You Don’t Have to Be Complicit in Our Culture of Destruction – The New York Times

“People feel a kind of longing for a belonging to the natural world,” says the author and scientist Robin Wall Kimmerer. “It’s related to, I think, some of the dead ends that we have created for ourselves that don’t have a lot of meaning.” In part to share a potential source of meaning, Kimmerer, who is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and a professor at the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry, published her essay collection, “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants.” That book, which was put out by Milkweed Editions, a small Minnesota nonprofit press, and which this year celebrates its 10th anniversary, has more than done its job. “Braiding Sweetgrass” has now been a yearslong presence on best-seller lists, with more than 1.4 million copies in print across various formats, and its success has allowed Milkweed to double in size. Given the urgency of climate change, it’s very unlikely that the appetite for the book’s message of ecological care and reciprocity will diminish anytime soon. “As we’ve learned,” says Kimmerer, who is 69, “there are lots of us who think this way.”

There’s a certain kind of writing about ecology and balance that can make the natural world seem like this placid place of beauty and harmony. But the natural world is also 

 Do you think your work, which is so much about the beauty and harmony side of things, romanticizes nature? Or, maybe more to the point, do you think it matters if it does? I am deeply aware of the fact that my view of the natural world is colored by my home place. Where I live, here in Maple Nation,2 is really abundant. We live in a place full of berries and fruits. So thinking about the land-as-gift in perhaps this romantic way would come more naturally to me than to someone who lives in a desert, where you can have the sense that the land is out to kill you as opposed to care for you. That’s absolutely true. But I don’t think that’s the same as romanticizing nature. Of course the natural world is full of forces that are so-called destructive. I think about Aldo Leopold’s3  often-quoted line, “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” But those destructive forces also end up often to be agents of change and renewal. It is a mistake to romanticize the living world, but it is also a mistake to think of the living world as adversarial.”

Crispin Sartwell | Have I Been Good or Bad This Year? Here’s Some New Math. – The New York Times

Mr. Sartwell is an associate professor of philosophy at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa.

“Here we are at the end of another year, and as humans are wont to do around this time, I’ve been reflecting. Have I been a good person? Has my existence been of net benefit to humanity? When my expiration date comes — whether by murder hornet, bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or an encounter with a garbage truck that transforms me suddenly into a crimson mist — I expect that St. Peter, Brahman, or some similarly all-knowing judge will meet me at the gates of pearl or in the limbo between incarnations, report my tally, and tell me where I’m headed next.

To be honest, though not too honest, I’m concerned about how this exit interview is going to go. Honestly, though not too honestly, I’ve done some things that might be frowned on. I admit it: I don’t have a lovely bouquet of moral virtues to wave around. What I have instead is knockdown proof that I richly deserve eternal bliss.

I’m not here to beg you, oh Gatekeeper. I’m here to dazzle you into submission with a pure display of virtuoso ratiocination, like Charlie Daniels fiddling against the Devil.

Allow me to start with this claim: We humans, as moral beings, can be as culpable for what we fail to do as for what we do. While some wrongdoers commit wrongs proactively (traditionally known as sins of commission), others do so through inaction or sheer negligence (sins of omission). A coldblooded killer, for example, is an active wrongdoer, while the sleazy real estate developer who fails to maintain a building that subsequently collapses, injuring and killing his tenants, is a passive one. Clearly, both have done wrong. But while the killer displays an obvious moral truth (that it is bad to do what one shouldn’t do), the developer offers a more subtle one (it is bad to not do what one should do).

Surely, oh Eternal Bouncer, you will agree that if it is bad to not do what one should do, then it is good to not do what one should not. In other words, if omissions can be blameworthy, they can be praiseworthy, too.

This fundamental moral insight has stunning implications. If embezzling money is wrong, for instance, then not embezzling money is right. However much money I may have embezzled over the years, there is so much more that I have commendably not embezzled, if you follow me. Think of all those banks, all those charities, all those law firms I didn’t steal from. The amount of money I stole, if I stole any money, is infinitesimal compared to all the money I could conceivably have stolen. Surely, my restraint should earn me a few points in the plus column.

I used to read the news every morning as a litany of blunders and crimes, getting more and more bummed out as I went along. But then I realized: not only is each day’s crop of bad things minuscule compared to the bad things that might have happened but did not, but almost every bad thing that happened was not something I personally did, or did much of, anyway. There are so many things, I see now, for me to be proud of, every day. I didn’t, for instance, blow anything up. I didn’t come up with the phrase “Build Back Better agenda.”

Just think of what evil we could fail to accomplish if we were united in our inaction.

But I seem to hear you, Omnipotent One, protesting that there was so much good I could have done but failed to do. That, for example, I allowed my abilities and talents, which could have been of service to humanity, atrophy. It’s true, I didn’t create any great paintings, write any great novels, or achieve any scientific breakthroughs. I just lay here on the couch watching ESPN.

On the other hand, before you lob me into the outer dark, I want to point out that my sloth had an upside. Of all the repulsive and derivative art produced over the course of my too-brief life — the “abstract” paintings, the plop sculptures, the “yacht rock,” and all those works of “autofiction” — I personally produced very few of them. The legacy of all the bad art I did not make is secure.

So stand down, St. Pete, or whoever you are. Go back to Tampa. Stop being so judgmental. Or in the words of the poet Adele, take it easy on me. The burning question of whether I deserve an enjoyable afterlife has been answered once and for all.

Now that you’ve heard the argument, Big Fella, fork over the bliss.” -30-

David Lindsay:  I’m taking notes.  Here are some of my favorite comments:

JCA

I find it easier and more scientific to think of cause and effect. Virtuous actions cause happiness. Non-virtuous actions cause suffering. -The Buddha

12 Replies152 Recommended

 
ImagineMoments commented December 30

ImagineMoments

The neat thing about being an atheist is that I don’t to worry about this stuff. I kind of like taking on the adult responsibility of having to decide for myself what actions are moral and just, and what those words even mean.

8 Replies124 Recommended

Julie commented December 30

Julie
BoiseDec. 30

When the Dalai Lama was asked where do people go when they die, his response was, “We don’t know. But, I hope I go where I can reduce the suffering of others.” Me too. And, in my life, I make it my practice here as well.

1 Reply121 Recommended
Robert Scull
Cary, NCDec. 30

Takes me back to elementary school in St. Mary’s Academy where I first heard about “sins of omission.” At the time it seemed that my sins of commission were embarrassing enough, but then when I thought about all the good I could have done…then I knew I was in big trouble. Now that I am a septuagenarian, I have accumulated decades of sins for reflection. The only advantage of these past failures I can see is they give us pause to display a little humility…a traditional virtue that does not get much credit in contemporary society. I still think it is a fascinating concept…that we have a responsibility to do good in our short lives to avoid an eternity of suffering as depicted in all those medieval paintings of naked people falling helplessly into the abyss in utter shock that the unbelievable stories about the afterlife were actually true. It is actually unfortunate that most of us really don’t believe it as shown by the way most of us live, wasting our lives on seeking the next thrill, restricting good deeds to an hour of dressed-up ceremony once a week and an orgy of consumerism and kindness to others during the Saturnalia festival or whatever it is called today in the religion of choice. Is it possible that our portfolios that make some of us feel so secure are in fact a record of our sins of omission? I see no chance of the world improving as long as feelings of guilt are considered to be a psychological disorder. Guilt may in fact be good for us.

1 Reply65 Recommended
Michael
Orlando, FL11h ago

It is easy to come up with excuses not to do good. The real challenge is in forming habits of being good. Are we nice to our neighbors, do we lend a hand when we see them carrying groceries or trying to stuff leaves into a bag? Do we treat others with kindness and compassion? Do we think kind and compassionate thoughts about others? Or do we pull a shoulder patting ourselves on our back for not kicking a homeless person when we walk by disdaining them? I don’t want to get by in life doing the least I can. Many generations ago moral laws were mostly “don’ts.” A person once pointed out to me that a clam obeys most of the ten commandments. Do you want “slightly better than a clam” to be how people remember you? But even thousands of years ago the best among us proposed commandments of action, of doing. Love others. I don’t pretend I get a pass from loving others because I haven’t recently stolen my neighbor’s donkey. Not only that, I actively want to love others. I want to help others. I want to be of service. I am calmer, more joyful, more at peace when I do. I want my life to have purpose, so I have sought purpose and try to live up to the highest ideals of moral living that I have discovered. It is a great challenge to be the best person we can be. It is an exciting adventure to try to make tomorrow’s world better than yesterday’s. And that leads to supreme joy and humbling satisfaction if we can honestly say we did our best.

26 Recommended

Carlos Lozada | How to Strangle Democracy While Pretending to Engage in It – The New York Times

Opinion Columnist

“It was early in my senior year of college when I received a comment from a professor, scribbled at the bottom of one of my papers, that would transform how I think and write, how I read books and how I try to read the world. So rare to possess written proof of an epiphany.

Carlos — this is just great! Nice job. You have a fine Hirschmanian mind.

Hirschmanian? I don’t recall, at age 20, knowing much about the social scientist Albert O. Hirschman — at least I hope I didn’t — but this nudge sent me deep into his writings on economic growth, political change and ideological temptation. Three decades later, and almost 10 years after his death, I’ve yet to come up for air. Hirschman imbued me with skepticism of all-encompassing worldviews, which he dismissed as “shortcuts to the understanding of multifarious reality.” He warned against experts peddling self-serving agendas but also displayed “a bias for hope,” as one of his book titles has it, a caution against seductive fatalism at the prospect of political renewal. And particularly valuable for a time, like today, when polarization and demagoguery are overtaking American politics, Hirschman bequeathed us a slim and vital book identifying the slippery arguments that pretend to engage in democratic deliberation, even as they strangle it.”

David Brooks | The Triumph of the Ukrainian Idea – The New York Times

Opinion Columnist

“The war in Ukraine is not only a military event; it’s an intellectual event. The Ukrainians are winning not only because of the superiority of their troops. They are winning because they are fighting for a superior idea — an idea that inspires Ukrainians to fight so doggedly, an idea that inspires people across the West to stand behind Ukraine and back it to the hilt.

That idea is actually two ideas jammed together. The first is liberalism, which promotes democracy, individual dignity, a rule-based international order.

The second idea is nationalism. Volodymyr Zelensky is a nationalist. He is fighting not just for democracy but also for Ukraine — Ukrainian culture, Ukrainian land, the Ukrainian people and tongue. The symbol of this war is the Ukrainian flag, a nationalist symbol.

There are many people who assume that liberalism and nationalism are opposites. Liberalism, in their mind, is modern and progressive. It’s about freedom of choice, diversity and individual autonomy. Nationalism, meanwhile, is primordial, xenophobic, tribal, aggressive and exclusionary.

Modern countries, by this thinking, should try to tamp down nationalist passions and embrace the universal brotherhood of all humankind. As John Lennon famously sang, “Imagine there’s no countries/ It isn’t hard to do/ Nothing to kill or die for/ And no religion too.”

Those people are not all wrong. Nationalism has a lot of blood on its hands. But it has become clear that there are two kinds of nationalism: the illiberal nationalism of Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, and the liberal nationalism of Zelensky. The former nationalism is backward-looking, xenophobic and authoritarian. The latter nationalism is forward-looking, inclusive and builds a society around the rule of law, not the personal power of the maximum leader. It’s become clear that if it is to survive, liberalism needs to rest on a bed of this kind of nationalism.

Nationalism provides people with a fervent sense of belonging. Countries don’t hold together because citizens make a cold assessment that it’s in their self-interest to do so. Countries are held together by shared loves for a particular way of life, a particular culture, a particular land. These loves have to be stirred in the heart before they can be analyzed by the brain.”

Andrea Wulf | Friedrich Schelling’s Philosophy Can Help Us Through the Climate Crisis – The New York Times

Ms. Wulf is the author of “Magnificent Rebels: The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self.”

“As darkness settled over the small German town of Jena in the late winter of 1798, large groups of young men rushed to the town university’s biggest auditorium to listen to their new philosophy professor. They jostled for seats, took out ink and quills and waited. At the lectern, a young man lit two candles and the students saw him bathed in light.

There is a “secret bond connecting our mind with nature,” the professor, Friedrich Schelling, told the students. His idea, that the self and nature are in fact identical, was as simple as it was radical. He explained this by pointing to the moment when the self becomes aware of the world around it.

“At the first moment, when I am conscious of the external world, the consciousness of my self is there as well,” he said, “and vice versa — at my first moment of self-awareness, the real world rises up before me.” Instead of dividing the world into mind and matter, as many philosophers had done for centuries, the young professor told his students that everything was one. It was an idea that would change the way humans think about themselves and nature.

To me it seems that we sometimes forget that we’re part of nature — physically of course, but also emotionally and psychologically — and this insight is missing from our current climate debates. As a historian, I have looked at the relationship between humankind and nature, and I believe that Schelling’s philosophy of oneness might provide a foundation on which to anchor the fight for our climate and our survival.”

David Lindsay: Great essay, and comments. Here are two of many:

K. Kong
Washington7h ago

Indigenous populations understood our relationship with nature, but Western societies took the Bible’s call for man to have “dominion” over nature literally. We didn’t respect it. But the so-called primitive cultures saw a spirit in life in all things, and themselves as part of it. It took philosophy too long to figure out these pre-Christians, as well as the Native American populations today, had it right.

4 Replies73 Recommended
x
Che Beauchard
Lower East Side 4h ago

Many of the comments to this article voice complaints that Mr. Wulf did not mention an appropriate Bible passage, or Buddhist or Hindu scripts, or indigenous practices, or earlier philosophers like Spinoza when speaking of Schelling’s proposal concerning the unity of each of us in nature. But Mr. Wulf wasn’t writing about all of history and all religious and cultural ideas. He wrote about how Schelling provided a contrast with the predominant ideas of the the of the Enlightenment and the early science that was developed at that time. He was concerned with the foundations of modern attitudes and Schelling’s response against that. The modern era began with the proposal that nature is inert and mechanical, and Schelling was responding to that modern attitude. Ancient religions clearly were not responses to modernity, and thus were unmentioned. Ideas have to be invented over and over. Many, if not most, of them are invented again and again in the day dreams of children, who later forget them when the adult world seems uninterested. For Mr. Wulf to write about how this one German philosopher stood in opposition to the modern attitude that separates us from the rest of nature did not require him to write about every antecedent to modern thought. Many comments seem to be offended by Mr. Wulf writing what they already believe in, which is that we are not separate from nature. Chill. No need to fight with someone with whom you agree.

5 Replies52 Recommended

David Brooks | How Democrats Can Win the Morality Wars – The New York Times

Opinion Columnist

“I’m a fan of FiveThirtyEight, a website that looks at policy issues from a data-heavy perspective, but everyone publishes a clunker once in a while. In February, FiveThirtyEight ran a piece called “Why Democrats Keep Losing Culture Wars.” The core assertion was that Republicans prevail because a lot of Americans are ignorant about issues like abortion and school curriculum, and they believe the lies the right feeds them. The essay had a very heavy “deplorables are idiots” vibe.

Nate Hochman, writing in the conservative National Review, recognized a hanging curve when he saw one and he walloped the piece. He noted that “all the ‘experts’ that the FiveThirtyEight writers cite in their piece are invested in believing that the progressive worldview is the objective one, and that any deviations from it are the result of irrational or insidious impulses in the electorate.”

He added: “All this is a perfect example of why the left’s cultural aggression is alienating to so many voters. Progressive elites are plagued by an inability to understand the nature and function of social issues in American life as anything other than a battle between the forces of truth and justice on one side and those of ignorance and bigotry on the other.”

There’s a lot of truth to that. The essence of good citizenship in a democratic society is to spend time with those who disagree with you so you can understand their best arguments.”

David Lindsay: In this column, Brooks hits a home run with the bases loaded.

Ezra Klein | The Enemies of Liberalism Are Showing Us What It Really Means – The New York Times

   Opinion Columnist

“After three decades of dominance, liberalism is losing its hold on Western minds,” Matthew Rose writes in his powerful new book, “A World After Liberalism.

Rose does not mean liberalism in the way we typically use the word. This is not about supporting universal health care or disagreeing with Justice Samuel Alito. Rose means liberalism as in the shared assumptions of the West: a belief in human dignity, universal rights, individual flourishing and the consent of the governed.

That liberalism has been battered by financial crises, the climate crisis, checkered pandemic responses, right-wing populists and a rising China. It seems exhausted, ground down, defined by the contradictions and broken promises that follow victory rather than the creativity and aspiration that attend struggle.

At least, it did. Ukraine’s refusal to bend the knee to Vladimir Putin has reminded the West that, for those who have not yet learned to take it for granted, life under liberalism is worth fighting for. But true renewal will require more than horror at Russia’s invasion or paeans to Ukraine’s courage. It will mean grappling with liberalism’s deficiencies and rediscovering its core radicalism.”

Moral Relativism | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Moral Relativism

“Moral relativism is the view that moral judgments are true or false only relative to some particular standpoint (for instance, that of a culture or a historical period) and that no standpoint is uniquely privileged over all others.  It has often been associated with other claims about morality: notably, the thesis that different cultures often exhibit radically different moral values; the denial that there are universal moral values shared by every human society; and the insistence that we should refrain from passing moral judgments on beliefs and practices characteristic of cultures other than our own.

Relativistic views of morality first found expression in 5th century B.C.E. Greece, but they remained largely dormant until the 19th and 20th centuries.  During this time, a  number of factors converged to make moral relativism appear plausible.  These included a new appreciation of cultural diversity prompted by anthropological discoveries; the declining importance of religion in modernized societies; an increasingly critical attitude toward colonialism and its assumption of moral superiority over the colonized societies; and growing skepticism toward any form of moral objectivism, given the difficulty of proving value judgments the way one proves factual claims.

For some, moral relativism, which relativizes the truth of moral claims, follows logically from a broader cognitive relativism that relativizes truth in general.  Many moral relativists, however, take the fact-value distinction to be fundamental.  A common, albeit negative, reason for embracing moral relativism is simply the perceived untenability of moral objectivism: every attempt to establish a single, objectively valid and universally binding set of moral principles runs up against formidable objections.  A more positive argument sometimes advanced in defense of moral relativism is that it promotes tolerance since it encourages us to understand other cultures on their own terms.”

Source: Moral Relativism | Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Yuval Noah Harari Believes This Simple Story Can Save the Planet – The New York Times

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/11/08/magazine/yuval-noah-harari-interview.html

“With the publication in the United States of his best-selling “Sapiens” in 2015, the Israeli historian and philosopher Yuval Noah Harari arrived at the top rank of public intellectuals, a position he consolidated with “Homo Deus” (2017) and “21 Lessons for the 21st Century” (2018). Harari’s key theme is the idea that human society has largely been driven by our species’s capacity to believe in what he calls fictions: those things whose power is derived from their existence in our collective imaginations, whether they be gods or nations; our belief in them allows us to cooperate on a societal scale. The broad sweep of Harari’s writing, which encompasses the prehistoric past and a dark far-off future, has turned him into a bit of a walking inkblot test. “The general misunderstandings of me,” says Harari, 45, co-author of the recently published “Sapiens: A Graphic History, Volume 2” (the latest in a series of graphic-novel adaptations of his work), “are that I’m the prophet of doom and then there’s this opposite view that I think everything is wonderful.” Both, of course, might be true. “Once the books are out, the ideas are out of your hands,” he says.”

Steven Pinker Thinks Your Sense of Imminent Doom Is Wrong – The New York Times

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/09/06/magazine/steven-pinker-interview.html?action=click&algo=lda_unique&block=editors_picks_recirc&fellback=false&imp_id=114485650&impression_id=34eee837-1179-11ec-8bf9-11a4c5ca1b69&index=1&pgtype=Article&pool=pool%2Fe76d7165-92f7-4bd2-bc6e-298322d3680a&region=footer&req_id=367884245&surface=eos-home-featured&variant=1_lda_unique

“. . . I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that rising authoritarianism, the pandemic and the climate crisis, among other things, are signs that we’re going to hell in a handbasket. Is that irrational of me? It’s not irrational to identify genuine threats to our well-being. It is irrational to interpret a number of crises occurring at the same time as signs that we’re doomed. It’s a statistical phenomenon that when events are randomly sprinkled in time they cluster. That sounds paradoxical, but unless you have a nonrandom process that spaced them apart — We’re going to have a crisis every six months but we’re never going to have two crises in a month — events cluster. That’s what random events will always do. ”

David Lindsay Jr.
Hamden, CT | NYT Comment:
This piece lost me. Climate change, the pandemic, and the rise of authoritarianism are not equals. Bad questions lead to bad answers. Why exactly is this professor not deeply concerned about the existential threat of climate change and the sixth extinction? Perhaps there should be a follow up interview by an environmentalist. Does he know what the sixth extinction is? Does he know that in the last 50 years, human population doubled, while the populations of most species were cut in half, and thousands were eliminated. Some studies show insects and birds are down 70% Half the great barrier reef is bleached or dead. How is Mr. Pinker optimistic, when we went from 2 billion humans to almost 8 billion humans, 7.8 billion human beings, in just under 100 year– probably since 1930 to the present. Edward O Wilson, also of Harvard, but a naturalist, has written that if we lose half the world’s species, the human species will probably not survive.