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Thursday, July 19, 2012

Planning and Freedom

Two principles of economic justice, liberty and equality, can be destructively misstated.

  1. End regulation (including taxation) and an unrestricted Free Market will bring bounty to the human race.
  2. Central planning controlled by the State will bring bounty to the Whole human race.

The first is the credo of American libertarianism.  The second of Soviet communism.

When I was working in housing and community development in Fresno, housing developers fought the concept of planning for sustainable communities.  Tea partiers even condemned the notion of sustainability as a UN communist conspiracy.  They would have the market rule.  As population grew, cheaper agricultural land was bought up and tract housing was built which demanded new water and sewage lines and highways.  The Central Valley, social observers predicted, would eventually become the bedroom community for Silicon Valley, Southern California, and the San Francisco Bay Area.

A far sighted Fresno City planner and a councilperson, recognizing that the South East area would be the next to go, decided to consult with a premier new urbanist planning group to create a plan that would encourage concentrated higher density, transit oriented development, and saving prime farmland. Developers allied with certain council persons fought the plan as too expensive.  They of course do not consider the deferred long-term costs of maintaining new infrastructure, cleaning up air and water damage, loss of farm land.

When we organized fourteen cities to participate in the federal administration sustainable communities initiative, representatives of the Building Industry Association fought city participation as allowing federal meddling in local decision-making and therefore a threat to liberty.  

For libertarians, all government intervention, especially if it focuses on the poor or excluded minorities, is communistic. Libertarians, like Marxists, propose a "withering away of the State. They would just get at it differently--one through the free market where the Whole is merely the sum of its parts (unrestrained self-interested individual initiative), the other through totalitarian dictatorship by a leader of a Party that claims to represent the People.

Urbanization is happening. 70% of the world live in urban centers and soon it will be 95%. The City, according to Brazil Governor Jaime Lerner, is not the problem; it is the solution. Well, it can be--depending on how we urbanize. Are we urbanizing in a way that creates divisions and slums, that destroys farmland and forests, fouls water and air, discourages mobility, makes the cost of energy and climate change unbearable, that isolates citizens to the vagaries of unchallenged self-interested opinions?  Or are we planning sustainable communities?

Theologian Paul Tillich taught that there is no freedom without boundaries. Hannah Arendt showed that it was only when Athens built its walls, that there was an open, safe place for citizens to engage with one another in commerce and politics.

Indeed, most free-marketeers affirm government's role in building a strong military to protect corporations, commerce, property from pirates, terrorists, and other countries. They just do not see government's role in promoting fairness especially if their own profits are threatened. There is of course no such thing as an absolutely free market. There simply are no markets without rules and laws, codes of conduct, protected places, people, and enterprises, and organization. The question is for whom do the rules, codes, protections, and organization work best.

The point is: planning is not an enemy of liberty, it is essential to it. But how that planning is done is crucial--democratically through publics or dictatorially by a State dominated by parties run by those who have the most wealth and military strength.

Ironically, in a government dominated by those with the most wealth, the rhetoric is "free market" and less government; the reality is mighty government planning on behalf of the wealthy who have all the advantage in the so-called free market.  Deregulation and tax breaks just become regulation and taxes that favor the rich.

How does my theory of ethics guide me in this?

  • It guides me to discover in our tensional existence that it is not liberty over equality, or opportunity over results.  It is both-and now, always.  
  • It guides me to consider the effects of planning and development on others, on our social order, on our earth, on our future.
  • It guides me to understand that those with the most advantage have the most opportunity; and if we really believe in equal opportunity, we will attempt to equal the advantage--especially to those for whom previous unjust conditions put at a disadvantage. 
  • It guides me to look at the situation from the point of view of the poorer and more excluded members of our species (what Catholic Social Teaching calls a "preferential option for the poor"). 
  • It guides me to encourage the organization of the less advantaged so that they are informed and included in the planning with power.  


I think this ethic has great relevance in the present political campaign.  But more on that later.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Love and Ethics

So is Love important to a theory of ethics?

Well, what is love? Love is connected to the notion of good or desirable, the objective of human intention, behavior, fulfillment, happiness. Most would say love is an analogical concept meaning:
  • Sexual attraction or passion
  • Care for another, especially a relative, such as marital, parental, fraternal care
  • Friendship
  • Community, sense of belonging--locally, nationally, globally
  • Empathy, seeing/feeling others even in other places and times as other selves
  • Unity of Nature (physical, chemical, biological, microbial) relationships, e.g. intertwining strings in string theory, union of four forces in Unified Field Theory)
There is a more mythical, mystic, mysterious notion of love which perhaps is the ground of all our expressions and meanings of love. This is the Love we have in our experience of Wholeness or Integrity with ourselves, each other, our world, our universe, our past and our future, our inner and our outer life.

The other day we went to a Woody Gurthrie centennial celebration and heard:

This morning I was born again and a light shines on my land
I no longer look for heaven in your deathly distant land
I do not want your pearly gates don't want your streets of gold
This morning I was born again and a light shines on my soul

This morning I was born again, I was born again complete
I stood up above my troubles and I stand on my two feet
My hand it feels unlimited, my body feels like the sky
I feel at home in the universe where yonder planets fly

This morning I was born again, my past is dead and gone
This great eternal moment is my great eternal dawn
Each drop of blood within me, each breath of life I breathe
Is united with these mountains and the mountains with the seas

I feel the sun upon me, it's rays crawl through my skin
I breathe the life of Jesus and old John Henry in
I give myself, my heart, my soul to give some friend a hand
This morning I was born again, I am in the promised land

This morning I was born again and a light shines on my land
I no longer look for heaven in your deathly distant land
I do not want your pearly gates don't want your streets of gold
And I do not want your mansion for my heart is never cold.
  (Woody Guthrie, 1945)

Here is expressed the transcending Love that only poetry can point out. Given to and always with us, if we but allow and notice. Triggered by a hike up the mountain, a sunset at the sea, the hand you grasp while walking, an embrace, a public action for justice. When we live in this Love, say Saints John and Woody, we live in God and God in us whether we believe in God or not.  

This is the Love that is important to Ethics because it is the meaning, purpose, and drive of human existence and behavior.  

Saturday, July 14, 2012

So is God still relevant to ethics?

God is the ultimate principle of Spinoza's Ethics as is so for all ethics in Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and other monotheistic traditions. The scholastic philosophers, influenced by Augustine interpreting Plato and the Islamic philosophers commenting on Aristotle, taught that God as Supreme Being is the Summum Bonum, the first and final cause of all beings and therefore the End of all creation including human behavior.

"Being" and "beings" are concepts (metaphors) in the Western ontological tradition ("ontology"=study of being).  God as Being and creatures as beings is a part of that tradition which often speaks of God as a super-being, an infinite projection of the highest and best qualities of creation.

Spinoza's God was not above or outside Nature as was so in more orthodox traditions. Many commentators interpret Spinoza's God as identified with Nature, not with the parts but the Whole which is in and guiding all the parts.  Love of God is the highest act of human ethics.

When Einstein was asked if he believed in God ("God does not roll dice!") and referred to Spinoza's, he was probably saying that Reality, the Universe, or Nature as a Whole is bigger than the sum of its parts. When Stephen Hawking talked about "seeing into the mind of God," he said he was talking metaphorically about achieving the Unified Theory of Everything in science.  Telihard de Chardin, the Jesuit paleontologist and poet, speaks of the Omega Point (as does physicist David Deutsch) towards which the universe, including humanity, is evolving, when and where everything comes together in the fullness of consciousness. Alfred North Whitehead's God is a Becoming Whole of all that exists, the relational process we in our science and art and all our activities are trying to achieve.

In the History of God (see Karen Armstrong), the gods that arose in a more tribal hunter-gathering culture were symbols of unexplained powerful forces in nature and in society. In the turn to agriculture when tribes came together to form civilizations, often a chief god (that of the dominating tribe) was worshipped. Then came nation-states and empires for expanding and controlling commerce and One God (or in some Eastern traditions One Way, Spirit). Now as we approach Global and Universal dimensions, may the Force be with you.

So to our question: Is God necessary for a contemporary theory of ethics? The answer of course is no and yes--just what you would expect from a wishy-washy dialectical thinker.

No.  It is quite sufficient to build an ethics on the transcending nature of humanity.  I think my model relying on evidence from neuroscience and evolutionary psychology can adequately indicate right and wrong, good and evil behavior beyond relative moralities.

In fact I think that God can be downright harmful to an ethics if it is used to support polarized (as opposed to tensional or dialectical) thinking.  It can split the world and all of us into the Righteous against Sinners, the Pure as the White snow and the Impure Colored, the Included Saved and the Excluded Damned.  This God thinking leads to a hierarchy in personal dignity or holiness, rejection of certain groups, violence justified by dehumanization, narrow self-interest over mutual interests, anti-intellectualism, no salvation outside my church, absolute tyranny and infallibility on the part of those who claim a direct line to the Absolute.

Yes.  God-talk recognizes the role of metaphor and imagination in our pursuit of truth and fulfillment. It can be an affirmation of our presence now in a relational, limited, transcending adaptation to our universe by expressing metaphorically our eternal and infinite stretch between Alpha and Omega, Mind and Matter, Personality and Communality, Determined and Freedom, Real and Ideal. The time, the place, the community that is not-yet and is the motivation for the survival and transcendence of our humanity.

But again, not if God is the Man in the Sky (see the movie "The Invention of Lying") or a Super Man or Paternalistic Autocrat or Punishing Father or some Entity above and beyond nature that again reenforces exclusion, division, violence, and ignorance.

God is Love, says St. John. If you live in love, you live in God and God in you. So maybe if we really get a handle on love, we can let God go. Let's see if that might work later.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Catholic Social Teaching and Integrity

The other day I had occasion to dip back into my deep pool of Catholic Social Teaching.  I was raised on this teaching, which I think well corresponds to my own theory of ethics, which I call Integrity, that can guide us as we face the brave new challenges of global economic change, transitions in world political order, the coming of the technological "singularity," human evolutionary process, and earth change.

This is a teaching that itself evolved as Catholic officials and theologians first tried to steer the faithful through violent secular revolution and protestant monarchy restoration, then through the managers and workers of the industrial revolution, and finally through Soviet Bolshevist communism and American rugged-individualistic capitalism.  In the US this teaching culminated in the US Bishops American Bicentennial  Call to Action Conference (1976) and the Pastoral on the Economy (1986), both of which were given impetus by Pope John XXIII's Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

The 2nd Vatican Council brought "fresh air," new thinking, and reformed behavior in worship, in the role of the laity, in relationships to other religions and to secular, pluralistic society, and in social teaching towards democratic social change that included those that heretofore had been excluded in governance (women, persons of color, the poor).  It was an exciting time to be a Catholic.

However, there were those, especially at the highest levels of the Vatican, who saw how this "fresh air" could blow away traditional authority and threaten the established hierarchical order of the Church (as it had been defined in Vatican I).  Joseph Ratzinger, Archbishop, then Cardinal-Prefect of the Congregation of the Faith (1981), now Pope Benedict XIV, saw this most clearly and was instrumental in reaffirming orthodoxy and papal authority and condemning "liberation theology" and other thinking that was considered heretical.  He worked closely with the Polish Pope John-Paul II (1978-2005) in appointing more conservative bishops that would maintain orthodoxy in Catholic teaching and an unmarried, male priesthood under the authority of bishop and Pope.  Any further development of theological doctrine and moral teaching that started under Vatican II was held back.  However, new ecumenism was promoted vigorously.  Catholic social teaching was reaffirmed but more focus was placed on holding the line in family and sexual morality.

If 1962 to 1986 was an opening of the boundaries to let in new thinking and experimentation, 1986 to the present can be seen as the closing of the boundaries and even a period of restoration after revolution.  I can be cynical and say that the institution was indeed saved by keeping the lambs secure from the wolves of free-thinking or, worse, from becoming sheep or even shepherds to choose their own pastures.  While I recognize that organizations and institutions, and all life, need to ebb and wane between progressive opening to nutrients and conservative closing to toxics, I do think that an institution so focused on preserving itself is doomed to irrelevancy if not extinction.

But I also think that Catholic Social Teaching, which was influenced by Mondragon, Rochdale, and Nova Scotia cooperatives, by labor and community organizing, by Protestant Social Gospelism and the settlement house movement, by civil rights and liberation movements in India, the Americas, and Africa, by democratic socialism in Europe, as well as by a reassessment of Catholic tradition beginning with Prophetic writings in the Hebrew Scriptures and the Gospel of Luke and the Beatitudes, is still most relevant.  It however needs continual updating and development as we face our new challenges.

I don't think Catholic Social Teaching needs to rely on papal authority, on God as some entity outside Nature, or on any religious belief. I think it is consistent with the existence or nature of humanity as we discover in scientific and philosophic thinking or as we experience in our own reasoning and emotional engagement with each other in our evolutionary adaptation to our environment. (Though I am happy to point out the inconsistency of those true believing Catholics like Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Paul Ryan, and many of the bishops and priests with Catholic Social Teaching.  And I am happy to point out how the Church as an organization does not apply its teachings to itself in its treatment of women, LGBT persons, children, and workers.)

There are three main principles in Catholic social teaching (through the papal encyclicals and bishops' conferences):  1) dignity of all human beings, 2) solidarity, and 3) subsidiarity.

Dignity:  Every human born (some would even argue unborn, though not me) has dignity and should be accorded respect.  This means that every human being should be treated as an agent and provided all the means to exercise agency including the choice of who to be and what to do within both the structure and limits of human community (see solidarity below).  This further means that all life's needs should be satisfied as much as humanly and socially possible including adequate nutrition, decent shelter, health care, mobility, safe and supportive environments in which to grow, and continuing education.

Solidarity:  All human beings are relational.  They are potentially and ultimately connected so that what happens to one affects all.  This means that we must anticipate the consequences of our actions on others and acknowledge others' contribution to my well-being and my responsibility to theirs.  This further means all have the right to organize to pursue mutual self-interests.  Freedom in this teaching is not merely liberty (freedom from oppression), but participation through necessary and voluntary associations in achieving the common good.

Subsidiarity:  All human beings are in place and time and work out from the present moment.  Decisions should be made at the level of implementation.  It's another way of saying "all politics is local," meaning we start in and go out or from below and go up. This teaching opposes both individualistic libertarianism and state totalitarianism, that which minimizes or maximizes necessary institutions (government) to the detriment of personal and group initiative.  This principle is dear to community organizers whose main tenet is: "Don't for for others what they can do for themselves."  For that robs them of the ability to take initiative and being agents in their own right.  It is also a recognition of the importance of "republicanism," in the sense of developing autonomous (but interdependent) publics or associations or what is called "civil society."

Other principles have been articulated for Catholic Social Teaching: e.g. preferential option for the poor, human rights, dignity of work, promotion of peace, community and common good, constructive role of government, care for creation.  But I think all can be derived from the above three which correspond to the very structure of human existence.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Poverty and Equality

In my June 6 Blog I identified some of the "momentous decisions" facing humanity and began the process of thinking about them using my theory of ethics I call Integrity. One of those momentous decisions is dealing with the poverty and equity both in the US and worldwide.

The shrinking of the middle class along with the rise of wealth among those who have the most wealth in the US has been well documented. Even though the middle class seems to be growing or at least stabilizing in many European and South American countries and in Mexico, China, and Italy, and world poverty is ameliorating, it still is abysmally high. The consequences of stagnant and growing poverty while more wealth accrues to the richest, even if equity is not a concern, is social instability.

If large numbers, even if not large percentages, perceive that they do not have the necessities of life for themselves and their families, they will take them by whatever means. Despite the development of the human capacity to recognize universal human rights, to achieve empathic civilization, and for world order under the rule of law, people will revert to their tribal instincts including the use of violence to preserve themselves. And so it is to everyone's self interest to overcome poverty and deal with inequity.

Many solutions have been tried and failed.  The last century (we hope!) has dismissed the options 1) of a fixed aristocracy by heredity, by class, by wealth, by ownership, 2) of violent revolution or radical redistribution that destroys the upper and middle classes, and 3) of a totalitarian fascism or bolshevism which destroys the unequal (e.g. lower educated, races, sexes, religions).  Some would argue that trickle-down free-marketism and socialist welfarism have also not worked because they either take away the incentives to increase wealth in general including for the poor and middle classes or because they simply continue the prevalent redistribution of wealth to the wealthy.

A conservative progressive solution in line with my ethical model I think would be to 1) accept inequality, including that of wealth, as part of the human condition (that's the conservative tenet) while 2) not sacrificing the dignity of any human person (that's the progressive tenet). More positively put, it would celebrate diversity and act to ensure all persons in every place and time have what they need for full human development.

So what would this mean theoretically and practically?

My theory is the Integrity Model. I measure human dignity by the person's and community's ability to be present, now, here, with. A person can be totally present when she can innovate while appreciating her tradition. A person can be totally present where she can have an impact on the world while enjoying her self bodily and spiritually. A person can be totally present in public action and private life.  A person can be totally present at the time, space, and association in which she envisions her bliss conditioned by her reality.

I would argue that people and their communities do not have dignity if they do not have this ability, if they are excluded from the pursuit of happiness which is the fulfillment of their ability to be totally present. But I also do not see that people must have great or equal wealth to be happy and present.  They simply need to have the necessities of life--nutritious food, decent shelter, health care, continuing education, transportation, safe environment. When these necessities are there, persons have options and can make choices about who they want to be, what they want to do, how they will follow their own bliss.

I would also argue that we need to toss out the old Calvinist and modern industrial age mentality that says "he who does not work, does not eat."  We are living in an age of geometrically expanding technology and a "normal" unemployment rate of up to 10% where all need not work for income; and indeed it would be better if many who did not want to work for income would not.  It is also an age where we could have enough food, shelter, health care, education, transportation, and safety for everyone.  All people should be expected to take care of their homes, their families, their communities, and participate in the life and action of the community at least through volunteer work. (See my blog on the circles of citizenship.)  But only those who want additional income or who simply love their job and want the monetary rewards of work or those who want to get rich should be expected to work for income, i.e. have a job.

Why not let people choose to try being an artist even without getting paid for it.  Why not let any person (not just those who have inherited enough security) try to write that novel or poem, to take care of kids, to build homes for themselves and others, to work in their neighborhood, to discuss philosophy in the market place, to invent the latest labor saving gadget, to come up with the best theory on black holes, to go to school without having to worry about gaining income for the necessities of life?  I know that seems to be the socialist welfare approach of the Scandinavian countries.  I know we have to see how to practically make it happen as a nation and a world.  But let's not let old ideologies and beliefs hold us back from figuring out how to do it.

A personal note: Once I was a communist. I was a member of a religious order (the Jesuits) and took the vow of poverty. With that membership and vow, I was assured a great education of my choosing, I was assured excellent shelter, food, health care, transportation. I was also assured I would be taken care in my old age. Within some limition of my own choosing, I could pursue almost any career I wanted. Any income I earned teaching or writing went to the Order. I was also in communication with a wonderful and dedicated group of men and women in and out of the Order.  It was a great deal!

I know my father contributed much to the Jesuit Order because he was able to and also got a tax exemption doing so.  I was happy he did.  But it made no difference.  I was treated no differently than anyone else.

When I left the Order (let me say I never left the Jesuits or the Society of Jesus because I have stayed in close communication with them), I took a $100 a week job by which I was able to afford a $24 a week apartment for me, my new wife and child without all the insurances of the Order.  I experienced what most people mean by poverty, but at the same time was happy doing what I wanted to do.  I worked primarily with nonprofit organizations having no desire to get rich. With non-profits I could not save much, but did put all I needed to in Social Security and all I could in 401Ks. Today I am retired (from jobs that make money) but have enough to live on and am most grateful for my life and my choices.

I am also grateful to a nation that allowed tax exemptions, 401Ks, Social Security, and now health care.  I am able to keep reading, keep learning, keep traveling (frugally), keep thinking, keep writing, keep volunteering in community activities. I am not as wealthy as Mitt Romney, Donald Trump, young Wall Street computer markers, or even my children, but I am very happy--even when I am dissatisfied, even when I yearn for a more just and equitable society.

I am also an optimist.  I know our species can and will do better.