What’s Your Choice?

Some people might get mad at me for saying this, but I’m against kicking puppies.

I’m also against being mean to children and old people.

I like democracy but I agree with Winston Churchill that “it’s the worst form of government except for all the others.”

I believe that good deeds should be rewarded and evil deeds should be punished.

I believe that everyone deserves a fair chance in life.

I believe that robots are stealing my luggage.

Unfortunately, I can’t prove those beliefs to anyone who disagrees with me. Nor can I prove my definitions of words like “good,” “evil,” and “fair.”

And that’s the main problem, not just of personal conduct, but of social and political life.

The fundamental question of morality is not “what’s right or wrong?”

The fundamental question is: “What kind of people do we choose to be?”

These thoughts are inspired by Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature, which I recommend.

The book shows that violence has declined in Western societies, and it tries to explain how that happened — not only over recent decades, but over the centuries.

His strongest logical argument uses statistics about murder rates and other forms of violence. But his most striking argument describes forms of torture and punishment that until recently were considered normal. They were even inflicted publicly as popular entertainment. Some torments were so horrifying that I had to skip book pages because I couldn’t stand even to read about them any more.

And then Pinker comes to the key point for our current discussion. He speculates about what he would do if he could punish Adolf Hitler for his crimes:

“It would not occur to me to inflict a torture like that on him. I could not avoid wincing in sympathy, would not want to become the kind of person who could indulge in such cruelty …”

In other words, Pinker would not want to become the same kind of person as he was punishing. He looked into the abyss, the abyss looked back, and he didn’t like it.

Many factors influence the kinds of people we choose to be. Culture, history, childhood experiences, and family life are all important. Those affect our moral intuitions about the things that are good, bad, just, and unjust.

Scientific evidence is accumulating that our genes also play a role (see, for example, Yale sociologist Nicholas Christakis’s book Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society). Our genes influence not only how we look, but how we feel about life and other people. In turn, that feeling influences how we think we should treat people and what kind of society we think is just. That’s one reason why genetically distinct human groups often have different moral and political beliefs.

But in spite of their influence, neither our backgrounds nor our genes can control us completely.

Ultimately, the choice is still ours: What kind of people do we choose to be?

Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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Compare and Contrast

“Compare and contrast.” It’s a staple of essay questions on college final exams.

But be careful about applying it to life.

Many people make themselves unhappy by comparing themselves to others who seem better off. They think that the other people are:

  • Richer
  • Better-looking
  • More popular
  • Luckier

I’ll tell you a few secrets about all those lucky people.

Everyone’s got problems

First, the seemingly “lucky” people have just as many problems as we do. We simply don’t know about their problems. We only hear about the good things.

Most of us try to present our best face to the world. We tell everyone about our triumphs and good deeds, not about our defeats and shameful moments. As a result, other people get a distorted picture of our lives. They think that we are the lucky ones.

People with problems can be happy

Second, they are just as likely to be happy or unhappy as we are. Their problems seem as big to them as ours do to us, even if we would consider their problems trivial.

Did you ever wonder why so many Hollywood beautiful people seem so angry? It’s because they’re miserable. They hoped that getting rich and famous would make them happy, but it didn’t. They still feel worthless and insecure. So they lash out in every direction at anyone who they think might be causing their unhappiness. It can never work, because they’re looking for the wrong cause in the wrong place.

Happiness isn’t a zero-sum game

Third, what happens in other people’s lives usually has nothing to do with us. We have the same chance to be happy regardless of what happens to them.

We over-value the things we don’t have

It’s human nature to under-value what we have and to over-value what we don’t have. Wherever we are, we always feel like there’s a better place just over the horizon.

But if we stop and think about all the good things we have, we can be happy even as we search the horizon for ways to improve.

When it’s okay to compare

We should only compare ourselves to others if we have a specific, constructive reason.

That doesn’t mean our emotions can’t be involved. It just means that our comparisons must serve a rational purpose.

For example, two of my brothers are physicians. One is a year older than the other. To get into medical school, they both had to take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). When he took the test, the younger one had an emotional but constructive goal: to get a higher score than his older brother. He did. Their sibling competition spurs both of them to work harder and to do more good in the world.

Similarly, comparing ourselves to others can inspire us to improve or do positive things:

  • Maybe they’ve achieved something great, and we want to do something like that.
  • Maybe they have outstanding personal qualities that we’d like to emulate, such as courage, compassion, honesty, or work ethic.
  • Or maybe they’re awful people who have done terrible things. They inspire us to examine our own conduct and make sure that we’re living up to our ideals.

So if you compare yourself to others, make sure you’re doing it in the right way and for the right reasons.

Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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Facing Moral Dilemmas

What makes things moral or immoral?

People have lots of different views about it. My own view is that what’s moral:

  • maximizes human happiness,
  • minimizes needless suffering, and
  • avoids doing things that are almost universally considered wrong.

But even if my view is correct, it’s not a complete answer.

The biggest unanswered question is “who counts?” In other words, we want to maximize happiness and minimize suffering — but of which people?

All of humanity? That’s simply impossible. Different groups of people sometimes have conflicts of interest: helping one sometimes means hurting the other.

For example, offshoring American jobs to impoverished Asian countries is good for some people and bad for others. It’s good for:

  • Stockholders of large corporations because it increases their profits and dividends.
  • Top managers of large corporations because it increases their salaries and bonuses.
  • Asian workers because they get jobs they wouldn’t otherwise have.
  • Affluent American consumers because their iPhones and luxury goods are cheaper.
  • Affluent Americans as a group because it shifts the national income distribution in their favor — “making the rich richer.”

It’s bad for:

  • American workers because their jobs are eliminated.
  • American families because they’re suddenly impoverished.
  • American small businesses because corporations offshored their supply chains.
  • American communities that turn into ghost towns.
  • Working Americans as a group because it shifts the national income distribution against them — “making the non-rich poorer.”

It’s reasonable to assume that everyone’s welfare counts, so there’s no abstract way to decide what to do in such conflicts of interest.

That said, it’s also reasonable to value our families and friends more than people we don’t know and with whom we have no relationship. If your spouse and a stranger are drowning but you can only save one, it’s simple: you save your spouse.

There was a cute scene in the television series “Back to 1989” that posed a similar dilemma. The hero’s girlfriend asked who he would save if she and his mother were both drowning.

“My mother, of course,” he said.

His girlfriend seemed disappointed.

He added, “and then I would drown myself.”

That cheered her up a bit. But it doesn’t solve the moral problem.

P.S. Today (August 27) is Brand Blanshard’s birthday. He solved a lot of moral problems and was one of the greatest people of the 20th century. For some of his advice about life, look here.

Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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In Defense of Taylor Swift

There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who think that Glenn Miller’s 1941 song “Chattanooga Choo-Chooabsolutely rocks, and those who don’t.

I think that the song absolutely rocks, which explains why I don’t know much about pop singer Taylor Swift.

By the way, the linked video of “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” is from the 1941 movie “Sun Valley Serenade.” The singers with Miller’s band are Tex Beneke and the Modernaires. Also in the video is Milton Berle,  a popular comedian of that era.

“Chattanooga Choo-Choo” became the top-rated song in America on December 7, 1941. If you went to school after 1990, that date probably means nothing to you, but it was the date of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that brought America into World War II. By coincidence, Miller’s band had performed “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” the previous night on Miller’s radio program “Sunset Serenade.” That live performance was the best.

After America entered the war, Miller enlisted in the U.S. Army, which fought real Nazis instead of imaginary ones. Sadly, Miller’s plane went down over the English Channel on Christmas Eve, 1944. There were no survivors.

But back to Taylor Swift. She comes across as a pretty blonde who can carry a tune and isn’t a total head case like many of her peers. And she’s got $400 million in the bank. But she can’t seem to get a break.

First, the “woke” brigades screamed because she was staying out of politics. So she got political. Now, they scream because … well, it’s not too clear. She affirms the sacrament of abortion, she supports whatever LGBTQWERTY+ activists say they want at the moment, and she’s made the required ritual denunciations of The Devil Trump. What’s the problem now?

Apparently, Swift isn’t gay, so her recent gay-themed music video was “hijacking queerness.” And the woke suspect that her embrace of their political crusades is driven by concern for her career.

It reminds me of a scene from the Monty Python comedy film “The Life of Brian.” Brian meets an ex-leper whose illness was miraculously cured by Jesus. The leper complains that Jesus took away his livelihood as a beggar:

Brian: “There’s no pleasing some people.”

Ex-leper: “That’s just what Jesus said.”

Indeed. Taylor Swift has learned it.

Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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Which Values Are Most Important?

I don’t live in a bubble. I’m lucky to have friends, family members, and loved ones who disagree strongly with some of my beliefs. That gives me perspective.

Challenges to our beliefs help us in three ways:

  • They make us ask why other people believe the things that they do.
  • They make us ask why we believe the things that we do.
  • They make us work more carefully to find out what the the truth really is.

The latest challenge is over a cancelled visit to Israel by two far-left Democratic politicians. Israel’s government banned them from entering the country because they support the BDS movement that seeks to destroy the Jewish state. Israeli law explicitly allows such bans.

The politicians — Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) — have made numerous anti-Semitic statements. Omar notoriously opined that American support for Israel is “all about the Benjamins (money)” and that Israel “hypnotized the world.” Tlaib opposes Israel’s existence and has accused American Jews of “dual loyalty” that puts Israel over the United States. That accusation is ironic since President Trump criticized Jewish Democrats for disloyalty to Israel by their support of Tlaib’s anti-Semitism. In any event, the Democratic Duo clearly meant their visit to generate propaganda against Israel. Hardly anyone disputes the facts involved.

In spite of that, thoughtful people disagree about the ban. Some see it as mere common sense: no country has a duty to allow entry by those who only want to cause trouble. As Ari Hoffman wrote in The Forward:

“It was the right call. Omar and Tlaib were visiting Israel to do it harm. Their visit was not one of critical engagement, and like the disastrous episode of the spies in the Hebrew Bible, they came not to strategize towards a better future but to wound.”

I agree with Hoffman. Other people see the ban as wrong on principle, and unjustifiably limiting freedom of expression. For example, last night one of my brothers said he wanted a t-shirt to proclaim himself a “disloyal Jew,” alluding to President Trump’s comment.

Both sides made rational arguments, but there’s also an irrelevant argument lurking in the background. Let’s get it out of the way.

Most opponents of the ban hate American President Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. Supporters of the ban probably feel the opposite way. To argue that a policy is bad because you hate people who support it, or good because you like people who support it, is obviously invalid.

Emotion often biases our judgment, but it has nothing to do with the merits of our beliefs. Let’s try to focus the merits.

Focusing on the merits doesn’t get us very far, but it does help explain the disagreement. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues that we make moral judgments based on five factors:

  • Care
  • Fairness
  • Loyalty
  • Authority
  • Sanctity

As shown in the graph at the beginning of this blog post, liberals base moral judgments mainly on concerns of caring and fairness. They reject the importance of loyalty, authority, and sanctity. Conversely, conservatives weight all five factors at about the same level.

Thus, left-leaning people tend to oppose the ban because they think it’s unfair. They might grant that loyalty is an issue, but they don’t think it’s important. Conversely, right-leaning people tend to support the ban because they prioritize loyalty and respect for authority. They might grant that fairness is an issue, but they think that the other factors outweigh it.

Who’s right?

There’s no way for either side to prove its case. As a result, there is no single “right answer.”

The best answer is to let each country decide for itself.

Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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Believe in the Future

Many people dismiss faith as “believing what you know isn’t true.” But that’s wrong.

At its most helpful, faith is believing what might be true:

  • We will be alive tomorrow.
  • The future can be good.
  • Life has meaning and purpose.
  • There is a moral order in the universe.

You don’t know any of those things for sure. Neither do I. I certainly can’t prove them. But I urge you to believe them anyway.

They’re what the philosopher William James called “forced options.” They can neither be proven nor disproven. You cannot avoid making a choice about them. Even if you try not to make a choice, you’ve made your choice.

If you abstain from believing you’ll be alive tomorrow, then you’ll live as if you expect to be dead. If you abstain from believing that the future can be good, then you won’t do anything to help make it good.

The same applies to meaning, purpose, and moral order. Those things might not exist in any transcendent sense — but then again, they might.

If you don’t believe in them, you won’t look for them. If you don’t look for them, you won’t find them. And amazingly, you can find them even if they weren’t there before you looked. Your sincere efforts can bring them into existence.

But none of that will happen unless you first believe. Believe not just in what you can prove. Believe in a future that you can’t prove at all, and in a moral order that you can prove only by how you live.

Then work for that good future, and try to be living proof of that moral order.

American industrialist Henry Ford supposedly said that “Whether you believe you can or believe you can’t, you’re right.”

You can.

Have faith. Make it happen.

Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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Bulletproof Happiness: What You Control

You can achieve bulletproof happiness.

But you need to know something first: Bulletproof vests make you look fat.

In other words, there are trade offs.

And you need to know something else: Bulletproof vests don’t make you invulnerable.

In other words, there are limitations.

Happiness that is perfect and permanent exists only in Heaven — if Heaven itself exists. Here on earth, we make do with what we have.

Your goal should be something that’s possible, not dreamy and utopian. You want to be as happy as you can be, regardless of what’s going on in the world around you.

This is the first in a series of blog posts about how to achieve that goal.

Buckle up: rough road ahead

History is unpredictable. Social conflict, international politics, and economic turmoil make it even more unpredictable. We’re living in one of those unpredictable times.

I’m skeptical about the cyclical view of history in the book The Fourth Turning, published in 1997. However, its forecast about the early 21st century seems eerily accurate:

“The next Crisis era will most likely extend roughly from the middle Oh-Ohs to the middle 2020s. Its climax is not likely to occur before 2005 or later than 2025, given that thirty-two and fifty-two years are the shortest and longest time spans between any two climax moments in Anglo-American history.”

A lot has changed since 1997 in ways that the authors couldn’t possibly predict. You can make up your own mind about whether the changes were good or bad. But whatever they were, they were certainly cataclysmic.

Our “crisis era” might unfold peacefully or in ways that we’d rather not contemplate.

Durable happiness

You want happiness that can flourish in peaceful times and survive in crisis eras. The most important principle is also one of the simplest:

You can control some things, and you can’t control other things.

Most things that worry people are things they can’t control. You can save yourself from a lot of unhappiness if you worry only about things you can control. In fact, don’t even worry about them: do something about them. Then you won’t be tempted to worry.

As for things you can’t control, try to accept them as they are. If they’re relevant to your life, then pay attention and act appropriately, but don’t get emotional about them.

Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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