Tuesday, February 21, 2012

An Ethic of Service and a Principle of Individualism

from a book, American Individualism, 1922, Herbert Hoover

Nor is individualism merely a stimulus to production and the road to liberty; it alone admits universal divine inspiration of every human soul. I may repeat that the divine spark does not lie in agreements, in organizations, and institutions, in masses or in groups. Spirituality with its faith, its hope, its charity, can be increased by each individual’s own effort. And in proportion as each individual increases his own store of spirituality, in proportion increases the idealism of democracy. …

Our individualism insists upon the divine spark in each human being. It rests upon the firm faith that the divine spark can be awakened in every heart. It was the refusal to compromise these thing that led to the migration of those religious groups who so largely composed our forefathers. Our diversified religious faiths are the apotheosis of spiritual individualism. …

While there are forces in the growth of our individualism which must be curbed with vigilance, yet there are no less glorious spiritual forces growing within that promise for future. There is developing in our people a new valuation of individuals and groups and nations. It is a rising vision of service. Indeed if I were to select the social force that above all others has sharply advanced during these past years of suffering, it is that of service – service to those with whom we come in contact, service to the nation, and service to the world itself. If we examine the great mystical forces of the past seven years we find this great spiritual force poured out by our people as never before in the history of the world – the ideal of service.

What we need today is steady devotion to a better, wider, broader individualism – and to the individualism that carries increasing responsibility and service to our fellows. Our need is not for a way out but for a way forward.…

Progress must come from the steady lift of the individual and that the measure of national idealism and progress is the quality of idealism in the individual.…

[P]rogress will march if we hold an abiding faith in the intelligence, the initiative, the character, courage, and the divine touch in the individual.

Commentary: Mr. Hoover was Secretary of Commerce when he wrote this book.  His several themes resonate to his prodigious organizational efforts that helped stave off starvation among the Allies during World War I, particularly in Belgium.  Throughout his life, the Quaker values of his youth inspired him.  The Quaker values of individualism and service are highlighted here--their source an essential divine spark within everyone.  This divine spark initiates service to others, beginning with sustaining a society of equality of opportunity.  Mr. Hoover maintained as the divine spark was realized in individuals, society progressed as a democratic form of government.

Search Yourself:  Do you carry within yourself a strong sense of personal worth and dignity, an individualism  that is transcendent?  Does your individualism unite you with a a divine source and connect you with your fellowkind?

Monday, April 11, 2011

An Environmental Ethic of Experience

from a speech upon receiving the Albert Schweitzer Medal from the Animal Welfare Institute, December 5, 1962, Rachel Carson:

In his various writings, we may read Dr. Schweitzer's philosophical interpretations of that phrase [Reverence for Life]. But to many of us, the truest understanding of Reverence for Life comes, as it did to him, from some personal experience, perhaps the sudden, unexpected sight of a wild creature, perhaps some experience with a pet. Whatever it may be, it is something that takes us out of ourselves, that makes us aware of other life. From my own memories, I think of the sight of a small crab alone on a dark beach at night, a small and fragile being waiting at the edge of the roaring surf, yet so perfectly at home in its world. To me it seemed a symbol of life, and of the way life has adjusted to the forces of its physical environment. Or I think of a morning when I stood in a North Carolina marsh at sunrise, watching flock after flock of Canada geese rise from resting places at the edge of a lake and pass low overhead. In that orange light, their plumage was like brown velvet. Or I have found that deep awareness of life and its meaning in the eyes of a beloved cat.

Commentary: Ms. Carson’s epochal Silent Spring, that awakened the contemporary environmental movement offered a three part environmental ethic that spoke to 1) preserving human health, 2) respect for the intrinsic value of non-human life, and 3) keeping Nature for human edification and happiness.

How was this ethic arrived at? Through personal experience, that she later described as a sense of wonder, where the aesthetic, the intellectual, the intuitive, and the imaginative faculties converged. Moral psychologists, drawing on evolutionary biology, now speculate that “do no harm” is one of five moral colors that are hardwired into the human psyche; that "do no harm" is a recognition of the life of the other being.

Search yourself: Have you had experiences similar to the sort that Ms. Carson describes—a transformative experience that took you out of self into an awareness of another life or lives?Ms. Carson’s awareness didn’t anthropomorphize, but respected the other life on its own merits, for its own being. Have you ever encountered another life in its full uniqueness, what the philosopher Martin Buber declared to be a subject and not an object?

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Animal Rights: An Ethic of Species Equality

in Tom Regan and Peter Singer (eds.), Animal Rights and Human Obligations, New Jersey, 1989, Peter Singer wrote:

A liberation movement demands an expansion of our moral horizons and an extension or reinterpretation of the basic moral principle of equality. Practices that were previously regarded as natural and inevitable come to be seen as the result of an unjustifiable prejudice. Who can say with confidence that all his or her attitudes and practices are beyond criticism? If we wish to avoid being numbered amongst the oppressors, we must be prepared to re-think even our most fundamental attitudes. We need to consider them from the point of view of those most disadvantaged by our attitudes, and the practices that follow from these attitudes. If we can make this unaccustomed mental switch we may discover a pattern in our attitudes and practices that consistently operates so as to benefit one group—usually the one to which we ourselves belong—at the expense of another. In this way we may come to see that there is a case for a new liberation movement. My aim is to advocate that we make this mental switch in respect of our attitudes and practices towards a very large group of beings: members of species other than our own—or, as we popularly though misleadingly call them, animals. In other words, I am urging that we extend to other species the basic principle of equality that most of us recognize should be extended to all members of our own species. …

But what is this capacity to enjoy the good life which all humans have, but no other animals? Other animals have emotions and desires and appear to be capable of enjoying a good life. We may doubt that they can think—although the behavior of some apes, dolphins, and even dogs suggests that some of them can—but what is the relevance of thinking? Frankena goes on to admit that by "the good life" he means "not so much the morally good life as the happy or satisfactory life," so thought would appear to be unnecessary for enjoying the good life; in fact to emphasize the need for thought would make difficulties for the egalitarian since only some people are capable of leading intellectually satisfying lives, or morally good lives. This makes it difficult to see what Frankena's principle of equality has to do with simply being human. Surely every sentient being is capable of leading a life that is happier or less miserable than some alternative life, and hence has a claim to be taken into account. In this respect the distinction between humans and nonhumans is not a sharp division, but rather a continuum along which we move gradually, and with overlaps between the species, from simple capacities for enjoyment and satisfaction, or pain and suffering, to more complex ones.

Commentary: Peter Singer is a controversial ethicist whose general outlook is utilitarian: the greatest good for the greatest number. His 1975 book Animal Liberation anticipated and helped lead the late 20th century animal rights movement, though he obviously prefers the notion of liberation over rights. This outlook seeks to lessen the oppression of animals generally by the human species. He also helped promote the notion of speciesism, similar to parallel prejudices such as racism and ageism.

Search Yourself: Do you consider yourself, a member of the human species, "superior" to other animals--perhaps along the old biblical line of a hierarchy of creation. Do you agree with Singer that suffering is a primary criterion on which to center an ethical system?

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Ethic of the Common Good

from 1976 Democratic National Convention Keynote Address, delivered by Barbara Charline Jordan, 12 July 1976, New York, NY

This is the question which must be answered in 1976: Are we to be one people bound together by common spirit, sharing in a common endeavor; or will we become a divided nation? For all of its uncertainty, we cannot flee the future. We must not become the "New Puritans" and reject our society. We must address and master the future together. It can be done if we restore the belief that we share a sense of national community, that we share a common national endeavor. It can be done.

There is no executive order; there is no law that can require the American people to form a national community. This we must do as individuals, and if we do it as individuals, there is no President of the United States who can veto that decision.

As a first step -- As a first step, we must restore our belief in ourselves. We are a generous people, so why can't we be generous with each other? We need to take to heart the words spoken by Thomas Jefferson:

Let us restore the social intercourse -- "Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and that affection without which liberty and even life are but dreary things."

A nation is formed by the willingness of each of us to share in the responsibility for upholding the common good. A government is invigorated when each one of us is willing to participate in shaping the future of this nation. In this election year, we must define the "common good" and begin again to shape a common future. Let each person do his or her part. If one citizen is unwilling to participate, all of us are going to suffer. For the American idea, though it is shared by all of us, is realized in each one of us.

And now, what are those of us who are elected public officials supposed to do? We call ourselves "public servants" but I'll tell you this: We as public servants must set an example for the rest of the nation. It is hypocritical for the public official to admonish and exhort the people to uphold the common good if we are derelict in upholding the common good. More is required -- More is required of public officials than slogans and handshakes and press releases. More is required. We must hold ourselves strictly accountable. We must provide the people with a vision of the future.

If we promise as public officials, we must deliver. If -- If we as public officials propose, we must produce. If we say to the American people, "It is time for you to be sacrificial" -- sacrifice. If the public official says that, we [public officials] must be the first to give. We must be. And again, if we make mistakes, we must be willing to admit them. We have to do that. What we have to do is strike a balance between the idea that government should do everything and the idea, the belief, that government ought to do nothing. Strike a balance.

Let there be no illusions about the difficulty of forming this kind of a national community. It's tough, difficult, not easy. But a spirit of harmony will survive in America only if each of us remembers that we share a common destiny; if each of us remembers, when self-interest and bitterness seem to prevail, that we share a common destiny.

I have confidence that we can form this kind of national community.

Commentary: This is one of the earlier articulations of the contemporary ethic of the common good. Read in light of the fractiousness and rancor of 2010 Ms. Jordan's words seem prophetic. The common good can be achieved only by individuals committing to work together for shared goals. Leaders, in particular, have a solemn responsibility to work for the common good--what they proclaim they must embody.

Search Yourself: What is the extent of your willingness to commit to the common good? Do you apply the values of harmony and affection in your social relations? What results from such social generosity?

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Truth and Reconciliation

from "Speech: Acceptance of Truth and Reconciliation Report." by Nelson Mandela, October 29, 1998 

South Africa is no longer the country it was when we adopted the Interim Constitution in 1993, when together we resolved to overcome the legacy of our violent and inhuman past.

Out of that negotiation process emerged a pact to uncover the truth, the better to build a bright future for our children and grandchildren, without regard to race, culture, religion or language.

Today we reap some of the harvest of what we sowed at the end of a South African famine.

[Tribute to those who "opened wounds of guilt.]" And so as we observe this stage of the TRC process, we should pay tribute to the 20,000 men and women who relived their pain and loss in order to share it with us; the hundreds who dared to open the wounds of guilt so as to exorcise it from the nation's body politic; indeed the millions who make up the South African people and who made it happen so that we could indeed become a South African nation. …

[Report reawakens "troubling emotions."]  Though the interim report is formally given to me as president, it is in reality a report to all of us.

For that reason it is being released to the public and given to our elected representatives without a moment's delay.

Its release is bound to reawaken many of the difficult and troubling emotions that the hearings themselves brought.

Many of us will have reservations about aspects of what is contained in these five volumes.

All are free to make comment on it and indeed we invite you to do so.

And for those who feel unjustly damaged, there are remedies.

[No instant reconciliation.] The commission was not required to muster a definitive and comprehensive history of the past three decades.

Nor was it expected to conjure up instant reconciliation.

And it does not claim to have delivered these either.

Its success in any case depended on how far all of us co-operated with it.

Yet we are confident that it has contributed to the work in progress of laying the foundation of the edifice of reconciliation.

Commentary:  South Africa adopted a powerful ethical process, truth and reconciliation, to break the cycle of oppression and violence--the ugly legacy of apartheid.  The notion of reconciliation has Christian overtones, as it seeks to restore estrangement.  (In the Catholic tradition the Sacrament of Reconciliation involves confession and repentance.)  Through reconciliation a relationship out of balance is ultimately restored.  Truth-telling, by both parties, is the beginning.  This mutual telling and being heard/understood  triggers the process.  (Think of the adage, "the truth will set you free.")  In this regard truth is a moral force, like love, that transforms not only individuals but societies.

Search yourself:   Have you exerienced the transformative power of truth: 1) as a truth teller and 2) a truth hearer?  Remembering Sisela Bok's insights into Lying, what are the practical, corrosive consequences of not telling the truth?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Moral Order of Human Freedom and Rights

from "The Four Freedoms," Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 6 January, 1941

The basic things expected by our people of their political and economic systems are simple. They are:

Equality of opportunity for youth and for others.

Jobs for those who can work.

Security for those who need it.

The ending of special privilege for the few.

The preservation of civil liberties for all.

The enjoyment -- The enjoyment of the fruits of scientific progress in a wider and constantly rising standard of living.

These are the simple, the basic things that must never be lost sight of in the turmoil and unbelievable complexity of our modern world. The inner and abiding strength of our economic and political systems is dependent upon the degree to which they fulfill these expectations. …

In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

The first is freedom of speech and expression -- everywhere in the world.

The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way -- everywhere in the world.

The third is freedom from want, which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants -- everywhere in the world.

The fourth is freedom from fear, which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor -- anywhere in the world.

That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called “new order” of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.

To that new order we oppose the greater conception -- the moral order. …

Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere.

Commentary: With remarkable efficiency of words Roosevelt connected human rights and freedom with a moral order extending beyond the American experience to embrace the whole world. This source of American national security promises to lead to world stability/security. This people-centered world view as a basis for meeting global vulnerabilities is a radical departure from traditional, nation-based schemes of effecting international relations. A doctrine of human security (in contrast to national security) is a signature of an emerging globalization.

Search yourself: Do you agree that freedom--everywhere and for everyone--is the basis of a world moral order and path to a secure American nation and a secure world? Are there reasonable limits to freedom, specifically freedoms of speech and religion? What role does economic justice play in the scheme of civil liberties?

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Ethic of Unconditional Love

from “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” Martin Luther King, Jr,, delivered April 4, 1967

A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.

This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one's tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all mankind. This oft misunderstood, this oft misinterpreted concept, so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force, has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of man. When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am not speaking of that force which is just emotional bosh. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John: "Let us love one another, for love is God. And every one that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God, for God is love." "If we love one another, God dwelleth in us and his love is perfected in us." Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day.

We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. And history is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate. As Arnold Toynbee says: "Love is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word" (unquote).

Commentary: In this, one of his most remarkable speeches, Martin Luther King Jr. raises up love as "the supreme unifying principle of life," recognized by the world religions and certainly at the center of Christianity. It is time, in the course of world events, to practice "an all-embracing and unconditional love for all mankind." He also posits love's opposite, hate, as "a self-defeating path." He implies that love is the path of life.

Search yourself: Is love a universal organizing principle realized throughout the world? Can the various components,--nations, ethnicities, and religions--of what remains a contentious world practice "an all-embracing and unconditional love for all mankind?" Can you shift your attitude to love all humankind unconditionally?