Some Comforting Thoughts

Life can be troubling, especially during periods of heated social conflict.

Politicians and the media are no help. Most now devote themselves to fomenting hatred and division.

Schools are no help. Most now devote themselves to replacing knowledge with superstition.

Giant corporations are no help. Most now just want you to shut up.

Here are some comforting thoughts. They have the merit of being true:

  • “Prediction is difficult, especially about the future.”
    — Nobel laureate physicist Niels Bohr (often attributed to baseball player Yogi Berra)
  • “What future bliss, [God] gives not thee to know, But gives that hope to be thy blessing now.”
    — Alexander Pope, “Essay on Man”
  • “Most things are neither as good nor as bad as they seem at the moment.”
    — Traditional wisdom
  • “A little one shall become a thousand, and a small one a strong nation.”
    — Isaiah 60:22

Check out my new 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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Tolerance or Violence?

A friend and I recently had a rational debate about abortion. Yes, rational debate is possible, even about touchy subjects.

Neither of us convinced the other, but we understand each other better. Perhaps even more important, we confirmed that disagreement does not imply evil. Rational, well-meaning people can have clashing beliefs.

The abortion issue is difficult to resolve for two reasons:

  • First, it inflames emotions on both sides. Strong emotion makes it harder for people to think straight. That’s why politicians and the media constantly incite it. Enraged people are easy to deceive and manipulate.
  • Second, even without emotional incitement, the abortion issue is complex. Neither side wants to admit the fact, but it is.

Paying a debt

Consider an analogy. Suppose that I owe you $10. While you watch, I count out one-dollar bills on a table: One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten.

You take the money. You’re satisfied that I’ve paid my debt.

The reason you’re satisfied is that we agreed about:

  • How much I owed you, and
  • The procedure I used to count the money.

A visit to Threetown

Now consider a variation. Suppose that I owe you $10. While you watch, I count out one-dollar bills on a table, just as before: one, two, ten.

“Wait,” you say. “You gave me three dollars, not ten!”

“It’s only three dollars in base-10,” I explain. “Base-3 is much better. That’s ten dollars in base-3. I’ll prove it to you. Watch.” I re-count the money: one, two, ten.

We’ve got a problem. You define “10” in one way and I define it in a different way.

Neither of us is simply making it up. Both definitions are legitimate in their own terms. (Check the links if you want the background info.)

You’d prefer to be repaid in base-10 dollars. I’d prefer to repay you in base-3 dollars.

You could argue that almost everyone uses the base-10 number system. But we’re currently within the city limits of Threetown, where the law requires everyone to use base-3. If people want to use base-10, they must go outside the city limits.

It’s a bizarre situation. You should probably just wait until we leave Threetown to demand payment.

Neither of us can prove our definition of “10,” so our only other alternative is to fight. That would cause more than $7 (base-10) worth of damage to both of us.

We could do it, but the costs would exceed the benefits. It seems unwise to cause a bigger harm to redress a smaller harm.

A visit to Alabama

We left Threetown, whereupon you insisted that I repay you in base-10 dollars. Lacking any further excuse, I did so. We’re square.

But we’re now having lunch in Alabama, where they define a fetus at any stage of pregnancy as a legal person. Under a recently-enacted law, abortion is illegal except to save the life of the mother. To get an elective abortion, a person must travel across the state line to a more permissive state.

Some people who live in other states don’t define the fetus as a person, though they don’t care if it’s a person or not. To them, the only thing that matters is what the mother wants.

Here we are again: two conflicting definitions. One side says the fetus is a person, the other side says it isn’t. One side says the fetus takes priority, the other says the mother does. Neither side can prove its claims.

Do we fight, or do we live and let live?

If someone’s coming at you with a bayonet, the situation is very clear. But if some state has a law that makes it slightly more difficult to get an abortion, that’s a lot less clear.

When a situation is morally and/or factually unclear, I believe in a policy of “live and let live.” It minimizes harm and maximizes freedom.

Check out my new 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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X Marks the Spot


What the heck is that? I see the word a lot lately.

I finally figured out why media people have started using it. A Latino is a male Hispanic. A Latina is a female Hispanic. The words look like they apply only to Hispanics from Latin America, not from Spain. Dunno. Maybe.

So “Latinx” is an English word that means Hispanic. It’s used when you either don’t want to specify the person’s sex or you believe in the reigning orthodoxy that sex doesn’t matter (Fallon Fox undoubtedly agrees). It’s very chic.

Hispanics often have more common sense than norteamericanos, so I’ll be surprised if they abandon gendered pronouns in Spanish such as “él” (he) and “ella” (she). They do have some gender-neutral words: you can say “alguien” to mean “someone” if you don’t want to specify the person’s sex, and use “alguno” or “alguna” if you do. However, nouns are gendered: a doctor is still un médico if male and una médica if female. A policeman is un policia and a policewoman is una mujer policia (a woman policeman).

I can hardly wait for more gender-studies true believers to find out about the Hebrew language. It not only has different pronouns for male and female, it’s got different verb forms that depend on whether the speaker is a man (“hu medaber,” he speaks) or a woman (“hi medaberett,” she speaks). That argument will be quite a show. Grab some popcorn.

Check out my new 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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War is the Second-Worst Thing

“Give peace a chance” was what they said back in the Vietnam War era of the 1960s.

And what reasonable person could argue with it? War is something to avoid — unless the alternative is even worse.

Those thoughts are prompted by two events this weekend.

First — and for the first time — I went back to my old high school for commencement.

At the alumni luncheon, a graduating senior gave a speech about the most important things he had learned at the school. His main point was that life will knock us down over and over. Sometimes, each of us will feel utterly hopeless and defeated. In those moments, we must get up and go on. Get up and go on.

It was an impressive speech by an impressive person. Afterward, I shook his hand and told him “¡Buenísimo! ¡Buena suerte!” (Outstanding! Good luck!) because though he had only a slight accent, he came from Mexico City.

And where will he attend college?

West Point: that is, the United States Military Academy at West Point. He will graduate as an officer in the U.S. Army.

The second event was that the U.S. Army posted a Memorial Day question on Twitter:

“How has [military service] impacted you?”

Many of the replies were heartbreaking. Some people told of family members who were wounded, killed, or had psychological problems. Others told of bad experiences during their own military service.

Even though most veterans (including three members of my family*) are proud of their service, there’s no denying the horrors of war. When possible, it must be avoided. When unavoidable, it must be won.

If exemplary people like my school’s luncheon speaker are to be put in harm’s way, it cannot be simply to “busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels.” We must not get involved in other people’s wars just because we can. War is serious. It is neither a punchline nor a prop for political campaigns.

I’ll give the last word to John Stuart Mill, the British economist and philosopher:

“War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks nothing worth a war, is worse.

A man who has nothing which he is willing to fight for, nothing which he cares more about than he does about his personal safety, is a miserable creature, who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.”

* I tried to get in, but the military wouldn’t take me because my eyesight was so bad (20/600 before Lasik).

Check out my new 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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What’s at Issue in the Abortion Debate

Abortion isn’t exactly a “third rail” of American politics, since people yell about it all the time.

But it is a third rail of rational discussion. Many people have dogmatic beliefs about it and they react with blind rage to any heretical disagreement.

The question of who provoked the latest American rage-fest (May 2019) depends on who you ask. Pro-choice partisans say it was state legislatures that passed draconian limits on abortion. Pro-life partisans say it was abortion supporters who finally revealed their true intentions by embracing infanticide.

Each side’s choice of what to emphasize or ignore is dictated by the needs of its argument.

Pro-choice advocates emphasize the mother’s autonomy, arguing — in summary — that:

  1. A fetus isn’t a human life and therefore has no human rights.
  2. Even if it is a human life, no person can have an unchosen duty to support another person, particularly in her own body.
  3. Therefore, any woman can morally get an abortion at any time.

Pro-life advocates emphasize the fetus’s humanity, arguing — in summary — that:

  1. A fetus is a human life and therefore has human rights.
  2. As a result, abortion violates the fetus’s human rights and is tantamount to murder.
  3. Therefore, abortion is a grave moral wrong that can be justified only in extreme circumstances.

Thus, the opposing sides argue past each other. Each tends to ignore or dismiss the other side’s key contentions.

Both sides also see their beliefs as a sign of their own morality and enlightenment. Disagreement then seems like a personal insult, denying their status as good, thoughtful people. Dissent turns into “fighting words.”

Hence, we get screaming instead of argument. Instead of trying to convince people, each side hardens its dogmatic viewpoint and tries to impose it on the other side.

Even if both sides calmed down and tried to discuss the issue rationally, two very tricky problems would remain:

If a fetus is human, that fact by itself doesn’t tell us what to do.

  • Biology isn’t the same thing as morality, and it provides no moral rules.
  • We need to get the moral rules from some other source.

If neither side can convince the other, then how can we live together in a way that minimizes harm?

  • Federalism is one answer: some states would permit abortion, some would outlaw it, and others would take a middle position.
  • The democratic process is another answer, but that requires the losing side to accept the validity of democracy. Would it? We can hope.

Check out my new 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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Follow Courage and Good Sense

I’m an optimistic kind of guy. I can usually find the “half full” in any glass, no matter how empty it is.

But even I get discouraged sometimes. Most often, it’s because of human irrationality.

The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote that “Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.” Back in the 1960s, psychologist Nathaniel Branden riffed on Longfellow when he joked that “Whom the gods would destroy, they first make stupid.

Madness and stupidity are almost the defining characteristics of our age.

However, it helps to know that other societies in the past survived problems a lot like ours.

And it also helps to know that some of the greatest people in history occasionally felt discouraged.

The philosopher and two-time Nobel laureate Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) wrote that:

“Man is a rational animal — so at least I have been told. Throughout a long life, I have looked diligently for evidence in favour of this statement, but so far I have not had the good fortune to come across it, though I have searched in many countries spread over three continents.

On the contrary, I have seen the world plunging continually further into madness. I have seen great nations, formerly leaders of civilization, led astray by preachers of bombastic nonsense. I have seen cruelty, persecution, and superstition increasing by leaps and bounds, until we have almost reached the point where praise of rationality is held to mark a man as an old fogy regrettably surviving from a bygone age. All this is depressing, but gloom is a useless emotion.”

Gloom is indeed useless. Courage is a cure.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (1874-1965) knew both emotions. He suffered bouts of depression that he called “the black dog,” but his courage pulled him through. In 1941, as he led his country’s defense against Nazi Germany, he advised:

“Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never — in nothing, great or small, large or petty — never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.

We stood all alone a year ago, and to many countries it seemed that our account was closed, we were finished … and we now find ourselves in a position where we have only to persevere to conquer.”

Of course, not everything is like war. Often, “honor and good sense” dictate compromise rather than conquest.

But the same principles apply: Don’t be stupid. Think it through. Do the right thing.

Check out my new 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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Three Ways to Live

There are three basic ways to deal with any situation:

  • Method 1: Complain about it and be unhappy.
  • Method 2: Accept it and be happy.
  • Method 3: Try to change it, and then apply Method 1 or 2 to the result.

Of course, there are lots of variations.

Method 1: Complain and be unhappy

This a bad choice: after all, who wants to be unhappy?

But it’s also a very popular choice, so it’s obviously not that simple.

Some people seem happiest when they’re complaining. The subject almost doesn’t matter: it’s just a shiny object to distract themselves from their otherwise boring lives. It’s a source of meaning for them. Complaints can also make them feel virtuous and important without requiring them to do anything but talk: “Look at me! I’m morally sensitive. I’m against all those bad things.”

So in a low-standards way, complaints and unhappiness are at least not an insane choice. If they motivate us to try one of the other methods, they become a more positive force.

Method 2: Accept and be happy

If we like a situation, then accepting it is easy. We’re happy with it.

But sometimes we accept things we don’t like, either because we can’t change them or because it’s not worth the effort. As long as we understand what we’re doing, it’s a reasonable choice.

And here’s a pro tip: Don’t second-guess yourself.

If you looked at all the relevant factors and made a reasonable decision, then it’s done. Move on. Unless you get new information that might have changed your decision, don’t keep re-visiting it and wondering if you did the right thing. You did.

During World War II, U.S. Admiral Chester Nimitz had some good advice for junior officers: “When you’re in command, command.” Similarly, when you’ve decided to accept a situation, accept it.

Method 3: Try to change things

If we try to change a situation, then we need to know:

  • What, specifically, is wrong with the situation?
  • What, specifically, would improve it?
  • How, specifically, can we improve it?

If we don’t have clear answers to those questions, then we have no way of knowing what to do. We’d be acting blindly, more likely to do harm than good.

An excellent way to clarify our answers is to talk to someone who disagrees with us.  We often can’t see the flaws in our own ideas, so if the other person pokes holes in our arguments, challenges us to give evidence, or shows our ideas are too vague, it’s a big help.

Check out my new 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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