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Archive for September, 2009

Leon Kass has an article in this month’s National Affairs (recently relaunched) in which he uses his own journey from study of science to study of humanities as a meditation on the role of humanities in life. In the piece, which is well worth reading, Kass approvingly cites Aristotle as a guide in how to live well:

We are today inclined to praise as excellent one or the other of two human types. Utilitarians esteem the shrewd and cunning man who knows how to get what he wants. Moralists praise the man of good will, the well-intentioned or good-hearted fellow bent on doing good. But these views, Aristotle shows us, are both inadequate. The highest human excellence in the realm of action requires both that one’s intentions be good and that one’s judgment be sound. Never a slave to abstract principles or rules of conduct, never a moral preener espousing “ideals” or doctrines, the prudent man knows that excellence really consists in finding and enacting the best thing to do here and now, always with a view to the good but always as seen in the light of the circumstances.

We would do well to consider Aristotle’s emphasis on combining moral intentions with the ability to make sound decisions and get things done. We have perhaps had too much emphasis on the extremes, which Kass characterizes as utilitarianism and moralism. Andrew Leonard expresses this in another way in a review at Salon of robert Skidelsky’s new book, Keynes. Considering the trends in ‘rich’ countries, Skidelsky makes an observation and poses a series of questions:

Although real incomes in rich countries have doubled in the last thirty years, the populations of these countries work harder than ever and are no happier. This raises the question of why they are still on the growth treadmill. Is it because capitalism needs constantly to expand markets, and ensnare by advertising more and more people into useless consumption? Is it because economists have ignored the fact that, as societies become wealthier, positional goods — goods which satisfy not our needs, but our longing for status — become more and more desirable? Is it because globalization has made affluence too insecure and too uneven in its spread for most people in wealthy societies to ease off work? Or is it because we lack any agreed idea of the good life in the name of which we can say “enough is enough”?

In last question Skidelsky parallels Kass. They both point to a lack of a commonly-agreed sense of what a good life is. In an age of unprecedented wealth on the earth, clearly our material advancement is not sufficient to constitute moral living. Moreover, following Aristotle, mere having the intention of living some other way is not sufficient, either. We must not be content with merely criticizing the materialist status quo. We must actively seek, promote, and try to live an alternative.

In that progression of logic lie the seeds of a life of faith.

‘Abdu’l-Baha has said, “By faith is meant, first, conscious knowledge, and second, the practice of good deeds.” But He goes further than this, as recorded in Paris Talks. Though it is a lengthy excerpt, I will quote it here in full.

All over the world one hears beautiful sayings extolled and noble precepts admired. All men say they love what is good, and hate everything that is evil! Sincerity is to be admired, whilst lying is despicable. Faith is a virtue, and treachery is a disgrace to humanity. It is a blessed thing to gladden the hearts of men, and wrong to be the cause of pain. To be kind and merciful is right, while to hate is sinful. Justice is a noble quality and injustice an iniquity. That it is one’s duty to be pitiful and harm no one, and to avoid jealousy and malice at all costs. Wisdom is the glory of man, not ignorance; light, not darkness! It is a good thing to turn one’s face toward God, and foolishness to ignore Him. That it is our duty to guide man upward, and not to mislead him and be the cause of his downfall. There are many more examples like unto these.
But all these sayings are but words and we see very few of them carried into the world of action. On the contrary, we perceive that men are carried away by passion and selfishness, each man thinking only of what will benefit himself even if it means the ruin of his brother. They are all anxious to make their fortune and care little or nothing for the welfare of others. They are concerned about their own peace and comfort, while the condition of their fellows troubles them not at all.
Unhappily this is the road most men tread.
But Bahá’ís must not be thus; they must rise above this condition. Actions must be more to them than words. By their actions they must be merciful and not merely by their words. They must on all occasions confirm by their actions what they proclaim in words. Their deeds must prove their fidelity, and their actions must show forth Divine light.
Let your actions cry aloud to the world that you are indeed Bahá’ís, for it is actions that speak to the world and are the cause of the progress of humanity.
If we are true Bahá’ís speech is not needed. Our actions will help on the world, will spread civilization, will help the progress of science, and cause the arts to develop. Without action nothing in the material world can be accomplished, neither can words unaided advance a man in the spiritual Kingdom. It is not through lip-service only that the elect of God have attained to holiness, but by patient lives of active service they have brought light into the world.
Therefore strive that your actions day by day may be beautiful prayers. Turn towards God, and seek always to do that which is right and noble. Enrich the poor, raise the fallen, comfort the sorrowful, bring healing to the sick, reassure the fearful, rescue the oppressed, bring hope to the hopeless, shelter the destitute!
This is the work of a true Bahá’í, and this is what is expected of him. If we strive to do all this, then are we true Bahá’ís, but if we neglect it, we are not followers of the Light, and we have no right to the name.
God, who sees all hearts, knows how far our lives are the fulfilment of our words.

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Room for Debate at the New York Times today has one of a series of ‘conversations’ about the state of education in the US. Today’s discussion centers on the first draft of a set of national standards for all students to achieve in English and math by the end of high school. The Washington Post has a story, too.

As an English teacher by training and for the first eight years of my working life, I read the English Language Arts (ELA) standards (.pdf) with interest. I found little to disagree with in the document, and was even slightly gratified to note that most my lessons over eight years could have been taken for a model of how to implement those standards. (Of course, my students and supervisors might beg to differ.)

Aside from the content of the standards, though, I was interested in two aspects of the process through which they are being developed. First, the federal government is not involved in the drafting process, nor will it be involved in accepting them once they are developed. Instead, the several states are leading the charge in development, and adoption will happen (if it does) state by state. Second, the drafters have referred to the best standards they can find, not only among the several states, but also in the rest of the world. These two elements of the process represent, as I understand it, federalism at its best. Each state maintains its independence but uses innovations and best practice in other states (and, in the modern world, countries) to inform its own choices.

As ‘Abdu’l-Baha noted in a talk he gave in New York in 1912, this federated arrangement has no small consequences:

It is very evident that in the future there shall be no centralization in the countries of the world, be they constitutional in government, republican or democratic in form. The United States may be held up as the example of future government—that is to say, each province will be independent in itself, but there will be federal union protecting the interests of the various independent states. It may not be a republican or a democratic form. To cast aside centralization which promotes despotism is the exigency of the time. This will be productive of international peace.

Such a federal approach to developing educational standards is not confined to the U.S., either. A similar process in underway in Australia, as seen in national Statements of Learning. Viewed more broadly, developing common education standards across national boundaries can be seen as one step in the process of defining the standards of what ‘Abdu’l-Baha labels “human education”, which “signifies civilization and progress—that is to say, government, administration, charitable works, trades, arts and handicrafts, sciences, great inventions and discoveries and elaborate institutions, which are the activities essential to man as distinguished from the animal.”

Of course, the trend toward and necessity of training people to think across the boundaries of traditional bodies of knowledge, which I noted in Saturday’s post, plays a crucial role in developing our sense of what human education is, too. How can we have government, administration, sciences, great inventions, and elaborate institutions adequate to the world today if we cannot analyze broad trends and bring together information from a wide variety of fields? To take two recent examples, Jeffrey Sachs’s Common Wealth and Jared Diamond’s Collapse indicate just how much we can benefit from such an approach to thinking.

Of course, without divine education, the acquisition of human perfections which will allow us to use that way of thinking for our mutual progress, no amount of purely human education will do us much good. Perhaps we’re not quite ready for public schools to take on that subject matter yet.

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David Brooks dedicates his column in today’s New York Times to an encomium for Irving Kristol, a founder of the neoconservative movement and, as Brooks tells it, a participant in most of the important philosophical debates of the twentieth century. I don’t know enough about Kristol and his legacy to comment on the accuracy of Brooks’s description, though I do note that Glenn Greenwald has been less than laudatory of some of Kristol’s positions.

Still, two trends that Brooks cited struck my interest: (1) the purpose of liberty in the Anglo-Scottish Enlightenment; (2) the tendency to think that moral and civic problems can be solved by economic means.

The leaders of the Scottish environment hoped that progress might come gradually and organically — if individuals were given the liberty to develop their own responsible habits and if they themselves built institutions to guide them on their way.

Kristol argued that this was the great seduction of modern politics — to believe that problems that were essentially moral and civic could be solved by economic means. They can’t. Political problems, even many economic problems, are, at heart, ethical and cultural problems. And improving the attitudes and virtues of a nation is, at best, a slow, halting process.

(In the first quotation, I assume that Brooks means Scottish enlightenment, rather than Scottish environment, as he has it.)

In its 1985 statement The Promise of World Peace, the Universal House of Justice addressed the issue of achieving peace on a global level.

The primary challenge in dealing with issues of peace is to raise the context to the level of principle, as distinct from pure pragmatism. For, in essence, peace stems from an inner state supported by a spiritual or moral attitude, and it is chiefly in evoking this attitude that the possibility of enduring solutions can be found.
There are spiritual principles, or what some call human values, by which solutions can be found for every social problem. Any well-intentioned group can in a general sense devise practical solutions to its problems, but good intentions and practical knowledge are usually not enough. The essential merit of spiritual principle is that it not only presents a perspective which harmonizes with that which is immanent in human nature, it also induces an attitude, a dynamic, a will, an aspiration, which facilitate the discovery and implementation of practical measures. Leaders of governments and all in authority would be well served in their efforts to solve problems if they would first seek to identify the principles involved and then be guided by them.

The House of Justice here clarifies an underlying dynamic that Brooks touches on in focusing on individuals’ developing “responsible habits” and in noting that many political and economic problems are, “at heart, ethical and cultural problems.” Indeed, for society to flourish, it is necessary that individuals develop responsible habits, and as the House of Justice indicates, “peace stems from an inner state supported by a spiritual or moral attitude.” The House of Justice goes on to explain that the focus on and use of “spiritual principle” is necessary to resolve economic and political problems. Thus, Brooks (or at least his language) doesn’t go quite far enough in attributing political and economic problems to “ethical and cultural problems.”

If we are to make progress, we must imbue ourselves, our communities, and our institutions with spiritual principles, those moral values that will enable us to avoid disastrous pitfalls and to tackle seemingly intractable problems. If we are to have peace, the ultimate end of social progress, we must cultivate the inner state of peace in the soil of a spiritual attitude.

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At the Millennium Villages blog I mentioned yesterday, John McArthur writes about the need for a new kind of education to tackle the new kinds of challenges we increasingly face.

The world of multisectoral multilateralism requires trained professionals at all levels, across all countries, who are able to connect practical problem-solving across specialized disciplines on a day-to-day basis. Unfortunately, the world does not yet train people for these tasks. Our higher education systems overwhelmingly reward targeted, single discipline studies while so many of the world’s most pressing issues require solutions that draw systematically from insights across disciplines. Specialists remain essential but vastly more people should have at least a basic understanding of the spectrum of topics underpinning core global challenges.

As a solution to this limitation of the current system of education, McArthur and his colleagues have founded a multi-campus Master’s in Development Practice:

We identified a stark need for scientifically savvy policy generalists, practitioners who can bridge the work of specialists through knowledge of four pillars of sustainable development: natural sciences, health sciences, social sciences and management. In academic jargon, one could say that the commission outlined the need for “science-based policy MBAs.”
The Commission recommended a new global form of graduate degree program, a Master’s in Development Practice, to train professionals across the four basic pillars, with an emphasis on practical skills and field training. It also recommended that students practice working in networks across borders and time zones as a normal habit, empowered by simple webcams and cheap software.

No doubt this Master’s degree will enable people to study “useful” sciences, which Baha’u’llah indicates will “redound to the progress and advancement of the people.” If you’re of an age and so inclined, I would certainly recommend the program.

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In one of the best scenes in The Wire, from the middle of season three, Bunk confronts Omar, reminding him that they grew up together: “Rough as that neighborhood could be, we had us a community. Wasn’t nobody, no victim, who didn’t matter.” It hits home to Omar, too: just watch the last shot and see it all over his face.

I was reminded of that scene today reading Heather Havrilesky’s review at Salon of a new Sundance miniseries, Brick City, which examines the lives of a variety of people in Newark, New Jersey: Mayor Cory Booker, school principals, ex-gang members. As I neither live in the U.S. nor have a television, I won’t be able to watch it unless it makes it to international DVD distribution, but it sounds like a very useful meditation on community. Having described people who stay in Newark, despite having the ability to leave, Havrilesky makes the following observation:

Boys may always grow up without fathers and Newark may always be a tough place, but this city’s heroes give us all something to aspire to. As most of us struggle mightily to improve our own lives, these people fight every day to make the world a safer and better place for their neighbors. In revealing their trials and toils, Sundance’s “Brick City” makes our luxuries, from our comforting things to the comfort of our cynicism, look downright foolish by comparison. By resisting the urge to avert our eyes, we can glimpse the blinding beauty that lies in the humblest acts of optimism, generosity and hope.

That paragraph summarizes the change of heart that needs to suffuse our conception of life. We need to turn from thinking primarily about our own improvement to “fight every day to make the world a safer and better place for [our] neighbors.” That’s at the heart of the work the Universal House of Justice has called the Baha’i world to do over the next decade. I have written about the work of community-building elsewhere, but the House of Justice’s description of April 2008 offers a beautiful vision of the seeds of a new kind of community that is being built across the planet:

Thousands upon thousands, embracing the diversity of the entire human family, are engaged in systematic study of the Creative Word in an environment that is at once serious and uplifting. As they strive to apply through a process of action, reflection and consultation the insights thus gained, they see their capacity to serve the Cause rise to new levels. Responding to the inmost longing of every heart to commune with its Maker, they carry out acts of collective worship in diverse settings, uniting with others in prayer, awakening spiritual susceptibilities, and shaping a pattern of life distinguished for its devotional character. As they call on one another in their homes and pay visits to families, friends and acquaintances, they enter into purposeful discussion on themes of spiritual import, deepen their knowledge of the Faith, share Baha’u’llah’s message, and welcome increasing numbers to join them in a mighty spiritual enterprise. Aware of the aspirations of the children of the world and their need for spiritual education, they extend their efforts widely to involve ever-growing contingents of participants in classes that become centres of attraction for the young and strengthen the roots of the Faith in society. They assist junior youth to navigate through a crucial stage of their lives and to become empowered to direct their energies toward the advancement of civilization. And with the advantage of a greater abundance of human resources, an increasing number of them are able to express their faith through a rising tide of endeavours that address the needs of humanity in both their spiritual and material dimensions.

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The Washington Post and The Australian both follow The Guardian‘s Jonathan Freedland, whose op-ed sparked my post yesterday, in asserting a certain level of pessimism about the potential success of the Copenhagen negotiations. The Post sees some silver lining, while the Australian focuses on the big, gray clouds. I’ve just started reading Jeffrey Sachs‘s Common Weath, and Sachs doesn’t share that pessimism, at least in the bigger picture, though he does outline the great necessity of acting on climate change at a global level. (While I was looking up that link for Sachs, I also stumbled across two interesting blogs that I’ll start keeping track of: Millennium Villages and State of the Planet.)

On the topic of the death penalty, which I address here, Hendrik Hertzberg at the New Yorker posts about how the death penalty works, or doesn’t work, in practice. If a process set up in the interests of ensuring justice ensures suffering in practice, perhaps it’s time to re-examine that process.

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In this op-ed, Jonathan Freedland at London’s Guardian newspaper links the current health care debate in the US to the world’s ability to tackle climate change. His basic premise is that if President Obama can’t get the Congress to enact meaningful health care reform, then he won’t be able to get it to agree to whatever targets emerge from the Copenhagen negotiations in November and December this year. (The Copenhagen negotiations will (or will not) establish the set of greenhouse gas emission reduction targets that will be in force once the targets agreed on at Kyoto in 1997 expire in 2012.)

Last November, the sigh of relief among greens and diplomats could be heard around the world. While George Bush had ripped up Kyoto, Obama would surely lead the way to Copenhagen.

Now that early confidence is fading. Those same diplomats and negotiators have seen the president struggle to make what, to outsiders, look like pretty reasonable changes to US healthcare. They have seen a summer campaign demonise him as an amalgam of Stalin, Hitler and Big Brother, bent on sending America’s frail grannies to their deaths in the name of a new socialism. If that’s the response he gets when he suggests Americans should be covered even when they change jobs or get sick, imagine the monstering coming his way if he tells his compatriots they have to start cutting back on the 19 tonnes of CO2 each one of them emits per year (more than twice the amount belched out by the average Brit).

While Freedland is right that today’s national leaders will have a large impact on our planetary ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate their negative effects, he’s wrong to suggest that those leaders are the only people who matter, even in the Copenhagen-heavy short term.

As the Baha’i International Community has stated, the fundamental necessity in solving climate change is “that the principle of the oneness of humankind must become the ruling principle of international life.” The BIC also indicates that the people of the world will need to be engaged at three levels, only one of which is in the functioning of international institutions. The two other levels indicated by the BIC are as follows:

The Individual Level: Engaging children and youth. A fundamental component of resolving the climate change challenge will be the cultivation of values, attitudes and skills that give rise to just and sustainable patterns of human interaction with the environment. The engagement of children and youth will be particularly important as this population will be called upon to exercise leadership and address the dramatic and complex challenges of climate change in the decades to come. It is at a young age that new mindsets and habits can be most effectively cultivated.

The Community Level: Advancing gender equality and engaging religious communities. On the community rests the challenge of providing the setting in which decision-making can occur peacefully and individual capabilities can be channeled through collective action. One of the most pervasive social challenges besetting communities around the world is the marginalization of girls and women – a condition further exacerbated by the impacts of climate change…. It would be a mistake, however, to cast women as the victims or simply as under-resourced members of society; they represent perhaps the greatest source of untapped potential in the global effort to overcome the challenges of climate change. Their responsibilities in families, in communities, as farmers, and as stewards of natural resources make them uniquely positioned to develop strategies for adapting to changing environmental conditions. Women’s distinct knowledge and needs complement those of men, and must be duly considered in all arenas of community decision-making. In light of this reality, the United Nations must give more attention to the gender dimensions of climate change.

As well, religious communities and their leaders bear an inescapable and weighty role in the climate change arena, especially given their tremendous capacity to mobilize public opinion and their extensive reach in the most remote communities around the world…. This role, however, must now unfold in the context of an emerging conversation – a rapprochement – between the discourses of science and religion. The time has come for the entrenched dichotomy between these two systems of knowledge to be earnestly re-examined. Both are needed to mobilize and direct human energies to the resolution of the problem at hand: methods of science facilitate a more objective and systematic approach to problem solving while religion concerns itself with those moral inclinations that motivate action for the common good.

So, wherever you are, you can play a role in addressing climate change as an individual and within your community. Only when we begin to act do we truly demonstrate our consciousness of the oneness of humanity. That consciousness is essential to our survival.

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