The Human Condition

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The human condition defies simple analysis. The arc of our storyline includes both acceptance and defiance. We are consistently contradictory. Storefront “absolutes” fade in the sunshine of experience. Sure-things aren’t. The givens of life slip away as science, rationality, or whim take them apart. Sometimes, they reappear, refined. Sometimes they end up shelved in the great museum of human fallibility. Sometimes, we bury them in shame.

We continue to wrestle with powerful, apparently-biological urges to accumulate and reproduce. Thankfully, within our species, there are many examples of humans doing otherwise. Thus, we know that among our many capacities, we have the capacity to deny biological urges. We can say enough and mean it. We can get by with less than enough when motivated to do so. We do not always reproduce, and those who do often choose to limit the numbers of new beings they create.

But we also know that many humans dedicate their lives to unfettered reproduction and accumulation—whether that be money, homes, widgets, power, underwear, offspring, achievements, titles, friends, or enemies. It can be great fun. Some humans love to push the limits. Other humans love to watch—getting vicarious thrills from the courage, clucking their tongues at the foolishness. Some accumulations and extreme efforts appear to be harmless, but excess should always be examined and balanced. It is the rare accumulator who doesn’t need constraint. It is the rare achiever who doesn’t need the equilibrium provided by humility.

So, yes, we are complex beings, imbued with choice. Our destiny as a species appears to be dependent on the choices we make. Short-sighted greed, cruelty, and destructive accumulation are well within the repertoire of human choice. Denial has become a refined art form. Cruelty and falsehood are endorsed or tolerated in the service of far-fetched conspiracy theories, sometimes cloaked in a fetid version of a contorted God.

Suffering is suffering. Hunger is hunger. Death is death. And the earth, our home, is finite. If we had the will, we could alleviate hunger and reduce suffering. We could choose to live with more compassion, wisdom, and self-sacrifice. It is possible to set in motion systems that will heal and perhaps stabilize our little planet. But no matter what, we will die. No amount of accumulation will change that. No amount of denial.

Therefore, Dr. Bossypants offers this simple suggestion: How about we accept our mortality and plan for our deaths instead of run from them? And since we have a choice, how about we live lives filled with joy and meaning, generosity and connection? Just a suggestion. Up to you.

 

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Dr. BP: Liberal Primary Process

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Dear Conservative:

I wish we could be friends and somehow save the world together. Naturally, I think I see the world accurately, and I wish you saw it my way, but frankly, I’m not even convinced you want to save the world…or anything. Here’s how I think you see the world:

You disbelieve in climate change, or believe human activities are not contributing to it—this belief is challenged by over 90% of reputable scientists. Why would liberals try to trick us into believing pollution is bad for us? Why would they spend their lives defending nature and the planet? Unlikely to be greed. I think their motives are relatively selfless, with an eye to the future……So what are your motives and beliefs? Do you think humans can do anything they feel like doing to the planet and somehow, the planet will recover? Do you think it is more important to provide jobs now, at the risk of destroying of vast parts of the earth? It is and will be painful to dismantle the oil and coal industries, but there are viable alternatives. Someday, if we manage to not blow ourselves up, we will make this transition. Why not save the forests and oceans and atmosphere, and do it now? There will be jobs–lots of jobs–in this transition. But those accustomed to being rich and in control due to extraction and exploitation will have a bit of a jolt to endure.

You don’t like to pay taxes. You think it is better to keep “your” money and not invest in roads, health, children, education, clean air, clean water, science, food safety, police, fire fighters, feeding/sheltering needy or elderly people, and creating new jobs aimed at a better world. But you’re okay with more military and bigger prisons. Higher wages for law-makers and billionaires. Do I have this right?

You believe in trickle-down economics. Make the rich richer, and they will then make everyone rich. Have you read even the basics in the Bible about human nature? Have you observed what the rich actually do with money? Have you noticed what you do when you have a little extra money? We need laws that equalize and elevate less-advantaged people. We all long to be rich. We all want a slave or ten answering to our every whim. These are longings that need forgiveness and redemption, not legal assistance.

You tolerate or endorse racism. This is totally beyond me. It is a form of hatred and ignorance fed by the worst of our human tendencies. Fear, selfishness, and a longing to be superior.

You don’t want immigrants to come to the US. Most likely, you are of immigrant lineage. The world is in tough shape, with millions dislocated, starving, futureless. To whom much is given, much is required. We can solve global distress, not by turning our backs and hunkering down over our good fortune, but by working interactively with global needs and trends. “America first” is selfish, short-sighted, dangerous, and doomed.

You don’t like gay, lesbian, transgendered or otherwise differently-created human beings. You are more tolerant of rapists, gropers, adulterers, and liars. What in the world is wrong with you? Has a gay person ever been a threat to you? You won’t admit that human greed needs to be tempered by collective laws, but you are willing to try and legislate what consenting adults do behind closed doors? Transgendered people are no more demonic than Galileo. The world isn’t flat. The sun does not revolve around the earth. God isn’t threatened by science, and quite obviously, loves diversity.

You believe no one should have the right to end a pregnancy. You believe in forcing a woman to use her body to allow an unwanted embryo to develop into a fetus, and then a baby, and be born. This will be a human unwanted by its mother. Ask yourself, would you really want to come into the world that way? Sometimes, even the mother’s health, well-being, or life is endangered. Would you willingly hurt or kill your mother to be born? You value a potential human over an existing human? How can this possibly be? Can’t we devote ourselves, together, to making unintended pregnancies a thing of the past?

A few of you honestly believe the Bible (or other Holy Writing) underscores your beliefs. It does not. As I hope you know, biblical phrases can be distorted to justify all sorts of hatred, cruelty, and limitations. God expects better of us.

Spoiler Alert: I’m a liberal psychologist who believes in a benevolent creator. This benevolent creator and I are rooting for the human race to get kinder, wiser, less afraid, more grateful, less judgmental, and more joyful. Go, humans, go. You can choose to be less selfish, less fearful, less short-sighted. You can choose to give, share, and rejoice in human potential. When you die (and we all die), you’ll feel so much better about the time you spent working to make it a better, happier, healthier, wiser place than the time you spent hoarding your goods into bigger barns. I’m sure of it.

Ego and other possibilities

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The term “ego” is an ancient one, with Latin roots. It simply means “I” or “Self.” Its first known use in English was in the late 1700s. Psychologists love to argue about whether there actually is an “I” in the sense of predictable personality traits, or whether at any given time, our behaviors and moods are the result of ingesting food, drugs, and alcohol, exercise, responding to the expectations of others, the amount of sunlight in a given day, how much love we’ve soaked in, the amount of sleep we’ve managed to get, and maybe the cosmic forces at work on us.

Of course, a related meaning of ego has to do with our personal valuation of this “I” that may or may not define us. Sometimes, we are more certain of ourselves, our internal integrity, our worth, and our motivations than other times. And of course, for reasons still being debated, some of us vastly, vastly, vastly over-estimate our worth to the world and believe we are entitled to unlimited resources and praise. Why are some people far too humble and others sickeningly prideful?

Though Dr. Bossypants is not Buddhist, she believes Buddhists possess significant wisdom. As she understands it, the Buddhists believe that this “ego” or sense of separate individuality gets in our way of recognizing how artificial the boundaries between apparent “individuals” are. If we had less attachment to ego, we could more clearly see the unity, the connection, the oneness of all the pieces and parts of ourselves and our fellow beings, our earth, our galaxy, and even the time-space continuum.

It is indeed jarring to consider ourselves as one with all living beings, because this would include our current leadership, those aspiring to leadership, our alcoholic uncle, and even terrorists who blow themselves and others to smithereens. Most of us consider it creepy or stupid to seek even a tiny corner of common ground with these fellow human beings who act so abhorrently.

At this juncture, Dr. Bossypants must confess she is about to make claims that can’t be fully substantiated. But as far as it can be studied, it does not appear that the infliction of pain, hatred, deprivation, or even death is effective in changing human behavior for the better. Oh yes, we can change human behavior with such actions, but the change is, at best, temporary compliance, with enhanced motivation for later revenge.

It requires intelligence, tenacity, self-control, creativity, and great strength of character to find common ground with people we refer to as evil. These same attributes, plus wisely-used resources, are necessary to contain, reroute, and/or defeat the spread of destructive behavior. Research suggests that violence begets violence. Dr. Bossypants readily admits that this totally sucks because revenge feels good whereas the application of containment and compassion are tedious, slow, and even dangerous (in the short run).

But the real, long-term dangers are far worse: Ever-deadlier weapons, shriveled empathy, us/them dehumanizing rationalizations, bigger prisons, less education, hungry, abused, or unwanted children, and the increasingly shrill declarations of US FIRST. It just doesn’t work that way, dear readers. The ways we treat each other—including every single “other”—are the building blocks of the future. Just as violence will engender more violence, ultimately, kindness will bring forth more kindness. Humans appear to be uniquely able to make corrective choices. Dr. Bossypants is rooting for us all. With courage, we can choose some better paths.

Bossiness on Healthcare

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A roving reporter chanced upon Dr. Bossypants and did a quick interview for our edification.

Q:        For our listening audience, could you tell us by what authority does Dr. Bossypants issue her edicts?

A:       Yes. Here is an abbreviated list:

  • Some people like her.
  • She has a two masters degrees and a doctorate from an accredited institution of higher learning.
  • She was a professor for 24 years, and had the good sense to retire in a timely way.
  • She’s stayed alive and in shape for many decades, produced lovely children, marrying only twice, with the second attempt lasting over thirty years and counting.
  • She has faced a deadly disease.
  • She grows a fine garden and eats healthy food.
  • She thinks she knows what’s best, but she tries to be reasonable.
  • And, as mentioned above, some people like her.

Q:        What does Dr. Bossypants have for us to consider today?

A:        The topic for today, dear readers, is greed, government, and healthcare.

Q:        Well then, hmmm. What does Dr. Bossypants have to say about these important topics?

A:        Listen up, people. Dr. Bossypants has been a keen observer of human nature for many years. Humans are greedy. We don’t have to be, but most of us are. And corporations (posing as people, or not) are greedier. We all need some limits.

If you think, for one minute, that medical insurance companies have the health of those they cover at heart, you’re a fool. Admittedly, government is a clumsy expression of the common good. It functions only insofar as those comprising the “common” take responsibility and stay involved. Yes, Medicaid and Medicare are fraught with fraud and tomfoolery. All human institutions suffer from such. But the profit-motive in healthcare needs to be removed or minimized.

And yes, as humans, we will err. It’s better to err on the side of the collective good than on the side of making the rich richer. Eventually, things get top-heavy and dynasties topple. Dr. Bossypants hastens to assure everyone that toppling is something to avoid. Middle-class is a good, good thing. Trust us on this, dear reader.

Q:        So Dr. Bossypants thinks a single-payer medical system is the way to go?

A:        Basically, yes. Dr. Bossypants is not an economist, but she suspects in the long run, Medicare for all will cost less in taxes than random and inadequate emergency care provided to the poor and uninsured.

It is to a society’s advantage to attend to the health of its citizens. Healthy people are smarter people. They work more. They take better care of their offspring. They are happier. Of course, there are limits to what should be provided, but we can figure that out.

Q:        Where would Dr. Bossypants draw that line?

A:        Cosmetic surgeries that are for appearance only. People need to pay for their own hair implants or facelifts. Also, we need to pull back from excessive medical testing, when whatever the results are, we can’t fix it anyway. These are a couple that come to mind. Dr. Bossypants has a tiny modicum of faith in the collective wisdom of ethically-minded professionals who can develop these difficult guidelines. But the basics of health care should be provided collectively, by all of us, paying taxes. Period. First things first.

Q:        What are “first things,” Dr. B?

A:        Full availability of primary care, nutritional education, preventative care, emergency services, life-saving surgeries and treatments, every possible form of birth control, sex education, (K through graduate school), abortion for those who do not wish to bear a child, fantastic prenatal and postnatal care for all who do wish to bear a child, basic dental care, basic mental health care, and support and education for those who choose to smoke or are obese, to name a few. But I would defer to the collective wisdom of an appointed team—a team absolutely and completely stripped of any chance to benefit monetarily from the decisions the team needs to make.

Q:        My, you’re judgmental and a bit nasty.

A:        Indeed. And hopelessly optimistic. We can do this, people. We can. We do it fairly well for soldiers and those imprisoned, and my yes, for those in congress. We CAN do it for the rest of us.

Cue, here, the maniacal laughter necessary for such situations.

 

Ethics. Bioethics. Health Care. Oh My.

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Being human, we’re accustomed to eating contradictions for breakfast. Even if we eat little else. We intend to behave quite a bit better than we usually do, and we squabble over what it means to be moral, or to live a good, fulfilling, worthy life.

Even if we agree on a moral rule, or make a law, we might observe the rule or obey the law for radically different reasons, or break the law for reasons we believe to be moral. Yes, indeed, dear readers. Dr. Bossypants knows it’s difficult to sort this all out, even though she has tried mightily to blog about morality and ethics in a most intriguing and approachable manner. Now, we have one more lens through which we might view moral decision-making, and then a bit of a summary, so those of you determined to put these ethical thoughts into ethical actions might do so. Right away. Please.

In the late 1970s, bioethics became a recognized specialty as hospitals and healthcare providers grappled with ethical decision-making in the increasingly contentious, conflicted, expensive world of healthcare.

Tom Beauchamp and James Childress identified four  guiding principles in the first edition of their influential book Principles of Biomedical Ethics:

  • Autonomy (Human beings should have authority over decisions affecting their health and well-being.)
  • Beneficence (Decisions should be made on the basis of doing good and being of help to others.)
  • Nonmaleficence (People should strive to do no unjustified harm.)
  • Justice (All people should be treated equally and benefits and burdens should be distributed fairly.)

Principles don’t offer concrete answers, but provide a framework to begin the hard work of ethical decision-making in the face of competing needs and limited resources.

Robert Bellah said “Cultures are dramatic conversations about things that matter to their participants.”

Listen, dear readers. Right now, we are engaged in a monumental conversation in our culture. We’re talking health care. Is it a basic human right? If so, how much health care should we make available in a world of apparently limited resources? Who should profit in the provision of health care, and how much profit is justified? Who should pay, and how should that duty be distributed?

Should we provide abortions to those who do not wish to be pregnant? Should we provide viagra to those who wish to have a pharmaceutically-assisted erection? Should we provide a means by which someone suffering, or near death, could choose to die with medical assistance? Oh, the inflammatory and politically-loaded questions just go on and on. They require deep thought. They require wisdom. These matters are seething with ethical quandaries.

Kant reminds us we should never treat people as a means to an end, nor deny anyone rights we would wish for ourselves.

John Stuart Mill reminds us we should choose paths, practices, and laws that insure the greatest possible good (health) for the greatest number.

Aristotle urges us to find the golden mean, the balancing point between excesses. And to be generous, courageous, and prudent.

Feminists remind us of the huge, destructive problems that arise when power is used to abuse others, to deny basic rights, and to enrich the already-rich.

Those who practice relationship-inclusive ethics remind us that we must always consider the direct impact of our actions–and our goal should be to take the most compassionate action possible.

The bioethicists offer us principles to consider, though admittedly these principles might actually conflict with each other sometimes.

We do not live in a perfect world. It is our job to make it better, not to give up in anger or despair. The ability to reason, converse, and find common ground is a human attribute we should treasure. Courage, dear ones. Be good people.

The Feminist Critique

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As faithful readers of Dr. Bossypant’s blogs, you may not realize how much restraint she has used writing about the moral/ethical information she has posted thus far. Regardless of the disparate views on ethics and morality summarized to this point, most originally shared a glaring omission. With the exception of the writings of John Stuart Mill, females were ignored, maligned, or “feminine virtue” was defined as women performing well in assigned positions of less influence and authority than their male counterparts. Aristotle believed that females were defective males, and punishment for doing badly as a man might be to come back as a female next time.

Taking his cue from Aristotle, St. Thomas of Aquinas wrote that in women, “reason flourishes very little because of the imperfect nature of their body.”  Freud believed that women lacked superego development, and were therefore morally inferior. Oh, sadly, there’s no shortage of such examples from religious and philosophical writings. For thousands of years with few exceptions, it has been morally permissible, or morally encouraged, to view and treat women as second-class, adjunct, inferior, and/or subjugated to men. As they say these days, Oh.My.God. What a load of hierarchical, wrong-headed bunk.

The truth is, since humans have been scratching ideas out on cave walls, women have been writing moral philosophy and psychology, often from a starting point very different from their male colleagues. But unless you take a course in the history of feminist ethics, the brilliant voices of these philosophers: Sappho, Hypatia, Hildegard, Heloise, Wollstonecraft, Harriet Taylor Mill, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman (to name but a few) are likely unfamiliar to you.

Of course, the current versions of the main ethical positions we’ve gone over in previous blogs have become, at least on the surface, gender-neutral. All humans are supposedly included. Further, feminist theorists and ethicists increasingly have a voice in the critique and evolution of moral philosophy.  And arising from Carol Gilligan’s pioneering research and thinking, feminists have added yet another lens through which we can explore and pursue moral lives. We’ll cover that one in the next blog, but for now, let’s consider…

The Feminist Critique

Over thirteen years ago, Harriet Woods wrote:

It is true that we still are far from fully represented in decision-making bodies and that politics remain a male game; but that’s no excuse for failing to use the power we have to make this a more livable world.

Dr. Bossypants is very disappointed to report that we still have a great deal of work to do to make this a more livable world.

In a word, the feminist critique of most traditional theories of morality is power.  Margaret Urban Walker wrote, “The most obvious way feminist ethics and politics connect morality and power is in examining the morality of specific distributions and exercises of power.”

The moral use of power is a complicated endeavor. This may come as a shock to you, but we don’t tend to select leaders based on their overall moral fiber. In an ideal world, those entrusted with power would be the more virtuous among us, and thereby freer from corruption, bias, and self-serving practices. The reality with which most of us are familiar is quite the opposite. The more power someone has to influence others and the social order, the more susceptible they become to misuse of the power.

Access to shared power is a global moral issue. In Beijing, at the UN Conference for women in 1995, Madeleine Albright stated, “Enter any community in any country, and you will find women insisting—often at great risk—on their right to an equal voice and equal access to the levers of power.” Still true. Still tragically costly. Holy ****, so very, very costly. Ok. Calm down, Dr. Bossypants. Social change take a very long time, requiring enormous sacrifice, enduring many regressions and backlashes….

So, dear reader, what is your experience with and attitude toward power? Have you seen individuals wield power in mostly positive ways or mostly negative ways? The need for power (or recognition or achievement) is a natural human need. Is it possible that racism, sexism, and all the other “isms” originate in the fear of loss of power? What is it like for you when you have power over others? What do you think is necessary so that power does not have a corrupting effect on people?

At this point in our “his” story, the earth is screaming for some answers and some new ways of being. We owe it to our species to get this figured out a bit better.

Ethics requiring heart and head

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Most of us know darn well that we have to make some tough decisions sometimes. Do we lie to save someone’s pride? Do we give the bum some money? Do we take just a tiny bit more than our share when no one is looking? Do we vote in ways that make OUR lives easier, but other lives much, much harder?

Back in 1966, Joseph Fletcher wrote a book called Situation Ethics. He wrote that the highest moral act in a given situation is based on love for everyone involved. Okay, it WAS the 60s, and yes, it sounds flaky, but it’s not. His use of the word love most closely approximates the definition of the Greek word, agape, which means selfless concern and compassion for all humankind.

The basic question is this:  Given all that I know about moral rules, and given the unique demands of this situation, what is the most selfless, compassionate, loving thing to do? Fletcher believed that there was a loving action available in every situation. He rejected both legalistic approaches, rooted in law and tradition and lawlessness (antinomianism), which may offer freedom and creativity, but has no foundation or basis for justifying one’s actions.  He wrote, “Our obligation is relative to the situation; but obligation in the situation is absolute.”

Fletcher noted that moralistic or legalistic people comfort themselves by “playing by the rules,” paying attention to the finest details of the letter of the law while hypocritically pursuing their own interests or ignoring the bigger picture—similar to Kant’s doing one’s duty for the appearance of it. You all know you can obey rules and laws that can lead to terrible, cruel outcomes. Fletcher insisted that we are smart enough to include the particulars of any situation. Authentic morality will sometimes demand that we break the rules, in the name of the only universal law—the law of love.

This may sound mushy–an easy way out. Au contraire, dear reader. Here’s what you need to do to be moral: explain how your action was the truest, most moral, and most loving action available, regardless of the rules, or our own needs or desires. This explanation will likely be a modern-day hybrid of Mill, Kant, and Aristotle (proudly featured in earlier blogs). Rather than let you off the hook, the situation ethics orientation may be the most demanding of all.

And then, there’s John Rawls to consider.

John Rawls, (1921-2002), proposed a method that free and rational persons could use to establish a just society. His ideas provide another way of thinking about Kant’s categorical imperative. What Rawls proposed we consider our laws and social customs from behind a veil of ignorance–in other words–we imagine ourselves absolutely ignorant of our own race, gender, age, disability, intelligence, strength, national origins and so on.

Rawls imagined that if free and rational people could be temporarily separated from all the attributes that made them unique, and see the world from behind this “veil of ignorance,” they would create a just society.  Think about it.  If you didn’t know your sex, race, financial status, size, sexual orientation, family situation, talents, and so on, and you were asked to make rules about how people should treat each other and get along, you would have no motives other than fairness for all.

Of course, it’s not possible to see the world through the veil of ignorance. However, the image provides another way to try and remove our self-interests in the pursuit of a just society.

Absolutes are hard to define, and even at their best, absolute moral rules are messier and more complicated than their definitions might suggest. Rigid adherence to set of “true all the time, true no matter what” kinds of rules can lead to questionable stances of moral superiority or narrow-mindedness.

Although it might be nice if we were all perfectly and completely humble, such is not the case. When do you suffer from moral superiority syndrome? Which groups get your secret or overt scorn? Smokers? Health fanatics? Welfare queens? The filthy rich? Republicans, Democrats, environmentalists, ranchers?  Of course, Dr. Bossypants is not suggesting that you must be equally accepting of everyone in the world. However, she is suggesting that you be aware of your occasional lapses of intolerance, and she urges you to get out there, using your best moral compass to lead us onward. As Michelle Obama said, “When they go low, we go high.” It is definitely the narrower path, but the views are spectacular.