2018-02-22

Thelma and the Existential Dreads

Love and Desire, part 3

Thelma, age 70, declares herself “hopelessly, tragically in love.” But it doesn’t look like love to her psychiatrist, Dr. Irvin Yalom -- or, if it is, it is “monstrously out of balance – it contained no pleasure at all, her life wholly a torment.”

Eight years before, Thelma had had, she said, “a love affair” of 27 days. The affair had been with Thelma’s former therapist – so, that’s problematic. The former therapist, Matthew, knowing the relationship was wrong, broke it off after the 27 days that Thelma describes as the most blissful of her life.

Since then, for eight years, Thelma has obsessed about Matthew – she hardly thinks of anything else. She re-lives over and over every memory from their time together. “My life is being lived eight years ago,” she says.

Yalom reflects:
“Her love obsession was powerful and tenacious, having dominated eight years of her life. Still, the roots of the obsession seemed extraordinarily friable. A little effort, a little ingenuity should suffice to yank the whole weed out. And then? Underneath obsession, what would I find? Would I discover the brutal facts of human experience that the enchantment concealed? Then I might really learn something about the function of love....So far it was apparent that Thelma’s love for Matthew was, in reality, something else – perhaps an escape, a shield against aging and isolation. There was little of Matthew in it, nor – if love is a caring, giving, need-free relationship – much love.”
Yalom goes on to note that
“a love obsession drains life of its reality, obliterating new experience, both good and bad.”
For Thelma, however,
“the obsession contained infinitely more vitality than her lived experience.”
How is Thelma to be understood in terms of the four existential dreads:

Aloneness: During the 27 days of the affair, aloneness had dissolved into merger and fusion. Thelma described it as
“an out-of-the-body experience....I had no weight. It was as though I wasn’t there, or at least the part of me that hurts and pulls me down. I just stopped thinking and worrying about me. I became a we.”
But in the eight years since the affair ended, the obsession has only painfully exacerbated her feeling of being alone.

Meaninglessness: the obsession gives her life a twisted sort of meaning while cutting her off from all other avenues of meaning.

Responsibility for one’s freedom: this is the one that Yalom comes to believe Thelma is most terrified of. Thelma has surrendered her power to Matthew
“in an effort to deny her own freedom and her responsibility for the constitution of her own life....It is extraordinarily hard, even terrifying, to own the insight that you and only you construct your own life design.”
Thelma’s psychic strategy is to accept the price of aloneness and highly attenuated meaning in order to escape the terror of responsibility for herself.

The remaining existential dread, death, is also playing a key role, Yalom thinks:
“I felt strongly that Thelma’s fear of aging and death fueled her obsession. One of the reasons she wanted to merge in love, and be obliterated by it, was to escape the terror of facing obliteration by death."
This synopsis of Thelma's case affords a glimpse into some of the complications of this business of being human.

Last week I said, Pay attention. Notice. We will be able to attend just so far as we care, so far as we love – love this life, love this world, love each other our fellow travelers. We need a lot of help to do that. We need friends, and sometimes counselors, who can help us notice – notice the very things we most hide from ourselves. We’d rather hide from ourselves our dread of death, of freedom, of aloneness, of meaninglessness. But those are the very things to which we most need to pay attention if we are to emerge at last into a way of being that truly loves this life, loves this world, and loves our fellow travelers. Attention to these dreads also takes us into the paradoxes of a full life of fullest love.

Dwelling continuously on death, we come to genuinely apprehend the wonder and miracle of this brief life.

Grasping that we are responsible and blameworthy for everything, we learn to stop constructing self-blame as a shield against responsibilities right here and now.

Beholding the ineradicability of our aloneness, we open more and more to others.

Falling willingly into the abyss of absence of permanent meaning, we are able to create ever-evolving, ever-richer temporary meanings.

Expressing passions even as we let go of passions, we regard every day as both Valentine’s Day and the beginning of Lent. Celebrating resurrection of life and hope and salvation while seeing it as all a giant practical joke, we find that every day is both Easter and April Fool's Day.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "Love and Desire"
See also
Part 1: The Wobbly Middle Path of Love
Part 2: Falling in Love? Or Standing in Love?

2018-02-20

Falling in Love? Or Standing in Love?

Love and Desire, part 2

Too much aloneness destroys a person. At the other end, not enough aloneness can dissolve us. This happens when the need for connection drives us to become so connected that individuality is lost. Autonomy dissolves and personal boundaries become permeable and unclear.

One form of this is called enmeshment. In enmeshed families, one person’s emotions become the whole family’s emotions – one member’s anxiety or depression is taken on by other family members. A couple over-involved in each other’s lives can become like one person, rather than a relationship of two distinct people. This isn’t loving too much – rather, it’s a misdirection of the drive which could have been steered into love, but instead was steered into something unhealthy.

Another misdirection of the drive for love is obsession. Technical enmeshment takes a while to form, but an obsession can arise quite quickly. What we call “falling in love” has a certain obsessiveness to it – and that’s OK as kickstarter for a relationship. At the beginning stage of a romantic relationship, it feels ecstatic: we are awash in a truly intoxicating cocktail of neurotransmitters, like dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin – hormones, like testosterone, and estrogen – pheromones, and natural amphetamines like phenylethylamine. Our love object appears to us to embody all our hopes and dreams, fulfill our every need. That’s one delusion.

Another delusion is that this will never end. But that level of production of those chemicals is not sustainable. Usually in about six months to a year those hormones, pheromones, amphetamines and neurotransmitters begin to ebb. If the relationship continues it becomes more settled, sustained by a trust that grew strong enough to withstand the subsiding of the initial obsessive, delusive euphoria. This kind of temporary obsession can be a nice place to visit, but you can’t live there.

Irvin Yalom says that “therapy and a state of love-merger are incompatible” because the fusion of this stage eliminates the self-awareness necessary to make progress in therapy. He writes:
“Beware the powerful exclusive attachment to another. It is not, as people sometimes think, evidence of the purity of the love. Such encapsulated, exclusive love – feeding on itself, neither giving to nor caring about others – is destined to cave in on itself. Love is not just a passion spark between two people. There is infinite difference between falling in love and standing in love. Rather, love is a way of being, a ‘giving to,’ not a ‘falling for’ – a mode of relating at large, not an act limited to a single person.” (Love's Executioner)
Standing in love is that middle path I was talking about. On the aloneness scale, our individuality occupies the middle ground between on the one hand being isolated, and on the on the other hand being dissolved into the other – merged, fused, enmeshed.

On the meaning scale, we inhabit a world between on the one hand the meaninglessness in which nothing matters, nothing is important, and, on the other hand the meaninglessness of having no choice because everything is dictated. We stand in a context of meaning and values that gives us purpose and direction – yet also leaves us free to creatively engage with what we value. It isn’t love itself that goes awry, but our attempt to get to love -- to steer those middle paths between too much aloneness and not enough, between an absence of meaning and overly rigid meaning -- can go off track.

None of us is perfectly balanced. We are, at best, wobbly tight-rope walkers – now leaning too far one way, then over-correcting and leaning to far the other way. Back and forth, we wobble our way through life – and that’s how it must be, for only by wobbling too far on one side can we learn that that isn’t balanced, and begin to feel the need to correct.

Dr. Yalom’s patients show us some significant derailings. The fortunate among us are spared from the extremes his case studies illustrate, but all of us wrestle with the same imbalances in some form. There is something of ourselves to recognize in each of his case studies. Yalom’s patients also illustrate ways that the other two existential dreads – death (of ourselves and of loved ones), and responsibility for our freedom – are always in the mix as we wobble along.

Take Thelma, for example . . . NEXT: The Case of Thelma

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This is part 2 of 3 of "Love and Desire"
See also
Part 1: The Wobbly Middle Path of Love
Part 3: Thelma and the Existential Dreads

2018-02-16

The Wobbly Middle Path of Love

Love and Desire, part 1

Our annual celebration of romantic love, Valentine's Day, is on February 14 -- which, this year, is also the beginning of Lent. So: Paradox. Valentine’s Day is, we might say, about indulging certain passions, and Lent is about giving up certain passions, so, if you observe those annual events, you might want to give some forethought as to how you’re going to negotiate that.

By the way, years in which Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day are co-incident, which happens on average about every 30 years, are also years in which Easter and April Fools Day are on the same day – so I’m warning you now that you might want to be on the look-out for pranks involving eggs. Or those yellow marshmallow chicks.

Where was I? Oh, yes: Love. In last week’s last thrilling episode, we were looking at whether it’s true that “all you need is love.” Particularly, when it comes to being a good and moral person, is love all you need? I said that when deciding what to do, we take in the details of the situation, the reasons present in the case. When those details – the reasons present in the case -- are seen in the light of love, including love for ourselves, then we are guided to respond in compassion and care. We heard from philosopher Jonathan Dancy urging: "Look again, as hard as one can, at the reasons present in the case." That is: Pay attention. Notice. And I said: We will be able to attend just so far as we care, so far as we love – love this life, love this world, love each other, our fellow travelers.

Today, I’m here to add: it can get complicated. I will resist saying that love goes awry. But it's certainly true that our need and desire to love and to be loved can lead us into territory that isn’t love. I’m going to draw here on some work by the psychotherapist Irvin Yalom. Adam Kent (Music Director and CUUC) and I were discussing that the theme for February would be love, and it was he who suggested Yalom’s book, Love’s Executioner.

In the Prologue Yalom lays out the four existential dreads: death, responsibility for our freedom, aloneness and meaninglessness:
“I have found that four givens are particularly relevant to psychotherapy: the inevitability of death of each of us and for those we love; the freedom to make our lives as we will; our ultimate aloneness; and, finally, the absence of any obvious meaning or sense to life.”
Love – relationships of care and intimacy – at their best, pull us out of our aloneness and into a context of meaning – the meaning that relationship affords our lives. So I’m going to focus first on aloneness and meaning – and toward the end indicate how the dreads of death and freedom also get into the mix.

What’s best – healthiest and most vital – when it comes to aloneness and meaninglessness -- is a middle ground: not isolated and cut-off, but also not so dissolved in others that we lose our individuality. For meaning, we need value and purpose that guide what we do, but not so much guidance that everything is dictated, that we lose the freedom of creative engagement. We need room for surprise, and for growth, as we dynamically work out how to embody our values and purposes.

Love, at its best, negotiates a wobbly middle path in response to the existential dreads of aloneness and meaninglessness. Whether love takes the form of eros, romantic and erotic love, or philia, the love of friends, or storge, the love of parent for child and child for parent, or agape, a spiritual, universal love, or loving all beings, or hospitality to the stranger – the need is for the connection and meaning that we only find and make in relationship with others. We learn who we are by seeing ourselves in other people’s eyes. We become who we are through our relationships. Our lives have meaning by meaning something TO someone else.

There can be too much aloneness, and there can also be not enough aloneness. The extreme of too much aloneness is evident in the torture of solitary confinement. It is such a deprivation of deep human need that it often drives prisoner’s mad. Human beings are such social creatures.
Without the benefit of another person to "bounce off of," the mind decays. In solitary, prisoners experience anxiety, panic attacks, depression, emotional flatness, mood swings, hopelessness, lethargy, anger and rage, poor impulse control, deep paranoia, cognitive disturbances such as short attention span, poor concentration and memory, confused thought processes, disorientation, perceptual distortions such as hypersensitivity to noises and smells, distortions of sensation (e.g. walls closing in), hallucinations, hearing voices. Self-mutilation and cutting and suicide attempts are common. We really need connection.

And with too much aloneness, we also get meaninglessness. Meaning – the reality that we inhabit – is collaboratively created, and without others to collaborate with, we start to lose reality itself.

NEXT: The problem with not enough aloneness.

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This is part 1 of 3 of "Love and Desire"
See also
Part 2: Falling in Love? Or Standing in Love?
Part 3: Thelma and the Existential Dreads

2018-02-15

Moral Particularism and Love

All You Need is Love, part 3

Moral principles cannot be absolute. Generally, lying and breaking promises are wrong – the moral ideal is to avoid those as much as possible. But if you’re a gentile homeowner in Holland in the early 1940s, and you have a family of Jews hiding in your attic, when Nazi stormtroopers come around asking questions, it’s time to lie. And, as in Eleanor’s example, when your Mom has just been rushed to the ER, it’s time to break your promise to see a movie with a friend at that time.

Sometimes principles conflict with each other – the principle of protecting life or supporting one’s mother in her time of need might conflict with the principles of not lying and not breaking promises. Conflicting principles can’t both be absolute.

Could the principles be ranked in order of importance so that only one principle, ranked at the top, is truly absolute? If that one is satisfied, then you move to the second, and if that is satisfied, on down to the third, and so on. When principles conflict, you follow the one that is higher ranked.

The problem with this approach is that it supposes that satisfying a principle is all-or-nothing. But principles tend to be variably satisfiable. There’s a difference between being saying something slightly misleading and telling a bald-faced whopper. We might protect life a little bit, or we might protect it a lot. So if a given action would violate the top-ranked principle a little bit, but not doing that action would violate the second-ranked principle a lot, then maybe it’s the second principle that should govern in that case. Once we admit that possibility, then it’s useless to try rank-ordering the principles.

Can we have principles without making them absolute or rank-ordering them? Some philosophers take this approach, seeing moral principles as contributory rather than absolute. For example, in deciding what to say, contributory principles might be “Is it true?” “Is it necessary?” and “Is it kind?” One might take the position that any two of the three is sufficient. If it is necessary and kind, then it need not be true. If it is necessary and true, then it need not be kind. If it is kind and true, then it need not be necessary. Each of the principles contributes, but none is absolute, and they aren’t ranked. The moral task is to balance the contributions of various principles that apply to the given situation.

At this point, are they really principles? Chidi says, “Principles aren’t principles when you pick and choose when you’re going to follow them.” But is "pick and choose" any different from "balance the contributions of various principles"?

“Pick and choose” sounds capricious. And now I think we’re getting to what’s really at stake. We don’t like to think of ourselves as unprincipled because we think of “unprincipled” as capricious or self-serving or both.

Love is the answer to both those. Love is the emotion that manifests as care for others, and a steady commitment to care. Caprice is what happens when we haven’t found our way to, or have lost our way from, our commitments of care. Self-serving is being negligent about appropriate care of others’ concerns and needs – it’s a failure of love.

What we mostly do, and that love attunes us to do better, is take in the details of the situation. Various details provide reasons for doing this or that. When those details are seen in the light of love -- including love for ourselves – then we are guided to respond in compassion and care. Every situation is full of reasons – that is, details relevant for discerning how to respond. We need to attend to reasons, but maybe don’t need principles.

What we know about human behavior is that by and large, in fact, we don’t follow principles. Nor does talking about principles and declaring allegiance to them, studies find, make people act better. It doesn’t stiffen up waning resolve – just as studying ethics doesn’t make people more ethical. As philosopher of moral particularism, Jonathan Dancy, writes:
“There is only one real way to stop oneself distorting things in one’s own favor, and that is to look again, as hard as one can, at the reasons present in the case, and see if really one is so different from others that what would be required of them is not required of oneself. This method is not infallible, I know; but then neither was the appeal to principle.” (Jonathan Dancy, "Moral Particularism", Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2017 Edition).)
Look again, as hard as one can, at the reasons present in the case. Pay attention. Notice.

But what is the energy that we need for attending to the details of what is going on? We will be able to attend just so far as we care, so far as we love – love this life, love this world, love each other, our fellow travelers. Love is the fuel of caring attention, and it is caring attention, not moral principles, that guides us in discerning what to do. As we love more, we pay attention more, notice more, and thus more fuller respond – bringing more of who we are to more of what the world needs.

All you need is love. In "The Good Place," the four characters trying to become better people by studying ethics actually do gradually become better people – but they do it, you will notice if you get a chance to see the show – through their commitment to each other, through their burgeoning capacity to love. All you need is love. All you need is love indeed.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "All You Need is Love"
See also
Part 1: Is Love All You Need . . . to be Moral?
Part 2: A Time to Lie



2018-02-14

A Time to Lie

All You Need is Love, part 2

Principles aren't principles . . .
Although ethics professors aren't any more ethical than any other professors, perhaps a life of learning in any field is apt to make us better people. Indeed, most of us feel that learning is, in itself, a component of a good life. The characters in "The Good Place," seeking to become better people, might just as well have taken up the study of economics or chemistry. They happen to have chosen moral philosophy, and I guess that’ll work as well anything. Just trying to learn IS becoming better.

But my question is: Who would want to watch that?

Yet, people are watching. "The Good Place" is way popular. Its rotten tomatoes rating for season 1 was 91% -- and for season 2 was 100%, based on 35 reviews. This flabbergasts me. How can philosophy be popular? “The Big Bang Theory” is also a very popular sitcom, but – spoiler alert – it's not about astro-physics. "The Good Place," by contrast, actually is about moral philosophy. One critic wrote that "moral philosophy is the beating heart of the program" and that the show "made philosophy seem cool." Another wrote that "The Good Place stands out for dramatizing actual ethics classes onscreen, without watering down the concepts being described." Real live philosophers are celebrating “the show's largely accurate popularization of their line of work.”

Has philosophy become popular? Kind of, but only if it’s funny. Look, your brain, like mine, is a mish-mash of competing, contradictory ideas, concepts, values, beliefs. Cognitive dissonance sometimes surfaces, but whenever we can keep it out of mind, we do. Becoming conscious of cognitive dissonance feels icky -- to be avoided if possible. But a philosopher is somebody who goes looking for dissonance. Philosophers concoct all manner of bizarre, unrealistic hypothetical examples just for the purpose of inducing dissonance.

Example: Suppose either 5 people had to die or 1 person had to die. Which would be better? Clearly, it would be better for 1 person to die than for 5, right? OK, so – and this scenario is mentioned in one of the episodes of "The Good Place" -- suppose you have five people who are dying of different organ failures. One of them needs a heart transplant, another needs a liver transplant, another needs two kidneys, another needs lungs, and another needs pancreas and intestines. Would it be OK to kill one healthy person, harvest his organs and distribute them among the five? No! But wait -- better one person die than five.

See? The philosopher’s job is to induce cognitive dissonance -- which is uncomfortable -- but if it’s also funny – as it is in "The Good Place" – then we can tolerate it.

At the beginning of chapter 24, Chidi, who was an ethics professor in life, and has been serving as the ethics tutor for Eleanor, Tahani, and Jason, declares himself a Kantian. He has talked about Kant, more or less sympathetically, in many of the episodes, but without committing himself unequivocally. Now, as our heroes are about have to go through a room of demons to get where they need to go, and will have to hide their true identities in order to get through, they will need to lie. Chidi says:
“I hate this. I hate lying. It’s not permissible. I can’t do this….Kant says that lying is always wrong, and I follow that maxim….Principles aren’t principles when you pick and choose when you’re going to follow them.”
Later on, when our heroes have arrived at the cocktail party in Hell and are trying to last it out without being discovered, Chidi comes to Eleanor:
CHIDI: Those bro demons over there think I’m some kind of great torturer. They want my advice on how to torture some one. Help me.

ELEANOR: You know the answer, dude. Lie your ass off.

CHIDI: No! Lies have consequences. I will have contributed to someone’s eternal torture because I disobeyed a basic Kantian principle. I’m going to be sick, and I don’t want to go back to the bathroom because they put mirrors in the toilet, and that makes you really confront what you’re doing!

ELEANOR: OK, OK. Sit down. Take a breath. Rub your lucky bookmark. Hear me out. What if lying is ethical in this situation? What if certain actions aren’t universally good or bad? Like Jonathan Dancy says.

CHIDI: Jonathan Dancy? Are you talking about moral particularism? We never even covered that. You read on your own?

ELEANOR: You think just because I’m a straight hottie, I can’t read philosophy for fun? Look. Moral particularism says there are no fixed rules that work in every situation. Like, let’s say you promised your friend you’d go to the movies. But then your mom suddenly gets rushed to the ER. Your boy Kant would say never break a promise. Go see “Chronicles of Riddick.” Doesn’t matter if your mom gets lonely and steels a bucket of Vicodin from the nurse’s closet.

CHIDI: Real example?

ELEANOR: Yep! But, a moral particularist like me – I’m one now – I just decided – would say there’s no absolute rule. You have to choose your actions based on the particular situation and right now we are in a pretty bonkers situation.

CHIDI: I don’t think I can change what I believe just like that!

ELEANOR: And I didn’t think I would ever be at a cocktail party in literal Hell, lecturing my teacher-slash-ex-lover about moral particularism, but life throws you curveballs, bro!
And life does throw us curveballs. We get that there’s something noble about the principled stand – that, as Chidi says, “principles aren’t principles when you pick and choose when you’re going to follow them.” But Immanuel Kant was just wrong. Moral principles cannot be absolute.

NEXT: Why -- or at least how -- principles cannot be absolute

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "All You Need is Love"
See also
Part 1: Is Love All You Need...to Be Moral
Part 3: Moral Particularism and Love



2018-02-10

Is Love All You Need . . . to be Moral?

All You Need is Love, part 1

Planting a Seed. Philosopher Jonathan Dancy is a champion of an approach to ethics called "moral particularism." Here's the opening paragraph of Dancy's article about moral particularism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
“Moral Particularism, at its most trenchant, is the claim that there are no defensible moral principles, that moral thought does not consist in the application of moral principles to cases, and that the morally perfect person should not be conceived as the person of principle. There are more cautious versions, however. The strongest defensible version, perhaps, holds that though there may be some moral principles, still the rationality of moral thought and judgement in no way depends on a suitable provision of such things; and the perfectly moral judge would need far more than a grasp on an appropriate range of principles and the ability to apply them. Moral principles are at best crutches that a morally sensitive person would not require, and indeed the use of such crutches might even lead us into moral error.” (Jonathan Dancy, "Moral Particularism," Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. In 2010, Professor Dancy appeared on Craig Ferguson's show. CLICK HERE, and jump to 27:30.)
The Question. Having, I hope, planted the seed of this idea, "moral particularism," I ask that you move that idea to the back of your mind. We'll come back to it. I now turn to this question: Is it true that "all you need is love"?

The Beatles sang it, so it must be true, right? Perhaps not. They also sang, “I am the walrus,” “nothing is real,” “happiness is a warm gun,” and “we all live in a yellow submarine” – and arguably each of those claims is false. Still. "All you need is love" might be true.

I’m not so much interested in the point that you need other things like food, water, and shelter. The answer to that, I think, is that love -- that is, relationships of mutuality and care -- is the best way to ensure food, water, shelter. So through love you also get those other things. I want to look at the question not in terms of biological needs, but as an ethical question. Is love all you need as your guide for how to act? Or do you also -- or instead -- need moral principles to act rightly in the world?

We face ethical decisions:
Do I speak up, or remain quiet?
When is it time to put Mom in a nursing home – or time to "let go" of a child?
Am I prioritizing my time in a way that most benefits myself and others in the long run?
Is the comfort I get from bumping up the thermostat a couple degrees, or the enjoyment of eating meat worth the damage to the planet?
Does it really matter if my coffee is or isn’t fair trade, or if my shirt was or wasn’t made in a sweat shop, or if some product was or wasn’t tested on animals?

Whenever you choose to do, or not do, anything, there’s the question of whether that choice is the right one.

As we confront the issue of how we live our lives, we like to think we have moral principles that guide us. We imagine ourselves to be principled people. We would hate to be accused of being unprincipled. To live by principle seems an admirable thing. Moral principles keep you on the righteous straight and narrow irrespective of how you might feel about it. They don’t depend on your emotions. You don’t have to love your neighbor to know you shouldn’t steal from her. But on the other hand, if you do love your neighbor, do you need principles? That’s the philosophical question I want to look at today.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I was a philosophy professor, so I'm happy to see that philosophy is enjoying some pop culture attention these days. And the pop culture example I’m going to talk about also happens to illustrate this issue of whether we need moral principles.

To begin. A couple weeks ago, I was Skyping with my son, John -- age 35, lives in DC. He said, “Have you seen this show, 'The Good Place'?

I said, “I’ve heard of it.”

He said, “Oh, Dad, you gotta watch this. This is the show for you. It’s got moral philosophers in it. You are this show's target audience.”

So in the last couple weeks, I streamed, “The Good Place” – all 26 half-hour chapters of the show’s two seasons. It’s about four people in the afterlife who are trying to become better people by studying ethics. Really. I'm not kidding. That’s actually what it’s about. They talk about Kant, Sartre, utilitarianism, Kierkegaard, John Rawls. They mention names and ideas of people you’d have to be a total philosophy nerd to have ever heard of: Philippa Foot, Jonathan Dancy, Tim Scanlon.

I love the concept, though I have to admit to you up front that, in fact, the premise is wrong. Studying ethics – moral philosophy – has no connection to being a better person. Studies of actual ethics professors show that they are not more likely to be courteous, more likely to vote, more likely to give to charities, more likely to be vegetarian, or less likely to slip into conferences without paying the conference dues than any other academic. In fact, ethics books were more likely to go missing from academic libraries when compared to other philosophy books matched in age and popularity.

That noted, the show's protagonists do confront moral dilemmas, and it's nice to see sitcom characters employing the vocabulary of moral philosophy as they wrestle with what to do.

NEXT: Lessons from "The Good Place"

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This is part 1 of 3 of "All You Need is Love"
See also
Part 2: A Time to Lie
Part 3: Moral Particularism and Love





2018-02-08

Local Food Waste Recycling

Reduce Waste, part 3

Parts 1 and 2 in this 3-part series talked about four different worldviews. The view that sees the world as our lover -- and the view that sees the world as our very self -- can provide us a grounding in joy, allowing us to respond in care to protect the Earth. Environmentalism can then be something we want to do, something that feels good – not just some duty we’re brow-beating ourselves into. With that in mind, let's turn to some facts about the waste situation.

Each year Americans throw away enough edible food to solve the problem of food insecurity in the US -- and 50 million American experience food insecurity each year. Only one third of the waste in the United States is recycled or composted.

Achieving zero waste would reduce the US’s greenhouse gas emissions by almost 40 percent. Is this possible? And would it feel joyful to care for the Earth and all its inhabitants, human and otherwise, by reducing waste, walking with a lighter step – just because the Earth and its inhabitants are ourselves?

There are five different kinds of responses to waste.

Prevention is the best – the most caring. This is avoiding generating waste products in the first place. Prevention of waste involves using less material in design and manufacture, keepings products for longer, and using less hazardous materials. Sometimes – when it feels joyful to do so – it can involve not acquiring products.

The worst option, at the other end of the scale, is disposal. Dumping or incineration of waste without energy recovery are not sustainable. Landfills are the most common form of waste disposal and the final disposal option. Disposal requires considerable pre-treatment or the waste, and this also uses energy. Some estimates suggest that 50 percent of what goes into a landfill essentially never degrades. The landfill itself facilitates some biodegrading, but then reaches a point where it’s preserving what’s in there. The key paradigm shift is to think of it not as garbage but as a resource.

In between prevention of waste and disposal are a range of alternatives. Reusing is good. Reusing what might otherwise become waste typically requires collection but relatively little or no processing. It involves checking, cleaning, repairing, and/or refurbishing. Making donations to -- and many of your purchases from -- places like Good Will or Salvation Army stores is a way to boost reuse.

Not quite as optimal as re-using is recycling. The process requires collecting, sorting, and processing recyclable substance into raw material and then remanufacturing that raw materials into new products.

Next best after reusing and recycling is energy recovery. Recovery of energy would usually be incineration that makes use of the heat. This is not great because it’s not efficient, and often generates pollution, though it’s still better than flat disposal.

So I just want you to know that continuum. Whether you do anything with it, just be aware:
Prevention -- Reuse -- Recycling -- Recovery -- Disposal

In particular, locally, one great thing that’s starting to happen is food scrap recycling. Our environmental practices social justice team has been doing great work. The leaders Janet Bear and Charlie McNally have educated me about this, and I’m so thankful for the wonderful attention they’ve been giving to the project of helping CUUC become an official green sanctuary.

One year ago, Scarsdale began a food scrap recycling program. It’s not just for compostables but also egg shells, bones – any food scraps. No pet waste or yard waste, though. To participate in this program, if you live in Scarsdale, you collect your food scraps in a countertop pail. You’re likely to fill that pail 3-4 times a week, so it’s handy to have a larger bin to transfer the scraps to when the pail fills up. When the bin gets full, you take it down to the drop-off location: 110 Secor Road, Scarsdale, open from 8 to 3, Monday through Saturday. Cool.

These food scraps will be turned into nutrients usefully returned to the Earth to help plants grow – plants that sequester carbon. Otherwise, food scraps go to either a landfill or incinerator and the resource is lost. In landfills, scraps create methane, which has about 30 times the heat-trapping power of CO2. The compost that Scarsdale is creating from food scraps will also help reduce soil erosion, and lower the need for using as much water, pesticide, and fertilizer. Does that feel joyful?

It's in Scarsdale, and if you’re there you can start that right away. Scarsdale’s was the first food scrap recycling program in the county, and for it they got the 2017 Westchester County Earth Day Award. Our Green Team – which is easier to say than “Environmental Practices Social Justice Team” -- is also working on encouraging White Plains to also create food scrap recycling facility. Is that not awesome? Go team!

Perhaps you are thinking, "Running my food scraps down to some center every week or so is one more chore I don’t have time to do!" I understand. I’m not asking you to do what isn’t joyful for you. But it might be joyful – and if, for you, it is – there’s a really fun, pretty simple thing you can do. Having a world-view that sees the world – the Earth and all its beings, human and otherwise – as lover, or as self – can be a key part of that joy.

San Francisco has a goal of zero waste by 2020. They’ve got two more years. As of 2014, San Francisco was still sending 400,000 tons a year still going to landfill. The idea of living in a way that has zero waste just feels really good. My heart loves that, quite independent of what my head knows about the facts and science of global warming and pollution. And San Francisco is moving toward getting there.

And if San Francisco does it, maybe eventually Westchester can. Zero waste. Wow. Part of what feels so good about that it’s a collective enterprise. None of us can make Westchester a zero waste county by ourselves. That’s what’s so joyful about the concept. It brings us together.

But gratitude cannot wait until it happens. Gratitude is where it begins, and gratitude will be with us every step along the way. I conclude with these words of Joanna Macy:
“We have received an inestimable gift. To be alive in this beautiful self-organizing universe – to participate in the dance of life with senses to perceive it, lungs that breathe it, organs that draw nourishment from it – is a wonder beyond words. And it is, moreover, an extraordinary privilege to be accorded a human life, to possess this self-reflexive consciousness, which brings awareness of our own actions and the ability to make choices. It lets us choose to take part in the healing of our world.”
And in my worldview, the healing of our world is the healing of ourselves.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of Reduce Waste
See also
Part 1: "We Are Our World Knowing Itself"
Part 2: What's Your Worldview