How Do We Really Deal with the World’s Problems?

In the face of the world’s problems, it can seem like a waste of time to spend a lot of effort understanding philosophy and old books. What do all these old books mean in the face of problems like climate change, the rise of the Islamic State, and what looks like the renewal of the Cold War with Russia?

In the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001, there was discussion of a “clash of civilizations” echoing ideas presented by Samuel Huntington several years earlier. This idea occasionally resurfaces, but it is easier to talk about violence and military solutions.

The problem with this is that it only goes so far. As the recent events in Iraq have shown, we can win the battle, but the battles, there needs to be an alternative to an endless war between ideologies. Despite beating enemies in Iraq, the chaos that resulted and equipment left behind have helped create a new, terrible enemy in the Islamic State.

It is worth noting that the unraveling of the Soviet empire came about in large part because of ideas and tools to spread them. Smuggling fax machines into Poland and showing Gorbachev the grocery stores had a lot to do with the outcome of the Cold War.

People follow leaders because they believe in the ideology that leader is selling. It is easy to convince people to follow if they have no other frame of reference and no ability to think outside of their immediate context.

Understanding philosophy, religion, literature, and science are all going to be important to solve the problems that face us. We need to give people new options of thinking or every military victory will be temporary. The only way that we can offer people new options of thinking is by knowing them ourselves, by being able to think in new ways, and by understanding others. The set at the core of this blog is not complete, but it is a start to understanding where we come from, and that is way to begin understanding others. Being able to bring a convincing argument about why people deserve rights, why beheadings are wrong, and how a new way of thinking will lead to a better life for everyone.

Reading is fundamental. So is having the great conversation with people who think differently than us.


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.

Modern Works: Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life

Twelve Steps to a Compassionate LifeTwelve Steps to a Compassionate Life by Karen Armstrong
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My karate dojo is reading this book as a group to learn about compassion and to expand out training beyond punching and kicking. We plan to tackle a chapter a month, though I have read the whole book in keeping with the author’s suggestion and will go through each step along with the rest of the dojo.

It is a thought-provoking book that has led me to try to look at people and events in my world in a different way. I try to think about approaching situations from a position of compassion rather than aggression or dispassion.

The author of the book, Karen Armstrong, perhaps by design raises more questions than she answers. Compassion is never strictly defined. So, there are points in the book where compassion seems to be identical to politeness or doing a good deed. I don’t think this is exactly compassion. I think that there needs to be an element of commitment of one’s personal power, or resource to be in compassion.

There are aspects to the book that I think are interesting from a philosophical point of view, though I don’t know that they matter to the overall message.

First, she talks about Socratic dialogue being a compassionate tool and says that Socrates was compassionate with those he spoke with. Yet, Socrates was put to death as a result of how he treated others when speaking with them and dismantling their arguments. Anytus in “Meno” unlikely found Socrates compassionate.

Second, I don’t think that Armstrong gives Western civilization enough credit for Compassion. Compassionate organizations such as the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and hundreds of others grew from the Western notion of the importance of the individual. I understand Armstrong’s desire to promote cross-cultural understanding, but I think she misses some important examples of compassion in that emphasis.

I have a few other quibbles (for instance, I think she takes an unjustified swipe at E.O. Wilson), but overall I think this is a worthwhile read for anyone who is interested in living a life that includes concern for other people across the planet and for those trying to develop a broader sense of the interconnectedness of people.

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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?


Earl Shorris Made The Great Books Relevant To Modern Life

Earl Shorris was an author and social critic who died last month. In addition to his writing, he created the Clemente Course at  Bard College that was designed to teach low-income people about philosophy, art, and literature. The aim of his work was to show that the way out of poverty was not just skill training or financial literacy education, but was instead an education that helped people think about their world in a broad context and to understand that there is more to life than just survival.

I was fortunate to hear him speak once, and to have participated in the Odyssey Project which was the Chicago extension of the Clemente Course. I was a writing tutor and helped facilitate the classroom discussions. I enjoyed it because I learned as much as the students.

When you are working on helping someone understand philosophy or literature, it is necessary to both meet them half way and pull them into new, and sometimes uncomfortable, territory. For many of the students I worked with, their only exposure to these kinds of topics, to challenging books at all, was the bible. To get them to step into another author’s world required me to be a diplomat — respectful, yet committed to an agenda that was perhaps different from theirs.

You can’t work with people without studying them as well. There were several tutors and teachers in the course, and seeing how different personalities and students responded to the different styles taught me a lot about teaching and learning.  Sometimes you need to give people the question and the answer so they can debate it and make it their own. Sometimes you need to give people clues to what you want them to learn. Sometimes you put something out there and see what they teach you.

Discussion Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling with a man who has lost a son is a different experience than sitting in an undergraduate course with a bunch of kids who have no real world context that compares.

At the same time, talking about whether or not saving a drowning child is a good act if part of the reason you do it is because you know it will help you get dates with the girls on the beach can show you how much students can adopt the thinking of the things they read. (For the record, I think it would be a good act, even if you might get a date out of it. The students in the class, not so much.)

There was another reason that I felt it was critical to participate in the Odyssey project. I felt like the more educated people we could produce, the less chance there would be for demagogues and tyrants and bullies to do damage. The more people who could call shenanigans on the lies and vitriol that come at us from so many directions each day, the more likely we are to survive as a civilization. I realize this sounds a little melodramatic, but it is people who understand the humanities who prevent massacres.

Earl Shorris and Robert Maynard Hutchins both said that the education for the best — meaning the leaders of society and the upper classes — is the best education for all. That is not a very Platonic idea. That said, it is one I happen to agree with as someone who has made the journey from relative poverty into a comfortable middle class life.  I hope that in some small way, I helped make a difference and contributed to his vision.


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.