Category Archives: Advice for Living

The Purpose of Life

On the bike trail, someone has quoted in chalk a saying from the Dalai Lama:

The purpose of life is to be happy.

Dalai_Lama_at_WhiteHouse_(cropped)

I disagree. The purpose of life is to achieve. That can be as grand as climbing tall mountains, travelling to other planets, curing diseases, or finding some new understanding of the universe. It can mean writing a book that others find meaningful, teaching others a skill or idea, building a road, maintaining social order as a law enforcement officer, or saving a life after an accident. It also means doing useful work.

Happiness will be the by-product of achievement. To seek it as the goal is to demand the reward before you have earned it.

Do Good People Get It?

The vaccine debates have been going on for a long time–as long as vaccines, in fact. Of recent interest is the question of whether everyone should receive protection against the human papillomavirus (HPV).
4.0.4
The argument made by some opponents centers around the fact that HPV is often transmitted by sexual activity, so if a person is chaste in all things, what’s to worry? In other words, if you’re a “good girl,” you won’t get the virus, the argument goes.

First off, HPV can be transmitted through means other than sexual intercourse. The virus can be detected in blood and transmitted in the same. Opposition to vaccination against HPV presumes that those “good girls” won’t need a blood transfusion or won’t ever work in professions in which they might come into contact with blood.

More than that, what if a “good girl” comes into sexual contact with someone who is infected? What if she gets raped? What if she marries someone who has the virus without knowing it or hides his past activities from her?

And consider the value of removing a disease from the human condition. We’ve eliminated smallpox, except for small stocks held by the United States and Russia, and we’re on the way to getting rid of polio. Eliminating a virus that causes disease makes the world better for us. This would reduce human suffering, something that the Chrisitan religion claims to seek to do.

In this, I’ve taken “good girl” without question. I see sexual action among consenting adults in a different light from how fundamentalists view it, but in this article, I’m going with that way of thinking–for the moment–to illustrate a point. A lot of good can be done if true believers in many different ideologies will work together. Rather than seeing the HPV vaccine as being only for those who are sexually promiscuous, it’s better to regard it as something that offers protection and general benefit to everyone, the righteous and unrighteous upon whom rain and viruses may fall.

God, guns, and gays

I’ve written many times before on the question of gun rights and gay rights. Sometimes, I’ve even put the two together. Today, since both subjects are drawing the attention of America, I’m joining them to show the common thread.

As I’ve said many times, if you’re not hurting me (or an innocent person), do as you will. The Wiccans use that saying as the basis of their ethics, and it’s a good summary of the libertarian philosophy. It is also at the heart of the American way of doing things.

At the same time, Americans have a Puritan strain running through our collective consciousness. Recall H. L. Mencken’s line about Puritanism–the haunting belief that somewhere, someone is having a good time. It’s the reason that our missionaries wandered the globe making women wear woolen dresses in the tropics. It’s the reason that we forced a change of governments in Iran in 1953 and in Chile twenty years later. It’s tied up in the reason that we removed Saddam Hussein from power. In all of those, we had the belief that people were doing things in a way that we didn’t approve.

In our nation and in any society, there will always be a tension between the individual and the group. It’s been my observation, both as a student of history and by keeping my eyes open, that while individuals screw up from time to time, to make a royal mess of things requires the idiocy of crowds. That being said, I generally favor regulation to increase in direct proportion with size. Individuals deserve wide liberties, while groups often need to be restrained.

At the same time, I recognize that actions do have consequences and those consequences at times demand a response from the rest of us. When that’s the case, we have to balance the harm that could be done against the rights that we all should value.

Consider, then, the two issues that I named above. Take gay marriage first. A recent article in The Wall Street Journal considers the evidence of harms and benefits. The conclusion given, based on a review of the literature, is that there is evidence toward looser unions when same-sex couples are allowed to marry, and those same-sex couples have a lower concern about monogamy. That being said, children raised in same-sex couple households do as well as children in other relationships, and the time a relationship lasts and the number of partners tolerated in a relationship reflects overall changes in society in general.

What about guns? About 30,000 persons die in a given year from gun fire, and a couple hundred thousand are injured. The majority of deaths are suicides. Accidental deaths come in around 600. Contrast that with the number of defensive gun uses in the same period–in other words, cases in which someone uses a firearm to defend against a lethal threat–run anywhere between 108,000 and 2.5 million, depending on which study you accept. We also see that over the course of the last two decades, as gun laws have loosened and more states have allowed citizens to carry guns, the rate of violent crime has dropped. While cause and effect are hard to link, the evidence does show that more guns in more hands doesn’t result in more violence.

In other words, both gay marriage and gun ownership and carry have a mixed bag of results for society. This is where I have to fight against that Puritan yearning that so pervades American thinking. It is not the job of society to sweep in and right every wrong. A world in which no wrongs can occur is a soulless existence. Human beings are born with the power to choose, and that includes choosing right or wrong. It also includes a vast territory of grey, even presuming that our understanding of the two opposites is as good as we wish to believe.

I come back to my original idea. The fundamental principle of a society must be that each member is entitled to as much liberty as can be. The limits of liberty are defined by what would destroy the society or harm its members unduly. I realize that these terms are vague. To introduce clarity, look at the data that I cited above. Despite the mixed results, we see no evidence that either freedom will destroy us all. In fact, on balance, both freedoms create more good than harm. That being the case, I ask here a question that I often raise when the subject of control vs. freedom comes up:

Give me a reason to support control that does not depend on the theology regarding your favorite deity.

That means, obviously, the Christian God, but it just as well applies to pronouncements from social theorists in the absence of proof. Yes, the Bible in a literal reading is against homosexuality. Yes, a number of political philosophies are against private citizens having firearms. But America, a Constitutionally defined secular and agnostic nation, cannot base its laws on theology. Understand that by secular, I mean the law must be independent of any reference to an outside power, and by agnostic, I mean that without evidence and in the presence of speculation, the law must admit to not knowing.

We in this country have made the extraordinary choice to build our law on that principle. It was a good choice, both in terms of utility for the individual and the society as a whole. It was the correct choice if we believe that we all are born with rights. It is a choice that each generation has to make again and defend again.

An Open Letter to David Horsey

David Horsey is a political columnist and cartoonist for the Los Angeles Times. In that capacity, he wrote and drew the following, titled, “While most Americans shun guns, the fearful keep buying more.” I’ve added a link, but since articles disappear from the Web, I’m adding the following quotation from what he wrote:

Gun owners make up half of the GOP. I would be surprised if there is not a correlation between that half and the half of Republicans who, in other polls, expressed the belief that Saddam Hussein was responsible for the 9/11 attacks and that weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq. I would bet they are also many of the same folks who believe Barack Obama is a Muslim or a terrorist sympathizer or a socialist or Kenya-born or all of the above. They are likely the ones who think that liberal scientists have concocted the global-warming hoax and that the Justice Department and the United Nations are plotting to disarm Americans.

Dear Mr. Horsey:

Your article drips with prejudice, and as is typcial for people afflicted with that condition, your sneering attitude has blinded you to reality. I have known quite a few gun owners since I joined their ranks. What I have seen is a subset of America that is just like the whole of the country. Some gun owners are jerks. So are some Americans. Make any disparaging remarks about gun owners you like, but the same statement would be true about any other group you care to name. What I have seen, though, and what you’d see if you took the time, is that a great many gun owners are friendly people who welcome newcomers. At shooting ranges, I’ve had the chance to shoot several types of firearms that I don’t own, thanks to the openness of others. Given the prices of ammunition these days, that’s not as small a thing as you might imagine. I’ve learned things from my fellow enthusiasts. Whatever you would picture as being the case among a group of model train collectors, the same is true about gun owners. We share with each other and with anyone who wants to be a part of our group.

But, yes, we also involve ourselves in the politics of our country. What would you do if proposals floated around constantly to limit what a columnist or cartoonist might say or draw? We do stand up for our rights. And we stand up for yours. I made my voice heard in a variety of fora when a Danish cartoonist was attacked for his cartoons about Muhammed and Islam. As a writer and college English instructor, I care a great deal about freedom of expression and academic thought. As an Other with regard to religion, it is in my interest to live in a country that respects the right of each person to make individual choices about spiritual beliefs and practices. Before you say that I’m only acting in each case in my own advantage, I am a straight man, but I support equality in marriage for gays and lesbians, and I support the right of a woman to decide what she wants to do with her body and her pregnancy.

Contrary to the quoted paragraph above, I am more of a Libertarian than a Republican. In fact, on some issues, I’m Green. I wanted a public option in the healthcare reform act, and I wanted it to take effect immediately. While I recognized Saddam Hussein as a dangerous dictator, I had strong reservations against the invasion of Iraq and was aware that he had nothing to do with the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Barack Obama is an American citizen, having been born in the State of Hawaii. He identifies himself as a Christian, and while I’m satisfied as to his honesty there, I also know that under our Constitution, there can be no religious test for holding the office of president. On the question of climate change, I accept the scientific evidence and consensus, as I do on evolution by natural selection. The Libertarian in me wants government to have strictly defined and limited powers. I want government to protect the rights and liberties of all people in this nation and to create opportunities for everyone where such creation is possible.

When it comes to the idea of some power attempting to disarm Americans, do recall that Dianne Feinstein once said in a 60 Minutes interview that if she had had the votes, she would have pushed a bill to demand that all of us turn in our guns. The treaty that the United Nations is discussing is a thicket of bureaucratic language, but the implications of the proposals are clear. Senator Schumer’s recent bill regarding background checks includes language that if taken literally would make felons out of a great many gun owners just for doing ordinary things such as loaning a gun to a friend or leaving one stored in a home with a roommate–things that are not harmful acts. But perhaps you regard suspicion of the government as paranoia. If so, please tell me how much you trust a government that over the years has done many things that any clear-headed human being would find despicable. Suspicion and watchfulness aren’t paranoia. They are necessary and healthy states for all citizens in our kind of society.

To show you how I am not the person that you depicted in your cartoon, I make this offer: If you’re ever in northwest Arkansas, you’re welcome to join me for a day of firearms instruction and freewheeling discussion. I offer this to you, someone who showed no generosity of spirit with regard to people like me. Now, is that the action of a paranoid sociopath who resides in some alternate reality?

Greg Camp

La Classe È Mobile?

University of California, Davis, Professor Gregory Clark has released a study of social mobility, focusing on class in England, with some reference to other countries, including the United States. He looks in particular at English surnames over a period of the last thousand years. His conclusion is that there is a tendency to regress to the mean, no matter how high or low in social rank a family starts out. That means that the poor tend to float upward over generations to the middle class, while the rich sink into the same.

This should come as no surprise to those of us who read old books. Plato discusses this idea in his dialogues. We’ve also heard the old line about how the first generation builds wealth, the second spends it, and the third returns to mediocrity. It’s interesting to see that the poor tend toward the middle, as well.

The study is detailed, while its conclusions are tentative, but for social policy, we can draw our own:

1. The middle class is not a bad place to be. We’ve told ourselves that being on top is the only prize worth winning, and the truth of that is a matter of debate, but life in the middle can be lived. Population studies tell us that most people are in the middle, anyway, with regard to ability.

2. The study suggests that the efforts of the wealthy to provide opportunities to their children often do no good. The implication is that the children aren’t necessarily born with their parents’ abilities. That latter statement would seem to be true about children born to lower than average parents–often they are born with more potential. This suggests that we should give up on forcing every child to be equal in academic performance. There are basic skills and areas of knowledge that every citizen needs, but when it comes to more advanced levels, children will sort themselves out, and schools should let them. Trade schools after high school would be of much greater advantage to many students, and universities could return to academic pursuits. Schools should provide the opportunity for students to rise to their level of ability and be satisfied with that.

3. Another set of social policies supported here is the combination of a safety net and inheritance taxes. The poor need time to rise to the middle, while the rich will benefit little in useful ways from having wealth passed on to them. (In the latter case, it would be simple to make an exception for family farms or small businesses.)

There is one final point to make. We should know this, but the tail ends of the bell curve are tiny in terms of the number of people in them. Social policy for decades has been aimed at creating a Lake Wobegon world in which all children are above average, but that’s unrealistic. Instead, we end up with something more like Kurt Vonnegut’s short story, “Harrison Bergeron,” a world that weighs down people of ability in the name of equality. We should celebrate ability where we find it–and go looking for it everywhere.

Advice to Do-gooders

The older I get (and some say that I was born at fifty), the more I wonder how much good we can do for people in general. In thinking about the subject, I’ve come to the following observations–or perhaps they’re rules:

1. First, do no harm.

Yes, that’s an old one, not original to me. But think about all the efforts to achieve good that have ended up causing more harm. Missionaries circled the globe to convert the natives, only to destroy local cultures, spread diseases or acquire new ones, and generally take whatever was valuable in Western terms from the land. Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs have had mixed results, but anyone who had a goal to create a culture of dependence would be hard-pressed to come up with a straighter line to that result.

The rule here is that whatever good you propose, make it small, make it based on evidence and logic, and make it able to expire if it’s not working.

2. Help those who are willing to be helped.

An obvious case of someone who won’t take help is an addict. I had friends in college who smoked. As much as I wanted to help them stop, they weren’t willing to quit. I’ve known alcoholics who refused to take steps to break out of the addiction–and I’m not talking about Alcoholics Anonymous here, since in my observation, that group is often a substitute for the other drug.

Someone who wants to be helped recognizes the need, recognizes the expertise of the person offering assistance, and wants to work to make things better. That may sound arrogant, but there’s a measure of arrogance in trying to help, anyway. What it’s saying is that if the recipient of the help isn’t going to work with the helper, no good will be achieved.

3. In America, help has to take our spirit of independence and freedom into account.

Most people in this country either came here or come from those who did. They or their ancestors left somewhere else to find a better life, and part of what made that better has been and still is our belief in the rights of individuals to govern their own lives.

The case of climate change will illustrate this point. The scientific evidence is clear. The world is warming up, and humans are primarily the cause. Some on the left argue that the solution is to bunch people together into dense communities, require everyone to use public transportation, and otherwise live a life that is controlled from outside and above. But that won’t work here. The fundamental character of Americans is opposition to control. There are solutions that can work within our values, and those are the only ones that will succeed with us.

4. Physician, heal thyself.

The best place to do good is in your own life. That’s also the hardest field of action, which is why so many prefer to meddle in the lives of others. Read Plato’s Republic. Some see that book as a guide to commanding a city, but the real message is how to organize one’s own mind. Arrange the city of your own mind before you commence to exporting to others.

Take these observations for what they’re worth. I give lots of advice on this weblog, but at the least, I’ve given here six fewer than Moses, and you won’t get burned for not following them.

Sing to the Tune of a Different Choir

According to a poll released yesterday (9 October 2012) by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, Americans in increasing numbers do not affiliate with any particular religious organization. The results are published here. There are a lot of data in the survey results, but the overall trend is that not belonging to a group is becoming more common among young people. That group tends to lean left in American politics. There’s no concentration in any one ethnic group, income level, or, surprisingly, education level. Almost seventy percent of the unaffiliated believe in God (or gods?) in some fashion. All told, one person out of five in this country now does not identify with an institution.

I see this as a good trend. As I’ve said before, I don’t trust large groups. Human beings, taken individually, are often good, but put them together, and they sink to the lowest level of behavior and mentality and stay there. This is true in businesses, academic institutions, governments, and religions. The megaphone of association magnifies the worst in us.

This is also a continuation of the Protestant movement that began in Europe in the late Middle Ages. The assertion of that movement was that an individual is responsible for and capable of communicating with the divine directly without the need of another person. That view was a heresy in the best sense of the word. Heresy comes from a Greek word meaning “choice.” In that way, Protestantism fits in nicely with the general trend toward individual rights that has been working its way through the minds of thinkers in the West for thousands of years. Institutions are often the antithesis of choice, and it’s good to see more and more Americans either loosening or leaving those institutions.

The trend here is reminiscent of a book by Martin Gardner, The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener. Gardner was a noted skeptic on matters of religion and the supernatural, and yet in that book, he identified himself as someone who believed in God and the afterlife. He did this on his own, as a result of his reading and thinking and also of his personal nature. He made a leap of faith, and that leap had to be done out of his own choice, not at the calling of an institution.

In summary, this is the distribution of power that is necessary for a functioning democracy. The more of us who take on intellectual and spiritual responsibility for our own lives, the better. Carry on, my brothers and sisters in personal faith.

Fishing for the Fellow under the Bridge

In my time writing and commenting on discussion boards and weblogs, I’ve run across a disturbing word: troll. Commentors are cautioned not to feed the troll, and anyone who expresses an opinion different from the majority’s risks being given that label. The term has two possible origins:

1. In Norse mythology, “troll” is a word used as a synonym for the Jötunn, the giants who are the equals and rivals of the Æsir and the Vanir. Readers of The Hobbit know of them as the monsters that confront Bilbo and the dwarfs before being tricked into staying out past dawn and turning into stone. Trolls also show up in the Harry Potter series. Then there’s the troll who lives under the bridge and eats travellers who try to cross.

2. The French verb, troller, means “to quest.” It’s used in English to refer to dragging bait through the water in hopes of catching fish.

The second of those is probably the origin of the term in Internet usage, since the offending commentor was someone who threw out silly or unrelated remarks in hopes of derailing the discussion, but it’s come to have both meanings, as seen by the idea of avoiding feeding said creature.

What disturbs me is the notion that a discussion must only be conducted by people who already agree on the main points. I’ve seen far too many cases of dissenters being called trolls for merely offering a contrary view. Our kind of society depends on a lively debate and a respect for the right of everyone to hold individual opinions. Yes, there are obvious cases of someone whose sole interest is to disrupt the conversation, but too often, moderators or participants label opposition as disruption.

This kind of attack is akin to the ad hominem fallacy. It’s directed at the person, while ignoring the points being presented. It’s also a sign of a small mind that is unable to address outside thoughts. I’ve said before that we get the society that we deserve. We shape that society by our participation in the marketplace of ideas. It should also be remembered that some of the Jötunn–Skaði, for example–live with the gods and are their friends. Odin himself consults Mímir, the giant guardian of the Well of Highest Wisdom. We dismiss trolls lightly at our peril.

Innocence and Experience

Over the last week, the world has seen film criticism turned into violent protest. The movie in question, The Innocence of Muslims, portrays the prophet Muhammed as a child-molesting, adultering, homosexual thug. In doing so, it has offended many, some of whom attacked U.S. embassies in North Africa. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three members of his staff in Libya were killed in one of those incidents.

I didn’t want to watch the film, but for the purpose of writing this article, I saw it on YouTube. It’s some thirteen minutes of inept acting, bad dialogue, pathetic effects, and an absence of character development or a coherent plot.

But the protests aren’t over the fact that it’s a lousy movie. The problem that some see in it is that it depicts Muhammed as a bad person. It calls into question the origins of the Islamic religion. Is it offensive? Certainly. Is violence an acceptable response? Certainly not.

The implication of the protests is that the religion in question is too weak to survive criticism or insult. Ideas cannot be defended by violence. Those who accept ideas do have the right to defend themselves against physical harm, but offense doesn’t qualify. People have the right to live and to believe, but ideas do not.

Understand the point that I’m making there. A person has the right to be a Muslim or not, but the religion itself has no right to special protection. Ideas have to stand or fall on their own strengths and flaws. As we’ve seen time and again, nonsense gets the protection of swords and shields, but that doesn’t make it true. Good ideas are often suppressed, but that doesn’t make them false.

So what makes a religion true or false? It’s not scientific evidence or historical events, no matter what some believers may say. Religion isn’t subject to those considerations. What makes the difference is the narrative power of the religion and the meaning that it gives the lives of its participants. In terms of social utility, we can consider whether the religion makes a person better, but that goes beyond the validity of the religion itself.

I’ve seen questions asked about how a film like this could have been allowed. This comes mostly from countries that don’t respect freedom of expression. Those countries also don’t typically respect freedom of religion, either. America has extraordinary religious freedom and no official religion and a high rate of participation in religion. Those two facts are connected.

With that in mind, the right response to an offensive movie is to speak out, to make a new film, to preach, and to argue. If the religion in question has good ideas, it will survive. If not, it’s not worth fighting for in the first place.

Whose Business Is It?

The recent shooting incident in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado raises a question of basic rights. According to the reports that I’ve seen, the theater in question bars the carrying of firearms. Of course, we see how well a sign declaring a “gun-free zone” worked, but that’s another matter. I want to consider the broader point about the boundaries of rights.

Take my home as an example. It’s generally agreed that I have a large measure of a right to privacy within its walls. Under our laws, if the government wants to come in, there must be a warrant issued by a judge to allow that, minus a small number of exigent circumstances. Our government violates that all too often, but many of us recognize that to be a violation. In addition to privacy, I have the right to say who gets to come in and what my guests get to do while visiting.

But what about a business? If I own a business, how much control over the behavior of visitors do I have? A business operates in public. We’re not talking about private clubs here, so we’ll leave aside questions as to whether a golf course can bar blacks or women. The point is what rules a store that is open to the public can have.

It’s here that we need to distinguish between passive and active rights. Take the case of a woman walking into a store while wearing a hijab. She is practicing her religion in public, but that’s a passive practice. If she walks around speaking to customers about her beliefs or if she calls out a prayer, she’s moved into action.

I chose the example of Islam first precisely because it’s the one that many Americans will have difficulty with. But the same question applies to a Jewish man who wears a yarmulke.

As I said above, a public business is just that. It has to be open to everyone who comes to participate in the business. A store owner has the right to remove someone who is disrupting that business, but the passive expression of a person’s basic rights–in the examples given, the right to exercise of religion–is not a disruption.

How does this apply to the events in Aurora? The handgun that I carry concealed on my person is not a disruption to the normal activity of any business. Unless I’m in imminent danger, it won’t be visible. I don’t cross over into active expression of my right to self defense on a whim. Since I am passively exercising my right, the business has no justification in banning what I do, any more than it would have to ban a yarmulke or a hijab. The laws in some jurisdictions don’t comply with rights in this regard, and those need to be changed.

What this points to is how much freedom we each may have in public. As always, I seek the most freedom that we all can have while we’re together.