Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Death Penalty Is Not A Useful Tool

I’ve experienced death as a reality only so much in my still young life. Both my grandfathers passed away in my late college years and we’ve had to euthanize three cats since I started college, two strays and one we’ve had since I was in high school. The most recent one I watched with my own eyes, overdosed with a barbiturate and slowly drifting to a permanent sleep. Death is something we must accept as unavoidable and natural, the flipside of life. But the enthusiasm to exact justice through it has always troubled me as an ethical quandary. Why kill people to make things right, even if those people have killed others? It won’t bring the victims back and it won’t bring any sense of closure to the survivors or those close to the victims. There’s even cost measures to consider of how expensive it is to hire people and put together the shots that first put the person into unconsciousness, then anesthetize/paralyze them and finally stop their heart. The idea is that it’s more humane than electrocution or hanging, but I would think treating even criminals with some sense of dignity, even in incarceration, is better than taking their lives into your hands and snuffing them out. I can’t be sure of the comparison of maintaining jails, even if it was strictly for the most heinous of crimes (murder, rape and abuse), against taking the lives of those who have done such atrocities to other human beings, but my conscience tells me that we should not try to accelerate mortality for the sake of morality.

Death might be a final solution, but it is not an effective or permanent solution to crime, however horrible those acts may be. Rape, murder, and many other things might be argued to deserve this execution of justice in a conclusive manner, but I don’t see how this really addresses the issue of crime as a whole committed by people in the future or even as we speak. Killing criminals here and now will only stop killing for a time before more killings are committed. Premeditated or otherwise, the mindset of someone intent on doing such things is not so much whether they’re caught, but how to get away with it. Capital punishment of this degree is not a deterrent to criminals, especially when you consider that they may not even value their own life if they think others’ lives are fodder to them. When you claim it’s effective to kill people for crimes that may require it ethically is like making the comparison to amputating an arm that has irreparable damage. The limb is part of a body, while individual humans are part of a community that can function without them directly in it. Of course these people shouldn’t be treated as those who do lesser crimes of theft or the like, but giving them basic dignity, as terrible as they may be, is as ethical as punishing them is a basic ethical prerogative. And regardless of if you think criminals deserve to be treated as humans, does it make sense in any way to prevent others from being killed by completely different assailants by eliminating an assailant that, barring escape, is unable to kill others if incarcerated. The mere possibility of them escaping should weigh less heavily on your conscience than the fact that you decided they weren’t permitted to live anymore.

While it may cost significant taxpayer money to keep prisoners in jail, it is preferable to killing them and trying to take mortality into our own hands and play a proverbial God. And this is nothing compared to the shared guilt the entire country would share if the person executed happened to be innocent because of a rushed trial and ruling. There could be streamlining of the process and the benefits involved with prisoners, to say nothing of decriminalizing marijuana and giving different punishments for misdemeanors, such as forced community service or the like. The idea that the punishment should fit the crime can be taken too literally. Perhaps a better principle would be severity of punishment fitting severity of the crime, but it still could be interpreted to take retributive justice instead of rehabilitative justice, where the criminals, in many cases, can be improved with some form of treatment or otherwise letting them stew in their guilt and see the gravity of their crimes.

I know this seems very passive, but in terms of ethics, we cannot always be proactive in solutions, especially if they’re intended to be expedient instead of effective. Efficiency doesn’t always mean haste. And even speed is not essential to solving the persistent problem of crime, since it likely takes a generation or two to make lasting change on how people regard the desirability of actions like stealing or assault. Time heals wounds of both a personal and societal nature. You move on past someone’s death by mourning, you prevent crime by showing the inherent issues with it. When you start using the threat of death to motivate people to restrain themselves, you’re using fear as the impetus, which is only useful so long as people continue to fear. When they either abandon or overcome that fear, you no longer have the power you possessed before in terms of rule of law. People should avoid being both illegal and immoral in their behavior. It shouldn’t be merely the consequences of their actions as regards law enforcement, but their own conscience that makes them contemplate whether to go through with it or not. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Religion No Longer Essential For Ethics

The Dalai Lama has brought himself into the spotlight yet again with a Facebook and Twitter post 2 weeks ago stating, in brief, that “grounding ethics in religion is no longer adequate.” He’s brought praise from atheists and humanists, to say nothing of preaching from Christians and others who insist that you can’t have ethics without a spiritual or a religious basis. I spoke in part about Gyatso’s text “Beyond Religion: Ethics For A Whole World” which he referenced in a Facebook post I spoke about in “An Ethics For Everyone” These claims are controversial, but a remotely objective look at them, without presuppositions on either the sacred or secular, we can see there are commonly held values that we can utilize in a shared ethics and morality. The distinction between ethics and morality is difficult, but I have one perspective I’ve read on that is both concise and accessible. It is also pertinent to lay out these shared ideals about right and wrong, of good and evil, and elaborate how they make sense in a secular worldview, with no recourse to divine revelations. And finally, the supposed inconsistency of absolutist and relativist ethics can be resolved by a moderate point of realism, or even pragmatism if we want to be more philosophical. Ethics and morality are complex areas of life, but we shouldn’t needlessly complicate them with unnecessary or otherwise irrational factors that aren’t pertinent to our basic determination of what is right and wrong.

Ethics can be explained as an individual’s code of what is right and wrong, developed through experimentation in a sort of practical fashion. Morality, on the other hand, is a shared societal or cultural code which people are expected to conform to. The former is more individualist, but not so opposed to collaborative efforts, while morality creates a sense of collectivism that is concerning, but doesn’t deny individuals to a certain extent. In short, ethics are personal tenets and more experiential in nature, developed by an almost scientific methodology, while morality is a cultural set of beliefs concerning what is good and bad, almost to the effect of mores and norms, which are closer to taboos; related to acceptability instead of culpability. The distinction of individual and group values could potentially create a polar dichotomy, where each opposes the other. But instead I would suggest a prioritizing of the individual without eschewing the collective, more specifically, the community of which we are inevitably a part of in one way or another. Any community is composed of individuals to begin with, so the nuance is recognizing that there will be some disagreements, but there will also be common ground that exists by necessity of the average human being functioning remotely normally (i.e. not a sociopath). In that way, you have coexistence without conformity to the letter of the law. The spirit would still be recognized, so that’s not gone either. A society where one can have ethics that don’t necessarily conflict with morality, but morality doesn’t override ethics is an ideal and possible existence we can work out.

The values that are essential to ethics, according to Tenzin Gyatso, are: love, compassion, patience, tolerance and forgiveness: and can be found and discerned outside of religious authority. Objectors will claim that in scientific and secular reasoning, since ideals and values are non material things, they can’t be verified or demonstrated in the way we demonstrate gravity or other things with clearly physical properties. The problem with that argument is that it applies to numbers, yet they are believed to be extant in their own sense, just like concepts of truth, justice, even logic, which are immaterial and abstract in their nature. The verifiability and falsifiability of something isn’t strictly limited to the physical, especially when, by its very premise, it is admitted to be non physical. It’s more important in some cases whether it has practical value or relevance to human affairs. Love, compassion, forgiveness, patience and tolerance all have some basis in neuroscience, no doubt. But our experience and practice of them is more important in considering their universal value to everyone. When you love, you can understand compassion; when you are compassionate, you can practice forgiveness; when you practice forgiveness, you gain patience; when you gain patience, you develop tolerance. The interrelation of these values is complex, no doubt, but I would say the basis is compassion, which is a form of love that is nuanced, not granting it without some degree of reciprocity, but nonetheless understanding and not becoming either selfish or abusive. With compassion, you understand love, forgiveness, patience and tolerance, since they all have their connections to compassion, the core value and the one commonly misunderstood as passivity, but should be an active practice.

Ethics can be objective, true regardless of our opinions one way or the other, without being absolutely and ultimately true, which would suggest no critical thought on our part. And they can be subjective, dependent on the individual’s perspective, without being hard relativist, where there is no underlying ground for making claims of truth and fact to begin with. This is a hard position to convey with people tending to have fairly simplistic ideas of how right and wrong or good and evil work, thinking many times in black and white, but ironically admitting of grey areas when it comes to their own gain or loss. That entails we acknowledge in some way the relativity of ethics, but only when it applies to self interests. If it involves much more people, we try to sound more consistent and morally upright, but our hypocrisy cannot be pushed away. To accept the relativity of morality and ethics is not to abandon them as binding on us in any sense. It’s a basic necessity of human life to have rules that restrain us or otherwise guide our actions. But we shouldn’t take them as unquestionable or not subject to alteration or even abandonment if they merit it. Cultural influence on the acceptability of something should not be the primary voice. Popularity is not an acceptable standard, especially if it’s just based on conformity instead of critical thinking. Our voice of reason, even a sort of innate common sense or conscience, should guide us, especially when the practice being judged as condonable is, in fact, damaging in one form or another. Dehumanizing people through slavery or even trying to appear equal through such a thing as civil unions contrasted with marriage is not ethical and should not be painted as such for the sake of social expediency. We should work hard at always improving our ethics and not letting them remain easy for us to follow. As the proverb goes “Familiarity breeds contempt”. Skepticism about ethics shouldn’t go to the level of nihilism, but it shouldn’t be abandoned because it might breed insecurity or fear. It’s how we face the fear and insecurity that further tempers our future principles.

Of course it will be difficult for many people, who tend to only be philosophers when it comes to things that have already passed, mulling over them. Or we fixate on religion and spirituality as something of more philosophical import than the fundamentals: logic, ethics, metaphysics, aesthetics and epistemology. Speculating on the mysterious and awe inspiring can be done right or it can be wasted contemplation without underpinning it with sound thinking. Understanding things and also recognizing the limits of our knowledge of them are both essential to having a well thought out and realistic worldview. We shouldn’t live seeking to merely go through every day in security, especially if it ruins any possibility of change, innovation or progress. Of course, not all progress is good, not all innovation is beneficial and not all change will make things right. It is our response to these things is reflective of our character. Patience is a virtue and compassion is the ideal from which we develop that. And we don’t need any supernatural underpinning to discover compassion’s importance. Until next time, Namaste and aloha