Sunday, November 29, 2009

Rights and Obligations: A Philosophical Foundation

I had an eye-opening conversation recently with one of my favorite political sparring partners, who observed that basic human “rights” can be viewed as either negative or positive.

In a free society, people should have rights not to have others interfere with certain freedoms: freedom of thought, of speech, of religion, of self-protection, etc. So far, so good. Most of us can agree that people have rights that shouldn’t be infringed by others who may want to limit or “negate” those freedoms.

But to my surprise, I learned that not everyone agrees that we also have rights to (as well as from) certain things. There are those who, like my respected dialectical opponent, believe that liberty involves freedom from being obligated to others. According to this logic, saying that one person is obligated to help another is antithetical to personal liberty, because it implies that the person in the helping position is not free to choose.

That’s true. If we have obligations to others, then we are not perfectly free to exercise unlimited personal choice where others are involved—and in my view, others are almost always involved. We can’t diminish ourselves or fail to use our talents and skills in a positive way without having a negative impact on others. I say that from a moral perspective, we are not free to choose not to consider others when we make decisions. As social creatures, we are inextricably bound to others in society.

This example came up in the course of the conversation: A person is seriously hurt, lying down and bleeding on the sidewalk. Does a passer-by have an obligation to help? Is he or she morally free to say no?

I say the passer-by has an obligation to help, to the best of his or her ability—to call for help, render first aid if trained to do so, even to offer solace and comfort until professional help arrives. To ignore the injured person would be morally wrong unless there is nothing at all the person can do without risking his or her own well being. (For example, if a stranger were bleeding, would I stanch the flow of blood with my bare hands? Probably not. Would I and should I put pressure on an artery if I had appropriate training and gloves to protect myself? Yes.)

Philosophical differences like these have a direct bearing on how people view matters of public policy, such as the current health care debate. I believe that as a society capable of offering its citizens optimum care, we have a moral obligation—long ignored—to provide universal health care opportunities. Those who have the attitude that we are not obligated to others may have a very different view.

In the USA, at least 45,000 people die every year for lack of access to health care. Fearful of running up bills they couldn’t hope to pay, many ignore symptoms until they are beyond help for a life-threatening condition. Others can’t afford routine screening tests, such as mammograms, or routine care for high blood-pressure, diabetes, or pregnancy. Millions are less healthy, happy, and productive than they ought to be because they can’t afford medical care that would reduce pain, increase energy, or otherwise improve quality of life.

Having people in our family, community, or country who are sick, dying, or chronically unwell affects everyone. This situation diminishes health and well-being for others (including care-givers) and deprives us all of the talents and contributions the unwell would otherwise provide. Because critical, emergency care is so much more expensive than preventive care, the 46 million uninsured in this country drive up health costs for everyone and put a significant dent in the national budget.

No one has seriously challenged analyses by the Congressional Budget Office and others that say that the current situation regarding health care in this country is unsustainable and that the bill now before Congress would reduce the Federal deficit. Those against it are, for the most part, those who are against any kind of change, positive or otherwise, period. (Is that what “conservative” means these days?) But many Americans—especially those fortunate enough to have affordable, comprehensive health insurance now—are essentially indifferent, their opinions informed only by ads or sound bites on their favorite TV or radio station.

As Americans, I say that we have a moral obligation to concern ourselves with the well-being of others, as citizens as well as individuals. For one thing, it’s really a matter of enlightened self-interest: it’s better to live in a country where people are healthy and happy and the economy works well for everyone than it is to live in a country with sickness, misery, and looming fiscal disaster. That’s a matter of practicality and should be, in itself, reason enough to support the kind of health reform now being debated in the nation’s capital.

But from a philosophical standpoint, as well, we all make a fundamentally moral decision, whether we are aware of it or not: We decide if we believe or do not believe that we are and ought to be “our brother’s keeper.”

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Goldilocks and the Libertarians

At the beginning of the primary season before the last election, I was just emerging from a long night of the soul with respect to politics. Literally in despair over the direction my country had been going for a long, long time, I began with little hope that anything could be done to really change it. It seemed that the anti-intellectual forces of social Darwinism that ensured dominance of the very rich and ferociously powerful were too strong ever to be defeated.

America was fighting wars for no reason, torturing prisoners in secret prisons, denying its responsibilities for global climate change, and fumbling its efforts to help its citizens in the aftermath of disasters like Katrina. Friends from abroad confirmed what I suspected about America’s image in the world: we were universally regarded with fear, contempt, and even pity, but rarely with respect. With the possible (and still puzzling) exception of Tony Blair, Bush didn’t seem to have many friends—and in Blair’s case, that friendship cost him his job.

Very familiar with the philosophy and work of Hillary Clinton, I had some hope that she would, if she could, inch the country back toward at least some grudging sense of purpose and responsibility. But could a woman really be elected in America? And could any coalition of reasonable, responsible people ever really change much of what had been so wrong for so long? It required a great leap of faith to even hope for any significant change.

Ever the optimist, though, I pasted a Hillary for President sticker on the rear end of my car and carried on with my life. It took a while for me and many others to come around to the realization that what we do, what we say, and who we vote for could really make a difference.

My work often brings me to college campuses, and as campaign signs began to proliferate, I began to see a lot of them there and elsewhere for some guy named Ron Paul. Who was Ron Paul? At first I was afraid he might be some kind of a spoiler, like Ralph Nader, whom I blame in part for the debacle of the 2000 election. But as I talked with a few people who sported those signs, I was puzzled by their lack of advocacy. People who pasted up Ron Paul signs didn’t seem to want to talk about their candidate; when asked, they’d shrug their shoulders and make some off-handed remark like, “If you don’t know, I really can’t explain it to you.”

The thing that was interesting about this was that those who sported Ron Paul buttons and signs seemed to have one thing in common, as near as I could tell—they were very, very bright. None of them seemed to think their candidate had any chance of winning the presidency, and being pragmatic, most probably held their nose (as one libertarian said to me) and voted for someone else in the end. However, Ron Paul made a significant showing in the primaries in almost every state, and in a close election, his votes could have skewed the results one way or the other.

Ron Paul and the libertarians are important—not because they’re likely to launch a convention in 2012 and storm the White House, but rather because they’re highly unlikely to do any such thing. Libertarians take pride in staying above the fray—in having, as they like to put it, “no dog in the fight” when it comes to politics. Being individualists, they prefer not to sully themselves by engaging in mudslinging in public arenas (and who can blame them?). Being intellectuals, they tend to communicate over the Internet and fly beneath the radar of the mainstream media. There they kibitz, mostly with each other, about the evils of government.

But like it or not, if you have more than two people in a long-term relationship, you’ve got “government” of one kind or another. And like it or not, the country is changing in a way that may make it impossible for libertarians to stay “above the fray.” In the next few election cycles, I think the libertarians will make a big difference.

First, as noted earlier, libertarians are no dummies. While they may be few in number, I suspect that they may represent a fairly significant percentage of intelligent, educated Americans who are socially and politically aware. They represent a brain trust, a sort of political secret weapon. If they continue to eschew the world of politics, they make a difference; if they decide to engage, the game will never be the same. People with power can’t avoid responsibility: if they use it or withhold it, they still affect the outcome of the enterprise.

Second, libertarians like to think of themselves—accurately, so some extent—as being somewhere off the spectrum of “right” to “left” political advocacy. They tend to side with the “right,” for example, when it comes to limiting taxes and big government. They tend to be “lefties,” however, when it comes to social issues. And they tend to put much more emphasis than either the right or the left on certain values, such as individual autonomy. As both the Republican and Democratic parties begin to splinter into rival factions—a new trend that may come to define this era in American political history—centrists of all kinds will begin to take on a degree of importance that far exceeds their numbers. (Just ask Senator Blanche Lincoln about that.)

Sometimes libertarians frustrate me because of their refusal to throw themselves behind important public initiatives, such as health reform. On the other hand, I definitely prefer their cerebral detachment and philosophical disinterestedness to hyper-emotional “teabag” Republicanism. I guess that’s why I currently define myself as a progressive Democrat: for my money, the libertarians are too intellectual, the Republicans are too emotional, and the Democrats are—just right!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Palin and the Battle for the American Mind

This week, much of the media coverage has been all Sarah, as the former governor embarks on her triumphant victory lap around the country after publication of her book. Meanwhile, the news that will become history was happening in Washington, where Democrats in the Senate managed to move the nation one step closer to rectifying the situation that makes us No. 37 in the world in terms of public health according to the World Health Organization.

Palin’s been coy about her plans for the future, but nobody’s really fooled by her demure refusal to say what she plans to be doing in 2012. While some rational, responsible elected officials are busy working to solve America’s critical problems—the broken economy, the two wars, the antiquated health system, the crumbling infrastructure, the spiraling effects of environmental irresponsibility—Palin is preening for the cameras, pretending—and apparently actually believing—she has what it takes to be president. (Can anybody tell me—does she know yet whether Africa is a country or a continent?)

It’s disheartening that anyone—anyone at all—would take Palin (or her fellow rabble-rouser Glenn Beck) seriously as a candidate for public office. That as many as 20% of American adults do so is tragic and frightening. These entertainers represent exactly what we don’t need in this country or anywhere else in the world: people who don’t know the difference between thinking and emoting, who mistake populism for policy, and who think the end justifies the means when it comes to lying or deliberately stoking public fear and rage.

In her public appearances, there’s one sure way to tell if Palen’s either lying or talking about something she doesn’t know anything about: her mouth is moving. Since her book came out, staffers from John McCain’s campaign have been kept busy trying to correct the record on the many negative assertions she made about them in her book. Since her “death panels” rhetoric apparently didn’t play well in Peoria, she’s now making the ludicrous claim that under the proposed health reform legislation, those who don’t buy coverage could face jail time. When she’s not torturing the truth, she’s chanting the same mantra as all the other wing-nuts at the fringe: “No, no, no.” (And is there anything left of the old GOP but the fringe?)

You’ve got to hand it to her—Sarah knows how to grab a headline. And in America, people may choose to be willfully ignorant, negative, and mean spirited. It may not be morally right, but it’s legal.

Sarah will do what Sarah will do—and so will the rest of us. Every day, we make practical and moral choices about which books to buy, which TV stations to watch, and whether to “think” with our intellects or emotions.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Mob Psychology and Values Education

When I was in college, our highly competitive local hockey team was scheduled to play an equally successful Canadian team in a tie-breaking game near the end of the season. This was such a big deal at the time that news of the game had even penetrated my consciousness—and when it comes to sports, I generally live in an alternate universe. Tickets had been sold out for weeks, but a day or two before the game, a friend told me she’d been given two tickets and asked if I wanted to go. Sure, I thought, why not?

We arrived early, and as we waited outside for the doors to open, we chatted with an assortment of friendly people around us: a young couple with a toddler in a stroller, middle age couples, suit-clad business folks just off work on a Friday afternoon. After these many years, it’s eerie how well I remember some of these people; it’s like the almost preternatural recall some people have of the moments just before a car wreck.

The pleasant mood of gentile camaraderie continued as we all filed into the coliseum, picked up snacks, found our seats: people smiling, laughing, helping each other shrug out of their coats. So far, my friend and I were having a wonderful adventure.

Then the chatter over the loudspeakers rose to a crescendo, all eyes turned to the rink, and the players skated out onto the ice. The mood of the crowd changed instantly. One player shoved another with a stick, and the crowd roared. A fight broke out on the ice, and the crowd erupted. The good, kindly looking people around us began, literally, screaming for blood. Red-faced men, veins in their necks bulging, punching fists into the air; women screeching obscenities; almost everyone raging at one player or another, if not the referee. It seemed to take an hour for my friend and I to make our way to the end of the aisle and out the door. Then we stood outside on the sidewalk, in the quiet of a normal Friday evening, horrified at what we’d just witnessed.

From that day forward, a lot of things made sense to me: ancient Roman crowds in the Colosseum, the French Revolution, the Salem witchcraft trials. What I learned that day is something that must be understood in your gut, not in your head: like packs of animals, human beings can turn on a dime at the smell of blood.

Clearly this propensity for people to lose themselves—their individuality and personal consciousness—in a crowd has evolutionary advantages. In defense of the tribe, of the family, people forget themselves and willingly sacrifice their lives, if necessary, for the good of the whole. In the midst of a crisis, there is no time for reflection, and nature has provided a mechanism whereby rational thought can be shut down in favor of raw, unfiltered emotion.

Furthermore, in order to assure an ample supply of warriors to protect the community, nature has provided an assortment of hormones that, once released into the bloodstream, make us feel ecstatic and invincible. Simply put, it feels good to be swept away on a sea of emotion.

From rock concerts to religious revivals, hangings to hockey games, people gather together partly because, from a purely biological standpoint, it feels great to be in a crowd that’s emotionally charged up and focused on a common goal—whether that goal is a line on the turf or the slaughter of innocents. This is a fundamental feature of the human organism, and it hasn’t changed since our ancestors first started walking upright.

What has changed is our collective human experience and our ability to reflect on it. We can now ask ourselves questions like, “Is this right?” “Do I want to be a part of this?” We are capable of understanding—if only we stop to think about it—that just because something feels right, that doesn’t mean it is right, from either a factual or moral perspective.

We must start teaching this fundamental fact of human nature to our children. We must make it known that, sometimes, it’s our personal responsibility to detach ourselves from the crowd, to deliberately switch on the thought process, even to take the considerable risk of raising our voices in opposition. Such values education might not have prevented a 15-year-old’s homecoming dance from turning into hours of torture and gang rape—but then again, it might at least have inspired one of the many witnesses to call 911.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Role of Negative Emotions in a Positive Life

“Think positive!”

“Look on the bright side!”

“Every cloud has a silver lining.”

Our culture is filled with aphorisms encouraging us to choose positive over negative thinking. In general, that’s very good advice. Positive emotions—joy, peacefulness, satisfaction, love, optimism—are good for us, physically, mentally, and spiritually. Negative emotions—anger, depression, frustration, guilt, hate—are bad for us and those around us.

Doctors have known for decades that people who spend most of their time on the positive end of the emotional spectrum tend to be healthier (not to mention happier) and live longer than those who are chronically or habitually negative in their thinking.

So why hasn’t nature edited out those nasty, energy-tapping negative emotions? Why don’t we all walk around in a haze of happiness, contented as cows in a corn field?

Well, from an evolutionary point of view, if we didn’t have the capacity to react negatively to certain situations—to feel terror when threatened, anger when abused, and guilt when we’ve caused harm to others—we’d have died out as a species long ago. Negative emotions are necessary for us to know when something is seriously awry and do something about it.

Negative feelings are analogous to pain in the body. A person who can feel no physical pain (a condition that results from a rare genetic disorder) is in grave danger of dying very young of injuries the rest of us would instinctively avoid. Feeling no pain, they also feel no fear of things that could harm their bodies. It’s very difficult, if not impossible, for these people to live normal, productive lives.

Similarly, people who live with chronic pain due to nerve disorders or injuries also tend to live diminished, distorted lives. Much of their energy is drained off every day in just the effort of coping with pain.

So to live well and be happy, we need to have physical pain in our lives—an optimum amount of pain, at the right times and for the right reasons. The same is true of the psychological “pain” caused by negative emotions.

In a healthy life, negative feelings operate like physical pain: alerting us to the existence of something that ought to be changed. Fear alerts us to danger and spurs us to action so we can avoid it. Anger helps us recognize less-than-ideal situations and relationships that ought to be changed. Guilt allows us to realize when we've done harm and either correct the situation or make amends. Without these kinds of feelings, growth and personal development would be very limited—especially in terms of interpersonal relationships.

These emotions are healthy—so long as they motivate us to do whatever needs to be done to correct the situation that’s causing them. But they can be bad if we fail to take corrective action or—worse yet—just choose to live our daily lives filled with fear, anger, guilt, or other negative thought patterns.

This is where personal choice comes in: Under usual circumstances, no one has to live life full of chronic, negative emotions. Those who do are like people who get up every morning and shoulder a backpack full of boulders: they go through their daily lives weighted down with feelings that rob their lives of joy, peace, good health, and good relationships. (As a counselor, I spend a good deal of my time encouraging people to “drop their rocks.”)

So in a positive life, negative emotions should serve as guideposts—letting us know when we’re off the path of safety and righteousness and showing us how to get back on track. They should not become permanent features of our lives. People who lead good, happy, productive lives—intentionally or not—develop certain skills for dealing with negative emotions:
  • Recognizing negative feelings, when they occur, as problems that need to be dealt with

  • Developing an action plan to resolve the problem(s) causing those negative feelings

  • Letting go of the fear, anger, guilt, resentment, frustration, etc., once action has been taken to deal with it

  • Avoiding people and situations that tend to stimulate chronic, unproductive negative emotions.

My favorite coffee mug reads, “Pain is inevitable, but misery is optional.” It’s amazing how much truth and wisdom can fit on the side of a cup!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Choosing How to Feel

We humans are endowed with a dual nature, capable of both responding emotionally to what we experience and also reasoning about it. These two ways of interacting with the world around us are not separate functions of the brain, neatly divided between, say, the left and right hemispheres. Rather, the entire brain is involved in any type of “thinking” we do.

Thus, as we apply reasoning to trying to understand or solve a problem, we have feelings about both the process itself and the conclusions we draw.

As an example, let’s say you’re thinking about buying a new car. If you decide to do it, you might feel pleasure, excitement, or (if you don’t need it or can’t afford it), guilt. If you decide not to buy it, you might feel regret, relief (at saving the money you might have spent), or aggravation (at having wasted your time). But before, during, and after you engage in the reasoning process, you will feel something.

Similarly, as we respond emotionally to our environment, we’re constantly thinking about how we feel. Prodded by joy, sorrow, affection, rage, pride, or guilt, we generally look around outside ourselves to see what’s causing us to feel that way. Here’s one area where we often tend to take a wrong turn. It’s natural but erroneous to assume that because we feel a certain way, some outside factor is “causing” us to feel that way.

As often as not, what stimulates an emotional feeling is internal. A person who was abused as a child, for example, may be filled with rage and resentment. He or she may constantly look for (and therefore find) things to be enraged and resentful about. A person who once experienced terror or chronic fear may feel threatened by people and situations that are really harmless. The biochemistry of the body also has a huge influence on how we view the world, as when a woman experiencing post-partum depression feels sadness and despair—a situation that can be disastrous if the woman has never been told how hormones can affect her feelings.

When our emotions are stimulated by outside factors, many people don’t realize they have a choice about how to respond. In the first moments after a feeling is triggered by some outside event, we may react instinctively; for all the moments after that, however, we have choices we can make.

For example, let’s say someone cuts you off while driving. You’re angry—that’s automatic. However, from that moment on, once your reasoning process is engaged, you can choose. Concerned about others, you might get the license number of the reckless driver. Remembering an incident when being upset affected your own driving, you may choose to withhold judgment. Or—making the choice all too many do on the nation’s highways—you may choose to stoke your anger into rage and act aggressively to the one who cut you off or other drivers. From the first moment after the initial stimulus that prompted anger, you’re responsible for how you deal with it.

We also have choices about our prevailing moods and attitudes—whether to be, or continue to be, habitually optimistic or pessimistic, tolerant or hostile, agreeable or angry, calm or excitable. Some of these tendencies are controlled by our genes—but once we become aware of them, we can modify them.

It takes work—both emotional and intellectual—to really understand how we feel and why. Most of us in America have the freedom to choose whether to be happy. However, I believe that whether or not we choose to do this work is more than a personal matter—it’s also a moral choice, since our attitudes and emotions directly impact the lives of everyone around us.

If you happen to be interested in the subject of this little meditation, stay tuned for the next installment, “The Role of Negative Emotions in a Positive Life.” For the rest of you, please bear with me—we’ll get back to talking politics again soon!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Another Example of Religion Interfering with Politics

This brief comment also raises some important questions, including whether non-charitable church activities should be sheltered from the taxes paid by other money-making American enterprises.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Is This Ronald Reagan's GOP?

One of the most interesting aspects of this fascinating time in American politics is the transformation going on in the Republican Party. I grew up in a family of Republican voters, but the party of today isn't the one my grandparents supported.

For one very thoughtful reflection on the subject, I highly recommend Robert Shrum's recent article in The Week.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Still More Lies about Health Reform

The insurance companies and their bought-and-paid-for public servants, like Joe Lieberman and Evan Bayh, are at it again—desperately trying to derail the health care overhaul this country so desperately needs. I’ve had it with the ads running in my area, claiming health care reform will bankrupt the country, that it’s a “bill we can’t afford to pay.” (Note the clever and insidious double entendre on the word “bill.”)

What we can’t afford is more of the status quo—continuing America’s second-class system, which is undermining the nation’s health and threatening another financial meltdown when Medicare runs out of money.

Reports from the Congressional Budget Office and others consistently point to enormous savings in the new system now being proposed, as well as an option for the 46 million Americans who can’t afford health insurance. (And in a sluggish job market, every job lost may mean another family having to make the horrific choice between going without medical care or risking bankruptcy.)

I urge you, the silent majority of readers of this blog, to do two small things today to make the world a little better:
  1. Log onto the web page and sign your name to let Congress know you care about health care, and

  2. call the office of your local Representative and tell him or her to support the bill now being considered in the House.

The life or livelihood of someone you know very likely depends on whether we Americans do our small part now to move things forward--finally, after 40 years of talking about it!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Education: Every Poor Child Left Behind

In France, it matters not at all where a child lives—big city, rural village, in a cottage or a mansion: every child is taught the same basic curriculum in safe, clean, well-funded public schools. Each child is deemed worthy of the same amount of money for his or her education as every other child.

In America, it matters a great deal where a child lives. With state and local funding determining everything from teacher pay to the types of books (if any) students have to study, the rule of thumb is this: the rich are well educated and the poor are not. The rich are safe at school and the poor are not. The rich go to school in clean, well-lighted buildings with large classrooms and laboratories and low student-teacher ratios. Poor children may have to endure buildings contaminated with mold and mildew, outdated textbooks (if any), and crowded classrooms with discouraged, inexperienced, and underpaid teachers.

In 1991, Jonathan Kozol wrote a book that shamed the nation. Savage Inequalities documented the appalling inequalities across the country between educational opportunities for the rich and the poor—a distinction that all too often breaks down along racial lines. Kozol has been writing ever since, describing again and again the shameful apartheid that exists in America and documenting how, rather than getting better, the situation has become progressively worse.

Kozol is one of the most respected educational theorists since John Dewey. He’s founded model schools that show beyond doubt the efficacy of his ideas. Yet his tireless crusade in behalf of America’s school children has accomplished very little except to raise the consciousness of those who have read his books. The reason: the way schools are funded.

In The Shame of the Nation (2005), Kozol documents the breakdown of the “old, but seldom honored national ideal of universal public education that affords all children equal opportunity within the borders of a democratic entity.” Therein lies the problem. In America, the “democratic entities” that determine the level of opportunity for children are the states and local districts.

Data from 2005 shows that the average amount of money spent per student in this country was about $8700. However, that figure is pretty much meaningless; it represents that proverbial “average weight” of a mouse and an elephant. A state-by-state comparison shows a difference of almost $9000 per year between the state that has the highest per-student expenditures (New York at $14,119) and the lowest (Utah at $5,257). These figures don’t begin to suggest the magnitude of the problem, however: within each state, depending on the local tax base, expenditures per student can vary dramatically. This suggests what Jonathan Kozol has spent his career documenting in detail: students in America’s richest districts live on an entirely different planet from those in the poorest districts.

Neither states nor local communities can fix this problem. It has to be addressed on the national level.

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 is a heavy-handed, unfunded mandate that forces every district in the country to meet arbitrary, often meaningless standards and to spend millions of dollars on expensive and time consuming “high-stakes” tests. However, its passage was at least an acknowledgment by the federal government that it bears some responsibility for equalizing educational opportunities in America. Professional educators have made the best of a bad situation and strive to meet the requirements of the bill, while improvements that would really make a difference—most significantly, smaller class sizes—continue to be put off indefinitely.

We can't fix inequalities in education by telling states and local districts to fix them. If they could, they would. Funding for education has to come from a pot big enough to ensure that there will be enough to go around. This would not be a matter of increasing overall costs for education; rather, it would be a matter of eliminating the colossal waste involved in having fifty different states with fifty different sets of standards, fifty different departments of education, and fifty different "high-stakes tests."

A responsible, functional central government could solve many of this nation's problems and eliminate extraordinary, unimaginable waste--if only we had the wisdom to elect good, responsible leaders (as we did in 2008) and support them as they go about their work.