Wednesday, August 27, 2014

to-MAH-to, po-TAH-to: the distinction between Morals and Ethics

As we strive toward creating Goodness in our personal lives and the world around us, we frequently assess whether the values and actions of ourselves and others are morally and ethically sound.  Yet is there really a difference between something that is moral and ethical? In one moment I have found myself sharing my belief that capital punishment is wrong for "moral" reasons while in another I'd share my conviction that killing animals for food is wrong for "ethical" reasons.

At first blush both terms seem fairly synonymous.  The word "moral" seems to apply when a value is universally true, whereas the "ethical" label seems best used in conjunction with values aligned with professional integrity.  Still, I've generally found the semantic distinction fuzzy at best; that is, until I recently stumbled upon a discussion that presented morals and ethics more succinctly.   In short, morals are values derived from an internal source, whereas ethics are values derived from an external source.

For example, one might value having a clean bedroom.  At a moral level, one is internally driven to keep the room clean, changing linens when they begin to smell and keeping the room fairly neat according to ones aesthetic inclinations.  On the other hand, ethically one might be influenced by external forces such as culture, research and superstition to act specifically; thus, changing the linens every third day at 5:30am, piling dirty clothing in a hermetically sealed hamper with a sprinkle of baking soda, and keeping the room scented with the Better Homes and Gardens sponsored fragrance of the month.

I feel describing behaviors as moral and/or ethical according to this definition to be extremely useful.  It permits one to recognize that moral values arise from the heart, that metaphorical place which initially tells us what is Good.  On the other hand, that which is ethical can be of a higher (or misguided) standard, ideally one that arises from critical thinking permitting Goodness to be pursued more effectively with the mind's careful consideration.  Of course, people are influenced by many external sources: ones profession, family and religion, etc.  Each of which may wield ulterior motives other than the greater Good.

Importantly, I find rational ethics to hold the promise of permitting us to override our pre-programmed animalistic nature, as needed.  Certainly, we shouldn't disown the beautiful part of the human beast that evolution has crafted.  In fact, humans and humanity are continually at a tipping point, where we get to decide what is Good and to integrate our best knowledge into behaving better.

Thus, it is most possible to integrate a variety of ideas presented by a curmudgeonly Dawkins AND a biblical Jesus alongside a fictional Mary Poppins to derive a personal ethic built upon a universe-provided, albeit imperfect, moral foundation.

Journeying on a path of Goodness, therefore, boils down to evaluating the merit of internal and external ideas in our minds and hearts and then implementing them with integrity and compassion
to create the best world we can.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Spectrum: Insight into Seeing Gradations of Light

An old tradesmen's adage goes something like this: "When you add a drop of wine to a barrel of sewage you have a barrel of sewage. When you add a drop of sewage to a barrel of wine you have <dramatic pause> a barrel of sewage."

Drink up! I dare you!
On the surface, these words of wisdom speak to the secret of maintaining a quality product.  Alas, the deeper message encourages the purity of diametric opposites (sewage and wine, in this case) highlighting how human perception is often colored by two allegedly distinct states.

Pick your favorite pair: black and white; true or false, good and evil; sweet and sour; right and wrong; and yes even dead and living. Each of these allegedly binary conditions pervade our everyday conversations and internal contemplations.

In most every case (which falls in frequency somewhere closer to always than to never) these positions are statements of convenience, never quite entirely accurate; a truer assessment will pretty much always fall on a spectrum between the extremes.

For instance, let's consider dead and alive. At first blush this seems like something that must either be one or the other, and never anything else. Yet, consider these: an unfertilized ova, a person in deep coma on life support, the individual tissue cells of a plant or animal, the DNA strand on a particular chromosome, the Earth as a rocky sphere thinly coated with life, one of the estimated 2.5 million people currently caught in human trafficking, a close friend whose body has long since decomposed but whose memory lives on strongly within us, or even a beloved fictional character.  In all these cases, I would argue the assessment of being alive or dead falls somewhere between the extremes of being fully alive and fully dead.

Spectrums better express the complex reality we live in.  Complexity by definition implies that a simple, pure description will not suffice, and yet it is useful to make these succinct black and white assessments in conversation.  Which is to say, I'm not suggesting we censor such words, but instead that we realize their use should be inferred to indicate a condition state is close to an extreme point on the spectrum.

Statistical science thrives on this understanding.  When we test a claim empirically, the evidence at best will give us high confidence of something, and at worst will give us cause to dismiss the claim as extremely unlikely.  This may seem like I'm giving support for disbelief in Evolution and opening up the floodgates for the rational belief in the god or goddess of your choice, alas there is a great divide between having a 99.99% confidence that Evolution is at at work in the world and less than 0.01% confidence that the existence of said deities is true. (hypothetical confidence levels presented are my personal estimates only)

Back to that vintage glass of wine.  It most certainly contains a bit of dirt residue from your wineglass, second hand smoke particles that have landed on the surface, and billions of molecules of water that were all too recently in some creature's urinary system.  And so, when it comes each sip of minutely tainted wine, we simply ignore the trace amounts of sewage present and enjoy the joyous flavors in the moment. (to do otherwise is to subscribe to the inanity of homeopathy)

In the realm between good and evil that is our complex reality, recognizing neither end state actually exists or even could exist should not deter us, as the knowledge informs us on how we can better strive toward that positive end of the spectrum which is Goodness.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Podcast Power!

So here we are in the twenty-teens; the Interweb is increasingly an integral part of our global culture and streaming media is commonplace in bringing education, entertainment and all things quirky and questionable thru whatever media device we have at hand.  Content flows from torrents, wikis, websites and, of course, media giant sources, old and new.

Personally, when it comes to getting the latest news, entertainment or inspirational ideas to inform my pursuit of Goodness, audio podcasts have dominated the landscape for me.  These podcasts are on demand and they're perfect to listen to during your daily commute, while working out, or while relaxing wherever you are.

Today, I review briefly a few of my favorite podcasts, which you can stream for free, without commitment, regularly or on occasion as life permits.   (search for them on Stitcher, iTunes or your favorite podcast app) The links  I provide all point to the podcast's main website.

NPR Hourly News Podcast:   This is on the top of my Stitcher Favorite playlist.  In under 5 minutes NPR provides an excellent update of the biggest news in the United States and across the world.  In my opinion, NPR coverage maintains solid journalistic standards.  Augment this news brief podcast with whatever in depth coverage you like, NPR Money, World News, Environmental News, and you won't be disappointed.

The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe:  Steve Novella, neurologist and skeptic figurehead, leads his crew in reporting the latest on the pseudoscience and science fronts.  His medical credentials and communication skillset are brought to bear consistently in the discussion of topics ranging from evidence based positions on vaccines to GMO food healthiness.  The rest of his team effectively complements Steve's leadership to bring humorous, friendly, and mildly irreverent conversation in their weekly broadcast.

Food for Thought: As a fairly new vegetarian I scoured the Interweb for a podcast that could inform me on the latest topics on plant-based food nutrition and animal compassion.    Colleen Patrick Goudreau does a great job at creating a friendly tone while covering a variety of topics.  The opinions in this weekly podcast aren't always as assiduously evidence based as I'd prefer, so keep that in mind; however, the empathy and common sense suggestions she makes, are fully worth listening to and considering when building a nutritious meal plan that is also mindful of environment and our animal cousins.

The Reality Check: this weekly, Canadian podcast does a great job of researching and presenting the facts behind myths and pseudoscience topics.  Topics covered have ranged from camping myths like does it make sense to try to suck venom from a snake bite to debunking full blown conspiracy theories.  Listening to this podcast makes me feel as if I'm hanging with a few buddies over a brew as we chat up interesting things about the world and whether or not they are indeed fact, fiction, or somewhere in between.

The Best of the Left:  This podcast is the epitome of progressive podcasts out there.  Jay Tomlinson is the media guru of this show who three times weekly presents a progressive issue in depth.  His method is to stitch together numerous other talk show vignettes and sound byte moments in a meaningful way.  The aggregation of left and right positions to inform is capped off with his insights and listener calls that he adroitly defends or destroys as reason merits.

The Humanist Hour: Perhaps most aligned with my world view of seeking Goodness, the American Humanist Society's podcast offers a rounded look at building an honest ethical world view.  The heart of secular humanism lies within the idea that we can find Goodness in life more effectively by dispensing with the mythological beliefs of our forbears. Interviews and discussion of secular topics that help individuals and societies live well together comprise the regular fare on this friendly podcast.

Of course, there are plenty of other podcasts out there (Sound OpinionsCar TalkIntelligence Squared, and Star Talk are ones high on my list), Those reviewed here, I believe, effectively contribute to informing a world view that mindfully and supports taking peaceful action along toward building a better world. Check them out, let me know what you think, and by all means, share your favorite podcasts!

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Three Hardest Words to Say???

Three Words Can Be Powerful!

Communication is so integral to bringing Goodness into this world.  If H. Sapiens (certainly the most powerful species on Earth) is to successfully implement planetary, societal and personal Goodness, then we better be good at honest and effective discourse.

To this ends, over time I have encountered three 3-word phrases, that though very meaningful in their own ways, seem to prove quite difficult for people to say.  "I don't know."  
"I was wrong."  and "I love you."  Before you read the follwing commentary, I invite you to chime in on the anonymous poll on the sidebar to vote for the phrase that proves most challenging for you to say.

In my opinion, the difficulty of voicing "I was wrong," most harmfully interferes with humanity's efforts to move forward on so many fronts.  Perhaps it is difficult because saying so is self-effacing at the most foundational level.  Nothing causes more criticism (spoken and unspoken) than a reversed national position, than a waffling political leader, than a fickle colleague or friend.   So much better to say nothing than to admit fault.  If we could overcome this aversion and see the phrase for its more positive valence: that we wisely examined other options and considered all the best and current information to redefine our position, we could make such amazing progress.  Perhaps the better rhetoric to wield in this case is "I stand corrected."  Once stated, we can move forward toward a better position.

I actually find "I don't know" the easiest of the three phrases to say myself.  Perhaps, because I have caught myself (and others) saying it frequently in casual conversation as a rhetorical filler response.  I have generally countered that rhetorical phrase with the retort "Don't say might actually start believing it."  There is a heartfelt sentiment in that response; to be sure, we shouldn't chide ourselves for being ignorant of a fact, or indecisive of what activity or task we might want to accomplish next.  We certainly should be more mindful of the words we use; as such, the phrase "I don't know" can be most amazingly meaningful when wielded consciously.  The phrase is at the very heart of beginning a search for true knowledge and wisdom. Admitting up front that we don't have the information to answer a particular question confidently permits us to begin the fact finding mission, discuss ideas with others, and eventually find the best answer possible.

"I love you."  The third phrase of the trio seems quite unrelated to her two brothers.  And yes, we stereotypically associate "I love you" with an effeminate stance.  For years, I had personally held this phrase sacred, to be shared with the woman who would be my true love.  Alas, I'm not a young naif any longer, and over the years I've come to be sure I end a phone conversation with my family members with this ultimate of epithets or the more casual "luv ya," if only because that could be the last words they ever hear from me.  This phrase carries such a diverse spectrum of meanings, however, that I leave it to you as individuals to figure out where it belongs in your friendships, romances and solo meditations.  Still, it would seem a better world where that phrase gets spoken more often, or at the very least, that we let the people that we care about know it, whatever the phrase may be.

Whichever phrase you selected in the poll, I now challenge you to think a little deeper about why and perhaps consider sharing in a comment why you chose it.

Goodness to you!