Bahá’ís in Prison

I have other experiences that spur me on in the same direction.

I was born just before the end of World War Two. I grew up with images of Belsen and Dachau. My childhood nightmares were of being pursued by the Gestapo.  I grew up in the shadow of the Cold War. (As a child I wouldn’t stand and watch a carnival go past because I was frightened of the uniforms and drums.) I therefore have good reasons to feel deeply concerned about the roots of prejudice, fanaticism and intolerance.

I also had reasons to suspect they might have something to do with our ideas of the divine given that most of my father’s family disowned him when he married a Roman Catholic.

Skating on Thin Ice

I am not qualified to explain the political and social roots of the human face of terror. I have of course noticed that having been oppressed is no guarantee that I will not be an oppressor in my turn if I get the chance. That was clear right from the French Revolution (See Michael Burleigh‘s ‘Earthly Powers‘) and nothing that has happened since causes me to think that anything is different now. I have also seen how injustice and inequity breed enmity, as can extremes of wealth and poverty in close proximity (See Amy Chua‘s ‘World on Fire‘ for example). Philip Zimbardo looks at the disturbing way group and organisational processes foster evil doing and explains ways of effectively counteracting that (‘The Lucifer Effect‘). Michael McCullough looks surprisingly hopefully on the problem from an evolutionary perspective in his recent book ‘Beyond Revenge‘. Marc Hauser‘s examination of morality, ‘Moral Minds,’ comes at the issue primarily from a developmental angle.

I do not feel competent to add anything to their positions.

They all make it very clear that tolerance in any society is a very thin ice and is all the more precious for that. Blunden’s poem, ‘The Midnight Skaters’ captures that precarious feeling as the skaters dance across the deep and frozen pond:

 

. . . .  not the tallest there, ’tis said,
Could fathom to this pond’s black bed.

Then is not death at watch
Within those secret waters?
. . . .  With but a crystal parapet
Between, he has his engines set.

. . . . Court him, elude him, reel and pass,
And let him hate you through the glass.

(Edmund Blunden: ‘The Midnight Skaters‘ – for an interesting critique see Poetry Scene News)

The Horns of a Dilemma

I do though feel that the spiritual perspective informed by psychology and psychotherapy complements those views and fills an important gap they leave.

Jonathan Haidt in his humane and compassionate book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis‘ indicates that, in his view, idealism has caused more violence in human history than almost any other single thing (page 75).

The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. . . . Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large portion of violence at the individual level, but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism — the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.

Richard Holloway sees it much the same way:

More misery and disillusionment has been visited on humanity by its search for the perfect society and the perfect faith than by any other cause.

(‘Between the Monster and the Saint‘: page 136)

Both Haidt and Holloway emphasise that not all such ideals are by any means religious. Haidt, for instance,  also quotes the attempt to create utopias as well as the defence of the homeland or tribe as frequently implicated.  Also, when Hitler’s probably narcissistic self-esteem successfully cloaked itself in the rhetoric of idealistic nationalism, mixed with scapegoating anti-semitism, we all know what happened next: narcissism and idealism make a highly toxic and devastatingly deadly combination.

What Haidt regards as central is this:

Idealism easily becomes dangerous because it brings with it . . . the belief that the ends justify the means.

He is aware though that idealism enhances life in some ways also (page 211):

Liberalism and the ethic of autonomy are great protectors against . . . injustices. I believe it is dangerous for an ethic of divinity to supercede the ethic of autonomy in the governance of a diverse modern democracy. However, I also believe that life in a society that entirely ignored the ethic of divinity would be ugly and unsatisfying.

How are we not to throw out the precious and in fact indestructible baby of idealism with the bathwater of zealotry, fanaticism and intolerance? This feels like an issue well worth exploring further. It will lead us to considering, in the next post, how three ids interact: idealism, ideology and identity.

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Corvusation

Integrity

At the end of the previous post I reflected on the following quotation:

CXXXIX: . . . Beware . . . lest ye walk in the ways of them whose words differ from their deeds. Strive that ye may be enabled to manifest to the peoples of the earth the signs of God, and to mirror forth His commandments. Let your acts be a guide unto all mankind, for the professions of most men, be they high or low, differ from their conduct. It is through your deeds that ye can distinguish yourselves from others.[1]

ACT ManualIt is important that we remain true to our deepest self. While we can correct the way that we use words, and if that is done for the right motive it will change us for the better, it is just as, if not more important to align our inner being with spiritual lines of force.

It is easy to see how certain words in that quotation lend force to what Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) prescribes. ‘Strive’ embodies the idea of commitment. ‘Commandments’ suggest the idea of values, so important in ACT. And the emphasis on ‘acts’ makes the connections obvious.

In this way we may not be subject to Bahá’u’lláh’s stricture concerning those whose words outnumber their deeds, that is if, and only if, our words, our deeds and our inner being – note that word ‘mirror’ again – are all of a piece and in tune with the spirit of the Faith.

This creates inner and outer unity such as Bahá’u’lláh described in the Hidden Words:

O CHILDREN OF MEN! Know ye not why We created you all from the same dust? That no one should exalt himself over the other. Ponder at all times in your hearts how ye were created. Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest. Such is My counsel to you, O concourse of light! Heed ye this counsel that ye may obtain the fruit of holiness from the tree of wondrous glory.[2]

And in His Tablets He laments the lack of this unity:

No two men can be found who may be said to be outwardly and inwardly united. The evidences of discord and malice are apparent everywhere, though all were made for harmony and union.[3]

And, as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá further explains, there is only one truly effective way out of this impasse:

Let all be set free from the multiple identities that were born of passion and desire, and in the oneness of their love for God find a new way of life.[4]

My very battered copy of this classic.

My very battered copy of this classic.

Eric Fromm, a psychoanalyst, explains how this makes sense even in more materialistic terms[5]:

Man needs an object of total devotion to be the focal point of all his strivings. In being devoted to a goal beyond his isolated ego, he transcends himself and leaves the prison of absolute egocentricity. He can be devoted to the most diverse goals and idols but the need for devotion is itself a primary, essential need demanding fulfilment.’

When we dismantle the barriers within us, often mediated by language, we can also become better able to dismantle those between us.

Of course we must refrain from lying, criticism and backbiting. Of course we must strive to practise true consultation. But we must not observe these verbal obligations divorced from basic processes of spiritualisation such as those the Universal House of Justice draws our attention to as Bahá’ís (though these are written for Bahá’ís you could apply them to any benign spiritual path):

  1. The recital each day of one of the Obligatory Prayers with pure-hearted devotion.
  2. The regular reading of the Sacred Scriptures, specifically at least each morning and evening, with reverence, attention and thought.
  3. Prayerful meditation on the Teachings, so that we may understand them more deeply, fulfil them more faithfully, and convey them more accurately to others.
  4. Striving every day to bring our behaviour more into accordance with the high standards that are set forth in the Teachings.
  5. Teaching the Cause of God.
  6. Selfless service in the work of the Cause and in the carrying on of our trade or profession.[6]

to which have now been added the sacred right and responsibility of Huqúqu’lláh, enabling us to enhance our use of material resources, and the daily recitation of Alláh-u-Abhá 95 times[7], a form of meditative discipline. It is important to note that it is not just what we do but how we do it that is of paramount importance: when we pray, it should ideally be with ‘pure-hearted devotion,’ when we reading Scripture it needs to be with ‘reverence, attention and thought,’ and meditation on the Teachings has to be ‘prayerful.’ Not an easy ask.

If we are sincerely treading this path to the best of our ability, then perhaps our words can exercise the influence described by Bahá’u’lláh when he writes:

No man of wisdom can demonstrate his knowledge save by means of words. This showeth the significance of the Word as is affirmed in all the Scriptures, whether of former times or more recently. For it is through its potency and animating spirit that the people of the world have attained so eminent a position. Moreover words and utterances should be both impressive and penetrating. However, no word will be infused with these two qualities unless it be uttered wholly for the sake of God and with due regard unto the exigencies of the occasion and the people.

The Great Being saith: Human utterance is an essence which aspireth to exert its influence and needeth moderation. As to its influence, this is conditional upon refinement which in turn is dependent upon hearts which are detached and pure. As to its moderation, this hath to be combined with tact and wisdom as prescribed in the Holy Scriptures and Tablets.[8]

This spells out that the power of such words derives from the Word of God and that its efficacy depends upon the purity of our inner lives. We also have to be sensitive to what psychologists have called the pragmatics of communication, i.e. the need to tune what we say to the receptivity of the listener.

Within that framework we also need to be aware that not all words are equally benign:

Every word is endowed with a spirit, therefore the speaker or expounder should carefully deliver his words at the appropriate time and place, for the impression which each word maketh is clearly evident and perceptible. The Great Being saith: One word may be likened unto fire, another unto light, and the influence which both exert is manifest in the world. Therefore an enlightened man of wisdom should primarily speak with words as mild as milk, that the children of men may be nurtured and edified thereby and may attain the ultimate goal of human existence which is the station of true understanding and nobility. . . . . It behoveth a prudent man of wisdom to speak with utmost leniency and forbearance so that the sweetness of his words may induce everyone to attain that which befitteth man’s station.[9]

It is therefore impossible, according to my understanding, to separate words from enacted values. If we do, words then become barriers to insight and wisdom.

Hauser bookThe Bigger Picture

Obviously the ground this sequence of posts covers constitutes a minute fraction of the terrain mapped out in the Bahá’í Writings. All of this has to be placed in that wider context.

For instance, certain kinds of language are particularly toxic. One example of this are the denigrating labels one group of people can use against another. Referring to others as ‘rats,’ ‘cockroaches’ or ‘a swarm’ are typical examples of this abuse. This denigrating terminology usually triggers the deep-seated disgust response in the group who uses it and places the people of whom the words are used in a non-human category: once this manoeuvre is performed the usual restraints of conscience that prevent one human being from degrading, raping, torturing or even murdering another human being are suspended and the newly classified non-human being can be maimed and slain with a clear conscience.

This point is succinctly made by Hauser in his book Moral Minds (page 199)[10]:

Disgust wins the award as the single most irresponsible emotion, a feeling that has led to extreme in-group/out-group divisions followed by inhumane treatment. Disgust’s trick is simple: Declare those you don’t like to be vermin or parasites, and it is easy to think of them as disgusting, deserving of exclusion, dismissal, and annihilation. All horrific cases of human abuse entail this kind of transformation . . . .

However, there are other setting conditions for this kind of behaviour which relate to other Teachings of the Faith in a way that illustrates the beautiful coherence and interdependence of the various aspects of the whole of Bahá’u’lláh’s revelation. Take economic inequality. The Faith emphasises the importance of reducing such inequity. This would of course be important simply to alleviate the effects of the resulting extreme poverty on the disadvantaged such as greater health problems and a shorter life. However, inequality also has implications for the issue of denigrating language and persecution.

Chua bookChua pursues a complex argument which links a minority’s economic dominance with a savage backlash from the deprived majority[11]. Of course Chua is not claiming that extremes of wealth justify the extermination of the wealthy by the impoverished, nor is she arguing that such extremes are the only motive for genocide. She is, though, saying that extreme inequality is an important but previously discounted factor that has to be added into the mix. The inequality is what needs to be eliminated not the people!

So, indeed we do need vigorously to pursue our spiritual development, both as individuals and communities: this is done by turning away from words as veils and using values as our compass. This redeems words and makes them a force for good.

But that in itself is probably not enough. It important also not to lose sight of the wider picture.

We need to hold in mind a vision of the completely different kind of civilisation towards which we are all aspiring, one based on humanity’s essential unity, the supreme value that co-ordinates all our other values. We need to see how all its aspects, individual, community, institutional, systemic, local and global, are linked together. The state of the world as a whole will either inhibit or enhance the impact of our efforts just as much as our efforts will either help or harm the world. Our efforts are aimed at the ultimate transformation of the world, though as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote:

. . . peace must first be established among individuals until it leadeth to peace among nations.[12]

It is imperative though that we continue to strive to bring both our speech, our actions and our inner beings into line with the spirit of the age as expressed by Bahá’u’lláh so that we may avoid contention and achieve the level of unity required for the problems of the world to be resolved [although His words may sometimes seem to be addressed mainly to Bahá’ís they are to be taken to heart by everyone]: in this way we will complete the process of shifting words from truth-concealing veils to world-transforming values.

The worldwide undertakings on which the Cause of God is embarked are far too significant, the need of the peoples of the world for the Message of Bahá’u’lláh far too urgent, the perils facing mankind far too grave, the progress of events far too swift, to permit His followers to squander their time and efforts in fruitless contention. Now, if ever, is the time for love among the friends, for unity of understanding and endeavour, for self-sacrifice and service by Bahá’ís in every part of the world[13]

[Oh, and by the way, in relation to the problem I described right at the beginning of this sequence, the question to ask one of the guards is: ‘If I asked the other guard which door leads to freedom, what door would he point to?’]

Footnotes:

[1] Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh.
[2] (Bahá’u’lláhArabic Hidden Words No. 68)
[3] Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah Revealed After the Kitab-i-Aqdas, pages 163–64.
[4] Selected Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá – page 76.
[5] Anatomy of Human Destructiveness – page 260.
[6] Messages from the Universal House of Justice: 1963-1968 (BPT: US): page 588.
[7] The former became obligatory as of Ridván 1992 (Universal House of Justice Ridván Message 1991) and the latter in December 1999 (Universal House of Justice to the Bahá’ís of the World: 28 December 1999).
[8] Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh page 173.
[9] Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh pages 172-173
[10] Published by Little, Brown 2006. These issues, and other related ones are also extensively and illuminatingly discussed by Phillip Zimbardo in The Lucifer Effect (Rider: 2007 – pages 308-311).
[11] Amy Chua World on Fire (Heinemann: 2003) pages 111-112.
[12] SWAB: page 246.
[13] Universal House of Justice 1994 – letter to the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the USA concerning Rights and Freedoms, Paragraph 19. This is downloadable from http://bahai-library.com/published.uhj/irf.html.

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Eye in the Sky, which I saw last Wednesday, is not a great film but it is a thought-provoking, absorbing and informative one. It enacts vividly before our eyes a well-known and much discussed moral dilemma. It confronts us at every turn with the question, ‘What would I do?’ It shows us in gripping detail what might have been going on behind the scenes of what all too often becomes too rapidly just another challenging headline that we’d all rather forget.

The classic dilemma we are confronted with is described in Marc Hauser’s book Moral Minds (pages 117-119). It comes in two forms.

Dilemma One

‘Ned is taking his daily walk near the trolley track when he notices that the approaching trolley is out of control. He sees what has happened. The conductor has passed out and the trolley is headed towards five people walking on the track. The banks are so steep that the five hikers will not be able to get off the track in time. Fortunately, Ned is standing next to a switch that he can throw, which will temporarily turn the trolley onto a side track. There is a heavy object on the side track. If the trolley hits the object, the object will slow it down, thereby giving the hikers time to escape. The heavy object is, however, a large person standing on the side track. Ned can throw the switch, preventing the trolley from killing the hikers, but killing the large person. Or he can refrain from doing this, letting the five hikers die.’

Train track dilemma 1

Dilemma Two

‘Oscar is taking his daily walk near the trolley track when he notices that the approaching trolley is out of control. He sees what has happened. The conductor has passed out and the trolley is headed towards five people walking on the track. The banks are so steep that the five hikers will not be able to get off the track in time. Fortunately, Ned is standing next to a switch that he can throw, which will temporarily turn the trolley onto a side track. There is a heavy object on the side track. If the trolley hits the object, the object will slow it down, thereby giving the hikers time to escape. There is however a person standing on the side track in front of the heavy object. Oscar can throw the switch, preventing the trolley from killing the hikers, but killing the person in front of the weight. Or he can refrain from doing this, letting the five hikers die.’

Train track dilemma 2

It would be good to pause at this point to make your own judgement, before reading on to see what Hauser makes of these two dilemmas.

Hauser’s View

My intuition is that it is not permissible for Ned to flip the switch, but it is permissible for Oscar to flip the switch. If Ned and flips the switch, he is committing intentional harm. The only way to save the five hikers is by turning the trolley onto the side track and using the large person as a means to stop the trolley. If Oscar flips the switch, he is causing harm, but as a foreseen side-effect. For Oscar, the goal is to use the heavy weight as a means of stopping the trolley. The fact that the person standing in front of the weight is ounfortunate, but it is not Oscar’s intent to kill this person. . . . . . the weight – not the person – provides the means to the greater good of saving five hikers.

Even so, this still leaves it necessary for us to make our judgement, not just about these examples, but also about the dilemma in the film.

It is an uncomfortable but enthralling experience, which helps us all get a better sense of the complexity of these situations that confront those acting on our behalf on a regular basis. We are complicit in everything they do or fail to do. We should not cop out of at least attempting to grapple with the moral dilemmas they pose. This is where my default strategy, previously discussed in detail, of having the courage of my confusion does not necessarily let me off the hook.

 

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National Spiritual Assembly table

This is a photograph of the table around which the nine members of the UK National Spiritual Assembly consult at their meetings.

CXXXIX: Say: Let truthfulness and courtesy be your adorning. Suffer not yourselves to be deprived of the robe of forbearance and justice, that the sweet savours of holiness may be wafted from your hearts upon all created things.

(Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh)

This Wronged One exhorteth the peoples of the world to observe tolerance and righteousness, which are two lights amidst the darkness of the world and two educators for the edification of mankind. Happy are they who have attained thereto and woe betide the heedless.

(Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh – page 36)

I was both surprised and encouraged to find that quite a number of people have downloaded the course materials that I’ve been posting over the last four weeks. I therefore thought it might be worthwhile publishing two sets of materials I worked on a few years ago. They overlap and have some common elements but seem sufficiently different in other respects to justify publishing both sets, one today and the second next Thursday. The title of this set is derived from a quotation from a letter written by the Universal House of Justice describing how we should be seeking to communicate with one another:

We return to the phenomenal characteristics of speech. Content, volume, style, tact, wisdom, timeliness are among the critical factors in determining the effects of speech for good or evil. Consequently, the friends need ever to be conscious of the significance of this activity which so distinguishes human beings from other forms of life, and they must exercise it judiciously. Their efforts at such discipline will give birth to an etiquette of expression worthy of the approaching maturity of the human race. Just as this discipline applies to the spoken word, it applies equally to the written word; and it profoundly affects the operation of the press.

Clearly these skills have never been more necessary if humanity is to solve its problems and avoid the further spread of war, persecution and conflict.

This is the link (A New Etiq of Exp) to the first set of materials. Below is a short extract, without illustrations: for the fully illustrated version see link.

Exploring Problems in Different Modes of Communication

Divide into groups of five or six. You will find you have a series of difficult moral dilemmas to explore.

You will attempt jointly to enhance your understanding of each one in turn with a view to deciding what the best thing is to do and why. Do not worry if you do not deal with all four dilemmas. The purpose is to experience the three different ways of discussing them.

The discussion will take place in three phases.

In the first phase, lasting ten minutes, every group member will, according to his or her understanding, be courteous and tolerant to a fault, even if it means compromising the expression of his or her true opinion in order to avoid giving offence.

In the second phase, lasting ten minutes, each group member will be as uncompromisingly forthright as possible, manifesting truthfulness and righteousness, as (s)he understands it, in their least appealing forms short of insult.

In the last phase, lasting fifteen minutes or so, every group member will be seek to combine truthfulness with courtesy and tolerance with righteousness, as they best understand those words at this point.

This will provide much food for thought later when we are looking at the Writings.

Moral Dilemmas

(These are adapted from Moral Minds by Marc D. Hauser (Little, Brown 2007: pages 114-119). For similar tests of moral thinking go to this link.)

Problem One: Bystander Denis

Denise is a passenger on an out of control tram. The driver has fainted and the tram is headed toward five people walking on the track; the banks are so steep that they will not be able to get off the track in time. The track has a side track leading off to the left, and Denise can turn the tram onto it. There is, however, one person on the left-hand track. Denise can turn the tram, killing the one; or she can refrain from flipping the switch, letting the five die.

Question: Is it morally permissible for Denise to flip the switch, turning the tram onto the side track?

Problem Two (if you get this far): Bystander Frank

Frank is on a footbridge over the tram tracks. He knows trams and can see that the one approaching the bridge is out of control, with its driver passed out. On the track under the bridge there are five people; the banks are so steep that they will not be able to get off the track in time. Frank knows that the only way to stop an out-of-control tram is to drop a very heavy weight into its path. But the only available, sufficiently heavy weight is a large person also watching the tram from the footbridge. Frank can shove the large person onto the track in the path of the tram, resulting in death; or he can refrain from doing this, letting the five die.

Question: Is it morally permissible for Frank to push the large person onto the tracks?

Problem Three (if you get this far): Bystander Ned

Ned is taking his daily walk near the tram tracks when he notices that the approaching tram is out of control. Ned sees what has happened: the driver has passed out and the tram is headed towards five people walking on the track; the banks are so steep that the five hikers will not be able to get off the track in time. Fortunately, Ned is standing next to a switch that he can throw, which will temporarily turn the tram onto a side track. There is a heavy object on the side track. If the tram hits the object, the object will slow it down, thereby giving the hikers time to escape. The heavy object is, however, a large person standing on the side track. Ned can throw the switch, preventing the tram from killing the hikers, but killing the large person. Or he can refrain from doing this, letting the five hikers die.

Question: Is it morally permissible for Ned to throw the switch, turning the trolley onto the side track?

Problem Four (if you get this far): Bystander Oscar

Oscar is taking his daily walk near the tram tracks when he notices that the approaching tram is out of control. Oscar sees what has happened: the driver has passed out and the tram is headed towards five people walking on the track; the banks are so steep that the five hikers will not be able to get off the track in time. Fortunately, Oscar is standing next to a switch that he can throw, which will temporarily turn the tram onto a side track. There is a heavy object on the side track. If the tram hits the object, the object will slow it down, thereby giving the hikers time to escape. There is, however, a person standing on the side track, in front of the heavy object. Oscar can throw the switch, preventing the tram from killing the hikers, but killing the person in front of the weight. Or he can refrain from doing this, letting the five hikers die.

Question: Is it morally permissible for Oscar to throw the switch, turning the trolley onto the side track?

Questions for the Whole Group

We will then come back into the full group.

1. What were your experiences like in the three different modes? What were the costs and benefits of extreme courtesy/tolerance and of extreme truthfulness/ righteousness? Was it pleasant or unpleasant in each case? How easy was it to make yourselves behave in those ways? Was one mode easier than the other?

2. When you came to trying to balance truthfulness with courtesy and righteousness with tolerance, was it any different from the other two modes? What were the costs and benefits? Was it easier or more difficult than either or both of the other two?

3. Was it pleasanter? Did you experience balancing the two contrasting aspects in each as a razor’s edge? Were they in fact contrasting or was the relationship more complex than that?

4. In the end which mode, if any, was the best for getting to grips with these dilemmas?

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For source of image see link

For source of image see link

In the last post I began to share some thoughts about whether current economic theory could solve our problems. I had reached the point of beginning to look at whether capitalism can deliver us from the dangers we are drifting deeply into.

Possible Restraints?

Setting aside inequality, moderately rising living standards on their own can come with an excessively high price tag in terms of quality of life in general. An example that comes readily to my mind is that of China. Figures, as I remember them from about four years ago, indicated that economic growth had lifted 200 million Chinese people out of poverty, obviously a welcome development for all those who benefited. Part of what helped drive that growth was the building of coal fired power stations at the rate of roughly one per week. New cars were flooding onto the road in their thousands per week. During the same period nearly one million Chinese people were dying of pollution-related diseases per year, obviously not a welcome development for those affected. Yes, the Chinese economy is managed by a one-party state, but that does not devalue this as a good example of where untrammeled growth on a capitalist-style economic model can lead.

Therefore the question arises: ‘Do we have to exert ourselves to meet expectations of unsustainable living standards which have unacceptable consequences?’ Want is not the same as need.

For source of image see link

For source of image see link

In their thought-provoking book Flourishing John Ehrenfeld and Andrew Hoffman put the matter bluntly (page 12):

“Humans have changed Earth’s ecosystems more in the past 50 years than in any comparable historical period.” We have increased species extinction rates up to a thousand times over rates typical for Earth’s history. Almost 25 per cent of the world’s most important marine fish stocks are depleted or over-harvested, while 44% are fished at their biological limit and vulnerable to collapse. As we extract the world’s riches, we contaminate its atmosphere, altering our global climate through the unabated emission of greenhouse gases.

And these impacts are not evenly distributed. According to the UN, the richest 20 per cent of the world’s population consumes over 75 per cent of all private goods and services, while the poorest 20 per cent and consume just 1.5 per cent. Of the 4.4 billion people in the developing world (more than half of the world’s population), almost 60 per cent lack access to safe sewers, 33 per cent have no access to clean water, 25 per cent lack adequate housing, and 30 per cent have no modern health services.

This inevitably leads to a consideration of the kinds of restraints that need to be placed upon a ‘free market.’ Basically how laissez faire can we afford to be about market forces?  Surely they have to be counterbalanced and constrained by other considerations including moral ones.

Even when we are at war, while we need to listen to the generals, we must also be aware of the need for the constraints we currently call the Geneva Convention. Just as war is clearly not a desirable permanent mode, the same may be true of capitalism and its attendant dependency upon growth. There has to be some kind of constraint on its operations. How tight would those measures be before advocates of the status quo ruled them out as an unacceptable dilution of capitalism?

A more radical shift?

Moreover, if evolutionary thinkers see us as capable of developing beyond revenge and competition, and see cooperation as equally wired in and more compelling perhaps, we can transcend what drives us to consume as well as what makes the idea of profit so irresistible.  If so, would capitalism be the only viable model still?

Even as it stands, there are models of economic activity that, within their own terms, operate on a somewhat different logic, for example distributing profits more equitably and giving some power to influence company decisions to workers and surrounding communities. Economics is evolving – natural resources are no longer treated in economic models as inexhaustible gifts that do not have to be taken into account when determining the long-term costs and viability of projects.

Jeremy Rifkin, whose book The Empathic Civilization I referred to last time, is advocating what he called ‘distributed capitalism.’ In brief he feels that (page 544):

. . . the simple reality is that distributed information technologies and a distributed communications and energy infrastructure are giving rise to distributed capitalism and necessitate a new type of management.

I will be returning to his thinking in far more detail in a later sequence of posts. Clearly socialism is not the only alternative to relatively unbridled capitalism.

There are, of course, those who contend that we must look beyond both socialism/communism and capitalism. John Fitzgerald Medina, for instance, in this thought-provoking book, Faith, Physics and Psychology, argues (page 230):

Both systems place undue importance on economics as the core of civilisation. . . . From a spiritual perspective, in spite of all their surface differences, capitalism and socialism, when applied in actual practice, have both been destructive to human beings, communities, and the environment.

He regards it as imperative that we develop an approach to economics that is rooted in moral and spiritual values. I will be revisiting his thinking in more detail at a later date.

Any attempt to suggest, as has been the case, that violence may have its roots in simple racism, with nothing added on from a divisive and competitive system, and that nothing does more to reduce violence and many other social ills than the rising standards of living that capitalism alone makes possible, is too simplistic. This is true even if we set aside how entangled the development of racism is with the slavery that made possible the rate of economic development America enjoyed. And also true even when we set aside the evidence that the current economic model in America, blended with its residual racism, is maintaining horrific levels of inequality and compromising the efficacy of the educational system to remedy that. I will be going into far more detail about that in a subsequent sequence of posts.

As hinted at last time, I have dealt at length on my blog with the sources of prejudice which include the disgust reflex (Hauser), the hive switch (Haidt), culture (Pettigrew), and there is more to group violence than prejudice as Zimbardo explains in The Lucifer Effect and Milgram suggested very early on in his repeatedly re-examined studies of obedience. So, violence is not reducible to racism, and racism is not simple.

I accept there are benefits to liberal democracy. However, there are reasons for believing that its party political divides may need to be transcended as no longer fit for purpose, and just as they were the result of evolutionary processes over long periods of time it seems likely that we are going to have to undergo similar processes to lift us further up the ladder of development, economic, political, and legal, to create structures and systems adequate to the world in which we now find ourselves. As the Bahá’í World Centre indicates, this will be the work of centuries. If we do not, we will find that our modes of operation are too simplistic for the global conditions that confront us just as other systems have been tested and found wanting in the past.

Whether the shift in economic systems will be one of degree or kind is not yet completely clear.  Certainly that a massive shift of some kind is required, is unarguable, in my view.

Emp Civil

Jeremy Rifkin sees his ideal of ‘distributed capitalism’ as being effective only in the context of ‘biosphere consciousness’ (pages 598-99):

Our dawning awareness that the Earth functions like an indivisible organism requires us to rethink our notions of global risks, vulnerability, and security. If every human life, the species as a whole, and all other life-forms are intertwined with one another and with the geochemistry of the planet in a rich and complex choreography that sustains life itself, then we are all dependent on and responsible for the health of the whole organism. Carrying out that responsibility means living out our individual lives in our neighbourhood communities in ways that promote the general well-being of the larger biosphere within which we dwell.

I will have more to say about the adequacy of that motivator when I look at Rifkin’s thinking in more detail in a later sequence of posts.

The Bahá’í view is that our civilisation is at a tipping point and a fundamental change of focus is demanded of us. It is not a question of replacing money as a driving force, nor even about efficiency in some narrow sense. It is to do with consciousness-raising. A statement from the Bahá’í World Centre on social action explains:

In addition to a sound financial system, the question of efficiency needs attention. What should be avoided are limited conceptions of efficiency, for instance, those that consider only the relation of output to material input, even when the latter includes some quantitative measure of effort. A more sophisticated understanding of efficiency seems to be required. With regard to input, for example, work that is motivated by a spirit of service and an inner urge to excel clearly has a different value than work that is used as a vehicle to advance one’s personal interests. As to results, to give another example, the accomplishment of a particular task—say, the construction of a small facility for a school—may be far less important than the development of the participants’ capacity to cooperate and engage in unified action.

Such a shift of consciousness, as Rifkin, Medina and the Bahá’í model fully recognise, has to be part of a wider shift in understanding. For Rifkin this is a secular shift still in terms of biosphere consciousness: for Bahá’ís there has to be a spiritual dimension that enables us to see that our connection with other human beings and with the life-world goes deeper and higher than biology alone.

But that will be the subject of longer and later sequences of posts.

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The Cudgel Fight (for source of image see link)

Goya’s ‘The Cudgel Fight’ (for source of image see link)

I was recently set thinking about some key issues of concern to me. I am still in the process of refining my thoughts as subsequent posts will hopefully testify but I felt that drafting an interim report, even though still slightly confused, would help move my thinking forwards.

Are we locked in a fight to the death?

Amy Chua’s book, World on Fire, remains evidence for me about one of the sources of violence within society.

There were two threads to her argument: one was capitalism, and the West’s over-eagerness to export it, as well as democracy, and the problems which arise from forcing the pace of its implementation. 
Capitalism alone, some suggest, can make possible the rising standards of living that will in themselves reduce violence. Unfortunately, almost all statements which include ‘always,’ ‘never,’ ‘only’ and the like are automatically suspect. Amy Chua’s book strongly suggests that fast tracking a sawn-off version of capitalism in any country, especially when this is combined with a fledgling democracy which allows a previously oppressed minority to gain power, is a blueprint for disaster. The Phillipines, the country of her birth, spurred her to research this phenomenon more widely. She pins down the core of her concern early in her book (page 14):

It is striking to note that at no point in history did any Western nation ever implement laissez-faire capitalism and overnight universal suffrage at the same time – the precise formula of free-market democracy currently being pressed on developing countries around the world.

Beyond the Culture of Contest

In the West capitalism and democracy in their present forms both evolved slowly over long periods of time. They cannot be parachuted from outside into an unprepared culture.

I have been influenced greatly by Michael Karlberg’s book – Beyond the Culture of Contest – which raises serious questions about a society like ours that is founded historically on:

  1. competition in politics, when the urgent and critical need now is to achieve consensus across all divisions of opinion in certain areas;
  2. adversarialism in the court room, where truth is less important than winning; and
  3. hyper-competition in the market place, where the need for profit and the desire to consume find their perfectly destructive match.

He does not argue that these can be replaced overnight, even though the need to do so is becoming increasingly urgent.

Which brings me onto the third point.

While I am sympathetic to those who argue that these problems are neither new nor necessarily worse,  and even to those rational optimists who believe that the statistics prove that most of us have never been safer or healthier, I am attracted by the credibility of Jeremy Rifkin’s case, to give just one example, in his book, The Empathic Civilisation – where he argues that our strong empathic tendency has enabled us to build ever larger civilisations and the current version is globally interconnected. He writes (page 44):

The tragic flaw of history is that our increased empathic concern and sensitivity grows in direct proportion to the wreaking of greater entropic damage to the world we all cohabit and rely on for our existence and perpetuation.

In short, in history our separate civilisations have all too often got too big to sustain themselves and thereafter collapsed. In the past, that has been tragic but not catastrophic, in that there have always been other parts of the world totally unaffected by the crash. Not so now, possibly, when we have a virtually single civilisation planet-wide. If one part goes down we probably all do. I will be returning to his thesis in more detail in a later sequence of posts.

In that respect, as well perhaps as in others, our situation is therefore not exactly the same as it has always been, and our degree of interconnectedness potentiates the impact of destructive processes in a way that lifts them to a higher level, a difference of degree only perhaps, or possibly renders them of a different quality, i.e. different in kind.

ATOE bookKen Wilber’s book, A Theory of Everything, which I will be reviewing in the next sequence of posts, points to another key factor i.e. the access those with narrow and hostile views now have to destructive high level technology. This is a fear that Jeremy Rifkin also shares in his panoramic survey The Empathic Civilisation to which I shall also be returning (page 487):

Weapons of mass destruction, once the preserve of elites, are becoming more democratised with each passing day. A growing number of security experts believe that it is no longer even possible to keep weapons of mass destruction locked up and out of the hands of rogue governments, terrorist groups, or just deranged individuals.

Nor are these the only perspectives on our tendency to violence and how to remedy it. Being oppressed is no guarantee that I will not be an oppressor in my turn if I get the chance. That was clear right from the French Revolution (See Michael Burleigh‘s ‘Earthly Powers‘) and nothing that has happened since causes me to think that anything is different now. Following on from the possibly flawed but none the less illuminating Milgram studies of obedience, Philip Zimbardo looks at the disturbing way group and organisational processes foster evil doing and explains ways of effectively counteracting that (‘The Lucifer Effect‘).

Jonathan Haidt in his humane and compassionate book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis‘ indicates that, in his view, idealism has caused more violence in human history than almost any other single thing (page 75).

The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. . . . Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large portion of violence at the individual level, but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism — the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.

Richard Holloway sees it much the same way:

More misery and disillusionment has been visited on humanity by its search for the perfect society and the perfect faith than by any other cause.

(‘Between the Monster and the Saint‘: page 136)

Both Haidt and Holloway emphasise that not all such ideals are by any means religious. Haidt, for instance,  also quotes the attempt to create utopias as well as the defence of the homeland or tribe as frequently implicated.  Also, when Hitler’s probably narcissistic self-esteem successfully cloaked itself in the rhetoric of idealistic nationalism, mixed with scapegoating anti-semitism, we all know what happened next: narcissism and idealism make a highly toxic and devastatingly deadly combination.

What Haidt regards as central is this:

Idealism easily becomes dangerous because it brings with it . . . the belief that the ends justify the means.

Marc Hauser‘s examination of morality, ‘Moral Minds,’ comes at the issue primarily from a developmental angle, and he emphasises the power of labelling and disgust to remove inhibitions against genocide. I don’t think his argument here has been undermined by evidence that his own moral life in an unrelated aspect was not entirely exemplary. He explains (page 199):

Disgust wins the award as the single most irresponsible emotion, a feeling that has led to extreme in-group-out-group divisions followed by inhumane treatment. Disgust’s trick is simple: declare those you don’t like to be vermin or parasites, and it is easy to think of them as disgusting, deserving of exclusion, dismissal, and annihilation. All horrific cases of human abuse entail this kind of transformation, from Auschwitz to Abu Ghraib.

I don’t think any of us, expert or otherwise, can claim to have a clear, complete and valid picture yet. In my view, though a layman in terms of my mastery of the complex evidence involved, it seems that we can either learn to sink our differences to a degree that will transform our culture, or else stick with our current patterns and sink without trace under our differences.

Robert WrightIs Capitalism really the answer?

There is clearly quite a lot depending upon which model of the way the world works the majority of humanity accepts – one model which accepts the inevitability of competition, the other which holds out hope for the probability of co-operation.

Evolutionary theory, when it has taken a psychological turn recently, accepts that humanity has a dual potential in that respect and, according to Michael McCullough, we can move beyond revenge towards forgiveness and cooperation, just as Robert Wright can legitimately argue that, throughout human history, we have proved ourselves capable of widening our sense of identity beyond the family or tribe to include ever more disparate and distant groups of people.

Economic theory is not my specialism. I do have a view though about its overall validity. For me, the problem with economics, as with any other social science such as psychology, my own discipline, is that it only goes as far as to provide a lens of our own, albeit systematic creation through which to observe and understand ourselves – a very tricky process whose conclusions have to be approached with extreme caution.

For example, what a convinced capitalist says reads well within its own assumptions, as does what I write to me of course. What he describes may apply if we accept the same premises and assumptions especially concerning human nature and the consequent social dynamics. For instance, one might argue that nothing does more to reduce violence and many other social ills than the rising standards of living that capitalism alone makes possible.

While I accept that capitalism has brought many benefits, as has liberal democracy, it seems to me that such optimism is missing a crucial point. It is not ‘rising standards of living’ that are necessarily the main issue but the rising inequality which unrestricted capitalism seems inevitably to produce, with all the socially destructive consequences this brings in its wake. Hardly a rationally desirable outcome, it seems to me, and certainly not a morally desirable one. I have already posted a review of The Spirit Level so I won’t rehearse those points again here.

Also, as John Fitgerald Medina pointed out in his book, Faith, Physics and Psychology (page 238):

 Economic theory does not allow economists to make distinctions between renewable resources and non-renewable resources.

In a 2012 BBC4 documentary – Surviving Progress – David Suzuki indicated that this defect is at the core of economics, which he describes not as a ‘science’ but as ‘a set of values.’ He contemptuously refers to its dismissive description of natural resources as ‘externalities’ as ‘a form of brain damage.’ The sense of urgency in this recent programme suggests that any remedy to the current model of economics, so kind to short-term profits, has some way to go before it gains widespread and effective acceptance. It is not clear whether we have that much time before disaster strikes.

There is a need to dig a bit deeper though, and I plan to do so in the follow up post next week.

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Cruelty has a Human Heart,
And Jealousy a Human Face;
Terror the Human Form Divine,
And Secrecy the Human Dress.

William Blake: Songs of Experience Additional Poem

In the wake of the anniversary of 9/11 and as a response, however inadequate, to the enormity of the recent beheadings of three innocent hostages by IS, I feel it is worth republishing a sequence of posts I first published several years ago. The situation in the world is at least as fraught as it was then, if not more so, making the sequence still as relevant now. Moreover, I feel that the ideas I tried to pull together continue to deserve careful attention if we are to learn how to respond effectively to those influences within and around us that might pull us into the quicksand of extremism. This is the first of three posts on consecutive days.

Terror and the Human Form

The situation in Iran would be enough to set me thinking about intolerance and extremism. Family members of good friends of mine are being persecuted because of their beliefs. Because of my shared beliefs I also feel strongly linked even to those with whom I have no other connection.  The current perilous situation of the seven Bahá’ís who have been arrested reinforces that feeling. (See link on this blog for more details.)

The Seven Bahá’ís in Prison

The Seven Bahá’ís in Prison

I have other experiences that spur me on in the same direction.

I was born just before the end of World War Two. I grew up with images of Belsen and Dachau. My childhood nightmares were of being pursued by the Gestapo.  I grew up in the shadow of the Cold War. (As a child I wouldn’t stand and watch a carnival go past because I was frightened of the uniforms and drums.) I therefore have good reasons to feel deeply concerned about the roots of prejudice, fanaticism and intolerance.

I also had reasons to suspect they might have something to do with our ideas of the divine given that most of my father’s family disowned him when he married a Roman Catholic.

Skating on Thin Ice

I am not qualified to explain the political and social roots of the human face of terror. I have of course noticed that having been oppressed is no guarantee that I will not be an oppressor in my turn if I get the chance. That was clear right from the French Revolution (See Michael Burleigh‘s ‘Earthly Powers‘) and nothing that has happened since causes me to think that anything is different now. I have also seen how injustice and inequity breed enmity, as can extremes of wealth and poverty in close proximity (See Amy Chua‘s ‘World on Fire‘ for example). Philip Zimbardo looks at the disturbing way group and organisational processes foster evil doing and explains ways of effectively counteracting that (‘The Lucifer Effect‘). Michael McCullough looks surprisingly hopefully on the problem from an evolutionary perspective in his recent book ‘Beyond Revenge‘. Marc Hauser‘s examination of morality, ‘Moral Minds,’ comes at the issue primarily from a developmental angle.

I do not feel competent to add anything to their positions.

They all make it very clear that tolerance in any society is a very thin ice and is all the more precious for that. Blunden’s poem, ‘The Midnight Skaters’ captures that precarious feeling as the skaters dance across the deep and frozen pond:

. . . .  not the tallest there, ’tis said,
Could fathom to this pond’s black bed.

Then is not death at watch
Within those secret waters?
. . . .  With but a crystal parapet
Between, he has his engines set.

. . . . Court him, elude him, reel and pass,
And let him hate you through the glass.

(Edmund Blunden: ‘The Midnight Skaters‘ – for an interesting critique see Poetry Scene News)

The Horns of a Dilemma

I do though feel that the spiritual perspective informed by psychology and psychotherapy complements those views and fills an important gap they leave.

Jonathan Haidt in his humane and compassionate book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis‘ indicates that, in his view, idealism has caused more violence in human history than almost any other single thing (page 75).

The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. . . . Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large portion of violence at the individual level, but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism — the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.

Richard Holloway sees it much the same way:

More misery and disillusionment has been visited on humanity by its search for the perfect society and the perfect faith than by any other cause.

(‘Between the Monster and the Saint‘: page 136)

Both Haidt and Holloway emphasise that not all such ideals are by any means religious. Haidt, for instance,  also quotes the attempt to create utopias as well as the defence of the homeland or tribe as frequently implicated.  Also, when Hitler’s probably narcissistic self-esteem successfully cloaked itself in the rhetoric of idealistic nationalism, mixed with scapegoating anti-semitism, we all know what happened next: narcissism and idealism make a highly toxic and devastatingly deadly combination.

What Haidt regards as central is this:

Idealism easily becomes dangerous because it brings with it . . . the belief that the ends justify the means.

He is aware though that idealism enhances life in some ways also (page 211):

Liberalism and the ethic of autonomy are great protectors against . . . injustices. I believe it is dangerous for an ethic of divinity to supercede the ethic of autonomy in the governance of a diverse modern democracy. However, I also believe that life in a society that entirely ignored the ethic of divinity would be ugly and unsatisfying.

How are we not to throw out the precious and in fact indestructible baby of idealism with the bathwater of zealotry, fanaticism and intolerance? This feels like an issue well worth exploring further. It will lead us to considering, in the next post, how three ids interact: idealism, ideology and identity.

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