Thursday, December 27, 2012

Philosophy for Everyone

In the distant past one could not have been considered a well-educated person if one had not studied philosophy at the university level and could converse with some degree of familiarity at least about the ideas of Socrates and Plato, Kant and Hegel.  In the 19th century philosophy truly was "the first science" and along with classics was considered an indispensable part of a young man's formative education. 

That all changed in the 1960s, when universities began to abandon their commitments to the liberal arts and philosophy began to be viewed as an esoteric discipline with little practical application.  Members of the elite might study philosophy, but it was hardly the sort of discipline that would attract the kinds of middle class students who were beginning to attend college in larger numbers.  Today most students could probably pass safely through college without ever even having to take a single philosophy class.  But at prestigious intuitions like Harvard, Yale, or Stanford philosophy continues to have the kind of cache that has made it attractive to the sons and daughters of the new aristocrats of American society.

In 1999 a group of idealistic young faculty members in the Department of Philosophy at Molloy College in New York decided to reclaim their discipline and sought to make it accessible to just about everyone.  The result was the creation of the Sophia Project--an online repository of philosophy resources that included thousands of pages of primary sources with commentaries, original articles, and even entire online courses.  What was truly amazing about this project was that ordinary people from around the globe were accessing the information provided on the site and using it for their own intellectual edification. 

The Sophia Project was removed from the Molloy College website for reasons too complicated to go into here.  But it has now re-emerged, better than ever, in a new form on its own website.  The same animating spirit that drove the original Sophia Project was behind its re-creation: that ordinary intelligent folks should have access to philosophical wisdom in a format that is "easily digestible." 

We didn't include all the resources from the original Sophia Project on the new site, but there's certainly enough there to stimulate even the most voracious reader of philosophy.  I'd encourage you to check The Sophia Project for yourself and let us know what you think.  You might just find that you rather enjoy reading some of the greatest selections from some of the greatest texts written by some of the greatest thinkers that mankind has ever produced. 

Visit the New Sophia Project!

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Ethics of Quid Pro Quo, Part Two

I’ve got to acknowledge that my moral perspective has gotten much more restrictive in recent years than it was when I was younger.  As a college student, I had a wonderful, idealistic moral vision that was founded upon the radical altruism of the Gospels, the progressive social activism of the 1960s, and the example set by the great social exemplars of the 20th century—Gandhi, Bishop Romero, Martin Luther King, and Ralph Nader, in particular.  Back then I honestly believed that selfless compassion for those in need was possible and that through collective sacrifice we could transform the world into a much better place.

As I entered middle age, I began to recognize that there was little likelihood that I would ever become a saint and that personal and collective sins are not quite so easy to eradicate as I had assumed they were.  My moral position at this point is the happy mean between the Christian altruism of my youth, which I now find far too idealistic to implement in any kind of meaningful way, and the libertarian ideology which is running rampant throughout the United States, and which I find abysmally devoid of any concern for the common good.  I call this approach the Ethics of Quid Pro Quo and wrote about it in an earlier piece.  

In a nutshell, my position is that real reciprocity is the key to authentic moral interaction with other human beings.  Our obligations extend to autonomous others to the extent that they have entered into a relationship with us in which there is a balance between what is given and what is received.  Those who take without ever giving are moral pariahs who ought to be shunned; and those who give without ever expecting anything in return are moral fools, who almost deserve to be taken advantage of.  In the balance between the quid (that which is given) and the quo (that which has been received) a true moral relationship is formed in which the mutual needs of the parties involved are recognized and respected, and as a result both parties are morally and existentially affirmed through their interactions.

I’ve come to believe that there is absolutely nothing wrong with expecting others to reciprocate in some form when we care for them or do some act of kindness for them.  The expected reciprocation (the quid) should be roughly comparable in significance to the initial act (the quo), although, depending on the specific circumstances of the other, the act of reciprocation can at times be as minimal as an expression of appreciation (a sincere and heartfelt “thank you,” in other words).  I also think that it is a sign of decent moral character to consider how to reciprocate—and to what extent to reciprocate—when one has been treated kindly or generously by another person.  The person who never thinks about reciprocating at all is either a moral imbecile, and therefore not responsible for his actions, or, as I’ve already indicated, a moral pariah, who is best not associated with by anyone but the most committed masochist. 

As I contemplated how this ethics of quid pro quo might be implemented, I began to wonder what exactly our obligations are towards those who are not able to engage in the kind of exchanges demanded in this kind of moral system.  The answer quite simply is that, if an individual is incapable of truly reciprocating because of mental or physical incapacity or limitations (the seriously mentally or physically disabled or ill) age (young children), lack of free will (animals), or by virtue of the fact that they do not yet exist (future generations), then, individually and collectively, we have an obligation to work for the good of such individuals regardless of whether or not they can reciprocate.  Once again, however, we must be careful not to demean such individuals by automatically assuming that they are completely incapable of any sort of reciprocity at all.  Young children, for example, are able to give back much more than we typically assume and should be trained from a very early age to contribute to the good of their families and to the larger community in whatever way they are capable.

I also think that it has been a mistake of otherwise well-intentioned liberals to treat the economically disadvantaged as though they lacked the ability to either care for themselves or provide some service in kind for the public generosity bestowed upon them.  When charity, for example, is given to the poor in the form of food stamps or below cost public housing, with no expectations of any kind of reciprocating action on those receiving it, we treat such individuals as though they were not fully autonomous and therefore not quite as human as we are.  It really is an insult to their dignity as human beings, and does little more than make the distributor of charitable offerings feel morally superior to those who are the recipient of his or her largesse.  On the other hand, a well-constructed workfare program—and I’m not sure that such a thing actually exists right now in the United States—asks recipients of taxpayer support to give something back to the lager community, and in doing so allows those individuals the dignity of feeling like full participatory members of that community.  

One should not assume that my focus on reciprocity in moral actions means that I reject the value of charity completely.  There are those towards whom charity is certainly appropriate.  Victims of natural disasters, wars, and famines, for example, deserve our sympathy as well as our financial and emotional support; the same is true for those who fall victim to circumstances beyond their control (sickness, disability, mental illness, etc).  We have an obligation to individually and collectively care for such individuals, if they are not able to care for themselves.  And this is true, even if they are strangers who might never be able to repay our generosity in any meaningful way. 

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The New Religious Landscape

The 2012 Presidential Election has shown us that the religious landscape of America appears to have changed dramatically and perhaps irrevocably. White Christians overwhelmingly desired Mitt Romney to be the President of the United States, but discovered—much to their surprise—that they lacked the political clout necessary to achieve this goal.

Evangelicals, in particular, seemed shocked that they had so little power to affect the course of the election. In the election of 2000, Evangelical support helped George W. Bush win the White House and win re-election in 2004. In 2012, their overwhelming support for Mitt Romney was almost futile.

The country is changing rapidly and the changes that are occurring don’t bode well for the future of religious conservatives in general. For example:
  • One-fifth of Americans now claim no religious affiliation at all (Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 2012). 
  • One-third of Americans ages 18 to 22 self-identify as atheists, agnostics, or claim no religious attachments at all. 
  • These younger Americans, furthermore, are more likely to have a liberal outlook (70% of those who had no religious affiliation voted Democratic in the 2012 presidential election). They are also more likely to have tolerant views on abortion and same sex marriage and to take environmental concerns, like climate change, very seriously. 
In short, conservative manifestations of religious belief definitely seem to be on the wane throughout the United States and one could image a time in the not-too-distant future when the United States will look more like Europe: people might still identify themselves culturally with a particular religion and participate in services to celebrate significant transitional periods in their lives (marriage, childbirth, death, etc.), but they’ll keep organized religion at a distance and all but ignore the political and moral exhortations of religious leaders completely.

If one looks at the Catholic Church, for example, one can see this sort of change already occurring. The Church continues to rail against abortion, contraception, gay marriage and pre-martial sex. But its message is all but ignored by its members. When it comes to contraception in particular, Catholics clearly like their condoms and birth control pills and are not likely to give them up, no matter what the bishops—or the Pope for that matter—have to say on the subject.

What impact will these religious changes have on the politics of the United States? For one thing, I think that it is going to be very difficult for the Republican Party to win over younger Americans in the future if it continues to identify itself so closely with old white angry Evangelicals. The party might regain some influence if it could move beyond social issues, like abortion, and focus on its more traditional “small government, lower taxes” message. If it can’t do this, the Republican Party will increasingly become politically irrelevant—a party of fringe wackos who have nothing practical to offer the American people.

On a more positive note, I think that the death of religious conservatives and religious fundamentalism will ultimately be a good thing for the country. For the past decade the country has been held hostage by a group of religious extremists who really do believe that the end of the world is coming almost immediately, and that, therefore, it’s a waste of time to try to solve long-term problems like climate change. Once these extremists go the way of the dinosaur, perhaps we can begin to take a more long-term view of what’s ailing our country and our planet and actually create rational policies to address the issues that face us.

At the very least, it will definitely be a very good thing to be in a country in which the next generation actually begins to take its responsibilities to our planet more seriously and are not fixated on teotwawki (the end of the world as we know it). I might actually enjoy living in a world like that!