Category Archives: Secularism

Only 700 million women

child marraige poster

“What would she do, anyway? It’s not like she has any real choices?”

Such is the cynical response I’ve often encountered, or variations thereof, when I’m moved by whatever furies impassion me on such occasions to advocate for an end to child marriage. It’s an odd counter argument, as if the normalization of a systemic wrong makes it acceptable – “natural” even. The way things ought to be.

But then again, no. Such cynics feel no need for “oughts” in their world view. “It’s just the way things are, dear.”

I’m writing this in New Delhi, India, a country which in terms of population size has the largest number of child brides on the planet. Granted, it is an uneven picture; in some Indian states there’s been remarkable progress in beginning to diminish this practice. Yet in other states, such as Bihar, the percentage of child marriages is over 60 per cent. It’s illegal, of course. India passed the Prohibition of Child Marriage Act back in 2006, but the political will to enforce this law or to otherwise effect change seems inadequate. A National Action Plan intended to prevent child marriage, drafted by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, has languished since 2013 with no passage in sight. Indian jurisprudence simply cannot decide how to define child marriage. As they ponder, the practice continues.

India is hardly alone. Niger in west Africa holds the ignominious title of worst offender, where 76 per cent of women are married as children. It’s daunting for me to wrap my head around such numbers. Yet the numbers are both daunting and damning; over 700 million women in the world today were married as children. That’s more than five times the entire number of women and girls in my own country, the United States. If you are reading this in the United States, just look at any woman or girl and think of five. Do that again and again, each time you see another female. Your head will be spinning before long. It should be aching, not just spinning. This is a problem of remarkable proportions, yet how often is it discussed by the general public, or cited as a priority?

Almost never. Continue reading Only 700 million women

Normalizing America – in a vacuum of values

moral-compass-3

I would never have believed we, as a nation, could come to this.

Perhaps I should take some comfort in knowing that I’m not alone in my perplexed disbelief. In an op-ed in the Washington Post published today, Republican columnist and former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson shared his own incredulity, and his words speak directly to my own pre-election anxieties:

“It is almost beyond belief that Americans should bless and normalize Trump’s appeal. Normalize vindictiveness and prejudice. Normalize bragging about sexual assault and the objectification of women. Normalize conspiracy theories and the abandonment of reason. Normalize contempt for the vulnerable, including disabled people and refugees fleeing oppression. Normalize a political tone that dehumanizes opponents and excuses violence. Normalize an appeal to white identity in a nation where racial discord and conflict are always close to the surface. Normalize every shouted epithet, every cruel ethnic and religious stereotype, every act of bullying in the cause of American “greatness” … In the end, a Trump victory would normalize the belief that the structures of self-government are unequal to the crisis of our time.”

Why are such pernicious, appalling values being normalized? Why are so many Americans completely unconcerned as Trump wreaks havoc with truthfulness by doubling down on lies and on his distortions of well-documented facts?  Why are so many Americans committed to a leader who assaults the very premise of our democracy, i.e. that we as a nation are able to rise together in collaboration to address the challenges that confront us, and to seize the opportunities that await us?  Why are so many Americans so  enthusiastic in their support of a leader who takes pride in turning his back on the urgent threat of global climate change – despite the proven (and progressively self-evident) devastating impacts that will affect their own children, grandchildren, and generations yet unborn? Why are the promises of short-term economic gains so alluring, ignoring all of the subsequent trade-offs of long term (and in many cases) irreparable harms to our economy, our environment, our security, and our sense of ourselves as a nation? In short, why are the polls so damnably close, with the election just days away?

My best guess is that we have lost our sense of direction as a nation.  We have no moral compass, and many of us don’t give a damn.

No, a moral compass isn’t the latest app that can be downloaded onto your smartphone. You may know it best by its absence – the lack of any discernible institutionalized process of robust discussion of secular values in our society at large, and specifically in the corridors of governance. Instead, “values” and “morality” have fallen victim to claims associated with narrow ideologies – and to vagueness – with expressions such as “traditional values”, “family values”, the “moral majority”, and even “American values” often being rhetorical devices to advocate for very narrow and often very polarizing political, cultural, or religious objectives. The idea that secular morality and ethics forms a common societal unifying platform – a deliberative space in which people are respected, listened to, and able to share their well-informed and considered views without jeopardy – is now largely a lost notion. Even our fundamental national institution of deliberation, our Congress, has lost even the pretense of deliberative, mutually respectful discourse and debate on the issues that affect us all. When was the last time that Senators or Representatives actually debated an issue?

The mechanism at the heart of any moral compass is ethics – a system of moral values that guides discernment and decision-making. Sadly, that mechanism has atrophied, due in large measure to semantics. Few really know what “ethics” means. In the media and in the public consciousness, “ethics” as a discipline has been narrowly redefined by the lawyers and legislators, who have reduced and reinterpreted the word to mean little more than compliance with codes of conduct and disclosure, with legal requirements, and with avoidance of conflicts of interest (or the appearance thereof). It’s pretty dry stuff, and not likely to stimulate much lively discourse. While compliance and legal propriety have obvious importance, limiting the role of ethics in this way diminishes ethics to nothing more than a skeletal version of its essential secular and governance role.  Secular ethics and morality exist to make our values explicit and meaningful, to provide the societal glue to bind us together and to guide our progress and direction as a society. Through the application of secular ethics, we learn to recognize which values have the most relevance to specific situations, which values deserve to be respected as universal, and how best to use this knowledge to forge a persuasive social consensus on the shared values, rights, and principles that allow us to cohere as a society and as a nation.

In short, we need that moral compass to guide how we normalize the secular values and human rights that ought to define us, and to reject those values that discredit us as a people. Michael Gerson’s description of what is now being “normalized” clearly shows little reference by Americans to the application of such a moral compass.

What might such a moral compass guide us toward? Continue reading Normalizing America – in a vacuum of values

Old-Fashioned Bombast and Homophobic Politics, East African style

Inquisition

Beware the bombastic yet empowered moralizer, poised to point the finger of sin and approbation at anyone who dares stray from societal norms. Every society has them – ambitious politicians whose arrogance is only exceeded by their all-too-convenient conviction that they alone have a grasp on Truth. They know their constituents; they therefore know how to manipulate public sentiment so that their own sanctimonious moral rectitude will propel them to even greater positions of power, wealth, and influence.

After all this time, citizens everywhere should know these scoundrels for what they are, and send them packing. They should, but they often don’t. Such political mischief-makers often succeed in ascending their respective hierarchies largely by stepping on others, or worse…while casting their actions in the guise of protecting family values.

But perhaps I should be less hasty to condemn these guardians of public morality. After all, their convictions may be sincere (and advantageous). Worse yet, such convictions may simply be wrong and even harmful. In the secular world of democratic governance, all convictions ought to be held to the hard and dispassionate light of reason and fact. People of integrity weigh their convictions with considerable care and tenderness, knowing how interdependent we all are, and how each person deserves to be respected for their basic dignity and worth. No one ought to be “used” or manipulated to achieve one’s selfish goals, each person has value – even those who are, well, “different”. Oddly, after centuries of social progress and development, we still find empowered people who seem shocked – even outraged – by human diversity.

It is a very convenient outrage.

Demagogues and bombasts know an angle when they see one. It’s always easy to castigate “the other” and make the vulnerable the target for all that’s wrong in society. Such political climbers dispense with reason and fact at the outset, and instead play to public bias, fear, ignorance, and superstition to motivate – i.e. to use – their followers to their own political advantage. In so doing, they cannot help but being aware that they are harming those who “don’t matter”, people who are already marginalized simply by being different from the majority. Exploiting and disparaging the most vulnerable among us is among the oldest tools of political expediency, but it is also among the most cowardly and ethically bereft. For any democracy to grow and thrive, those who have been entrusted by the public to exercise positions of power and influence should be subject to scrutiny – and rejection – whenever such public officials exercise their office in callous and self-serving ways, while purporting to be moral champions.

It would be easiest to begin at home, with a hard look at the ultimate demagogue within my own society – Donald Trump. Fortunately, there’s already a flourishing industry in America devoted to holding this empty and arrogant blow-hard to account, and I have to believe that an appropriate reckoning will take place on November 8th. So instead, I put before you two other politicians, both exemplary in their self-serving and condescending moralizing, each of whom is currently very busy using their public positions to clamor for yet more of the political spotlight. Their respective quests for fame and political advantage are strategically and cynically intended to harness existing reservoirs of public prejudice and fear of “the other”. Both ignore well-established facts about diversity and human nature, choosing instead to exacerbate that ignorance to create even more animosity and hatred – all directed against people who are distinctive for their vulnerability and lack of power: sexual minorities. Each of these two men is not only doing a great disservice to the people they are targeting, but they are also deepening intolerance and prejudice to the detriment of their own respective societies’ coherence, growth, and progress.

In short, these two are all about themselves, and they’re riding roughshod over the principles of universal human dignity that all societies must embrace if they are to cohere and flourish. Continue reading Old-Fashioned Bombast and Homophobic Politics, East African style

Questions that remain unanswered – and unasked…

GU lawn

Where did 13 weeks go?

As an ethics professor at the end of a university term, I’m once again challenged by such metaphysical questions…but since I’ve been doing this adjunct gig for the past two decades I’m at least no longer surprised when it all suddenly wraps up. Along the way, I’ve taken great pleasure in the effervescent enthusiasm for learning that my students have contributed to our joint endeavor. Still, I’m troubled… after all these years the most important questions I pose each term remain largely unanswered.

I get it. I know that “ethics” is an uncomfortable word, redolent of images of accountants and lawyers with their ponderously thick books of regulations, accountability standards, codes of conduct, and threats of dire consequences for malfeasance. The type of ethics that I teach however isn’t situated in that dry (if necessary) world of disclosures and compliance obligations. Instead, my modest goal is to teach my public policy students to acquire and use a different vocabulary that has its origin in the moral language of secularism.

In the moral context, that qualifies as a foreign language for the vast majority of people. The language of “ought”, of demands for rational justifications for decisions taken and plans made (usually on behalf of others), and the phraseology of that complicated moral world of good, bad, right, wrong, caring and callous, virtuous and corrupt, and similar values can baffle any of us. When faced with unsolvable moral dilemmas and the weighing of unpleasant trade-offs, wouldn’t we really rather be doing something else, or have someone else (or their rules) telling us what to do? The moral dialogue can be hard; we’d much rather wriggle away from it or pretend it isn’t there.

And most of us do just that…and we get away with it.

Will you be surprised when I assert that ethics can also be a heroic space? Ethical leaders inspire profound transformations. Courageous truth-seekers blow the whistle on self-interested, exploitative, venal officials, or quietly but firmly take principled stands. Some people even choose not to be complacent, when being complacent is so much easier.

Just occasionally (when we’re drained of outrage and indignation) we actually stop long enough to notice those remarkable and often self-effacing people who consistently exemplify integrity and sacrifice. They may not constitute the silent majority, but they are there, all around us. Integrity isn’t a scarce resource, but who would know?

In this day and age, the prevailing ethos is anchored in efficiency, power, and profit. There are very few spaces in our institutions of governance (public or private) or corporate boardrooms where we consciously and regularly set aside time and effort to sharpen our sensibilities about the “greater good”, or to conjecture about the implications of what it might be like were our society marked by fairness, mutual respect, and caring. We seldom consider what it might mean were we to balance our society’s glorification of fierce (and usually “manly”) competitiveness with the sense that our best natures might shine the brightest through collaboration, partnership, reciprocity, and unapologetic idealism. Continue reading Questions that remain unanswered – and unasked…