Category Archives: Humanities

Sorting Out Right and Wrong With Malcolm Gladwell

Gladwell Ticket Stub.jpgHow do we know what is right and wrong? This was the question that Malcolm Gladwell put to his audience at the New York Fest on October 7.

Gladwell set the stage for the question by comparing to pieces of literature: The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit by Sloan Wilson and In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien. He compared the treatment of what combat meant to veterans after World War II and after Vietnam. In The Man in the Grey Flannel suit, there are harrowing depictions of combat, but the effects of the war on the main character come from an affair he had with a woman while overseas and not the violence he faced. On the other hand, the main character of In the Lake of the Woods is greatly affected by the violence that he was caught up in during the Vietnam War.

Gladwell found this quite strange, and I don’t think there were any combat veterans among the New Yorker Fest audience to explain how one veteran might be able to put aside the experience of the war and another could not. But Gladwell used this as a jumping off point to talk about our sense of right and wrong and how it has changed over time.

In the first book, the violence committed was not wrong, but the extra-martial affair was, whereas in the second book, the violence was part of what was wrong.

But Gladwell acknowledged that it was not that simple. He noted that our sense of right and wrong has changed over time to the point that we now measure right and wrong not by a more sense, but rather by how much harm has been done by an action. In the first book, the wrong was an affair that caused no particular harm. In the second book, the harm caused by the violence made it wrong.

Acknowledging that there were difference between the wars and the generations, Gladwell confronted the question a little differently. He raised the question of childhood sexual abuse. He gave as an example a study done by Bruce Rind that found that survivors of childhood sexual abuse were able to overcome the trauma and go on to lead normal lives. The response in the media was that Rind’s study was somehow minimizing sexual abuse, rather than the positive interpretation that people can overcome terrible experiences. Rind essentially said that just because people could overcome the effects of the abuse, that didn’t make it any less wrong. (You can read more about it here.)

Gladwell said that this recent approach — that wrongfulness is strictly related to the amount of harm it causes — is a result of secular thinking displacing religious thinking, and that it has impoverished our moral conversations. He mentioned the controversy over the Woodrow Wilson school at Yale, and noted that the students protesting against the name were claiming they were harmed by it.

“You can’t argue , if you are a student at a great school. you aren’t being harmed by the name on the outside of the school,”Gladwell said.

Gladwell asks why they can’t just argue that it is morally wrong to name the school after him, and instead have to claim harm.

I think Gladwell has missed two currents in American society that have led to the shift in our definition of wrong and right from moral to level of harm.

First, the United States legal system has made the determination of harm a fundamental part of determining right and wrong. You can’t bring a case in the courts unless you can prove harm. This is the ‘case or controversy clause,’ which comes out of Art. III, Section 2, Clause 1 of the U.S. Constitution, and was part of Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife. You need to show that you have suffered actual harm in order to bring a case. I believe that this kind of thinking carries over, even if unconsciously, into the American psyche.

The second current that I think Gladwell has missed is more controversial, but it is the fact that there is a certain power in being a victim. Rory Miller, a corrections officer and tactical team leader, has written a number of books on violence and its aftermath. On of the things that he has mentioned is that people will sometimes adopt the role of victim/survivor because it gives them the power to manipulate situations and groups of people. Miller cautions that we should be careful about this, because survivors of trauma and attacks have the capability to recover and even become stronger after something terrible happens to them. He notes that the anyone who might have to deal with violence could end up in the position. But there is a notion, almost unspoken, that victims never truly recover and thus must always be catered to. Miller notes that it is not unreasonable that someone might try to turn that weakness into a strength.

The upshot is that claiming harm has been done and that one is a victim lets people feel as though they are in a stronger position than just making a moral claim. The problem is that spurious and manipulative claims of harm make it harder to help people who have really been hurt.

I think Gladwell would benefit from talking to Miller before writing anything because Miller understands the power of victimhood and the processing of trauma. I don’t know that either of them will ever see this, but I think the conversation would add dimensions to both of their works.

I also think that Gladwell has it right: we do need to think about right and wrong both in terms of harm and in terms of a moral calculus.

“I’d like to see is hold both notions. There are times when what is harmful is wrong. I’d like to say that there are times when you don’t have to make a harmful claim if you are going to make a moral claim,”Gladwell said.

Do It Yourself America: The Declaration of Independence

This entry on the Declaration of Independence means skipping ahead a little in the reading list, which can be found in the link above the picture. Sometimes, though, circumstances can change your order, even when reading the classics.

Every Fourth of July in Boston, the Declaration of Independence is read from the Old State House downtown, just as it was in 1776. In 2014, the reading was moved to Faneuil Hall because of Hurricane Arthur. I had gone down to hear the Declaration read, as I have done every year I have lived in Boston. I got to the Old State House and found that it had been moved.

After walking over to Faneuil Hall, I found that the hall was full and no one else was being admitted. There was at least one man with his kids who was very disappointed that they would not hear it this year. After thinking about it for a moment, it occurred to me that the rebels who started the country would not have been put off by a full hall.

I walked into the shop area of the Hall and bought a copy of the Declaration of Independence. There were only a few drops of rain. I walked out into the area between Faneuil Hall and the shops of the marketplace, and said that since we could not get into the Hall, we could do our own reading.

I started to read, and a small group gather, with one man encouraging me to read on.

The Declaration of Independence is an important document in the history of the United States, and it is a product of its times, enumerating the problems that the colonists had with England. At the same time, it sets out some of the ideas that make the country what it is, and reveals some things about human nature.

The writers of the Declaration make an observation that I think is fascinating: “accordingly all experience hath shewn, that man-kind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” I can’t help but read this sentence without thinking about what evils are ‘sufferable’ and how do people make that determination. Despite some of the outlandish rhetoric that finds its way into the public discourse in the United States today, we do not suffer under the same kinds of tyranny that existed then, or that exist in other parts of the world today.

It is hard to know how one can identify an insufferable evil — do we need to have a certain amount of knowledge to do so? In places like North Korea, do they realize that another way of life in possible in a totalitarian regime that offers so little to the average citizen? I have said before, one of the most important reasons to study the humanities is to recognize our own humanity and that of others. It is to give us the self-awareness to question those who would set themselves up as our leaders or try to control us. The humanities give us tools to help develop a code of honor and a wider awareness to understand how to live. While we can do it without books, they help us avoid needing to reinvent the wheel.

What the Declaration teaches us about the United States is that the founders never saw it as a heredity nation. I read somewhere once, and I wish I could remember where, that the fundamental notion of the United States is that its people are a political people. In other words, it is our agreement on certain principles that make us Americans, not the accident of our birth location or our genetic heritage. These fundamental principles are laid out in the Declaration of Independence.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

It is easy to be cynical and dismiss these words because they were part of a document signed by slave owners. It is tempting to point to the history of the United States and the many times that it has failed to live up to these words and declare that they are empty and meaningless.

Instead, what we should realize is that the existence of these words gave the United States something to live up to, something to strive for. These words gave us something to consider as we strove with battles over slavery, women’s suffrage, and civil rights. They are with us today as we deal with ongoing problems of freedom and justice for everyone.

It is worth noting too, that the language in the Declaration gives hints of what is to come, and the outlining of grievances against the British Crown provide a framework for the Constitution that was to come and the Bill of Rights. The Declaration describes how the colonists “have Petitioned for Redress int he most humble terms:” which presages the First Amendment to the Constitution, which ensures “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The ending of the  Declaration provokes some interesting thoughts as well.

“And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”

I feel like we have lost a little of the spirit of the Declaration of Independence as time has worn on. Even in our language, we have moved away from the idea of the United States as a political entity towards one of a state where people are born to it. We have a “Department of Homeland Security.” We are afraid of immigration. We hold ideas about people that run counter to the high ideals set out in the Declaration.

Our country may be in danger of falling short of those ideas again. But we still have them to guide us, and we still have the ability to live up to them. It will take work, but I think that we can do it. We just need to remember these ideas and study them.



Privacy is About More Than Having Something to Hide

Edward Snowden’s release of information about how the National Security Administration is gathering information about people’s communications both in the United States and abroad raised the issue of privacy in the digital age. Unfortunately, the fact that the NSA is listening has become a punch line rather than a call to action.

Of course, the NSA is not the only one that is listening. The private sector is doing its best to gather information on all of us as well. Acxiom, a data mining company, recently has begun inviting people to long on and view what data it has collection on each one of us. Acxiom invites us to correct our data so that we can get ads that are more relevant to us. Every purchase we make with electronic means, every loyalty card we scan, every search we make is gathered and cataloged by people who want to manipulate our behavior.

Some people ask what is the big deal? Who cares that the government or corporations are building profiles on us? The most common refrain is: “if you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to worry about.”

But that misses the point. Privacy is not about having anything to hide. It is about our personal sovereignty. We don’t need to give everyone access to levers that make it easier to manipulating our habits. While the upside is that we are supposed to have an easier time finding those things that matter to us, the downside is that helping us find what we want is not necessarily the interested of those collecting the information. Instead, they are more interested in convincing us we want something that they have to sell. That may be something that is not good for us, or something that we don’t need.

There is another reason that privacy is critical for human beings. Privacy is what provides intimacy. Having everything out in the open deprives us of the ability to choose with whom we share things and what we share. Our hopes, our dreams, our fears are all part of make us who we are. And when we limit who we share them with, we get closer to those people. Our relationships have more meanings when we have inside jokes, shared experiences, and more understanding of those close to us than the rest of the world.

If everything is an open book, then we all are diminished in a way to a collection of facts and observations. If we all know everything, then it is harder to have shared experiences that make our shared lives special. These experiences, shared words, and inside jokes are not necessarily sinister or something to hide, but they are something to treasure. One determinant of value is rarity. Keeping things out of the public eye, out of databases, and away from marketing snoops, government snoops, and even the snoops in our personal circles makes those things more valuable.

If you are interested in other ideas about privacy, and why it is not about something to hide, take a look at Professor Daniel J. Solove’s essay “‘I’ve Got Nothing to Hide’ and Other Misunderstandings of Privacy.”

Additionally, when it comes to the realm of buying things, this article from Forbes Payment Privacy: Are untraceable Purchases Ever Okay? provides some interesting discussion points.

Humanities and Charles Manson’s Real Name

In this blog, I have said that one of the values to studying the humanities is that the study leads people away from following crazy, destructive ideas. Instead, it teaches them to question authority, find better solutions to problems, and recognize their own value as human beings in solving problems.

Dan Bern, a musician with a wry sense of human, wrote a song called ‘Krautmeyer’ that I think points up to a lot of the value of being able to see humans as humans and recognize our own humanity.

Charles Manson doesn’t even know his last name anymore
Charles Manson’s real name was Charles Krautmeyer; he’s forgotten it
Charles Manson had a bunch of people
Who believed his every word
Who followed his directions to cut a bunch of rich people
Would they still have done if they’d known his name was Krautmeyer
I kinda doubt it

He talks about Marilyn Manson and how things would be different if he called himself “Marilyn Krautmeyer.”

The value in this song is that it can show us that we should not get sucked in by personalities and manipulators, regardless of their levels. Thinking about the greatest instances of man’s inhumanity to man, they come when people en masse start to follow a leader with crazy ideas. Thinking about our own lives and the way that we sometimes put ourselves in bad positions because of bosses, friends, fads, and so on, it pays to remember, as Dan Bern points out, that these people are often just picking their noses.

I was on a bus the other day, and a guy got on dressed all in black in 90-degree plus heat, with facial piercings. He was attempting to look fierce, or out side of the mainstream, or something. He was wearing a Marilyn Manson tee shirt. All I could think was “his real name is Marilyn Krautmeyer,” which changed the way I viewed him, and brought out his humanity.

What Are the Limits of Markets

What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of MarketsWhat Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets by Michael J. Sandel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Anyone who is interested in in the shape and direction of our society should read this book. In What Money Can’t Buy, Michael Sandel provides an interesting counter-point to the market fundamentalism that dominates our society today.

In the United States we have been encouraged to let markets solve every problem, but there are limitations to the market. What Sandel asks is whether or not puttting something up for sale devalues it. Using examples including human blood, time, and civic involvement, he answers that selling something can cheapen it.

This can be a difficult argument to make, because we all value things like education and community involvement differently. Still, Sandel gives examples of how valuing things with money can actually lead to counter-intuitive results.

I think the underlying thought is that if you pay someone, providing an ancillary or outside incentive for what should be done because of its intrinsic good, then that person could be induced to do the opporite if a sufficient incentive were offered.

We live in an era of market-fundamentalism, which is just as powerful as any other kind of religious fundamentalism. Economists have pushed politicians and popular discourse to think of everything as being valued only in dollars and sense. It leads to economists saying things like “price gouging is good” after disasters.

The book covers issues like naming rights, line jumping, and sky boxes. Is it right to selll advertising on cop cars? Is it right to sell advertising space on our own bodies?

There is one aspect of these kinds of questions that I don’t think Sandel adequately covers. He never talks about where markets fail. Although a market theoretically should cater to the desires of people, it can’t cover needs and desires that aren’t recognized. Markets also do not always allocate things efficiently or fairly or produce the best option. The proliferation of bad pop music is an easy example. Food deserts are another example of a market failure. Sandel talks about the moral failrues of markets, but I think that more discussion about technical failures of markets would have strengthened this book.

Nonetheless, in reading Sandel’s book, there is an underlying assumption that there are things that are good and right. All is not relative in Sandel’s world, and it is not in ours. “In adition to debating the meaning of this or that good, we also need to ask a bigger question, about the kind of society in which we wish to live.”

I think everyone should read this book and think about what kind of society we want to live in, especially as we go through a round of elections where this discussion is being brought into sharp relief. Buy a copy or visit your library and get one. The questions in this book are some of the most important we face, and this is a side of the discussion that is too seldom heard.

View all my reviews

The Pragmatics of Philosophy

It has been awhile since I published my last post, but I have not stopped thinking about the ideas we talk about in the blog. The daily grind has prevented me from reading and writing as much as I want to, and that has gotten me thinking about the practical side of all of this.

Does Montaigne, or Plato, or even the Bible have anything useful for us as we go through our daily lives? On one level, I acknowledge that this is all an academic exercise, but I value the reading, writing, and conversations that happen here. Of course, the thinking is the most important part of it.

On another level, though, these works and this conversation make us better people and gives us something to use in the rest of our lives. That is the faith that underlies this entire blog. Still, I am left with the thought that it is incomplete.

These books tend to give us the ‘why’ of our lives, but not necessarily the ‘how.’ Over Memorial Day weekend, there were a lot of war movies on television, many focusing on World War II. As I watched scenes of Nazi’s and imperial Japan occupying other nations, I wondered what good understanding philosophy would be in the face of invasion. You have the philosophy that what is happening is wrong, but what can you do about it?

That is an extreme case. What good is philosophy in the face of an earthquake, hurricane, or wild fires like those in Colorado? What will it do in a drought?

Even in daily life, what does all of this do when we are thinking about how to conduct our professional and personal lives?

I’d like to think that this knowledge helps me make better decisions at all of these times. It will help me act as a better person. I would know what side to join in a war, what to prioritize in a disaster, and when to tell a boss or friend that something is wrong.

Still, the how sometimes bothers me. I sometimes think that something like the Popular Mechanic’s top 100 skills ( ought to be part of the curriculum for people in the humanities. That way, when the time comes to act, there is at least the beginnings of making something meaningful and right happen.

Still, I am open to suggestion, what skills should we all have if we hope to make our lives better and make the world a better place?


Read That Again

Here is a brief post from The New Yorker about why it can be important to re-read your favorite books. As I mentioned in an earlier post about homework, the meaning and value of books changes with time. The experience of rediscovering a book can add a whole new dimenions to our reading.