Fake News: Cancer

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Fake news is a primary food source for societal cancer. Cancer is not like an injury or a nasty bacterial invasion. Cancer cells are our own cells, gone rogue. As the saying goes, “We have met the enemy, and it is us.”

Cancer cells engage in two eerily familiar and maladaptive behaviors:

1) They replicate themselves over and over, failing to diversify.

2) They’re “immortal.”  They don’t a natural lifecycle and die when they should.

This is quite reminiscent of humankind—not at its finest, but at its most common, fearful, lazy, and arrogant. First, let’s consider diversity. Failure to appreciate and welcome diversity is deadly. If we could interview cancer cells and ask why they clone themselves rather than allowing the natural variations of creation to define the body, their noses would elevate and they would assure us they are superior.

When diversity is obviously nature’s way to a healthy, robust planet, why are humans so resistant?

Some argue it’s in our genes to prefer and protect those we’re related to, or those who look (and think) like us. Maybe, but ultimately, at the global level, this is not adaptive. Too much inbreeding isn’t good. Nonetheless, humans tend to divide into groups of us and them. The inner circle, the outer darkness, the ones who get it and the ones who don’t. The familiar and the foreign. The Self and the Other. It’s a pain to tolerate difference, and it’s comforting to have someone or something to blame for almost everything. Fake news helps us latch onto “the other” and have someone to hate.

And why are humans hateful, greedy, and aggressive? For most of us, way down deep, it is fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of being cheated, fear of humiliation, fear of being alone. Many things in life frighten us, but ultimately, most fears can be traced to fear of death, the final unknown. Humans are notoriously unwilling to welcome aging and death thoughtfully and graciously.

Here’s where cancer’s other maladaptive attribute comes into play. Cancer cells don’t die a natural death. Of course, things come to an end when they’ve killed their host.

How is this related to Fake News? Denial of our ultimate fate (the decline and death of our bodies) makes us nervous and gullible. We want to distract ourselves, find a phony savior, and project our difficult emotions out on trumped up “enemies.” When we are busy fervently hating someone, we don’t have time to face or deal with life’s ultimate truths. Fake News is hateful, cathartic, simplistic, and seductive. The same hateful falsehoods stay alive indefinitely because we won’t examine them and let them go.

Humans would be far less susceptible to the cancer of fake news if we welcomed diversity and recognized that our hatred and greed is driven by fear. We’d be less willing to lie, or be lied to, if we nurtured our natural curiosity and life-affirming compassion instead of hunkering down over whatever possessions or hollow self-worth we’ve managed to hoard in this short but wonderful life.

Here’s Dr. Bossypants’s gentle advice.  Let go, you tight-fisted, gullible, lying scaredy-cats. Love a stranger. Hell, love an enemy. Go for broke. Be fantastically mortal… Or stay hateful, small, and frightened. Your choice.

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Fake News: Moral Incontinence

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As a psychologist interested in ethics, Dr. Bossypants spends many hours contemplating the human condition. Lately, she’s been fascinated with the facile ascent of fake news and the apparent gullibility and complicity of humans in this phenomenon. Here is the first of perhaps many speculations.

From time immemorial, humans have needed each other to survive. Even rugged individualists and extreme preppers benefit from the collective creativity of the human species. And generally, we don’t want to hang out with just any old Jane Doe or Joe Blow. We seek people who more or less value and agree with us. Usually, outliers start suspecting there’s something wrong with them, and soon enough, there will be. Completely isolated people suffer, and most break down over time.

Within the context of community, humans have a lot of other needs. For example, there are needs for power and control, prestige, order, safety, excitement, love, nourishment, offspring, humor, and attention. There are needs to contribute positively to society, and needs to protect yourself and those you love. This is not an exhaustive list. Some argue that these needs can all be traced back to the urge nature imbedded in us to propagate our genes. Maybe. But like many of our basic animal urges, we must refine, redirect, balance, and sometimes overcome these urges with consciousness, compassion, courage, reason, and love. Nature has no problem with animals dropping their pants and pooping wherever and whenever this natural and necessary need strikes, but I’m a big fan of outhouses and collective expressions of self-control in this domain. The taming of fire as an evolutionary step forward is rivaled in importance by the invention of the diaper. Indoor plumbing came much later, but again, an impressive leap for humankind.

Fake news is tempting for many reasons. As we’ve noted, humans like to feel like they belong. They hang with their homies, even in the face of evidence that their homies might be bad dudes. And humans greatly enjoy being right. Most parents have noticed that the shorter, less mature among us will argue well past the point of absurdity to hold on to a false belief that benefits them. For instance, the possibility of global warming is quite inconvenient. Therefore, the easy route is to simply deny it.

Fake news is generated for financial and political reasons. Fake news is certainly not our best attempt to explain the world or keep ourselves informed. Mature, moral humans can distinguish between fact and propaganda, between rumors and explanations. We have the means and the abilities, but we often lack the will.

So here’s one possible conclusion Dr. Bossypants endorses: Fake news is successful because of moral incontinence. Yes–giving into the temptation to cut corners and indulge in what Freud might have called leakage of the Id.

Aristotle believed humans were prone to moral incontinence when it came to money or self-aggrandizing. And of course, anger. Think about it: When you let yourself get crazy angry, you might say or do things you aren’t proud of later. Similarly, when we let ourselves want to be right at all costs, we gobble up bot-driven absurdities to bolster our beliefs. Sadly, the more frequently and loudly lies are repeated, the more likely they are to be believed. It’s Groupthink on steroids. Generating, promoting, and sharing highly suspicious “facts” in order to reassure our inward little self, be popular, or sell ads is the equivalent of taking a moral dump in a crowded room.

Diaper-up, people. These compelling human needs (to belong, be right, be rich, etc.) set us up for trouble when paired with immaturity and laziness. Sure, it’s thrilling to contribute to massive conspiracy theories. It’s easier to believe than check the facts. It’s also easier to fear, cheer, and jeer than reason, research, and admit being wrong. But easier isn’t better. In fact, sometimes it’s a public health hazard, and pretty much always, it stinks. Of course, there will be people willing to tell you it doesn’t, but trust me on this one folks, it reeks.

 

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.

Ethical Commandments

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Fans of Dr. Bossypants may remember that she blogged about ethics for a while before turning to trauma. Clever of her, because she firmly believes the infliction of trauma on others is unethical, so all her blogs are still relevant! And faithful readers also know she believes that trauma damages babies, children, and all people severely. Such damage may result in these same people then inflicting trauma on others later in life, perhaps not even realizing it as such. It is a vicious, potentially deadly cycle.

Philosopher Bernard Gert (1934-2011) created a list of ten moral commandments. Here they are:

  1. Do not kill other human beings.
  2. Do not cause unnecessary pain (this lets surgeons and dentists off the ethical hook).
  3. Do not disable another human being.
  4. Do not deprive another human being of freedom.
  5. Do not deprive another human being of pleasure.
  6. Do not deceive others.
  7. Keep your promises to others.
  8. Do not cheat.
  9. Obey the law.
  10. Do your duties—those required by social relationships, your job, your commitments, and so on.

Gert realized that there may be times when you are certain the deeply moral thing to do is to break one of the commandments. If so, he believed that you should only break it if you’d be willing to allow everyone else, in all times and in all places, to break the same commandment in the same situation.

It seems obvious that killing, hurting, disabling, or depriving people of freedom or pleasure causes some level of trauma in the hurt, disabled or deprived one. Being lied to and cheated isn’t much fun, and in some situations, can also be traumatic. And of course, at the social level, our culture would fall apart if everyone broke the law all the time, and/or failed to do their personal and civic duties. We’d have a broken culture.

But beyond this set of rather obvious conclusions, Dr. B would like readers to ponder another set of costs. We can easily see the cost of such actions on those acted against, or on society at large. But what are the costs of crossing those lines to the actor? The cost of breaking those profoundly basic moral edicts? The killer, the torturer, the liar, the cheat, the dictator–why are they willing or able to cross those lines, and what does it do to their psychological condition?

Dr. B believes in the long run, the actor is diminished in the process of acting unethically. But it is, perhaps, a habit-forming brutal cycle with enough shallow rewards to keep the unethical actor repeating the harmful actions.

Is there a way for society to help cheaters, liars, law-breakers, or brutal people to see the costs to themselves? Is there a way to peel back the “rewards” and help humans see that ill-gotten gains are ultimately malignant? Or could we at least stop tolerating or admiring such actions? Probably not, but Dr. Bossypants is going on record, with the wise Bernard Gert, as saying that killing, hurting, disabling, depriving, lying, cheating, breaking the law, and failing to do your basic duties—these are all unethical, psychological corrosive actions harming the victims, our community, and most likely harming the perpetrators as well.

Thank you for any thoughts you may wish to post. Also, someday soon, Dr. Bossypants promises to write something upbeat. And because of Number 7 above, you can bank on it.

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.

Ethics of Care

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Dr. Bossypants wrote much of this blog some years ago. Clearly, it has not changed the course of history yet. But onward, dear readers. Ever onward. Western ethical theories have been said to be driven by concern for individual rights, rather than informed by the intricacies of human relationships. Originally dubbed “feminist ethics,” the addition of a relationally-oriented moral viewpoint was ushered into Western view primarily by the work of Carol Gilligan. Gilligan worked with Lawrence Kohlberg, famous for his hypothesized six stages of moral development. Subjects in Kohlberg’s research had most often been boys.

In early studies that included girls, Kohlberg and associates found that girls were scoring statistically lower than boys in terms of moral development on their measures. This intrigued Carol Gilligan, and thus her groundbreaking research began. She and her research team conducted interviews with young women to better understand the moral substance of their reasoning and choices. She reported this research in her bestselling book, In a different voice.  Although her work opened new avenues in ethical reasoning and research, ironically, the original assumption of a difference between boys and girls, like many such assumptions, turned out to be false! Males and females attend to justice concerns at roughly equal levels in most research projects. Further, more current research shows that all adults make moral choices inconsistently, depending on the dilemma, and each person’s social and personal goals in that moment.

Care ethics argues that moral decision-making should directly include concern for others and their well-being. Emotions of love, compassion, and empathy motivate us toward the care of others, thereby enhancing the relationships around us, and Dr. Bossypants would argue, the general condition of humankind. Those who advocate care ethics draw sharp distinctions between care reasoning and the approach reflected in Kohlberg’s work, called justice reasoning.  Propensities toward one or the other orientation were initially purported to fall along gender lines, but in fact, males can be morally guided by concern for relationships and the welfare of others, and females by concepts of justice.

Joan Tronto  wrote, “Care itself is not gendered.  Care is a species activity that includes everything we do to maintain, continue, and repair our world, so that we can live in it as well as possible.”

Care ethics place relationship in the center of the moral vision. Ecofeminist theorist, Karen Warren, stated:

If we dare to care, if we dare to enter into community with others through an honest recognition of our commonalities and differences, we will be poised to create generally respectful, nonviolent, care-based, intentional communities where commonalities and differences are just that . . . Such intentional communities are a creative alternative to violence-prone communities where order is imposed from outside through unjustified domination.

Western philosophical orientations are generally far more individualistic than Asian, African, and American Indian orientations.  Dr. Bossypants is worried that Western dominant culture is continuing on paths toward greater individualism, isolation, and commodified, single-purpose relationships, rather than communally-oriented and traditional, complex relationships.  Writer Jeremy Rifkin reflects on the moral power of traditional communities:

Membership in traditional communities also brings with it restraints on personal action.  Obligations to others take precedence over personal whims, and security flows from being embedded in a larger social organism. Commodified relationships, on the other hand, are instrumental in nature.  The only glue that holds them together is the transaction price.

Care ethics offers a moral alternative to an over-emphasis on individual notions of fairness and justice. It is centered both on immediate relationships and on the tapestry of relationships that extends to people of other races, creeds, and nations–and further, to all living things.

To understand how the tension between responsibilities and rights sustains the dialectic of human development is to see the integrity of two disparate modes of experience that are in the end connected.

While an ethic of justice proceeds from the premise of equality—that everyone should be treated the same, an ethic of care rests on the premise of nonviolence—that no one’s rights should be trampled, no one should be hurt. In the morally mature adult, both perspectives converge in the realization that just as inequality adversely affects both parties in an unequal relationship, acts of violence harm everyone involved. Mercy and justice are not mutually exclusive, people. We can do this. We can.

 

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.