Sunday, September 17, 2017

"800-year flood": Crisis and the real-life value of virtue

Here in Houston, we are still in recovery mode. There is an often-quoted number in our local conversations: some commentator has estimated that rain on that scale is a once-in-800-years event for our area. (I hope that means I've paid my dues.) As a pass-time between cleanup, repair, or volunteering stints, we trade stories of floods and rescues, clearing out homes, and waiting in the expectation that some day the garbage collection services will actually make an impact on the curbside debris piles. The standard greeting has become "How did you do in the storm?"

It has been interesting to see the different reactions to a catastrophe of this magnitude. I know someone who had over four feet of water in her home, and calmly waited her turn for boat-rescue, having changed into her swimsuit. I know someone who did not get water in her home, and was so overcome with anxiety that she was vomiting from the stress. (No, neither one of those is me. For my own part, during the worst of it, I was blissfully asleep. If worse came to worst, I'd rather start well-rested. Though the second night, once it became clear what we were up against and the roads were already impassably flooded, I'd packed a "just in case" bag with a couple of changes of clothing, and placed it on top of a chair where it would stay dry longer.)

It has been interesting to see different reactions to all the work that needs to be done. Some see an opportunity to remodel, some see an opportunity to help, some see an opportunity to make a quick dollar flipping flooded houses. And some are just quietly grateful that it wasn't them. Almost all of the people working at the shelters, distribution centers, and meal prep centers have a genuine compassion for those who were badly flooded. I have only met one person at a city-run distribution center who had an attitude other than compassion: the attitude was fear that we would be unable to help some people, leading to anger at those who tried to take more than the very modest limit. Fear and anger can make it tricky to enforce limits humanely and with respect.

Through it all, the genuine, down-to-earth value of virtue has become clear to me:
  1. Hope is not merely shallow wishful thinking. Those who work from hope instead of fear behave in more rational ways, and less self-destructive ways, during a crisis.
  2. Compassion is the most motivating force in a time of need. Compassion has moved an incredible number of people here locally to stand beside each other in our time of need.
  3. Kindness makes a difference. When the need is great, it becomes plain that even the simplest actions can help. Almost everyone has it in them to be a hero, when the opportunity presents itself.
  4. Fellowship is indispensable. None of us gets through this alone. Community also forms naturally when people get together.
I have seen more hope, compassion, kindness, and fellowship these last few weeks than I have seen in a long time. It's not that they were absent before, but the scale of these has had to grow to fill the size of the need.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

The still, small voice of God

God came through earthquake, wind, and fire to Moses at the mountain. I expect most people who will read this know that story, and this one too: when Elijah took refuge there again, there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. There was a mighty wind, but the Lord was not in the mighty wind. There was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. (Some people seem to like the earthquake, wind, and fire approach. But it's not the only one.) There was a still, small voice of calm. God was in that voice. (Elijah recognized God's voice. Someone who knew less of God's ways might have tried to give some sort of meaning to the earthquake, wind, and fire, and even claim to be speaking for God.)

Why would the Almighty be gentle? We misunderstand power if we can ask that. There is power in calm. There is a time for a voice that is not raised. There is a time -- it seems about now -- when we have all had enough of earthquake, wind, and fire to last a long time.

Bless the Lord, whose voice also creates calm.

Monday, September 04, 2017

For The Record: What Can We Predict?

I've long noticed, living in southern Texas, that it doesn't snow often. I've also long noticed, living in southern Texas, that when it does snow, it often happens in the winter just following a hurricane. So we just had a hurricane, and here comes winter. Is that enough to predict snow this particular winter here in southern Texas? My experience leads me to expect snow, even though it's rare here.

Some things are more predictable than the weather. One is that disasters, oddly, bring out the best in the people who go through them together. The basic compassion of shared humanity is in full bloom, and all the petty divisions disappear for a time. The just-drained neighborhoods (the backdrop for newscasts of daring boat rescues a week ago) are now filled with hundreds of extra cars: people who came to help tear out wet sheet-rock, pull up wet carpet, and move wet furniture out of the homes. The too-crowded streets have church relief trucks passing out sandwiches and water to people they never met, who are too grateful and too hungry to turn it down. I saw one relief truck get nearly mobbed in a neighborhood that is within a few miles of the rain gauge that set the new national record, and one young woman nearly brought to tears by some watermelon after a week of eating cold dry goods or things from a can. In some places the cleaner debris becomes a makeshift picnic-table: a door set across the washer and dryer out by the curb. And everyone has more friends and neighbors now than when we started.

It makes me oddly optimistic. Even the apocalypse doesn't seem entirely bad, from a certain angle. It's not that the predictions of doom and gloom have been entirely wrong, just that they leave out the power of compassion.

Monday, August 28, 2017

This weekend's post was pre-empted by a hurricane ...

My power is now back on, & I hope to be back posting next weekend.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Intrinsic Need And Intrinsic Morality

This post builds on earlier material, where I present the case that there are intrinsic principles of morality based on the intrinsic properties of the reality in which we live. The earlier material includes the following foundation:

  1. The inherent value of life to the ones who lives it. Self-value, self-preservation, self-love. 
  2. The bond of shared humanity. Recognizing that others share the same humanity as ourselves. 
  3. The fragility of life and the corollary of compassion for ourselves and for those who share our humanity. 

Beyond life's value, its shared nature, and its fragility, there are other intrinsic facts of life that can lead us to recognize further reason for shared values. I should be clear, when I speak of "morality" here, I mean some very basic things: that causes have effects, that people are interconnected, that we do things that affect ourselves and others for good or bad. This post develops some of the ways in which each life affects others, and the values that most people acknowledge as a direct result of the nature of the world in which we live:

4. The passing of life and the need for children
In natural occurrence, human life continues to each new generation of children through biology's natural process of a man and a woman coming together in a heterosexual act. In general, people need very little encouragement to perform the act in question. (While technology has developed some expensive alternatives to natural conception, they are not a practical replacement at the large scale.) The act of producing a new child creates an intrinsic biological relationship between father, mother, and child. 
Long-term survival depends on new children to continue each new generation; we have a unique dependence on productive heterosexual relationships.
5. The vulnerability of children; the vulnerability of mothers in pregnancy and childbirth
Human children begin life helpless and vulnerable. The mother also is vulnerable, especially during pregnancy and childbirth. Decency requires that both the father and the mother share the responsibility for the new life, and help through the vulnerable stages of life. This involves a new application of principles we have already seen. We apply the bond of shared humanity and the corollary of compassion to the vulnerable states involved in bringing a new child into the world. We also recognize the intrinsic bond to the parents when a new life is created, and the long-term benefits to the children of having responsible, caring parents.
The quality of life is higher for the mother, the child, and the father if there is a trustworthy bond of mutual support, affection, and respect. There is an inherent value in supportive family relationships, and in stability through committed relationships.
From this inherent value, we derive principles to promote not only marriage but the kindness and self-control necessary to make that relationship supportive and healthy for those who participate. From this we also derive principles to discourage unkindness, divorce, abandonment, or unfaithfulness. When these principles have been denied or disregarded, the most vulnerable have been women and children, who carry an over-sized share of the burden of isolation and hardship because of the intrinsic vulnerability of how children are brought into the world.
The well-being of a community across generations depends on promoting long-lasting, stable family relationships. This involves kindness, faithfulness, and self-control.
6. The general value of community
Human life is safest and most prosperous when people and groups live at peace within their homes, at peace with their neighbors, and at peace with neighboring groups. This requires that people in general develop principles of self-control, and recognize the value of both self and others. This further requires the development of boundaries, and methods for resolving disagreements.
Norms against trespass and theft recognize that we physically need territory, home, and safety, and involve the community in safeguarding the people within it. Norms against physical attack, slander, malice, and provoking strife all recognize the destructiveness of badly-handled conflict or inciting division. Rules of privacy, courtesy, manners, and civility all recognize the value of respecting each person, and the value of building and strengthening harmonious relationships. Shared celebrations and observances are a means of building and strengthening community.

For community-building purposes, the norms and rules vary in content but not in function. That is to say, to promote the prosperity that comes from a large-scale, culture-wide common bond, the "universal" here is not the content of the norms but their function in establishing community. This function goes beyond having norms for the sake of something to share or a component of identity; it also involves taking care of the self-regulation and self-care that are necessary for a society to continue. It is the intrinsic value of life extended to the intrinsic value of the life of the shared community.
Human life is safest and most prosperous when there is a well-developed, mutually respected system of both courtesy and law. Those who respect their own stake in the community will generally adopt the norms that function to preserve it.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Intrinsic value and intrinsic morality

This continues last week's thoughts on whether there are any moral certainties, or moral values that can be held as universal. This includes a recap of last week's thoughts, and lays out three of the most basic steps in exploring human universals, human values, and what that means for morality.

1. The inherent value of life
Life in its natural and healthy state is inherently valuable to the one living it.
The most fundamental value is self-value, self-respect, or self-love.
2. The bond of shared humanity
If each each human life is inherently valuable to the one living it, and others share that same humanity as ourselves, then we can derive the general bond of humanity: the regard for others as having lives that are inherently valuable to them in the same way.
The first social value is recognizing that others have the same humanity as ourselves.

As mentioned before: from this, we can derive all laws that protect life and the quality of life. Even traffic laws are, in the end, about not deliberately endangering a life. The culture-specific laws towards those ends derive from the culture-transcending, intrinsic recognition of the shared value of human life.
3. The fragility of life: the corollary of compassion
During the life cycle, we each experience inherently vulnerable states. When young, before the age of self-sufficiency, we experience a vulnerability that is intrinsic to that state. There is a vulnerability in pregnancy that is intrinsic to that condition. There is a vulnerability in injury, sickness, and old age that is intrinsic to our mortal condition. From our self-value, we will develop self-compassion towards our own vulnerability. From our recognition of others' shared humanity, that compassion extends to others. 
The second fundamental value is self-compassion.
The second social value is compassion and mercy for the vulnerable.
This list is meant as a beginning; there are several other values that I believe are human universals because they are intrinsic to the human condition. However, it's a topic shift between this group and the next, so this seems a good place to pause.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Is there a basis for moral reasoning?

If there is no basis for moral reasoning, then nobody has ever done wrong. Consider the usual examples about how evil the past has been: if there is no moral right or wrong, if there is no good or evil, then it would follow that the Nazis were not wrong and the slave trade was not wrong. It would follow that there is no moral reason why a serial killer or sex predator should be brought to "justice"; what is justice? If morality is an artificial construct, society may come to agreements about rules, but does society have a right to pass judgment on dissenters or conscientious objectors?

"Is it natural or artificial?" is a complicated question, even if we look for a simpler topic than morality. If we get milk from the store, is it natural or artificial? Was the cow given hormones? How about antibiotics? How much selective breeding was involved to produce the herd? Was the milk pasteurized? An artificial process may be applied to a natural thing, and there may be difficulty in attaining an absolutely natural state; that does not imply that there is no natural state. When all the arguing is done, mammals produce milk whether anyone has given them hormones or antibiotics.

So what about morality? Is there a natural state? In tracing its roots, I have not found more basic than this: Life is good. To explain that more fully: Life naturally comes with the beauty of the natural world and the enjoyment of that, with an intrinsic bond to those who gave us life and those who share it. Our original sense of good seems to be our innate sense of the worthiness of life itself. And if anything is good, then opposing or attacking or sabotaging it is not good.

From that, we can derive all the laws that protect life, protect freedom, and promote quality of life. Even traffic laws are, in the end, about not deliberately endangering a life.

If life is good, if it is intrinsically valuable to the one living it, then there is an objective basis for morality.

Next I hope to explore whether there are other intrinsic and natural bases for moral reasoning.