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Speaking of Responsibility January 27, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, Political Philosophy.
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Commentators have been hard at work interpreting Obama’s Inauguration speech, which as I noted in an earlier post, emphasized moral values and responsibility rather than hope, change, or progressive policy proposals. “Honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism.” “These things are old,” Obama declared. “These things are true.”Some on the left were disappointed, viewing such moral rhetoric as an example of Obama’s disturbing penchant for reaching out to a thoroughly discredited conservative movement. And indeed many conservatives have tried to claim the speech as their own, chortling that the themes of responsibility, hard work, and sacrifice are fundamental conservative themes. (See here and here)

I think this reading of Obama’s intent is mistaken. This speech marking the inauguration of a new administration was an inauguration of a new era in liberal politics as well-one that does not shy away from invoking moral values. The liberal public rhetoric of the past usually trumpeted specific policy proposals, while silently taking for granted the moral values that underlie these proposals. Liberals typically used the language of rights and benefits when advocating health care, welfare, or economic reform-what people can gain from their policies-without mentioning the sense of obligation and responsibility that provides the rationale for their policies. This has enabled Republicans to obscure their differences with liberals-after all they have policies too. But more importantly, when liberals abandon their moral vocabulary, conservatives fill the vacuum by claiming the mantle of moral virtue for their radical, reactionary views. Liberals will be successful in the long run, only if they regain the moral high ground. Obama has begun that process.

There is plenty of evidence that Obama was not parroting conservative talking points. He specifically referred to “the greed and irresponsibility on the part of some” as the source of our economic troubles, and he disparaged “the pleasures of riches and fame.” This is hardly a paean to conservatives who think riches are their birthright and greed their wellspring. He spoke of collective responsibility and our willingness to help others, themes that seldom cross conservative lips; and he unambiguously supported the role of government in the economy, the very antipode of conservative thought. Furthermore, when he spoke of “worn-out dogmas” and “setting aside childish things” it was in the context of imploring Americans to “choose our better history, to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.” With these remarks, he has the economic royalists in the Republican Party clearly in his crosshairs.

Of course, George Bush (remember him?) called for a new era of responsibility in his inaugural speech, but his meaning was utterly opposed to Obama’s. Conservatives often use the language of service, character, and personal responsibility. But that language is an accusation aimed at the disadvantaged whose lack of success is supposed to be evidence of their vices; an accusation never aimed at the business elites whose success ought never to be burdened with responsibility less they lose their incentive to produce.

There is a vast difference between calling for shared responsibility on the one hand and deceitfully accusing the disadvantaged of lacking responsibility on the other. The idea that “responsibility” belongs to conservatives is laughable. Bush and Cheney, in their exit from the stage, were utterly unrepentant for their sorry environmental record, legacy of economic collapse, and war crimes, seemingly oblivious to their role as architects of disaster.
It is to be hoped that the empty moral rhetoric of the conservative movement has not eviscerated a moral vocabulary that we now so desperately need and that Obama is attempting to recapture.


Let the Cloning Begin! January 23, 2009

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Culture, Current Events, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Science.
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Here we go! Welcome to the Spring 2009 semester. Lots of topics to talk about.

Today’s news (from BBC News, hence the British spelling):

US regulators have cleared the way for the world’s first study on human embryonic stem cell therapy.

Geron Corp, the biotech company behind the research, plans to initiate a clinical trial in patients paralysed due to spinal cord injury.

The move comes three days after the inauguration of President Barack Obama who has been a strong supporter of embryonic stem cell research.

Since 2001 there have been limits on federal funding for stem cells.

 As most of you have probably been aware of, President Bush (while not opposed to stem cell research as such, and thus more moderate than some conservative supporters) vetoed federal funding for research into stem cells for therapeutic cloning, other than a small number of existing stem cell lines. As reported by the San Diego Union Tribune, California, with its stem cell research industry at the forefront of global research, but hindered by having to seek private funding, may now look forward to a very productive future:

Robert Klein, the stem cell institute’s chairman, and scientists around the state say they’re optimistic about the changes that will occur when Obama follows through on his pledge to work with Congress and lighten funding restrictions that President George W. Bush placed on human embryonic stem cell research in August 2001.

“The federal restrictions created artificial barriers and walls to research based on moral and religious beliefs, and not scientific merit,” said David Gollaher, president of the California Healthcare Institute. “What lifting the ban does is make embryonic stem cell research mainstream.”

And the prospect of helping paralyzed patients regain control of their limbs and their lives is creating excitement among researchers:

 Geron Corporation, a company based in Menlo Park, California, hopes to mend the spines of patients paralysed from the chest down by injecting injury sites with stem cells that restore connections and repair damage.

“This marks the beginning of what is potentially a new chapter in medical therapeutics, one that reaches beyond pills to a new level of healing: the restoration of organ and tissue function achieved by the injection of healthy replacement cells,” said the company’s president, Tom Okarma.

Does this mean we have resolved the ethical questions of cloning? No, it means that one philosophical viewpoint is now in the process of replacing another, at the legislative level: We’re still talking about cloning embryonic stem cells (at least in this context) , and embryos will still have to be destroyed in order to create therapeutic stem cells. For those who consider embryos as live humans in need of legislative protection, this is a huge moral setback, akin to Roe v. Wade, allowing the intentional killing of human beings. For many others who believe that at this early embryonic stage (between the first and second week of gestation, if I understand it correctly) we’re not yet talking about an actual person, this is a significant step forward, scientifically as well as morally, since it will save human lives. What we have resolved, and shouldn’t have to rehash, is the difference between therapeutic and reproductive cloning. In therapeutic cloning the stem cells will be used to cure illnesses and replace tissue and organs etc.; reproductive cloning entails the creation of a new, genetically identical individual from the cells of another, and the ethical controversy inherent in that kind of cloning, when applied to humans, is still enormous, and still at the level of sci-fi.

American Renaissance January 20, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics.

President Obama’s Inauguration Address was significant, in part, because of what was left out. Gone was the soaring rhetoric of hope and change that characterized his campaign speeches. There was little to induce excitement or move the crowd to ovations. He barely flashed his brillliant, ingratiating smile. And there was almost no policy talk or lists of agenda items to be accomplished in his first term. It was, instead, a dissertation on moral values or, more accurately, their absence, in recent years.

The conceptual core of his speech was this:

“On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics. We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.

In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned.
Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted – for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk takers, the doers, the makers of things – some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom….Our capacity remains undiminished. But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions – that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.”

These passages, and many others in the speech, imply a sharp and trenchant criticism of the Bush Administration. But not only the Bush Administration. The repeated reference to “we” in these paragraphs suggests complicity on the part of the American public for our travails, a lack of moral seriousness that enabled the duplicity and moral corruption that marred this regime, a moral bubble as disconnected from reality as the housing bubble, and even more fundamental to our current predicament.

For too long the American public allowed themselves the fantasy that excessive violence and excessive greed would have no moral consequences, that suffering was a sign of weakness rather than need, that listening to others showed a lack of discipline and will, that ignorance was a sign of virtue, that mouthing Christian and patriotic platitudes was sufficient for moral labor.

Set aside childish things indeed.

Obama called the American public to task today and the public getting that message is crucial to his success. He enters the Presidency with approval ratings approaching 70%. But it is disturbing that many of the same people who now shout “Yes We Can” voted twice for an impudent, arrogant, ignorant failure who was made President by his daddy’s friends on the Supreme Court.

The problem, as Obama knows, is that our problems are too much for one man to solve. It will take collective patience, resolve, and sacrifice to make progress on problems like global warming, war and peace, and a return to economic prosperity. It will be too much to ask that the plutocrats and power-brokers who got us into this mess, and still hold power in most of our institutions, have finished their 12-step program of moral renewal. The public will have to hold their feet to the fire. But this will require a moral seriousness that has not been much on display over the past 30 years. (The decline of moral seriousness did not begin with Bush–it has been a long time comin’.)

So Obama’s references to hope are now coupled with references to virtue.

“For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job, which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter’s courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent’s willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate… With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come.”

Perhaps, for a change, we now have a government sufficiently committed to moral renewal that it will inspire moral seriousness on the part of a formerly distracted public that now vaguely senses the existential threat when greed, violence, and ignorance become “virtuous”.

Shameless self-promotion department: For more on American Renaissance see Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America, due to be published in late February.

Time of Change, Change of Time? January 3, 2009

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Culture, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.

My best New Year’s wishes to everyone on this blog! Sorry I have been incommunicado for a while. So, have you made any New Year’s resolutions? Lose weight? Exercise more? Spend less? Spend more time with those you love? Take sword fighting lessons? Read Remembrance of Things Past? Get a dog? Get back in touch with friends? Ask forgiveness for having behaved like a jerk? Work for a better world order? Whatever your style and your needs, you are plugging in to an ancient world view: the cyclical time perception. What used to be the metaphysical world view of tribal as well as classical societies around the globe now only survives in the Western world in a few religious rituals, and in our New Year’s traditions. Once upon a time the sages saw the world, and time, as a dynamic process that wears down and needs periodic renewal: When the world was new, and newly created, all was well, and made sense. But time “wears on,” things start falling apart, and negative forces begin to undermine the cohesion and meaning of everyday life. So it’s time for a renewal of time itself, and what better way to accomplish that than to reenact the Beginning Time, the Holy Days when everything was created by [your favorite deity]. Some of you may remember the Latin term: in illo tempore, in the Beginning Time. And, magically, this will restore the world to its original splendor; the slate is wiped clean, and we can all, happily, go about our business for a while until time starts showing wear and tear, and must undergo a renewal ritual again—usually after a year or so.

Historians of religion (Mircea Eliade, Joseph Campbell) tell us that this form of life was replaced with the Judeo-Christian linear time perception where History and Time move in one direction, from the Creation to the End of Time. In its secular version which we’re all familiar with, we are comfortable (if not happy) with the idea that time runs in one direction only, from the past into the future, and (unless you believe in time travel) there is no going backwards. (This, by the way, is why Nietzsche’s “Eternal Return of the Same” is such a provocative philosophy, although it has been generally misunderstood as a literal time theory, but we can return to that on some other occasion.) So here we are, post-postmodern people, with a secular view of linear time where time is simply one darn thing after another—and yet we make New Year’s resolutions, knowing full well that New Year is a social construct, and the universe doesn’t recognize any qualitative or existential difference between Dec.31 and Jan.1. We simply act as if the year is New, the slate is wiped clean, and, in some mystical way the world is restored to an original splendor, for a little while. Nothing wrong with that—I find it fascinating. What fascinates me is that we people of the linear secular world view periodically buy into  a very ancient way of life and take part in a ritual going back thousands of years, renewing Time. So Old Father Time of 2008 has left us, and we’ve got the new Baby 2009 who needs our attention. This year, perhaps more than many other years, we’re acutely aware of the concept of change—perhaps another ritual illusion? But as with many other cultural constructs, we can make it happen. If you want things to change in your life (stop smoking/make friends/make amends) then you’ve been given a ritual time window to jumpstart a new approach. If you’re thinking about change on a grander scale, involving the financial, political and environmental health of the planet, then perhaps we also need a ritual time window to evaluate and make such changes happen. Sometimes our resolutions don’t last much beyond January. We’ll see how the Change resolution fares in the course of the year. So I wish us all a Happy New Year, with whatever time renewal that seems timely (!), on the personal as well as the global scale…