On Public Morals – Two Sources

What kind of moral values are acceptable in the public square?

It’s an important question in the current political climate, already rife with discord between liberals and conservatives, and now thrown into a kind of perpetual chaos by an unpredictable president.

On the one hand President Trump seems willing to flout traditional public morality and moral norms in both behavior and speech, and on the other he derives power from Christian evangelical base who would like to see their version of morality imposed upon the culture at large (and who see liberals as trying to do the same.)

So whose version of morality wins? By what standard are we going to determine which morals are acceptable in public life, i.e. as grounds for policy and legislation and the formation of a public shared understanding of our civic responsibility? Is there a way to talk about all of these values in a way that a majority of people (and not just a bare 51%) would support?

In conversations with conservative friends, I have had the strange sensation of ships passing in the night. We try to talk about the same subject but drift off into separate spheres quickly, because our value narratives are so different as to be almost alien.

For example, one person recently said the “values of human dignity found in the Bible” supported a capitalist, market-driven economy in the exchange of goods and fair accrual of money according to one’s work. I reacted with some sense of befuddlement, and only later realized why: I was confused because I think of the value of “human dignity” as a universal religious value, not a sectarian or an exclusively Christian one.

What my friend said in support of a Bible-based society, in other words, was actually not a statement about the Bible. It was a statement of agreement with a concept (in this case, human dignity). He was conflating the two–Bible and dignity–as though belief in the one entailed belief in the other.

But the Bible does not always treat people with dignity (I’m thinking in particular of the victims of genocide at the hands of God’s people in Joshua, the lack of condemnation of slavery in both Old and New Testament, and the language about unbelievers going to eternal suffering and damnation spoken by Jesus, to name three examples). But leaving that fact aside and assuming “human dignity” is a value indeed found in the Bible, does that mean that our source concept “human dignity” is exclusively biblical or Christian?

I don’t think so. To the extent that we follow rules of fairness and dignity as a capitalist society it is not because those values are found in the Bible, but rather because they resonate as universal values that are accessible by everyone.

Such conversations with conservatives about values led me to compose the following premise, in an effort to clarify where some common ground might lie between liberals and conservatives:

PREMISE: Public moral values, i.e. values that can transcend the personal, private sphere and become an acceptable source of common discourse in the public square, must be a) secular, based on non-religious reasoning, or b) universalist, based on what is accepted by all religions.

In some cases such public values will overlap with both a) and b).

This premise, if accepted, would accomplish at least three things:

  1. Establishment of common ground on which to build arguments that can be heard by all sides, because they are based in values and values language universally recognized.
  2. Prevention of publicly sectarian, divisive language that only seeks to judge those outside on the basis of narrow morals
  3. Recognition of the source of many national ideals we hold as being secular, and thus attaching a sense of morality to that which is secular in origin.

As long as liberals and conservatives are deriving our sense of public morality differently from each other, and at the same time have no way of adjudicating that discussion, no method or framework for deciding the outcome, we will lapse into condemnation and vilification. Rather than build and support our society together, we will simply build our own towers of hubris and overconfidence.

Seeking consensus on secular and universalist values is not only a necessary step to any lasting and meaningful dialogue, it is a way to re-assert a rational process into a highly charged political environment and bring it to a healthier place. Could a more robust secular, universalist reasoning be the answer to what ails us?

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Your Values Are Not YOU

Your values are not YOU.

It is a very hard truth to absorb.

When an ideal, a belief, a value, something we hold very dear is rejected by someone, it can feel as though we ourselves are being rejected.

I’ve been on both sides of this phenomenon, giving and receiving such rejection. It can hurt! Most of us have felt that sort of rejection. We can take it very personally, for example, when a family member chooses another road than we had in mind, when a child rejects the religion of her parents, or when half the country rejects the candidate you voted for.

In recent years in our political life I have observed people feeling personally rejected on a level they never have before. Those who were opposed to Obama felt so personally bad about him that for years they wanted nothing but to see him discredited, blamed, and obstructed. Now, those who voted for Obama and Clinton feel their values have been roundly rejected and are protesting even before the Trump presidency starts.

Your values are not YOU. The things you hold most important are concepts in your mind, they are not YOU.

This can sound very abstract, I know. But pull it down to earth – what it means is that you, as a living, breathing, human being, with a mind, have the ability to transcend even those values that you most hold dear, even the beliefs you think are the most bedrock, even the ideals you most treasure.

You also have the ability to stand apart from even the most important, meaningful, and life-defining goals, plans, and actions that are based on your set of values.

In practice, this means we can separate our being, our SELVES, from the beliefs we hold, and connect to other people who hold differing beliefs. It means we can see others who reject some of our values in a different light, because fundamentally we don’t base our selves or their selves on the values they hold. We hold them sacred apart from their values.

I may believe in heaven, you may not. I may believe in the fundamental value of diversity. You may not. I may reject the argument for the existence of god, you may support it wholeheartedly. I may be Democrat, you may be Republican. I may not care at all about Black Lives Matter, you may look at it as the most important movement around. The point is: none of these things really define us, internally, as human beings.

Values may govern our behavior. They may define how we choose to organize ourselves together as a governed society, and in turn those choices may determine results (sometimes life or death) for other people in practical ways that we do not always grasp, meaning we must still talk and learn about each other’s values, and write thoughtful policy based on our learning and our dialogue about our values. Values are very important.

But what I am trying to get across right now is, the values we hold are not essential to who we are.

What is left when we stand apart from our values? If we think the answer is “Nothing At All” we will fight tooth and claw for our values, and become really inept and insensitive to other viewpoints, because it seems like life or death. We will cut off opportunity to do the learning and dialogue that are necessary to govern together.

When our values are identical with ourselves, then when the value goes away, so do we. Our brains, with this slight-of-hand, go into fight or flight very easily. We are wired to self-protect, and those mechanisms go haywire when something as deep seated as our values seems threatened.

But if, on the other hand, our answer to the question, What are we without our most treasured values? is Something, a very robust Something, even if don’t know what that Something is and can’t wholly define it yet, we have reason to work together with those other humans whose values we do not share. We have reason to listen to their beliefs and to their arguments about what is good, right, and true. We have reason to respect what makes them happy, what they wish for in life, what drives them, and what they are trying to move away from, or fix, or solve.

Human beings are complicated, our bodies and minds interact in ways we have never previously understood. We form beliefs, we hold values. We begin to mistake those for our essential nature, our essential selves. We jumped to conclusions about our fundamental selves, and forgot that our value-forming process is just an aspect of ourselves.

This is how philosophical reflection can open practical ways forward. How do we live and move and have our being in the same spaces as others? How do we learn to exist peaceably (a value), in a kaleidoscopic world of competition (another value) and violence (another value). How do we arrive at somewhat of a consensus (another value) about the values we share, about which values we are choosing as the most important ones, which ones most serve humanity, both individually and collectively (more values)?

We cannot do so without first separating ourselves from those very values, so that we can stand back and evaluate them.

Can we engage this rational process, in the service of our ability to live and be together?

Can we access the parts of ourselves that simply exist, without and prior to values? I believe we can, but we aren’t very good at it. We need guideposts.

Future posts promised on this topic, and I would love to hear your thoughts as well.

 

Stop Voting For The Capitalists: They Hurt The Working Class

People sometimes (often?) vote against their own best interests.

Capitalism is designed to accrue wealth to the owners of production. That doesn’t include you and me. It doesn’t include white working class voters. It doesn’t include most blacks, women, or Muslims either. It does include Donald Trump.

Capitalism caused this mess. The anger and “I’ve lost my f***ing mind” attitude in the poor rural counties is the result of poor conditions created in the working class by the very capitalists who got their votes, the very capitalists who promised jobs and then took them overseas, the very capitalists who trumpet “energy jobs” and encourage whole communities to put all their eggs in that basket only to have it go bust after those same capitalists decide to relocate or run out of resources to mine or drill out.

Capitalists promise the world to the working class. They promise us that if we elect them, they will help us all prosper and strive and work for a better life. But in reality they practice trickle-up economics. All of our work and striving benefits them. Everything trickles up to the .01% of the super-wealthy. That means away from your community, your family, your local government, your schools, your roads, your hospitals, your lives.

Capitalists do not have the interests of the common person in mind. Capitalists do not have white Trump voters in mind. Capitalists do not have black Clinton voters in mind.

Capitalists do not have anyone in mind but themselves. This is a natural human tendency and not surprising, but it becomes dangerous when carried out by people with immense power, status, and wealth, since their actions have a disproportionate affect on everyone else.

stop-capitalism-300x225The capitalists want to protect themselves at all (human) costs, grow themselves and their empires at all (human) costs, and preserve the (human) resources needed to produce the goods and services that made them wealthy at all (human) costs.

We have not yet done a good enough job of dialogue about why this is important, why it affects ALL of us when powerful white capitalists put people down.

It serves the interests of the Capitalists to divide us and keep us from talking to each other. Meek people who stay in their place, stay in their cubicles, and regard each other as a threat, become better workers for those who own the means of production.

White working class people, please understand: Capitalists are not on your team.*+ The only reason they trumpet your values is because you are tools to them, to their success, to their fame, to their lifestyle.

If you are angry about this (as I am), if you feel like “the elites” don’t care about you (you’re right, they don’t), if you feel like you have had the shit beaten out of you and you would like more support (you’re not alone), realize what is causing all of this to happen.

This will continue until we work across the aisle, Democrats and Republicans, to stop it.

If you have had it up to here and you can’t stand anymore, STOP VOTING FOR THE CAPITALISTS.

*Disclaimer 1: Clinton and the Democrats have not always been on your team either. I am not saying they have done a better job. Many rich Democrats are just as guilty of this sort of Capitalist 1% behavior.
+Disclaimer 2: I realize I am lumping people together here. I do so for the sake of making a clear statement. I recognize that people who practice within the capitalist system are not all bad. Bill Gates is a good person. Warren Buffett is a good person. I own my own (very small) business, and value entrepreneurship. There are many businesses and corporations that practice good and fair treatment of people and funnel money to good causes. However, even Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, when they get a tax break for their charitable contributions, for example, funnel money away from local governments who can do the most good fixing roads and providing help to working people in the form of job services, health care, child care, and so on. This is precisely the point: Capitalism is designed to funnel money to the top, and even the benevolent people like Gates and Buffett end up reinforcing it despite their best intentions.