Posts Tagged ‘New Yorker’

I ended Friday’s post with the point that, contrary to what John Cassidy and Barry Ritzholtz assume in their arguments, what is rational is not necessarily good. The blurring of the line between reason and goodness comes, ultimately, from the ascendancy of atheism and, hence, materialism among intellectuals. In place of fundamental and eternally-established goods present in a theistic worldview, materialism turns to reason as capable of determining what’s good. I don’t know where Cassidy and Ritzholtz stand on the existence of God, but they both argue from materialist assumptions. To illustrate the difficulty that causes in seeing how to deal with the sources of the financial crisis, let’s take a look at a few quotations from Cassidy’s arguments.

In explaining the problems with getting cooperative behavior in a prisoner’s dilemma, Cassidy writes:

Attempts to act responsibly and achieve a coöperative solution cannot be sustained, because they leave you vulnerable to exploitation by others. If Citigroup had sat out the credit boom while its rivals made huge profits, Prince would probably have been out of a job earlier. The same goes for individual traders at Wall Street firms. If a trader has one bad quarter, perhaps because he refused to participate in a bubble, the results can be career-threatening.

In these two examples, Cassidy assumes that, at base, the good is self-interest. He notes that Prince would have been out of a job if he did not lead Citigroup into the credit boom and that individual traders who do not participate in bubbles stand to lose their job or see their career prospects damaged. All of those things may be true, but we can see fairly easily that, although the decision of a trader to participate in a bubble may be rational if he has the end of keeping his trading job, it would be irrational if he has the goal of only earning a living through activity that did not lead to long-term harm to himself and others. Indeed, if he has the second goal, his behavior in participating in the bubble would be illogical.

Let’s take another example. Writing about the subprime mortgage boom, Cassidy notes that

…many mortgage companies extended home loans to low- and middle-income applicants who couldn’t afford to repay them. In hindsight, that looks like reckless lending. It didn’t at the time. In most cases, lenders had no intention of holding on to the mortgages they issued. After taking a generous fee for originating the loans, they planned to sell them to Wall Street banks, such as Merrill Lynch and Goldman Sachs, which were in the business of pooling mortgages and using the monthly payments they generated to issue mortgage bonds. When a borrower whose home loan has been “securitized” in this way defaults on his payments, it is the buyer of the mortgage bond who suffers a loss, not the issuer of the mortgage.

Here, Cassidy gives the basic logic of companies giving home loans to people who cannot afford them. (For a first-person account of this logic in action, listen to This American Life, Episode #390, Return to the Giant Pool of Money. The whole episode, really the whole series of episodes about the economic crisis, is great, but the relevant section starts at about 17:05 on my podcast version.) Again, we can call the logic rational, but only if the goal of the mortgage company is to make money on a product that doesn’t have intrinsic value. If we assume that a mortgage company’s goal is to make money by providing loans to people who have a good likelihood of paying them back, then the mortgage companies Cassidy describes were acting completely irrationally.

So, if we cannot judge the goodness of an action by its rationality, we need to have another way of determining whether an action is good. This is where externally-established standards come into play. In a column in last Monday’s New York Times, David Brooks wrote about such standards and the role they have played in American national history. After quoting several statistics about ballooning personal and public debt in the U.S., Brooks makes the following observation and recommendation:

These may seem like dry numbers, mostly of concern to budget wonks. But these numbers are the outward sign of a values shift. If there is to be a correction, it will require a moral and cultural movement.

Our current cultural politics are organized by the obsolete culture war, which has put secular liberals on one side and religious conservatives on the other. But the slide in economic morality afflicted Red and Blue America equally.

If there is to be a movement to restore economic values, it will have to cut across the current taxonomies. Its goal will be to make the U.S. again a producer economy, not a consumer economy. It will champion a return to financial self-restraint, large and small.

In the broad strokes, Brooks is exactly right. We do need a “moral and cultural movement” to confront the shift in values away from discipline and rectitude, and it must be broadly-based. Whoever would like to be a part of that movement would do well to consider these two exhortations from The Hidden Words of Baha’u’llah:

O MY SERVANT! The basest of men are they that yield no fruit on earth. Such men are verily counted as among the dead, nay better are the dead in the sight of God than those idle and worthless souls.

O MY SERVANT! The best of men are they that earn a livelihood by their calling and spend upon themselves and upon their kindred for the love of God, the Lord of all worlds.

Only with such standards in mind can we use rationality to determine which actions are good and which are not.


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In the Kitab-i-Aqdas, His book of laws, Baha’u’llah makes the following stipulations about the death penalty:

Should anyone intentionally destroy a house by fire, him also shall ye burn; should anyone deliberately take another’s life, him also shall ye put to death. Take ye hold of the precepts of God with all your strength and power, and abandon the ways of the ignorant. Should ye condemn the arsonist and the murderer to life imprisonment, it would be permissible according to the provisions of the Book. He, verily, hath power to ordain whatsoever He pleaseth.

These two crimes, arson and murder, are the only two for which the death penalty is an appropriate punishment, according to Baha’u’llah. Also important to note is the discretion Baha’u’llah allows: for these two crimes to be punished by life imprisonment is permissible.

The importance of that discretion in human affairs is clear in the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, whose execution for arson David Grann documents in this week’s New Yorker. As Grann shows, Willingham was convicted of arson on evidence that, while convincing under the theories of the time, does not stand up to scientific scrutiny of how fires work. That Willingham was convicted under mistaken theories in 1992; that the scientific scrutiny was not forthcoming until January 2004 and not presented until February 2004, days before his execution; and that Willingham was executed despite the evidence being presented — all these factors combine to indicate Willingham’s execution was unjust.

If we cannot have confidence in the justice of decisions made in death penalty cases, either because science cannot tell us what the facts are or because our systems are imperfect in dispensing justice, then perhaps at this point in human history we should settle for life imprisonment.

For those, like Willingham, who are executed under the current system, perhaps Shoghi Effendi‘s words hold some consolation:

If a man were falsely condemned to die, can we not believe Almighty God would compensate him a thousandfold, in the next world, for this human injustice?

God’s compensation in the next world does not relieve us of our responsibility in this one. Our work, it seems to me, is to reduce as far as possible the number of men falsely condemned to die.

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In my first survey of British literature at college, our professor gave the class a motto: bene legere saecla vincere. He translated the Latin for us: To read well is to conquer the ages. A nice motivator for an idealistic English-major-nerd, which I was.

In the discourse about education, there seems to be an implicit idea along much the same lines: To teach well is to conquer the ages, or at least to influence them pretty significantly. The problem, I guess, is defining what it means to teach well.

Stanley Fish has two recent posts (part 1 and part 2) at his Think Again blog for the New York Times about the content of a core curriculum for colleges. Fish advocates teaching basic competencies in core disciplines and gives examples from the discipline of composition, with which he is quite familiar.

Steven Brill at The New Yorker writes about the difficulties involved with getting rid of bad teachers in New York City schools. Brill’s essay notes the conflict between education reformers and teacher’s unions over the use of student test results in evaluating teachers. Implicit in the reformers’ push to include the results in teacher evaluations is the idea that the tests measure student mastery of valuable competencies. If we stipulate that idea as true (which many educators would not), we see a common thought with Fish: teaching well means getting students to master core competencies.

In a conversation about the nature of education, recorded in Some Answered Questions, ‘Abdu’l-Baha explained that there are three types of education: “material, human and spiritual.”

Material education is concerned with the progress and development of the body, through gaining its sustenance, its material comfort and ease. This education is common to animals and man.
Human education 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.
Divine education is that of the Kingdom of God: it consists in acquiring divine perfections, and this is true education; for in this state man becomes the focus of divine blessings, the manifestation of the words, “Let Us make man in Our image, and after Our likeness.” This is the goal of the world of humanity.

Viewed through this tripartite lens, the idea of teaching core competencies in important subject areas falls within the realm of human education. Mastering the technical skills and abilities of the various areas of human endeavor is a crucial part of a well-rounded education, and Fish and the reformers in Brill’s essay are right to focus on it. Anyone who is teaching well helps students to develop technical, area-specific expertise. Post-industrial education in pluralistic societies assumes that the development of such expertise is the only end of formal schooling (or at least it is the only one that everyone can agree on).

‘Abdu’l-Baha indicates, though, that such expertise is not the end of education. Instead, human beings must further be trained to acquire human perfections. The historical focus on virtues in educating citizens acknowledges this truth, and it is a truth to which we will have to return. To teach well is to help students develop all aspects of themselves: physical, intellectual, and moral. Only when we recognize that will we conquer the ages.

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