August 2014 Archives

Guns Do Kill People



I have been away from the blog a lot lately. We have been inundated with visitors and have been enjoying a long spell of gorgeous weather that has dragged me away from the computer. I expect the same to continue until we pack up and head back for Lexington. I have been focusing on what may be another book. I continue to write in uncertain terms as I am not at all sure I will follow through. I am mildly depressed by what is going on all over the world and wonder whether I can make any difference or whether bad times are unfolding too fast. This morning I read news of a nine-year old child accidentally killing her instructor while firing an Uzi in full automatic mode. I try to put myself into the head of gun enthusiasts in order to understand what would otherwise be insanity to me, but this one and other similar events simply don’t fit in any way. Why not hand a child a battle-ax and teach them how to behead people? We condemn child soldiers being used in other places. Why? The circumstances are not the same, of course, but there are some parallels that I find terribly disturbing. Both involve teaching children how to use what is primarily a killing machine.

The argument given for this in the US that this practice is just a form of entertainment or preparing one for self-defense or something else just as lame is on the wrong side of very fundamental morality. Given the universal exposure to violent death in the news and games, and entertainment, how is a nine-year old going to make the very fine distinction between guns as weapons and guns as toys. As I write this, I am very close to tears.

Having abandoned “sustainability” as a misconstrued concept and beyond that as a sham practice, I have focused on flourishing, all by itself. Flourishing or some equivalent concept is the most fundamental measure of human life. It entails attaining whatever particular potential lies within our species’ capabilities. That potential ultimately arises from our genes and nowhere else, but in the language of genetics, the difference is not in the genotype, per se, but in the phenotype, that is, how the genes become translated into the living characteristics of the organism. Humans have been endowed with a few critical characteristics that raise our possibilities far above the genetic limitations of virtually all other species. Our brains are vastly larger and more complex. Coupled to the senses, the brain enables human consciousness, allowing us to hold images (images used here only as a metaphor for some distinct neuronal arrangement and processes) of the world in our memories, and reflect on them. That and the particulars of our vocal structure, in turn, has enabled us to create and use language, again, a trait far more powerful than that of any other species. Without language, we would not have concepts, and without concepts we would not have flourishing or potential or trees or anything at all.

In discussing the human species, I could stop here and let you complete the story of how individual and cultural human life might follow from only this bare description. But before you do, let me go a step further. In the course of the history of ideas, some philosophers and others added something to that genetic base: a human essence or nature. Man (it was always man) is selfish, seeks pleasure and avoids pain, is a rational animal, is empathetic, has a soul, has an ego, and so on. The essence became the basis both of understanding human beings and of designing cultural structure. We live today in a [modern] world in a structure wholly based on a few of these concepts, along with a similar set of concepts about how the world works.

Our well-being has been defined as how well we follow and fulfill the potential implicit in our essence. If we seek pleasure as a rule derived from our essence, then more pleasure is always better than less. If we get pleasure by owning things, more again is better than less. Thus was economic growth born. On the worldly side, advances in science were seen as a force for progress, moving forward away from the strictures of the dogmatic middle ages, but without a clear end. This idea of human potential is fuzzy. How selfish does one have to be to have become fully human? For theistic religious believers, how well are we doing God’s work, as it was set out for us and embodied in our souls, is the measure of human potential. For many, that potential is not to be realized while on Earth, but only after Earthly existence ceases. In all these cases, human potential is defined and judged by some external standard.

But what if there is no essence? [No one has ever isolated and put any such essence in a container.] What, then, would be the meaning of human potential, or of, say, flourishing? Given nothing out there to invoke as providing the meaning, all that is left is ourselves. Not such a novel idea; this belief is the core of existentialism, a philosophy or, as some say, an attitude that argues that humans create their own essence. Each of us chooses who we will be in life and, subsequently, follows a life trajectory, plan, project, or some other named coordinated, meaningful, intentional existence to become and remain the person we choose. If I choose to be a carpenter, I first learn what a carpenter does and how the work is done, acquire the requisite tools, and set out to be a carpenter as evidenced by what I do.The identity we choose is always and only manifest in the actions we take accordingly. We are not a carpenter until we become one in action. Even an apprentice is not yet a carpenter. We never have only a single identity, and our identities change over time. Early in life we may be a student, later a spouse and parent, even later a grandparent. The characteristics of any identity are socially constructed over time. I can add some variety to being a carpenter, but unless I conform to a set of norms set by historical, societal practice, I am only fooling myself and everyone else.

So, is there any sort of human potential here? There’s nothing that’s sitting somewhere out in the world to identify and measure it. It must come within and from the choices we make. Our human potential is limitless in terms of the choices available to us, with exceptions generated by our genetic, fixed traits. We are who we choose to be. Even one’s worldly circumstances, no matter how daunting a challenge they pose to a choice, are not a fundamental barrier. Flourishing is simply an indicator of two things: the authenticity (freeness) of the choice and the integrity of the follow-up way of living, that is, how well is the person sticking to the path needed to become the person chosen. Decisions made on the basis of conforming to societal norms or peer pressure or other authoritarian directions, say, a parent, are inauthentic and cannot lead to flourishing unless, at some point, the person does indeed choose who they are freely. Only the person herself, knows the answer to the question about flourishing.

Flourishing is never some end state. It is always about becoming. One is never finished becoming a carpenter until a new identity is chosen and the process starts over, or until the person dies. One can choose an identity handed to them by accident of birth and flourish, but only if, at some point, they make that choice, freely. With such a free choice, people can live dignified lives under the worst of circumstances. No choice is better or more meaningful than any other. What counts is only the authenticity and integrity of the following life experience. If we make our choices freely, we are then responsible for the lives that follow. There is no outside authority or standard we can blame for what we do.

With this as the vision of flourishing, I claim it is exceedingly difficult to flourish in our modern, hyper-consumptive, inauthentic society in the US. What to be is dominated by a media view. Celebrity is idealized. Wealth is a primary measure. Children are being educated to be technicians. The idea of a liberal education is but shadow of its intended purpose. A central aim of a liberal eduction is to afford choice by teaching critical thinking, a way to make free choices, and exposure to all kinds of possibilities.

The news about the mindless shooting I mentioned above started me along the thread of this post. We may start to make our choices early in life, but must by the time we become adults. One definition of an adult could be someone who has stopped flailing around and has chosen what identities to pursue in life. Our choices are influenced, but not determined, by our experience. Parents, who choose to be parents, have a responsibility to be mentors and examples for their children. Teaching your children how to handle lethal weapons is about as far from being a responsible parent as I can imagine. Perhaps it would be appropriate in the Middle East or some of our urban neighborhoods where violence and danger are the norm, but by no dint of imagination can I see it as proper here in the US, where it has become a form of amusement, as depicted in this part of the news item I began with.

The four-hour tours offered by one of the big gun ranges here are a popular tourist attraction: Starting at $200 a person, a bus will pick up visitors at their hotel in Las Vegas, 25 miles to the north, show them Hoover Dam and bring them to a recreational shooting range called Last Stop, where they can fire the weapons of their dreams: automatic machine guns, sniper rifles, grenade launchers. A hamburger lunch is included; a helicopter tour of the nearby Grand Canyon is optional.

Our lawmakers may have given people the right to bear arms, although I, among multitudes, do not believe that we did. But, even if individuals are free to do have arms, they are just as free not to. Arms belong to soldiers and police officers! It is part of their identity, but not of parents or virtually every other identity in our free society. If guns become a normal part of who everyone is, using them routinely is sure to follow. Not much possibility of flourishing there!

More, Not Less, Humanities


humanities tee

Nicholas Kristof wrote an oped today arguing for the importance of the humanities in our lives. Clear and to the point. He begins.

What use could the humanities be in a digital age? University students focusing on the humanities may end up, at least in their parents’ nightmares, as dog-walkers for those majoring in computer science. But, for me, the humanities are not only relevant but also give us a toolbox to think seriously about ourselves and the world. I wouldn’t want everybody to be an art or literature major, but the world would be poorer — figuratively, anyway — if we were all coding software or running companies. We also want musicians to awaken our souls, writers to lead us into fictional lands, and philosophers to help us exercise our minds and engage the world. Skeptics may see philosophy as the most irrelevant and self-indulgent of the humanities, but the way I understand the world is shaped by three philosophers in particular.

His three guiding thinkers are Isaiah Berlin, John Rawls and Peter Singer. A wonderful choice. I won’t repeat what he says about them here; you can go to the column to find out. What he didn’t say is that everyone of us has such guiding philosophers, but mostly we do not know or care about them. Humanities would make us more aware that we live by rules and institutions that were shaped by philosophers going back to ancient times. Unlike the personal choices Kristof makes, we have little or no choice but to be influenced by them every day.

Here’s just a few. You should recognize them and understand exactly how they influence your life. The list would be very long, but here are three who matter. René Descartes is the first. Descartes’s thinking was instrumental in creating modern science. He thought we could become knowledgeable about the secrets of the world by looking at its parts as isolated components of the system we call reality. He created the notion of objective reality-a world out there that inquiring human subjects could get to know by examining it. Nice and clean. Without Descartes or someone like him, we would not have the vast array of technology that characterizes our present culture. Interesting that Kristof chose Berlin for the reason that he argued that the world was not so clean-cut, and we could not rely merely on the findings of science when we have to make decisions, big and small.

My second choice would be Adam Smith, a Scottish philosopher, who founded the field of classic economics. He was the one who came up with the notion of the invisible hand that would guide an economy to produce the greatest good for the greatest number. He thought that if every person making and consuming goods would act in his or her best interests, that hand would maximize the output. His ideas still live in the form of the free market that is at the base of the US economy and many other’s. Before he discovered economics, Smith was a moral philosopher. It was there he first came up with the invisible hand theory, but with one critical difference. He argued that it was empathy, rather than self-interest, that would produce the desired collective outcome. Kristof’s second choice was John Rawls, an American philosopher, whose work aimed at replacing the basically amoral Smithian model of the market with an alternate morally fair way of making collective decisions.

My third would be the unknown author of Genesis, perhaps not a philosopher, but a great story teller whose writings have given us some of the key ideas that persist until today. Genesis was not written, as some argue by Moses, and probably was the result of an oral tradition that was ultimately put into written form. Genesis has given us all sorts of notions that have had a great influence on life, ancient and modern. Original sin, the creation story, and more, but the one I have in mind is the the line about God giving man dominion over the Earth which has been interpreted as the right to use the Earth as we see fit. I came across this in my early days as an environmental researcher in an essay by Lynn White in which he argued that this part of the creation story was a root cause of the then growing environmental damages showing up in the US and elsewhere. There is obviously more to this than Genesis, but it was a plausible argument. Add Smith’s notion of (human) self interest and you have an incendiary mix.

Kristof’s third choice was Peter Singer, another American philosopher, who has argued strongly that humans have no rights to harm other creatures. He is a leading figure arguing for animal rights. One might wonder if the Biblical story tellers had a different tales about creation, we would need such philosophers to argue for non-human species.

These three issue areas are not something that can or should be left up to professional philosophers to determine what’s right or what to do for us. It’s our job, but without some knowledge of where they came from, that is, the humanities, we can only stand by and watch others fight our battles for us.

The Right and Wrong Way to Think about Sustainability



Those who follow me know I am backing off from using the word “sustainability” because it has become merely a jargon word with little or no meaning or a euphemism for continuing to do the same thing as before with perhaps some slight improvement. I observed this usage primarily in business, but it is everywhere. In a couple of words, institutions have moved from “business-as-usual” to “business-almost-as-usual” when “business-not-anything-as-usual” should be their cry. While I have avoided using sustainability lately, I am aware that it does have an important place in our vocabulary and I need to make clear what usage I am criticizing.

Sustainability means the capacity of a system, simple or complex, to maintain both itself and the outputs it provides. The outputs can be material as in widgets, money, wheat, or salmon, or immaterial (emergent) as in liberty, beauty, or flourishing, the last being my favorite emergent property. The most important system around is the Planet, without which we wouldn’t be around at all. We are here in the first place because Earth has a particular combination of properties that enabled a bunch of molecules to coalesce and eventually evolve to become human beings and all other forms of life. Both the Earth and its life forms have changed over geological time. Life appeared maybe four billion years ago, and humanoid species maybe 4 million years ago. Pinpointing the exact dates is very hard.

As the Earth evolved, so did life. It adapted to changes right up to the present. Today the Earth can be said to sustain human (and other) life. Some species didn’t make it all the way, and went extinct because the conditions changed too fast for them to adapt or were hunted to extinction. Some are not extinct but cannot be harvested any more in their natural habitats in quantities sufficient to provide stable food supplies. These situations are not “sustainable” in a systems sense. The local ecological system has collapsed. That’s why I put salmon in the above list, but could have used many other important marine food sources.

We are facing the possibility that the Earth’s environment may change faster than our species can adapt. We, unlike the dinosaurs or mastodons, have the technological power to adapt by changing the environment rather than ourselves. But we don’t know how successful any changes we make will be in the long run, or how much more damage the changes themselves may cause. We cannot replicate all of nature’s sources in a way that will support the entire global population. We should because we are the ones that have driven the species to near extinction, helped along by climate changes that we have caused.

Many, perhaps most, efforts to restore deteriorating or deteriorated fisheries and other natural systems have failed primarily because we do not know enough about how their systems operate. Our interventions are incomplete and may even be counterproductive. Now stop and think about the big system that all such little systems are part of, Planet Earth. If we cannot keep our fisheries sustainable, how can we begin to talk about keeping our world sustainable with a straight face. The reality is that we can’t! Some may think they can, but they are generally only fooling themselves either on purpose or out of ignorance. It’s OK to use “sustainability” in theoretical terms like I am here, but not when thinking that you are doing something to bring it into being, for two principal reasons.

The first is that almost everyone talking sustainability or sustainable X is referring to some form of sustainable development because that’s where all this began, but sustainable development is only distantly related to the sustainability of the Earth system, if at all. Actually the two are feuding relatives. Sustainable development (the wrong kind of sustainability) is fundamentally about growing the Earth’s economy; sustainability (the right one) is all about keeping the Earth system running more or less where it is today, and sees continuing growth as destabilizing at some point, maybe last week. The right one is or should be focused on the system, not on the economy or any other part.

The second reason is that sustainability applies to the system in its entirety, not to any of its parts or mechanisms. As individuals or members of some institution, say work, we are all parts of the system, and are all interconnected. What I do here and now gets woven together with what everybody else is doing, and the sum total is what counts, that is, what influences the system and keeps it sustainable or not. What I do does matter, but not by itself. When companies act, they act as independent nodes in the global system, and their actions must be integrated into the whole set of actors, globally, to discover the impact of the system. The fundamental problem with sustainable business (the wrong kind) is that companies think they are making the whole system more stable by doing better, becoming more eco-efficient, using less resources to produce the same output. That might be effective, except for one small detail. They are always trying to produce more and more.

Yes, they are more efficient, but their higher volume outputs get added together (remember we are all part of an interconnected system) and continue to destabilize the Earth system, that is, make it less sustainable in systems terms. A contradiction in terms! But that seems obvious, doesn’t it? We all know something about disappearing fisheries and other systems. Some of us have read Jared Diamond’s books that explain similar disappearances in history. So what’s going on? I believe that this is due in part ito our deep immersion in reductionist thinking. Systems do not fit into our framing of problems. We are always looking to put boundaries in place so we can use our reductionist (partial) formulas and rules. We know we can’t do that with complex systems like the Earth or any large fishery. Another possibility is we live in a culture of individuality. We are all individual actors, free to go about our business without worrying about the cumulative, systemic effects. Competition among individual firms is the right way to operate. The invisible hand will take care of the system.

Well, it won’t! One step toward developing a coherent effort to combat growing instability (unsustainability) is to get on the same page (coherence, right) with the words we use. I stopped using sustainability because it conveys exactly the wrong message. Ironic, but what is being done in its name is undermining the deeper concerns people have about the future: “Is the Earth’ life support system sustainable?” That the word, “sustainable” should come to imply growth is even more ironic, for growth is much of the problem. So I have stopped using “sustainability,” as I have written, because it conveys the wrong message, not the one the word really means. I’ll end with a wonderful tale I have used before.

When Confucius was asked by one of his disciples what he would do if he were given his own territory to govern, the Master replied that he would “rectify the names,’ that is, make words correspond to reality. He explained his reason: “If the namers are not correct, if they do not match realities, language has no object. If language has no object, action becomes impossible—and therefore, all human affairs disintegrate and their management becomes pointless.”

Not much has changed in 2500 years. Words become pointless when bent to serve one’s interest rather than bring reality to the problems at hand.

Catch 22


catch 22 “A New Report Argues Inequality Is Causing Slower Growth. Here’s Why It Matters.” This headline for an article in the NYTimes caught my attention. A report by S&P, the rating agency argues that

“Our review of the data, as well as a wealth of research on this matter, leads us to conclude that the current level of income inequality in the U.S. is dampening G.D.P. growth,” the S.&P. researchers write, “at a time when the world’s biggest economy is struggling to recover from the Great Recession and the government is in need of funds to support an aging population.”

Much of the rest of the article discusses differences in the types of economists that make predictions, but not the claim. S&P economists are

“what can broadly be called the business forecasting community. They wear nicer suits than the academics, and are better at offering a glib, confident analysis of the latest jobs numbers delivered on CNBC or in front of a room full of executives who are their clients.… They are trying to do the practical work of explaining to clients — companies trying to forecast future demand, investors trying to allocate assets — how the economy is likely to evolve. They’re not really driven by ideology, or by models that are rigorous enough in their theoretical underpinnings to pass academic peer review. Rather, their success or failure hinges on whether they’re successful at giving those clients an accurate picture of where the economy is heading.

Like all economists, their predictions of the future rest on the past. Here they have examined growth over a long time and tie the recent (50 years) creep (compared to the past) at least in part to the large inequality in wealth in the US. Their report comes on the heels of Thomas Piketty’s oeuvre on the same issue, inequality. He argues that capitalistic economics is the cause of inequality in the first place. Putting the two together, aggregate economic growth, at whatever speed, leads to inequality, which, in turn, slows, but fails to stop, growth. The rich still get richer, although more slowly, than the poor. Anything new here?

S&P economists are not “really driven by ideology,” the reporter writes, but they really are; their ideology is that growth is the driver of all that is good. If they did not believe that, they would not be economists in the first place. It takes freshly minted economists years to discover that the golden calf of growth may be just an idol, not a symbol for what is to come. In response to an inquiry by the reporter, her respondent, Beth Ann Bovino, the chief U.S. economist at S.&P., said, “We spend a lot of time trying to think about what’s the economic outlook and what to expect ahead,” she said. “What disturbs me about this recovery — which has been the weakest in 50 years…”

It seems to me that the use of “disturb” implies that some norm is being threatened. If she were really concerned about the state of the economy, she might be disturbed by the inequality, per se, not its effects on growth. Maybe she (and S&P) are, but I doubt that since their clients are the world that is always clapping their hands when growth takes its bows on the stage of economic performance. The article is neither kind to economist nor the poor, although I would guess that that was not the intention of the reporter.

Rain Matters


monsoon kids

Rain is grace; rain is the sky descending to the earth; without rain, there would be no life. (John Updike)

I just finished reading a very long email from a friend in India. He was responding to a question about the impact of the election of Modi. He was quite positive, but with a couple of reservations. The first was familiar because so many countries are suffering through the same situation. For one reason or another, the coffers are empty and many badly needed programs cannot be executed.

The second was surprising and much more awakening. He spoke about the weather. The annual monsoon was expected to fall short of normal this year, producing drought and crop failures. If this does happen, whatever funds are available will have to directed to the consequences of food shortages. Here is a giant country on the path to modernization whose fortunes depend on the weather. Natural or made by us, changes in the weather matter. Anyone who thinks we can either wish climate change away or simply fix it when it happens should look at what is going on in India right now. We have had our own national experience with drought, but memories of it exist only in film and storybooks.

Be Prudent when Consulting Experts



Paul Krugman has an interesting column today (8/1/14) in which he argues that politicians ignore the consensus of experts and choose to get their advice only from those that are aligned politically with them. (Surprise?)

Am I saying that the professional consensus is always right? No. But when politicians pick and choose which experts — or, in many cases, “experts” — to believe, the odds are that they will choose badly. Moreover, experience shows that there is no accountability in such matters. Bear in mind that the American right is still taking its economic advice mainly from people who have spent many years wrongly predicting runaway inflation and a collapsing dollar.

In spite of his concern over ignoring possibly good advice, he has fallen into the trap of objectivity and is talking about right (and wrong.) He has a good argument about relying on a consensus, but a consensus of experts has little to do with finding the right answer in a complex situation such as the economy and issues like climate change always are. Believing that a right answer exists, allows decision-makers to defer action until such an answer shows up. Objective science is useful in complex situations only as far as putting careful analysts in the vicinity of a pragmatically useful result, a starting point for action. Pragmatic “truth” is only produced by a group of concerned parties, including experts, who examine the situation with whatever rigor can be found.

Yesterday I wrote about the “fallacy of mistaken concreteness,” which is at play whenever people call on experts to provide answers to complex problems. Experts use theories to provide answers, but their theories always fail to match the unique, concrete context of the problem. The fundamental nature of science, natural and social, is to isolate a part of the messy world and use their methods to reveal some “truth” about it. This truth can be applied only to identical situations. For example, gravity is truly universal, but macro-economics is not. The world is always more complex that the isolated set of assumptions that bound a theory or model.

Krugman continues his mistake when he follows with:

And macroeconomics, of course, isn’t the only challenge we face. In fact, it should be easy compared with many other issues that need to be addressed with specialized knowledge, above all climate change. So you really have to wonder whether and how we’ll avoid disaster.…All of which raises a troubling question: Are we as societies even capable of taking good policy advice?

I would argue, “No!” Not if that means listening only to experts. The Greeks knew this, and even had a special word, phronesis, to describe the kind of knowledge necessary for governing, a kind of emotional intelligence or social skill. The Romans carried it into Latin as prudentia and it remains alive as prudence, acting with caution or wisely. Phronesis was a form of knowledge distinct from epistêmē, truths derived from abstract thinking. The Greeks also had another kind, metis, that meant a kind of street smarts, but which seems to have no modern counterpart. Metis was the name of a Titaness, identified as representing prudence. The combination of metis and phronesis becomes, more or less, wisdom: a form of knowledge gleaned from successful living. The last form, technē, was knowledge gained from craft, that is, from working with materials of the earth. The distinctions among these have become fuzzy over time.

Wisdom is hardly to be found anywhere in the legislatures of the US. Expertise (epistêmē), alone, may work for problems involving simple, deterministic systems, but problems that get to the level of national policy are rarely simple. But even here, wisdom adds a richness that epistêmē lacks. Complexity demands a (pragmatic) inquiry by a group of parties sincerely concerned about the problem at hand. The most powerful such group would be able to apply all the forms of knowledge-epistêmē, phronesis, metis, and technē-to arrive at the best, not the objectively right, path forward. Commissions or other forms with such collective skills are occasionally convened to figure out what to do, but only rarely. Involving such commissions, or their ilk, tends to elongate the decision process, but the wait would be well waiting for. Our present Congress acts as if the answers from a group like this might confound their political positions, and instead does little at all. Krugman notes that they ignore the consensus of experts. I can only imagine how they would treat the “knowledge” coming from a pragmatic inquiry by any group truly committed to find answers that might make a real difference.