24.11.14

Testosterone Sucks. Why are Men Needed?

Women are better than men. I hate to say it, but it's true. Look around dude. Historically, men have dominated women since the beginning, which still continues today. That's bad enough. But women outmatch men on just about every moral indicator: crime rates, rape, domestic violence, murder, ("murders by women are so rare that they don't even show up meaningfully in the crime statistics" p.78), ability to trust, giving, sharing, and empathy. Men are psychopaths, sociopaths, and serial killers. These are generalizations of course but they are true as such.

The explanation, according this this wonderful book by Paul Zak, is testosterone. It turns men into assholes, risk takers, sex fanatics, and punishers. To anyone who has entered a college bar, this should be no surprise. How many women hunters do you know? Predictable, as men get older they lose testosterone and get better.

Why Women are Better

Women not only have very low levels of testosterone, but they have an extra special hormone that promotes good behavior: Oxytocin. A multitasker, this hormone is released during sex, pregnancy, breast feeding, and whenever a person shows trust or goodwill. Oxytocin has been linked to many pro-social behaviors in many experiments (detailed in the book), mostly empathy and trust. Women are more empathetic, and empathy is the basis of all moral systems.

Why Men are Needed

The obvious answer is that men are needed to make babies (although with the advent of science that's probably not true anymore). But more interestingly, testosterone has a nice side-effect: justice. Ironically, testosterone-filled men are needed to keep society in check, to judge and to punish wrongdoers. Natural selection allowed testosterone to hang on for this very reason. We are the enforcers and punishers of a functioning society (and the risk takers). Women, pumped with oxytocin, are too damn nice to punish people. It's important to know that men do have oxyticin in smaller amounts, but the problem with that: testosterone actually cancels out oxyticin. So when testosterone levels are high, we actually enjoy punishing people for their transgressions, rather than cringing. Who shall throw the first stone?, said Jesus. Crack her fucking skull! shouted some dick.

The good news, of course, is that we can and do transcend these biological limitations. Too much testosterone must be kept in check, and the same goes with oxytocin (too much can lead to too much trust). It's about balance. With knowledge, critical self-reflection, and love we can become better. Love can be learned, and it comes naturally for most of us.

8.11.14

John Stewart is a modern Socrates

Socrates (not John Stewart)
Socrates lived in a time when people thought they knew a lot. Socrates realized that real truth was hard to find. His life was dedicated to finding it. He died for it. I like to call him the "Jesus of Truth" (whereas Jesus died for love, Socrates died for the right to seek the truth wherever it may lead). Although he was humble about it, he exposed people by simply asking them questions; questions which led to contradictions. At the end of his life, he was put to death for "corrupting the youth of Athens." He apparently asked too many questions.

In the same way that Socrates pointed out hypocrisy, The Daily Show exposes the awful hypocrisy, corruption, and stupidity of our entire political system. He spares no one: Republicans, Democrats, and the media itself (which has rightly been called the fourth branch of our government). While making fun of it, he actually covers the news. Unfortunately people my age probably get much of their news from this show.

The only thing bad I have to say about it: I'm thoroughly depressed and disgusted after watching a few shows. Mr. Stewart, finding little evidence for hope, leaves us with little hope. Perhaps our only hope is that the show itself will someday create real, honest political leaders.

Why Politics Makes me Sick












Money
Unless money is taken out of politics, and elections are paid for by our taxes (or something close to that), I honestly have little hope for a thriving democracy. This is a no-brainer. Not only are politicians bought and paid for by large corporations and individuals, but legislation is literally being written by rich people (that is, "think tanks").

War
War is morally, socially, and politically abhorrent. It is the worse. It destroys lives. It should be the final measure. It never is. I elected Obama on the hope that he would never go to war; I was wrong. Historically, war is how rich people to use poor people as political tools to fight political wars. We haven't had a so called "just war" since WWII (if such a war even exists: that's debatable).

Two Party System
A healthy democracy (no, representative republic) requires choices. We have two slightly different flavors. The American public are apathetic, sick, and tire. We have been voting for the "lesser of two evils" for decades now. We need more parties, multiple legitimate candidates, voted on based on the merits of their positions. We need debates that ask real questions and demand real answers. Stop the horrendously emotional propaganda and start debating. Publicly funded elections would solve this.

Media
Most people realize that the media is no longer news but entertainment. It's not only partisan, but it's Jerry Springer. Sure I like NPR, but sometimes in their zeal to not be so liberal they actually pander to absurd opinions. Sadly, the only news I trust is the Daily Show with John Stewart. The stakes are high. The Media has rightly been called the fourth branch of government (legislative, executive, judicial are the others). They are the ultimate "check and balance" on government power. Don't get my wrong: I think it's always been this way. In fact, I think technology gives us the tools to be more informed than ever before.

Income Inequality
This is destroying our nation and eliminating the middle class, but nobody wants to do anything about it. The rich want to be richer, and they have all the power. We will not get a progressive tax code anytime soon, and millions of people will continue to suffer under the cruel reality of generational poverty, joblessness, non-living wages, weak collective bargaining, part time work, inadequate health care, expensive child care, access to unhealthy food, under-funded and unbalanced school systems...all of this when the rich are getting richer and corporate profits rise.

Sexism
Women make up half of our nation but a small fraction of  people who write our laws. It's a shame. It's no wonder that some of our laws are blatantly sexist, like the new Michigan "rape insurance" law that literally brought Michigan women lawmakers to tears on the floor. Racism has a horrible and lasting history in American, but so does discrimination against women.


Does Marriage Require Conflict?

Love is hard, right? We've heard this a million times. I've even heard preachers say it. Wrong. After three years of marriage, I'm here to say that marriage can be almost entirely without conflict, without arguments, without sacrifice, without fighting. Full of love, intimacy, and all the good stuff.

I never thought it would be this easy, this graceful, this organic. Both Katie and I had our doubts from the beginning. Looked at objectively, we had some real compatibility issue (mostly religion, but others like music, art, social group, family upbringing). Frankly, she thought I was a little weird from the beginning, and vice versa. Yet, somehow despite that, as if living in some magical alternate universe, we have what I consider to be a perfect marriage - about as perfect as it gets. I enjoy every single day. Perhaps it's rare. Perhaps I'm blessed. So be it. Carl Jung once said that we exist in order to explain ourselves. Let me try.

Main Ingredients

Respect. Most importantly by far, we genuinely respect each other, morally and professionally. We are good people, we have empathy for others, and we both support the people in society who are the proverbial "least of these". Having similar ethics is crucial, even if those ethical systems have different foundations. This usually means similar politics as well. Yet we respect each other as independent, different people with different ideas. She has her goals, I have mine; we pursue them together.

Reading. This is our passion. This is how we first met. I was working security, she was at a book group discussing Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse at the library. This was one of my favorite books, so I began discussing it with the group, as I was kicking them out of the library. Reading promotes an intellectual life; a life of learning, growth and conversation.

Money. We don't need much, we don't want much, and our hobbies don't cost much. Thus, it's nothing to fight about. We both save money rather than spend it. We are fortunate to have jobs that we can actually live on.

If you are reading this and still looking for a partner, don't settle for anything less. If you are reading this and feel unsatisfied with your boyfriend or girlfriend, either fix it or say goodbye. If you are in a dangerous or violent marriage, leave out of respect for yourself. If you are in an unhappy marriage, try your very best to fix it before saying goodbye. You owe it to yourself and your partner. Marriage should be like living with a best friend. It's usually not, and that's very sad.

24.10.14

Meerkats, Interpretation, and God

Life of Pi is a popular book about a boy in a canoe with a tiger in the ocean. To my surprise, I loved it. This book is nothing less than a sophisticated, fair, and modern justification for faith in God.

We hear a story about a boy on a fantastic journey of survival, a story that is almost unbelievable - at one point they reach a living island full of meerkats. At the end of the story, the boy (now an old man) tells his story to another man (or two men...I can't remember the details). Anyway, he doesn't believe the story. So he tells the man a more realistic story: he leaves out the tiger and the meerkats. The skeptical man says: "which one is the true one?" The narrator replies: the choice is up to you which story you want to believe. I gave you my story. Then I gave you an alternate story. Both could be true. You cannot verify either. The choice is up to you.

Forget about the details of the plot; this is all a metaphor for life, for how we perceive the world, for how we interpret events. If you're wondering whether a boy really could survive with a tiger, or whether a meerkat island could actually exist, you're probably missing the point. If you think that religion is a bunch of silly made up stories just to make people feel good, you are also missing the point of the book. Everything that happens in your life, everything that happens in the world, is perceived and interpreted in so many ways.That's what the book is about. There is meaning behind events, and we provide that meaning. Unless you are a Nihilist, everyone gives meaning to life in some way. The meaning becomes reality, a part of the event. The fantastical story is clearly a reference to a theistic interpretation of life, while the alternate story is a reference to a non-theist interpretation of life. The philosophical point is this: we really don't know which one is correct, thus we choose. Given that, the author is suggesting that a religious interpretation is preferable.

I agree.

Billions and billions of years ago, our universe came into existence. That's a fact. But why? Why does anything exist at all? And what does the Big Bang mean, if anything? That's up for interpretation. Now apply this to all events, big and small. That's life; that's the human condition - we are meaning seeking animals, and that's okay. I choose to believe God is behind all events.

13.10.14

Did Job Teach God a Lesson?

William Blake portrays God speaking to Job in a whirlwind
The Book of Job is bizarre. It shows God making a bet with the devil, testing the faith of Job, and finally an epic scene where God basically yells at Job: how dare you question me mortal! Oddly, then God gives all Job's stuff back and sort of implicitly justifies him.

Some people think the lesson is simple: do not question the ways of God. When bad things happen to good people, trust God and never question His ways. He controls the universe, and you are a speck of dust.

True. But instead of God teaching us a lesson, Karl Jung (psychologist) believed that Job also taught God a lesson, a lesson that God could not teach Himself. The lesson was about moral perfection: that to be truly good, one must do the right thing in the face of horrible, unjust suffering. But God cannot suffer. One must have free will, something God might not have. For God to evolve, to become better, to become more loving, God confronts a morally perfect human (Job) and realizes that the limitations inherent in man are actually the most beautiful thing about us. What does God take away? Love, forgiveness, and sacrifice. Jesus, of course, will become for Christians the ultimate confirmation of the Book of Job: God becomes man in order to perfect love. The Trinity is complete.

Personally, this all makes some sense to me, even though this interpretation is controversial at best. (Quick interpretation tip inspired by Augustine: if an interpretation increases your love and understanding, it's probably right). Imagine God before the universe, before anything existed. God, all by himself, has limitations. God needs creation and creation needs God. Otherwise why would God create to begin with? Everything is a reflection of God and a part of God. Human beings are not all-knowing or all-powerful - we are not even close. But, because of free will, we have the potential to be perfectly good. Job and Jesus are good examples of that.

True Love is Freely Given
Here's another way to think about it. God could have designed the world in a purely rational way, where good people are blessed and bad people are punished. In a way that makes sense. But is that love? True love, unconditional love, is freely given. It looks beyond circumstances and just is. Perhaps the Book of Job is a justification for why God must allow good people to suffer: it's the only way to love freely, both the good and the bad.


4.10.14

Vegetarianism from a Hunter's Perspective

Shall I puff out my chest and say meat-eating is natural and noble? Shall I make fun of vegetarians, call them unrealistic, or try to poke holes in their position?

No. If a meat eater is honest with themselves, if we give it an iota of thought, we must admit that vegetarianism is a morally superior position. Simple as that. It's a no-brainer. One diet is based on killing animals, sentient creatures that suffer. The other diet is based on not killing animals. How much simpler can it be?



If anyone chooses vegetarianism for moral reasons - as my wife and my ex-girlfriend did - it's a beautiful thing. These people have the moral imagination and empathy to feel for animals, an advanced empathy, an enlarged amygdala perhaps. And that deserves praise from all of us. Moral vegetarianism comes in two flavors: (1) it's wrong to kill animals and/or (2) it's wrong to subject animals to suffering, an indictment of the meat industry. I have genuine respect for both positions. If my son Immanuel becomes a vegetarian, I would be glad for him. Other vegetarians may choose for different reasons: they don't like meat, or the culture, or they want to be healthier and could care less about animals. That's okay too, but I do think the moral position deserves the most praise.

Let's not get carried away. Vegetarians should not  judge - they should understand us and accept us as falling short of an ideal; after all, don't we all fall short of ideals? Judge not. As always, the best way to promote the cause is to simply be (lead by example; be the change you want to see in the world). The vegetarians I have known have been great examples for me. As for meat eaters judging vegetarians, now that's laughable! - but sadly happens all the time.

Meat eaters want to argue that it's natural. Yes, eating meat is "natural", normal, and prevalent, but that's not a good moral argument. (check out my blog on that). Explaining a behavior does not justify it, although it helps to put it in context. Human beings, looked at as an animal species alone, are indeed omnivores. Historically, we have always ate meat (when and if we could catch it), although I understand that a very small percentage of our diet was in fact meat (because it's hard to catch), and now we eat too much (from a health perspective). Free will, morality, and modern-day realities and luxury allow us to choose vegetarianism if we want. For most Americans, it's an open choice. One is better. I choose the worse one.

The fact that I hunt for my meat doesn't help my position very much. Everyone who eats meat must be comfortable with the fact that they are killing animals. They are complicit. I simply do it. I enjoy the total experience of hunting, but I do not enjoy killing a deer. I kill deer for the meat, which I take care of properly (well, as "proper" as I can). Some vegetarians - the ones who don't like the meat industry - think it's better that I kill my own meat and process it in a more humane way.

Morality makes demands on us. Some behaviors are required, others condemned, and others are merely permissible or allowed. Much like drinking beer in moderation is morally permissible, eating meat in moderation is morally permissible in my opinion. It's allowable. But such a lifestyle is certainly not on the same level as a vegetarian lifestyle. There is a better way, and I imagine that 100 years from now most people will have a plant-based diet. That's how morality works sometimes.

27.9.14

At 31, I've Learned One Thing

Truth and love, my friends, truth and love. Honesty and compassion. Self-reflection and empathy. I have searched the world over for wisdom, and that's what I find. Everything else bows before, supplements, and adds on. If you live your life according to these two principles, you will flourish. If you contemplate virtue daily, as Aristotle says, you will be a virtuous person. It's all very simple. If you love according to the teachings of Jesus (or others), you will have no enemies. If you forgive, you will live gracefully and peacefully. If you need little, you will be content. If you make the effort to understand people who are not like you, or who live far away, you will never hate. If you accept the things not in your control, you will never worry. If you replace bad habits with good ones, you will be healthy. If you read, you will be more empathetic. If you take the best parts of religion and leave out the worst, you will be left with meaning and purpose. If you give people the benefit of the doubt, that's how you treat yourself. If you seek the truth, you will not be ignorant (ignorance is not bliss; it's dangerous). If you seek answers, you will ask questions and solve problems.



A man cries; a man feels; a man faces a situation head on and overcomes it with understanding and compassion. A man is humble, admits when he's wrong, constantly finds weakness in himself, exposes himself before others do, works on his faults. There are many ways to be strong. The virtues of women and men are exactly the same. If you are hurt by someone, have the courage to swallow it up, take it in stride. You can handle your emotions. Either renew the friendship or walk away. Both are graceful.

I am gullible enough to believe that an enlightened love can solve not only our individual problems, but the world's problems: war, hunger, poverty. If the right people love enough, people that are intelligent enough to see the problems and compassionate enough to do something about it, then these problems would end. Or if powerful men would love. Love conquers greed. Big if. Love ought to be measured not be those close to you, but those far away. Even sinners love close.

Birthdays haunt me in a way. What have I accomplished? Considering my potential, not much. Like most people, I had plans and ambitions. I wanted to write a book. I wanted to join Habitat for Humanity. Like so many dreaming men, I wanted to do something grand, something of abstract significance. Yet, the proper question to ask is this: do I have any hatred in my heart? No. Are there any relationships in my life that need patching up? No. I feel love for everyone, and perhaps they feel the same. I have a loving marriage, and the greatest gift of all - Immanuel, who has intensified my love, emotionally and conceptually.

When we are all in our casket, the measuring stick will be love. We all know that. Was I an honest person? And how much did I love? And that's it.

9.8.14

Aaron Miller: a horrible blend of religion and politics

Michigan had a primary election yesterday. Aaron Miller was one of the Republican winners (that means he could become a state lawmaker depending on the November election). Before I rant about Aaron Miller, to be fair, I am only critiquing one thing that he said. I did browse his website, which I found laughable, but I know little about him as a person. Anyway, he said this to the Kalamazoo Gazette in a questionnaire:
"Gas taxes need to go toward funding roads 100%."
Okay, he sounds reasonable, right? Wrong:
"My belief in Jesus Christ directs all my other beliefs. Therefore, I'm pro-life, for personal responsibility, for fiscal responsibility, and for freedom. That's why I'm a member of the Republican Party."

Translation:

"I call myself Christian, and when I read the Gospels, which I clearly don't understand, Jesus had political beliefs, and they were Republican. I hate abortion so much that it should be illegal regardless of rape, regardless of the consequences to poor people. In fact we should have a Constitutional Amendment that applies personhood to the bundle of cells after conception. Let's eliminate Planned Parenthood because they are associated with abortion. Personal responsibility = I think black people are lazy and dependent on the government. We should not only stop giving them food stamps and unemployment, but we should insult their intelligence by paternalistically telling them to pull themselves up from their bootstraps and transcend all the enormous impossible forces bearing down on them (and Affirmative Action is "discrimination"). We should let Detroit rot - no "bail outs" - and let's take away hard working peoples' pensions (and let's stop having pensions because, you know, they are so outdated). Fiscal responsibility = cut social programs for poor people and, instead, liberate "job creators" from taxes and regulations; that will fix poverty. Freedom: I'm very skeptical of Muslim/Arab/Terrorists and other anti-American things, I am pro-war in the name of spreading "freedom" because, you know, freedom is not free support our troops. It's amazing how Jesus preached about all of these things."

I only slightly exaggerated. Words like "personal responsibility" and "fiscal responsibility" are loaded terms. They are coded. They have a hint of positivity - who doesn't like freedom and fiscal responsibility? - but, in effect, they are mostly negative. We know what they mean.

The politics of Jesus?
Since Jesus identified his ministry as apolitical ("give to Caesar what is Caesars"), it's nearly impossible to tell what he would think about modern day political matters, especially the political issues that Mr. Aaron Miller cares so deeply about. He certainly didn't talk about abortion, getting people off welfare, government spending, and freedom as defined by America. One thing we can say with confidence: Jesus would be anti-war. By speculating, you could perhaps make the argument that Jesus would have been pro-life, meaning he would not want pregnancies to be terminated. Other than that, we must stick to what Jesus taught in the Gospels--love, forgiveness, non-violence, and non-judgment. That Jesus is way beyond the democrat/republican spectrum.

29.7.14

Book Review: the Cure in the Code

http://www.kpl.gov/blog/Default.aspx?id=15032396027&blogid=1766

I will just add this: good, interesting book, but I don't think he makes a great case for deregulating the drug industry. A valid case could be made for bulking up the FDA, improving it so drugs can be safe and faster.

28.7.14

Book Review: Dog Whistle Politics



http://www.kpl.gov/blog/Default.aspx?id=15032395980&blogid=1766

We all want Small Government

from Hobbes book Leviathan
Republicans are the so called "small government" party. That's untrue. The reality, in my opinion, is that we all want small, or big, government, depending on what parts of the government we are talking about. When it comes to the war part of the government ("defense"), Republicans are big government all the way (and, to a lesser extent,  Democrats too). When it comes to helping poor people, generally Democrats are big government, Republicans small government, and Tea Party no government (which I think is race based, but that's another issue). In other worlds, "small government" is not an accurate way to describe a political party.

I think that we all understand the general problem with government over time; namely, it gets bigger, it grows like a leviathan. It's a rolling stone that does grow moss. If you looked at the current United States Code Annotated, the set of all federal laws on the books now, it spans over 50 feet (much of that includes notes about court cases but still). The Code of Federal Regulations (written by the various executive agencies like EPA), is another 50 feet.When library patrons walk into the law library I work at, they are usually astounded at the sheer volume. If you looked at the same set 50 years ago, I'm willing to bet it would be significantly smaller (I've noticed this trend with Michigan law...I've seen that as the decades grow, the volumes grow). Now, I'm not saying this is the worst thing ever, I'm just saying that, at some point, it does become a problem. Politically, it's very hard to slash government; it's not a sexy thing to do. Thus we have a big government. Democrats are concerned too. What to do about it?

I will add just a few ideas. First, budgets reflect priorities. Let's stop funding wars, which cost billions. Let's slash the Defense down to a reasonable level. Let's make large corporations actually pay their taxes, and let's go back to a more progressive income tax code  for the super rich. With all those savings and all that revenue, let's invest in education (I believe a lack in education is what causes larger problems like poverty, in part).

What parts of the government do you want smaller? 

What parts do you want bigger?


19.7.14

In Search of an Atheist Moral Hero

John Lennon: moral hero and atheist?
I'm not trying to be a dick about it or argumentative. I really want to know about a great person in history who also happened to be an atheist. Much of my inspiration in life has come from reading about great men and women: about St. Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther King Jr., the current Dalai Lama, Dorothy Day, Gandhi, Jesus, Simone Weil...the list goes on. After thinking about this for years, I am yet to land on a figure living or dead who was a great moral hero and who was an atheist. Now, don't get me wrong, I realize that history has not been kind to atheism, and therefore many atheists never "came out." I also realize that biographies and (especially) autobiographies are a little exaggerated, and that many of my "great men" were also ordinary people with ordinary problems. But the fact that all these great men and women were great because of their religious beliefs is, to me, indisputable. Get rid of the religion of MLK, for example, and you get rid of MLK. That's another discussion.

Anyway, please suggest an atheist hero in the comments section below. This is a challenge and an opportunity for learning. I would like to read their biography.

Ground Rules
  1. They must be an atheist, which is simply defined as a person who doesn't believe in God or a supreme being. So don't give me Thomas Jefferson (he was a Deist), but perhaps Thomas Paine (although wasn't he mostly a political revolutionary?). Also, the person cannot be religious. In other words, don't give me a Buddhist that doesn't believe in a personal, monotheistic God. Also, several religious people have been fiercely critical of religion. For example Luther, Tolstoy, Isaac Newton. That does not mean they are atheists (far from it, they were real Christians). Give me a real atheist, like Freud for example (but don't give me Freud...see next rule). Of course I am not saying that their morality has to be related to their atheism in any way (that would be absurd...atheism is a lack of belief). Or, if you must, give me an outspoken agnostic even, I'll go with that.
  2. They must be really good people. Not great scientists, or great thinkers alone - great moral people. Great people do great things for other people, as all the people I mentioned above. Bertrand Russel perhaps? He was a social activist for peace and was behind some good causes. But I would need more information. Also I heard he was actually a dick in person. I don't know that, I just heard that from a professor of philosophy whom I respect. Einstein was a Deist as far as I can tell. John Lennon perhaps? Now we're thinking. How about Carl Sagan or Neil Degrasse Tyson? Well, maybe. Besides being excellent science popularizers (and great scientists in their own right), what have they done ethically?
  3. No Socrates. He is one of my greatest heroes; in fact, part of my tattoo is based on him. But as I read Plato's dialogues, I'm convinced that Socrates believed in one God (or at least Plato did...it's hard to pull apart Socrates from Plato).
Not Fair!
You might find yourself saying "not fair" for several reasons. First, atheists were persecuted so much that they never "came out." I answer, like Jesus you mean? Great religious people have been persecuted too; indeed that is why they were so great. Or perhaps you think that historical figures lied about being religious, when secretly they were atheist. Setting aside that fact that lying  is not a virtue, you have to provide some evidence. You can't just name drop historical figures and say they were atheist. If they were silent on the issue, I might even buy that. But mostly I don't find this argument very successful. My Kant professor in college, for example, thought that Immanuel Kant was secretly an atheist. If you've read any of his work, you know that's silly. The truth is my professor really really wanted him to be. Second, you might say that atheism is not a moral worldview, so my quest to find an atheist moral hero makes no sense. But I'm not making that connection. All I'm asking is for a great person who happened to be an atheist. Now, I do see the connection between religion and morality of course. By definition, religion is a moral endeavor. Third, I'm not suggesting that atheists cannot be good people. My brother is a good person, so is my wife. Fourth, you might argue my rules above are too constricting. How so? Fifth, you might say that history has been dominated by religion; therefore, the atheists have disappeared from the record. I can see that.

13.7.14

Morally I'm Pro-Life, Legally I'm not, and why Pro-Lifers need to calm down

Morally I'm Pro-Life
For some of our beliefs and opinions, we should recognize a distinction between the moral belief itself and its legal implications, or its potential legal implications. For example, I believe everyone should love others, including their enemies, but I do not believe that should be a law. I don't think, for example, that disliking your neighbor should come with a $200 fine. I believe in radical forgiveness, but I would not support getting rid of all prisons and jails (in the name of forgiveness). I believe in God, but I also think government should be secular. These are moral and religious issues that may or may not become legal issues, depending on whether we want to extend them. The more I thought about the abortion debate and how complex it is, the more I realized that abortion is the same kind of issue--it's moral and legal.

  • Moral Pro-Life: When you believe that abortion is wrong.
  • Moral Pro-Choice: When you believe that abortion is permissible.
  • Legal Pro-Life: When you think abortion should be illegal
  • Legal Pro-Choice: When you think abortion should be legal.
Pick two. Before you think I'm splitting hairs or creating distinctions ex nihilo, check out this Pew survey which suggests we all look at it this way. I believe terminating a pregnancy is wrong, except in the case of rape and the mother's safety. That's my moral view. I wouldn't get an abortion, and if I extend my morals to other people, I don't think they should get an abortion either (the same way I don't think they should dislike their neighbor, or lie, or punch people in the face). I would never judge someone that got an abortion, based on the Christian prohibition against judging (Jesus: "judge not"). I would not hate them for it. I would simply think it's not right. That's all. Negative emotion is not required. The proper response is compassion, understanding, and sadness (both for the baby and the parents). I believe in contraception, which includes Plan B (in my understanding, it's preventative, not a termination). More on that later.

Why am I morally pro-life? Five main reasons. First, everyone is pro-life to a certain extent. When having these arguments, we forget that almost all Pro-Choicers are pro-life when it comes to the third trimester (i.e. babies that pretty much look like a real baby). Even liberals do not want to see mothers kill these kinds of babies. So the real question is: where exactly do we draw the line? From sex, to fertilization, to "viability," this is where the science gets very murky and the place we pick seems a bit arbitrary. Therefore, I don't blame people for picking "fertilization." Intuitively, it makes sense, but people don't even understand the science behind fertilization (I don't).

9.7.14

What we mean when we say "it's perfectly natural"

It's completely natural. It's totally natural. There's nothing wrong with it. Do it.

From masturbation to racism, from organic food to free range cows, from shampoo to all-purpose cleaners, from beards to smoking pot, from home births to refusing vaccines, the word natural has been employed to convince people that something is okay because....it's totally natural dude. Here is the magical formula:

x [behavior you like]   +   "is natural"   =   x is morally permissible/good


biological necessity

Masturbation. We say it's natural because the human body practically requires it, especially during young adulthood. The evolutionary and biological forces are so strong that it would take an enormous amount of moral will power to not do it. Kant, a product of his times in this respect, actually produced a moral argument against it, saying that masturbation amounts to muddying up your imagination, using your mind as a means to an end. Suffice to say we don't buy that argument, for good reason. In this case, the natural impulses far outweigh any moral arguments you can come up with, and the moral arguments are pretty weak. Leave it to the monks I say.

Sex. It's perfectly natural for human beings to have sex with many people, and even for partners to be unfaithful. It's so common that a zoologist, for example, would have to conclude that we are not in face a monogamous species after all but somewhere in the middle (explains our divorce rate). Yet, morally speaking, we do not condone sleeping around or cheating; not even close. Why? I think it's because sex also happens to be a moral issue, not just a biological impulse. Both are real. In fact, the moral argument is strong, and the natural inclination is not so strong that we cannot defeat it. In other words, it's in the moral sweet spot, in between natural inclination and moral inclination. Personally, this is how I harmonize my moral and biological natures: Sex is a special thing to be done with people you care about, and you should never cheat on your partner, ever. Just my opinion.

20.6.14

the Varieties of Racism

I've been reading a fantastic book (Dog Whistle Politics) on the coded racial language that politicians use to scare people and get votes (specifically, how Republicans are able to get poor white people so scared that they will vote against their own interests).

Hate
Actual hatred or animosity. The Klu Klux Klan, for example, when they were hanging black people from trees. Simple, obvious, crazy, gets all the attention; yet it's the least common nowadays. Do you know many people that actually hate black people? Didn't think so (or at least they won't admit it).

The sad thing about this form of racism - actual hatred - is that our Supreme Court has adopted it as the only kind of racism...good luck proving that your employer actually hates you because you're black. According to Michelle Alexander (The New Jim Crow), this has made the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 impotent and meaningless.

Institutional
The American prison system is the best example (read The New Jim Crow if you want your mind blown). If you look at the shocking statistics of African American men in our prison system, you can only come to one reasonable conclusion: the entire criminal justice system is, so to speak, racist. Or, another way to put it, African American men are disproportionately represented in the prison system (and that's a huge understatement). But it's a tricky thing. One person is not behind this kind of racism, it happens slowly, and it's hard to track down. But it's effects are quite obvious; a racist tree will produce racist fruits; whether it's housing, jobs, or government programs.

Unconscious
If a white person walks by a black person on the street, typically something will happen in their brain that resembles fear. This is sad be true (I have read that several experiments were done on this). In America, we have been taught to fear black men; and so we do. It's nothing that we did, it's simply the air we breath, the culture we live in, what we learned from media, and the long history of oppression that we inherited. As Carl Young might say, racism is part of our Collective Unconscious. And that is a scary thing.

Nixon used race as a political tool, called the Southern Strategy
Strategic/Political
Perhaps the most insidious of all is when politicians use racism for political gain (again, utilitarian thinking rears its ugly head). According to the book I'm reading, both parties are to blame but especially the modern Republican Party, which was essentially built on a racial platform (called the "Southern Strategy"). Have you ever wondered why poor white people vote for a Party that gives tax cuts to the rich and slashes social spending? Whether it's the coded racial language of politicians, the race-baiting of right wing media, or the non-stop fear mongering about Muslims and terrorists - white people are scared shitless.

Natural?
Some people make the argument that we evolved to naturally discriminate against human beings that look different than our tribe. I'm skeptical, and I'm not sure if this is widely accepted, and I don't know how much science this is based on, but I do know it's out there. Some people explain the happiness of Norway and Sweden, for example, by pointing out the fact that they all look similar. People obviously point to their progressive tax code and liberal laws as well. Interestingly, racism seems to be infecting these countries as outsiders trickle in.

I suppose I can see an evolutionary advantage to being skeptical of "outsiders"--that is, people that clearly are not part of your own cooperative survival group--but race is a different concept all together.

17.6.14

Why theories about other people are wrong

Person: "People are stupid."
Wise Person: "I'm so sorry you feel that way about yourself."

We do this all the time. We have a theory about "how people are," a handful of negative, blanket statements like "people are irrational" or "people are selfish" or whatever, that we like to sarcastically talk about with friends to pass the time or lament how we cannot save the world because, you know, people are like this or that. These conclusions about human nature start out perhaps by random experiences with people, watching people on TV, a book we read, an ideology we consumed. These things end up ingrained, a part of our worldview - the way we view and treat other people.

Other people. Except ourselves.

That's my point. The fatal flaw with all these half-baked theories is that they never include the person behind the curtain, the theorist himself. You call people stupid and, for some odd reason, never include yourself in that statement? You are not stupid. It's just those other people who are the stupid ones. What kind of arrogance is that? What kind of blindness?

When we make blanket statements about vast groups of people, we should realize that we are actually subscribing to a particular theory of human nature. We are saying: this is what human beings are like. Therefore, shouldn't we apply it to ourselves first? Is it true about you? No. Okay, then perhaps it's wrong (on many levels).

One way to trick ourselves, of course, is to put people into neat little buckets like "republican" or "liberal" or "black people." Luckily, we never put ourselves in any of the buckets we make fun of. Nice try. People are people. If Republicans are stupid, and republicans are people, and you are a person, then you are stupid.

My blindness, perhaps, might be the opposite. I am categorically opposed to negative theories of human nature, ask you can probably tell, for several reasons (one is purely pragmatic...what good will that do?). I positively assert that human nature is basically good, that we can do anything, that our potential is unlimited. However, at least I apply it to myself. I believe that I am basically good, that I can do anything, that I am unlimited. I believe this about other people too. That's the difference. If you have a poor view of human nature, that's fine, and you might be correct; but please apply to yourself.

14.6.14

"rights" talk is a fancy way of expressing feelings...right?

I recently finished a fascinating book, Moral Tribes, that argued, believe it or not, against rights. Specifically, he argued that "rights" are really words that we hide behind. I think there is some truth to that.

Abortion is wrong because all humans have a right to life. Abortion is okay because all women have a right to choose. Gay people have a right to marry. The government has a right to define marriage. We cannot kill one person to save five because people have a right to life. Whether it's carrying a gun into the library, burning a flag, or not vaccinating your children, we love to use "rights" and "duties" when talking about moral issues, when making moral judgments, or justifications, or rationalizations. Rights do all the heavy lifting, they are the argument; we hide behind them, they sound objective, smart, impartial, universal.

But what if the word "right" is nothing more than a fancy way of saying "I don't like it." In other words, "I don't like abortion, it feels wrong." A feeling, a gut reaction, an emotion, subjective. Everything else - all the arguments, justification, rationalization - is extra, meaningless, scaffolding. "I like when mothers can choose." Same thing. First comes the feeling, then comes the argument to justify the feeling. If you keep asking why, you eventually get to feelings, intuitions, and gut instincts.

It reminds me of working in the Law Library. Patrons many times come in asking about "their rights" on any number of subjects. But sometimes what they really mean is this: I want x. Does a "right" exist to allow me to get x. In other words, please give me a fancy legal term that will magically get what I want.

Well, overall I think this is a negative, simplistic, reductionist view of human beings, similar to the "boo-hiss" theory that reduces all moral reasoning into simple emotions, so I don't buy it for those reasons. I apply it to myself (which everyone should do), and I do find some truth in it.

Here's the point. The argument tends to stop when you throw the R-bomb, and that's really the worst thing. I believe in a right to life, you believe in a right to choose. Let's go our separate ways, right?  Wrong. It's not that simple. Public policy needs to be written, and these issues bear directly on laws that influence our lives. So politically at least we cannot ignore each other. Also, we might kill each other (people have killed for much less). Therefore, we need another solution.

Joshua Greene's solution is to reduce rights talk into Utilitarian calculations. How much suffering does abortion cost overall? How much happiness does gay marriage promote? And let's go from there.

Sounds promising. Does it work? Well, sadly, according to what I read in his book, it doesn't. His utilitarian solution to abortion, for example, the only problem he tackled, was horribly complex, speculative, long-winded, not mathematical, and ultimately not convincing...it ends up being pro-choice, which is fine, but it leaves the reader scratching his head as to how the argument got there and how smart you have to be to engage in moral debate for God's sake--do we all have to go to Harvard to think correctly about these issues? Greene takes nuanced thinking to a whole new level here, to the point of meaninglessness. Maybe I will stick to my "rights talk" - much simpler and people get my meaning. In fact, the same old arguments against Utilitarianism rears its' ugly head - it's very very hard to actually calculate suffering and happiness.

8.6.14

Top 5 Kalamazoo Foods (co-authored with Katherine Platte)

1. Bangkok Flavor!

Not just because it's Thai food - I'm not cosmopolitan - but because it's awesome food. Pad Prik is my favorite: chicken, red & green pepper, spanish onion, green onion, & mushroom in a garlic brown sauce. That's really the main question: what sauce?: brown (garlic) sauce, or red/yellow/green curry sauce with coconut milk. They are all delicious. Spicy as you want. Tastes nothing like Chinese food by the way, no MSG. Lunch prices are around 6 dollars, which seems ridiculously low to me considering the flavor explosion.

Katie: What?  We have the same favorite restaurants? At least we have something in common! I like all the curries with coconut milk, especially with eggplant and mushrooms to soak up the flavor. The fried tofu is amazing. The only downside is that everything I love the most has fish sauce in it, so isn't really vegetarian. You can get food cooked in mushroom soy sauce so that it is vegan/vegetarian, but it isn't the same. I like the food "hot" which is warm enough that your nose runs, but you can still taste all the flavors. It is still really good "medium" which is what I got while I was pregnant.

2. Saffron

Fine Indian food, buffet style. I must admit the first time I had it, I didn't like it that much. I wasn't used to the weird flavors. Also all the food looks really similar, like mush. But after that, I loved it. The rice pudding especially blew me away. I have like five servings of that shit. For reasonable prices, you have to go during lunch on weekdays or Saturdays. We rarely go.

Katie: Best food ever! I know the vegetarian stuff is vegetarian. The reason it is #2 is that if you go to the buffet you never know what dishes you are going to get, obviously. If they always had the spinach and paneer and the Korma and if the buffet was spicier it would be #1.  At dinner you have to buy the dishes, rice and naan separately so it adds up fast.



3. Shawarma King

Lebanese food. Again, I'm not picking foreign foods just to be cool....I really do like these the best. It's a meat sandwich wrapped in pita bread with a pickle. I get Chicken Shawarma with Feta. But it's really the white garlic sauce (=God sauce) that completes everything and makes it....a little bit REAL nice. The meat is slow cooked on a vertical pole. Picture a hug wasp nest except tender and delicious.

Katie: God Sauce!!! I could eat here every day and not get bored. Lots of great sandwiches, but hard not to get the falafel with god sauce every time it is so good. and the hummus is amazing, sometimes it comes with a monkey face made of olives and onions.

4. El Gallo Blanco

Best Mexican food in Kalamazoo. The best way to explain the food is like this: picture a huge pot of flavor. Now picture your food being placed into that pot of flavor, and marinated in flavor for 24 hours. I've never had chicken so flavorful in my life. I go really simple: get the grande chicken burrito, which is around 6 dollars for two meals.

Katie: I thought the tamales were great the first time I went here, but they keep on getting better. What I order is a lot different then what Matt gets, no slow cooked pot of flavor exactly, but really good. My favorite mexican restaurant in Kalamazoo and they don't even have my favorite mexican food, chili rellanos.

5. Qdoba

Self-explanatory and self-evident.

Katie: I differ here. I think I would have put Bell's at #4 and El Gallo Blanco at #5. I don't want to like Bell's food since it was horrible for so many years ("well there is one veggie burger at the bottom of the freezer, or you can have a peanut butter and pickle sandwich") but they really picked up their game with the competition from other breweries in town. Now they have awesome tempeh burgers.

Honorable mentions: Shakespeare's nachos, Beer Exchange onion rings, Erbellis calzones, Bells Jumbalaya.

So, I do realize that we give special treatment to foreign food. It must have something to do with the fact that it's special, we didn't grow up with it, etc etc.

29.5.14

Book Review: Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap between Us and Them

Different people. Different values. Can't we all just get along?

Pro-lifers yell “Right to life!” Pro-choicers yell “women’s right to choose!” End of discussion, right? This book is an attempt to solve that problem. From conservatives to communists, from Jews to Jehovah Witnesses, we need a way to make decisions together — especially about public policy — if we are to get along. We need a “metamorality,” a universal language, a “common currency,” says the philosopher/neuroscientist Joshua Greene. We need an ethical code that transcends each particular ethical code.

And his answer is…drumroll please….utilitarianism! (I can feel your excitement). A moral philosophy invented by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill in the 1700’s, utilitarianism is amazingly simple: maximize happiness and reduce suffering, as much as possible. That's it. Instead of talking about rights, principles, commands or duties, perhaps we can all agree on this one thing: happiness is good; suffering is bad. Act accordingly.

Can we agree on that?

Probably not. That’s why the book is 300+ pages. And still, probably not. Nice try though., right?



As for me, I must say, I am convinced...in theory at least. This book has fundamentally changed some of my opinions. This is one of the most important books I have read this year, perhaps in my entire life. It has certainly brought together several intellectual strains that have been floating around in my head for decades now; specifically, Kant and John Stuart Mill. Kant I named my son after. Kant's morality is a strict, rule based, "no exceptions" kind of system (never lie, never kill, never cheat, never steal). You can think of it as a religious ethics with a rational foundation. Kant also didn't think that happiness was the most important thing (Mill did). John Stuart Mill, on the other hand, founder of Utilitarianism, I have admired from a distance. His system, as I mentioned, is very simple: morality has one rule: in all your actions, reduce suffering the most and maximize happiness the most impartially (counting yourself as only one person). It's hard to disagree with that. Finally they come together in a harmonious embrace. This book says that Kant is right and Mill is right, depending on which context you find yourself in. Within groups, Kantian morally works the best. Which means that when dealing with your family, friends, and church, you should be a strict Kantian. Never cheat on your wife. But when it comes to dealing with "others," with global issues, public policy -- then you should put on your utilitarian hat and start calculating, weighting, crunching the numbers. Sometimes you have to break an egg for the greater good.

I was so blown away by this conclusion, I emailed the author and told him so. He emailed back right away said “that makes it all worthwhile.” Whether you hate utilitarian thinking or not, this book is amazing on many different levels: brain science, psychology, philosophy, politics, and religion. A bright, interdisciplinary guy and a good writer.

But...

The end of the book, which is supposed to apply the theory to actual cases (conflicts between groups), is very deflating and depressing. He only talks about abortion in detail, and that discussion was painfully abstract and intellectual (after making a strong case for pro-life and pro-choice, he falls on pro-choice). You can tell he is trying to make everyone happy. Does he really expect normal people to be able to philosophize in this way? The tree is good, but not its fruit. It almost feels like he built up all my expectations, and then, at the end when it really counts, he quits. Utilitarianism, which on the face is very simple and powerful,  ends up being very complex, abstract, and subtle - a puff of smoke. Worse, his version of utilitarianism ends up being very close to what everyone already believes: punishment is good, inequality is okay (some), buying presents for your kid is good, capitalism is just fine. All things that, on the face of it, are not utilitarian. The message, at the end of the day: just be a little less selfish, a little more altruistic, okay? He even calls himself a hypocrite at one point for not being a “true” utilitarian. C'mon Greene, where's your balls? That's why I have such respect for guys like Jesus or Gandhi. They set the bar extremely high and put their life into it, they make no excuses and make no accommodations for the morally weak. They say: love your enemies. Yes, it's hard. Yes, it goes against human nature and how our brains are wired. Do it anyway. And they did. And you can too.