We love to talk about the lessons of history in this group. Searching our website I count half a dozen meetings on the “lessons of” some particular historical event. We have had meetings on judging the successes and failures of various U.S. presidents, and we discussed which were the best and worst ones. (I think we may have to update the Worst list pretty soon.) We even spent an evening asking “how will future historians judge us.” I always enjoy these meetings.
Monday’s topic is about historical judgment, too. But, it is a little more challenging, I think. By asking us which moral standards we should be using to render historical judgments, the topic asks us to judge ourselves as well as the past. It compels us to make explicit the moral values that always lie behind our historical judgments, even if they usually are left unspoken. History only has lessons (and heroes and villains) if we supply the moral metric.
Also, there’s a sub-field of philosophy that wrestles with issues like what history is, to what uses it can be put, and how the present colors our perceptions of the past. It’s called the “philosophy of history.” I believe. I will try to learn a little bit about the field’s basic concepts and use it on Monday to guide our discussion. I think the true art of the meeting will be if we can learn to think about this stuff in different ways.
I will also make a short list of historically-controversial people and events and ask the group about them as needed (e.g.; Jefferson, the Confederacy, Truman/Hiroshima, Malcolm X, etc.).
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Our 2011 meeting on how will future historians judge us and last year’s mtg on Thomas Jefferson’s legacy..
- Should we condemn our ancestors’ moral failures?
- The problem of “presentism.” Recommended.
- Useful perspectives:
- The past is so distant to us that it is hard to imagine what people were like – or should be expected to have been like. Fascinating.
- Ask yourself this: How might our descendants judge us? Recommended.
- Conservative POV: Howard Zinn and other leftists distort history to teach moral lessons, leading to bad history.
NEXT WEEK: Jewishness – Faith, ethnicity, culture, or nationality?
It’s a particularly apt time for us to discuss the moral justifications for war. Monday is Memorial Day, sure, and for several years we have been agonizing over whether there is a moral imperative to intervene in Syria’s civil war and/or use U.S. ground troops to destroy ISIS.
But, several recent developments sweeten the pot for us. Today (Friday) President Obama visited Hiroshima, and he offered no apology for the atomic bombs. Just last month the Catholic Church decided to formally abandon (wow) its long-standing Catholic Just War Doctrine after a 3-day meeting convened by Pope Francis. That doctrine lays out the conditions under which a war may be started and conducted and still be moral. Francis is said to be working on a new encyclical on war and violence which will bring doctrine “closer to Christ’s teachings.” And, of course, on any given day Donald Trump tells cheering crowds that he would revive torture, murder terrorists’ families, and just annihilate all of our enemies without regard to the moral costs to innocents or to us.
The exact details in Just War Theory are, I figure, up to Catholics to decide for themselves. But, I thought the Just War Doctrine would serve as a nice stepping off point to explore the moral justifications of war more generally because the moral questions the Doctrine seeks to answer are the same ones we wrestle with any time we contemplate use of military force. As was noted when we debated the causes of modern wars last year, armed conflict in the 21st century is evolving in some important ways. I ask you: Do the moral justifications for war need to evolve with it, to better reflect a new century of stateless terrorist networks, hybrid revolutionary-terrorist-criminal group like ISIS, failed states, cyber attacks, and drones?
Below are some readings on Just War philosophy and these emerging issues in war and morality. I’ll see you all on Memorial Day evening. A new topic list for June – September will be available.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- Catholics: What is Catholic Just War Doctrine? What moral questions does it address and when does it say war can be a moral act?
- Laws: How do the international Laws of War and U.S. law permit wars to be started and fought?
- Presidents: How did Presidents Obama and George W. Bush do so? How different? What is Hillary’s/Trump’s POV?
- Public: Do Americans agree on the moral justifications for waging and conducting wars and their aftermaths? Do conservatives and progressives really disagree much? Why do they cheer Trump’s bloodthirsty remarks?
- You: When do you think war is justified? Self defense only? Defend our allies? Preemptive and preventive war? Stop nuclear proliferation. Humanitarian intervention? What’s fair in drone use, cyber defense/offense, Gitmo, torture, etc.
- 21st century: Do political changes (like terror networks and failed states) and technological developments (like cyber warfare and drones) change the moral calculus / moral limits on war?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
Just War Theory basics:
- An expert explains it in 2012 at NYT: Part 1 and Part Two. Recommended
Or, see this 2015 Wash Post explainer: One. Recommended.
- Much more detail on just war philosophy, if you want it.
Obama and just wars:
- Obama’s POV on when war is morally justified. Recommended.
- The Obama Doctrine: An amazingly candid (but optional very long) interview with Obama 3/16 at Atlantic Monthly.
- Are the international Laws of War under siege or gaining ground? Recommended.
- ISIS and just war theory.
- Is drone warfare moral warfare? Read the one you disagree with.
Next Week: Are there better ways to police the police?
Breaking the law in order to highlight its injustice (one, but not the only, definition of civil disobedience) is all around us these days. In our crowded media environment, many individual acts or organized campaigns of civil disobedience don’t break through to the mass media. But, some that did in a big way are:
- Black Lives Matter;
- Occupy Wall Street;
- Protestors disrupting Donald Trump rallies;
- Cliven Bundy, et. al., facing down authorities in Nevada and Oregon to protest federal govt land policies;
- Local government officials (like Kim Davis in Kentucky) refusing to sign same sex marriage licenses;
- Edward Snowden leaking classified information on NSA eavesdropping programs.
Some of thee efforts involved many legal as well as illegal acts, of course, and some have achieved a lot more than just publicity. Black Lives Matter has had a major impact on the Democratic presidential primary and renewed efforts to reform policing. (We will discuss police reform and oversight on June 8.) The anti-Trump protestors have influenced the Republican presidential primary process, just maybe not in the way they intended. Others either fizzled out (Bundy) or just need more time to grow support (Snowden, perhaps).
The perpetrators of all of these illegal acts done for a higher purpose routinely cite as their inspirations famous civil disobedience actions of the past by abolitionists, civil and women’s rights activists, etc. As the author of one recent book on the subject puts it, civil disobedience is an American Tradition.
Now, I believe we may be entering a new era of political activism. Why is a subject for another days – many, actually. But I see this new era as arising from widespread public discontent with our political system and parties, income stagnation, and rapid demographic and cultural change. I think civil disobedience will play a heightened role in our politics because of the Internet and social media. Even if I’m wrong, the recent big protest movements cited above are well worth a meeting.
My idea here is for us to see if we can identify some universal principles on when civil disobedience might be morally and politically justifiable. We’ll look to our own values and our current political and social environment, sure. But we also can use our history, others’ histories (e.g., from Gandhi all the way to terrorism!), religion, and philosophy. The latter two have been arguing about when civil disobedience is and is not justified for generations. There are many interesting questions we can pose. For example…
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- DEFINITION: What is “civil disobedience [CD]?” How does it differ from passive resistance or non-cooperation?
a. Must CD be non-violent? What is non-violence, anyway?
b. When does CD become something else, like insurrection?
- CURRENT: What major CD movements/acts are occurring right now?
a. How have they been justified by their perpetrators?
b. Are they helping or hindering budding political movements?
- PAST: Are there any major lessons from U.S. history on when civil disobedience is justified? Do all Americans agree on them?
a. Has it all depended on the object of the disobedience; i.e., on the morality of the goal? What else has mattered?
b. Has CD ever worked by itself, unattached to a big political movement?
- RELIGION and PHILOSOPHY: What do they say about civil disobedience? When is it justified and within what limits?
- LAW/GOVT/YOU/ME: Should the law treat acts of civil disobedience differently from ordinary law-breaking?
a. What about when there is no democracy or no way to redress grievances?
b. Is CD ever morally or religiously required?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
Movements involving civil disobedience [CD]:
- Black Lives Matter has hugely influenced the Democratic Party. Recommended.
- Mass arrests of anti-Citizens United protestors happened just last week at the U.S. capitol building.
- Bundy stand-offs: What were they all about?
- Other recent conservative uses of civil disobedience. Recommended.
- MLK’s Letter from a Birmingham jail, 1963. Highly recommended because notice how he justifies taking direct action.
- Still, civil disobedience involves many thorny issues. Recommended.
- Civil disobedience in philosophy. A hard read from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Problem with + limits to civil disobedience:
- The public usually sides against law-breakers, per the “Bigger Asshole” axiom. Recommended
- Targeted vs. untargeted civil disobedience.
- Crowds are disinhibiting and riots lead to backlashes.
Building grass roots political movements
Next Week: Thomas Jefferson and His Legacy. Jim Z. will guide us!
We have another, excellent learn-from-Bruce meeting this week. Our resident neurologist will lecture on what science knows about the human consciousness. How close is science to knowing whether our self-awareness/sentience is an epiphenomenon of the physical structures and functioning of our brains? Is there any room left for an incorporeal, human consciousness, either divinely-created or in some other way non-physical?
To most of us secular types, the answer is clear: Anything we don’t know about the human mind we someday will know. Everything that exists in our consciousness has a physical analog, evolving naturally. Evolution invented us and then we invented “us.” Many religious people seethe at this POV, considering it arrogant and, at most, unprovable. Hopefully, Bruce can help us seculars better understand what it is we’re so damned sure about.
I – whoever and whatever that is – am really looking forward to this one. Below are a few inks of general interest googled by me. I will add in any readings Bruce suggests later this weekend.
There is a small chance I won’t be there again. But, again, not for lack of interest.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Theories of how the brain works.
- The “hard problem” of consciousness.
- Higher order theories of consciousness.
- Optogenetics: Controlling the brain with light (5- minute video).
- A problem: Are the results of neuroscientific studies unreliable?
- Behavioral neuroscience (Wiki explains what it is).
From me (they just seemed a little easier)
Next Week: Nuclear Negotiating with Iran.
I’ve been wanting to talk about the Sermon on the Mount for a while. No matter what your religious views, this sermon by Jesus as chronicled in Matthew 5-7 arguably is the most influential ever recorded utterance by a human being. I think it’s commonplace to say that the Sermon on the Mount is the core statement of Christian values and Jesus’ main guidance to Christians on how to live and act. I feel that our group’s discussions of religion are always at arm’s length. We focus on historical and structural factors that influence the action of religious people, but never on their actual avowed beliefs. So, this should be interesting.
But, very hard. They’ve been debating what Jesus meant in his sermons for 2,000 years, obviously. Even the simple, straightforward language of the Sermon on the Mount gets complicated in the interpreting. Opinions differ even on who Jesus’s advice was meant for, much less what he meant. It will help us to know a bit about the historical context of Jesus’ ministry and when and how and by whom the Gospels were written. But, no one “knows” for sure what Jesus meant in every respect, of course. Differences in interpreters’ denomination and faiths lead to different interpretations, too.
What could we ever add to all that? I propose we all start by reading the Sermon on the Mount. It is not long and I’ll bet some of us never have red it or haven’t in years. Beyond that, I’ve found a little bit on the historical context of the Jesus movement and the world he lived in. And, I’m going to skim through a book I once red on the subject, What Jesus Meant, by the Catholic historian Gary Wills. (See links for a review of it).
- What is the Sermon on the Mount? Who wrote it (in Matthew) and what’s in it? How sure are we that it is faithful to what Jesus said?
- Context: How does knowing the historical context of the Sermon help us to understand what was meant; e.g., the Jewishness of both Jesus and his audience, conditions in ancient Israel, etc.?
- Was it meant to be taken literally, or does it use figures of speech?
- Was it presenting a minimum requirement, or a picture of perfection?
- Were its commands timeless, or for a specific period?
- Did it extend the Law of Moses, or entirely replace it?
- Was it for everyone, or only a chosen group?
- Politics: Is there a political message? Was Jesus a political revolutionary, or is that inaccurate?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Wikipedia entry briefly explains Sermon on the Mount’s basic content, historical context, and schools of thought on what it all means.
- Full text: Read one.
- The much shorter Sermon on the Plain, from Luke. The “social gospel” believers are very big on this one.
- We know very little about the historical Jesus.
- A few commentaries I found, FWIW:
- The importance of the “Jewishness” of the Sermon on the Mount and of Jesus’ challenge to Judaism. (A Jesuit site) Recommended.
- Via Lace: A pastor she loves has a series of podcasts on the meaning of the Sermon on the Mount. Some good history and context in, for example, this one and this one..
- Book I read, What Jesus Meant: Reviewed at Slate and by the NYT. NYT piece recommended.
- Political uses: President Obama has invoked the Sermon on the Mount as a statement of progressive values.
Next Week: What Is Intelligence?
Carl and Jim Z. wanted to lead a meeting on this most basic of Western dilemmas: Can religion and science be reconciled? They will kick us off with a short introduction on the topic. Here are some links via Carl, plus a few of my own.
Links – Via Carl
- “The Fundamentals” – a statement of 20th century fundamentalist Christian precepts.
- Major court cases re: The teaching of creationism versus evolution.
- One case of particular importance, Edwards v. Aguillard from 1987.
- Via David:
- Science and religion ARE compatible. Or, No, they are not.
- Only 28% of high school biology teachers consistently follow national scientific guidelines when explaining the evidence for evolution and the ways in which it is a unifying theme in all of biology.
- Is belief in evolution in America now more a partisan than a religious divide?
Next Week – A biggie: What is “Constitutional Conservatism?”
just a short intro post from me this week. But, that doesn’t mean Monday’s topic is not…well, the topic of everything. How do we determine which facts are true? What is a fact, anyway? And, who gets to say?
This one is Dean’s idea. Dean has advanced degrees in philosophy, so I’m looking forward to his take on “epistemology.” the study of how we determine what is true and what is not. In our discussion, we can apply the principles to politics, religion, or anything we want. Given that large percentages of Americans believe in some pretty weird things, and that our country seems to be dividing into warring camps of conservative/liberal, religious/non, and so, forth, I think it will be a pretty lively debate.
- What is epistemology? Far more detail here, from the on-line Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
- Knowledge in an Internet age:
- Are we just wired to believe whatever we want to believe, and what does that mean for our democracy in the Internet age? Recommended.
- IMO, the greatest epistemological advance in modern times: Stephen Colbert’s Truthiness.
Next Week – Are Americans becoming too dependent on government (a major, major, conservative belief!)