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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Prerequisites to ethical understanding

Equanimity is more rare a treasure
than pleasure. (cc) Mark McQuitty
I've noticed it is sometimes difficult to convince some people of why ethics matters. Recently I've realized this is because there are certain realizations that must be achieved before ethics can be comprehended.

By ethics I do not mean such things as the Ten Commandments or other authoritarian rules. Those are merely extortion and have little to do with true ethics.

One of the reasons some people are incapable of understanding the nature of true ethics is because they still believe that wisdom consists of, or results in, avoiding pain and pursuing pleasure. However, pain is unavoidable, and pleasure always fleeting.

Thirst for pleasure is unyielding. Any particular instance of pleasure never lasts and yet there are always new opportunities for pleasure. So pursuing pleasure is like trying to horde water flowing in a stream with your bare hands. There is nothing necessarily wrong with pleasure, but as a path to the good life it is both pointless and unnecessary as a subject of pursuit.

What we may find over time is that something else is far more important to the good life - more rare, and difficult to capture, but also more lasting once obtained - which is equanimity, contentment, or true happiness. Although pleasure may temporarily distract us from our lack of true happiness, it is quite a different thing from mere pleasure, in both its form and the manner in which we can obtain it and hold on to it.

Meanwhile, on the matter of pain, over time we may find that although it is unavoidable, we can learn how to confront it.

But in pursuing the good life, first we must abandon the notion that wisdom is about avoiding pain and pursuing pleasure. Then we must understand how to cope with pain, tell the difference between happiness and pleasure, and learn that the former is the more central to a good life. Rather than 'avoiding pain and pursuing pleasure' we move to 'handling pain and pursuing long term equanimity and peace'. Only once that shift has been made is someone ready to comprehend what true ethics is about, and why they ought to be ethical.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A message inspired by Dr. King

Yesterday I spent a little time viewing interviews with, and documentaries of, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his struggle against injustice and inequality. There was a particular aspect that struck me on this occasion, likely one of many which are relevant to our nation today.

In his interviews and speeches Dr. King often spoke, not only of freeing blacks, but also of freeing whites. He noted that segregation had two bad effects, in that it gave black people a false sense of inferiority and gave white people a false sense of superiority. He referred to the situation with those white supremacists as a psychological harm from which they needed to be freed, as a matter of having compassion for one's enemies. In his most famous 1963 speech, everyone remembers his use of the phrase "free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty we are free at last". But more of the quote reveals who precisely the "we" pronoun refers to:

"...when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, 'Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!'"

So everyone, whites included, will give thanks that they are free. Free from hate, free from the burden of constant struggle to maintain dominance, free from the psychological harm of evil to the mind and conscience. Dr. King fully understood and realized what Gandhi understood through the doctrine of karma and what Socrates and his students understood - that when we do evil we harm ourselves, and that the oppressor is victimized along with his victim.

This is the message our nation needs to hear as it struggles obsessively to maintain dominance over the world. Since we abandoned non-entanglement principles after World War II, our history has been one of continuous warfare. Only the names and locations have changed. Meanwhile, we have grown our military far beyond several of the next-sized militaries on the planet combined, comprising a substantial amount of our resources as we continue into debt. Further, we have divided these expenses into a different category, psychologically setting apart other expenses as "discretionary" - as if the money we choose to spend on our massive military is not at our discretion. We pretend to ourselves that these expenses and such a military is necessary to 'defend' our nation. Yet, at the same time, that military is not solely at home. Over our long period of warfare from WWII to the present, in our relentless effort to gain tactical domination over the globe, we have extended a network of permanent military bases within the territories of other sovereign nations. Yes, at their request or with their permission in most cases - but not without contention from locals and not without financial or spiritual costs to us as a people. And while we speak of military use as a 'last resort', when one maintains such a gigantic military dominance and widespread presence, the temptation to resort to it whenever a challenge arises becomes so great as to be nearly irresistible. This was made clear by our shocking and unimaginable turn of national character as we embraced a doctrine of self-initiated wars of choice.

And as we spread ourselves more and more, we make ourselves broad targets and we give ourselves much to lose. With so much to lose, and taking more hits, we feel more and more threatened rather than more safe. We fear that letting up any at all will result in our cities being bombed and our nation falling to enemy forces. We falsely believe that the proper response to feeling threatened in this way is to seek greater control. We believe if we had more control, more bases, more military might, more violations of personal liberty, that we will be more safe. Yet this only broadens our target and further inflames our adversaries. Thus we continue in a never-ending cycle of fear and power mongering; a trap of our own creation.

There is a reason some nations, even those with little or no military, are not hated and threatened by others. Yet, unfortunately, many of us cannot even see the insanity of our situation as it has become in the last decade, let alone the last six. We have become normalized to it, or forgotten our way. But Dr. King's message holds true between nations just as it does within nations. Isn't it time we began to let go of the fear to which we've become enslaved, shrug off our heavy burden of the master, and began to seek greater brotherhood with our neighbors?

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Dalai Lama: non-religious people can be good too

Copyright © The Office
of His Holiness the Dalai Lama
The Dalai Lama has over 1.2 million 'likers' of his Facebook page. It's probably maintained by assistants I'd guess, but it seems to be official in that it has inside information on his travels, schedule, and seems to be real messages from him.

Anyway, he wrote recently about the relationship between goodness and religious belief...

"My belief is that the various religious traditions have great potential to increase compassion, the sense of caring for one another, and the spirit of reconciliation. However, I believe that a human being, without religious faith, can be a very good person - sincere, a good heart, having a sense of concern for others - without belief in a particular religious faith."

We Humanists would agree! :)

[See also: Why this Humanist admires the Dalai Lama]

Monday, January 3, 2011

Progress vs consumerism

Merry Consumas!
(cc) khaybe,

Especially as a person gets older and they see their incomes go up while their free time goes down, it becomes more and more tempting to simply buy things for people for the holidays. With online shopping it's become even easier, and many people are now getting gift cards. Between those two, gift selection has become little more than a few clicks of a mouse and a deduction from the bank account - and it feels about as meaningless. Many people want something media-related, such as movies, music, and the like and these kinds of products are becoming more virtual and easier to obtain and transfer, making the process all the more shallow. This is not only an issue when it comes to problems with consumption, but also with the real meaning and value of a time where giving and sharing something real is important.

But this past holiday season my wife and I made some progress in our aim to make things less focused on consumerism, which I was happy about. We both gave more presents that came from things we made ourselves, and spent our own time on, rather than bought purely in stores. As an artist, I painted some pictures and my wife made baked goods.

But we still have a ways to go. We still bought several things from stores, bought online, and gave some gift cards. When asked for our wish lists by friends and family, we also asked for purchased media and other goods. So now that we're at the start of a new year, I'm looking ahead at birthdays and next winter solstice and trying to plan things out. After all, the issue has not been so much about money as it has been about the much more scarce resource: time. Therefore, it seems to me the really meaningful gifts are those that involve giving of that more precious commodity. This can take the form of making things for others, or of spending that quality time directly with them.

But how do we tell people, "No, I'm not going to give you that season of your favorite TV show you've told me you wanted"? And, when they ask us what we want, how do we tell them, "Don't get me anything you're going to simply buy"?

This year, when I gave my dad a picture I had painted of his beloved dog, he doted over it and really seemed to appreciate it far more than any gift card or store bought item I'd ever gotten him. So that answered for me the first question. Even if people tell you what they want, they'll more appreciate something they can't simply go buy themselves. As for the second question, it might help them to ask for something specific like, "I'd like to spend an afternoon with you" or "I'd like one of those scrapbooks you like to make".

Of course, time being what it is, we're likely to see less gifts exchanging hands, but I think that's ok. None of this is really about stuff we need. Oh one last thing - if you have kids, instead of asking them, "what do you want for Christmas?" how about, "What are you going to do for your friends and family for Christmas this year?"

My hope is to eventually transition to some specific sets of personal rules whereby I do not give gifts unless they are something I put time and thought into, and perhaps some other rules of thumb to make gift giving occasions more meaningful.