Archive for the ‘environmental ethics and activism’ Category

Sustainable places

March 23, 2013

Our friend Kelly Parker came down from Grand Rapids and gave us a very nice Lyceum talk yesterday on sustainability, an environmental buzz-word so much in vogue lately that it threatens to swamp our language.

That was his opening laugh line, as Kelly showed us a graph trending literally in that direction. But it carries the serious implication that our response to the environmental crisis would then be all talk and no action. That’s not a sustainable human future.


“Sustainability” is clearly easier said than done.

So, what ought we to sustain? A reasonable story with wide popular appeal, about why the way we’re living (consumptively, fossil-foolishly, short-sightedly, unjustly) cannot continue. How do we write that story? By re-connecting with the places we call home, cherishing them, defending them against the “developers” who would pave and parcel them into private gain. Kelly the transplanted Kansan (Texan, Tennessean, Michigander) turned to the French vintner’s concept of “terroir” to elucidate this proposal, but he could as effectively have turned to Kentucky’s Wendell Berry.

  • The care of the Earth is our most ancient and most worthy, and after all our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it and to foster its renewal is our only hope.
  • A community is the mental and spiritual condition of knowing that the place is shared, and that the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each other’s lives. It is the knowledge that people have of each other, their concern for each other, their trust in each other, the freedom with which they come and go among themselves.
  • There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.
  • What I stand for is what I stand on.
The big question is how to turn such attitudes to effective action. How does a sense of place become an effective reform movement?
We need to script shared stories rooted in our shared places, Kelly was saying, so we may better “occupy” them and give a winning public account of why the developers, desecrators and destroyers have no moral leg to stand on when they try to lay claim to our communities. Then our occupation might stand a chance of becoming an effective agency for sustainable social action, not  just inarticulate public talk or ineffectual classroom eloquence.
Postscript. One inescapable irony must be noted: the place where we have been holding these bi-annual Lyceum lectures for twenty-odd years is about to be developed into office space. James Union Building room 304 is not sustainable. Sigh.

Gross national happiness

November 27, 2012

We had a pleasant visit with our esteemed university president yesterday in Environmental Ethics class. He didn’t formally commit to signing the ACUPCC yet, but said he’d study it some more. And he said we were already plenty green, greener, in fact, than most of us know.

He said our new Student Center and Science Building, for instance, are LEED-certified. If that’s true, we should be trumpeting the news. The community needs to hear about it, we need to stand up and get credit for doing the right thing. That’s leading by example, and it’s how real and lasting change comes to a society: via snowball. One small signature can catalyze events. A low profile doesn’t make waves, but it doesn’t make change either. It’s more like an epiphenomenon.

But the president’s parting words were a reminder that ours is a very Red state, and our allotment from the legislature is down 40% from just two years ago. Science Building? We should just be glad we have one at all, and we’d best be careful what they study in there. Better not confirm the reality of climate change.

No, he didn’t say that. He did say we need to plead our case with our elected representatives. So here they are.

In chapter one of Stoic Pragmatism John Lachs (who has never shied away from an opportunity to educate our “leaders” in public, even when he considered himself an epiphenomenalist) repeatedly alludes to the real problems of ordinary human beings as deserving (if not typically taking) priority over the technical problems of philosophers. He notes that

The recently published Encyclopedia of American Philosophy [which he and Rob Talisse co-edited, and to which I was privileged to contribute a couple of modest entries] promises additional resources for leaving what has been called “the linguistic turn” behind and facing at last the multitude of real-life problems that beset us. Many philosophers have already turned in this new direction.

Environmental ethicists and bioethicists have “turned,” for instance. As John Dewey said back in 1917, philosophy will be fully healthy only when its practitioners break free of their self-imposed bubble of specialized scholastic isolation and speak up in public about issues of common concern.

Philosophy recovers itself when it ceases to be a device for dealing with the problems of philosophers and becomes a method, cultivated by philosophers, for dealing with the problems of men. John Dewey, “The Need for a Recovery in Philosophy”

In this spirit Lachs writes:

The U.S. would be a better nation if, in addition to a Council of Economic Advisors, it also had a Council of Ethics staffed by philosophers.

Now why didn’t I think of that, back when I was serving my term on the American Philosophical Association‘s sub-committee on alternative jobs for philosophers? But he’s right, and I’d add: we need a council to demonstrate ways of enhancing not GDP but GNH, Gross National Happiness. Better appoint some Bhutanese to show us how it’s done. They’ll know where to find a genuinely new direction and “additional resources.” They’re familiar with the geography of bliss. Just leave at least one spot on the Council of Happiness Advisors for a western academician with an interest in the philosophy of happiness.


Dreams, trolleys, violins, veils, & art

November 7, 2012

Barely four bleary hours since concession & acceptance. Is it Morning in America yet?

Maybe. But it’s definitely thought experiment day in CoPhi with Philippa Foot’s runaway trolley, Judith Thomson‘s unwanted violinist, and  John Rawls‘ Veil of Ignorance in LH, and Derek Matravers on art in PB.

What’s the point of thought experiments? To “trigger our awareness of conflicts between judgments that we previously held in combination” and “open up new conversations.” And they’re fun. [Philosophy ExperimentsWhat is a thought experiment?… Nozick’s Experience Machine… Top TenPhilSciXphi]

We’re still rebuilding the dream with Van Jones in EEA. And in America. Can’t quite echo the President’s “never more hopeful” line, but look there: the sun is coming out. Bet your bottom dollar on tomorrow. Don’t stop thinking about it.

Van Jones

November 3, 2012

Looking forward to next week in EEA (and away, briefly, from my grading pile): we’ll commence reading Van Jones.

His Rebuild the Dream looks forward too, to a President who still has a chance to be our first truly green Commander-in-chief, and to an environmental movement that’s truly a rainbow coalition. Elizabeth Kolbert wrote about Jones when he was on top of the world, just before goofy conspiracy theorists saddled him (and Paul Hawken) with the false “Truther” label and ran him out of Washington, at the start of the Obama presidency. “Greening the Ghetto” is a good introduction to the man from Jackson, Tennessee.

After high school, Jones enrolled at the University of Tennessee at Martin. The first day of his freshman year, he decided that he needed a new identity, or, at least, a new name. Anthony Jones was dull. He chose Van because, he told me, “it has a little touch of nobility, but at the same time it’s not overboard.” Jones majored in communications and political science and, thinking that he wanted to become a journalist, interned for a couple of newspapers. The experience convinced him that he was on the wrong career path. In 1990, he enrolled at Yale Law School…

Gus Speth says he’s a big part of the future of environmentalism. “We cannot fail Van Jones.”

His pal Julia Butterfly Hill says

“We fit together like pieces of a puzzle. I brought the piece that we are not separate from this planet. His piece was we need to uplift everyone.”

That’s what an “everybody movement” is all about. “This could really be something that brings people together, across the lines of class and color.”

And what’s the word that best foretells our future, in Jones’s vision? As Dustin Hoffman’s “Benjamin Braddock” learned long ago, it’s not plastic.


October 30, 2012

Just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t follow that people aren’t plotting against you. Or that they are. An old joke, and an apt observation in class yesterday.

I’m always surprised to encounter otherwise-sensible people who harbor a deep dark suspicion that others may be in cahoots against them, conspiring to steal their stuff or suppress their knowledge or otherwise manipulate their minds and behaviors and spoil their fun.

Well, let me qualify that: discounting corporations, advertizers, sales clerks, politicians…

But through the years students have shocked me with their sympathy for conspiracy-thinking about 9.11, the Holocaust, global warming, Neil Armstrong, the president’s nativity, you name it. And yesterday, in the midst of a serious and thoughtful discussion of effective leadership, one of the brightest students I know dropped hints that the Bilderbergers may be up to something. He stopped short of alleging an out-and-out plot to rule the world, but noted ominously that their gatherings are private and “by invitation.”

I first heard of the Bilderberg group back in childhood, from people who’d been infected by the vile racist paranoia of John Birch. They tended also to mention the Council on Foreign Relations, the Trilateral Commision, etc. [Jon Ronson on Bilderberg]

Why do smart people believe weird things? I think Michael Shermer‘s still got the best answer to that: “Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.” And oh, what strained beliefs they smartly defend.

I met a politician who told me that he believes the fluoridation of water is the greatest scam ever perpetrated on the public. Others have regaled me for hours with their breathless tales of who really killed JFK, RFK, MLK, Jr., Jimmy Hoffa and Princess Diana, along with the nefarious goings on of the Federal Reserve, the New World Order, the Trilateral Commission, the Council on Foreign Relations, Yale University’s secret society Skull and Bones, the Knights Templar, the Freemasons, the Illuminati, the Bilderberg Group, the Rothschilds, the Rockefellers and the Learned Elders of Zion. It would take Madison Square Garden to hold them all for a world-domination meeting.

But “the fact that politicians sometimes lie or that corporations occasionally cheat does not mean that every event is the result of a tortuous conspiracy. Most of the time stuff just happens, and our brains connect the dots into meaningful patterns.” The Conspiracy Theory Detector is a smart corrective for the false patterns we’ve concocted. So is Carl’s caution: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

Existence in extremis: mad as hell

October 24, 2012

Jean-Paul Sartre, his companion Simone de Beauvoir, and their cohort Albert Camus were Resistance fighters as well as French intellectuals.  That’s important to remember, when considering the extremity of some of their statements. They were up against the wall, with Nazis in the parlor. And they’re on tap today in CoPhi, along with Tim Crane on mind and body (“How could a piece of soft tissue think and feel?”) and more report presentations. [Sartre, Camus @dawn… roads to freedom… deB SEP, IEP… “Stand By Your Man: The strange liaison of Sartre and Beauvoirtrees and bridges…]

It is arresting to realize that when we get mad and then busy (as Bill McKibben says we must), it’s all at the instigation and the behest of that hunk of soft tissue between our ears: an unlikely candidate for freedom and resistance, and yet it’s fundamentally who and what we are, when suitably harnessed to a motive agent like a body. Like? What else is like a body, in a way capable of executing events in a world?

So, to some of those extreme Gallic statements:


  • “So this is hell. I’d never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture-chambers, the fire and brimstone, the “burning marl.” Old wives’ tales!There’s no need for red-hot pokers. HELL IS–OTHER PEOPLE!”
  • “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. “Life has no meaning a priori … It is up to you to give it a meaning, and value is nothing but the meaning that you choose.”
  • “Life has no meaning, the moment you lose the illusion of being eternal.”
  • “Words are loaded pistols.”
  • “Life begins on the other side of despair.”
  • “Nothingness lies coiled in the heart of being – like a worm.”
  • “There is no love apart from the deeds of love; no potentiality of love other than that which is manifested in loving; there is no genius other than that which is expressed in works of art.”
  • “An individual chooses and makes himself.”
  • “If I became a philosopher, if I have so keenly sought this fame for which I’m still waiting, it’s all been to seduce women basically.”
  • “It is disgusting — Why must we have bodies?”
  • “I carry the weight of the world by myself alone without help, engaged in a world for which I bear the whole responsibility without being able, whatever I do, to tear myself away from this responsibility for an instant.”
  • “Life is a useless passion.”
  • “There is only one day left, always starting over: It is given to us at dawn and taken away from us at dusk.”

And so it goes. Picture him dropping his verbal cluster-b0mbs in a dingy Parisian cafe, ringed by his own unfiltered smoke and an adoring cultish audience, all wondering if he and his confreres would live to fight another day. “Useless passion”? Generations of Sartre’s politically (if not metaphysically) free French successors might disagree. But removed from that context, I find these weaponish words hard to love.

de Beauvoir:

  • “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”
  • “She was ready to deny the existence of space and time rather than admit that love might not be eternal.”
  • “A man attaches himself to woman — not to enjoy her, but to enjoy himself. ”
  • “If you live long enough, you’ll see that every victory turns into a defeat.”
  • “I am incapable of conceiving infinity and yet I do not accept finity.”
  • “Few tasks are more like the torture of Sisyphus than housework, with its endless repetition: the clean becomes soiled, the soiled is made clean, over and over, day after day.”
  • “I am awfully greedy; I want everything from life. I want to be a woman and to be a man, to have many friends and to have loneliness, to work much and write good books, to travel and enjoy myself, to be selfish and to be unselfish… You see, it is difficult to get all which I want. And then when I do not succeed I get mad with anger.”
  • “Man is defined as a human being and a woman as a female — whenever she behaves as a human being she is said to imitate the male.”
  • “Fathers never have exactly the daughters they want because they invent a notion a them that the daughters have to conform to.”
  • “Why one man rather than another? It was odd. You find yourself involved with a fellow for life just because he was the one that you met when you were nineteen.”
  • “Self-consciousness is not knowledge but a story one tells about oneself.”

Some stories ring truer than others though, no? De Beauvoir rings truer than Sartre, most of the time, for me. And Albert Camus with his Sisyphean view of life offers the starkest challenge when he says the ultimate question in philosophy is that of suicide. “Should I kill myself, or have a cup of coffee?” More coffee! It makes me happy, and it’s the braver choice. But no room for cream, please.

Camus also said

  • “You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.”
  • “There are causes worth dying for, but none worth killing for.”
  • “I do not believe in God and I am not an atheist.”
  • “Always go too far, because that’s where you’ll find the truth.”
  • “Real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present.”

More on him tomorrow.

It’s midterm report presentation time. Dreaming and “Lord of the Rings” were good on Monday, as were yesterday’s reports. Caleb’s song about schadenfreude (or something similar) was terrific, “Philosophy Feud” was fun, Alex and Garrett did a good job delineating the differences between philosophy and psychology, and it was strange to see myself interviewed and impersonated. (Do I really do that many ums and y’knows?) Good job, Paul, Journey, and Landy. You were way more accurate than some Sidelines reporters I’ve spoken with. And that beaming smile Paul projected for me? That’s just how it was, the day they finally mustered me into the Philosophy Club. Unlike Groucho and Woody, I’m happy to belong to any club that would have me for a member.

Speaking of extreme statements: in EEA we’ll discuss the Green Generation, Climate Rage, and mild-mannered McKibben (whom I recall meeting at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, in the very week of Older Daughter’s birth) at his rhetorical wits’ end (“This is Fucked Up“) over our collective failure to confront and address climate change. Then Julianne will talk to us about greening sports stadia etc. Then, maybe, I’ll be ready for the Series. Go Giants!

Freud, Russell, Ayer, time

October 22, 2012

Everybody’s Fall Break is through, at last. Time in CoPhi for Freud, Russell, Ayer, and Hugh Mellor on time (he says relax, it’s not “tensed”). [Freud and Russell @dawn]

Plus, presentations begin with Sara’s “Why Do We Dream?”– what would Freud say?– and essays are due. Busy days! How’m I gonna make time for the World Series? Guess I’ll gratefully reinvoke James’s example and “just take my moral holidays.”

Thanks in advance, class, for not asking when your papers will be graded. (And maybe I won’t ask when you’ll be posting those questions and comments that were supposed to go up on Wednesday and Thursday). Your patience will be rewarded, your impatience reviled.

A.J. (“Freddie”) Ayer, by the way, apparently had a Near Death Experience of his own. He claimed it in no way impinged on his atheism. But an acquaintance reported that “He became so much nicer after he died… not nearly so boastful. He took an interest in other people.” But again, Freddie denied that the experience made him “religious.” [continues here]

Back to the question of time: Mellor’s point is that time lacks objective tense (past, present, future), not that it is an illusion. This may take some time to grasp, for
 if you think of tense as a feature of the world, that is an illusion. [But] what is not an illusion is that we are in the world, and need to think about it, and especially about how to act in it, in terms of tense… time itself– tenseless time, what makes events earlier and later than each other– is indeed a real feature both of the world, and of our experience of it.
So does he agree with Einstein, who said “the separation between past, present, and future is only an illusion, although a convincing one,” or not? Yes and no.
Time and again, time after time, the intersection of philosophy and physics is maddeningly inconclusive. Add history to the mix and you get logic-defying paradox. The Vulcan Science Directorate has determined (will determine?) that time travel is impossible. But apparently that just goes for this actual universe, at this point in time. Hmmm. Logic aside, however, it’s at least biologically impossible to go into the past and annihilate your own forebears. That should be reassuring, though of course it would destroy a lot of amusing plot-points in film and fiction (not to mention Trek).
BTW: we might want to use this topic as a springboard back to Nietzsche and his strange notion of eternal recurrence. And what about Deja Vu, all over again? Have we all been here before? Well, that would imply the real existence of tense, wouldn’t it?
Does your head hurt yet, Geordi? Or yet again?
In EEA we’ll discuss Willie’s presentation on veganism, Van Jones’s Green Collar Economy, Billy Parish’s “Climate Generation,” and Mike Tidwell’s paradoxical advice to “stop going green” (but not really)… if there’s time.

Darwin, Kierkegaard, Marx…& coal

October 10, 2012

It’s Darwin, Kierkegaard, Marx, and Scientific Realism today in CoPhi, and in EEA our introduction to Bill McKibben. Where to begin?

Well, why not with the best mindless eye-opening idea anybody ever had?

If I were to give an award for the single best idea anyone has ever had, I’d give it to Darwin, ahead of Newton and Einstein and everyone else. In a single stroke, the idea of evolution by natural selection unifies the realm of life, meaning, and purpose with the realm of space and time, cause and effect, mechanism and physical law. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea [Darwin@dawnevolutionDennettMatthew ChapmanScopes TrialLoyal Rue]

We were talking yesterday about Hegel’s idea of history as a progressive march to expanded human consciousness of reason and freedom, driven by ideas in conflict (“thesis-antithesis”). I think we all have to admit (though of course we-all don’t, in these environs) that Darwin’s discoveries were a big hitch ahead on that road. His autobiographical account of an argument he had with the Captain of his storied ship (the Beagle) over slavery is instructive in this regard:

In the voyage at Bahia in Brazil he defended and praised slavery, which I abominated, and told me that he had just visited a great slave-owner, who had called up many of his slaves and asked them whether they were happy, and whether they wished to be free, and all answered “No.” I then asked him, perhaps with a sneer, whether he thought that the answers of slaves in the presence of their master was worth anything. This made him excessively angry, and he said that as I doubted his word, we could not live any longer together.

Darwin and Fitzroy patched that one up, and history is now clear about the winner of that debate. Progress, right? Fitzroy would later regret his role in Darwin’s saga, and our species’ climb up the tree of life from ignorance and superstition.  But Darwin’s big idea, like Lincoln’s, was a great emancipator of the human spirit.  They shared a birthday, curiously, and (as Hegel might have said) a zeitgeist.

So Darwin offered an account of our proximate origins that does not require the theistic hypothesis. He himself remained agnostic on the question, unlike our contemporary Richard Dawkins. He’s reviled by many Americans (deluded or not), but I can only envy the “popular understanding of science” he and others have proffered students in the U.K. and that our public schools continue to neglect.

Then today, a leap. Followed by a revolution. Don’t we all want to see the plan?

Kierkegaard said something similar to what Hegel more cryptically assigned to the owl of Minerva, when he said “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” He also said

  • “The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.”
  • “People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.”
  • “Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.”
  • “The most common form of despair is not being who you are.”
  • “Once you label me you negate me.”
  • “To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself.”
  • “If I were to wish for anything, I should not wish for wealth and power, but for the passionate sense of the potential, for the eye which, ever young and ardent, sees the possible. Pleasure disappoints, possibility never. And what wine is so sparkling, what so fragrant, what so intoxicating, as possibility!”

But what about the possibility of overriding the ethical, humane, and parental demands and privileges of fatherhood in the name of a sacrificial faith? The  Abraham and Isaac story still chills, especially in an age when young women around the world continue to be sacrificed by their pious fathers, brothers, and other young men.

Members of the Taliban just perpetrated another of these unspeakably obscene “pious” faith-murders, as reported in this morning’s news. They shot a schoolgirl for being “anti-Taliban and secular.”

Honor killings,” such atrocities are sometimes euphemistically camouflaged. There’s nothing honorable about them, and nothing a respectable philosopher can say in their defense.

It’s not just Islamist fundamentalists, btw, who support the abuse and murder of children in God’s name. Ophelia Benson cites an Arkansas congressional candidate who says “God’s law” decrees death for “rebellious children.”

Marx said some things too.

  • History calls those men the greatest who have ennobled themselves by working for the common good; experience acclaims as happiest the man who has made the greatest number of people happy.
  • As Prometheus, having stolen fire from heaven, begins to build houses and to settle upon the earth, so philosophy, expanded to be the whole world, turns against the world of appearance. The same now with the philosophy of Hegel.
  • Communism is the riddle of history solved, and it knows itself to be this solution.
  • The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force… The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas.
  • The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.
  • The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working Men of All Countries, Unite!

Whether Kierkegaard’s and Marx’s words have ultimately been a force for emancipation and the change we need is a question for historians, and philosophers, and historians of philosophy, and philosophers of history. It’s probably best to leave the politicians out of it. [Kierkegaard and Marx @dawn]

We were also talking about infinity yesterday, of course finding words and even numbers inadequate to the boggling scale of the concept, and I was reminded of that art installation outside Vandy’s Science Library celebrating the reach “from atom to cosmos… ever into mystery.” But can we believe that science really solves micro-mysteries and discovers real entities at the subatomic level? Yes, says David Papineau. Not always, but sometimes for sure.

I consider myself that kind of selective scientific realist, too, because ultimately a humble belief in the progressive (though incremental) probity of science is optimistic. That’s why I always drop in, whenever I’m in the neighborhood, to appreciate Nancy DuPont Reynolds’ wonderful sculpture in the window.

We’ll greet Bill McKibben first in Rolling Stonewhere he wrote last summer:

Pure self-interest probably won’t spark a transformative challenge to fossil fuel. But moral outrage just might – and that’s the real meaning of this new math. It could, plausibly, give rise to a real movement.

There’s lots to be outraged about. Mitt Romney said at the “debate,” for instance, “I like coal.” He doesn’t understand or care, evidently, that “a coal-fired power plant doesn’t need an accident to wreck the planet; it performs that task constantly.” But at least it employs coal-miners, eh? Except when it kills them.

But what’s our next step, class?

Eyes wide open

October 1, 2012

October already? It’s almost Freddie the Leaf time. [text]

Today in CoPhi we take another pass at John Locke, this time contrasting him with Bishop George Berkeley‘s (careful with that pronunciation) odd esse est percipi thesis. Also Voltaire vs. Leibniz, Hume vs. Design & miracles [SEP], and Canadian philosopher Will Kymlicka‘s Philosophy Bites interview on rights.

And we’ll grade last week’s exam.

Bishop Berkeley was one odd empiricist, insisting that we “know” only our ideas and not their referents. Here’s that famous scene with Dr. Dictionary:

After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley’s ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it — “I refute it thus.” Boswell’s Life of Johnson

Berkeley gave his name (though not its pronunciation) to the California town and college campus where there’s lately been a revival of interest in him.

There’s a story that when George Berkeley, the future philosopher, was a student he decided to see what it was like to approach death. He hung himself, arranging to have a friend cut him down and revive him after he lost consciousness…Berkeley is now hung again, as large as life, but only in portrait form on the campus that is his namesake.

Well, the idea of him is now hung again at least.

Voltaire was one of those salon wits, a Deist and foe of social injustice who railed against religious intolerance (“Ecrasez l’infame!”) and mercilessly parodied rationalist philosophers (especially Leibniz, aka Dr. Pangloss).

Pangloss was professor of metaphysico-theologico-cosmolo-nigology. He proved admirably that there is no effect without a cause, and that, in this best of all possible worlds, the Baron’s castle was the most magnificent of castles, and his lady the best of all possible Baronesses… Candide

“There is a lot of pain in the world, and it does not seem well distributed.” [slides here]

Voltaire’s countryman Diderot offered a sharp rejoinder to those who said nonbelievers couldn’t be trusted. “An honest person is honest without threats…”

David Hume (follow his little finger) agreed, attributing goodness and upstanding personal character to the positive reinforcement of social custom and collective experience. Divine justice, he thought, is an oxymoron. “Epicurus’ old questions are still unanswered… (continues)”

Everyday morality is based on the simple fact that doing good brings you peace of mind and praise from others and doing evil brings rejection and sorrow. We don’t need religion for morality… religion itself got its morality from everyday morality in the first place…

Hume was an interestingly-birfurcated empiricist/skeptic, doubting metaphysics and causal demonstrations but still sure that “we can know the world of daily life.” That’s because the life-world is full of people collaboratively correcting one another’s errors. Hume and friends “believed morality was available to anyone through reason,” though not moral “knowledge” in the absolute and indubitable Cartesian sense. Custom is fallible but (fortunately) fixable. [Hume at 300… in 3 minutesBelief in miracles subverts understanding]

On the question of Design, intelligent or otherwise…

Open your eyes,” Richard Dawkins likes to say. They really are an incredible evolutionary design. Not “perfect” or previsioned, but naturally astounding.

In EEA today, Gus Speth’s Chapter Six 6 takes up one of my favorite topics (and courses), happiness. And Chapter Seven concludes with another manifesto to rival Speth’s, this one from Wendell Berry. [Backing off]

The clear message, if it can be heard above the cacophony of advertising and Jonesing in our frenzied consumer culture: the deep feeling of personal well-being and meaningful, purposive engagement in life cannot be bought, is not for sale. We must climb down from our hedonic treadmills, stop assuming that more is always better, start focusing on “things that would truly make us better off.” A sustainable planet, the precondition of real security, is the big one.

So many philosophers (including Wendell Berry) have proposed presence as the key to happiness: living in the now, being fully here, not fretting for the future or regretting the past that’s gone, not forever making plans. And they have a point.

But so have the Long Now thinkers who rightly point out that we don’t have the luxury of occupying a pure present,  when so many past and present acts have already compromised our children’s children’s future. As always, balance is elusive. And crucial. Our manic, dysphoric, self-consuming pursuit does not work and will not last.  A recent immigrant from the U.K.  writes:

The American approach to happiness can spur a debilitating anxiety. The initial sense of promise and hope is seductive, but it soon gives way to a nagging slow-burn feeling of inadequacy. Am I happy? Happy enough? As happy as everyone else? Could I be doing more about it? Even basic contentment feels like failure when pitched against capital-H Happiness. The goal is so elusive and hard to define, it’s impossible to pinpoint when it’s even been achieved — a recipe for neurosis. HuffPoHappiest Colleges

We were talking about the Gandhi model of activism the other day.  Check out PB’s 200th podcast, on that very topic.

Ready or not, a hot new climate’s coming. Bill McKibben‘s hitting the road, doing the math; and we’ll soon begin his Global Warming ReaderReady or not.

“A greener future?”

September 28, 2012

It’s been awhile since I’ve checked in with TED. Thought I’d see what’s new, beginning with the “Greener Future” theme. 119 talks?! Where to begin?

Julianne mentioned food waste in Environmental Ethics class the other day…

Western countries throw out nearly half of their food, not because it’s inedible — but because it doesn’t look appealing. Tristram Stuart delves into the shocking data of wasted food, calling for a more responsible use of global resources. “We, the people, do have the power to stop [the] tragic waste of resources if we regard it as socially unacceptable to waste food.”

Same goes for fossil fuel waste, climate change, you name it. It begins down here in the grass, with the people.

“What to watch next” – We read Michael Pollan‘s Botany of Desire in an earlier version of our course, and he’s a terrific TEDster.  Mark Bittman, Pam Warhurst… And if you thought food and climate were unrelated issues, consider:

@GOOD: Eight foods you should stock up on before climate change takes them away ”-Bourbon, coffee, chocolate…No!

 This is getting serious.
When you’re full & sated with food, go back and see Al & Ed et al. Or one of the 99 bioethics talks, 125 on medicine & health, 35 on living long, 28 on God, 74 on collaboration, 87 on happiness, … TED beats anything on “reality” TV, including the NFL.