Mark Hanson Commentary: “Affirming Our Humanity”

The news is saturated with violence and our responses to it: the Boston bombings, school shootings, and the everyday violence around the world we take little notice of. We see the worst of what humanity is capable, and often in response, the best. The display of compassion for the Boston victims is inspirational. But is it also possible that we could be inspired to seek a less violent world? For the tragedy in violence lies not just with the victims, but also in the seeds that give rise to it and the vengeance that it drives.

Perhaps the place to start is recognizing that the fear violence generates becomes the enemy of one of the most important tasks we have, ethically, as human beings, which is not to deny the very humanity of those we fear. Doing so puts morality itself at risk. And it is not only among the first victims of violence, it is also among its primary causes.

A most egregious example of this was lost among last week’s headlines, namely, the findings of a nonpartisan, independent review of U.S. interrogation and detention policies since the 9/11 attacks. The review, conducted by the Constitution Project, concludes that “it is indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture” and that responsibility for the practice went to the nation’s top officials. Prisoners were subjected to techniques that the United States in the past has prosecuted as international war crimes. The prohibition of torture, and foundation of human rights, is rooted in the affirmation of the moral status of every human being, no matter who they are. This is a core principle of Western civilization.

The Obama administration has shown no interest in prosecuting those responsible. And despite a laudable change in policy that now prohibits torture, the president’s noble goal of closing the military prison at Guantanamo Bay within the first hundred days of his first term has still not been met. On April 14th, the New York Times published a letter from a Guantanamo prisoner who has been held there for eleven years with no trial and no charges. He is being force fed along with several others, a practice the report calls abuse.

The knee-jerk reaction of some people after the Boston bombings was to call for the suspects to be tried as enemy combatants, moves that would deny rights of American citizens. Some congressmen called for restrictions on immigration. Even worse, New York State Senator Greg Ball, claiming to speak on behalf of many Americans, called for the surviving Boston bombing suspect to be tortured. How easy it becomes.

Affirming the humanity of an enemy in no way defends or justifies what they do. It does not sympathize with their causes or absolve them of responsibility. Nothing can justify the Boston bombings, or the 9/11 attacks. Outrage and calls for justice are appropriate and understandable responses, and I share them. But as ethical human beings, the hard thing to do is not to allow anything to prompt us to deny any person their humanity, however hard it is to find, because it is that commitment which keeps us wedded to the most central tenets of human rights. And, just as important, it may lessen the level of violence to which our world has escalated.

Violence relies on the denial of the humanity of the other. War is facilitated through this denial. It is easier to kill those people who don’t belong to your group.

Nonviolence, on the other hand, relies on affirming humanity. As Clemson University professor Todd May writes, “In all but the most extreme cases, nonviolence summons us to recognize that humanity even when it cannot serve as the basis for negotiation or resolution. It demands that we who act do so with a firm gaze upon the face of the other. It demands the acknowledgment that we are all fragile beings, nexuses of hope and fear, children of some mother and perhaps parents to others: that is, no more and no less than fellow human beings in a world fraught with imponderables.”

Granted, strategies of nonviolence will not likely stop extremists such as the Boston bombers. But the important point is that we don’t allow even extreme cases to erode our most fundamental moral sensibilities, central to how we treat all those to whom we have ethical obligations, of various kinds. As professor May writes: “Those who come to our shores, whatever our policy toward them, must be seen as human beings seeking to stitch together a decent life rather than as mere parasites upon our riches. Those who are unhealthy must be seen as more than drains upon our taxes but instead as peers that, but for good fortune, might have been us.”

The fear generated by violence cannot be allowed to win. The perpetrators of awful violence ignored the humanity of their victims. As we seek justice and a less violent world, we must take care not to repeat their most grievous offense.

Mark Hanson is a guest commentator for the Mansfield Program in Ethics and Public Affairs at the University of Montana.

Mark Hanson Commentary: “The Day After (the Election)”

So the election is over, and the results known. Americans have endured a political process that testifies at once to the wonderful virtue of citizen involvement, as well as to the moral cesspool of lies, undue influence by the wealthy, and the raw pursuit of power over principle that ill fits a great nation.

Now we await what comes next. Will our elected representatives realize that our problems are too great to allow another four years of foiling the president at every turn? Will we let them? Or is time to come home to greater values?

One of the lights in the shadows of the worst of American politics shone again in the waning weeks of this election, only to be extinguished too soon. Recalling the life of George McGovern reminds us that optimism about our country is warranted if we can boldly reclaim the values that can make us great.

Mr. McGovern was inspired to enter politics by Adlai Stevenson’s speech at the 1952 Democratic convention in which he said his concern was not just winning the election but how it would be won. He wanted his campaign not to eliminate the opposing party, but to be an opportunity to “educate and elevate a people.”

Over his political career, McGovern was labeled a liberal, a badge he wore proudly and defended to the end. Whatever the label has come to mean, to him it conveyed a belief in progress, in the goodness of humanity, and in freedom for the individual. It is possible, he thought, to build a better society, to use our collective power through government toward that end, motivated above all by compassion for others.

These convictions were clearly at the heart of his life and political career, illustrated most clearly by his opposition to unjust wars and by his commitment to feeding the hungry. His visit to Vietnam in 1965 showed him the human cost of an unjust war. He wrote, “My anguish over our continuing involvement in that faraway country was the driving force of my public career.”

After coaching John F. Kennedy to tell a South Dakota audience that farmers can do more for the cause of peace in the world than any other group, Kennedy put him in charge of his Food for Peace program. McGovern then established the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs. He worked with Republican Bob Dole to sponsor the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program, as well as the International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program. With roughly 44 million Americans now “food insecure,” and with nearly 1 billion people going hungry worldwide, he reminded us that it is “unconscionable to let one single person suffer over food.” Today’s petty political feuds are small potatoes, he says, compared to the problem of feeding our global citizens.

McGovern’s era in government was one where politicians often worked together, even as friends. He writes that he attended Pat Nixon’s funeral and explained his presence with his former political enemy to a reporter by saying, “you can’t keep campaigning forever.”

But we’ve become a nation in which perpetual campaigns often replace governing, where fear runs deep, where lying is accepted in politics, and where some of us seek to deny, rather than work with those of different political philosophies. In the wake of this election, we should heed McGovern’s call in 1972, in his words, to come home, “from secrecy and deception . . . from military spending so wasteful that it weakens our nation . . . from the entrenchment of special privileges in tax favoritism . . . to the affirmation that we have a dream . . . to the conviction that we can move our country forward.”

McGovern once said, “You know, sometimes, when they say you’re ahead of your time, it’s just a polite way of saying you have a real bad sense of timing.” Well, his timing seems to be bad, once again, because we could use him now more than ever. Would that we had a political process that educated and elevated us, rather than saturated our cynicism. Would that we had more political leaders willing to work together and put voters first. Would that we had more leaders driven by compassion and repelled by war and poverty.

Whatever you might think of George McGovern’s political philosophy, on this day after the election we can do worse than to heed the final words of the last book he wrote: “This is the time to step out and to step up. This is the time to heal our nation’s rifts and to deliver on her promise as we see it: a republic that is good to all. It is not for nothing that I will go to my grave believing that this is the greatest country on earth.”

He did. Now it is time for us to prove him right.

Mark Hanson is a guest commentator for the Mansfield Program in Ethics and Public Affairs at the University of Montana.

Mark Hanson Commentary: “Voting Intuitions”

One question you’re less likely to be asked during this election season is, How are you deciding whom to vote for? We like to think we make the choices we do because we have good reasons. We’re rational creatures after all, aren’t we?

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues, however, that when it comes to ethics and politics, reason actually takes a backseat to intuitions—our gut feelings. First we intuitively “see that” something is true or right; then we use reason to argue why. The role of intuition in our judgment is even more obvious when we simply believe something without even knowing why.

Our experience would seem to confirm this. Have you ever tried to change the mind of someone on the other end of the political spectrum by offering reasons? Such efforts may even be counter-productive, causing people to cling to their beliefs even more fervently despite the evidence.

For example, if you’re a Republican, and I offered you evidence that public debt as a share of GDP and wealth inequality grow faster under recent Republican administrations than under Democratic ones—which is, in fact, true—would you likely change your view that Republicans are the more fiscally responsible party?

Political campaigns, in fact, rely upon our failure to reason. They see people change their views based on ads distorting the truth, depicting opponents in black and white images with contorted faces, and uttering phrases taken out of context. It’s silly, it’s dishonest, but it works.

Haidt’s view on the primacy of intuition over reason is not entirely new, but his work does add evidence to support it. This is troublesome to those of us who like to think that the best way to achieve solutions to problems lies in people reasoning together about hard facts and moral values.

Haidt does not believe, however, that reason is irrelevant. The way to create change, he argues, is by calming the passions and fostering conditions within communities whereby people can make more effective appeals to intuitions and reasons. Such communities would be supportive of good thinking and compromise, and would shame hyperpartisanship and inflexibility. To quote Haidt: “Reasons matter, but only at the right time, when countervailing intuitions have been turned off.” [end quote]

If Haidt is correct, how might we think about our intuitions in relation to how we will vote this November? Rather than examine intuitions issue by issue, I would take Haidt’s cue and start with our overall approach to politics. First, we should acknowledge that ethical and political choices almost always involve trade-offs. We want jobs and wealth, for example, but at what cost? At the expense of the environment, public health, or our sense of fairness? What’s your intuition about which candidate or party is more likely to find more reasonable balances between such competing interests?

Second, we need a government that actually functions to solve complex problems in a diverse society. So I would emphasize Haidt’s own conclusion about what is necessary for reason to find a place in solving our problems more productively. Whether we want a bigger or smaller government, most of us recognize that we need government to accomplish certain things we can’t do ourselves and to guarantee individual rights. But if government is to work in a society that, like it or not, has citizens with diverse intuitions on big issues, what does your intuition tell you about what kind of candidate to vote for—one who favors working together, or one who opposes compromise? Which candidate or party is more likely to foster a community that talks together about intuitions and reasons, rather than cultivating division and hyper-partisanship?

Finally, what is your intuition on whether things like evidence, reason, and truth-telling should have any role at all in politics? If you don’t like the fact that such things are increasingly scarce, which candidate is more likely to support those values?

My intuition tells me that a society that abandons respect for truth is in trouble, and any political system that gives it up fosters the kind of cynicism we’ve seen grow with each passing election. Reality matters. And sooner or later, intuitions confront it.

So as you make your decision this election, here’s a final plug for reason to accompany your intuitions. Offering reasons for our decisions remains a central responsibility for us as moral human beings. Intuitions can too easily reflect dangerous prejudices. They are the all-too-easy refuge for those who simply don’t take the time from busy lives and technological distractions actually to think, examine evidence, and test their views. Relying only on intuitions, which may be misguided, is irresponsible.

So look at your intuitions. Then examine them in the light of evidence. What do your intuitions, and the facts, say about who and which candidates are likely to lead us in a better direction? We’re rational creatures after all, aren’t we?

Mark Hanson is a guest commentator for the Mansfield Program in Ethics and Public Affairs at the University of Montana.

Mark Hanson Commentary: “Manufacturing Life”

“For the first time, God has competition.” In this dramatic statement, the editors of the prestigious journal Nature were referring to rapid advancements in the field of synthetic biology—a discipline that combines the tools of chemistry, molecular biology, engineering, and computer science to construct genetic material that can be used to create or modify organisms, such as bacteria. These engineered organisms can be then used potentially to solve some of the biggest problems we face.

The editors, however, seemed to have overlooked how humanity has, metaphorically, been competing with God since Adam and Eve first ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This act symbolically depicted the ongoing human effort to transgress our boundaries, however ill-defined, and almost always with punishing results.

The pioneer in synthetic biology is a maverick scientist and entrepreneur named Craig Venter. He dreams of using artificial genetic material, or DNA, to create organisms that could produce automotive fuel, consume carbon-dioxide and toxic pollution, produce medicines, and transform agriculture. Synthetic biologists are not short on ambition. Venter is now reportedly on the cusp of revealing the first custom-made organism made from artificial DNA.

In 2010 President Obama directed his bioethics commission to examine the issue. Its conclusions offered a fairly predictable range of recommendations, voicing a blend of caution and optimism, calling for risk-analysis and control, oversight, democratic decision-making, and ongoing dialogue and ethical deliberation—in short, predictable guidelines for how to develop and implement a technology, but without much recognition of deeper concerns about how we think about ourselves and our relation to nature.

The commission has been criticized for minimizing environmental risks, such as the escape of modified organisms into existing ecosystems. Any Montanan familiar with knapweed understands the difficulties caused by invasive species. In addition, the commercialization of synthetic biology poses potentially catastrophic risks for use in bioterrorism and warfare. Yet, synthetic biology has already shown promise in producing treatments for malaria and may provide powerful tools for solving problems like climate change—challenges that we seem politically otherwise incapable of solving.

So what should we do about synthetic biology? Humanity has not been very successful in limiting the pursuit of technologies, even those whose potential for evil matches their potential for good. In light of this, the commission’s recommendations may be the best we can do from a policy perspective: manage the risks, and hope for the best. But that doesn’t mean that is all we should do. We might begin by noting two important ironies.

The first is that the drive to master nature and live apart from it—represented so powerfully by synthetic biology—is primarily responsible for creating the problems synthetic biology is now trying to solve. In other words, synthetic biology relies on the very conception of the human-nature relationship that is partially responsible for literally killing off much of the planet. We may ultimately conclude that in certain cases, we can employ the technology prudently—mostly because we may have little alternative to save ourselves. Yet, we should also realize that our survival on this planet must come ultimately from a turn toward an ethic based on finding our proper place within nature, rather than above it. If we don’t get that right, nothing else will matter.

The second irony of synthetic biology is that it perpetuates a god-like ambition while actually reducing humanity to the level of essentially digital information. “We are 100 percent DNA software systems,” Venter proclaimed. If his view of life predominates, then life can simply be re-programmed to do whatever we desire, and life, paradoxically, becomes a machine.

Finally, we should recognize history’s lesson that the grander the ambition, the greater the need for caution. Nobel prize winning scientist Hermann J. Muller suggested in 1946 that [quote] “Man is a megalomaniac among animals . . . if he sees some grand process like evolution and thinks it would be at all possible for him to be in on that game, he would irreverently have to have his whack at that too.” [end quote] Sixty-two years later, Craig Venter’s collaborator Hamilton Smith remarked that “Evolution is very messy,” to which Venter quipped, “We’re trying to clean it up.”

Synthetic biology takes the tradition of humanity’s dominion over life to a level far beyond the story of Genesis. When Craig Venter recently brought a bacterium with synthetic DNA to life, he and his colleagues actually wrote their names into the organism’s DNA, along with—tellingly—an unstated quote from Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb.

The story of our efforts to be god-like is a long one. If we are to avoid history’s pattern of punishment for arrogance, we will not only need to be vigilant in our ethical responsibilities, but also mindful to change the ways of thinking that have been, and continue to be, catastrophic for our world and for ourselves.

Mark Hanson is a guest commentator for the Mansfield Program in Ethics and Public Affairs at the University of Montana.

Mark Hanson Commentary: “Denying Depravity”

Given the magnitude of the problems facing our country, it is no wonder that people cast their votes on behalf of hope the last two elections. We seem to need an antidote to despair. But we may also need to recognize that the politics of hope cannot succeed without taking account of those aspects of human nature that got us into this mess to begin with.

It is striking in this regard, then, to consider visions by progressives and conservatives for getting the country on track. James Gustave Speth, author of the forthcoming book America the Possible, sets forth a vision in which Americans shift values from consumerism to prioritizing relationships, from seeing humanity as separate from nature to seeing it apart of nature, from discounting the future in favor of taking the long view, from individualism to a powerful sense of community, and so on. He argues for a unified progressive community mobilizing to institute these values, as well as the social and political reforms that follow from them. The society he envisions abounds with jobs, equality, security, environmental sustainability, citizen-based democracy, and widespread prosperity. Speth bursts with optimism: [quote] “This recitation seems idealistic today, but the truth is we know how to do these things.” [end quote]

The conservative vision seems to boil down to this: If you want hope, get government out of the way. Less government and fewer regulations equal greater freedom for individuals and markets, and this clears everything up. Let families and religions handle moral education, and let people stand or fall on their own. Virtually unregulated corporations and small businesses will pony up the jobs to give us prosperity and drive down the debt. The market will take care of our needs and protect us from our ills.

While both visions tap into a fundamental human optimism about our capacities to create positive social change, they fall short on accounting for the greed, lust for power, and self-satisfaction that has created the world we live in now and medicated us into passivity and acquiescence.

But if these visions deny human nature, Derrick Jensen, in his essay “Democracy of Destruction,” gives it to us in spades. Jensen argues that we continually make choices that privilege our own comforts with little regard for their destructive consequences. For example, people choose rechargeable batteries in electronic devices despite the fact that they’re made from resources that finance wars and atrocities leading to the deaths of millions in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Jensen believes that most people don’t even acknowledge they’re making such choices, which seem more like economic imperatives. Further, he concludes [quote] “It’s hard to make people care about something they receive tangible benefits from not caring about. This destructive democracy we share is a democracy where most people vote . . . with and for entitlements. . . . It is a democracy of, by, and for those who benefit from the wholesale destruction of the planet.” [end quote]

Perhaps it’s not as simple as that. But Jensen challenges us to look in the mirror and ask whether what is reflected there gives us any reason to believe that the progressive or conservative visions of hope make adequate concession to the darker side of human nature—those traits that led our nation’s founders to believe that a government of checks and balances was necessary to counter the selfishness of the people, both in and out of power. Drawing the implications of our human nature for government seems out of fashion. As columnist David Brooks notes, [quote] “Leaders today do not believe it is their job to restrain popular will. Their job is to flatter and satisfy it.” [end quote] Voters, meanwhile, largely demand entitlements for themselves, but not for others, without sacrifice.

So just at the time when we’re experiencing the devastating results on a planetary scale of human greed and passivity, we’re being offered visions that pretend such faults don’t exist, while we tolerate a kind of government that is no longer enabled to check our selfish impulses. Conservatives seem to want government to enable greed, rather than check it. Progressives want government to transform society without acknowledging our failures to care.

So when a political candidate offers you empty slogans such as less government, more jobs, tell them it’s not so simple. If they tell you they can give you what you want without asking anything from you, tell them that’s where our problems came from. Brooks is right: Only a reformed government built on restraining our worst impulses will offer us a way out. Only a government that is enabled to foster our best impulses can offer us real hope. As you vote in the upcoming primaries, fill in the oval for the candidate who at least offers the best chance to give us the government we need, if not always the government we want.

Mark Hanson is a guest commentator for the Mansfield Program in Ethics and Public Affairs at the University of Montana.

Mark Hanson Commentary: “What Do We Do Now?”

It was heartening to see the variety of recent Earth Day activities that mark our annual recognition of the planet.  But even as this tradition has grown since 1970, a creeping sense of doom also greets each passing year.  We’re moving passed the tipping point to stave off worse case scenarios for climate change, carbon emissions are higher than ever, unsustainable consumption continues unabated, and the list goes on.

And so it is with little surprise that readers of Orion magazine should find an essay such as that published by long-time environmental activist Paul Kingsnorth, who declared simply, “I withdraw.  I withdraw from the campaigning and the marching. … I am going to go out walking.”

Kingsnorth’s essay is prompting an important conversation among those who care about the earth, perhaps because he’s uttering a hypothesis that few really want to hear—namely, that our civilization is crumbling and bringing our planet down with it.  He suggests that all that remains to do is to get out and connect with the few wild places that endure, and to get ready for what comes after what we now call civilization.  Is he right?

Together with collaborator Dougald Hine, Kingsnorth founded the Dark Mountain Project.  In the project’s manifesto, they write that we “imagined ourselves isolated from the source of our existence. The fallout from this imaginative error is all around us: a quarter of the world’s mammals are threatened with imminent extinction; an acre and a half of rainforest is felled every second; 75% of the world’s fish stocks are on the verge of collapse; humanity consumes 25% more of the world’s natural ‘products’ than the Earth can replace — a figure predicted to rise to 80% by mid-century. . . . And over it all looms runaway climate change.”

For Kingsnorth, there can be no political solution because our political and economic systems are driven by the falsehood that all this can be changed by mere tinkering with the system while still promoting endless expansion.  In the meantime, we push a notion of sustainability that, in his words, means “sustaining human civilization at the comfort level that the world’s rich people — us — feel is their right, without destroying the ‘natural capital’ or the ‘resource base’ that is needed to do so.”

So what do we do now, especially if Kingsnorth is right?  What if our well-intentioned efforts are ultimately rooted in a delusion?  Do we just walk away, maybe with an occasional Earth Day clean-up thrown in to ameliorate episodic guilt?

Perhaps it will take a more catastrophic collapse to bring about the kinds of changes necessary to save us—and the rest of the planet—from ourselves.  But even if such is inevitable, I also believe we cannot walk away from our moral responsibility at least to go down swinging.  Our fate, after all, is not an all or nothing matter.  Real human and ecosystem suffering can be minimized if we continue to work as if we could succeed.  We can, for example, work to elect better rather than worse political leaders; we can fight the growing corporate domination of government; and we can encourage among ourselves new experiments in living, such as depending primarily on local agriculture.  We can listen to what indigenous peoples could teach us about traditions of living in kinship with nature.  We could even follow through on the promises we make to ourselves actually to change fundamentally the way we live, even if doing so doesn’t save the world.  Moral duties do not dissolve, merely because the failure of others to fulfill them entails a bad outcome.  Even better, we might just prove Kingsnorth to be wrong.

But even if things are really as dire as he suggests, we still need to foster the imagination, ideas, and leadership that must emerge when environmental realities force themselves on us and we are left to rethink what it means to live as human beings in relationship to the earth.  Errors of imagination can only be corrected with imagination.

If Kingsnorth is wrong about withdrawing from our work as activists, he is right that we should at least just get up and walk:  walk away from the self-deception that continues to convince us that sustainability can be achieved without more fundamental changes to our politics, our economy, and our ways of life.  But more than that:  walk literally into a wilder world, where our hearts and minds will find the most fertile ground for reimagining our connection to the earth.  There we may also discover that sense of place we will need to take whatever other steps we can manage in the struggle ahead.

Mark Hanson is a guest commentator for the Mansfield Program in Ethics and Public Affairs at the University of Montana.