Arete: History and Etymology

Arete (moral virtue)
Wikipedia

Arete (Greekἀρετή), in its basic sense, means “excellence of any kind”.[1] The term may also mean “moral virtue”.[1] In its earliest appearance in Greek, this notion of excellence was ultimately bound up with the notion of the fulfillment of purpose or function: the act of living up to one’s full potential.

The term from Homeric times onwards is not gender specific. Homer applies the term of both the Greek and Trojan heroes as well as major female figures, such as Penelope, the wife of the Greek hero Odysseus. In the Homeric poems, Arete is frequently associated with bravery, but more often with effectiveness. The man or woman of Arete is a person of the highest effectiveness; they use all their faculties—strength, bravery and wit—to achieve real results. In the Homeric world, then, Arete involves all of the abilities and potentialities available to humans.

In some contexts, Arete is explicitly linked with human knowledge, where the expressions “virtue is knowledge” and “Arete is knowledge” are used interchangeably. The highest human potential is knowledge and all other human abilities are derived from this central capacity. If Arete is knowledge and study, the highest human knowledge is knowledge about knowledge itself; in this light, the theoretical study of human knowledge, which Aristotle called “contemplation”, is the highest human ability and happiness.[2]

History

The Ancient Greeks applied the term to anything: for example, the excellence of a chimney, the excellence of a bull to be bred and the excellence of a man. The meaning of the word changes depending on what it describes, since everything has its own peculiar excellence; the arete of a man is different from the arete of a horse. This way of thinking comes first from Plato, where it can be seen in the Allegory of the Cave.[3] In particular, the aristocratic class was presumed, essentially by definition, to be exemplary of arete: “The root of the word is the same as aristos, the word which shows superlative ability and superiority, and aristos was constantly used in the plural to denote the nobility.”[4]

By the 5th and 4th centuries BC, arete as applied to men had developed to include quieter virtues, such as dikaiosyne (justice) and sophrosyne (self-restraint). Plato attempted to produce a moral philosophy that incorporated this new usage,[5] but it was in the work of Aristotle that the doctrine of arete found its fullest flowering. Aristotle’s Doctrine of the Mean is a paradigm example of his thinking.

Arete has also been used by Plato when talking about athletic training and also the education of young boys. Stephen G. Miller delves into this usage in his book “Ancient Greek Athletics”. Aristotle is quoted as deliberating between education towards arete “…or those that are theoretical”.[6] Educating towards arete in this sense means that the boy would be educated towards things that are useful in life. However, even Plato himself says that arete is not something that can be agreed upon. He says, “Nor is there even an agreement about what constitutes arete, something that leads logically to a disagreement about the appropriate training for arete.”[7] To say that arete has a common definition of excellence or fulfillment may be an overstatement simply because it was very difficult to pinpoint arete, much less the proper ways to go about obtaining it. […]

Homer

In Homer‘s Iliad and Odyssey, “arete” is used mainly to describe heroes and nobles and their mobile dexterity, with special reference to strength and courage, but it is not limited to this. Penelope‘s arete, for example, relates to co-operation, for which she is praised by Agamemnon. The excellence of the gods generally included their power, but, in the Odyssey (13.42), the gods can grant excellence to a life, which is contextually understood to mean prosperity. Arete was also the name of King Alcinous‘s wife.

According to Bernard Knox‘s notes found in the Robert Fagles translation of The Odyssey, “arete” is also associated with the Greek word for “pray”, araomai.[8]

All Things Shining
by Hubert Dreyfus
pp. 61-63

Homer’s epic poems brought into focus a notion of arete, or excellence in life, that was at the center of the Greek understanding of human being.6 Many admirers of Greek culture have attempted to define this notion, but success here requires avoiding two prominent temptations. There is the temptation to patronize that we have already mentioned. But there is also a temptation to read a modern sensibility into Homer’s time. One standard translation of the Greek word arete as “virtue” runs the risk of this kind of retroactive reading: for any attempt to interpret the Homeric Greek notion of human excellence in terms of “virtue”—especially if one hears in this word its typical Christian or even Roman overtones—is bound to go astray. Excellence in the Greek sense involves neither the Christian notion of humility and love nor the Roman ideal of stoic adherence to one’s duty.7 Instead, excellence in the Homeric world depends crucially on one’s sense of gratitude and wonder.

Nietzsche was one of the first to understand that Homeric excellence bears little resemblance to modern moral agency. His view was that the Homeric world understood nobility in terms of the overpowering strength of noble warriors. The effect of the ensuing Judeo-Christian tradition, on this Nietzschean reading, was to enfeeble the Homeric understanding of excellence by substituting the meekness of the lamb for the strength and power of the noble warrior.8

Nietzsche was certainly right that the Homeric tradition valorizes the strong, noble hero; and he was right, too, that in some important sense the Homeric account of excellence is foreign to our basic moralizing assumptions. But there is something that the Nietzschean account leaves out. As Bernard Knox emphasizes, the Greek word arete is etymologically related to the Greek verb “to pray” (araomai).9 It follows that Homer’s basic account of human excellence involves the necessity of being in an appropriate relationship to whatever is understood to be sacred in the culture. Helen’s greatness, on this interpretation, is not properly measured in terms of the degree to which she is morally responsible for her actions.

What makes Helen great in Homer’s world is her ability to live a life that is constantly responsive to golden Aphrodite, the shining example of the sacred erotic dimension of existence. Likewise, Achilles had a special kind of receptivity to Ares and his warlike way of life; Odysseus had Athena, with her wisdom and cultural adaptability, to look out for him. Presumably, the master craftsmen of Homer’s world worked in the light of Hephaestus’s shining. In order to engage with this understanding of human excellence, we will have to think clearly about how the Homeric Greeks understood themselves. Why would it make sense to describe their lives in relation to the presence and absence of the gods?

Several questions focus this kind of approach. What is the phenomenon that Homer is responding to when he says that a god intervened or in some way took part in an action or event? Is this phenomenon recognizable to us, even if only marginally? And if Homer’s reference to the gods is something other than an attempt to pass off moral responsibility for one’s actions, then what exactly is it? Only by facing these questions head on can we understand whether it is possible—or desirable—to lure back Homer’s polytheistic gods.

The gods are essential to the Homeric Greek understanding of what it is to be a human being at all. As Peisistratus—the son of wise old Nestor—says toward the beginning of the Odyssey, “All men need the gods.”10 The Greeks were deeply aware of the ways in which our successes and our failures—indeed, our very actions themselves—are never completely under our control. They were constantly sensitive to, amazed by, and grateful for those actions that one cannot perform on one’s own simply by trying harder: going to sleep, waking up, fitting in, standing out, gathering crowds together, holding their attention with a speech, changing their mood, or indeed being filled with longing, desire, courage, wisdom, and so on. Homer sees each of these achievements as a particular god’s gift. To say that all men need the gods therefore is to say, in part at least, that we are the kinds of beings who are at our best when we find ourselves acting in ways that we cannot—and ought not—entirely take credit for.

The Discovery of the Mind
by Bruno Snell
pp. 158-160

The words for virtue and good, arete and agathos, are at first by no means clearly distinguished from the area of profit. In the early period they are not as palpably moral in content as might be supposed; we may compare the German terms Tu end and gut which originally stood for the ‘suitable’ (taugende) and the ‘fitting’ (cf. Gatte). When Homer says that a man is good, agathos, he does not mean thereby that he is morally unobjectionable, much less good-hearted, but rather that he is useful, proficient, and capable of vigorous action. We also speak of a good warrior or a good instrument. Similarly arete, virtue, does not denote a moral property but nobility, achievement, success and reputation. And yet these words have an unmistakable tendency toward the moral because, unlike ‘happiness’ or ‘profit’, they designate qualities for which a man may win the respect of his whole community. Arete is ‘ability’ and ‘achievement’, characteristics which are expected of a ‘good’, an ‘able’ man, an aner agathos. From Homer to Plato and beyond these words spell out the worth of a man and his work. Any change in their meaning, therefore, would indicate a reassessment of values. It is possible to show how at various times the formation and consolidation of social groups and even of states was connected with people’s ideas about the ‘good’. But that would be tantamount to writing a history of Greek culture. In Homer, to possess ‘virtue’ or to be ‘good’ means to realize one’s nature, and one’s wishes, to perfection. Frequently happiness and profit form the reward, but it is no such extrinsic prospect which leads men to virtue and goodness. The expressions contain a germ of the notion of entelechy. A Homeric hero, for instance, is capable of ‘reminding himself’, or of ‘experiencing’, that he is noble. ‘Use your experience to become what you are’ advises Pindar who adheres to this image of arete. The ‘good’ man fulfils his proper function, prattei ta heautou, as Plato demands it; he achieves his own perfection. And in the early period this also entails that he is good in the eyes of others, for the notions and definitions of goodness are plain and uniform: a man appears to others as he is.

In the Iliad (11.404—410) Odysseus reminds himself that he is an aristocrat, and thereby resolves his doubts how he should conduct himself in a critical situation. He does it by concentrating on the thought that he belongs to a certain social order, and that it is his duty to fulfill the ‘virtue’ of that order. The universal which underlies the predication ‘I am a noble’ is the group; he does not reflect on an abstract ‘good ’but upon the circle of which he claims membership. It is the same as if an officer were to say: ‘As an officer I must do this or that,’ thus gauging his action by the rigid conception of honour peculiar to his caste.

Aretan is ‘to thrive’; arete is the objective which the early nobles attach to achievement and success. By means of arete the aristocrat implements the ideal of his order—and at the same time distinguishes himself above his fellow nobles. With his arete the individual subjects himself to the judgment of his community, but he also surpasses it as an individual. Since the days of Jacob Burckhardt the competitive character of the great Greek achievements has rightly been stressed. Well into the classical period, those who compete for arete are remunerated with glory and honour. The community puts its stamp of approval on the value which the individual sets on himself. Thus honour, time, is even more significant than arete for the growth of the moral consciousness, because it is more evident, more palpable to all. From his earliest boyhood the young nobleman is urged to think of his glory and his honour; he must look out for his good name, and he must see to it that he commands the necessary respect. For honour is a very sensitive plant; wherever it is destroyed the moral existence of the loser collapses. Its importance is greater even than that of life itself; for the sake of glory and honour the knight is prepared to sacrifice his life.

pp. 169-172

The truth of the matter is that it was not the concept of justice but that of arete which gave rise to the call for positive individual achievement, the moral imperative which the early Greek community enjoins upon its members who in turn acknowledge it for themselves. A man may have purely egotistical motives for desiring virtue and achievement, but his group gives him considerably more credit for these ideals than if he were to desire profit or happiness. The community expects, and even demands, arete. Conversely a man who accomplishes a high purpose may convince himself so thoroughly that his deed serves the interests of a supra-personal, a universal cause that the alternative of egotism or altruism becomes irrelevant. What does the community require of the individual? What does the individual regard as universal, as eternal? These, in the archaic age, are the questions about which the speculations on arete revolve.

The problem remains simple as long as the individual cherishes the same values as the rest of his group. Given this condition, even the ordinary things in life are suffused with an air of dignity, because they are part of custom and tradition. The various daily functions, such as rising in the morning and the eating of meals, are sanctified by prayer and sacrifice, and the crucial events in the life of man—birth, marriage, burial—are for ever fixed and rooted in the rigid forms of cult. Life bears the imprint of a permanent authority which is divine, and all activity is, therefore, more than just personal striving. No one doubts the meaning of life; the hallowed tradition is carried on with implicit trust in the holy wisdom of its rules. In such a society, if a man shows unusual capacity he is rewarded as a matter of course. In Homer a signal achievement is, as one would expect, also honoured with a special permanence, through the song of the bard which outlasts the deed celebrated and preserves it for posterity. This simple concept is still to be found in Pindar’s Epinicians. The problem of virtue becomes more complex when the ancient and universally recognized ideal of chivalry breaks down. Already in Homeric times a differentiation sets in. As we have seen in the story of the quarrel over the arms of Achilles, the aretai become a subject for controversy. The word arete itself contains a tendency toward the differentiation of values, since it is possible to speak of the virtues of various men and various things. As more sections of society become aware of their own merit, they are less willing to conform to the ideal of the once-dominant class. It is discovered that the ways of men are diverse, and that arete may be attained in all sorts of professions. Whereas aristocratic society had been held together, not to say made possible by a uniform notion of arete, people now begin to ask what true virtue is. The crisis of the social system is at the same time the crisis of an ideal, and thus of morality. Archilochus says (fr. 41)that different men have their hearts quickened in various ways. But he also states, elaborating a thought which first crops up in the Odyssey: the mind of men is as Zeus ushers in each day, and they think whatever they happen to hit upon (fr. 68). One result of this splitting up of the various forms of life is a certain failure of nerve. Man begins to feel that he is changeable and exposed to many variable forces. This insight deepens the moral reflexions of the archaic period; the search for the good becomes a search for the permanent.

The topic of the virtues is especially prominent in the elegy. Several elegiac poets furnish lists of the various aretai which they exemplify by means of well-known myths. Their purpose is to clarify for themselves their own attitudes toward the conflicting standards of life. Theognis (699 ff.) stands at the end of this development; with righteous indignation he complains that the masses no longer have eyes for anything except wealth. For him material gain has, in contrast with earlier views, become an enemy of virtue.

The first to deal with this general issue is Tyrtaeus. His call to arms pronounces the Spartan ideal; perhaps he was the one to formulate that ideal for the first time. Nothing matters but the bravery of the soldier fighting for his country. Emphatically he rejects all other accomplishments and virtues as secondary: the swiftness of the runner in the arena, or the strength of the wrestler, or again physical beauty, wealth, royal power, and eloquence, are as nothing before bravery. In the Iliad also a hero best proves his virtue by standing firm against the enemy, but that is not his only proof; the heroic figures of Homer dazzle us precisely because of their richness in human qualities. Achilles is not only brave but also beautiful, ‘swift of foot’, he knows how to sing, and so forth. Tyrtaeus sharply reduces the scope of the older arete; what is more, he goes far beyond Homer in magnifying the fame of fortitude and the ignominy which awaits the coward. Of the fallen he actually says that they acquire immortality (9.32). This one-sidedness is due to the fact that the community has redoubled its claim on the individual; Sparta in particular taxed the energies of its citizenry to the utmost during the calamitous period of the Messenian wars. The community is a thing of permanence for whose sake the individual mortal has to lay down his life, and in whose memory lies his only chance for any kind of survival. Even in Tyrtaeus, however, these claims of the group do not lead to a termite morality. Far from prescribing a blind and unthinking service to the whole, or a spirit of slavish self-sacrifice, Tyrtaeus esteems the performance of the individual as a deed worthy of fame. This is a basic ingredient of arete which, in spite of countless shifts and variations, is never wholly lost.

Philosophy Before Socrates
by Richard D. McKirahan
pp. 366-369

Aretē and Agathos These two basic concepts of Greek morality are closely related and not straightforwardly translatable into English. As an approximation, aretē can be rendered “excellence” or “goodness” (sometimes “virtue”), and agathos as “excellent” or “good.” The terms are related in that a thing or person is agathos if and only if it has aretē and just because it has aretē. The concepts apply to objects, conditions, and actions as well as to humans. They are connected with the concept of ergon (plural, erga), which may be rendered as “function” or “characteristic activity.” A good (agathos) person is one who performs human erga well, and similarly a good knife is a knife that performs the ergon of a knife well. The ergon of a knife is cutting, and an agathos knife is one that cuts well. Thus, the aretē of a knife is the qualities or characteristics a knife must have in order to cut well. Likewise, if a human ergon can be identified, an agathos human is one who can and on appropriate occasions does perform that ergon well, and human aretē is the qualities or characteristics that enable him or her to do so. The classical discussion of these concepts occurs after our period, in Aristotle,6 but he is only making explicit ideas that go back to Homer and which throw light on much of the pre-philosophical ethical thought of the Greeks.

This connection of concepts makes it automatic, virtually an analytic truth, that the right goal for a person—any person—is to be or become agathos. Even if that goal is unreachable for someone, the aretē–agathos standard still stands as an ideal against which to measure one’s successes and failures. However, there is room for debate over the nature of human erga, both whether there is a set of erga applicable to all humans and relevant to aretē and, supposing that there is such a set of erga, what those erga are. The existence of the aretē–agathos standard makes it vitally important to settle these issues, for otherwise human life is left adrift with no standards of conduct. […]

The moral scene Homer presents is appropriate to the society it represents and quite alien to our own. It is the starting point for subsequent moral speculation which no one in the later Greek tradition could quite forget. The development of Greek moral thought through the Archaic and Classical periods can be seen as the gradual replacement of the competitive by the cooperative virtues as the primary virtues of conduct and as the recognition and increasing recognition of the significance of people’s intentions as well as their actions.7

Rapid change in Greek society in the Archaic and Classical periods called for new conceptions of the ideal human and the ideal human life and activities. The Archaic period saw different kinds of rulers from the Homeric kings, and individual combat gave way to the united front of a phalanx of hoplites (heavily armed warriors). Even though the Homeric warrior-king was no longer a possible role in society, the qualities of good birth, beauty, courage, honor, and the abilities to give good counsel and rule well remained. Nevertheless, the various strands of the Homeric heroic ideal began to unravel. In particular, good birth, wealth, and fighting ability no longer automatically went together. This situation forced the issue: what are the best qualities we can possess? What constitutes human aretē? The literary sources contain conflicting claims about the best life for a person, the best kind of person to be, and the relative merits of qualities thought to be ingredients of human happiness. In one way or another these different conceptions of human excellence have Homeric origins, though they diverge from Homer’s conception and from one another.

Lack of space makes it impossible to present the wealth of materials that bear on this subject.8 I will confine discussion to two representatives of the aristocratic tradition who wrote at the end of the Archaic period. Pindar shows how the aristocratic ideal had survived and been transformed from the Homeric conception and how vital it remained as late as the early fifth century, and Theognis reveals how social, political, and economic reality was undermining that ideal.

p. 374

The increase in wealth and the shift in its distribution which had begun by the seventh century led to profound changes in the social and political scenes in the sixth and forced a wedge in among the complex of qualities which traditionally constituted aristocratic aretē. Pindar’s unified picture in which wealth, power, and noble birth tend to go together became ever less true to contemporary reality.

The aristocratic response to this changed situation receives its clearest expression in the poems attributed to Theognis and composed in the sixth and early fifth centuries. Even less than with Pindar can we find a consistent set of views advocated in these poems, but among the most frequently recurring themes are the view that money does not make the man, that many undeserving people are now rich and many deserving people (deserving because of their birth and social background) are now poor. It is noteworthy how Theognis plays on the different connotations of uses of the primary terms of value, agathos and aretē, and their opposites kakos and kakia: morally good vs. evil; well-born, noble vs. low-born; and politically and socially powerful vs. powerless. Since the traditional positive attributes no longer regularly all went together, it was important to decide which are most important, indeed which are the essential ingredients of human aretē.

pp. 379-382

In short, Protagoras taught his students how to succeed in public and private life. What he claimed to teach is, in a word, aretē. That this was his boast follows from the intimate connection between agathos and aretē as well as from the fact that a person with aretē is one who enjoys success, as measured by current standards. Anyone with the abilities Protagoras claimed to teach had the keys to a successful life in fifth-century Athens.

In fact, the key to success was rhetoric, the art of public speaking, which has a precedent in the heroic conception of aretē, which included excellence in counsel. But the Sophists’ emphasis on rhetoric must not be understood as hearkening back to Homeric values. Clear reasons why success in life depended on the ability to speak well in public can be found in fifth-century politics and society. […]

That is not to say that every kind of success depended on rhetoric. It could not make you successful in a craft like carpentry and would not on its own make you a successful military commander. Nor is it plausible that every student of Protagoras could have become another Pericles. Protagoras acknowledged that natural aptitude was required over and above diligence. […] Protagoras recognized that he could not make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, but he claimed to be able to develop a (sufficiently young) person’s abilities to the greatest extent possible.28

Pericles was an effective counselor in part because he could speak well but also by dint of his personality, experience, and intelligence. To a large extent these last three factors cannot be taught, but rhetoric can be offered as a tekhnē, a technical art or skill which has rules of its own and which can be instilled through training and practice. In these ways rhetoric is like medicine, carpentry, and other technical arts, but it is different in its seemingly universal applicability. Debates can arise on any conceivable subject, including technical ones, and rhetorical skill can be turned to the topic at hand whatever it may be. The story goes that Gorgias used his rhetorical skill to convince medical patients to undergo surgery when physicians failed to persuade them.29 Socrates turned the tables on the Sophists, arguing that if rhetoric has no specific subject matter, then so far from being a universal art, it should not be considered an art at all.30 And even if we grant that rhetoric is an art that can be taught, it remains controversial whether aretē can be taught and in what aretē consists. […]

The main charges against the Sophists are of two different sorts. First the charge of prostituting themselves. Plato emphasizes the money-making aspect of the Sophist’s work, which he uses as one of his chief criteria for determining that Socrates was not a Sophist. This charge contains two elements: the Sophists teach aretē for money, and they teach it to anyone who pays. Both elements have aristocratic origins. Traditionally aretē was learned from one’s family and friends and came as the result of a long process of socialization beginning in infancy. Such training and background can hardly be bought. Further, according to the aristocratic mentality most people are not of the right type, the appropriate social background, to aspire to aretē.

Lila
by Robert Pirsig
pp. 436-442

Digging back into ancient Greek history, to the time when this mythos-to-logos transition was taking place, Phædrus noted that the ancient rhetoricians of Greece, the Sophists, had taught what they called aretê , which was a synonym for Quality. Victorians had translated aretê as “virtue” but Victorian “virtue” connoted sexual abstinence, prissiness and a holier-than-thou snobbery. This was a long way from what the ancient Greeks meant. The early Greek literature, particularly the poetry of Homer, showed that aretê had been a central and vital term.

With Homer Phædrus was certain he’d gone back as far as anyone could go, but one day he came across some information that startled him. It said that by following linguistic analysis you could go even further back into the mythos than Homer. Ancient Greek was not an original language. It was descended from a much earlier one, now called the Proto-Indo-European language. This language has left no fragments but has been derived by scholars from similarities between such languages as Sanskrit, Greek and English which have indicated that these languages were fallouts from a common prehistoric tongue. After thousands of years of separation from Greek and English the Hindi word for “mother” is still “Ma.” Yoga both looks like and is translated as “yoke.” The reason an Indian rajah’ s title sounds like “regent” is because both terms are fallouts from Proto-Indo-European. Today a Proto-Indo-European dictionary contains more than a thousand entries with derivations extending into more than one hundred languages.

Just for curiosity’s sake Phædrus decided to see if aretê was in it. He looked under the “a” words and was disappointed to find it was not. Then he noted a statement that said that the Greeks were not the most faithful to the Proto-Indo-European spelling. Among other sins, the Greeks added the prefix “a” to many of the Proto-Indo-European roots. He checked this out by looking for aretê under “r.” This time a door opened.

The Proto-Indo-European root of aretê was the morpheme rt . There, beside aretê , was a treasure room of other derived “rt” words: “arithmetic,” “aristocrat,” “art,” “rhetoric,” “worth,” “rite,” “ritual,” “wright,” “right (handed)” and “right (correct).” All of these words except arithmetic seemed to have a vague thesaurus-like similarity to Quality. Phædrus studied them carefully, letting them soak in, trying to guess what sort of concept, what sort of way of seeing the world, could give rise to such a collection.

When the morpheme appeared in aristocrat and arithmetic the reference was to “firstness.” Rt meant first. When it appeared in art and wright it seemed to mean “created” and “of beauty.” “Ritual” suggested repetitive order. And the word right has two meanings: “right-handed” and “moral and esthetic correctness.” When all these meanings were strung together a fuller picture of the rt morpheme emerged. Rt referred to the “first, created, beautiful repetitive order of moral and esthetic correctness.” […]

There was just one thing wrong with this Proto-Indo-European discovery, something Phædrus had tried to sweep under the carpet at first, but which kept creeping out again. The meanings, grouped together, suggested something different from his interpretation of aretê . They suggested “importance” but it was an importance that was formal and social and procedural and manufactured, almost an antonym to the Quality he was talking about. Rt meant “quality” all right but the quality it meant was static, not Dynamic. He had wanted it to come out the other way, but it looked as though it wasn’t going to do it. Ritual. That was the last thing he wanted aretê to turn out to be. Bad news. It looked as though the Victorian translation of aretê as “virtue” might be better after all since “virtue” implies ritualistic conformity to social protocol. […]

Rta . It was a Sanskrit word, and Phædrus remembered what it meant: Rta was the “cosmic order of things.” Then he remembered he had read that the Sanskrit language was considered the most faithful to the Proto-Indo-European root, probably because the linguistic patterns had been so carefully preserved by the Hindu priests. […]

Rta , from the oldest portion of the Rg Veda , which was the oldest known writing of the Indo-Aryan language. The sun god, Sūrya , began his chariot ride across the heavens from the abode of rta. Varuna , the god for whom the city in which Phædrus was studying was named, was the chief support of rta .

Varuna was omniscient and was described as ever witnessing the truth and falsehood of men—as being “the third whenever two plot in secret.” He was essentially a god of righteousness and a guardian of all that is worthy and good. The texts had said that the distinctive feature of Varuna was his unswerving adherence to high principles. Later he was overshadowed by Indra who was a thunder god and destroyer of the enemies of the Indo-Aryans. But all the gods were conceived as “guardians of ta ,” willing the right and making sure it was carried out.

One of Phædrus’s old school texts, written by M. Hiriyanna, contained a good summary: “Rta , which etymologically stands for ‘course’ originally meant ‘cosmic order,’ the maintenance of which was the purpose of all the gods; and later it also came to mean ‘right,’ so that the gods were conceived as preserving the world not merely from physical disorder but also from moral chaos. The one idea is implicit in the other: and there is order in the universe because its control is in righteous hands.…”

The physical order of the universe is also the moral order of the universe. Rta is both. This was exactly what the Metaphysics of Quality was claiming. It was not a new idea. It was the oldest idea known to man.

This identification of rta and aretê was enormously valuable, Phædrus thought, because it provided a huge historical panorama in which the fundamental conflict between static and Dynamic Quality had been worked out. It answered the question of why aretê meant ritual. Rta also meant ritual. But unlike the Greeks, the Hindus in their many thousands of years of cultural evolution had paid enormous attention to the conflict between ritual and freedom. Their resolution of this conflict in the Buddhist and Vedantist philosophies is one of the profound achievements of the human mind.

Pagan Ethics: Paganism as a World Religion
by Michael York
pp. 59-60

Pirsig contends that Plato incorporated the arete of the Sophists into his dichotomy between ideas and appearances — where it was subordinated to Truth. Once Plato identifies the True with the Good, arete’s position is usurped by “dialectically determined truth.” This, in turn, allows Plato to demote the Good to a lower order and minor branch of knowledge. For Pirsig, the Sophists were those Greek philosophers who exalted quality over truth; they were the true champions of arete or excellence. With a pagan quest for the ethical that develops from an idolatrous understanding of the physical, while Aristotle remains an important consideration, it is to the Sophists (particularly Protagoras, Prodicus and Pirsig’s understanding of them) and a reconstruction of their underlying humanist position that perhaps the most important answers are to be framed if not found as well.

A basic pagan position is an acceptance of the appetites — in fact, their celebration rather than their condemnation. We find the most unbridled expression of the appetites in the actions of the young. Youth may engage in binge-drinking, vandalism, theft, promiscuity and profligate experimentation. Pagan perspectives may recognize the inherent dangers in these as there are in life itself. But they also trust the overall process of learning. In paganism, morality has a much greater latitude than it does in the transcendental philosophy of a Pythagoras, Plato, or Plotinus: it may veer toward a form of relativism, but its ultimate check is always the sanctity of the other animate individuals. An it harm none, do what ye will. The pagan ethic must be found within the appetites and not in their denial.

In fact, paganism is part of a protest against Platonic assertion. The wider denial is that of nature herself. Nature denies the Platonic by refusing to conform to the Platonic ideal. It insists on moments of chaos, the epagomenae, the carnival, that overlap between the real and the ideal that is itself a metaphor for reality. The actual year is a refusal to cooperate with the mathematically ideal year of 360 days — close but only tantalizingly.

In addition, pagans have always loved asking what is arete? This is the fundamental question we encounter with the Sophists, Plato and Aristotle. It is the question that is before us still. The classics considered variously both happiness and the good as alternative answers. The Hedonists pick happiness — but a particular kind of happiness. The underlying principle recognized behind all these possibilities is arete ‘excellence, the best’ however it is embodied — whether god, goddess, goods, the good, gods, virtue, happiness, pleasure or all of these together. Arete is that to which both individual and community aspire. Each wants one’s own individual way of putting it together in excellent fashion — but at the same time wanting some commensurable overlap of the individual way with the community way.

What is the truth of the historical claims about Greek philosophy in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance?
answer by Ammon Allred

Arete is usually translated as “virtue,” which is certainly connected up with the good “agathon” — but in Plato an impersonal Good is probably more important than aletheia or truth. See, for instance, the central images at the end of Book VI, where the Good is called the “Father of the Sun.” The same holds in the Philebus. And it wouldn’t be right to say that Plato (or Aristotle) thought virtue was part of some small branch called “ethics” (Plato doesn’t divide his philosophy up this way; Aristotle does — although then we get into fact that we don’t have the dialogues he wrote — but still what he means by ethics is far broader than what we mean).

Certainly the Sophists pushed for a humanistic account of the Good, whereas Plato’s was far more impersonal. And Plato himself had a complex relationship to the Sophists (consider the dialogue of Protagoras, where Socrates and Protagoras both end up about equally triumphant).

That said, Pirsig is almost certainly right about Platonism — that is to say, the approach to philosophy that has been taught as though it were Plato’s philosophy. Certainly, the sophists have gotten a bad rap because of the view that Socrates and Plato were taken to have about the sophists; but even there, many philosophers have tried to rehabilitate them: most famously, Nietzsche.

Moral Righteousness: Intent vs Results

I had the issue of righteousness on my mind while writing a previous post (Conservative & Liberal Families: Observations & Comparison). In that post, I made two points in relation to righteousness.

First, there is a difference between the morality of intentions and the morality of results. To use the example of that post, there is a difference between having family values and valuing family. Intentions may correspond to results or they may not. My conclusion was that results are more important. Also, I speculated that intention when righteously held may actually undermine genuinely moral results. Or it could be that stated intention (rhetoric) can hide self-perceived moral failure (such as a minister teaching family values while using the services of a prostitute or a politician advocating against gay rights while being gay himself).

Second, I admitted to having some tendencies toward righteousness. I don’t think, for this reason (among others), that I’d make a good parent. Of the families I’ve known, those with relatively more righteous parents have had relatively worse results (in that their families are less close and less happy). In general, a righteously judgmental sense of morality is not conducive to creating a better society. My opinion is supported by the research I’ve seen and by books I’ve read such as George Lakoff’s Moral Politics and Bob Altemeyer’s The Authoritarians. I have in the past shared some of the data correlating liberalism and real world moral results: Liberal Pragmatism, Conservative Dogmatism. I think liberals have more objective reason to be righteous on certain issues, but it’s just not in the nature of most liberals to be righteous or else to be loudly vocal about what they feel righteous about and to force it onto others. A notable exception are the New Atheists, but even the righteousness of the New Atheists pales in comparison to the righteousness of fundamentalists.

I too am a vocally righteous liberal. If a person lacks respect for others or for intellectuality, if someone uses sociopathic rationalizations or apologetic sophistry, I will not treat that person with an ounce more respect than they deserve (which is approximately zero). This doesn’t mean I immediately go on the attack with everyone I disagree. I can at times be aggressive because I see how rightwingers try to manipulate the liberal attitude of tolerance. It relates to how apologists pretend to be intellectual by using logical arguments as sophistry and selectively uses data.

What annoys me isn’t necessarily righteousness itself but how it’s used and what it’s used for. Of course, I’m annoyed by my own righteous tendencies and so I try to keep it in check. I don’t see righteousness as it’s own justification in the way that the fundamentalist sees righteous belief as it’s own justification. If I feel strongly about something, I check and double-check the facts. Before I let the chain out on my righteousness, I make sure I’m actually right. Righteousness is fine as long as it’s equally balanced by humility. I admit I can be wrong and I actively seek out evidence that can prove my opinions incorrect. I’m righteous about intellectuality, about clear thinking, about objective facts. To me, that is a moral application of righteousness. A belief, no matter how righteously held, doesn’t justify itself. Justification can only come from a larger context that includes other perspectives and other data. Righteousness should be used to break free of limiting beliefs and shouldn’t be used to enclose oneself within dogma.

Even more importantly, righteousness should always be turned toward oneself first: self-awareness, self-analysis, self-criticism. I think those who judge others are inviting judgment upon themselves by others. Also, from the perspective of Jesus’ teachings, righteousness should be primarily and most strongly directed at those in power. The Christian who likes to judge the poor and the homeless, the desperate and the disenfranchised is no real Christian. The Christian who defends the rich and powerful (whether Rand Paul defending BP or Catholics defending the Pope) and so forsakes the poor and powerless is no real Christian. In this sense, there seems to be a contagion of hyopcrisy among many social conservatives (certainly among the leadership anyways).

Righteousness is a useful but dangerous tool. It does no good to defend those in power who can defend themselves just fine. And it does no good to beat a man while he is down. Defending the wealthy elite while complaining about the “welfare queens” is just plain wrong and comes close to being evil of sociopathic proportions. Righteousness in the hands of dogmatic haters leads to 9/11 attacks and the shootings of abortion doctors. In the US, this righteousness is directly fueled by the rightwing pundits such as Bill O’Reilly endless calling Dr. Tiller, “Tiller the Baby Killer”. Surprise, surprise. A crazy rightwinger kills Dr. Tiller. And guess what? O’Reilly considers himself a good, righteous Christian. Why does O’Reilly have so much righteous hate? Abortion is bad? If O’Reilly were to look at the data (which righteous ideologues rarely do), he would know that countries with legal abortions have lower abortion rates. But, ya see, it isn’t about making the world a better place. The righteous ideologue simply wants to think of himself as being right… and damn the consequences.

Let me share two examples of liberal righteousness.

The first example is Derrick Jensen who is a righteous environmentalists. I think it’s obvious that he has plenty of justification for his righteousness. No rational and compassionate person (meaning everyone besides righteous ideologues) could deny the data he shares in his books. Jensen analyzes in detail the sociopathic tendencies of our society. However, he sometimes, out of frustration, pushes his rhetoric a bit far. It’s hard to know if he pushes too far or not considering the potential dire consequences of the present trajectory of our civilization. It’s not like Jensen is a fundamentalist warning about the end of the world because of his interpretation of biblical prophecy. Jensen is talking about the real world. He seems like a genuine intellectual and I sense he’d be open-minded about new info that challenged his own views. As far as I can tell, Jensen’s righteousness is based in the actual facts. So, it’s not a blind righteousness. Furthermore, it’s a righteousness directed toward those in power… meaning those who have the power to change the world for the better if they so chose.

The second example is Barbara Ehrenreich who is a righteous journalist. Like Jensen, she seems to base her righteousness on objective data and not mere ideological belief. I’ve seen videos of her speaking, but I’ve only just started reading her book Bright-Sided. In that book, she is criticizing a type of optimism popular in America which is superficial and which is too often used to rationalize egregiously immoral or otherwise dysfunctional behavior. I’m not sure she talks about righteousness, but I get the sense that righteousness would relate to her portrayal of positive thinking. She does go in some detail about Christianity and so makes the direct connection to belief as an unquestioning, uncritical mindset. It reminds me of research I’ve seen on positive thinking which shows optimists have a tendency to take credit when results are seen as beneficial or desirable (whether or not the optimist actually earned this credit) and optimists have a tendency to blame externalities (unforeseen factors, other people, etc) when reults are seen as having turned out bad. When an entire society embraces positive thinking, major catastrophes happen. Blinded by optimism, those responsible can honestly claim to not having seen it coming (despite all the evidence that should’ve been heeded as a warning).

The righteous are always right even when they turn out to be wrong. It’s like how social conservatives blame the failure of abstinence only sex education not on the programs themselves but on society. Society is seen as having failed the values preached by the righteous person, but the righteous person will never see themselves as having failed society. So, to go back to the original example, “family values” are believed to never fail even when the results would seem to point towards failure. Families fail and societies fail according to this view, but family values can never fail because the fundamentalist perceives them as having originated from thousands of years of righteous tradition or even from the righteous Word of God. This is righteousness as defensive self-rationalization.

The main moral purpose that righteousness should be applied to is righteousness misused. That is my ideal, anyways. I don’t know how often I live up to my ideal, but I try. Hopefully, my results correspond with my intentions.

Righteousness: Ignorance and Inauthenticity

I just wrote a long post about inauthentic righteousness, but I also touched upon how ignorance relates to righteousness.  I don’t think it’s always clear if a particular instance of righteousness is either inauthentic or ignorant.  I suspect they’re mutually reinforcing.

A lot of ignorance seems like willful ignorance.  Most people who are misinformed or lack adequate knowledge aren’t that way because of not being intelligent enough nor because they don’t have access to quality info.  Most ignorance is based on some combination of laziness, apathy, limited curiosity and closedmindedness.  But it seems to me that, in one way or another, the person is choosing (even if by default) to be ignorant.  In this sense, ignorant righteousness probably most often equates to inauthentic righteousness.  And it’s the devious people with knowledge who use inauthentic righteousness to manipulate the willfully ignorant.

It’s a perfect relationship.  The devious person doesn’t want others to know what he actually knows and the manipulated person would prefer to remain in contented ignorance.  The only person who loses out in this scenario is the person who actually cares about knowledge, about truth, about authenticity.

However, authenticity is a tricky business.  Some people are ignorant for “authentic” reasons meaning they actually don’t know better.  This is particularly a problem with the media world we live in where there is so much misinformation, so much spin, and out right lies aren’t that unusual.  So, I can’t be too critical of the ignorant masses.  Unless you spend all of your time researching every claim you come across, you simply are incapable of discerning the truth.  And few are willing and able to invest huge amounts of time in constant research.

Even those working in media are trapped in this swamp of spin and misinformation (maybe more so even).  Can we blame the media?  Or are they as much victims of the spin factory in which they’re just mere cogs?

This post was inspired by a video clip of Glenn Beck.  It’s one of the many examples where Beck is being melodramatically righteous (although he isn’t crying in this scene) in judging others and most importantly is doing so on the basis of ignorance (willful or otherwise).  I’d argue that his ignorance is willful here because with a simple websearch anyone could find articles that would provide the relevant info.  But Beck would have to be emotionally neutral and intellectually objective for a moment (i.e., remove his head from his ass) in order to realize he isn’t making a fully informed judgment.

In the video clip, Beck says (while holding up a picture of a supposed female “escort”), “Let us say we’re done with all of this political correctness stuff.  This escort… really!?!  Where are you being escorted?”  Beck throws his hands up in the air, and then with moral indignation he says, “WHORE!”  The video clip ends with Beck expressing snide disgust.  Obviously, in Beck’s mind, “whores” are the scum of the earth.

Now, what disgusts me is this very ignorant bigotry.  First off, although sometimes “escort” is a euphemism for prostitute, often it’s simply used according to its literal meaning.  Many escorts simply do that… escort.  Do all poolboys and yardworkers have sex with lonely housewives?  Do all actresses become famous by having sex with directors?  Are they all “whores”?  Is there a secret conspiracy of whoredom?  Even if that particular picture of an “escort” really was of a prostitute, I’d think the fact that prostitutes are the ultimate capitalists would help assuage Beck’s paranoia of socialism… but apparently not.

Anyways, who is he to be so righteous?  Glenn Beck is a former drug addict.  The drug trade that funds worldwide terrorism is morally worse than sex between consenting adults.

After having seen that Beck clip, I happened to hear an interview with a former prostitute on public radio.  It was a perfect comparison.  Beck’s attitude was dehumanizing.  On the other hand, the public radio interview humanized this person’s life.  The woman interviewed became a prostitute at a young age.  She left an unhappy home situation and had no plans on how to take care of herself.  A pimp approached her and she was grateful because he was the only person offering her advice on how to provide for herself.  She wasn’t desperate.  She simply wanted to have enough money to live on and be able to remain in school.  Beyond graduating from high school, she dreamed of working hard towards a career as a lawyer.  Yes, her life was sad.  But I thought it interesting that, despite her having been a “victim” as an underage prostitute, she was less judgmental than Beck about prostitution.  She didn’t even seem resentful towards her former pimp.

Instead of Beck’s abstract and misinformed moralizing, this was a real person living a difficult life with a sense of hope.  Working for a megacorpoation with a clear political agenda, I’d say that Glenn Beck is the real whore.

Glenn Beck makes for a good example because he is very representative of a certain strain of moral righteousness found in American culture.  In this attitude, there is a quickness to judge anyone deemed somehow different or less than the person making the judgement.  It’s a way of defining an in-crowd and out-crowd.  The implied meaning is that a “whore” is unworthy of respect or even compassion.  The judged person is “other”, and so a potential enemy of the group.  They must be attacked first before they attack.  Their very existence undermines the group’s authority.  If the judged “other” are offered even minimal compassion, they could no longer be categorized as wholly “other” and so they would be a threat to group cohesion.  This is a very primitive sense of morality… basically some kind of social darwinism.  Might makes right.

To a person at this low stage of moral development, the facts don’t matter.  They know they’re right.  Every “moral” issue is a battleground to be won at nearly all costs.  Maybe it isn’t exactly willful ignorance.  Wilfulness would mean there was some minor awareness of responsibility.  It’s pointless projecting a more advanced sense of morality on to their behavior.  I suppose their righteousness is “authentic” in some basic emotional way, but there is no profound moral depth to this “authenticity”.

Faux Righteousness

There is one issue that is a hot button for me.  The issue is righteousness.  Actually, I don’t know if it’s just righteousness, but that is definitely a major part.

Like many people, I have tendencies towards righteousness.  I don’t like righteousness in myself any more than I like it in others.  I feel a visceral repulsion towards righteousness.  What makes me feel more righteous than anything is righteousness itself.  Which is a bit depressing as righteousness about righteousness doesn’t in any way negate or decrease righteousness.  But it isn’t a rational response.

When feeling defensive, it’s easy to feel righteous about one’s righteousness.  People often become polarized and feel more certain about their position than when they started.  For some people, this can become a permanent state… and I’d like to avoid such a horrible fate for myself.  I don’t want to spend my time looking for things to be righteous about, but admittedly there is plenty to feel righteous about without even looking for it.  The daily news, for example, usually offers any number of affronts to reason and morality.

In particular, American culture seems overly righteous.  Maybe this just goes along with the imperialistic patriotism found in any large and powerful country.  Whatever the reason, many Americans believe America is right about almost everything because many Americans think we’re on the winning side of history.  But Americans quite often turn this righteousness against other Americans.  And it goes beyond simply deciding who is the most American.  There is just a general atmosphere of conflict and attack, ridicule and criticism.  This tendency in American culture has become magnified as media has begun to dominate our lives.  We now have constant news reporting and commentary (with more emphasis on the latter) which feeds (and feeds off of) the constant internet buzz.  A popular form of entertainment right now is the verbal fights between the representatives of different tv news networks.  And then there are some silly pundits who think that constantly berating those in power somehow proves that they’re independent thinkers.

There are even those (whether preacher or pundit) who see themselves as prophets of moral righteousness.  They just have an inner sense of knowing they’re right.  They see themselves on a mission (possibly a divine mission) to save humanity and guide the righteous to the light of Truth.  This type of person seems rather arrogant to me.  This is the most extreme form of righteousness which can be used to incite extreme behaviors such as violence or else just incite general hatred and mistrust.  Righteous fear-mongering is particularly distasteful to me.  Somehow expressing either fear by itself or righteousness by itself doesn’t seem so bad as expressing fear and righteousness together… especially when further combined with populist anger.  I severely doubt anything good can come of it. 

Righteousness is opposite to so many truly beneficial values (humility, acceptance, sympathy, compassion, forgiveness, love, etc.) which are values I idealize even though I rarely live up to them.  Also, I see righteousness as opposed to knowledge and truth which are personal ideals I feel a bit more capable of living up to.  A very important aspect of humility is intellectual humility, knowing one’s limits and knowing one doesn’t have everything figured out.  Righteousness sometimes feels like false confidence, a bullying strength that hides an inner weakness.  When taken to extremes, there can be something cruel and hard-hearted about it.

I should point out that I’m not arguing for a relativist belief that there is no right or wrong.  A righteous person could be right (or they could be wrong), but my sense is that the correlation between being righteous and being right is often accidental.  Even if a person is absolutely right and can prove it beyond any doubt, is there any point in being righteous?  Perhaps it might be justified or at least it could be understandable.  But it seems most likely to me that the more righteous someone behaves the less likely they are to be correct.  The reason for this is that critical thinking is impaired to the degree intellectual humility is lacking.

I know that when I feel righteous I want to believe I’m right, and I want to believe that my hypothetical rightness somehow is important and somehow justifies my righteousness.  But I also know that when in a righteous state of mind I’m not being very impartial.  For certain, my critical thinking skills are impaired at such moments.  Because I value critical thinking, I try to counter my righteousness by determining to what extent I’m actually right or wrong.  The problem is that, even if I do (or think I do) determine that I’m right about something, it doesn’t make me feel all that better… nor anyone else for that matter.

Although I’m clearly not fond of righteousness as a general way of being in the world and of relating to others, it isn’t necessarily righteousness by itself that annoys me.  If a drunk or mentally ill person was righteously ranting nonsense on a sidewalk, I wouldn’t really care.  First, no one is going to mistake such ranting as intelligent commentary.  Secondly, this person doesn’t have much of an audience and if he has any influence at all it is very limited.  Or if someone just feels righteously angry about life in general,  I wouldn’t really care.  As long as they’re not trying to scapegoat some person or group for the world’s problems, there is nothing wrong with expressing one’s genuine feelings… but I wouldn’t consider righteousness to be a genuine (or not a genuinely worthy) feeling when an anger-fueled superior attitude is being used to cover up other feelings such as a sense of impotence or guilt.

Anyways, good or bad, isn’t it part and parcel of the American democratic sensibility to loudly declare what one believes to be right?  It’s definitely a part of the American mythos.  Take for example the film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.  It’s about the conflict of a truly righteous man trying to overcome false righteousness being used for devious ends, and it’s also about how easily the general public is manipulated by false righteousness.  There are any other number of stories (both true and fictional) like this which are about a person (often alone or with few allies) righteously struggling to get their voice heard.  On the other hand, false righteousness seems more common as it’s such an effective tool for those in power and for those who want to gain power.  But most people would like to believe their righteousness is genuine.  And there is usually a way to rationalize righteousness, a way to frame the issue so that one feels like the good guy fighting the good fight. 

It’s easy to deceive oneself when the stakes are high or whenever one is emotionally invested.  But how do you know when you’re seeing the world through a self-enclosed rationalization?  There are several ways.  First, if you have developed critical thinking skills, these can be helpful… but I don’t think that is enough by itself.  So, secondly, I would emphasize even more so the value of self-awareness (which correlates with awareness of the other).  If you are self-aware enough or have someone in your life to point out your blind spots (which to some degree requires sympathetic understanding of other perspectives), you’re more likely to be able to step back from your rationalizations.  Maybe it’s only when self-awareness starts to break in that you can then use critical thinking skills to come to understanding.  However one gets to this point of self-questioning, there has to be a desire to self-question in the first place.  Questioning the world has to be balanced by questioning turned inward (and if there must be an imblance I think it’s best to have too much emphasis on the self-questioning).  A person can only be genuinely righteous to the extent they question their own righteousness.

I guess that is the rub.  Righteousness is almost always turned towards someone else.  It’s hard to imagine the vocally critical type of righteous person being equally critical of themselves and being equally open in voicing those self-criticisms.  I can think of a number of political pundits and social commentators who are examples of extreme criticism of others.  Some of them may occasionally point out minor flaws of their own, but it is a small part of what they say and these meager confessions usually get lost in their larger message.  Maybe this comes down to entertainment value.  Watching someone attack other people is entertaining.  Watching someone morally contemplate their own weaknesses and failings would be boring… unless they were a particularly funny stand-up comedian.

My sense of aggravation towards righteousness is very much about the personal.  My own righteousness is constrained for the reason I don’t generally feel to be in a morally superior position.  I have no grand accomplishments and often I feel like a failure (or that I don’t live up to my “God-given” potential).  Yet, I do feel something like pride for what I’ve managed to accomplish (in that I’ve read and researched widely and have tried to gain some understanding on a fairly diverse set of subjects), but that which I’m proud of isn’t overly valued by society.  So, I do sometimes feel righteous when I meet people online who either are willfully ignorant (especially certain apologists) or else simply some combination of uninformed and misinformed (which everyone is to varying degrees).  But I know that doesn’t justify my projecting on to such people all of my frustrations and anger (and general unhappiness).  As a depressed person, I’m easily irritated and it isn’t anyone else’s fault.

The righteousness I feel comes from my sense of being an underdog.  Let me try to explain.  According to the social standards of success and respectability, I’m not all the way at the bottom with the outright losers and scum of the earth, but I’m no where near the top.  I’m not homeless and I’m not unemployed, and so I have that going for me.  But I am a bachelor who lives alone and I’ll probably remain a bachelor to the end of my days.  Despite having above average intelligence and some other natural abilities, I’ve always worked entry-level jobs and I just earn enough to get by (with little prospects for anything better in the future).  I haven’t had much in the way of external obstructions to moving up in the world.  I was raised with plenty of advantages and opportunities as a middle class white male in a developed country.  Still, I’ve struggled for “internal” reasons (some combination of psychological issues and genetics) and this just makes me feel all the more sympathetic towards those who didn’t have the advantages and opportunities I grew up with.  Life can be tough no matter where you begin, but it’s particularly tough for those who have so much going against them right from the start.

Plus, I have this basic sense of the precariousness of life.  Life can seem perfect one moment and hell on earth the next.  I may not be on the bottom, but it wouldn’t be hard for me to end up on the bottom.  People living in shelters and under bridges usually don’t start off life that way.  The majority of the homeless are mentally ill or traumatized veterans, but most of them once were normal people with jobs and houses, with families and friends.  The homeless aren’t a mutant sub-class of humans entirely isolated from normal (i.e., respectable) people.  Anyone can become mentally ill, get addicted to painkillers, get diagnosed with a costly illness, lose their job and house, go bankrupt, etc.  If you don’t have very strong social support (which fewer people have these days), it’s very easy to fall through the cracks and get lost there.

On the other hand, there are those who have lives that more or less work out as planned and they somehow avoid major catastrophes for most or all of their lives (death being the final catastrophe that finds us all).  They have a sense of being in control of their own life.  They feel they deserve what they have, that they’re entitled.  But I think most of this is just a matter of fortunate circumstances.  I understand why the illusion of control is so attractive.  What I don’t like is the sense of superiority that almost inevitably goes along with it.  If the rich person deserves being rich, then the poor person also deserves being poor.  If Americans deserve their power and luxurious lifestyle, then those in third world countries deserve to be stuck in slave labor jobs while their environment is destroyed and their natural resources stolen.  The unemployed and homeless deserve to live miserable lives.  Those without large savings and health insurance deserve to die of easily treated diseases.

Growing up a middle-class white American (and living for years in a very above average middle class town) has given me a bit of perspective.  I have some insight about what it means to have privilege and to take it as a given.  The issue I have with righteousness is that those who should feel righteous too often feel powerless and unheard… all the while the politicians, political pundits, and televangelists who act all righteous are usually those who grew up with privilege.  But it’s all relative.  One can almost always point to someone who had more privilege than oneself.  If you go by the words of the righteous people who get heard in the media, it’s not unusual for them to claim to be underdogs or to represent the underdog… which in most cases doesn’t seem authentic.

The facts are that most of the wealth and power in the world (including in democracies) is passed down according to relationships of family and class.  More money gets inherited by the next generation of the wealthy than is produced by means of capitalism.  A large percentage of politicians (including in democracies) are familialy related and of royal lineage.  Even today, research shows that a white male has massive opportunities beyond minorities and females.  Research shows that people born rich tend to remain rich and those born poor tend to remain poor.  Also, poor areas tend to be where there is heavy pollution which leads to low IQ and high rates of illness, and these areas are so polluted because of the industries run by the rich who don’t have to live in these areas.  IQ, in particular, has high correlation to economic success.  So, the game is rigged before a person is born.

Yes, occasionally someone through various factors (strength of will being the least of these factors) manages to escape their situation.  But, for every one person that escapes, there are millions or hundreds of millions of people equally worthy and equally determined who were crushed by circumstances.  The exception proves the rule.

As I see it, there is so much suffering and injustice in the world.  And despite Enlightenment ideals, the West has it’s fair share of underprivileged, impoverished and disenfranchised.  Where are the righteous voices to defend those who can’t defend themselves?  In the news, we constantly hear about what the rich and powerful are doing, but why do we rarely hear about the struggles of the vast majority?  Why aren’t there regular interviews with the poor and homeless?  Why aren’t there popular reality shows that follow the lives of people in war-torn countries?  Why aren’t there tv series based on families who live sick and hungry in refugee camps?  Why do tv commentators spend most of their time reporting on the same small set of topics and events all the while almost entirely excluding the everyday lives and experiences of the average and below average?

What are people who feel justly righteous to do in response to all of this?  Organize?

As an example, consider the peace protests against the invasion of Iraq.  They were the largest and fastest growing of any anti-war movement in American history, and the most widespread and most well-organized in world history.   That is a truly righteous populist movement if one ever existed, and it was ignored and dismissed by the faux righteousness of politicians (and the patriotic submission of the media in parroting that faux righteousness).  The justifications of the war were dubious, but it’s impossible to stop even an unnecessary war when it’s backed by political power and financial gain (which includes the revolving door between big government and big business and more specifically the corporate interest in media coverage). 

Consider how much worse it is when you are someone in the minority, someone with no ability to influence, someone with no ability to start large protest movements, someone with no ability to force the media to at least recognize you exist.

Part of my issue about righteousness is that public opinion has become something for those in power to manipulate.  There is a general mood that the news media isn’t doing a good job of informing the public.  Going by commentary I’ve read and my own observations, very little news seems to be based on investigative journalism or even basic fact-checking.  News reporters seem to rely too heavily on media releases by corporations and the government.  The media basically tells us what we should be righteous about… and the general public seems rather compliant.

I would be less irritated if I felt there was something worthy to be righteous about.  I’d love to live in a culture that was righteous about truth, where people weren’t just out for their own ideological interest.  Or why can’t people be righteous about compassion?  Why can’t we take all the money spent on the military and instead have a war on homelessness, poverty and hunger?

I feel demoralized by what I see in the world and I feel disenfranchised from what seems like a fraudulent political system.  I know I’m not alone in feeling this way.  There are many people who rightly feel the system doesn’t benefit them, but the problem is that when people feel insecure they most often react emotionally rather than rationally.  And when people are in this state, they’re easily manipulated and easily riled up.  This collective sense of dissatisfaction is rarely ever directed towards any morally righteous end.

Violence, Dark Thoughts, Righteousness, Collective Mood, Contingent Love, Public Opinion

Here are some articles from The New York Times that caught my interest (I do look at other news sources such as The Wall Street Journal, but for whatever reason The New York Times seems to have more articles on subjects of interest to me).  Anyone who is familiar with my blog will notice that these articles relate to subjects I often write about.

 – – –

Memorial Held for Slain Anti-Abortion Protester by Damien Cave

Stephen McGee for The New York Times
About 300 people attended a memorial service Wednesday for James Pouillon, who was slain Friday while protesting abortion.
 
Paul Sancya/Associated Press
Mary Jo Pouillon sang at a memorial service for her slain father, anti-abortion protester James Pouillon, in Owosso, Mich. on Wednesday

I’m always saddened by killings based on ideology whether or not I agree with the ideology of either side.  A random killing by a gang or a crazy person seems less evil.  Ideological killings seem so evil because the killer often rationalizes their actions as good.

There was nothing particularly interesting about this article except for one line.

His killing is believed to be the first of someone protesting abortion, and at the memorial and a vigil later outside a Planned Parenthood office, he was praised as a symbol of dedicated action.

That is utterly amazing.  He was the first anti-abortion protester to be killed.  On the other hand, anti-abortion protesters regularly kill abortion doctors.  Why did Damien Cave leave that important detail out?  There are two extensive Wikipedia articles about anti-abortion violence.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-abortion_violence

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-abortion_violence_in_the_United_States

Why is this one murdered anti-abortion protester a symbol of dedicated action?  Are all of the doctors, nurses, receptionists, and security guards who died in supporting abortion (or simply doing their jobs) also symbols of dedicated action?  Going by the Wikipedia articles, anti-abortion protesters have committed hundreds of incidents of violent attacks, death threats, murders, attempted murders, kidnappings, bioterror threats, property crimes, bomb threats, bombings, arsons, vandalism, and trespassing.  Most of those, of course, were committed in the US.

This reminds me of protesters who try to protect nature and animals, but the situation is in reverse.  Evironmentalists and those against animal testing have never killed anyone in US history.  However, these protesters have been the target of numerous threats and acts of violence leading to many deaths and injuries.  Why is that?  Why are conservatives (social conservatives in the case of anti-abortion protesters) more prone to violence than liberals?  The most violent liberal protesters ever in US history were the Weather Underground and even they never killed anyone.  The Weather underground used bombs, but were always careful that people wouldn’t be harmed.  Contrast that to anti-abortion bombers who specifically target people.

What is interesting is that liberal protesters are often threatened, harmed and killed by people working for the government or large corporations.  The reason for this is that liberals are more likely than conservatives to clash with authority probably because conservatives by nature are more subservient to authority (which can be explained using the research into boundary types which shows that thick boundary types are more likely to be promoted in hierarchical institutions).  Maybe I’m being unfair, but it seems to me that conservatives for whatever reason are more likely to turn their aggression towards private citizens (i.e., those they perceive as being below them rather than those they perceive being above them).

Actually, I wonder how true it is that conservative protesters are less likely to confront and conflict with authority.  There are some conservative protesters that are aggressively confrontational to the powers that be and they tend to be libertarians especially of the religious variety, but maybe that says more about religious extremism than conservativism.  I was also thinking about how libertarians (such as farmers and other landowners) will support environentalists against the government and big business (such as when the government wants to take or otherwise use their land).

The odd thing is that Fox news was during the Bush administration so critical of protesters.  But now that a Democrat is in power they support and actively promote protest.  However, the protesters of Bush were often libertarians.  Why does the conservative party have an uncertain relationship with libertaranism.  When it comes to protesting, libertarians became identified with liberals because it’s often impossible to tell them apart and even the protesters don’t necessarilly make this differentiation.

So, there are two questions.  Why are conservatives reluctant towards becoming involved in protesting and often critical of protesters?  Why are conservatives the most violent protesters when they do become involved?

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Stumbling Blocks on the Path of Righteousness by Benedict Carey

Ross MacDonald

I really loved this article.  It goes against commonsense, but I must admit it’s the type of thing that has always made sense to me.  I’m just happy when research supports my own intuition.  🙂  However, I have no special power of intuitive knowing.  If you’ve studied widely the subject of psychology, I doubt you’d be surprised by this research.

In recent years, social psychologists have begun to study what they call the holier-than-thou effect. They have long known that people tend to be overly optimistic about their own abilities and fortunes — to overestimate their standing in class, their discipline, their sincerity.

But this self-inflating bias may be even stronger when it comes to moral judgment, and it can greatly influence how people judge others’ actions, and ultimately their own.

Heck, you don’t even need to study psychology.  Just observe people and this holier-than-thou effect is fairly obvious.  There really is nothing surprising about the fact that moral judgment has a personal bias.  That’s just basic human nature.  However, self-awareness of one’s own human nature isn’t inherently of human nature… or, to put it simply, most people are oblivious to their own biases.

A quote from the social psychologist David Dunning is more intriguing.

“But the point is that many types of behavior are driven far more by the situation than by the force of personality. What someone else did in that situation is a very strong warning about what you yourself would do.”

That is something that is so important that it can’t be over-emphasized.  Social conservatives always worry about moral relativism, but what their ideology misses is the actual psychology of moral behavior.  People should think twice before judging someone else.  If you had the same experiences and were in the same situation as another person, you’d probably make the same choices.  In this light, righteousness isn’t very moral in and of itself.  Compassionate awareness and humility is more likely to lead to tangible moral results.  I would guess that the more righteous someone is the more likely they’re to act against their own stated beliefs.  This is partly why outspoken evangelists become involved in socially unacceptable sexual activities.

“The problem with these holier-than-thou assessments is not only that we overestimate how we would have behaved,” Dr. Epley said. “It’s also that we blame every crisis or scandal on failure of character — you know, if we just fire all the immoral Wall Street bankers and replace them with moral ones, we’ll solve the problem.”

And that is exactly what moral conservatives believe.  This attitude comes up all of the time in the comments of the local news website.  The more different someone is the more likely they’re to be judged harshly for their failings.  It’s easy to dismiss the situation of another person when you’ve never lived in that situation.  Also, people tend to want to take credit for the advantages they were given in life and claim it as “moral character”.

In experiments as in life, the holier-than-thou effect diminishes quickly when people have actually had the experience they are judging: dubious accounting practices will appear less shady to the person who has had to put a good face on a failing company. And the effect is apparently less pronounced in cultures that emphasize interdependence over individual achievement, like China and Spain.

It’s hard to be humble and compassionate if you’ve never experienced difficulties and suffering, and even then you’ll tend to only sympathize with the specific difficulties and sufferings that you’ve experienced.  I always get irritated by people who judge others for something they’ve never personally experienced.  That is one of my pet peeves.

I appreciated the last comment about “cultures that emphasize interdependence”.  I’d assume that those cultures also emphasize sympathy because it’s through sympathy that interdepndence is encouraged.  On the other hand, I should point out that research also shows that interdependent cultures tend to isolate individuals and so the sympathy that is encouraged might be very narrow.  Anyways, an interdependent culture would certainly value personal humility over personal righteousness.

One practice that can potentially temper feelings of moral superiority is religion. All major faiths emphasize the value of being humble and the perils of hubris. “In humility count others as better than yourself,” St. Paul advises in his letter to the Philippians.

Yet for some people, religion appears to amplify the instinct to feel like a moral beacon. In a 2002 study, [ . . . ] the students in this highly religious group considered themselves, on average, almost twice as likely as their peers to adhere to such biblical commandments as “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The study also found that the most strictly fundamentalist of the students were at the highest end of the scale. “It reminds me of one of my favorite bumper stickers,” said Dr. Epley, of Chicago. “ ‘Jesus loves you, but I’m his favorite.’ ”

This reminds me of a long post I wrote trying to come to terms with Christians relationship with morality (Morality: Christians vs. Jesus).  I was comparing research done on the type of person who supports torture with the teachings of Jesus who was tortured.  The extremely interresting fact was that Christians were largely in favor of torture.  This seems rather odd until you consider the larger context of Christian history and modern fundamentalism.  This article adds even further data to explain this situation.  The more ideologically religious one is the more one is likely to judge oneself favorably and presumably more likely to judge others less favorably.  This might be explained partially by the way a religion creates a clear sense of an in-crowd and an out-crowd.  And the person not a part of the group is inherently less worthy (and this attitude is probably responsible for a fair amount of the violence in the world).

For all that, an abiding feeling of moral superiority is intrinsic to what some psychologists call self-enhancement. So-called self-enhancers think that they’re blessed, that they’re highly appreciated by others and that they’ll come out on top. And sometimes they do, studies suggest — especially in life-or-death crises like 9/11 and the Bosnian war.

“Self-enhancers do very well, across the board, on measures of mental healthin these situations,” said George Bonanno, a psychologist at Columbia.

But in the mundane ebb and flow of life, an inflated sense of personal virtue can also be a minefield. “Overconfident stock traders tend to do worse; people buy too many gym memberships,” said Dr. Dunning, of Cornell. “In the economic realm, the outcomes are not so good.”

This reminds me of research done on pessimism and optimism.  Optimists are more successful in many fields and there are many advantages to being an optimist such as better health.  However, pessimists have a more realistic assessment of the actual facts and also a more realistic assessment of themselves.  A pessimist may sound like a cynic, but they might be more likely to consistently act according to their own sense of morality.

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Why the Imp in Your Brain Gets Out by Benedict Carey

Scott Menchin

An important point I’ve read about before is the following.

But a vast majority of people rarely, if ever, act on such urges, and their susceptibility to rude fantasies in fact reflects the workings of a normally sensitive, social brain, argues a paper published last week in the journal Science.

It’s normal to have “abnormal” thoughts and fantasies.  It’s because people worry about these kinds of things that they become so prominent in the workings of our minds.  The person who acts on such horrible thoughts may actually think and fantasize about it less than normal.  However, these thoughts do have influence.

The empirical evidence of this influence has been piling up in recent years, as Dr. Wegner documents in the new paper. In the lab, psychologists have people try to banish a thought from their minds — of a white bear, for example — and find that the thought keeps returning, about once a minute. Likewise, people trying not to think of a specific word continually blurt it out during rapid-fire word-association tests.

The same “ironic errors,” as Dr. Wegner calls them, are just easy to evoke in the real world. Golfers instructed to avoid a specific mistake, like overshooting, do it more often when under pressure, studies find. Soccer players told to shoot a penalty kick anywhere but at a certain spot of the net, like the lower right corner, look at that spot more often than any other.

[ . . . ]

The researchers had about half the students try to suppress bad stereotypes of black males as they read and, later, judged Donald’s character on measures like honesty, hostility and laziness. These students rated Donald as significantly more hostile — but also more honest — than did students who were not trying to suppress stereotypes.

In short, the attempt to banish biased thoughts worked, to some extent. But the study also provided “a strong demonstration that stereotype suppression leads stereotypes to become hyperaccessible,” the authors concluded.

None of this is exactly new insight, but the point is that research is starting to prove it.  Psychologists and parenting gurus have been telling people for a long time to state things in the positive because the mind doesn’t understand a negative.  To the subconscious mind, the phrase “don’t think” simply translates to “think”.  Any self-aware person realizes the truth of this.

The point of taking this type of research into consideration is that it can be helpful to give people perspective.  People shouldn’t be so hard on themselves.  There is nothing wrong with you for having strange thoughts.  If you’re worried about acting on dark fantasies, your worrying demonstrates that your unlikely to act on them.  However, if those urges become too strong, I’d recommend seeking help.  When the voices tell you to kill someone, please get a second opinion.

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When a Parent’s ‘I Love You’ Means ‘Do as I Say’ by Alfie Kohn

Wesley Bedrosian

I was just recently writing about this topic and this author in my blog (Punishment/Reward, Good/Evil, Victim/Victimizer).  This article is about contingent love as a method of parenting (and I think this topic has direct bearing on the above article about moral righteousness).  One can question the morality of contingent parenting, but the practical side of it is simply whether it works or not.

This raises the intriguing possibility that the problem with praise isn’t that it is done the wrong way — or handed out too easily, as social conservatives insist. Rather, it might be just another method of control, analogous to punishment. The primary message of all types of conditional parenting is that children must earn a parent’s love. A steady diet of that, Rogers warned, and children might eventually need a therapist to provide the unconditional acceptance they didn’t get when it counted.

 Any reward always implies a potential punishment.  Even if the punishment isn’t overt or even intentional per se, what is the effect of this contingent love?

It turned out that children who received conditional approval were indeed somewhat more likely to act as the parent wanted. But compliance came at a steep price. First, these children tended to resent and dislike their parents. Second, they were apt to say that the way they acted was often due more to a “strong internal pressure” than to “a real sense of choice.” Moreover, their happiness after succeeding at something was usually short-lived, and they often felt guilty or ashamed. [ . . . ] Those mothers who, as children, sensed that they were loved only when they lived up to their parents’ expectations now felt less worthy as adults. Yet despite the negative effects, these mothers were more likely to use conditional affection with their own children.

[In another study] giving more approval when children did what parents wanted was carefully distinguished from giving less when they did not.

The studies found that both positive and negative conditional parenting were harmful, but in slightly different ways. The positive kind sometimes succeeded in getting children to work harder on academic tasks, but at the cost of unhealthy feelings of “internal compulsion.” Negative conditional parenting didn’t even work in the short run; it just increased the teenagers’ negative feelings about their parents.

 I’m a fan of research.  Most people ground their opinions in ideology rather than facts.  Of course, the data has to be interpreted.   There are always other interpretations, but even so an interpretation is only as good as the data it’s based on.  I don’t believe parents should simply submit to experts to tell them what to do any more than they should blindly submit to any other authority figure.  Parents should trust their own experience to an extent, but research can help us to understand the larger context of our experiences.  Any parent should take this kind of research very seriously.

In practice, according to an impressive collection of data by Dr. Deci and others, unconditional acceptance by parents as well as teachers should be accompanied by “autonomy support”: explaining reasons for requests, maximizing opportunities for the child to participate in making decisions, being encouraging without manipulating, and actively imagining how things look from the child’s point of view.

The last of these features is important with respect to unconditional parenting itself. Most of us would protest that of course we love our children without any strings attached. But what counts is how things look from the perspective of the children — whether they feel just as loved when they mess up or fall short.

 I liked these ending comments.  This answers the crticisms of those who would oppose unconditional parenting.  It doesn’t simply mean to let kids do whatever they want, but it means having a sympathetic and understanding of one’s child.  The idea is that if you want respect from your children then you should treat them with respect.  If you  want to teach your children how to be loving, how to be open and trusting, then you should teach by example.  One has to decide about one’s priorities.  Is it more important to force a child through fear (or withholding of love) to respect one’s authority or is it more important to raise a happy and well-balanced child?

  – – –

Does a Nation’s Mood Lurk in Its Songs and Blogs? by Benedict Carey

Wesley Bedrosian

This is the type of research that fascinates me.

In a new paper, a pair of statisticians at the University of Vermont argue that linguistic analysis — not just of song lyrics but of blogs and speeches — could add a new and valuable dimension to a growing area of mass psychology: the determination of national well-being.

“We argue that you can use this data as a kind of remote sensor of well-being,” said Peter Sheridan Dodds, a co-author of the new paper, with Christopher M. Danforth; both are in the department of mathematics and statistics.

“It’s information people are volunteering; they’re not being surveyed in the usual way,” Dr. Dodds went on. “You mess with people when you ask them questions about happiness. You’re not sure if they’re trying to make you happy, or have no idea whether they’re happy. It’s reactive.”

But I do have some criticisms.  Emotional expression may not be equivalent to emotional well-being.  The ways of expressing emotion may change, but I’m unconvinced that the basic level of emotion has changed.  Even so, I wouldn’t be surprised if such a change has occurred.  I do share the excitement of these researchers but I also share the opinions of the skeptics.

“The new approach that these researchers are taking is part of movement that is really exciting, a cross-pollination of computer science, engineering and psychology,” said James W. Pennebaker, a psychologist at the University of Texas. “And it’s going to change the social sciences; that to me is very clear.”

Researchers who specialize in analyzing mass measures of well-being are skeptical about what a content analysis of pop culture can really say, at least as a stand-alone measure.

“The approach is interesting, but I don’t see any evidence that the method produces a valid population-based measure of well-being,” Uli Schimmack, a psychologist at the University of Toronto, wrote in an e-mail message.

One issue is that pop culture and mainstream media have changed which might be the actual result of this apparent change in emotional well-being.  Media was more controlled and self-censored in the past.  There are more indie musicians who get their music out now than in the past.  There are more people voicing their opinions through non-traditional media.  So, maybe this only demonstrates a shift in censorship of emotional expression.

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‘Athens’ on the Net by Anand Giridharadas

Ridharadasp

I’m impressed by the quality of journalism in this article.  The subject matter a bit different from the other articles in this post, but it’s related.  It’s about how the common person participates (or not) in US democracy, and how this could change.  So, it’s about human relationships.  More importantly, it’s about challenging the hierarchical territory of politics where democracy only exists in name (btw I see this issue of hierarchical politics loosely related to the hierarchical style of parenting that promotes contingent love).  It’s a serious issue to consider whether democracy is doomed to be forever controlled and manipulated by the money and power of corporations and special interest groups.  It’s hard to imagine what a real democracy would even look like.  Some people claim a direct democracy where the average person’s opinion actually counts is an impossibility…. or even dangerous as the general population if given power supposedly would just turn into a mobocracy.

PERHAPS the biggest big idea to gather speed during the last millennium was that we humans might govern ourselves. But no one really meant it.

 Exactly!  Ideals are always nice.  They make for good political fodder and an effective method for subduing the masses… as long as they forever remain just ideals.

The headlines from Washington today blare of bailouts, stimulus, clunkers, Afpak, health care. But it is possible that future historians, looking back, will fixate on a quieter project of Barack Obama’s White House: its exploration of how government might be opened to greater public participation in the digital age, of how to make self-government more than a metaphor.

 I’ve been of the opinion for some time that we are in the midst of a major socio-political shift in our culture and probably in the world in general.  Technology is utterly transforming the world and we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg.  With the technological generations coming into power and taking over the workforce, we are going to see a massive jump in technological innovation of the likes that hasn’t been seen in recent decades.  The industrial age and the modernist ideals it fostered are still very powerful, but a new paradigm has finally gained enough power to challenge it.  It’s been a long time coming, but the massive size of Boomers slowed down this shift.  Gen Xers have been working in the background building the infrastructure of the Information Age and now we have our first Gen X president.  Obama won by appealing to the youth which offers us a glimpse of what we’re going to see in the near future when in 2012 the Millennials will dominate the presidential election.  The US is no longer controlled by the Boomers, but the Boomers are far from being out of the game.  There will be some major generational clashing in the next decade.

President Obama declared during the campaign that “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” That messianic phrase held the promise of a new style of politics in this time of tweets and pokes. But it was vague, a paradigm slipped casually into our drinks. To date, the taste has proven bittersweet.

 I’m not sure it matters that Obama lives up to his promise.  The important point is the promise was made.  The sweetness of it may be undermined with the bitterness of politics as usual, but still the sweetness once tasted creates a hunger.  Any promising ideal will usually fail when it’s first proposed.  If one looks to history, it can take centuries for a good idea to really catch on and succeed.  Without a revolution to overthrow the government, it takes time to change established politics.  However, technology may speed up this process.

Federal agencies have been directed to release online information that was once sealed; reporters from Web-only publications have been called on at news conferences; the new portal Data.gov is allowing citizens to create their own applications to analyze government data. But the most revealing efforts have been in “crowdsourcing”: in soliciting citizens’ policy ideas on the Internet and allowing them to vote on one another’s proposals.

During the transition, the administration created an online “Citizen’s Briefing Book” for people to submit ideas to the president. “The best-rated ones will rise to the top, and after the Inauguration, we’ll print them out and gather them into a binder like the ones the president receives every day from experts and advisors,” Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to Mr. Obama, wrote to supporters.

 It sounds good in theory.  LOL  The author describes the results of this gathering of public opinion.  It may not seem inspiring, but I’d rather hear people’s actual opinions no matter what they are.  Even if the average person’s opinion is completely stupid, that is still a good thing to know.  Maybe the public isn’t capable of more serious opinions until their collective opinion is taken seriously.

There is a lively debate in progress about what some call Gov 2.0. One camp sees in the Internet an unprecedented opportunity to bring back Athenian-style direct democracy. [ . . . ] The people in this camp point to information technology’s aid to grassroots movements from Moldova to Iran. They look at India, where voters can now access, via text message, information on the criminal records of parliamentary candidates, and Africa, where cellphones are improving election monitoring. They note the new ease of extending reliable scientific and scholarly knowledge to a broad audience. They observe how the Internet, in democratizing access to facts and figures, encourages politician and citizen alike to base decisions on more than hunches.

But their vision of Internet democracy is part of a larger cultural evolution toward the expectation that we be consulted about everything, all the time. Increasingly, the best articles to read are the most e-mailed ones, the music worth buying belongs to singers we have just text-voted into stardom, the next book to read is one bought by other people who bought the last book you did, and media that once reported to us now publish whatever we tweet.

Yes, it’s a strange new world.  The question is does this actually open debate.  Do people just listen to the crowd and follow along?  Do people just get stuck in their own self-created niche where everything caters to their biases?  There are definite dangers.

Another camp sees the Internet less rosily. Its members tend to be enthusiastic about the Web and enthusiastic about civic participation; they are skeptical of the Internet as a panacea for politics. They worry that it creates a falsely reassuring illusion of equality, openness, universality. [ . . . ] “Many methods and technologies can be used to give voice to the public will. But some give a picture of public opinion as if through a fun-house mirror.”

True it creates an illusion, but politics at present just creates another kind of illusion.  Choose your illusion, as they say.  From my viewpoint, the risk is worth it because the opportunity is increased (as are the stakes).

Because it is so easy to filter one’s reading online, extreme views dominate the discussion. Moderates are underrepresented, so citizens seeking better health care may seem less numerous than poker fans. The Internet’s image of openness and equality belies its inequities of race, geography and age.

Now, there is a criticism that resonates deeply with me.  I get annoyed by how few moderates choose to voice their opinions and I get annoyed that so many ideologues feel it’s necessary to announce their every thought.  The internet is a specific medium that attracts a specific type of person.  The internet is Social Darwinism in action where thoughtful debate isn’t always fostered.  It takes effort to encourage people to relate well, but the ease of the internet doesn’t lend itself to people going to this effort.  People often make their quick rude comments and the people running the site are too busy or lazy to moderate such trolling and other anti-social behavior.

Lies spread like wildfire on the Web; Eric Schmidt, the chief executive of Google, no Luddite, warned last October that if the great brands of trusted journalism died, the Internet would become a “cesspool” of bad information. Wikipedia plans to add a layer of editing — remember editing? — for articles on living people.

This sounds like fear-mongering to me.  The great brands of trusted journalism aren’t going to entirely die out.  The ones that do die out will be replaced by new ones.  People want good journalism and anyways the quality of journalism was suspect long before the internet.  People have been looking for alternative journalism for much of this past century and now the opportunity is here for alternative journalism on a large-scale.  It will take time for all of this to develop, but it will develop because the demand is there.

Perhaps most menacingly, the Internet’s openness allows well-organized groups to simulate support, to “capture and impersonate the public voice,” as Mr. Fishkin wrote in an e-mail exchange.

Ah, yes.  This very well may be the biggest danger of them all.  The new technologies allow for manipulation and propaganda on a scale never before possible.  The workings of the internet are so subtle that most people don’t even notice the inherent biases to search engines.  Also, it’s hard to tell if a website is trustworthy or even who is running and funding it.  Even so, there is more info than there ever has been.  The difference of todays technology is that it allows people to research something if they want to.  However, the average person has little desire (not to mention time and energy) to research most things.  If manipulation succeeds in todays world, it’s because of willful ignorance.  As long as people are willing to unquestioningly accept lies and deception, then there will always be those willing to supply it.  But this has always been true no matter what kind of technology is used.

There is no turning back the clock. We now have more public opinion exerting pressure on politics than ever before. The question is how it may be channeled and filtered to create freer, more successful societies, because simply putting things online is no cure-all.

Damn straight!  There is no turning back.  Full speed ahead be it utopia or dystopia.  It’s a brave new world, baby.  However, I don’t see too much reason to worry about it mainly because worry won’t alter the change that is happening.  We all might as go along with the flow.  Instead of struggling against the inevitable, let’s save our energies and keep our eyes open.  Democracy needs to be able to adapt and that is true now more than ever.  Also, democracy needs vigilance.

To end on a humorous note, I shall reward anyone who made it all the way down to the bottom of this post.