My Father’s Writings

Ethics and Climate

For Father’s Day I thought the best thing I could do would be to share some of my Dad’s writings.  He was an environmental lawyer for most of his career, has worked at the United Nations among other places, and now teaches at Widener Law School.  Although he is also a published author, he now also runs a blog that deals with the ethical issues surrounding climate change.  Above is a link to his blog.  So thanks Dad for, among so many other things, fighting the good fight.

Ideas of Value and Worshipping at Decaying Alters

I once read part of Niall Ferguson’s The War of the World.  Although I don’t agree with Ferguson on most current political issues and he can often be pompous and arrogant, there were parts of this book that were really interesting and one part in particular that stuck with me.  This was the idea that technology cannot only spread progress and enlightenment, but can also spread bad ideas just as quickly.  In the book he talks about the implementation of rail.  Rail allowed certain regions to progress economically and culturally.  Goods and technology that had not reached parts of the world were now more easily available and allowed civilization to advance.  Different people that had never been in much contact were able to come together, become more familiar with each other, and share worthwhile ideas.  However, things like racism and anti-semitism, that might not have been prevalent in certain areas, were able to spread as well.

We can see in modern times how the internet allows both good and bad ideas to spread more easily.  Not only can the internet be a place where democratic ideas can be shared, but fundamentalists and fascist corporatists are able to spread their message through the internet as well.

Earlier tonight as I drove home from a gig I was listening to Chuck D’s album The Black in Man.  On one of the songs Chuck D raps that,”There’s a difference between censorship and senseless shit.”  I’m against censorship of any kind, the banning of ideas.  However, this does not mean that ideas have equal value and should be regarded as such.  There is not enough critical thinking and bullshit detecting going on in our society.   Whether it is the right’s fear of intellectualism, because facts are often not in their favor, or the left’s fear of things being deemed intolerant, too many of the conversations we have end up being about how people respond to something and not the actual value an idea itself.

Making scientific decisions is better when science is the metric for a decision and not economics.  A culture that treats women equally is flat out better than a culture that tries to keep them subservient.  These, and others, are simple conclusions that can be reached easily when reason and critical thinking are involved.  Now more than ever, in this information age, we need people that can critique our culture in a meaningful way and that aren’t afraid to stand up and be counted.  At the same time we need these same kind of people to be unafraid to change their opinions when facts add up to something different than what we previously thought.   Utilitarianism, what benefits the most amount of people, should be a force in that debate, even if that idea in and of itself isn’t enough.  (No matter how many benefit from something, it should not be at the expense of suffering of the minority.  There needs to be clear ethical lines as safeguards to that utilitarianism.)  What gives the people the best chance to be free of fear, want, and oppression?  How do we as a society prosper and live lives of meaning without creating suffering in others?  What brings long term meaning to life?  What kinds of short term satiation of our desires makes life less meaningful in the long run?

We have all of the information of the world at our fingertips, but kids are taught less and less how to actually parse that information and decide what has value.  People on the right and the left sense their is something sick in our culture, even if they can’t agree on what it is.

In my opinion, although there is still a lot of ill in our culture due to petty tribal and religious differences, our main problem is that we have allowed money to become the thing we worship above all else.  Whatever sells wins, even if in the long run it will lead to our destruction.

As I read the news today I couldn’t help but notice all of the false gods that we worship on a daily basis.  We too often worship the god of the tribe, while allowing money and power to have their way while we are distracted at decaying alters.

I already know, before even reading over what I wrote, that it is somewhat rambling, that it possibly touches on too many different ideas.  But I can’t help but feel these are the kinds of things we should be thinking about, that these are the kinds of questions that we should be asking.

Hans Blix on Syria

I just got the following article off of Oliver Stone’s facebook page:

The article is from Hans Blix.  Remember him from before the Iraq War?!!  Before Chimpy Bush went into that country and laid waste to our moral standing in the world.  Blix is laying out the fact that we have no moral mandate to act as the world’s policeman.

When We Should Lie

One of the most interesting subjects that I can think of is lying.  If we never lied, I imagine we would constantly be at each other’s throats.  David Milch, the creator of Deadwood, said that, “History is a lie agreed upon.”  Oscar Wilde once said, as I have quoted before, “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, or otherwise they will kill you.”

Let me give you an example.  If a fat, hideous woman asks you how she looks, what do you say?  If you tell her the truth you are probably going to hurt her feelings and make her suffer.  If you lie to her you might boost her ego and make her feel good about herself.  You might also send her off into the night in a clown suit where she will be further ridiculed, but alas, these things are complicated.

If you meet a pair of brand new parents that have an ugly baby, do you fill their heads with grand delusions, or do you prepare them for the cold hard realities that their child will face?  The rules of society are that we should be compassionate to the new parents and tell them pretty lies.

These are small individual and trivial matters in the world.  What about when something is more serious as in politics?  If you are an atheist and you want to get someone that is religious over to your cause, and they ask you what your beliefs are, it does not help you to tell them that you believe they are worshiping a strange space god.  Conversely, if you are religious and you want to win an atheist over to your cause, it does you no good to tell them that they are going to burn in eternal hellfire.

Not only can the truth be hard thing to find, but it can often be a hard thing to tell.  Our society is built upon a bunch of fairy tells and delusions that help glue us together.  George Carlin calls this, “The American Okie Doke.”  I’ve included his words in full in an earlier post.  These lies include stuff like all men are equal, the police are always on your side, business is good, and your standard of living will never decline.  He also calls this, “The official national bullshit story.”

I once read a book called How to Be Good by Nick Hornby.  In this book a married man decides that he is always going to be good and that he is always going to tell the truth.  Basically, he ends up making life hell for everyone around him.

There is also the concept that sometimes fiction can help us see the truth even more than nonfiction.  Werner Herzog often fictionalizes things in his documentaries.  But what he is after is not what he calls, “The truth of accountants”, but a deeper truth that lays beneath the surface of the everyday.

There is no good answer to when you should be truthful and when you should lie.  I would say that the closer you are to someone the more brutally honest you should be.  If we can’t trust our friends and our loved to tell us the truth then we are in serious trouble.  The more serious a topic, as in war or poverty, the more it should be your duty to tell the truth as well as you can.  These are life and death situations and demand bravery in truth telling, even if it comes at a personal loss to you.  In art I always think the deeper more penetrating truth is the one that should guide you.  If you are a journalist, then just stick to the facts.  Another thing I liked about George Carlin is that he always believed in treating individuals as individuals.  Different people, when it comes to matters of their personal life, can handle different amounts of truth telling.

I think the main thing you should weigh when you are debating what to say is does it lead to more suffering or not.  Let’s go back to the fat, hideous woman.  If you tell her she looks great and this decreases her suffering, than you have probably done a good thing.  However again, if you tell her she looks great and again she goes out in an outfit that brings her even more ridicule, then she will suffer more and you have done her a disservice.

There is no easy answer to any of these questions.  I think decreasing suffering should always be our guiding principle, but even that does not give us a clear path.  The only time when suffering should not play a role in our decision is when it’s our own.  We should always tell the truth if the only one that will suffer will be ourselves.  The truth is an important thing that should be valuable to us all.  It should be guarded and kept sacred whenever possible.  One should always be honest, except when one shouldn’t be.

The Worker’s Dilemma

I used to do Customer Service at Cingular Wireless, which was eventually bought out by AT&T.  I did a little bit of sales, but mostly just tried to help people with their problems.  I think at some point when I first started I signed some kind of nondisclosure agreement.  But if they think some kind of piece of paper is going to prevent me from telling the truth, they’re fucking crazy.

This was the sort of super controlled corporate work environment where everything you did was under scrutiny.  You couldn’t even go to the bathroom without punching some numbers into your computer.  Your phone calls were often listened to, your computer was monitored, and you were instructed very carefully about how to explain things to customers.  The kind of language that you used was very important.  You weren’t even allowed on the phones before you took six weeks of training classes.

Often people were angry when they called in.  This could be for any number of reasons.  Sometimes it was a legitimate grievance with the company, and sometimes the people just were angry for no good reason at all.

It’s normal in a company to have them want to put the best face on things as possible.  If you work in sales or customer service and you tell the truth all of the time, many companies would simply cease to exist.  Often the worker is put in the undesirable place of wanting to keep their job and at the same time wanting to help the customer with integrity as best they can.  That’s not to say there aren’t some malicious fools out there that buy lock, stock, and barrel into company policy.  Some people drink the Kool-aid with zest.

Let me give you an example from another company first.  I did sales in the moving industry.  One of the companies that I worked for, which no longer exists, told its customers when they called in, that they had given their employees background checks.  This company never did one background check that I am aware of.  It was our job on the phone to keep this myth alive.  If we didn’t we were out of the job.  It sounds like a complicated ethical dilemma.  It’s more complicated than you think actually.  If you are asked to do something unethical at work, you could just simply quit.  Or you could just decide to tell the truth and face the consequences if anyone finds out.  However, most of the people that worked at this company, which depended on it for a living, were decent people.  If suddenly sales stop coming through the door, and I was good at what I did, a lot more people’s livelihoods were going to be affected other than my own.  This was also at the height of the recession and I chose to stay on, and subvert the company as best I could from the inside.  I gave customers price breaks when I could.  I tried to be as honest and forthright with customers as I could given the framework that was allowed.  I told my bosses many times that they had better get their act together or they were going to end up in hot water.  Maybe I’m just trying to justify why I stayed on.  Perhaps I could have done more.  Perhaps I should have even quit.  I also, like many, faced the added dilemma of having financial responsibilities to loved ones.  I am betting that millions of workers across America are being put in this situation by corporations.

Another thing worth mentioning is that Texas is a right to work state and a state that has weak corporate regulations.  Hell, our genius governor even tried to use this as a selling point to bring businesses here recently.

The wireless company was even more slippery in how they tricked their customers.  They would use clean efficient corporate speak to whitewash certain business practices.  They might go to a new plan, that was less advantageous to their customers, and then teach us how to sell it to them in a way that made it seem more attractive.  That’s just one example.  Remember, they were always listening in to our phone calls.  Every word and explanation was carefully worded to keep the customer’s eye off of the ball.

I learned in my six years in customer service and sales that there is just immorality built into the world of business.  It almost can’t function without it.  There are companies that provide people with an honest service and try to do the best they can by their customers.  However, even the people at these companies have to bend the truth if not outright lie.  Let’s say you work for a perfectly legit company.  Let’s say it is the moving business.  Maybe the week before someone drove a truck into a house by complete accident.  It happens.  If the customer asks what problems have happened at your company, you would be a fool to tell them that that happened last week.  You might tell them some smaller problems and try to be as honest as possible, but you can’t tell them everything that goes on behind company doors.  In the free market this would drive someone to your competitor at light speed.

I don’t know exactly what point I’m trying to make, other than to make you think about the nature of doing business.  Most businesses are trying to get as much money as humanly possible out of you, while making you feel great about the decision that you have made.  In an era of economic downturn people are going to be less inclined to leave their jobs.  They have rent to pay and families to take care of.  If the management at the top is not completely ethical the workers below them are going to be under more pressure to bend to their will.

Most sales and customer service reps have some leeway in the way that they deal with you.  They have certain discounts and billing decisions that they can make.  I almost always sided with the customer and tried to give away as much money as I could.  I knew there was something crooked going on.  Remember that these people have this small amount of freedom.  They are under a lot of pressure.  If you are nice to them, most of them will work with you to bring your cost down.  Occasionally you will get one of the Kool-aid drinkers.  Keep calling back until you get someone that will work with you.  Take pleasure in knowing that every time you call into a company it costs that company money.  I think when I worked at Cingular it cost them between 10 and 15 dollars every time someone called in.  You may not get your money back if they have wronged you, but you can help make sure that they don’t have it either.

I hope to never work in this field again.  One must survive however.  Corporations are not our friends.  We need them to be watched and regulated by a strong outside regulatory body.  The government is really the only one that can do this.  This will ensure that not only are you treated more fairly, but that workers are put in better situations.  There is so much more to say on this topic, but as Morrissey says in a song, “You get the general idea.”