Category Archives: Politics

Plato’s Truth-Loving Test

Love them or hate them, standardized tests are part of growing up. To get into college, most students take the SAT. To gain admission to graduate school, you might take the GRE, LSAT, MCAT, or who know what else.

Inasmuch as higher education is usually required for leadership positions in our society, these tests are gate-keepers to leadership. They do a good job of measuring intelligence, but is intelligence what we want most in our leaders?

It seems to me that the problems in America today are not due to our leaders being stupid. On the contrary, I suggest that many politicians who take stupid positions are very smart. Take an issue like climate change. There’s a lot of money at stake and politicians know it. They also know exactly how informed or uninformed the public is, and just how flagrantly they (the politicians) can deny reality. They’re very smart about that. The problem is that they have insufficient love for truth.

And what about the polarization of public discourse that is so notorious right now? As any reader of PolitiFact.com or FactCheck.org knows, much of the dysfunction and hate is fueled by outright lies. Again: not enough love of the truth.

What I want is a leader who loves the truth — whose highest aim is to discover what it is, so that he may promote and serve it.

We have standardized tests that help smart people rise to the top. How can we identify people who love truth?

Plato solved that problem 2,400 years ago. As dramatized in Plato at the Googleplex (a book you’ll be hearing more from on this blog), Plato says,

What I proposed was having our children be told glorious tales to stir their imaginations, very much stressing all the time that these tales were true, and then seeing which among the children can resist them, can see the logical inconsistencies within these tales, and see all their inconsistencies with other truths that they have been told (Republic 413c-414a).

What an interesting idea! Do you think that would be a good test of truth-loving? It makes sense that people who will not be enticed by attractive, heroic lies would be leaders we can trust, doesn’t it?

Maybe the question is moot. Maybe Plato could engineer this test in his ideal city, but the suggestion is not practical today.

Or is it?

I suggest that Plato’s test is embedded everywhere in our society, but most of us don’t realize it. To know whether we have passed his test, all we must do is ask whether we have found the flaws in our most cherished beliefs — and all beliefs have flaws.

How many of us have esteemed as a true friend one who incisively criticizes our culture? How many of us Americans have seen how un-democratic it is to arrogate the maximum power for America in the assembly of nations? How many of us have seen the contradictions and cruelties in the scriptures we learned at our mother’s knee?

How many of us would vote for a politician who openly does any of these things?

Plato’s test is already in place. How many of us will care about the results — in our leaders or in ourselves?

 

Faith-Based Morality

It’s an old question, but still a good one: If God were to command you to do something evil, would you obey?

“But he would never ask me to do anything evil,” you say. “That’s a stupid, hypothetical question. Such a thing could never happen.”

Some people are convinced otherwise. Let’s remember what happened just last week.

Herbert and Catherine Schaible

Herbert and Catherine Schaible, a couple in my home state of Pennsylvania, were sentenced to prison because they had refused medical care for their 8-month-old son, Brandon, who then died. “We believe in divine healing, that Jesus shed blood for our healing and that he died on the cross to break the devil’s power,” the boy’s father had said.

The kicker is, he didn’t say that about Brandon. He said it last year after another one of their children had just died in similar circumstances!

The Schaibles were sincerely convinced that The Right Thing to Do was to pray for their son and entrust him to Jesus, the Great Physician. They had dozens of Bible verses to prove it. They were so convinced that they did it a second time, even after an epic fail the first time.

What could the Schaibles have been thinking?? I have a pretty good idea.

You’re no doubt familiar with the story of Abraham and Isaac. God demanded of Abraham that he sacrifice his son, Isaac, as a burnt offering. Although God had promised to give Abraham many descendants through Isaac, Abraham was willing to obey God and kill his son. Only an angel’s intervention at the last moment kept the knife from plunging into Isaac’s heart.

So what was Abraham thinking?? The Bible actually tells us, and it’s very simple.

Hebrews 11:17-19 says that Abraham believed that God would raise Isaac from the dead. For his tremendous faith, Abraham makes it into the Faith Hall of Fame, as the catalog of believers in Hebrews 11 is sometimes called. This man who was willing to kill his own son and trust God for the outcome is upheld as an example for us all.

I don’t know whether the episode of Abraham and Isaac actually happened, but the Schaibles’ did, and theirs is very much in the faith-filled spirit of Abraham.

This is the problem with faith-based morality. The more divorced from reality it is, the higher it is exalted. The prologue to the Faith Hall of Fame says that faith is “assurance about what we do not see.” In other words, it is being sure of something without evidence. The more sure you are, based on as little evidence as possible, the better.

By design, faith-based anything (morality or anything else) has no check based on observable outcomes. To the extent that there are checks, we are not talking about faith, but about its opposite, namely skepticism.

Returning to the question at the top of the post, the Bible-follower must answer, “Yes, I would do something evil if God told me to” and he could not claim that such things don’t happen.

Most of us never hear God’s voice telling us to kill our children. But how about simply hating on people?

Another item in last week’s news was the Arizona legislature passing a bill that would allow businesses to refuse service to homosexuals, if the business-owners had religious objections. You can guess which way the lawmakers on the Religious Right voted. All but three Republicans voted for the bill; all the Democrats voted against it. This is faith-based morality at work.

(If you think that owners of businesses that are open to the public have a right to turn away homosexuals, what would you say about business owners who have religious convictions against interracial couples? Many people had those convictions just a couple of generations ago, based on their sincere reading of the Bible. There are still some hold-outs. Some of them probably own restaurants. Should they be allowed to refuse service to such couples?)

I’ve heard many times that those of us who are secular have no basis for morality. Be that as it may, we have all observed how faith-based morality can run amok, ending not only in medical neglect of children or discrimination, but in jihad and Inquisitions. (Sorry to trot out those cliche examples, but they are applicable.)

As I’ve started to outline in the last two posts, there is an alternative: morality based on the well-being of conscious creatures. I contend that this is a safer bet.

Of course, secular morality runs the risk of missing what may only be observable through the “eyes of faith.” I’ve addressed that in my post, Spiritual Discernment, but I’ll say more next time.

Vladislav Tornovoi and the Homosexual Threat

On May 9, 2013, in the Russian town of Volgograd, Vladislav Tornovoi was raped and mutilated with beer bottles and then beaten to death with a brick. One of his friends confessed to killing him because Vlad had allegedly disclosed he was gay.

How can this sort of thing happen in the twenty-first century? I can only observe that the crime took place amidst an increasingly anti-homosexual climate in Russia.

Also in 2013, Uganda is coming close to passing “one of the most punative anti-gay measures in the world” — a law that is known as the Kill the Gays Bill because an early version mandated the death penalty for repeat offenders.

Russian president Putin casts his anti-homosexual campaign in moral terms. In this he has the support of the head of the Russian Orthodox church. Uganda is a Christian country and a plain-text reading of certain Bible passages (e.g., Leviticus 20:13) would seem to place their proposed law squarely in the center of God’s will.

However,  I would like to propose to my morally conservative and Christian friends another way of looking at this. I’ll introduce it with a parable that I heard more than once in evangelical circles. The original meaning of the parable pertained to dating behavior, but I will suggest how it could apply here.

A wealthy man wanted to hire a chauffeur. His house was sited high on a mountain, and was only accessible by a narrow, treacherous road. He told each prospective chauffeur that if he could demonstrate great skill driving on that road, he would get the job.

The first candidate drove up the mountain maintaining a distance of only three inches from the down-mountain edge. “Not good enough,” said the wealthy man.

The second thought he could do better. He piloted the car a mere two inches from disaster all the way up. “Sorry,” said the man.

The third was so skilled that he could maintain a distance of less than an inch from the edge all the way up and down. “You’re not the man for the job,” said the rich man.

The fourth man drove the car slowly and as far from the edge as possible, both up and down the mountain.

“You’re hired,” said the employer. “You’re the only one I trust to keep me safe.”

Intolerance is like trying to drive close to the edge. We think we can participate in an intolerant sub-culture without any real harm, but that may not be true. In Russia and Uganda (and, yes, in the United States), we have seen how a climate of intolerance can lead to murder.

I now pose a question to all pro-life Americans: Which do you think is the greater threat to life: homosexuality or intolerance? In light of your answer, where should we focus our energy?

If you’re still not sure, you might want to watch another video:

For the chilling result, skip to here.

Experts and the Availability Bias

You’ve heard the aphorism, A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. This week, I learned a new way that that’s true.

Thinking, Fast and Slow is a fascinating book about how the brain works. In one of the chapters, author Daniel Kahneman explores what makes us subject to the “availability bias.” This is the tendency to believe things because it’s easy to call supporting arguments to mind, rather than because those arguments are sound or because we’ve conducted thorough research and considered all sides.

According to Kahneman, one of the factors that makes us susceptible to this bias is being “knowledgeable novices on the topic … in contrast to true experts.”  Our knowledge makes it easy to cite a few arguments, and we lazily and happily believe we’re right, no matter what the experts say.

That is humbling. I think of areas where I have fancied myself so knowledgeable that I was qualified to dismiss the findings of experts, and later discovered that the experts had been right all along. The most egregious instance is my pooh-poohing of evolution, but there have been others.

In the 1980s, I attended a speech by the chief economist of CIGNA. He predicted that the 1990s would be an excellent decade for stocks, and he cited several reasons based on his research. He was a very impressive guy: brilliant, well-traveled, and well-connected, but I knew better than to be taken in by this so-called expert. I had read a book called Bankruptcy 1995, which made it very clear that America was headed for financial ruin — and soon — due to runaway national debt. I may have been a novice compared to Mr. Chief Economist, but I was a knowledgeable novice!

Of course, we know who turned out to be right. I missed one of the greatest market booms in history.

dow

Opportunities to be a knowledgeable novice abound. Do you find yourself saying any of these things? If so, you might be right, but be careful!

  • Doctors don’t know anything. This alternative/shamanic/new-age remedy is what really works.
  • Related to that… If I just take this fistful of pills that I got at GNC, I don’t have to loose weight or exercise.
  • Based on their research, most university professors say that a strong social safety net reduces poverty and increases general happiness. Of course they would say that! They’re biased liberals! They may have advanced degrees, but Rush Limbaugh has given me a real education!
  • I don’t need any fancy studies to prove it. I know that prayer to my God works! My holy book says so, and I’ve even seen some sick people get well after prayer.
  • So-called experts in foreign relations suggest a measured approach in the Middle East. I know how the world really works: if we just turned part of Saudi Arabia into molten glass, those A-rabs would start to pay attention real quick!

Once in a while, an opinion outside the expert mainstream is proven right. More often, it is the experts who have the expertise. If we disagree with them, let’s be humble enough to admit the possibility of our own availability bias. Let’s be even more careful than usual to practice shaphat.

Welcoming Hate Speech

Jonathan Rauch has a thought-provoking article in the latest issue of The Atlantic: The Case for Hate Speech. He says,

The critical factor in the elimination of error is not individuals’ commitment to the truth as they see it (if anything, most people are too confident they’re right); it is society’s commitment to the protection of criticism, however misguided, upsetting, or ungodly.

It takes a lot of courage to protect the speech of your misguided opponents. You must have confidence that your ideas will prevail in the end, and you must have the patience to wait.

In fact, Rauch not only protects but encourages the airing of his opponents’ views. As he says regarding an opponent of same-sex marriage:

Most fair-minded people who read his screeds will see that they are not proper arguments at all, but merely ill-tempered reflexes. When Card puts his stuff out there, he makes us look good by comparison. The more he talks, and the more we talk, the better we sound.

I think this is similar to the faith one must have in due process of law. Even though you know the suspect is guilty, you must follow due process if society is to work. Shortcuts and cheating have a corrosive effect that is far more serious than one unjust acquittal.

If I have faith in one thing these days, it is in the power of information. Even false information is true information about those who are spreading it.

Here is one of my favorite movie moments of all time. Where Sir Thomas More defends the idea of giving the devil the benefit of the law, think of giving crazy people full freedom to state their views.

No Rest for the Wicked?

But the wicked are like the troubled sea,
when it cannot rest,
whose waters cast up mire and dirt.
There is no peace, saith my God, for the wicked.
Isaiah 57:20-21 KJV

No rest and no peace for the wicked? That may be true in some ways. If you’re a fugitive being hunted by the CIA like Edward Snowden, you are doomed to a life without rest.

However, in one very important way, I find that life is much more restful now that I’m one of the wicked. I can accept people as they are. I can sincerely wish their dreams will come true. I don’t have to be anxious because their wishes and actions are not what God supposedly wants them to be.

Back in my evangelical days, if one of my children had abandoned the faith I would have been incredibly anxious. Now, I only want my kids to live with integrity, whether that’s with faith or without it. As they have emerged into adulthood, their take on the faith in which they were raised has varied, but they all have very high integrity. I get to enjoy each one of them without worrying over their souls.

It’s not that I think every possible way of thinking or acting is just fine. There are still things that bug me a great deal. The world’s troubled seas still cast up mire and dirt.

During a storm, it is a bad idea to tie your boat to a fixed dock. It can be dashed to pieces. Far better to moor or anchor your boat where it can adjust itself to face the wind.

In yet another surprise from my deconversion that  I find that I am safer, happier and more at peace when I’m anchored in open water.

Moral Imagination

I have come to believe that if two people are prepared to make a lifetime commitment to love and care for each other in good times and in bad, the government shouldn’t deny them the opportunity to get married.

That isn’t how I’ve always felt. As a congressman, and more recently as a senator, I opposed marriage for same-sex couples. Then something happened that led me to think through my position in a much deeper way

So began Senator Rob Portman’s commentary yesterday in The Columbus Dispatch.

What was the “something that happened” that led to his change of mind? It wasn’t well-reasoned arguments from the other side; nor years of in-your-face tactics from such groups as ACT UP; nor (primarily) a re-examination of the Bible. Rather, it was the fact that his own son had some out as gay.

A beloved human face on the issue totally transformed it. That’s great, right?

Well, yes, in one way it is great, but there was a very incisive exchange about this on the Public Radio call-in show, On Point. The first caller said:

If we have to wait for every legislator of every party to have a personal experience with an issue … — [and] this will sound harsh but — have a loved one get raped; have them get AIDS; have them come out of the closet; get shot in a theater or school — then what is it about us as a human family that we cannot understand that just because it doesn’t happen to us, doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen to someone?

I mean, maybe Rob Portman should know someone who’s poor, or who doesn’t have a job, and maybe that would change him [as a conservative Republican]. (Time 6:20 in the audio at the top of this page.)

Tom Ashbrook (the host) summed it up:

Does it have to be personal before we can see the issue?

Guest Jack Beatty agreed:

What a comment on moral imagination!

This failure of our moral imagination – this inability to put a real face on moral decisions unless a face we know is thrust in front of us – has certainly been my own failure many times. It seems to be one of humans’ built-in cognitive biases. We weigh the opinions and stories of those we know and love much more heavily than the circumstances of strangers.

How can we do better?

One way is to spend time with people who are unlike us. One of my daughters happened to meet many lesbians at her college. Overt homosexuals hadn’t really been part of her world up to that point, but once she got to know some, she became much more sympathetic to their concerns.

Another is to imagine those we love in the situation in question. Are you against publicly funded healthcare? Then imagine your father out of a job, unable to afford insurance, and diagnosed with a break-the-bank illness like cancer. Your family can’t afford to pay out-of-pocket. Should society let him die?

What do you think? How can we strengthen our moral imagination and become more empathetic?