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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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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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At Salon’s How the World Works, Andrew Leonard writes about the high rates of mortgage delinquency and foreclosure in the US, which are reaching historically unprecedented levels. To explain this, Leonard looks back a few years to when the housing crisis first broke in the US.

From the moment politicians began proposing measures to ameliorate the impact of the housing bust on the U.S. economy and individual Americans, critics responded with a strong dose of moral outrage. Why should speculators, flippers, and deadbeat “losers” get help from the government? They screwed up, and they should pay the price. Let them drown in their own option-ARM bile!

(ARM would be adjustable-rate mortgage. Here is Wikipedia’s explanation, for what it’s worth.)

These critics that Leonard summarizes make the seemingly straightforward point that people should have to deal with the consequences of their mistakes. This attitude would seem to be in line with notions of justice. As Baha’u’llah writes in the Lawh-i-Maqsud,

Justice hath a mighty force at its command. It is none other than reward and punishment for the deeds of men. By the power of this force the tabernacle of order is established throughout the world, causing the wicked to restrain their natures for fear of punishment.

So, in order to have justice, we must punish the wicked and reward the good. Justice thus established also trains and gives life to the world and provides the foundation of its stability and order. Baha’u’llah notes in the same tablet:

The structure of world stability and order hath been reared upon, and will continue to be sustained by, the twin pillars of reward and punishment.

and in the eighth of the Ishraqat:

That which traineth the world is Justice, for it is upheld by two pillars, reward and punishment. These two pillars are the sources of life to the world.

So, the critics that Leonard cites seem to align with Baha’u’llah’s call to justice.

As Leonard notes, though, what seems a matter of justice is not so straightforward in it consequences. Punishing those people who acted badly (or at least unwisely) by letting them fail in their mortgages has larger consequences for the economy. Leonard again:

The sensible response to this blast of anger was to observe that society as a whole would pay a cost for mistakes made by the imprudent, and like it or not, for the benefit of the general public, we need to do what we can to cushion the impact inflicted on all of us by the irresponsible.

Without saying it explicitly, Leonard notes that the structure of this problem is very similar to that of a multi-party prisoner’s dilemma, in which the bad actions of a few affect many beyond them, even those who have acted responsibly. (Unfortunately, the wikipedia article doesn’t have much on the multi-party version. This page explains it reasonably well. If you want more depth, look to Thomas Schelling, who showed up in the Freakonomics blog here.)

When we see borrowers begin to fall behind on prime fixed-rate 30-year-mortgages because of job loss or other recession-fallout, it’s not so easy to self-satisfyingly blame them for their own predicament. They are collateral damage, and as they lose their homes, further depressing home prices and crimping economic growth, the gyre continues to widen. If there’s any lesson from this mess, it’s that more aggressive government help is necessary when the economy gets hit by a falling anvil.

Because of the dynamic in which irresponsible actions affect even those who have acted responsibly, Leonard advocates government intervention, even if it aids the irresponsible actors. Surely the just should not suffer the punishment of the unjust. To put it in terms of game theory, Leonard wants an outside power to tilt the rules of the game in favor of not hurting cooperators. That seems reasonable, too, falling within the ambit of both justice and wisdom, a balance which Baha’u’llah also extols:

Take heed, O concourse of the rulers of the world! There is no force on earth that can equal in its conquering power the force of justice and wisdom. I, verily, affirm that there is not, and hath never been, a host more mighty than that of justice and wisdom. Blessed is the king who marcheth with the ensign of wisdom unfurled before him, and the battalions of justice massed in his rear.

So for regulators, Leonard’s advice is well-grounded. At a more fundamental level, though, the people of the earth need to be alive to the dynamics of collective action as embedded in the multi-party prisoner’s dilemma because so many of our current global problems, from the financial crisis to climate change, manifest that basic structure.

At the level of the individual, we need to begin to heed Baha’u’llah’s call in the Hidden Words, Persian, #5:

O SON OF DUST! Verily I say unto thee: Of all men the most negligent is he that disputeth idly and seeketh to advance himself over his brother. Say, O brethren! Let deeds, not words, be your adorning.

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