Forward Thinking: What is Personhood?

(This post is in response to this Forward Thinking blog challenge.)

The way this challenge is framed —

What is personhood? When does it begin? When does it end? Is it gained and/or lost gradually or all at once?

seems to rest on certain assumptions. Personhood is imagined as something that we naturally have, something that inheres to us by nature. Such personhood can only be spoken of in the passive voice, because it is not something that we DO, but something that “is done” by God, or the universe, or agent(s) unknown. This is my first objection to the common view of personhood.

Christians, of course, tie personhood to the notion that each human being has a soul. Having a soul (if I understand this view) makes each of us a person. But for those of us who don’t believe in spirits, including souls, this view of personhood is rendered irrelevant and irrational. This is my second objection to the common view of personhood.

Instead, I look at a person as a process that unfolds in constant give-and-take with the world around. Personhood is the expression of a person’s experience, especially the conscious expression of a person’s conscious experience. Personhood changes over time, but it is always an activity rather than a state of being. 

I think it’s useful to think of personhood as being performed in two ways, because I think human experience has two dimensions. We wish to express what makes us unique individuals, but we are also always interactively connected to other persons. We are always modifying the expression of our individualism to fit with those around us, and indeed, our own individual experience is constantly being influenced by those around us. In return, we exert pressure on the way other persons express their individuality.

But expressing individuality is only part of our personhood. We are also communal beings. We cooperate with others to create shared resources (this blogging challenge is an example). We adopt (at least part time) certain corporate identities, as when we assert “I am a ___________.” This sets up new kinds of feedback loops, as the group changes our individual experience and expression, and our individuality changes the group. 

It is common to say that the West (and America above all) values individualism and devalues communalism while the reverse is true in the East. There is some truth to that idea, but it’s not all that important. If such a divide exists, it is time to transcend it, because survival requires that we accept and strengthen both sides of our personhood.

So, then, I propose the following way of thinking about personhood: Personhood is an active process of expressing our full nature, individual and collective. We manifest or suppress our personhood as individuals, but we also enable or impede others in manifesting their personhood. Furthermore, personhood is an activity that we develop throughout our lifetime. We are not born (let alone conceived) with personhood fully developed. Instead, we are born with a very rudimentary kind of personhood, which we then (with the help of our parents and society as a whole) fill out using experience and human interaction as raw materials.

From the point of view of a Christian, abortion is an assault on personhood. I would like to talk about what kinds of activities would count as assaults on personhood as I understand it.

Let’s begin (as good Westerners) with two ways we frequently assault the individualistic aspects of personhood. 

Assault 1 (Kantian reduction)

We express our individual personhood by choosing our own goals, and by choosing and implementing means to achieve those goals. Agency is an irreducible aspect of personhood. Whenever we use another human being as a means to our goals, impeding him or her from freely choosing and pursuing goals, we are suppressing his or her personhood as an individual. Real life examples would include:

1) having or training children to become an army of Christ 

2) manipulating debt policy so that young people or workers will have to support the debt-holders

3) lying to people in order to secure their votes

4) slavery (as the perfect or quintessential form of this behavior).

In general, when we use the power we possess to coerce others to work for our benefit before their own, we are to that extent assaulting their personhood as an individual. The essential feature of “Kantian reduction” is that we treat a person as something less than a person, namely as an automaton or a tool. 

Assault 2 (Stereotyping)

We express our personhood at the individual level by manifesting our own combination of strengths and weakness, as well as likes and dislikes. Whenever we refuse to see and judge someone according to his or her own actions and words, but instead assume that he or she will act in the way we associate with a group, we assault the personhood of an individual. 

This xkcd cartoon provides a (fairly) light-hearted example of the problem:

More serious examples would be racism, sexism, religious zealotry and nationalist bigotry. The essential feature of stereotyping is that we treat a person as something simpler than a person, namely as a “type” or a stick-figure.

Obviously, it is very easy to recognize these kinds of assaults on personhood in everyday life. Next I would like to talk about assaults on personhood in its communal aspect, which might be a less familiar idea to Americans.

Assault 3 (isolation)

Because we are social beings, it is impossible for us to express our human nature in isolation. Indeed, children raised in extreme isolation are incapable of becoming fully capable persons. Shunning has been considered a punishment worse than death in many societies. Yet we continue to ignore harmful, though unintentional, isolation (for instance, of old people) and worse, we deliberately use extreme isolation as a method of punishment and control (for instance, in supermax prisons.)

To isolate a person is  to actively assault the personhood of another human being. There is a growing consensus that solitary confinement should be considered torture, and I think that is not an exaggeration. Furthermore, we ought to be vigilant regarding other ways in which persons are forced to endure isolation, and when we become aware of an instance of isolation, we should remedy the problem.

Assault 4 (restriction of contribution)

It is part of human nature to wish to contribute to our community. Personhood naturally includes the expression of this part of our nature. We often call the expression of our desire to contribute “work”, and we want our work — above and beyond its remuneration — to be both an expression of our talents and a contribution to the welfare of our community.

Throughout history, and still today, some persons have deliberately frustrated the desire of other persons to work in this meaningful way. Examples include:

1) Denying certain people education, licensure, or other means to enter certain professions. One of the better contributions of the “American century” has been the victories against job discrimination won by Irish and Polish immigrants, women, Jews, African Americans, and now Muslims, LGBT persons, and Hispanics.

2) Insisting that members of some group only perform a small subset of the work available (e.g., complementarianism)

3) Devaluing work that is performed by certain groups. The terms “blue collar” and “pink collar” were coined to call attention to this assault.

4) Driving individuals or members of groups out of particular workplaces by bullying and other abuses.

The examples above, of various kinds of assaults on personhood,  are meant to be illustrative rather than exhaustive. They are included because I believe the value of any definition of personhood has to be whether it is useful for guiding our judgement about ethical decisions. In this regard, I believe that personhood as defined above is superior to the idea of personhood based on the existence of a soul. 

Forward Thinking: Challenging others’ identity

(This is a response to this Forward Thinking blog challenge post, on Dan Fincke’s excellent Camels with Hammers blog) 

The question posed this time is tailor-made for a Buddhist approach, the way that a question, say, about why we feel gratitude when good things happen is tailor-made for a monotheistic approach. Identity is an aspect of our sense of self, and Buddhism, after all, is deeply engaged with understanding how we perceive and misperceive selfhood.

The self, as Buddhists observe it, is a complex, constructed artifact that is constantly changing — so much so that any “I” we can identify with is simply a snapshot, soon to be superceded by a new “I”. Dan’s musings about when we become “a different person” has a self-evident answer for a careful observer: we are constantly becoming a (slightly) different person. It’s just that we don’t usually take careful note of small changes. Mostly this is a matter of failing to observe, but it does also seem as if the mind makes an effort to hide small changes and project the illusion of a stable self. We tend, for instance, to have a strong  feeling that we are the same person we were as a child, even though we know perfectly well that our “beliefs, attitudes, memories, values, dispositions, habitual behaviors, formative experiences” are completely different at age fifty from what they were at age eight. This feeling (the Buddha asserted) is an illusion… though I’d say it has its uses.

What we call “my identity” is a projection of an “I” into social space. Identity is, to some degree, performed rather than merely experienced. This is not meant to be a denigration of identity, or a suggestion that identity is somehow illegitimate or inauthentic. For one thing, it seems almost certain, from what I can learn about child development, that there is at no stage of our life a purely internal sense of self uninfluenced by how others see us. We construct self, from our earliest infancy, partly from our own experience and partly from the views of us communicated by our caregivers. When we are sitting in our high chairs eating baby food, we are not only laying down what may be a lifetime love or hatred of the taste of bananas; we are also learning that we are adorable or irritating, beloved or burdensome, interesting or ignored. Over time, we add layers of complexity to the social aspect of self as we begin to wonder what others think of us, and try to influence what they think of us, and even try to influence how they think of themselves.

In other words, our sense of self is fractal, with elements of our “own” experience transformed by and transforming elements of collective experience. We may emphasize the private elements (for instance, when we concern ourselves with integrity), or we may emphasize the collective elements. “Identity” is on the public side of that spectrum.

I think of identity a bit like antlers on a stag. They make the stag bigger, socially speaking. They clear a bigger space for him in the herd. And they are a signal about his health and strength.

And oh yeah — when he’s challenged, they are armor and weapons in one.

See, that’s the thing about “challenging someone’s identity”. As soon as I hear the term, I think of two stags crashing into each other (or, if they are polite, Canadian stags, maybe just shaking their heads in threat display.) Granted, it is more exciting to watch a couple of stags butt heads than to watch a herd of deer uneventfully cropping grass. But which is more useful?

My own approach to discussion does not usually involve challenging my partner’s identity. Usually, I do my best to slip past identity altogether, to a more central level. For instance, there is the level of stories.

Consider a fairly common story: “My life was a truly godawful mess. Then I discovered Fact X (and often, the community that accepts Fact X). Now my life is much better — still a work in progress, but I know I’m moving in the right direction.”

You can see this story all the time, if you look. It’s practically the foundation of groups like AA. The interesting thing about that story, to me at least, is how many sorts of Fact X there are: religious conversion, of course, but also “I’m gay and that’s ok”, “God doesn’t exist”, “9/11 was an inside job”, and so on. This is not the only story people construct about their lives, and it’s not universal. But it’s common enough that you quite often see two people challenging each other’s identity who, in fact, share that same story. Let’s say, someone who identifies first and foremost as gay and someone who is equally identified with Evangelical Christianity. 

What I have tried to do, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, is to notice when I share a story with someone, and try to get him or her to notice this interesting thing, that the area where we differ is in some functional sense actually the same. When it works, it builds a bond of understanding, though just a fragile one.

In some cases, a person has stories as polished and performative as his or her identity. In that case, I try to slip in a little further, perhaps by turning the conversation to other people, people each of us cares about. (This has the additional advantage of breaking the obsessive focus on self, which can make us defensive and inflexible.) When I was a kid, I always used to be confused by the fact that grown women — mothers and grandmothers and aunts — would constantly turn the conversation to how family members were doing. It seemed so boring! But now I see that it served the purpose of making real connection.

I think at this point I need to talk about intentions. It would be wrong, I think, to try to get close to people in order to manipulate them or change their mind. It would either be futile — because people are good at detecting attempts to manipulate them — or it would be, if successful, a violation of their autonomy. 

The view that one person can change another person’s mind is, for the most part, an illusion in any case. The conversion comes about naturally, by the ordinary process of change that is always going on. It might be that a would-be persuader happens to speak just at the moment when the conversion is imminent — or when initial recognition of an existing conversion is imminent. That creates the illusion of persuasivity (and often, inflates and falsifies the sense of self of the persuader.) 

But my intention is not to persuade, even in the cases where I’m sure I’m right and I would very much like to see everyone agree with me. (This excludes the case where there’s nothing to lose, as, for instance, someone pleading with a murderer to spare her life. Obviously, if there is no recourse, even something that shouldn’t work is worth a try!)

My intention is simply to find and connect with the best, most ethical and effective, common ground between myself and another person. Because here is the thing (and I’m going to go all Buddhist theory on you again.) Whatever part of ourselves and others we touch with loving attention is strengthened. This is called “watering good seeds” in Buddhist theory. So if the person before me is a raging homophobe, but also a loving father of a three-year-old daughter with Downs syndrome, then which part of him do I want to strengthen? Perhaps, if the right moment arises, I can drop in the fact that my daughter, whom I love so very much, is gay. But the point isn’t to change him. He has to change himself. 

He just stands a better chance of changing for the good if he encounters people who touch his strengths.

So that’s my view. If you’re going to challenge people, then their identity is probably the best thing to challenge, of the various aspects of their self. It might be a good spectacle, and I might enjoy watching it.

But I’m not sure it makes anyone involved a better person.


Notes for a summary / review of my philosophy class

*   Unusual class because it started with only two students and dwindled to just me.

* Intro (end of January):  overview (normative ethics / moral psychology / meta-ethics / applied ethics) We did quite a bit of applied ethics. 

* February — Kant and Mill. 

* March — Aristotle (and a little Mill)

* April and May — too damn much Nietsche (and a little Buber, but not enough Sartre and Hegel)

* late May, June — meta ethics + Rawls + “the knave”

There are two large ideas I formulated for myself as I worked through the issues we addressed, that I would like to develop further. Below are summaries of these ideas, and outlines of the kinds of arguments I will need to make to support them. (The points below should not be seen as fully-developed arguments, however — merely as outline points of eventual arguments.)

#1:  Although Buddhism is not a philosophy, it lends itself very well to the formation of a coherent ethical system. Some issues in such a system would be

* Buddhist ethics (and meta-ethics) are thoroughly humanistic. Human actions and human intentions are the only real concerns of such an ethics. We govern our actions and our intentions, and, although we are the products of a long history, we cannot hand off responsibility for our actions or our intentions. (Ideas such as being morally crippled by original sin, or afflicted with ineradicable weaknesses by “human nature” or by the vagaries of evolution, have no purchase in a Buddhist ethics.)

* Buddhist ethics starts from a thorough-going commitment to human agency. Our actions and intentions matter. What we do and intend has consequences, both external and internal. Moreover, our facilities of observation, reason, and memory (individual and collective) confer upon us the obligation to think ahead, to try to predict the consequences of our actions, and to form our intentions accordingly.

* Buddhism insists that moral conduct cannot be perfect without a clear view of the nature of reality.

* Buddhism defines three “poisonous” emotional states: greed, hatred and delusion. (These names refer to the grossest manifestations of these states — there are many subtle manifestations of these states that would not be named this way in English. For instance, In English, greed usually refers only to excessive desire for pleasant things. In Buddhist thought, whenever we attempt to prolong contact with a pleasant thing, or whenever we focus on some past or future pleasure, or whenever we reject the pleasant moment as not pleasant enough, we are controlled at that moment by greed. Hatred is roughly the opposite emotion to greed, involving the attempt to push away unpleasant sensations. Delusion is not only the sort of gross misunderstanding of reality conveyed by the word in English, but also many mistaken ideas about ourselves (that we are separate from the rest of the universe, that we can change the nature of the universe to make it more pleasant / less unpleasant, that we have an unchanging essence, etc.) 

* Buddhist thought recognizes four “immeasurably” virtuous emotional states: goodwill, compassion, appreciation, and even-mindedness. Goodwill is the embodiment of the golden rule: one wishes — and actively seeks — for all beings the blessings one wishes for oneself. Compassion is the reaction of a mind of goodwill confronted by suffering: one wishes and seeks the relief of suffering wherever it is encountered. Appreciation is the reaction of a mind of goodwill confronted by a virtuous action or being: one appreciates, is happy about, and may be grateful for the virtuous action or the contact with the virtuous being, and wishes him or her further success. Even-mindedness is acceptance of reality exactly as it is, without resentment or grasping. It should be stressed that even-mindedness does not preclude making choices about the future. On the contrary, even-mindedness creates a kind of well-ordered mental space in which good moral judgment can operate. 

* Buddhism holds that moral virtue arises as a byproduct of abandoning the three poisons and cultivating the four immeasurables. Although Buddhism provides plenty of rules of moral conduct and lists of proscribed actions, these rules and lists are merely instrumental — they function as guides to behavior during the process of abandoning the three poisons and cultivating the four immeasurables. The central goal, therefore, is NOT the perfect adherence to the rules or avoidance of behaviors on the lists. The rules and lists do two important things: they minimize the harm we do to ourselves and others while our virtue is imperfect, and they speed our progress in acquiring real virtue (since bad behavior makes it harder to abandon the three poisons and cultivate the four immeasurables).

* Complete virtue — which is equivalent to enlightenment — may be conceived of as perfect responsiveness to each moment. The enlightened one does not try to act as if he or she was separate from the rest of reality; instead, he or she acts out of complex connection to everything else, or rather, to all-that-is. An analogy that is sometimes used is the way that a pool of water reacts when a rock is thrown in. There is never overreaction or underreaction — throwing in a large rock creates a bigger splash and longer-lasting ripples than throwing in a pebble. But an enlightened one, unlike a pool of water, is conscious of the proper reaction.

#2 is the complex (and fractal) relationship between the individual and collective aspects of human nature, especially with regard to morals.

* Sources: This is noted in Buddhist yogacara philosophy, but to my very limited knowledge, not worked out in depth. In Western philosophy, various things we touched on MIGHT be relevant, but we didn’t really get into this aspect. (To take one example, how do Aristotle’s views on virtue, which we did study, relate to his extensive writing on politics, which we didn’t? This can be extended into many of the other strands of philosophical thought we examined, since many people worked on both individual and collective morality.) As I have begun to read Rawls, it seems as if the history of “social contract philosophy” would be relevant. And finally, there are various kinds of evidence from the natural world, ordered according to the central organizing principle of “how evolution works”, that are relevant.

* At THIS moment, it is only in the evolutionary field that I have enough familiarity with sources to have some initial thoughts. (I’m reading Rawls, and I will go back from there into the social contract philosophers he discusses, but that will take some time. And tracking down sources in yogacara — in English — is an even more daunting prospect.)

* One way of expressing the relation of our individual and collective nature is to view as as “mostly chimpish, but a little hivish”. I therefore need to examine 1) the evolutionary bases of individuality and 2) the evolutionary bases of eusociality (technical term for hivishness). In general, I think that the mechanisms of selection at the individual level have been well-examined from the very beginning of evolutionary theory. (For instance, the first description of the idea in The Origin of Species is stated this way: 

As many more individuals of each species are born than can possibly survive; and as, consequently, there is a frequently recurring struggle for existence, it follows that any being, if it vary however slightly in any manner profitable to itself, under the complex and sometimes varying conditions of life, will have a better chance of surviving, and thus be naturally selected. From the strong principle of inheritance, any selected variety will tend to propagate its new and modified form.

). Therefore, it seems to me that it is the eusocial arguments for human morality that require the bulk of explanatory energy.

* Some aspects of human behavior that seem impossible to explain from the point of view of individual selection become trivially easy when examined from the point of view of eusociality. For instance, scientists and science writers have both spent a great deal of effort trying to explain altruism, particularly when it decreases individual reproductive success. But altruism is easy to explain in, for instance, honeybees, requiring nothing more complicated than a knowledge of fractions. (See Stephen Jay Gould’s wonderful essay on haplodiploidy in Hens’ Teeth and Horses’ Toes). However, it may well be that his argument there is backwards. Instead of explaining eusocial altruism in terms of haplodiploidy, it may be that haplodiploidy is an end result — we might even say, a dead-end result — of eusocial altruism.

*Three distinctive features of eusocial species include:

* (1) specialization of roles (for instance, among bees, the ((diploid) queen specializes in reproduction while her (haploid) daughters specialize in supplying, defending, and maintaining the colony);

* (2) creation of a “commons” or colonial infrastructure such as a hive, a termite mound, or a complex of tunnels (some ants and naked mole rats)

* (3) husbanding of — and in many cases, manufacture of — a central cache of foodstuffs. Honeybees, of course, make honey. Some ants farm specific kinds of fungus. Naked mole rat colonies are built around gigantic tubers (“weighing as much as a thousand times the body weight of an individual” according to wikipedia. It is possible that (3) should be considered a subpoint — though an overwhelmingly important one — of (2), and that a centralized food supply system is an aspect of the commons.

* It is obvious that these are three things that set humans apart from other primates. I am willing to bet that NO species has managed the degree of specialization of roles seen in human societies. Similarly, no species has developed a “commons” as extensive as our dual physical and cultural infrastructures. (Physical infrastructures would include everything from cave dwellings to mega-cities strung together with highways and airports, while cultural infrastructure would include everything from language to universities to social media.) And humans surely have the most complex and wide-ranging system for producing and distributing food of any species in the history of life on earth.

* To consider our third “hivish” characteristic (food supply) first, it may give a clue to the initial evolution of hivishness. There is a theory that cooking is what makes us human, and this fits very well into an explanation of our hivishness, for several reasons.

*First, cooking increases the accessibility of calories and nutrients in foods, while also decreasing the nutrient drain associated with consuming that food. (Chimpanzees, for instance, spend several hours a day simply chewing their food — that in addition to the time needed to forage for it and separate edible from non-edible portions.) Obviously, increased  accessibility of nutrients in a given portion of food conveys a considerable selective advantage.

* Second, cooking turns eating into a social activity. Most foraging animals simply eat what they find, as they find it, perhaps sharing it with young. But cooking turns foraging into “step 1: collect food to cook”, which is then followed by returning that food to a central location to be processed further. This, I would like to argue — this point at which food acquisition becomes a multi-step process — might be the starting point the transition from individualism to eusociality in many species. Obviously, research needed to support that.

* Third, cooking may have pushed people to begin specializing roles, with some people gathering, some hunting, and some tending fires to be used to cook the food when it’s brought back.

* Fourth, cooking is one step in many kinds of food preservation. Preserving food “amps up” its available calories still further (since it cuts down on the calories needed to find additional foods), Also, it is a step in the direction of creating a “commons” — in the form of a stock of food, and the protected, suitably dry and cool space needed for that stock of food.

* (There are probably other things to say about cooking, and about the origin of eusociality generally.)

* One very interesting question about our double nature (mostly “chimpish”, somewhat “hivish”) is where the balance point is. We have any number of dystopian visions of imbalance, from Hobbes’s “battle of all against all” (too chimpish) to Orwell’s 1984 (too hivish). We may also see the balance point shift through history. For instance, Medieval feudalism in Europe (and Japan? — examples needed), seems very hivish: 

* It is (famously) marked by an inflexible system of specialized roles, in which individuals must fulfill the role assigned them by birth. One thing this suggests to me is that such a hardening of role specialization at the expense of individual autonomy might be an early phase of what we see in species such as bees, with their completely ossified system for assigning roles. This is why I earlier said that “haplodiploidy” could be seen as a dead-end outcome of the process of eusociality — honeybees have fit themselves so firmly into an ecological niche that they may be unable to survive any change. 

* The middle ages also demonstrated a strong ethos of collective responsibility for and benefit from the “commons”. Land could not be sold, and its benefits were rationed out according to the roles individuals played. (So, villagers might have a hereditary right to take firewood, but not game animals, from a forest.) The high Middle Ages was also a time of technological innovation and a period in which large joint projects (such as great cathedrals and, more regrettably, military adventurism) could flourish.

* Although I have a great deal to learn about the third characteristic of hivishness (a centralized food source), the high Middle Ages in Europe coincides with the Medieval Warm Period, a notable population increase and the building of large cities for the first time in several centuries. This certainly suggests a high degree of food sufficiency.

* If thlose high Middle Ages were marked by a movement toward hivishness, they were followed by a strong movement away from hivishness. Some of the subsequent developments that moved us toward chimpishness include:

* The Protestant Reformation, with its wholesale rejection of the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church and its embrace of individual judgment in understanding Christianity. The result was to take away religious backing for the idea of role specialization.

* The exploration of the world and the publication of accounts of other societies. The effect was to remove the justification of fixed roles as inevitable.

* The rise of markets in land and (much later) labor. The effect was to gradually fragment and privatize the commons. 

* The increase in trade, especially trade with distant regions. The effect was to create the middle class and give people an incentive to compete for novel and scarce goods.

* The Enlightenment and its “century of philosophizing”. The result was to provide various new systems of justification (of various degrees of quality) for those who wished to break down the old system.

* After a certain amount of investigation (i.e., not enough yet), I’m becoming convinced that the transition from strong hivishness to increasing chimpishness can be explained by the disruptions of the fourteenth century, in particular, the death of at least one third of the population of Europe due to the recurring epidemics of bubonic plague. This catastrophic period had the effect of breaking up the web of obligations that made up the Medieval system, not least by simply killing so many people that reciprocal obligation became unreliable. In addition, various institutions (notably, the Catholic church, but also secular authorities) did not rise to the challenge of helping ordinary people cope with the chaotic circumstances. It’s possible also that selfishness and asociality were actually selected for — if, for instance, people who lived in relative isolation, and therefore, were less dependent on the web of obligations of Medieval life, were more likely to survive and have children who survived. It should also be noted that the plague was followed by the beginning of the Little Ice Age, which must surely have disrupted food supplies.

* In any case, the fact exists that some of the clearest and most brilliant arguments for chimpish independence came from the philosophers of the Enlightenment. Over time, as their writings were studied, disseminated and popularized, there was a cultural shift toward individualism (“chimpishness”) and away from communalism (“hivishness”). 

* This is generally considered a blessing, nowhere more so than in America. It is easy to find works that offer justifications and even florid praise for the virtues of chimpishness, or that downplay or villify the virtues of hivishness. However, there is some evidence that we have not yet struck the correct balance.

* The most salient argument against our current assumptions is that we have gone too far in privatizing the commons. I need to make a full-fledged counter argument to the conventional “tragedy of the commons” argument. Plenty of evidence shows that when a commons resource is held AS a common resource, it lasts longer than when it is fragmented and privatized. In The Value of Nothing, Raj Patel points to the struggle of the Pakistani Fisherfolk Forum to keep control of the fisheries off the coast of Pakistan that used to sustain tens of thousands of fishermen, as it had for hundreds of years. However, when the government of Pakistan opened it to large-scale international trawlers, the fishery declined by more than 70 percent. This is an example of a commons resource that has been well-managed by communal structures, but was badly damaged by excessive privatization. 

* Of course, the most serious argument against excessive privatization is based on the dangers of global warning. The hallmarks of excessive privatization include:

* Hypercompetition

* Grasping of every possible resource, whether it is useful or not. (If I don’t, my competitors will.)

* Exploiting other people. (After all, they are “human resources”)

* Overproduction and “drumming up a market” for unneeded products. This includes such tactics as planned obsolescence

* Waste at every level, from unnecessary duplication of effort to post-consumer waste filing landfills.

(I will fill out the rest of this argument later… tumblr has trouble with a post of this length.)

Forward Thinking Challenge: About Cruelty

This was an interesting one, because it made me do some research. As I read Dan’s excellent summary of situations in which we recognize cruelty, I began to wonder how cruelty might have developed historically (meaning, via evolution.) Please note that in THIS post, I will confine myself to discussing cruel actions against other people. Many of the same considerations would apply to acts of cruelty toward animals, but I’d prefer to limit the length of the post by not considering the differences between the two kinds of victims.

A search for “evolution of cruelty” yielded some interesting results. In particular, there was a fascinating paper  that set out to define cruelty in such a way that it can be discussed scientifically. I did not end up agreeing with his definition, but there was a great deal of good thinking in that paper!

It seems to me that there is no evolutionary explanation for cruelty as such. There are, however, numerous evolutionary advantages to causing harm to other people in various situations. For instance:

1. War. Fighting and killing is a common evolutionary strategy to assure that a group has access to sufficient resources to survive. There are, and have been for thousands of years, clear standards about appropriate ways of making war and ways that inappropriate (i.e., cruel).

2. Revenge. According to this article in Scientific American, revenge makes it less profitable for others to attack you. Thus, it can serve to increase the lifespan — and other things being equal, the reproductive success — of a person who is known to be vengeful.

So is revenge cruel? It certainly can be; we have recently been witnesses to the beheading of Drummer Lee Rigby in vengeance for the actions of British soldiers in Muslim lands. Nearly everyone agrees that this act of vengeance was cruel. But when someone from Seal Team Six shot Osama bin Ladin in the face, this was not generally regarded as cruel.

3. Punishment. Punishment is clearly related to revenge, but is subject to more formal control. It generally involves hurting a person, though not always physically. As I discussed in an earlier Forward Thinking post, one kind of punishment called altruistic punishment can be shown in the laboratory to make it easier for groups of strangers to work together. As with revenge, punishment can sometimes be regarded as cruel, but not always.

4. Hazing is related to punishment (especially altruistic punishment), and it serves the prosocial function of assuring members of a group that they can count on each other. Again, we make distinctions between initiations that are harmless and those that are cruel. 

5. Teasing. Often, teasing can involve insults that could cause real pain. They seem to serve a prosocial function similar to, but milder than, hazing. We make a distinction between those that are “all in good fun” and those that are cruel — the latter kind is often referred to as “bullying”.

6. Capture / abduction / imprisonment of women for sex. As I was researching for this challenge, this post appeared in my daily blog reading. It is easy to see the evolutionary value of this practice — it increases the number of children a male can father. It might, in many circumstances, also increase the number of children a woman produces (by preventing her from engaging in other, competing, activities). For those reasons, it is a very old and very persistent pattern in human history. But unlike the other examples I have used, we now consider this practice cruel in all cases. Why is that?

Considering these six cases, we appear to observe a sort of Aristotelian mean with regard to at least the first five ways of harming another person. We feel that one can, and perhaps must, inflict an appropriate amount of harm based on the situation, but if someone inflicts too much harm, we regard them as cruel. (In the sixth case, we seem to have decided that the appropriate amount of harm is none, so in that sense we can say that  even the sixth case is an example of the same principle.)

It seems to me that the best way to define cruelty is this: cruelty is acting in a way that harms one or more people, without a proper degree of empathy for the person(s) we harm. We may or may not have a strong desire to harm the other person(s); way may have the right or even the obligation to harm the other person(s); but we must also restrain ourselves by keeping in mind the other person’s rights and inherent worth — by harming them, in effect, no more than we would think fair if our roles were reversed.

This idea of empathy restraining the desire to hurt someone is perfectly compatible with the way our brains work — it is often the case that one brain function (in this case, empathy) moderates another (in this case, the urge to harm someone.) If the governing impulse is absent or too weak, we can reasonably judge the resulting action as inappropriate, just as we do, for example, if a person gives in to the impulse to steal from a convenience store.

Although we assign blame to the individual who acts, culture plays its role here, too, by asserting that some people (either by class or by situation) are worthy of more empathy than others, and that some actions call for a response of greater harm than others.

In addition, there is a historical component in determining the correct response in a given situation. For instance, I remember that when my daughter was five, one of her friends’ grandparents groused that, when he was young, if a teacher hit a kid and the kid complained to a parent, the parent would hit the kid even harder. Everyone of my generation inched away from the poor old man…

This view of cruelty, I think, solves most of the mysteries that pop up when we think about cruel actions. For instance, under this analysis, it is clear that saving someone’s life by means of old-style surgery without anesthesia (in the days when anesthesia did not exist) cannot be called cruelty, since there is no failure of empathy. But doing the exact same action nowadays, in defiance of the normal standards of surgical practice, would still be cruel. BDSM play would also fail to qualify as cruelty, while domestic abuse would qualify.

An interesting, and possibly controversial, aspect of this definition of cruelty is that it takes no heed of intentionality. One can, under this view, be cruel unintentionally, by virtue of a failure of appropriate empathy. This, in my mind, is a feature rather than a bug: by this definition of cruelty, if a first-world company that outsourced its manufacturing to the third world and put in place layers of middlemen to make sure the company remained ignorant of horrendous labor conditions, the company cannot escape blame for cruel practices. Similarly, legislation that “just happens” to benefit rich people at the expense of the poor would be properly analyzed as cruel.

There is every reason to believe that social pressure can break down the level of empathy, which can lead directly to cruel behavior. We know from the Milgram Obedience Experiment that an authority figure can induce ordinary people to behave with cruelty. The Stanford Prison Experiment teaches us that peer pressure suffices to foster cruelty. Fred Clark (the slacktivist) wrote an extremely good post the other day about the way that fear of being punished for helping a stigmatized group can actually cause us to resent that group and stand by while they are abused:

And thus bystanders never only fear the mob or the secret police. They also fear the knock at the door. I don’t mean the loud knocking of the mob or the police — they have obediently done nothing to have to dread such an inspection. No, the knock that they fear is the furtive knock of a neighbor in need. They come to dread this more than anything.

And that dread, ultimately, becomes resentment. Guilt always leads to resentment. 

When cruelty is defined as a failure of empathy, it follows that individuals must cultivate and society must inculcate an appropriate degree of empathy. We in the West have not generally considered empathy a virtue that can be cultivated, but even so, we have clearly been drifting in the direction of increased empathy extended to a broader base of persons. For instance, we no longer tolerate slavery, indentured servitude, public hangings, cock- and dogfights, and many other activities that used to be perfectly acceptable but now seem cruel. And we insist (in law if not always in fact) that poor people, blacks, women, foreigners and gay men have the same right to security and public appearance that wealthy, straight white men enjoy. 

My own, fervently humanist, belief is that we can greatly reduce cruelty by deliberately cultivating empathy as individuals, and by public debate of the appropriate degree of empathy in various situations. Buddhists cultivate empathy by the discipline known as “metta meditation”, and I have no doubt other traditions offer their own paths to the same good. And public debate is already being sponsored by groups such as Karen Armstrong’s Compassionate Action Network.

It’s time to stop drifting and start working for a cruelty-free world.

Meta Ethics, ideas (for Dan)

1. Ethics belongs to the model of reality, not to reality. Ethics is a construction like scientific theories or mathematical conjectures that attempt to create a systematic explanation of noisy patterns in nature. In contrast, moral choices belong to reality, as well as to the model of reality. Our ethical model(s) inform our moral choices, but moral choices also involve feedback loops with “external reality”. That is, we make choices in response to “external” conditions, we monitor the results of that choice in “external reality”, and we use our perception of the results to both adjust our behavior and adjust our ethical model of correct behavior.

2. I take it that there are two systems of inputs that inform both our moral choices and our ethical understanding.

3. First, and fundamentally, there exist various “modules” within the brain that regulate our desires and emotions. These modules are activated by certain more-or-less specific stimuli, and when activated, a module pushes the brain/body toward a particular emotional state. Some of these states (in human) include guilt, shame, satisfaction with our behavior, a sense of unfairness, desire to punish someone, etc. 

3a. It can and probably often does happen that more than one of these modules is activated by a given situation — perhaps by different stimuli present in the situation. There is a mechanism by which the modules compete to affect the brain/body state. Depending on the outcome of this competition, one or modules’ effects may be suppressed in favor of a different module(s). Alternatively, the effects of several modules might be allowed to affect the brain/body at the same time, leading to combined reactions or reinforced strength of reaction.

3b. While many of these modules are present in animals as well as people, humans have a great many modules that are concerned with social interactions between humans. Probably no other animal on earth has as many social modules as humans, and therefore, the complexity of interaction of the various modules is probably enormously greater for humans than for non-humans. 

3c. Humans, unlike (probably) any other animal, have the ability to observe, categorize, interpret and predict the workings of these modules. We have this ability because we can strip away the specific context of particular reactions in order to isolate and focus on factors we deem relevant. (For instance, in the midst of a complex dispute, we can project a particular phrase spoken by an opponent, along with our visceral reaction, onto the negative space of attention, and ignore the rest of our opponent’s remarks.)

4. The second system of inputs to morality is tied to our sense of agency, our ability to choose goals (imaginary states we wish to attain in the future).

4a. In order to attain our goals, we must often interact with other people, influence other people to do things that further our goals, and/or form alliances with and against other people in pursuit of shared goals. 

4b. Because we have a theory of mind, we can also project the behavior of other people into negative space, and reason backward about their mental state, their motives, etc. To some degree we can also form theories of the mental states of non-human animals.

4c. We generally pursue several goals at the same time. These concurrent goals can be of different kinds (personal and shared, for instance) and may mature at different rates (long- and short-term, for instance.) We are able and required to make trade-offs among these concurrent goals.

5. Ethics then consists of an attempt to examine 1) our insights about our own mental states and those of others 2) our observations about the results arising from acting in different ways and in each given situation in order to 3) formulate rules about conduct.

5a. Rule-making is necessarily an activity conducted in the negative space of attention, making use of a simplified model of reality. Generally, rules are not flexible or comprehensive enough to completely determine our actual moral choices. However, they serve a role of “pre-calculating” options, so that (in the complex and perhaps hurried moment of decision) certain possibilities do not even have to be considered. 

6. Ethics is essentially a shared activity, while moral choices are made either privately or jointly. (Interestingly, we often create “notional persons” such as governments or corporations to make such choices.) 

6a. I am still trying to think through the ways the individual and collective aspects work. Clearly this duality leads to enormous complexity, but there may be certain governing limits introduced by collectivity that also contribute to making the system more ordered. 

7. Both ethics and moral choices are subject to change over time, because both inputs are subject to change over time.

7a. The brain modules that control moral reactions are subject to evolution. This means that there is variation in which modules are present in each individual, how strongly each module competes to influence brain state, etc. In addition, population genetics will adjust the strength of each reaction in the population as a whole. 

7b. Individual goals are subject to change as culture (both the physical commons and the commons of ideas) changes. For instance, the notion of “stealing” changes as the rules about private property change (a change that affects both the physical commons and the commons of ideas.)

7c. Shared goals also change over time; for instance, certain public goods such as education can come to be construed as individual rights.

8. Based on this analysis, it’s hard to say if I accept the idea that there are moral truths. If they exist, they are surely impermanent and not independent of human bodies/minds.

Two Teachers: Notes on Sutta Study, MN 95, Canki Sutta (part 1)

Yesterday was the monthly (now to be bi-weekly, YAY!) sutta study meeting at my temple. We discussed MN 95, the Canki (pronounced, roughly, chunky) Sutta. There is so much in this sutta, that I will probably want to make two or even three posts on it. Some of what I write is based on the lectures of Bikkhu Bodhi on the sutta. Some is based on our discussion yesterday. And some is based on my own reflection. I will try to indicate which is which.

This is a layered text, as Bikkhu Bodhi notes. It appears the first 10 verses are added to the text, and it is hard to imagine how the compilers of the suttas could have had firsthand knowledge of the material in the first 10 verses in any case (again, as Bikkhu Bodhi points out.)

What’s interesting to me is that the sutta is named after Canki, who plays a large part in the first 10 verses and nearly disappears subsequently. He only plays a role in vouching for Kàpañhika (also called Bharadvàja), who spends the greater part of the sutta debating with the Buddha about the nature of truth.

Now, as it happens, we (at the temple) have been dealing with a series of suttas that relate encounters / discussions / disagreements between the original sangha and other groups. The Buddha taught in a time and place where there existed that rarest of public goods: a free marketplace of ideas. So in MN 11 and MN 13, the Buddha explains how his teachings differ from those of “wanderers of other sects”. In MN 12 the Buddha refutes the claim that the validity of a religious teacher is demonstrated by his performance of miracles. In MN 58 (which we will be dealing with next meeting), the head of the rival group (the Jains) tries to make the Buddha look a fool with a tricky question about right speech.

But this sutta is particularly interesting for Buddhists in the 21st century, because the challenge put to the Buddha is this: What do you say when an opponent claims that “our religious tradition is truth, and all other religious views are false”? Obviously, this is a claim we often encounter, from many different people. I myself have been challenged in this way by Christians, Muslims and New Atheists.

Let’s start by setting the stage a bit — which, come to think of it, is what the sutta compilers did when they added those first ten verses. In these verses (which are possibly interpolated from DN 4, according to the text) we get a brahmanic view, though perhaps at second hand) of the qualities of a worthy religious teacher:

Good Cankã is pure of birth on both the mother’s and the father’s side. The purity, is without blame about birth, as far back as the seventh fore father. … Good Cankã has great wealth, is learned in the three Vedas, and the rites and rituals as officiating priest. Knows the phonology and etymology of words. Is learned in the marks of a Great Man. Good Cankã is pleasant to look at, has a beautiful skin complexion, talks politely, has nothing inferior in his appearance. Good Cankã is virtuous and well-developed in them. Speaks politely, distinctly, words full of meaning. Good Cankã is a teacher of many, teaches three hundred young men orally. King Pasenadi of Kosala reveres good Cankã. The Brahmin Pokkarasàti reveres good Cankã. The Brahmin Cankã lives in Opasàda, endowed with seven marks of a Great Man. He is supplied grass, firewood, water and grains, by king Pasenadi of Kosala as royal gifts.

So he’s from a good family, he’s got money and education, he’s attractive and a good speaker, he’s virtuous and a good teacher, and both political and religious leaders are impressed with him. The striking thing about this list is that it so closely resembles a lot of televangelists, mega-church founders, and spiritual lecturers of our own day.

But even if Canki’s friends have low standards for teachers, Canki himself does not. He might easily have been the kind of teacher who, when a rival visits his territory, he does what he can to drive him off. Canki might easily have refused to provide housing for the Buddha, or he might have made it known quietly that householders should not offer almsfood to the Buddha and his monks. Canki is obviously not that kind of teacher. Still, Canki could have refused to go to meet the Buddha. (In fact, that is what his friends advise.) In that way, he could have flaunted his status and (perhaps) robbed the Buddha of some of his luster. But Canki rejects that advice, and insists on treating the Buddha as he believes a guest should be treated. Or, in the final instance, Canki could be the kind of teacher who feared being upstaged by his students. But as we see later in the sutta, he actually defends his student Kàpañhika when the Buddha suggests that he should refrain from interrupting older Brahmans. So again we can see that, by the standards of the world at large, Canki is a true and devoted teacher.

By way of contrast (as the sutta compilers no doubt intended), the Buddha offers a still more exalted view of a worthy religious teacher:

a bhikkhu lives supported on a certain village or hamlet. A householder or the son of a householder approaches this venerable one to examine him to see whether he has greedy, angry or deluded thoughts. He examines, is this venerable one with such greedy thoughts, overcome by them, not knowing would say I know, not seeing would say I saw, or would teach others, in such a way for their ill doing for a long time. Then he knows, this venerable one does not have such greedy thoughts, overcome by them, not knowing would say I know, not seeing would say I saw, or would teach others, in such a way for their ill doing for a long time. This venerable one’s bodily and verbal behaviour are those of a not greedy one. If this venerable one teaches something, it is deep, difficult to understand, exalted, beyond logic, clever, should be experienced by the wise, this cannot be done by a greedy one. When examining he sees the venerable one is pure, has no greedy thoughts and examines him further.

Is this venerable one with such angry thoughts, overcome by them, not knowing would say I know, not seeing would say I saw, or would teach others, in such a way for their ill doing for a long time. Then he knows, this venerable one does not have such angry thoughts, overcome by them, not knowing would say I know, not seeing would say I saw, or would teach others, in such a way for their ill doing for a long time. This venerable one’s bodily and verbal behaviour are those of one not angry. If this venerable one teaches something, it is deep, difficult to understand, exalted, beyond logic, clever, should be experienced by the wise, this cannot be done by one who is angry. When examining he sees the venerable one is pure, has no angry thoughts and examines him further.

Is this venerable one with such deluded thoughts, overcome by them, not knowing would say I know, not seeing would say I saw, or would teach others, in such a way for their ill doing for a long time. Then he knows, this venerable one does not have such deluded thoughts, overcome by them, not knowing would say I know, not seeing would say I saw, or would teach others, in such a way for their ill doing for a long time. This venerable one’s bodily and verbal behaviour are those of one not deluded. If this venerable one teaches something, it is deep, difficult to understand, exalted, beyond logic, clever, should be experienced by the wise, this cannot be done by one who is deluded. When examining he sees the venerable one is pure, not deluded. Thus faith gets established in him, with faith he approaches to associate.

So, for the Buddha (and this is something he said in many places, such as the Kalama Sutta) the most fundamental requirement of a good teacher is virtue. Specifically, a true teacher must be free from the three poisons of greed, hatred, and delusion. (And note that this teacher is living modestly, supported by the offerings of ordinary people.) This is so for a very good reason: “That one who is himself sinking in the mud should pull out another who is sinking in the mud is impossible; that one who is not himself sinking in the mud should pull out another who is sinking in the mud is possible.” (MN 8:16)

I know this will not please many people who wish to do without teachers (perhaps because they have been failed by — or even abused by —teachers in the past.) I think the Buddha has a point here, though. I know for my own part I left theism at the age of about 30, and I considered myself an atheist for almost 15 years. But it was not until I “met” (through their published words) true teachers such as Thich Nhat Hanh and the Buddha himself that I began to live up to my own moral standards and even find ways to elevate those standards.

Since this post is quite long, I will end it here. As soon as possible I will write about the exclusivist religious claims made by Kàpañhika, and the Buddha’s responses about which claims of truth are proper and which improper.

May all beings be well, peaceful and happy! May all beings care for themselves with ease and joy!

Nothingness — a koan

Don’t you hate koans? Me, too! All that Zen mystification just chaps my tidy, Therevada soul. And yet…

A koan, I think, is a supremely well-designed teaching tool. It takes a problem and makes it stick in your mind like a burr, and yes, irritate your mind like a burr. After awhile, you’ll do just about anything to get rid of that pesky problem — even solve it!

Someday, I would like to write a book of koans for modern people, so let me try my hand at one right now. Here goes!

Q: Why is there something rather than nothing?
A. Because you can’t make the universe out of ice cream!

What do you think? I guess I should keep my day job, right?

Truth to tell, this question has never appealed to me. It doesn’t help that, every time I encounter it, it purports to be proof of the existence of God. These discussions never go that well for me; I can’t get past the fact that my discussion partner is offering proof of something they feel needs no proof, while I am being told that an extremely hinky question must be accepted as proof. I end up feeling I’m conversing with the Cheshire cat. What a frustrating kind of communication!

The nothingness question apparently goes back to Leibniz. He justifies the question by appealing to an argument from simplicity, as Jim Holt explains:

Nothingness is also, as Leibniz was the first to point out, the simplest of all possible realities. Simplicity is greatly prized in science. When rival scientific theories are equally supported by the evidence, it is the simplest of them — the one that postulates the fewest causally independent entities and properties, the one least susceptible to a trimming by Occam’s razor — that scientists favor. And this is not just because simpler theories are prettier, or easier to use. Simplicity is held to be a marker of intrinsic probability, of truth.

Scientists may prize simplicity, but it seems as if nature prizes it even more. Nearly all the atoms in the universe are hydrogen atoms, after all, and of the rest, nearly all are helium atoms. I don’t know if there is a power-law distribution, or if so, if it’s a smooth one (that is, that the number of atoms of a given type is inversely proportionate to the atomic weight), but surely we can conclude that simpler atoms are “prized” above complex ones.

If we narrow our focus from the universe to Earth’s biosphere, we find that by far the majority of living things on Earth are bacteria. In fact, Stephen Jay Gould writes that

Not only does the Earth contain more bacterial organisms than all others combined (scarcely surprising, given their minimal size and mass); not only do bacteria live in more places and work in a greater variety of metabolic ways; not only did bacteria alone constitute the first half of life’s history, with no slackening in diversity thereafter; but also, and most surprisingly, total bacterial biomass (even at such minimal weight per cell) may exceed all the rest of life combined, even forest trees, once we include the subterranean populations as well. 

So, it occurs to me that IF nothingness is simpler than something-ness, we ought to see quite a lot of it as we look around the universe. Yet it’s surprisingly hard to find.

We know that an empty bottle actually has air in it, but eventually we learned how to make a vacuum by pumping out the air. (You can do this experiment anytime you wish, and you can readily demonstrate that you have a vacuum by extinguishing a candle, or a small mammal, previously placed in the jar.) But those vacuums weren’t really nothing, because the pumps weren’t quite good enough.

Undaunted, we deduced and then proved that there was a much better vacuum between Earth and the stars, but for awhile, everyone thought it was filled with aether, a substance that would allow light waves to propogate as air allows sound waves. Then (fortunately for the quest for nothingness) it turned out that aether didn’t exist. Space was just a hard vacuum, waiting for a blues man to immortalize it. Leibniz seemed to be justified, hooray! The universe was mostly nothingness, which is what you’d expect if nothingness was a very simple state.

But then quantum mechanics reared its ugly head. Turns out all that “empty space” is actually teeming with quantum activity; it’s actually kind of a quantum-mechanical factory churning out particles. Curses! Nothingness foiled again!

If you can’t find nothingness anywhere in the universe, could it be that nothingness cannot exist anywhere in the universe?

The interesting thing about that question, at least to me, is the vehemence with which our mind rebels against it. Nothingness seems so real, so patently, obviously real! Now granted, we can imagine things that are not real — Cthulhu, for instance, or a modest Texan. But mostly, imaginary things are variations on real things, and if you examine them, they betray their hybrid origins. Nothingness, however, has a strange purity about it. It doesn’t seem imaginary.

At this point, I would like you to perform a small experiment. Look at anything in nature — a tree, perhaps, or a bird. Or look around your hopefully cluttered room and pick an object to look at. Now close your eyes and imagine the object. Go back and forth between the actual object and your mind’s-eye view, and ask yourself, what’s different?

The answer is: context. When I look at a tree outside my window, it is situated in the midst of other trees, and their branches impinge on the branches of “my” tree. Behind it (as I scan up) is a background of grass, then of bushes, then of other tree branches, then of sky. But when I close my eyes, I see — admittedly in somewhat diminished detail — only the single tree I choose to focus on. A magic air-brush removes all the messy context surrounding the real tree. 

Take it a step further, if you will. Close your eyes and imagine your object. Now erase the object. If another image comes up, erase that, too. If word-thoughts come up, turn down the volume until you cannot hear them. If you’re a patient hunter, you will catch a glimpse — or maybe a long, lingering view — of the negative space in which we isolate the objects of attention — which may very well be the only nothingness that exists, anywhere in the universe.

This is an extraordinary thing, this nothingness. It’s not cheap to produce: it requires a brain, which requires a body, which requires sources of energy, water, oxygen, etc., all supplied by an ecosphere, which is itself dependent on energy produced by nuclear fusion, as well as heavy atoms produced in the hearts of ancient supernovae. Yet this nothingness is so ubiquitous, so common a part of our thoughts that we seldom notice it. 

It’s likely that lots of brains other than human ones produce the negative space of attention. But it’s also likely that (on Earth) only humans are sophisticated enough to notice the negative space itself. And we do notice it; in fact, we are constantly trying to reproduce it in the world at large. What distinguishes a garden, for example, from a meadow? Only the spacing of the plants, the bare dirt between them, the care taken to limit the items in the field of vision of a human observer. Many of our most important inventions — the virgin whiteness of a sheet of paper, the dark cauldron waiting to be filled, the hole in the center of the wheel, even the rounded perfection of zero — are external forms of this fundamental nothingness within our minds. Is it any wonder that we see an “empty bottle” or “empty space” as examples of nothingness? Is it any wonder that the illusion persists, even when we are perfectly aware that it is an illusion?

This, then, is my answer to Leibniz and his admirers. There’s nothing simple about nothingness. It’s best conceived of as a manufactured good (all that star dust and DNA and sunlight and brains and minds, after all) that can be produced and enjoyed only within a quite narrow range of temperature and pressure. It is, in short, a bit like ice cream. 

And not even Leibniz would argue that the universe could be created out of ice cream!


Forward Thinking: What Are Our Ethical Responsibilities When Shocking Public Violence Occurs?

Amid the outpouring of blogging that tried to make sense of the Boston Marathon bombing — the tiny core of solid reporting and its vast, coruscating aurora of bloviating punditry and reciprocal finger-pointing — the sanest post I read was Arthur Goldwag’s round-up of “ the people–also driven by personal demons and/or ideology–who are certain that they already know all there is to know.” Goldwag, of course, is a self-taught hate-ologist, a journalist who tracks and reports on the various hermetically-sealed worldviews that pollute public discourse (at their best) and spin out crazy people with grudges and weapons (at their worst.) And for the first part of the post, he catalogs the usual crop of conspiracy theories and predictions that hit the airwaves while doctors in Boston hospitals were still amputating limbs. (If you really want a scorecard to identify those players, go ahead and click on the link above.)

However, what made Goldwag’s post truly helpful, what moved it beyond the usual tuttuttery about “the echo-chamber of the internet and 24/7 news channels”, was his analysis of the ways we often try to squirm away from horrible truth. We find someone to blame — at worst, we blame the victim. We critique the performance of first responders. We decry some tendency of human nature, generally one that is conveniently unfixable. And we distinguish ourselves from the victim(s), pointing out that we are careful, sober, health-conscious, well-organized, ample insurance-carrying paragons of planning ahead.

Goldwag notes: 

All of it is true, none of it is crazy or hateful–but to me it’s revealing that so many people feel the need to broadcast those thoughts out loud. What they are saying, in effect, is that the world is still rational and meaningful, even if terrible things happen from time to time. There is always an explanation; there are never victims, only martyrs or fools, and someone is always to blame. It’s a spontaneous act of theodicy, as if they all want to let God off the hook–and/or to reassure themselves that they are too smart to ever be a victim themselves.

I’m not criticizing the tendency; I’m just noting it. Alex Jones wouldn’t have the megaphone or the resonance that he has if there wasn’t a little bit of him in all of us.

If we take care to distinguish ourselves from the victims, we are even more frantic in our efforts to distance ourselves from the perpetrators of violence. While I hate to pick on Andrew Sullivan, whose writing I admire and who is by no means the worst offender on this score, his series of posts on the subject “Of course it was jihad” pushed most of the buttons remaining in my addled brain. 

His argument is that Islam is warlike because the Prophet led armies, whereas Christianity is peaceful because the Christ of the gospels is a peacemaker. (Notice he says nothing at all of the Christ of Revelations.) Speaking as a Jew, I am always tempted to call for a pox on both those religions’ houses, though, taking history as a whole, I think Islam has been less sanguinary. One wonders if Sullivan has forgotten the Troubles in Northern Ireland or the attempted genocide by (Christian) Serbs in Bosnia, or if he feels that Christianity has completely matured in the past twenty years…

One can only imagine what the New Atheists are saying — I am too easily bored by repetition to follow most of those blogs.

Everyone — Russians, Chechens, Dagestanis, Kyrgystanis, and gods help our education system, even the Czech Republic — have distanced themselves from the Tsarnaev brothers. Cambridge doesn’t want to allow the elder brother to be buried, partly, I’ll admit, for practical reasons. Muslim clerics don’t want to assist with the funeral.

But here’s the problem. While Islam (or religion generally, or ethnic identity, or colonial oppression) may provide the rhetorical fig leaves, the basic psychological mechanism is the universal tendency called “vendetta”. Someone — often a young man whose life is going poorly — adopts the pain and sense of oppression of a group, and acts as self-appointed family hero, revolutionary, freedom fighter, or soldier of God. 

Although the “virus meme” metaphor is overused, I think of vendetta as a bit like shingles. The original infection may be an armed invasion by conquerers or colonizers, sparking an outbreak of resistance and revenge that can be compared to chickenpox. But while the original situation is eventually resolved, seeds of buried resentment build protective cysts in the culture and wait to infect susceptible people. 

Revenge and vendetta are not, at base, religious urges — they may be among the few human customs that pre-date religion. They are responsible for most of the most horrifying examples of inhumanity. A small initial injury can cause cascades of violence, with the level of violence rising from one incident to the next. It is in this context that the lex talionis — an eye (rather than a life or a village) for an eye — was a step forward for justice, despite our disdain for it today. Religions have generally condemned revenge, but have not been notably successful in preventing it.

Revenge is not usually strictly proportionate. “For every one of us you kill, we’ll kill 100 of you” is a pretty common sentiment. Worse, revenge is often taken against someone who is considered somehow equivalent to the original offender, meaning that it targets innocent people. If you doubt that this tendency still continues, ask yourself this: why, after 9/11, did Americans allow themselves to believe the justifications for going to war in Iraq? I submit that it was because immediate revenge was blocked in Tora Bora, but SOMEBODY had to suffer. 

All the bad characteristics of revenge are amplified in vendetta. Vendettas can continue for centuries — remember, for instance, that the Bosnian Serbs were “avenging” offenses that occurred about 800 years earlier. By definition, the perpetrators of the original offense are dead, so vendetta never proceeds against the actual offending parties. And one of the reliable human tendencies is to improve the technology of killing from one generation to the next. (If we are killing tens of people at a time with drone strikes, can’t we expect to see the poisoning of major municipal water supplies or the bombing of huge stadiums in reprisal, twenty or fifty years from now?)

I have a spiritual practice I use to try to avoid distancing myself from either victims or perpetrators of violence. It is a variation on the charnal ground meditations described in the Satipatthana Sutta. We don’t generally have charnal grounds today, but we do have plenty of examples of horrid violence, often with graphic images. I hold it to be a duty to engage with these situations, and their images.

When I am confronted with such things, I focus first on the victims. I remind myself that I am subject to death, subject to injury, subject to illness, subject to the loss of those I love, etc. Nothing separates me from the sufferings of the victims except circumstance. 

When I come to understand this — and practice does, in fact, wear down the barriers to recognizing the facts — then I have every motivation to do what I can to help. Can I help this victim? Can I help other people in similar circumstances? If there is something to be done, that it is possible for me to do, I go ahead and do it. If not, I resolve not to forget. (After all, it might become possible to do something later.)

The second step in my practice is equally important. If there is a perpetrator, I think carefully about them. I remind myself that I am not a fully-enlightened Buddha, and that, therefore, I am subject to delusion, to hatred, to greed. What separates me from the perpetrator is… circumstance. I am fortunate that I have not lived that person’s life. I am motivated to practice toward enlightenment (when I can truly be free of bad inclinations.)

Also, I remember that there is no fixed self, and no immutable character. Yes, there are people genetecially lacking some of the important elements of morality, as psychopaths are lacking empathy. But for the most part, people’s character and moral choices are products of both individual tendencies and cultural norms. (If you doubt that a rotten culture can destroy the morals of ordinary people, I direct you to the scientific work of Philip Zimbardo.) For that reason, I have to do what I can to contribute to a healthy, humane culture.

Obviously, I am not advocating for specifically Buddhist practices. But I offer this example because it is one way of addressing what I feel is our main duty, not only in the aftermath of violence, but at every moment — resisting the tendency to squirm away from unpleasant truth.


Forward Thinking: The purpose of marriage (placeholder)

The final post is due before the 15th. I want to cover:

Let’s talk about “family” rather than “marriage”. Point out Peter Berger’s excellent observation

Against conservatives, I would point out that what they call “traditional marriage” is in fact bourgeois marriage, a little older than the steam engine, and with little resemblance to a Biblical view of the institution (if you doubt this, just refer, no less, to the last of the Ten Commandments, where a wife is counted among a man’s possessions, along with his slaves and domestic animals). 

What is the purpose and value of family for (adult) individuals? For children? For the state? For religious groups? For (other) social groups?

Family and property. Family and education of children. Family and mutual care. Family accountability for individual actions. Individual accountability for family actions. 

Sexual activity inside and outside the family — privacy vs. accountability.

Do I even like the term accountability? Is responsibility better? Or do the terms serve different purposes — the first for discussion of results in the public sphere and the second for private actions?

Response to “Forward Thinking: What is the Ethical Relevance of Pride?”

As it happens, this is a question that I can address from a position firmly rooted in Buddhist psychology. Pride — as I will define it below — is an unskillful habit that leads to unfortunate results in daily life.

Let’s begin with distinctions, since the word “pride” is used in various ways. For instance, in this country (the US), one is censured for having pride in one’s birth, but not for having pride in legitimate accomplishments. So, for the sake of argument, I will confine myself, at least initially, to arguing against the idea of taking pride in accomplishment.

To start with, let me say that it is natural and unproblematic to feel pleasure when we have set ourselves a worthy goal and, through sustained effort, without harming anyone, accomplished that goal. This pleasure is one of the gifts of human nature and, if we enjoy it in the proper way, it can spur us on to set ourselves new goals and put in the effort needed to accomplish them.

Now this pleasure, like all feelings, has the nature of arising and passing away. If we observe any feeling with sympathetic but dispassionate interest, we can observe its arising and, after a relatively short time, its passing away. That feeling might then arise again when we are reminded of the original conditions for it. But generally, its arising is like that of a bouncing ball, at first very energetic in arresting our attention, but gradually less and less energetic, and occurring at longer and longer intervals. 

The problems begin when we try to hang on to the pleasure of accomplishment, to re-stimulate its arising and to feed it energy to prevent it from fading away. This is a very common, even stereotypical, response to pleasant emotions of all kinds. (There is an opposite, but parallel, stereotypical response by which we suppress negative emotions.) 

When we re-stimulate and re-energize the feeling of pleasure in accomplishment, I would call that the first stage of pride. It is problematic in that it fixes our attention on a past state of events, and therefore distracts us from the present moment with its various opportunities and requirements for active response. 

Being distracted is bad enough, of course: we not only miss out, we can make mistakes when we are distracted. But there is another level of misuse of pleasure-in-accomplishment: we can use it to prop up our sense of self.

Usually this comes about because of wounding, often social wounding. We generally imagine that each of us is a self navigating a sometimes-hostile world. We reinforce our self with various kinds of armor as a defense against wounding, and pride at least seems to offer a particularly strong kind of armor. We transform our quite natural and organic pleasure in accomplishment into something rigid or tool-like — a way of defending ourselves (“I did something worthwhile, and no one can take that away!”) or even of attacking others (“Yeah, talk to me when YOU have done something worth talking about!”)

When we take this second step, enter this second stage of pride, we create an entirely new set of problems. Besides being distracted from all that is offered by this moment of existence, we have strengthened the barriers between ourselves and other human beings. We thus miss out on opportunities to learn, and to give and receive support. And in addition, by tying our status to our past accomplishments, we have made it harder to take risks that might lead to future accomplishments. We put ourselves at risk of becoming one-hit wonders.

Suppose we use the very common metaphor, in Buddhism and elsewhere, of life as a wide river with strong currents and many dangerous rocks, both obvious and hidden. Our selves can then be imagined as vessels — ships or rafts, perhaps — that allow us to stay afloat and avoid or survive crashing into the rocks. A person defending him- or herself with pride would then have a clumsy, over-large ship, and this proud person would spend most of his or her time making sure that the hull was not leaking. Small wonder if such a person did not have energy to spare for navigation!

An important thing to note is that this predicament doesn’t have anything to do with whether the source of the pride is unacceptable (for instance, pride in one’s ancestry), or whether the source of the pride is acceptable (for instance, pride after winning a Nobel Prize in medicine for reversing aging.) The problem, from a Buddhist perspective, is that a natural feeling has been turned into something ill-suited to its natural function — as armor, or as a weapon, or as a guarantor of status.

Americans have, in the past forty-some years, fallen into the error of believing that the best and most productive state of being is that of “high self-esteem”. This is usually attributed to Nathaniel Branden’s 1969 book, The Psychology of Self-Esteem, although the idea could perhaps be traced back to Hume. The theory of self-esteem is that, in order to function at a highly productive level, we need to have an appreciative awareness of the excellent qualities that are part of our very selves.

Now, in Buddhist thought, the sense of self is, at best, a useful illusion. It is unreal in the sense that we are never really as separate from “outside” reality as our sensed self insists we are. If we carefully examine the inputs (from our senses, from other people, from culture, from the mysterious and inaccessible functions of our own brains), we can get a somewhat better measure for how much of our selfdom comprises continuous interaction with “outside” reality. Also, our strongly-felt sense of self-consistency is an illusion, as we can readily perceive by comparing today’s self with that of our childhood, or the self we were when our beliefs and understandings were different than they are now. 

But if we examine self as a function, rather than as a felt subject, we can see its usefulness, and the reason that evolution has allowed it to persist, despite its very large metabolic cost. It is, after all, very useful to be able to, in imagination, wrench events from their actual context and examine them in isolation, or even in a different, hypothetical context. These are very powerful advantages that confer selective advantages on our species, and even on those individuals who are best at applying them.

Still, despite recognizing the very real advantages of possessing a self-function within our brains, Buddhist thought is radically opposed to ideas — such as the self-esteem movement — that perpetuate the illusions of separation and consistency that are part of our experience of self. In place of such ideas, Buddhist thinkers advocate a strong sense of agency.

Agency is the ability to choose our actions in the world, and to take responsibility for the consequences of our actions. Situations that can be analyzed in terms of self-esteem can often be better analyzed in terms of agency. For instance, it is sometimes asserted that the reason that an abused woman does not leave the abusive situation is that she lacks self esteem. A better analysis is that a key component of agency — the confidence that one’s actions can have the consequences we aim at — has been crippled for her. The technical name for this crippling of agency is “learned helplessness”, and it is one of the favored and most effective tools abusers can use against their victims.

Why is it better to frame the problem of the abuse victim as one of agency rather than self-esteem? Because what an abuse victim needs is not assurances of her good qualities, but rather a safe space in which she will have the opportunity to make choices and discover again the possibility of getting the consequences she desires. Even a surprisingly small space can often make a big difference, as, for instance, when creative writing classes or Buddhist meditation retreats are offered in prisons. Although being able to write down and read aloud one’s thoughts, or even to spend time in silent contemplation, might seem like a very small amount of control of one’s life, these are significant improvements in an environment where every action from wake-up call to lights out is dictated by others. 

The two essential aspects of skilled agency are these: first, a person understands that all his or her actions have consequences, and it is impossible to evade those consequences. The second requirement is that a person be willing to take whatever actions he or she judges will be beneficial. These two aspects of agency curb the tendency to impetuousness, on the one hand, and indolence on the other. When the focus is changed from one’s innate qualities to one’s choices, a person begins to experience freedom. If one sees clearly the way action begets consequences — that is, if a person does not fall into illusions such as separation from “outside” reality and failing to recognize internal change — then skill develops, and skill and freedom continue to increase together in a virtuous cycle. Someone who practices agency in this way does not fall into pride, first, because he or she takes responsibility for managing emotions, and second, because armoring one’s self does not contribute to either aspect of agency.

To return to our analogy of the river, those lumbering sailors in the big, leaky boats might have the opportunity to look over their high, splintered gunwales and notice that not everyone is so burdened. Keeping them company on the river are many small, maneuverable rafts whose pilots are busy learning seamanship — that is, they are engaged with the river, discovering its dangers and opportunities. Often, they travel in groups, sharing what they have learned and giving warning of particular dangers. 

And if the prideful person can look still further, he may catch a glimpse of the great-souled ones, whose skill in agency is complete. Those are the ones who have dived naked into the stream and are cavorting in its currents like dolphins. They have left behind even the minimal self of the rafts; their understanding of the currents and rocks is perfect; they have no need even to choose their actions, since they act from simple necessity.

These are the ones who have no pride, but whose actions and words survive the centuries.