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Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Political Integrity and the Presidential Campaign

Looks like the campaign is set:   Obama/Biden vs. Romney/(Santorum?).

Now character and capacity are important in a candidate.  It is important to reflect on a person's integrity.  But I am more interested here in the integrity of our political system including the integrity of the campaign.


Mr Obama and Mr. Romney, could you stop any name-calling (e.g. "socialist" vs "vulture capitalist"), reject all statements that earn Pinocchios from the Washington Post or have not been fact checked through Snopes, not use broad characterizations that cannot be verified or falsified but are just designed to spur feelings of disgust and are simply ideologically pure to appeal to some "base" or "talk show host?"

Would it be possible to have a political campaign through which citizens are actually engaged in civil discourse about specific issues, about the shape of the political order and role of government that we need at this moment in our history, and about the direction we want to take not only as a nation but as human beings?

I think it is okay to be negative, but can you stick to the issues and quit personal attacks and broad unsubstantiated characterizations? Neither of you are evil or inadequate to be president.  In fact I will go so far as to say that both of you are very decent Americans concerned about our welfare as a nation.  And I don't care which of you I would rather have a (root)beer with.  But I do think you represent very different approaches to government (differences which have been with us for over 200 years).  The question is which approach do we want now?

Here are some of questions I suggest to be posed, discussed, and answered.  You will notice the questions are not ones of belief (which usually indicates a fixed ideology or religion) but of thought (which usually indicates deliberation, discussion, and education).

Do we or do we not think that a role for Government is providing a safety net to citizens in the areas of income, income security, housing, health, and employment?

Do we or do we not think that our Government should come to the aid of areas hit by natural disasters?

Do we or do we not think our Government should provide support for research and development in new and promising economic, health, energy, and scientific ventures where private investment is not sufficient?

Do we or do we not think our Government should use fiscal and monetary policy in controlling inflation and deflation, in softening the effects of business cycles, in regulating private banking and investment policies that can affect the health of the public?

Do we or do we not think that our Government should regulate private and corporate practices that relate to medicine, food, health and safety?

Do we or do we not think our Government should determine the morality and practice of birth control, homosexuality and same sex marriage, profanity and pornography, and define when human life begins in embryo?

Do we or do we not think that we are living in a multi-polar world, that the US is no longer the sole arbitrar of right and defense?

Do we or do we not think our government has a role in dealing with world conflict, securing fair trade, maintaining diplomacy, and a strong military?

Do we or do we not think that America needs to honor its commitment to Israel's security?  Do we think that both Palestine and Israel should be secure, free, sovereign countries?

Do we or do we not think that our nation should provide a path to citizenship for persons who have lived here a long time (eg 5 years) although without legal papers, worked here, raised children here, paid taxes here while at the same time stop the practice of illegal immigration?

Do we or do we not think that climate change is occurring, that human action in carbon emissions is contributing to climate change, that it could effect the human condition negatively, that we need to do something about it personally and collectively, that governments have an important role to play in this?

Do we or do we not think that economic disparity is a problem both within our nation and its cities and with the world, and that our government should play a role in dealing with it?

Do we or do we not think that government has a role to ensure non-discrimination related to race, ethnicity, religion, sex, personal sexual preference in public policy and in publicly supported or chartered and protected organizations?

Do we or do we not think that science and its method, rather than religious or cultural beliefs, should be used in determining what is real and in providing education?

Do we or do we not think that it is urgent that government support alternative energy production to diminish America's dependence on fossil fuels?

Do we or do we not think that America and its government needs to follow Christian beliefs in making decisions relating to domestic and foreign policy?

Do we or do we not think that civil service is an honorable profession, that public purpose (including community development and housing) can be served by non-profit organizations supported by government, that national government has a role in supporting cities that are in trouble?

Do we or do we not think that in general (outside of extreme crises) government should pay as it goes, that is collect sufficient revenues to pay for all its programs and administration?

Do we or do we not think that taxation should be progressive, i.e. be less of a burden on those who earn or have less?

Do we or do we not think that private corporations both profit and non-profit are vital to American democracy but should not be subsidized except through fairly awarded contracts to do government public purpose business?

Do you think that economic recovery and more jobs will be achieved by removing regulations from private enterprise and allowing them to hold on to more profits for investment or by government action to invest in infrastructure or some combination of both?

Do we or do we not think that wealthy special interest and corporate lobbying and contributions have too much influence in government and that SuperPacs need to be reigned in and held more accountable?

I would love to see these questions posed in NPR Newshour, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal along with your responses--as long as you want.  Then I want to see a team of respected political thinkers discuss them, make observations, and raise further questions in forums throughout the nation.

Of course, if we think that we should do something, how we do it is also fair game for questioning--as long as we recognize that the how is often worked out in a process of compromise and conciliation.

To my fellow citizens I ask: please add any other questions or suggest changes to these to make them more acceptable for thinking and deliberating as to who we want to be as a people.  And let's demand answers based on and challenged by thought.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Letter to Friends

Happy New Year to a friend and fellow sojourner!

First let me say that “retirement” agrees with me and I am grateful to Social Security, to former employers’ 401K and health plans, and ultimately to the American people that are allowing me to live modestly well while choosing my employment without regard to making money.

I write to recommend some reading.  You know that I have been on a philosophical quest for many years to discover and define a universal ethic that would inform our morality and guide our politics so that our grandchildren will progress in the happiness that we have known.  (See my blog at my website  And you know that I have been an avid amateur in science. 

The most informative sciences in my ethical quest have been Evolutionary Psychology and Neuroscience.   I just read three books that I recommend to you:  Who’s in Charge: Free Will and the Science of the Brain by Michael Gazzaniga, The Symbolic Species: The Co-Evolution of Language and the Brain by Terrence Deacon, and The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker.  Five stars all—though know that I award stars not by how much I agree with the books, but by how much they make me think and help me in my own inquiry.

Gazzaniga gives a good summary of his research into the modular workings of the brain, the primacy of emotional response and the illusion of conscious volition, and especially the interpreter function of the left hemisphere.  He helped me revise my ethical model, which I call “integrity” (see my Jan 1 blog) and redefine what freedom and responsibility mean in a contemporary society that values science.

Deacon provides the most up-to-date evidence for my own Philosophy of Symbolic Act that grounds my ethics and politics—filling out and correcting what I learned through Merleau-Ponty, Dewey, and their followers about the defining characteristic of human behavior: language and other symbolic forms through which truth, beauty, good, meaning, and happiness are achieved. 

But it is primarily Pinker’s book that I am recommending to you because of the insights it incites into our contemporary human condition.  For example, I could not understand the depth of the disappointment in Obama on the part of independent and liberal leaning Americans; nor could I understand the breadth of visceral and vituperous fear and hate of what Obama represents to people on the right.  But now I begin to understand the polarization in our body politic.

Here is a review of Pinker’s new book:

But first a confession.   I was more interested in his neuroscience than his philosophy of history—so I read the last three chapters much more carefully than I read (i.e. skimmed) the first seven. 

In the first seven he makes his case for the decline of violence even with 20th century world wars, genocides, and serial killings.  He traces the decline in warfare, crime and punishment, infanticide, abuse of women and children, slavery, and hate-crimes through a combination of historical forces including civilization, pacification, humanitarian and rights revolutions where last year’s Whigs become this year’s Tories in a gradual rationalization and liberalization process.  In the last three he gives the science of violence and its decline.

Whether or not you agree with his history and with his values (less violence is better), you will find this a very hopeful book demonstrating a moral progress in humanity at a time of forgetfulness when we tend to romanticize the past; e.g. the tremendous political polarities and corruption of 19th Century America far outdoing anything we see today, the inquisition and religious wars, the imperial pacifications.

But it is hardly Pollyanna.  The sources of devastation and of improvement, the inner demons and the better angels, are with us.  Pinker’s scientific treatise identifies these and points the way to how we might want to use them to become who we want to become.  That’s the part that helps me most in my inquiry.

In these chapters he describes the “seeker” and “rage” circuits of the brain and indicates five triggers for violence and the reasons for their selection in evolution: 1) practical—using force to get something wanted, 2) dominance—overcoming rivals especially sexual; 3) revenge—restraining tribal harm; 4) sadism—pleasure in hurting; 5) ideology—true belief to maintain group.  His description of the fifth trigger for violence is especially cogent and very important for our understanding of ourselves.

He also describes the restraint and reconstructive mechanisms, the “better angels,” of our nature.  These include 1) empathy (“mirror neurons and all that) and its growing circle, 2) self-control through the civilizing process, 3) morality and taboo to protect the group and the species, 4) reason and its perhaps accidental side effects.  Reason which may have developed through the symbolic ability that allows the species a critical means of survival by learning through anticipation of the future (see Beacon above), makes game theory possible, the reflection and anticipation of payoffs for behavioral responses.

This is a great read from which I drew many lessons including:
1)   Reflecting on the decline of violence is a potential cognitive therapy for the depression this country has seemed to settle into with all its negative think and talk—usually by old fearful white men like us. 
2)   Know thyself.  Just thinking about what is in us naturally that leads to violence and its restraint can provide us with options.
3)   Pure evil is a harmful myth because it promotes an attitude of victimhood over responsibility.  It is connected to the myth of nostalgia and utopia, which underlies the fifth, most powerful trigger for violence.
4)   Empathy, like love, alone won’t cut it.  There is a strong case for broad, liberal education.
5)   Pinker is no “moral realist” who looks for an ethical formula and truth the way that physicists seek and verify explanations in the physical universe; he uses game theory instead.  However, I do think he gives grounds for a universal ethic—my own quest.  But I’ll try to show that as I continue my work. 
6)   Freedom, including “free will” (see Gazzaniga above), and moral truth (see Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite by Robert Kurzban) are not discoverable realities, but projects for possibilities.  -- Hmmm! Let that roll around a bit.

Happy New Year!  And happy reading!  I would love to discuss these with you and invite you into my quest for a universal ethic. 

PS: why Pinker helped me understand the reactions to Obama is in appreciating 1) how interpretation follows emotional stimulus and 2) the strength of ideology including the victim narrative.  Lefties heard Obama say what he didn’t.  Righties see in Obama a threat to their in-group status, the cause of America’s shrinking influence.

“Combine narcissism with rationalism, and you get … ressentiment: the conviction that one’s nation or civilization has a historic right to greatness despite its lowly [or lessening] status, which can only be explained by the malevolence of an internal or external foe.  Ressentiment whips up emotions of thwarted dominance—humiliation, envy, rage—to which narcissists are prone.”  P. 524

Integrity: The Ethics of Being Whole -- A proposal


After a long bout with Alzheimer’s disease, my father died.  One of the calls of condolence I received was from the director of the Cleveland Foundation where Dad had volunteered on community projects after his retirement.  “I’m sorry he is gone,” he said. “He had integrity.”

Is this the best you can say? I thought.  What about what a good businessman or civic leader he was?   Yet over and over the words I heard most often about Dad: he was a man of integrity.  And then I realized that was the best you could say about my father.

Not that he was a good family man or a good Catholic or effective or loving or generous—though he was all that too.  Not that he was always correct in his judgments either.  We had sharp running disagreements on science and religion and politics and the economy. Articulate, smart, persuasive, successful?  Perhaps, but not that extraordinary.

But integrity, yes!  And I realized that was for sure the best thing you could say, not only about my father, but about anyone.  And that is what I would like to have said of me—above anything else.

What is integrity?  Why is it so important?  That’s what I will discuss here.  I will argue that integrity is the source, the means, the goal, and the highest characteristic of our humanity.  It is the ethical principle par excellence.

We sure know integrity when we don’t see it especially in leaders who don’t “walk their talk.” We see it in overly righteous preachers who pass by strangers.  In priests who molest children, bosses using their position to get sex, politicians making false statements to get money and votes, professors who do not foster a critical attitude in students.  We expect a lack of integrity in “used-car salesmen” whose income relies on commission.  We see it in scientists and other professionals who are working for private interests and use their skills to advance causes (cigarettes, suburban sprawl, unregulated carbon production, cures, tax policies) that are aimed for private profit.  We see it everyday on email as people pass on trash they know to be incorrect, or refuse to check out whether they are correct, simply because it fits with their own prejudices.  Deception, including self-deception, seems to be a part of our nature.

At the same time we know that integrity can be present in persons who make mistakes, fall into sins of the flesh, fail to achieve certain goals and standards of excellence, lose or never gain fortune, and are quite ordinary in all other aspects (like most of us).   We are sometimes too quick to judge persons as without integrity or name them or blame them as evil just because we disagree with them and without carefully considering the evidence and our own prejudices.  And that speaks to the lack of integrity we find in ourselves.

Read a novel by Carl Hiaasen or Elmore Leonard and, besides laughing at the dialogue and crazy situations, you will meet the most unsavory characters, 90% of them without integrity.  But you will also meet a few that may be a little crazy and maybe a little crooked; but they have a sort of integrity that you admire and pull for.

We know that we are sometimes fooled into thinking that persons have integrity because they are so sincere, so convinced they are right, treat us so nicely, speak or write so persuasively, hold such a position or office, are so smart and good looking, and have lots of money and friends.   But usually not forever.  There is something in us that recognizes the con, even if they do not, the fact we are being used, the contradiction in the core—although sometimes too late to avert harm.

We can never be sure if lack of integrity is a choice or a sickness.  But most of us are sure that we want to avoid those without integrity as dangers to us and to our society.   

So we know integrity by its absence and we know that its dearth is evil (if chosen) or at least wrong (if a sickness).  I will argue that the lack of integrity is the ultimate, that is, “core” or “source,” illness of human persons, their associations, and their nations. 

More positively, I will argue that integrity is not necessarily the truth, but the source of the true; not necessarily perfection, but the source of the good; not necessarily agreeable, but the source of beauty; not necessarily health, but the source of healing; not necessarily heroic, but the source of courage, the source of justice, the source of virtue, the source of the meaning of existence.  I will argue that integrity is the cardinal principle of our ethics and politics, the behavior of us humans in person and in community.

But what is it?  How do we recognize it?  How do we get it?  How do we foster it? Why is it the cardinal virtue, the source of justice and the good?

Integral means “whole,” as an integer is a whole number.  And in simple arithmetic the whole is the sum of its parts.  But in the math of postclassical science, especially quantum mechanics, biology and Gestalt psychology, the whole is more than the sum of its parts.  The whole is the dynamic union and interaction of all its parts.  And so it is with humans as persons and as societies.  And so it is with the worlds within which humans interact.

Integrity in human affairs, therefore, is the dynamic unity of all the interacting elements and dimensions that make a person and a social order whole.  “Whole,” we remember, is the root notion for “healing” and “health.”  But that still begs the question.  We cannot understand integrity unless we understand the elements that need to be integrated.

I propose to do that in the first part of this essay by proposing a model for integrity starting with the various dimensions in the human phenomenon and condition.  I rely on the tradition of philosophy beginning with the pre-Socratics but also on the major religious and spiritual traditions in our development but informed, tested, and corrected by science and in particular evolutionary psychology and neuroscience. 

In the second part of this essay, I propose to show how this model of integrity compares to other ethical models that have developed in human history.  Those models have used the images of tool or utility, contract or covenant, law or prescription, scale or balance, cornerstone or foundation in order to advance their theories.  All have made a contribution to ethical and political inquiry.  I want to acknowledge their contributions, but also understand and critique them with the model of integrity.

Finally I want to apply this model to real life situations.  For that will ultimately be the test of the model’s usefulness and veracity.  Does it fit our experience?  Will it work to guide our behavior into the future?  Can it claim universality? 

Essay Outline:

Introduction: A question of integrity

Part One:  A Model of Integrity

I lay out my method, my sources, and my formulation of the theory or model of integrity.  I explain my method of experimental philosophy, an inquiry into experience as it is occurs in human interaction with each other and the universe, with the findings of philosophers and scientists, especially in the area of evolutionary psychology and neuroscience, whose conclusions shape my formulation of the model.

My method: experimental philosophy, the analysis of perception and consciousness as it appears in human communication.

Three dynamics in the human condition: time, space, and association

  •          The experience of time:  temporal dimension:  history, tradition, culture, vision, transcendence .
  •      The experience of space:  spatial dimension:  intentionality, inner and outer reality, subjective and objective, presence, spatial dimension of time.
  •          The social dimension:  social reconstruction, personal development in interaction, the development of the self and other, social dimension to time and space.
And a fourth dimension: integrity:  unifying the other three.

The theory:  Ethics, politics and the meaning of justice, truth and the good. 

Part Two:  Ethical Models Compared and refined

I review the major and most influential ethical theories or models that have been handed down to us and still exert influence on our thought and behavior.  Each of them has a dominant metaphor.  I attempt to compare, critique, and complement them with the theory and model of integrity.

1.    The Parental Command (family and tribe):  Divine and Natural Law Theory:  Theology and the Religions of the Book.  Purity and Loyalty.

2.    The Foundation (civilization):  Theory of First principles:  Classical Philosophy (Plato to Hegel); Authority and Respect.

3.    The Balance (trade market):  Practical Ethics: East and West (Pre-Socratics, Skeptics, Buddha, Confucius, Lao-Tzu, Jesus); Care, Reciprocity

4.    The Tool (industrialization):  Theory of the best for the most:  Utilitarianism (Bentham, Hume); Equality Matching

5.    The Deal (capitalism):  Contract theory and Fairness (Locke, Rawls)

6.    The Organism (evolving complex systems):  Relational theory:  Pragmatism, Existentialism, Postmodernism, Rational Choice (Nietzsche, Dewey, Heidegger, Sen)

Part Three:  Questions of Ethics and Politics here and now

I identify the major ethical issues that confront us: those events and trends about which we must make choices simply to endure.  I do not pretend to settle them, but to show how the ethics of personal and interpersonal integrity might provide a path in dealing with them now and in the future.

  •          The Singularity:  Artificial Intelligence; Everlasting life; Cloning (Bio-ethics).
  •           Truth in Politics and the Possibility of Civil Discourse (Political ethics). 
  •           Social inequality and fairness (Social ethics).
  •        Punishment, Social control, and Justice--consequential, retributive, restorative (Criminal and Civil legality).
  •         Religion and Politics; Postmodernism, relativism, and universality (Culture and Ethics)
  •         Population control, Earth change, and urbanism (Eco-ethics) 
  •        Nationalism and Globalization; Role of the corporation (Economic Ethics)
Conclusion:  The challenge for post-tribal, post-modern, post-industrial, post-national humanity.  Choosing integrity.