Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Thomas Society Homework

If you're participating in the Quincy Thomas Society reading group, and you're interested in thinking some more about the topic of religious exclusivism, it would be worth your while to listen to this talk by Alvin Plantinga before our meeting on Thursday evening.

Of course, if you're not participating, but you're interested in thinking about religious exclusivism (can there be just one true religion?), you too should listen to the talk.

And if you're neither participating nor interested, what's wrong with you?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Manny Being Manny, and Moralizing

There's an essay in Tuesday's L.A. Morning News in which sportswriter Vincent Bonsignore criticizes Manny Ramirez's selfishness.  Apparently, Ramirez opened spring training this season by making it clear he's not playing for the Dodgers again after this season: 
 I won't be here next year, so I just want to enjoy myself.
I don't know (if I'll play next year). I just know I'm not going to be here.
Considered solely on their own, these statements are hardly worth getting worked up about.  But as Bonsignore points out, they fit into a pattern.  Ramirez has a long history of selfish behavior (read the article if you want more details), and Bonsignore has clearly had enough of it.  No doubt many people will agree with his take; me, for one.  In my humble opinion, what he says here is totally uncontroversial and well worth saying.

What interests me about the post, however, is the broader cultural context in which it's published.  Many people won't take Bonsignore's words to be uncontroversial.  For example, here's the very first comment posted in response to the story:
Bonsignore, in the tired tradition of pompous, omniscient "journalists," deigns to speak for the fans, repeating the tired, uncreative mantra of "Manny is selfish." Well, I have been a true blue Dodger fan for over 40 years, and I find Manny refreshingly honest. Yes, he is flawed, and clearly there have been disappointments, but I thank him for the entertainment value and excitement that he has brought to the Dodgers. Is he selfish and self-focused at times? Probably, but so are most professional athletes nowadays. Most just have a more socially acceptable way of covering it up (i.e., lying). Thanks, Bonsignore, for trying to speak for me, but no thanks. btw, that was pretty selfish of you to try to start the baseball writing season by bringing a cloud over the Blue; but you're just doing your job and having fun, aren't you?
In this reader's eyes, it's Bonsignore who is worthy of criticism.  Manny may be selfish, but hey, everybody's selfish these days.  At least Manny is honest about it.  Bonsignore is the selfish one; in fact, he's doing the very same thing Manny is doing.

This kind of reaction is depressingly common in our society.  It has two key features:
  • a willingness to excuse, justify, and even celebrate selfishness; and
  • hostility toward anyone who makes a substantive moral judgment about another person's behavior.
This has been on my mind a lot lately, because I've been teaching Business Ethics and have seen these attitudes expressed by more than a few of my students.  The notion that there might be legitimate constraints on a person's behavior that go beyond merely respecting the letter of the law, or--even more ridiculous!--the idea that sometimes a person might be required to sacrifice his or her own interests (say, in wealth or pleasure) for the sake of another...  These notions are seen by many as beyond the pale.

As I think about contemporary American society, however, it's hard to be surprised at this attitude.  Most of us who are under forty were raised in a culture in which we were explicitly taught that we could do and be anything we wanted to do or be, and that pursuing one's own fulfillment (understood, usually, as the satisfaction of one's own desires) is not merely a good and noble goal, but the main goal of human life.  We were taught that there are no moral truths--indeed, as many of my students' papers demonstrate, we have been taught that the word itself belongs in scare quotes, as in what's "right" or "true" for me may not be "right" or "true" for you--and that it is never, ever justifiable for one person to make moral assessments about another person's actions.  Perhaps most importantly, the only account of human nature that has been presented as a factual account that can be an object of human knowledge is the purely Darwinian account, according to which human organisms are the byproduct of an unplanned natural process that favors the strong over the weak.  We find ourselves motivated by the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain, and an absurdly short time on Earth in which to achieve our meager goals.  Some people are "into" morality and/or religion, but morality and religion change from generation to generation and from culture to culture, so if you're not into those kinds of things, hey, that's cool too.

More could be said, of course, most of which has already been said (and said better) by others.  This is enough for now.  The point I want to make is simply this: a culture that teaches its children the lessons above is a culture in which we shouldn't be surprised to see Ramirez's behavior justified, excused, and even celebrated by others.

And the questions I find myself wondering about are these: Are Bonsignore's attitudes a relic of an older time, likely to disappear into traditionalist ghettos as the century progresses?  Or are we nearing a cultural tipping point, a point at which we as a people react against the worldview (or portions thereof) described a couple of paragraphs ago and move in a different direction?

From where I sit, it seems that the cultural winds are blowing in both directions simultaneously.  On the one hand, the students I teach seem deeply unwilling to treat morality as a domain in which knowledge is possible, and more and more willing to treat self-interested hedonism as a perfectly acceptable philosophy of life, one for which no apologies need to be made and in which no shame should be taken.  On the other hand, it seems like there are more and more folks who are willing to make comments like Bonsignore's in public.  I see people who are (or at least were) deeply moved by President Obama's appeals to the (objective?) importance of community, of working together to solve our problems.  And I see in my generation and the next an increasing willingness to talk about what justice requires, as, for example, in the debate over same-sex marriage.

So I don't know what comes next.  But this is what Manny has me thinking about today.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

On Partisanship (of Various Kinds)

Like many people, I'm pretty weary of the vilification of political and cultural figures by those who disagree with them. I spent some time last night flipping back and forth between Keith Olbermann on MSNBC and Bill O'Reilly on Fox. I probably won't do this again, unless I'm feeling masochistic. I can't stand these guys. I have no solution to offer to the problem, but I'm so, so, SO tired of people who seem unable to acknowledge that there may be some semblance of wisdom or kernel of truth contained in the words of those who differ from them about _______. (You may fill in the blank however you like. Some suggestions: the economy, abortion, the BCS, same-sex marriage, theism, whether there is a moral right to health insurance, evolution, war.) What is it about our society that pushes us to this particular kind of extremism, according to which our intellectual opponents must be portrayed not merely as mistaken, but as stupid and evil?

Anyway, this morning I was reading an essay by C.S. Lewis that a friend recommended to me ("Religious Controversy and Translation," from his English Literature in the Sixteenth Century). I was struck by Lewis's assessment of a religious tract from around 1530:

"He [the author] is monotonously anxious to conquer and to conquer equally, at every moment: to show in every chapter that every heretical book is wrong about everything--wrong in history, in logic, in rhetoric, and in English grammar as well as in theology" (p. 174).

This is a great line. Substitute 'Republican' or 'Democrat' for 'heretical book' and 'policy' for 'theology', and it could apply to at least two-thirds of the television pundits and political bloggers I'm aware of. Preserve the quote just as it is and it applies to a similar percentage of the theologians (professional and lay alike) I've read or spoken with. [But not you, of course, dear reader!] Reflecting on Lewis's words and their context, it occurs to me that perhaps there's nothing about our society in particular that inspires this kind of silliness. Maybe it's just human nature.

Whether that is a reason to be encouraged or a reason to be dismayed, I don't claim to know.