Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Reading is Democracy

I was reading from the pile of books stacked nearby earlier this morning, John Harris’ How to Be Good: The Possibility of Moral Enhancement (Oxford University Press, 2016) It’s a philosophical treatise that I bumped into on the new book shelf a few weeks back.

Cover for 

How to be Good

 As I was reading it, I kept reflecting on, “why am I drawn to read books like this?” What is it in me, that draws me to such questions, when I see few others with such interest? Where did that magnetism originate? Why do I pursue philosophical questions even though the intellectual rigor that is required to fully digest the arguments is lacking in me?

Harris,  (FMedSci., FRSA., B.A., D.Phil., Hon. D.Litt. Lord Alliance Professor of Bioethics and Director, Institute for Science,  Ethics and Innovation, School of Law.) has written extensively on issues of moral questions, and has numerous quotable passages from within the first 40+ pages I’ve nibbled on thus far.

        George Orwell, as I fondly recall, referred to this reliance on intuition or emotion as the use of “moral nose”; as if one could simply sniff a situation and smell or feel the rightness or wrongness. The problem is that nasal reasoning is notoriously unreliable and difficult to assess objectively, and olfactory ethics, despite being widely practiced, has never really taken off as an academic discipline. Despite this lack of a theoretical base, so to speak, olfactory moral philosophy has many contemporary adherents.” (p.29)

        ...As I have argued elsewhere, someone who cares about doing the right thing, someone for whom the difference between right and wrong is important, will always want to ask him or herself if what feels right is right. They will want to assure themselves insofar as it is in their power, they really are acting well or for the best all things considered, that seems right is right. They will, in short, be interested in a critical distinction, emphasized by no less a reflective thinking being than Hamlet himself, in this famous riposte to his mother: “Seems, madam? Nay it is. I know not ‘seems’.” The difference between what seems and what is in ethics can only be delivered by reasoning. (p.30)

Like his Shakespeare quote, Harris is exceptionally well-read, pulling quotes from many authors of various disciplines. One of which caught my eye enough to track it down and read this morning , Philip Pullman’s “Writing is Despotism, but Reading is Democracy.” It is a gem of a piece for anyone who appreciates reading and it reminds me somewhat of why I am drawn to books like How to be Good.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

We Are What We Eat/Read

We took our son, Noah and his partner, Andy, to dinner last night at a new Thai restaurant in Detroit, Katoi

The menu was unique to my culinary experience. The mix of tastes and combinations of ingredients was so distinctive, that I could not possibly imagine what these combinations might taste like.

I was struck this morning while reading from two different books on my table: David Harvey’s Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism (Oxford, 2014) 

Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism

and Rethinking Economic Policy for Social Justice: The Radical Potential of Human Rights  by Radhika Balakrishnan, James Heintz, and Diane Elson (Routledge, 2016).

Rethinking Economic Policy for Social Justice

Like reading the menu last night, I had no clear picture on what reading from either of these books this morning might taste like. While each of these two books pulled from the pile have some focus on economic policy, they are totally different in orientation and style.

But reading each of them triggered numerous thoughts, including an urge to write something about how the menus of our life change as the available ingredients are in either surplus or scarcity.  Reading this morning took me back to several other recurring thoughts that have seeped into this feeble brain over the past few months.
For instance, while in the actual world the economy is the wholly owned subsidiary of our environment and social world, it is pragmatically dominant to both. Which leads me to believe that solving our inequality and climate change challenges must focus on our economic policies. But as Balakrishnan and colleagues assert, this process must be based upon true democratic process of “public reasoning” to borrow from Nobel laureate Amartya Sen. In spirit, that’s what this blog has had at its heart from the beginning some 200 plus entries ago. Can we consider alternatives,  other “possibilities” to our arrangements that will, in Balakrishnan’s et. al. view, help all of us achieve the human rights that the family of nations has concurred with in the UN Declaration of Human Rights?

Human rights are indeed about individual freedoms. This is a critical aspect of the way human rights frames issues of social justice. But the human rights framework insists that full realization of these rights requires a strong state, international cooperation, and robust social institutions. It recognizes that claiming individual rights demands collective action and responsibility. The human rights approach ensures individual freedoms – including economic, social, and cultural rights, as well as civil and political rights. But there must also be a collective responsibility, exercised through the state, and through cooperation between states for realizing these individual rights. (p.6)

 Other thoughts followed from this including an infatuation I have with the idea of organizing, through some grant assistance, an annual parallel public budgeting process that would mirror the federal budgeting process that beings with the President’s budget release in late January, early February. My idea is that it would transpire over a month or two beginning with a day of looking at existing revenues and expenditures and their trends over time. This overview would be led by  economic and political aware presenters. Following this would by a weekend of a public discussion of values that should guide development of a budget. From this would follow a process akin to Participatory Budgeting where a random group of participants would be selected to draft two or three versions of a “People’s Budget”. These options would then be made available for discussion and vote.

The importance is that this becomes an annual local event. It helps inform the citizenry about the tradeoffs and challenges in allocating resources and collecting revenues. It would subsequently, through media coverage – including of course social media --  impact public policy makers as to the popular will of the people, through a more “public reasoning” process.

Now as I glanced at the other books on my table that I have been alternating between over the past couple of weeks other ideas break through the soil:

William Gaudelli Global Citizenship Education: Everyday Transcendence (Routledge, 2016)
Global Citizenship Education: Everyday Transcendence (Paperback) book coverHow might we reshape education to improve the chances those who follow can build a more socially just and equitable world to live in? 

Joseph Siracusa Nucear Weapons: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2015)
Can we eliminate nuclear weapons and use the savings, including the $1 trillion our peace President proposes to spend over the next 30 years on them, to help reach the recently agreed upon Sustainable Development Goals?

Colin Tudge Six Steps Back to the Land: Why We Need Small Mixed Farms and Millions More Farmers (Green Books, 2016)
Six Steps Back to the LandIf we are to reduce our footprint on our ecological systems before they collapse, is not a return to small, local, mixed, caring farming essential?

Michael McLeod (ed.) The Best Buddhist Writing of 2008 (Shambala, 2008)
The Best Buddhist Writing 2008How important is personal transformation to the change we need to see in the world? Does one proceed from the other?

Joseph Schwartzberg Transforming the United Nations System: Designs for a WorkableWorld (United Nations University Press, 2013)
1230 Schwartzberg – Transforming UN System FINAL Front CoverIs it even possible to create a more violent free world without some form of collective/shared responsibility and governance like the United Nations? How might we move such ideas forward to center stage in a world of nation states committed to competition and dominance?

Charles Derber and Yale Magrass Bully Nation: How the American Establishment Creates a Bullying Society (University of Kansas Press, 2016)
Bully NationDo the systems that drive us endorse bullying and domination, and if so, does it guarantee losers along with winners? Is this something we can live with or need to challenge?

Many questions continue to circulate on a daily if not hourly basis in this head. I don’t know what is on tomorrow’s menu, but I’m confident that some new taste experience is out there. We are what we eat and to some extent what we read. What's on your bookshelf?