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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Part 2: Ethics of Thinking

(This is Part 2 of my last blog on Thinking About Thinking.)

Because thinking and acting are not separate and are in fact two dimensions of the same behavior, our ethics and our politics, that is, our theories of personal and collective action, are outcomes of our theory of thinking. The theory of thinking that puts categorization and analogy-making (including metaphor and symbol) at its core demonstrates how our special capacity for thinking and its exercise is at the root of good and evil, vice and virtue, the seven deadly sins and their undoing.

Let's consider some of the issues we face today and see the connection to our thinking. There are modern slavery, crime and punishment, poverty and the disparity of wealth and demise of the middle class. There are racism, abortion and women's rights, general welfare and personal responsibility, central government overreach and gun-proliferation, torture and terrorism. There is defilement of the earth as the condition for life. There is technology's benefit and threat to humanity.

In Terry Pratchett's and Neil Geiman's Good Omens, the four horsemen (Death, Famine, Pollution, War) are riding their Hell's Angels bikes looking for the Anti-Christ to bring in the Apocalypse. Well, it seems they are already here and can be traced to our own special capacity to think which was one of the consequences (along with work, death, and mother-in-laws) of Adam and Eve's garden choice to be like gods in knowing good and evil. All the issues cited above can be related to the way we categorize ourselves, each other, the world and often deny or neglect that we are doing so.

A horrific killing of school children by the Taliban just took place in Pakistan (reminding us of Sandy Hook on its 2 year anniversary and 9-11) and we ask why. What are those people thinking?

They are probably thinking, if we would care to listen, that they are right and we are wrong. They think they are exceptional, called by Allah to bring order to the world, an order defined by the images  of their clan and their beliefs in a narrow tradition of Islamic Jihadism. It is in this order that they experience personal meaning and a reason to live. After reading The Brothers I find such thinking very similar to the thinking of John Foster Dulles, the founder of modern lobbying and patron of contemporary neo-conservative/neo-liberalism with a mission to Americanize and Christianize the world and speed the blessings of capitalism.

We use categories (analogies, metaphors, symbols) to think and act. But while those categories open us to the world, they also imprison us. Evil stems from 1) absolutizing our categories by confusing them as realities themselves (stereotypes), rather than tools to achieve reality,  2) neglecting or denying the fact that we are using categories and therefore refusing to reexamine and critique them (conforming ignorance), 3) recognizing their power, manipulating categories for profit or control by discouraging people from inquiring and transforming them (patriotic jingoism, marketing, punditry). Good stems from critiquing our categories, continually expanding and verifying them, and refashioning them to be ever more inclusive. That is what I call transcendence. We can also call it "empowering," "educating," "liberating."

It is easy to see the demonic symbols of Fascist Germany or Bolshevist Communism. It is easy to appreciate how arts and sciences regress when they do not explore new forms and more inclusive models for understanding. It is easy to recognize stereotypes in others when they put us in a uniform group. But it is so much more difficult to see the mis-use of categories in ourselves. We deny the racism and clanism that are nourished in us by our nature and our culture. We neglect our narrow self-interest when pursuing what we consider is noble. We refuse to see ourselves as indoctrinated by our religion and our country. We only affirm the evidence that makes us good guys against the bad guys.

Earlier in these blogs I referred to four kinds of evil--my own four horsemen--banality, purity, triviality, and sincerity of evil. All these can be connected to our thinking/acting.

Banality. I started with the banality of evil in deference to Hannah Arendt who used this category to best understand Adolf Eichmann. Eichmann was an efficient manager.  He did not design the Nazi doctrine. He may not have been an anti-Semite or believed in the thousand year Reich to be ruled by Aryan warriors. But he went along with it with gusto, carried out orders, and efficiently exterminated hundreds of thousands of Jewish men, women, and children. He accepted the categories of Nazism without critical thinking. Banality neglects or denies that we are indeed using categories. It accepts categories as real without verification.

Purity. Hitler and his immediate circle designed the categories of Nazism and fixed them into an overarching narrative that rationalized their control of the nation and the peoples they conquered. He was the controlling instigator. He represents the purity which creates strict boundaries between the good and the evil ones, between the righteous loyal and undermining traitors, between we and them, our way and their way. This purity, because it is right, has the responsibility or mission to spread it and defend it by force if needs be. Other doctrines and ways are threats to be feared and defeated. Purity manipulates categories to control others.

Triviality. There were many Nazi leaders (generals and bureaucrats and bishops) who may not have believed the doctrine but used it to win for themselves. These are the gamers who see the world not so much as good and evil, but winners and losers. And they like to play the game in a way that they will win. Triviality uses categories in a game for self-agrandizment.

Sincerity. And there were those who were great compromisers. They had an uneasy conscience about the doctrines and policies of Nazism, but they supported, administered, and even encouraged it for what they considered a greater good, a higher category. I think of General Rommel who finally saw the futility, of Marechal P├ętain of Vichy France, and of Pius XIII who worked closely with Fascist Italy and Spain. The Fascist categories were accepted by being incorporated in their own.  Sincerity is categorical appeasement.

Other examples. In the Afghanistan/Iraq fiasco I see Cheney and Rumsfeld playing the purity role, though Rumsfeld may have been more a "gamer" as was Allen Dulles in relation to his righteous missionary brother John Foster. Bush, like Eisenhower, were compromisers who gave their instigators full reins. Secretary Rice went along and carried out her orders and General Powell was the good soldier with an uneasy conscience. And in relation to the recently revealed Cheney torture policy, CIA and military operatives managed without questioning--though we find out that there were many who risked and lost their careers by refusing. CIA's John Brennan refused to use "torture," instead using the Orwellion language of "enhanced interrogation techniques." And Cheney refused to admit that torture was used; but said that he would do it again for the sake of the fatherland. Johnson, the great compromiser, went along with Rusk and McNamara although he knew the Vietnam War should be stopped. Obama the compromiser defends his bail out of Wall Street and his drone policy with sincerity though I am sure with an uneasy conscience.

My foil, Cousin Vinnie, always gets caught in "my side/your side" language and refuses to see the pervasive racism that is behind so many of our policies and his views. He does not recognize the categories by which he is operating, including the stereotypes and over-generalizations that put people in a box.  He allows himself to accept the categories of Fox News without question. Banality personified.

And me? I must question constantly the categories by which I am seeing the world. I find myself often using categories without reflection. And I sometimes do not even realize how my analogies mislead as well as illustrate. Even the four categories I use to illustrate kinds of evil are overlapping and without clear boundaries. Who am I to judge?

We must use metaphors, categories, and symbols to think and act in our world. They mislead as well as illustrate. So how do we ascertain their adequacy, how do we understand their ability to do good as well as evil, how do we judge them, transcend them, and change them? Is there some higher power that we can call on which is beyond our ability to think?

Stay tuned for Part 3.


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