Gratitude and Generosity

I am working on a book about civic virtue. One of the virtues on my list is generosity. I have to admit, on first glance generosity sounds like an odd civic virtue.  Aren’t we just being generous with other people’s money?  Yes and no. Civic generosity has to be based on a shared vision of the good society, and we can actively promote a vision that is inclusive and empowering.

I have been writing the past few blogs about what I call attitude virtues, like hope and trust.  There are only four attitude virtues. The other two are grace or gratitude, and love or lovingkindness. More on that love in my next blog, but  right now, as Thanksgiving is approaching fast and Christmas is not far behind, I want to focus on gratitude as an attitude and generosity as gratitude in action.

Grace or gratitude (both spring from the Latin word gratia) is accepting that much of what one is blessed with in life is a free gift of nature, ancestry, and/or circumstances, luck, and the kindness of strangers.  Few of us deserve many of the blessings we enjoy. An attitude of grace or gratitude acknowledges the extent to which one is privileged in some way or another. Theologian Galen Ginguerich in The Way of Gratitude regards gratitude as the most fundamental of the attitude virtues. 

The appropriate  behavior responses to gratitude are generosity, compassion, and kindness to those less fortunate. Gratitude also calls people to accept the responsibilities of citizenship, including paying taxes, and to acknowledge our independence by  providing for the common good..

Generosity is the active form of gratitude. Generosity also embodies the virtue attitude of love, agape, lovingkindness—caring about the well-being of others. It reflects the attitude virtues of trust and hope, the expectation (or sometimes demand!)  that generosity will be directed in ways that help those in genuine need and minimize waste and gaming the system.  But most of all, it flows from grace or gratitude, an attitude that makes us more willing to share with others, either through personal sharing or in collaboration with others in private and public efforts to meet human needs and promote human flourishing. Some people may express their generosity with time and attention, others with services, others with financial support. When gratitude affects our civic behavior, it shows up in similar ways—a willingness to get involved in government in active ways from voting, campaigning, running for office to advocating, conversation, compromise, openness to the ideas of others.

The medieval Jewish rabbi and scholar Maimonides suggested that we think about charity, or giving, or generosity; in terms of a ladder of giving.  Here are the eight rungs on his ladder.

  1. To give donations even if they are given grudgingly.
  2. To give less than one should, but do so cheerfully.
  3. To give directly to the poor upon being asked.
  4. To give directly to the poor without being asked.
  5. To make donations when the recipient is aware of the donor’s identity, but the donor still doesn’t know the specific identity of the recipient.
  6. To make donations when the donor is aware to whom the charity is being given, but the recipient is unaware of the source.
  7. To give assistance in such a way that the giver and recipient are unknown to each other. Communal funds administered by responsible people are also in this category.
  8. The highest form of charity is to help sustain a person before they become impoverished by offering a substantial gift in a dignified manner, or by extending a suitable loan, or by helping them find employment or establish themselves in business so as to make it unnecessary for them to become dependent on others.

As one climbs the ladder, the separation between donor and recipient becomes larger, so that the gift is not for public display (like plaques honoring donors to a hospital wing, University building, or museum), but rather for the greater good.  There are many ways to be anonymous.  One of them is to support programs, both public and private, that either provide immediate relief in cases of personal crisis or natural disaster.  The final rung on the ladder, which embodies rungs four , five, six and seven, is the gift of empowerment and sustainability. It is captured in the proverb “give a man a fish, and he can eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he can eat for a lifetime.” Both immediate relief and empowering sustainability respect the dignity of the recipients. While generosity flows from grace/gratitude, giving in ways that help people to become more independent and empowered are also  expressions of love, trust, and hope.

In this season of thankfulness, may your gratitude find expression in ways that are meaningful, hopeful, and life-affirming.

Trust Part 2

This past week was an encouraging one for restoring and affirming trust in our governing institutions.  I worked at the polls with people of different political persuasions, but there was no partisanship.  I did discover that one of the other team members supported Biden and another supported Trump, but it did not enter into their work of enabling voters to participate in the process.  We were a team working on a task.

The same has been true in states around the country, especially including Georgia. In that state, the electoral infrastructure is entirely under Republican control, but the vote counting was carried out with diligence, caution, and integrity, even though the outcome was not for their preferred candidate. The threatened intimidation of voters at the polls and violence in the streets if President Trump was not re-elected did not materialize. The nation is remarkably calm in the aftermath of the election.

Now that it is clear that Joe Biden is going to be our new president, it is time to put the rhetoric and divisiveness behind us and learn to trust each other again.  Whichever side you were on, reach out to someone who voted differently.  Commit to being engaged in politics, looking for candidates who will tread a centrist path, avoiding the extremes of both parties.

Authoritarian governments are built on suspicion, distrust, division, nonnegotiable positions.  Democratic governments are built on trust, mutual respect, and compromise.  Democracy prioritizes good process over “good” outcomes.  Goodness of  process means impartiality, fairness, transparency, and integrity.  Goodness of outcomes is in the eye of the beholder.

If you believe in democracy, if you are willing to trust the good intentions of your fellow citizens, find a way to help make it work.

In God We Trust–Who Else?

Faith is a virtue, but it is also word with multiple meanings.  Belief, trust, and loyalty are the most common ones.  Saint Paul’s use of the Greek word pistis is often translated as allegiance or loyalty, while the Latin version (credo) has come to mean belief (as in creeds).  These meanings are  not mutually exclusive.  However, to the extent that people interpret the term belief in a religious context as a set of statements about reality that they are asked to accept as factual truths, trust may be a more useful translation of faith as one of the core attitudinal virtues.

Loyalty is more a behavior than an attitude and is somewhat neutral as a potential virtue, because one can be loyal to something that is harmful or destructive. Our nation is currently deeply divided by mutual mistrust in politics, in part fostered and nurtured by individual and groups in furtherance of their own agenda.  In particular, they cultivate loyalty to their own group and distrust of everyone else—which supports the assertion that loyalty is not always a virtue. For our civic purposes, trust rather than belief or loyalty is the most useful interpretation of the virtue called faith.

Trust lies somewhere between gullibility or naiveté  as its extreme and paranoia or simply distrust as its opposite. Trust is not blind.  Trust Allah but tie up your camel is an old Arab proverb. Former Soviet Leader Michael Gorbachev urged that both sides trust but verify. Doubt lies somewhere between trust and disbelief, and serves the useful purpose of calling us to ground trust in factual knowledge and demonstrated behavior by those people and institutions we have invited into positions of power and authority.

 Trust begins by listening to your gut, your instincts, but it does not end there.  There is also that all-important verify part when it comes to practicing trust in ocmmunity.  Whom do you trust to listen and respectfully disagree, opening your mind to other ways of thinking?  What sources of information are credible? Just like active hope, cautious trust is an invaluable attitudinal virtue to cultivate and exercise for every aspect of our lives, not just governance. Democratic process is just “trust but verify” on a larger scale.  Knowing that there will be another election plays a key role in holding elected officials accountable to the public trust.

Trust lies somewhere between gullibility or naiveté as its extreme and paranoia or simply distrust as its opposite. Trust is not blind. Trust Allah but tie up your camel is an old Arab proverb. Former Soviet Leader Michael Gorbachev urged that both sides trust but verify. Doubt lies somewhere between trust and disbelief, and serves the purpose of calling us to ground trust in factual knowledge and demonstrated behavior by those people and institutions we have invited into positions of power and authority.

Trust is an important element of a nation’s social capital as described by Stiglitz in Measuring What Counts.  Social capital has been described as the glue that holds a society together—a shared history, sometimes a shared ancestry, holidays and celebrations, customs and usually language. Trust is a form of social capital that makes it possible to enter into agreements without spelling out all the details or constantly running to the courts to enforce them.  I recall a contract to build an addition on our home many decades ago.  The contract read, “build upstairs addition, $10,000.”  When he would tell me to go pick out light fixtures, or carpeting, I would say, “Do I pay for them?” He said  “No, it’s in the contract!” Contracts are less likely to be spelled out in detail in a small town where everyone knows everyone else.  I was a relative newcomer and had to learn the local customs, which were grounded in trust that was in turn grounded in networks of kinship and neighborhoods.

 Trust is not just an attitudinal virtue when it comes to civil society; it is also an asset that builds slowly but dissipates quickly. Inequality and diversity both can undermine trust in civic institutions., Inequality creates fear and resentment toward those who use money to gain power over others. Diversity encourages the creation of silos of people with a common heritage, and fosters distrust.

Trust begins by listening to your gut, your instincts, but it does not end there.  That’s the verify part.  Whom do you trust to listen and respectfully disagree, opening your mind to other ways of thinking?  What sources of information are credible? Just like active hope, cautious trust is an invaluable attitudinal virtue to cultivate and exercise for every aspect of our lives, not just governance. Democratic process is just “trust but verify” on a larger scale.  Knowing that there will be another election plays a key role in holding elected officials accountable to the public trust.

Historically, kings ruled by divine right, tyrants usurped authority and held on to it by force.  Only in modern times did the checks and balances of democratic constitutions provide a good reason to trust authority because no one had absolute power. In the United States, the division of authority among three branches of government and the sharing of power between the federal government and the states both offer constraints on abuse of power. But democracies have succumbed to dictatorship in the past. Our trust as citizens has been frequently undermined and challenged by social media and self-serving politicians who are careless of with the truth and opportunistic in the use of power, whose loyalty to party is placed above loyalty to the Constitution and the public. In a democracy, the survival of self-government or any other form of government depends on the faith, belief, and trust of its citizens in its elected leaders’ willingness and ability to govern in their interest.

Betrayal of that trust to seek to seize and retain power and/or exercise it for personal benefit will undermine authority. One of our biggest challenges as a nation is to affirm a “trust but verify” attitude as a habit of the heart that leads to respect for authority and for our fellow citizens,, civic participation, and willingness to compromise—all essential to the survival of democracy.

Historically, kings ruled by divine right, tyrants usurped authority and held on to it by force.  Only in modern times did the checks and balances of democratic constitutions provide a reason to trust authority because no one had absolute power. In the United States, the division of authority among three branches of government and the sharing of power between the federal government and the states both offer constraints on abuse of power. But democracies have succumbed to dictatorship in the past.

Our trust as citizens has been frequently undermined and challenged by social media and self-serving politicians who are careless of with the truth and opportunistic in the use of power, whose loyalty to party is placed above loyalty to the Constitution and the public. In a democracy, the survival of self-government or any other form of government depends on the faith, belief, and trust of its citizens in its elected leaders’ willingness and ability to govern in their interest.

In what or whom should we trust? Our instincts. Our doubts. And those voices and people an sources that have proved trustworthy in the past,whether they are scientists, public officials, personal friends, news sources, or communities and organizations that are open to other views and different perspectives. Trust is the foundation of democracy. Don’t let distrust take away our most precious possession as a nation.

When Hope is Hard to Find

Today’s virtue is hope. That title is from a hymn called “ Come sing a song with me,” and the line is “and I’ll bring you hope, when hope is hard to find.” Hope is a virtue, a habit of the heart in the words of sociologist Robert Bellah. It is one of four attitudinal virtues—hope, faith, love, and grace.  Three from Saint Paul and one more that are the ground for all the behavioral virtues that we observe in ourselves and others.

Like all virtues, hope lies at the golden mean between its opposite—despair or pessimism—and its extreme—optimism. I used to think of myself as an optimist, but that was before I learned the difference between optimism and hope. Optimism is just expecting things to turn out well.  Hope, or what theologian Joanna Macy calls Active Hope, means having a vision of how things might be, could be, should be, and working to bring it about. Hope in the heart is the mother of virtues like courage, responsibility, engagement. Hope’s motto is Yes, I can, or even better, Yes, we can.

Hope requires two tools to direct and sustain active hopeful engagement.  One is a vision of a better way, a better life, a better world.  The other is a community that can share or at least “catch” the hope and provide mutual support in working toward it. Vision embraced by a community is how we put our hope to work.

Hope has to confront risk and move beyond it.  One of the most fascinating concepts in statistics is the two types of error.  Type I is accepting a hypothesis as true when it is, in fact, false.  Type II error is rejecting as false a hypothesis that is, in fact, true.  A high standard for truth, which is the goal of science, minimizes the first risk but increases the second.  Hope means accepting a certain amount of risk of being wrong in order to move on.  Risk invites fear, and fear can paralyze active hope. All the great heroes of history and literature kept hope alive, confronting an even embracing risk in order to achieve what they did—Mandala in ending apartheid in South Africa, suffragists in the 72 year struggle for voting rights for women, the civil rights movement, the environmental movement.

So where do we find hope when hope is hard to find?  First, in having a big enough vision that the most we can do is propel it in the right direction. Second, in being part of a community that shares that vision and passes it on. Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr reminds us that Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in a lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.  The suffragists in Seneca Falls in 1848 did not get to vote, but my great grandmother, born in 1854, marched for women’s suffrage with countless others and voted in the presidential elections in 1920 and 1924.  She was saved by hope, which she caught from her foremothers and passed on to her grandchildren.

Hopes need to be big hopes, shared hopes, inspiring hopes.  Restoring civility to our nation. Protecting democracy. Reducing violence. Resisting climate change. Caring for the vulnerable. Pick one or two hopes for the future and find companions to work toward them.   Which hope will you embrace and work for both alone and in community to bring about?

Dwelling Together in Peace (?)

Economist Albert Hirschman wrote a classic book in the 1970s called Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. He explored decisions to stay or leave, and if we stay, how we might try to  bring about change by speaking up or speaking out.  His examples range from divorce, to social clubs, where we work or shop, to where we live, to the Mafia, which is quite risky to leave. A good friend once called exiting by physically relocating “the geographic solution,” moving to the other side of the fence where the grass is greener only to find that you brought the same dissatisfied self along. So sometimes adapting to the culture and its values is the best choice. If you have a reasonable alternative—another job, another place to live—exit is less costly, but if the alternatives are unsatisfactory or costly, you may decide to grit your teeth, hang in there, and try to bring about change.  

Sometimes we exit and then use voice to express our frustration after our departure. Other times we try to use voice and when that fails to bring about change, we reluctantly exit. Voice is the primary tool of the political scientist, exit the strategy favored by economists.

Loyalty is a factor in staying or leaving.  That’s why advertisers try to develop brand loyalty, why organizations have high entrance fees or departure penalties, why colleges and churches stress the community and identity components of the experience they offer in order to encourage people to remain (for colleges, as supportive alumni). Many organizations—social, civic, commercial, religious—stress that they are held together by shared values, and belonging to that group becomes a part of your identity.

States and nations have shared civic values. Sometimes those values that don’t reflect our personal preferences. The state or nation in which we are born is often hard to leave, because of the bonds of shared culture, family and friends, the comfort of familiar surroundings, a shared history and language. Often it feels like a take it or leave it situation. Someone else has defined the values and the priority among those values, and you feel like you had no voice in shaping or changing them.

High costs or serious drawbacks to leaving can help a city (or a college, or a congregation, or a business, or a family) that is going through difficult times  recover and change in a positive way, because those who find exit difficult will use voice instead. They will make their concerns known and encourage others to do likewise. If they don’t like their city government, it is less costly  to run for city council than to sell your house and move to another town. Feeling trapped in a marriage, they may choose marriage counseling over divorce. Rather than taking a store off the shopping list, customers can talk to the management about why they are thinking of leaving. 

Americans arrived in North America from many different places.  Except for the African Americans who arrived as slaves, most of those who emigrated to American made the decision to come for one of two driving reasons.  After all, it takes a pretty powerful motive to cross a very big ocean, knowing that it you may never again see your homeland and some of your loved ones.  Some were driven by war, revolution, or disaster—the Irish potato famine, for example. Others came because they had a taste for adventure, to try something new. They were people tended to who value freedom over security. 

That preference has left its mark on our shared DNA. It leads to favoring the geographic solution to dissatisfaction, a pattern that continued until we ran out of frontiers, but until recently was still reflected in a high rate of geographic mobility among Americans. Mobile Americans assumed that they did not have to bloom where we were planted, but could  uproot themselves and start over somewhere else. Exit was a viable option.

As the frontier closed, and the effects of being transient took a toll of family life and children’s sense of security, American mobility within the country has declined. Psychologist Bella de Paula[1] writes that “only about 10 percent of Americans — or even fewer — change homes in any given year. Twenty years ago, in the year 2000, about 15 percent moved. Twenty years before that, in 1980, about 18 percent changed homes. And in 1950, about 20 percent of Americans moved — about twice as many as today. What’s more, when people move, it is usually not very far…geography professor Thomas Cooke found that most people who move stay within the same county, fewer move to a different county within the same state, and fewer still move to a different state. In 2019, only 1.5% of Americans moved to a different state.” She cites technology that enables us to access resources without relocating, the high cost of moving, two-career families, and the joy of “rootedness” as reasons for the decline. 

Americans today are less likely to exit and more likely to use voice to bring about change from within. That reduced mobility calls for learning to live with others who do not see the world the way we do, and to focus on those values that we do share. Instead, in our current political environment, it also often results in voice being expressed as violence and polarization, feeling that we are stuck with a bunch of fellow citizens that just don’t get us—on both sides.

As I write this, we are headed toward an election that will continue the polarization regardless of the outcome.  So this blog is the first of a series of five on the core civic virtues and how practicing them might help us to restore civility, respect,  and a willingness to compromise to our public dialogue. Next week: Active hope.


Causes, Heroes, and Statues

One of my favorite living heroes, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, died this week.  It happened while I was working on a sermon for October 11th called After Columbus, about statues  (that will be my next blog). Her death led me to reflect on what makes someone a hero. In brief, showing courage and dedication in a noble cause.  That heroism may be in spite of various flaws, but the courage, dedication, and noble cause are all required.  That third criterion is what distinguishes Washington and Jefferson from Robert E. Lee in the great battle over statues.

I started by enumerating noble causes, and I came up with four that date back to at least the early nineteenth century and are still with us today: Abolition and civil rights, suffrage and feminism, humanitarian support, and environmental protection. You may have others.  Certainly there are heroes of a more intellectual bent who made pioneering contributions to science, medicine, engineering, astronomy, mathematics, biology.  Courage was not always evident, but it certainly was for Galileo and Darwin.  However, for me, the four noble causes are enough. 

Here are my heroes. If you haven’t heard of some of them, Google them.

For abolition and civil rights: Frederick Douglass, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King jr., the Grimke sisters, Robert Smalls, Theodore Parker, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman.

For suffrage and feminism: Abigail Adams, the Grimke sisters and Frederick Douglass again, Alice Paul, Lucretia Mott, Gloria Steinem, Margaret Sanger, Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

For humanitarian work: Jimmy Carter, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jane Addams, Mahatma Gandhi, Dag Hammerskjold, Bryan Stevenson, Dorothea Dix.

For environmental protection: Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, Rachel Carson, All Gore, and countless Native American tribes.

What are your causes and who are your heroes? What are you doing to follow in their footsteps, which is a better way to honor them than by erecting a statue or naming a building?

Putting “Defects” to Work

My gardening friend says that a weed is just a flower in the wrong place.  I wish I could cultivate her positive attitude toward weeds.  But it is true that some of us struggle to blossom in the right place, the one where we are an ornament rather than an irritation.  Finding our niche, our calling, our self-expression is an important task that follows us through life. It requires us to be aware of certain of our inborn (or sometimes cultivated traits.  I have one of my own and one of my granddaughter’s in mind when I think about finding our niche, our vocation, the place where our gifts meet our passions.  Sometimes those gifts masquerade as failures or faults.

My granddaughter has been diagnosed as “on the spectrum,” with elements of autism that include obsessive compulsive disorder (CD).  Her mother remarked that she hoped Abby could channel her OCD into something that would enable her to succeed, like her other grandmother, who was also OCD, and  raised eight children and cared for dozens of others and eventually entered library work.  Abby has been at loose ends after getting her AA degree and has been happily working in a pizza place for two years., but she is thinking about her future  She is taking the initial steps toward becoming a pharmacy tech.  I am sort of at the opposite end of the spectrum, so it wouldn’t appeal to me and I wouldn’t be good at it, but if there is one valuable trait in a person who manages prescriptions and keeps track of pharmaceuticals, it is OCD.  I have high hopes for her.

My particular trait that is not always valued in my chosen profession of academic/policy economist is linked to my “butterfly” personality on the Enneagram, easily distracted, interested in everything, having trouble narrowing myself to a limited range of ideas and interests. Traditional academia values focus, specialization, intensive over extensive, and frowns on interdisciplinary work (although that is beginning to change). I loved economics but was also very interested in its relationship to other disciplines, especially psychology, sociology, history,  and political science. And eventually theology, with a focus on ethics, when I got a post retirement degree in theological studies.

That breadth rather than depth of interest made me particularly good at the underappreciated academic skill of synthesis, held up as a form of scholarship in the Carnegie Report several decades ago.  It made me a good teacher because my lectures connected economics to many aspects of life and related disciplines. It made me a good textbook writer. It made me a good policy analyst, because it gave me a broader context to examine the impact of alternative policy choices.  When I went back to teaching, I put together the threads of the emerging sub-discipline of behavioral economics in order to teach a graduate class in Political Economy and Public Policy that integrated those other disciplines.

So here is a question for each of you to ponder.  What quality in yourself do others complain about? Procrastination?  Maybe you are just letting things simmer and develop rather than rushing to completion. Inability to work alone? Maybe you are meant to be a team member. One crazy scheme after another?  They said that about Edison.

Whether it is your own inner qualities or those of your children, students, or friends, hold up a mirror that helps them see that quality and its potential in the right choices of work, hobbies, civic engagement or anything else they want to be part of their lives.  They will be richer for it, and so will the rest of us.

I Own This Space

When it’s my turn, it’s my turn, and when it’s your turn, I have to wait.  We learned that in kindergarten.  We may not be as good as the Brits about queuing up, but by and large our kindergarten training kicks in.  Except when it doesn’t.  So here are a few of my recent pet peeves.

I was one of seven speakers at an event last week at the state Capitol.  The host person went first, and I was second.  It was clear from the printed agenda both when it was my turn and how long I was to talk and I obediently followed instructions, saying my three minutes worth.  I was the only one to do so.  The others, all of whom had been informed about the three minutes, rattled on until they had read their entire prepared speeches, frequently duplicating each other. The ”backdrop people” on the capitol steps stood patiently in the hot South Carolina sun through the whole thing. 

Later that day, I was part of a long Zoom meeting with seven of us needing to make a pitch briefly at the end for our particular project.  We were told we each had two minutes.  This time I was last.  After the others had gone on for three, five, six, seven minutes each, I quietly clicked on “leave meeting.” My day’s tolerance for inconsiderate behavior had been exhausted. Ronald Reagan’s line about “I paid for this microphone” lives on even when we have not, in fact, paid for the microphone.  (Reagan had.)

The same happens at any place where a line is formed.  Once a person get to the bank teller, or the checkout clerk, or whoever is processing the line, a sense of ownership of that time and space often takes over, with no consideration for the people behind you in line.  Take your time, change your mind, ask stupid questions.  You own this space and this person’s attention.

Yet another form that this sense of entitlement can be observed is in traffic.  When it becomes evident that this lane is going to be blocked ahead, people in that lane turn on their signals and persuade some kindly driver to let them merge.  Or not.  Some pass all the patiently (?) waiting cars in the adjacent lane until they get to the point of blockage and then turn on their signal to take a place in line ahead of all those they have passed. And someone lets them in.  I don’t.

Places like doctor’s offices and Social Security offices and doughnut shops and the Department of Motor Vehicles  have smartened up and don’t ask the question “Who’s next?”  Instead, they give you a number, and you don’t get your turn until your number is called.  But in much of the world, aggressors will do their best to get to the head of the line and keep their place once they get there until they run out of things to say. These various forms of rudeness are endemic in our individualistic society.

So how are we to respond?  I have a short fuse, which I try to keep under control. Looking at my watch may offer a gentle suggestion, if the perp is paying attention.  It doesn’t do any good to express or give in to anger when it won’t change things.  Time for the Reinhold Niebuhr prayer about the patience to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change those we  can, and the wisdom to know the difference.  But I also recognize that these assertive acts are a form of bullying, and tolerating bullying is a form of enabling.  It’s quite okay to say, I’m sorry, I was next.  Or not let that car that just raced past you into your lane.  He (it’s usually a he) can just wait until the last car he passed on that sprint has passed him. And above all, to raise our children, teach our students, and model good behavior as a way to  try to change a society of self-absorbed people into the kind of fellow citizens we want to live with.

Any other thoughts on how to respond to this highly contagious social disease?

Passionately Moderate

How, my oldest daughter asks, can you call yourself passionately moderate? I thought you were a liberal.  Yes, I answered, my personal preferences are liberal. Universal health care, a woman’s right to reproductive choice, a tax system that doesn’t favor the wealthy, affordable college and affordable housing…the list goes on. But I realize that a sizeable chunk of my city, state and nation subscribes to a different set of priorities and preferences, overlapping in some cases and diametrically opposite in others.  And even if my views were those of the majority, which they are in some cases, I don’t want to impose them on a frustrated and probably angry minority.  I am willing to compromise, to settle for the good or even the good enough for now rather than holding out for the very best. I am passionate about that openness to compromise, the give and take so that none of us get exactly what we want personally but what may be good enough, at least for now.  That makes me a liberal in theory and a moderate in practice.

Moderation lies at the core of the two academic disciplines I love the most and have taught to several generations of college students   I have a Ph.D. in economics from my early days and worked as an academic economist for 30 years.  Then I went to seminary and got a master’s degrees in theology with a concentration in ethics, which helped me to get my economic head and my theological heart on the same page. It also gave me the opportunity to teach ethics and public policy for 15 years to graduate students in policy studies because I was able to bring these two  disciplines together.

As both an economist and a theologian, I was interested in very practical questions about how we live our lives, and in particular, how we live in community.  For an economist, that means a focus on policy—making and implemented decisions that affect our material well-being in our common life.  For theology, my focus has been ethics, which was my concentration in seminary.  Theological ethics explores how our faith understanding guides our participation in governance in a democratic society. In the process of studying ethics, I fell in love with virtue ethics.

 The heart of Aristotelian virtue ethics, infused into late medieval scholasticism by Thomas Aquinas,  is moderation.  Moderation is fulcrum on which Aristotle’s golden mean rests. Aristotle’s golden mean contends that each virtue lies at the midpoint between two vices (or sins, in Christian/Jewish language).  One vice is the virtue’s extreme, the other its opposite.  His notion of the golden mean fit perfectly into the decision processes of my economic mind and my progressive heart.

Barry Goldwater got  it wrong when, running for president in 1964, he said,  “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue”. Extremism is tempting, but Goldwater lost in a landslide. BErnie Sanders, running for the Democratic nomination, took absolute positoins on health care, free college education, and other issues and met a similar fate. Moderation, along with patience, is a more likely path to human flourishing.

Thirty years ago, economist Alan Blinder wrote a book called Hard Heads, Soft Hearts, arguing that the Republicans were the party of hard heads, hard hearts, while the Democrats were the party of soft heads, soft hearts. What we needed,he wrote, was hard heads and soft hearts, rational decision processes tempered by compassion and empathy for others. The same dichotomy exists between economists and theologians—and in my head and heart.  That same dichotomy also exists between theologians of right and left and economists of right and left.  It is in the middle that we engage both head and heart in dialogue with each other.

 The core of economic decision-making is a balancing act, weighing costs and benefit, pain and pleasure, and steering a middle course rather than going to the extremes.  In fact, economics embodies utilitarian ethics, the greatest good for the greatest number.  It’s all about getting to get good outcomes.

In political economy (the old name of economics as a guide guide to public policy), moderation is not just a principle, it’s a survival strategy. The successful candidate is ever in search of the median voter, constantly resisting the pull of the extremes where few voters reside.  Yes, there is lure of standing tall for what you believe, whether it’s an extreme version of the second amendment or free college for all;  rigid and unyielding in the face of pressure to compromise. It’s high drama, but it doesn’t create or sustain communities in which we can dwell together in peace and enable humans to be nurtured and flourish.   So if you value a healthy and sustainable human community, please consider join me in declaring yourself a passionate moderate. With this qualification from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Moderation in all things, including moderation.”

The golden mean applies not just to virtue, but to other qualities of being.  I have friends who are perfectionists, which is frustrating for them because it is impossible to always be perfect, and so often the perfect keeps us from getting to the good enough. Perfection is the opposite of moderation.  Carelessness, indifference, apatheia represent the extreme.  I vacillate between appreciating the gift perfectionists bring and exasperation at the lack of big picture, the delays while everything is revisited one more time.  I have worked with perfectionists, and it has never been easy for either of us.

My passion for moderation is a passion for process, not outcomes.  In order to practice moderation as a commitment to good process, you have to let your inner Buddha guide you in letting go of attachment to outcomes. I do believe that in most cases that good processes are more likely to lead to good outcomes. Not best outcomes. Not perfect outcomes.  But again, outcomes that are steps in the right direction, or good enough for now. 

Note: This blog is an excerpt from the opening chapter of a book in progress.

Shouting the Battle Cry of Freedom

That title is from a Civil War song that begins

Yes we’ll rally round the flag, boys, we’ll rally once again

Shouting the battle cry of freedom!

We will rally from the hillside, we’ll gather from the plain

Shouting the battle cry of freedom!

Although these lyrics were written for a Union song, there is ironically also a Confederate version, pitting the freedom to own slaves against the freeing of the slaves. Americans claim many shared values, but none is bandied about nearly as much by both sides of issues like abortion, gun safety, wearing masks during a pandemic and the right of the citizens peaceably to assemble and petition for a redress of grievances. (Is that language familiar? It’s in the first amendment.)

July is the month of revolutions—American, French and Cuban.  Freedom was a rallying cry in all three—from oppression, from taxation without representation, from autocratic rule, from gross inequities in access to opportunities and resources.

Freedom is held in higher esteem or at least gets more lip service than any other value in American society.  Freedom has been invoked in claiming rights to gun ownership (the right to bear arms) and the right to an abortion, because both the political right and the political left invoke freedom on opposite sides of the same issue. Freedom is central to the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution. They focus on protecting us from government interventions not only in free speech and religion, free press and the right to protest, but also the right to bear arms, to be safe from unreasonable searches and seizures, to refuse to incriminate ourselves in a court of law.  All of these freedoms, however, were not available to enslaved people, and many of those freedoms were not available to Native Americans or women.

Like any abstract ideal, when it comes to freedom, the devil is in the details.  What happens when your freedom encroaches on mine?  What happens when exercising our freedom takes away the freedom of others? What good is freedom without food and a roof over our head?   The four freedoms, made famous by President Franklin Roosevelt in a 1941 speech, are freedom of speech and religion, freedom from want and fear. Those last two freedoms recall the words of Anatole France who famously (and sarcastically) reminded the French in 1894 that “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”   

Freedom conflicts with other values that are also important. Equality (all men are created equal) as well as the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are enshrined in the Declaration of Independence.  The ideal of equality, or its less demanding cousin, fairness, may means that your freedom to keep everything you earn has to be qualified by progressive taxation in order to provide opportunities for others.  The freedom to succeed needs to be accompanied by the freedom to fail, but in practice we provide lots of protections against the actual consequences of failure, at least for corporations, or for debtors other than those who owe student loans.

The right to choose how we govern ourselves was another key part of that document. Today we interpret that to mean fair elections without suppressing or diluting the vote with political gerrymandering, Voter ID laws, too few polling places, or discouraging voting by mail.

Other core communal values are spelled out in the Preamble to the Constitution, which calls Americans to “form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” Note the other values that share the stage with freedom or liberty—justice, domestic tranquility, defense, and general welfare.  

The other two July revolutions had similar vision of the good society. The French revolution’s motto was liberté, egalité, fraternité—freedom, equality, brotherhood. The Cuban revolution had similar goals, although both the French and Cuban revolutions were quickly sidetracked into new forms of oppression.   In this month of revolutions, it may be time for each of us to examine the content of our patriotism.  Where do we stand on the balance of freedom, equality and community (a nonsexist version of brotherhood)?  What limitations on personal freedom—wearing masks, gun safety laws, requiring states to make voting more accessible—do we support in the name of equality and community? As we transition from a month of revolutions to a season of elections, these are important questions to consider.