Rationality and the Conflict of Values

We have been talking about values.  So, let’s turn our attention to the most fundamental of questions: Why are values essential to civilization?  How can shared values provide stability, sanity and safety, as society passes through major disruptions and change?

Most perplexing, why do our own personal values sometimes conflict with each other?

Human values grounded in religious teachings have remained relatively consistent for thousands of years.  The great majority are still accepted as valid today despite a society that is largely indifferent or even hostile to religion.

Since ancient times the history of ideas has been dominated by the assumption that society, and indeed all of human reality, is an integrated and coherent whole, governed by rules that are consistent and rational.

Consequently, it has been assumed that every genuine question must have a single correct answer and that the true answers to all questions must be compatible.

To put it another way, all truths were assumed to be harmonious, and when accurately understood could be expected to conform in consonance with one another.

This thinking is certainly logical, and it is reasonable that people would wish to believe in it.

However, as the human world has become more complex, we have been confronted with uncompromising evidence that reality and truth are not so simple.

We find ourselves increasingly challenged by choices that are incommensurable – that is, impossible to compare or measure against one another.  And, our most cherished values can come into direct conflict with one another, despite each being entirely good and reasonable in its’ own right.

This in no way questions the facts or the validity of the values.  Rather, it challenges us to make difficult moral judgments in complex circumstances.

Clearly, increasing complexity and morally perplexing choices will be present in our lives from now on.

Even science, the realm of endeavor most closely associated with reason and logic, is confronted with problems that present moral dilemmas – choices between evils.  And, the nature of complexity has proven mathematically impervious to predictability and rational expectations.

I do not deny an ultimate holistic conception of reality as an all-inclusive functional domain – one true Reality.

However, I suggest that its’ character requires us to mature – mentally, emotionally, spiritually – by engaging with ambiguity, paradox, and logical incongruities, all of which are intrinsic aspects of the world we are given.

I believe that to a limited extent such adversities can be addressed in similar ways by religious and non-religious people alike.  All of us face the daunting challenge of distinguishing between true reality and the myriad alternative realities imagined by the human mind.

Unsurprisingly, the earliest historical references to conflicting values and moral dilemmas appear in religious literature.

An incident I find most compelling is Jesus’ confrontation with a crowd of people who brought accusations of adultery against an unidentified woman.

Her accusers ended up walking away from Jesus (and from her) confounded by the rationality of His response to conflicting values. (John 8)

The letter of the law was not good enough.  It was a moment which I believe to be a turning point in human history.

The Apostle Paul describes an agonizing mental and spiritual ordeal in which he confronted insoluble choices.  His may be the earliest written account of the dilemmas presented by the two-fold nature of the human Will. (Romans 7)

Augustine, the philosopher and theologian of the 4th and 5th centuries, confronts the same problem in his “Confessions”, and “On Free Choice of the Will”, without resolution.

He finally reports his conclusion in “The City of God”, close to the end of his life.  And it is not what many would expect.

Augustine says we can only engage effectively with the conflicts and incongruities in life by means of love.

Yes, love, the ultimate law of unity and understanding that transcends diversity and differences, which prepares the way for problem-solving, and which aligns all aspects of our lives in a functional whole.

The way has been prepared for us in this world with severe tests of intellect and soul that will change us as we must be changed.

Tom

Dear readers:  Watch for the next post on or about August 23.

Will the Center Hold?

Seeking an American renewal will be an arduous task requiring genuine dialog and rational negotiations. Basic values and national purpose need to be on the table.  Our differences are great and some have not been resolved for 200 years.  But, civilized debate may not turn out quite as we expect – if all sides actually listen.

At this very challenging moment for Americans I suggest that the goal of civil dialog should be to answer the following questions:

Will a courageous few stand together at the center of national unity?

Are we willing to rise above our differences to rebuild civil society based on moral responsibility and basic shared values?

Will this alliance of loyal and determined citizens establish itself as a civilized American “center” that transcends culture, religion, politics?

Will the center hold?

As difficult as it is to visualize how this can happen, I expect Americans will rise to necessity. Because we must.

The only alternative could easily be catastrophic collapse – with no future possibility of influencing receptive minds or furthering personal agendas.

I believe such a challenging course of action can ultimately succeed because it does not need to begin with large numbers.  A small unified core group of determined Americans can make this happen.  But, it will require citizens with vision, tenacity, and compassion who invoke a powerful moral presence.

Such an honorable vision for the future which embodies a generous and welcoming spirit will be immensely attractive to a nation desperate to feel solid ground beneath its’ feet.  Increasing numbers will respond.  A few at first, then many.

I expect the vision of a civil order based on trust and responsibility will draw Americans to it from every walk of life – from every religious faith, from every economic condition and political philosophy.

Why?  Because without safety, civility, and a stable order no one will be listening.  The business of the nation will grind to a halt.

The first priority must be to defend the identity and character of the United States as a constitutional republic.  The second priority will be to do what Americans have always done: to debate our many differences with fairness and dignity.

What is essential is not that we agree on all aspects of personal belief, but that we restore the integrity of a civil society that allows for constructive cooperation, so that we can secure the safety of our families and the stability of civil order.

If this is indeed our priority, we cannot allow America to disintegrate in unrestrained acrimony.  We will have to choose our battles.  Some issues might be argued more effectively on another day.

James Madison fought to have slavery abolished by the Constitution when it was first drafted in 1787.  It was painful for him to walk away from that vision, but he finally realized it threatened to kill the entire project.

It took decades for citizen abolitionists to get the job done.

Today, however, agreement about certain principles will be immediately necessary.  What must these be?

What are the core principles that will put America on the road to a self-respecting future? Not the core principles held dear by each of us personally, but rather those necessary to pull a diverse people together to make our local communities safe and dependable.

Each of us must consider our personal willingness to engage in respectful, meaningful dialog concerning these questions.

As regular readers know, I have suggested several principles in this blog that I consider essential.  In addition to a firm defense of the Constitution, I have written of the necessity for trustworthiness and civility, for moral responsibility and the concept of constructive action.

A fully American future can only be reached by identifying where we can find common purpose.

An inclusive vision of the future does not require agreement, but rather genuine curious interest and understanding – and a shared loyalty to the nation we love.  Only then can we work together on real problems and real needs.

We are either all in, seeking to build a free and fair society, or we are each on our own in a disintegrating world.

Tom

Dear readers, please look for the next post on or about July 19.

Principled Means, Principled Ends

These are perilous times.  We find ourselves confronted with growing social and economic instability and a clouded future.

We do not want to sit on our hands.  Yet, uncertainty and unprecedented complexity make it hard to see the way forward.  How easy it would be to let emotions rule, tipping our lives into chaos and endangering the principles we depend upon.

It is with this in mind that I take up where I left off in the previous post (May 30).  There are two reasons why political violence will not get Americans where we want to go.  One is tactical.  The other is strategic and more important.

The mythic ideal of the citizen soldier remains deeply engrained in the American psyche.  The problem is that if we imagine a heroic Star Wars scenario in defense of freedom and justice we are dreaming.

Any patriot preparing today for armed resistance in the tradition of 1776 will pit himself against a formidable opponent.  He will be outmaneuvered and outgunned by fully militarized police possessing the most advanced surveillance technology and backed by massive firepower.

Marine veteran James Rock made this very clear in his comment two weeks ago (on the Facebook page).

However, there is a more fundamental problem, and it is this:  Who exactly do you intend to fight?

American law enforcement agencies and the United States military are served by loyal, committed Americans.   These are our people, our sons and daughters, friends and neighbors.  They are working people, they have families, and they care about the future as we all do.

It is our responsibility to win them over, not beat them up.  They should be approached respectfully, with persuasive argument and bighearted example.

As I wrote in the last post, violence committed by Americans against Americans would contradict the rationale behind the incentive for violence itself.   It would be self-contradictory, pitting us against one another and subverting the integrity and viability of the American Idea as a guiding force for the good.

Our views on defending the Constitution or the corruption of principles are serious matters.  But, public servants, police officers and bureaucrats, are not the problem.

We must respect these people, not just as a matter of principle, but because we need them. They are essential to a constructive solution and we need to win their trust.

Americans are not to be persuaded when we are attacked, not for some high-minded cause or anything else.  When faced with hostility we naturally close ranks, and clear thinking stops.

Even the misguided rebellion of tiny splinter groups will be destructive to the cause of liberty.  Any resort to force can easily lead to cascading consequences in which violence begets violence in a downward spiral, tearing the fabric of the Republic and threatening both progress and principle.

Furthermore, it is simply not necessary.

Change is needed that is real and lasting, built on the solid ground of principle and trust, of moral responsibility and dependable communities – not quicksand.

I never said this would be easy, so let me be clear.  The skills, attitudes, and discipline that create trust are at the heart of what we need to learn if we are to build a future for the nation as a whole.

This is more than a matter of survival.  For thousands of years local communities have formed the foundations of civilization.  The essential concern in the present hour, and the basis by which to judge constructive action, must be the spirit and the quality of the future we wish for.

It will be our means that determine the ends we seek.

This is not a theoretical nicety, but hard-nosed truth.  Understanding it will determine success or failure.

Americans are capable of being decent, patient and forbearing.  Personal values and views must be respected, but if we are to identify shared values, ensure comprehensive security, and begin to rebuild a stable civil order, it will be necessary to rise above our differences.

Going to war with our fellow citizens makes no sense.  Indeed, the ends we seek could be delayed for decades and possibly destroyed by impractical or intemperate courses of action.

Tom

A note to regular readers: Thank you for the comments, ideas, and perspectives shared (mostly on the Facebook page) in recent weeks.  This project would be impossible without you!

Please watch for the next post on or about July 4: Will the Center Hold?

Security and the Use of Force

I will address two questions involving the potential use of force in defending ourselves. The first is related to the security of our families and communities, the topic of recent blog posts.  The second relates to our ultimate purpose— the effective means by which the foundations of the American Republic can be secured and strengthened.

I will consider the first in this post and the second in the coming weeks.

There are several security issues that will concern us going forward.  Food security may become a serious threat to communities, and the disillusionment of our young people may have the most profound implications for the future.  However, the most unpredictable danger will be the unstable individual or group approaching from outside.

Whether unexpected visitors might be mentally unstable or motivated by dogmatic ideologies, or simply be in desperate need, will not be immediately apparent.

We would do well to deal with visitors in a respectful and humane manner, while remaining cautious and defensive.  The potential danger is real.  We must respond judiciously, communicating clearly with them, while summoning fellow community members for assistance.

In my view, we will also do well to remain sensitive to any positive value that might be presenting itself.  New faces will sometimes come to us with good character and valuable skills.

Gracious hospitality will always set the right tone, even if a visit needs to be kept brief.  Some of us have better verbal skills than others, or possess more disarming personalities.  Others may have weapons training or know martial arts.

An effective set of tools is offered by Target Focus Training (TFT), which includes skills for personal defense against lethal weapons.

If we keep weapons in the home we must manage them with utmost care.  Any weapon is an ever-present liability when kept in close proximity to our families.  Emotions can run high when we experience hardship.  As we all know, a gun can easily kill a loved one, even without an external threat.

In addition to first aid training, which is essential, each of us can seek conflict management and other defensive and peace-making skills.  It would be wise to prepare ourselves well in advance.  A list of self-determined guidelines and personal thresholds for action can be memorized in preparation for the unexpected.

It is important that our conscious purpose should not only be safety and survival, but also to build the principles we care about into our future.

Courage is a priceless virtue.  Not the courage to fight, but the courage to care.  It takes a brave heart to make peace, but compassion must be buttressed by backbone.

Women sometimes embrace this balance with natural equanimity, but the potential for danger must never be forgotten.

Meeting difficult encounters with a positive attitude is an ability that can save lives.  This can make the difference between friendship and enmity, between collaboration and catastrophe.

We have entered a long crisis.  People are coming unhinged.  We will often encounter the walking-wounded, and dangers will not always be obvious.

We will meet good people who have lost hope or are grieving deeply.  They may appear abrupt or angry at first.  We may not be sure who or what they are – but will soon come to realize we need not fear them.

Each of us is wounded in some way.

This is not about being nice or even socially responsible.  This is about treating one another with mutual respect as Americans.  It is about reconstructing the United States as the kind of country we want to live in, one soul at a time.

It all comes down to purpose: Security requires preparedness; healing requires grace; rebuilding the foundations requires vision.

We cannot afford to live in a state of siege behind walls that isolate us and appear hostile to others.  To give in to fear and retreat into defensive enclaves of survivalists would be to admit defeat.

Let us rather win over the confused, heal the wounded, and welcome the returning prodigal friend.  This is the true path to security.

Mature leadership greets each day with an open heart and an inclusive vision.

Tom

A note to readers:  You can support this blog and book project by suggesting that your friends and associates take a look.  And, please watch for the next post on or about May 17: “First Principles”.

Foundations for Security

In seeking security for those we care for at a time of crisis we would do well to consider the qualities of order and stability that security requires.

Safety depends on the conditions we put in place around us, and therefore upon our ability to provide for necessities and to create a dependable environment.  This includes access to adequate food and healthcare, a roof over our heads, safe functional sanitation, and absence of conflict, among other things.  None of these will be possible without proactive, trustworthy relationships with our neighbors.

With deteriorating social and economic conditions we will be exposed to the failure of institutions and systems we have depended on for basic needs.  Our neighborhoods may feel less safe.  Police protection may become less dependable.  Some individuals might lose their balance and become disoriented.

It is quite possible that we will find it necessary to organize our communities effectively to meet needs and resolve problems.

In a time of social degradation it would, in my view, be wise to think carefully and rationally about the potential for sociopathic violence.

But, let’s be clear: The possibility for violence is only one among a wide range of security concerns.  In the coming weeks I will touch on some of these, including ways we can both prepare for and limit personal encounters with violence.

As we experience increasing disorder, I expect it will become increasingly clear that we must assume responsibility for our own necessities.

Food security will be a major problem if we do not learn how to produce and preserve food.  Hunger is not fun and hungry people are often not very nice.  By the way, March and April are crucial months for planning gardens and preparing the soil in the northern hemisphere.

The greatest test for some may be the sudden recognition that we do not really know how to be self-sufficient.  Our well-being will depend on how we respond to these challenges.  And so, as we find our way forward in a new reality it will become apparent that the requirements of security are in fact the requirements of stable communities.

That said, let’s be realistic about the relative nature of security.

President Dwight Eisenhower, a five star general, reminded us of the limits: “If you want total security,” he said, “go to prison. There you’re fed, clothed, given medical care and so on. The only thing lacking… is freedom.”

Like President Eisenhower, Helen Keller also had a way of putting things in perspective.  Being both deaf and blind gave her insights into life that the rest of us would do well to think about.

Security is mostly a superstition,” she said. “It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it.  Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure.  Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.”

Fear can interfere with our ability to address problems and to keep our heads clear in difficult circumstances.  However, security concerns certainly do need to be addressed to keep our families safe and our communities productive.

I suggest that a sequence of responsibilities applies to local communities:  Freedom depends on security, which depends on stability, which in turn depends upon honesty, trust, dependability, and forbearance.  All these depend on personal commitment and generosity of spirit.

There is one other essential component as well, which I call “constructive action.”  By this I mean the active condition in which dependable working relationships are built.

Trust and dependability among neighbors can only be functional in the presence of constructive action guided by principle and a shared sense of purpose.

Principle and purpose cannot be constrained.  Stability is only possible when we are in motion.  Constructive action supported by a shared sense of purpose will be the only way to navigate through dark times.

Stability is the necessary foundation for security.  And, constructive action allows us dynamic flexibility in responding to what the world throws at us.

All of this will also depend on our readiness to work closely with people we have differences with.

We cannot be tentative about this.  Building trustworthy communities will not be easy.  Our future depends on it.

Tom

Dear readers:  Please look for the next post on or about April 6.  To receive alerts by email when new posts are available, please click the “Follow” button on the right side of this page.

America: Meaning, Action, Place

We have been considering the value of local communities as the means for seeking safety and stability during a long crisis.  Further, I have argued that communities are the basic building-blocks of a civilized society.  Well-organized, fully functional communities will become the foundations for an American future we can respect and believe in.

Thoughtful readers will have recognized that the strategy proposed here implies a premise – a pattern and framework for action that few have imagined.

The United States is a large, diverse, and pluralistic nation.  Diversity and pluralism have long been elemental expressions of our national identity, and compelling evidence of the strength in the constitutional model that America demonstrates to a troubled world.

How can American communities restore meaning to the vision we have inherited?

No political philosophy is offered here; only a reminder that Americans are the beneficiaries of a priceless birthright: An exceptional Constitution, an “idea”, and a belief in ourselves that has carried us through crises and hardship for more than 200 years.

There is only one means for recovering the vision, attitude, and confidence that makes us who we are.  This will be through honest, rational engagement in the commitment to resolve local problems and address shared needs with our fellow-citizens.

The decisive success of such a bold undertaking can only be forged in the crucible of genuine communities – in our own communities – built in place, wherever we are.

To pull ourselves out of crisis and set course for a truly American future, it will be necessary to learn the lessons of civility, of operative unity, and the practical skills required for organizing and collaboration.

Ultimately these can only be learned through personal engagement and experience. We cannot overcome our fears and regain confidence in the future by isolating ourselves – either physically or emotionally.

The profile and characteristics of community required to overcome social disorder and estrangement will reflect, as much as possible, the diverse composition of America as a whole.

Yes, this will be extremely challenging.  But, we have no choice.

I have presented the rationale for ensuring that we know our neighbors and can depend on them.  I have spoken of the necessity to rise above our differences, at least to the extent that we can collaborate in addressing local problems and needs.

The resources, skills and tools needed for these endeavors are available and can be learned by anyone.  And, I assure you that the frame of mind that allows community to flourish can be achieved by every American.

However, we have not talked about the challenges posed by ideologies or dogmatism or domineering personalities, or the inevitable demands of simply working with difficult people.

We will do this in the blog and in the book, and I will need your feedback to keep it real.

First and foremost, however, one thing must be made perfectly clear.

Those who retreat into isolated communities that represent distinct religious groups or political ideologies, will launch us backward and set the stage for disaster.

An isolationist, fear-based attitude would be subversive to both the purpose and structure of the United States as a Constitutional Republic.

Such an error would be an ironic rejection of everything America stands for, not simply projecting a hostile predisposition toward perceived evils, but toward the integrity of the Republic itself.

The future is ours to build.  The center must hold.

There are effective ways to protect the Constitution and restore the American Idea.  Alienation can only lead to chaos, and violence will subvert its’ own intended purpose.

Our methods and means must be fully compatible with the future we seek.  As the means, so the end.

Neither morality or social order are the products of abstract intellectual rules.  Rather, they are lived in and through active working relationships that engender mutual bonds and instill values that transcend selfish interests.

Where there is a will, fellowship among people and groups will lead to the communication and understanding needed to promote stability and the regeneration of the nation.

Ours is a great honor and responsibility: To restore the United States of America to its rightful place in history.  The future of humankind depends on it.

Tom

Dear readers:  Please look for the next post on or about March 23.  You may register for emailed alerts by clicking Follow on the right side of this page.

Walking the Talk

Big corporations sometimes show little regard for local communities.  Geared for profit-making, not citizenship or moral responsibility, giant business organizations are resistant to compromise.  They are neither human nor humane.

Living in an economy dominated by corporate culture, we find ourselves perceived as economic units, “consumers” pressed into service by a materialist mindset.

It should not be surprising to find ourselves alienated from mass society, isolated from one another, and struggling to find meaning in life.  The interconnected relationships that civil society depends on have evaporated.

Americans need not submit to such a destiny.  Ours is a nation of people, not machines.  We are prepared to work, but not as tools.  We are social beings, but independent in mind and spirit.

In reality independence is relative, but always an attitude and a choice.  The independence that leads to self-sufficiency could actually become a matter of life or death.  It can mean food security or financial stability or being a good parent.

The meaning of independence takes on new dimensions when crises strike.  But, there is much more to this than survival.

It is in communities and in the quality of active human relationships that we form the matrix of a free society.  Freedom is realized in serving a principled purpose, and in the vitality of lives that are engaged, responsible, and in motion.

Constructive relationships with other people allow ideas to be shared.  Our ability to solve problems is enhanced.  In trustworthy relationships, self-sufficiency gains strength and dependability.

Are we willing to take this on?

We might not want to put up with community.  It’s hard work.  Some try to avoid it all together.  But, it is impossible to ignore it in a civilized society – unless we take snowshoes, an axe and a rifle, and walk into the wilderness.

I know how attractive solitude can be.  But, I also know it would limit my opportunities to grow as an individual, as well as the honor of dedication to the country I love.

Historically, the basic building blocks of the American Republic have been communities. There was a time when the bonds that held everything together were the personal relationships that made communities work.

Communities are formed by the inspiration and determination of individuals and families, interwoven into mutually supportive networks, and networks of networks.

It will not be easy to regain what came to us more naturally in the past.  Yet, our future depends on loyalty to the “American Idea”, a vision that embraces unity, diversity, and trustworthiness.

Americans are accustomed to contentious politics and unconstrained partisanship.  There will always be value in the clash of differing opinions.  However, we have entered a period of instability and potential danger.  This is the time to rise above our differences to repair and protect the interwoven fabric of the Republic.

We face unprecedented complexity, deteriorating institutions, and a growing scarcity of resources.  Things will not work the way we expect they should, and there will be no one to resolve the problems except ourselves.

If we are to rebuild a society in which the foolishness of the past is not repeated, we must think constructively about the principles and human qualities that are needed.

Generosity and good will are essential human virtues, but they are only the beginning.

Finding solutions to community problems requires consultation, collaboration, foresight and creative imagination – all of which call for a maximum diversity of practical skills, knowledge, and perspective.

This might sound idealistic.  In fact, it is the only way to build communities and, I believe, to restore a broken society.

Learning how to do it will be difficult and often frustrating.  But those with steadfast patience and vision – who can see the end in the beginning – will carry though and prevail.

Resolving differences of opinion or non-core values is not necessary for this to work, and may often be impossible.

While giving one another space to have genuine differences can be uncomfortable and aggravating, holding ourselves apart over disagreements while hurling insults can only reap destruction.

Rising above our differences can be a formidable challenge, but there is no other way.

Tom

Dear readers:  Please look for the next post on or about March 9.