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Video: What are Ethics? Mayim Bialik and dignity under fire

Video: What are Ethics? Communication is Power

Video — What are Ethics? Part 29

If all the seas were diamonds

It’s not raining money, but it might be raining diamonds.

Not here on earth, of course.  For that you’ll have to go to the planet Neptune.  At least, that’s what scientists are now telling us.

I won’t pretend to understand the phenomenon of spontaneous diamond showers deep inside the ice giant that lurks at the outer reaches of our solar system.  Nor will I attempt to explain how scientists here on earth are simulating the process.

Instead, let’s talk about the practical applications of mass diamond production.

It’s long been known that the diamond industry artificially inflates prices through market manipulation and manipulative advertising.  Diamonds may be forever, but so are Cubic Zirconia — and most people can’t tell the difference.  So why spend $5000 on a two karat diamond when you can buy a comparable CZ for 30 bucks?

To paraphrase Will Rogers, people will eagerly spend money they don’t have on things they don’t need to impress people they don’t like.  The adage has been repeated by many, including Lev Leviev, the world renowned “King of Diamonds.”

Because of their hardness and heat conduction, diamonds do have genuine value:  in the manufacture of cutting and drilling equipment, as well as for research and technology.  But as far as jewelry, the cost is all about hype.

Which should make us pause to wonder:  what if it really did start raining diamonds?

A famous parable tells the story of a poor man who travels to a far away island where the ground is littered with diamonds and precious stones.  The moment he gets off his ship, he falls to the ground and begins stuffing his pockets with gems.

The people around begin to laugh.  “Why are you picking up worthless pebbles?” they ask.  In an instant, the man realizes that the stones, worth a fortune in his own country, have no value at all here.  And since the obscure island is only visited by ship once a year, he will have to find a way to support himself until the next ship comes to carry him home.

After making some inquiries, the man learns that the most profitable source of income on the island is cooking-fat.  He discovers that he has a particular talent in this area, and before long he is making an excellent living in the cooking-fat industry.

The year passes quickly, and when the ship finally arrives the man packs up all his valuable fats to bring home with him.  He reaches the port just as the ship is getting ready to make sail. All at once he remembers the reason why he came in the first place.  He hurriedly bends down to scoop up a few stones, then has no choice but to board the ship before it departs.

Upon returning home, the man’s family rejoices at the fortune with which he has returned.  But the man is forlorn.  “You don’t understand,” he says sadly.  “If I hadn’t forgotten why I was there, we might have a thousand times what I brought back.”

If we bother to think about it, it’s be obvious that shiny stones are not the source of happiness.  Objects have value because they are useful, because they are beautiful, or because they are rare.  But when we allow others to convince us to make them rich by investing in things with no intrinsic value, is there anything more foolish?

King Solomon says:  There is one who thinks himself rich and has nothing; there is one who thinks himself poor and has great wealth.

The blessing of family, of friends, of community; the joy of kind acts and charity; the inspiration that accompanies wisdom — these are the gems that are truly priceless.  They cost far less than shiny stones, and they make our lives infinitely richer.

As long as we don’t forget.

Published in Jewish World Review

No Safety in Numbers

“While nobody knows what’s going on around here, everybody knows what’s going on around here.”

In his eerily prophetic 1975 novel, The Shockwave Rider, John Brunner describes the Delphi pool, a futuristic incarnation of the Las Vegas betting boards.  It works this way:

Ask large numbers of people questions to which they can’t possibly know the answers.  For example:  How many victims died from influenza in the epidemic of 1918?

Even though few of the subjects know anything at all about the question, their guesses will cluster around the correct answer.  In the novel, the principle held true even for things that hadn’t happened yet, creating a reasonably accurate window into the future.

As it turns out, Mr. Brunner wasn’t far from reality.  Although his system doesn’t hold true for actual statistics, it’s right on target when applied to human psychology.

In a recent series of experiments, marketing professor Gita Johar of Columbia University and her team discovered that people in the company of others are more likely to accept unverified reports as true than people who are by themselves.

More compelling still is that the company we are in doesn’t have to be physical to impair our natural skepticism.  Even in a social media setting – connected only virtually with other people – we are more likely to accept information at face value, especially if it fits in with our preconceived notions.

Professor Johar explains this as a manifestation of herd mentality, an unconscious response to the belief that there is safety in numbers.  We don’t feel the need to question or fact-check because we rely on the group for authentication, even as everyone one else in the group simultaneously relies on everyone else in the group.

Welcome to the modern Delphi pool for the dissemination of fake news.  The more people who hear a report, the more likely they are to believe it.  In no time at all, news becomes accepted as fact regardless of accuracy, even when it is easily verifiable as false.

With groupthink becoming the standard of our times, we not only become less able to recognize the truth – we become less interested in doing so.  We condemn reports as fake news not because they are factually incorrect but because they refuse to conform to our own vision of reality.  As long as we keep company with others who are similarly disinterested in the difference between true and false, we have no reason to question the status quo.

In fact, probing for the truth can be positively dangerous.  One word against the party line is guaranteed to bring down upon our heads the wrath of the ignorant majority among our own allies determined to hold fast to their fabulist misconceptions.

So as accusations of lying – real and imagined – fly back and forth across the aisle, we have to ask ourselves a question:  do we want to do anything about it, or have we become too comfortable with our culture of falsehood to seek resurrection of the truth?

King Solomon says, A sophomoric person believes every word, but an insightful person minds his every step.

If we want to live in reality, we have to break away from the delusions of the herd and follow the path that leads back to the real world.  If we want true answers, we have to be willing to ask hard questions – and then we have to be able to face up to the truth no matter how uncomfortable or how unpopular that might make us.

Published in Jewish World Review

Video — The Ethics of Eclipse

Video: What are Ethics? Dare to Debate

The Problem with Ethics

“The hate and division must stop. And must stop now.”

~President Donald Trump

Is this the best we can hope for from the president who tells it like it is?  Do we need yet another uninspired chapter lamenting the “cycle of violence” added to the tedious narrative of moral equivalence?

After eight years of an administration too feckless to acknowledge radical Islam as the leading force behind global terrorism and so vapid as to dismiss the Fort Hood massacre as “workplace violence,” we have a right to expect the new regime to condemn white supremacists and neo-Nazis for what they are.

To his credit, the president got there… eventually.  But it took him way too long.  If we want to stop these kinds of incidents before they start, we need to confront them with clarity and courage.

WHAT CAN BE DONE?

The sad reality is that we have to let bigots and racists hold rallies like the one last weekend in Charlottesville.  And the sadder reality is that we have to encourage young idealists like Heather Heyer to put themselves on the line by speaking out against bigotry and racism, even though we know it sometimes ends in tragedy.

But passion has to be tempered with reason. Case in point: the outcry against Attorney General Jeff Sessions for not immediately launching a hate-crime investigation is all heart and little head.

The very term “hate-crime” is symptomatic of the ethical confusion of our times.  With left and right more polarized than ever, each side brands the other side as evil and thereby legitimizes its own hateful rhetoric.

The result is that we criminalize the motives of people we don’t like and excuse the actions of people we do.  And that just leads us deeper into the quagmire of moral anarchy.

WHAT GOES AROUND…

The day after the Charlottesville attack, a drunken American tourist got it into his head to give the Nazi salute in Dresden, Germany.  A scandalized local physically attacked the man, then fled before police could arrest him for assault.

Are you nodding your head in approval?  That’s only natural.  But ignorance, loutishness, and racism are not illegal, nor should they be.  If we want to live with freedom, we have to tolerate those who wield their freedom irresponsibly, if not criminally.

And when they do cross the line into criminality, we should let the law work the way it was meant to work.  It’s a sure bet that the deranged extremist who rammed his car into the Charlottesville crowd had convinced himself he was acting on the side of the angels.  But he should be prosecuted as a murderer, not as a zealot.

… COMES AROUND

What sparked this ugly episode was the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, a southern hero revered in his time for his honor and nobility.  Should we ignore General Lee’s support of slavery because of his other virtues?  Or should we discount his virtues because he fought for slavery?

No and no.  People are complicated, and often contradictory.  That’s why attributing motive is both tricky and risky.

It’s easy for us in our age of equality to condemn man’s oppression of man, as we should.  But it’s also unjust to demand the same level of moral clarity from those who lived in different times with different values.

Indeed, when the values of future generations undergo another sea-change – as they will – who will defend us for our beliefs and actions before the indictment of our grandchildren?

IT’S NOT ALL BLACK AND WHITE

What are ethics but the slippery discipline of gleaning the spirit of the law from within the letter of the law?  Even more slippery is the awareness that the morality of Man is subject to human bias and shifting cultural values.  Sometimes the law is wrong; and sometimes so are we.

We dare not excuse every historical movement merely because it seemed right in its time; but neither should we condemn all those who lacked the moral clarity of our own times.  19th Century slavery and 20th Century Nazism were both evil.  But they are not equivalent.  And 21st Century white supremacism is much closer to the latter than to the former.

So how do we navigate these treacherous moral waters?  We look to our leaders, who have the responsibility to help us set our collective moral compass as much as they have the obligation to steer the ship of state.

King Solomon says, A magic rests on the lips of the king; let his mouth not betray him in judgment.

You’ve got the helm, Mr. Trump.  Be very careful what you do with it.

Published in Jewish World Review

Conquer Laziness by Starting Small

Readers of a certain age may remember an old Goodyear tire commercial with the tag line, “You can pay me now, or pay me later.”

The applications go way beyond auto repair. That’s what Shaomin Li, professor of international business at Virginia’s Old Dominion University, discovered on a business trip to Taiwan.

As he was being chauffeured from one venue to the next, Professor Li noticed that his host always backed into parking lot spaces, opting for often tricky and laborious maneuvering over the simpler method of pulling in straight forward.

Detecting a wider pattern of behavior, Professor Li conducted his own experiment. He discovered that 88% of Chinese drivers back in when they park, in contrast to 6% of American drivers.

“All of a sudden,” recounts Professor Li, “I said, gee – isn’t this delayed gratification?”

We shouldn’t jump to conclusions based on a single study, but this observation does not appear in a vacuum. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell investigates the popular stereotype that transplanted Asians excel academically and professionally compared with homegrown Americans.

Mr. Gladwell discovered that the stereotype is much more accurate among southern Chinese than among northern Chinese, and he identifies a single reason for the difference:

Rice paddies.

Click here to read the whole article.

A bridge over untroubled waters

After 50 years, no one believed it would ever happen.  That’s why they called it the bridge that was going nowhere.

But now that’s all water under the… well, you know.  The new St. Croix Crossing Bridge opened last week to great fanfare, connecting eastern Minnesota with western Wisconsin and replacing the Stillwater lift bridge that was built in 1931.

Which just goes to show that two sides are never so far apart that they can’t be brought together.

The project was first proposed way back in the 1960s, but every imaginable obstacle conspired to prevent its construction.  Needless to say, funding was the first challenge.  Then came the predictable squabbling among federal and local agencies.  Finally, the inevitable lawsuits brought by the environmental lobby threatened to kill the plan before it could begin.

People said it would take a miracle for the bridge to get built.  What they got was something even more remarkable than divine intervention.

They got cooperation.

In 2012, an unlikely alliance formed between two Minnesota congresswomen, Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar and then-Republican Representative Michele Bachmann

Their task was herculean.  They had to persuade, convince, and cajole U. S. representatives and senators, as well as state governors and local legislators, to sign off on the project.  Incredibly, they had to get unanimous approval from all 100 U. S. senators to gain an exemption from the 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.  Ms. Klobuchar personally prevailed upon every one of her colleagues in the senate to give their support.

The final product is more than just a river crossing.  It’s a work of art, a thing of beauty.  The bridge is a hybrid, a cross between box girder and cable-stayed designs, only the second like it in the country.  The innovative design minimizes the number of piers in the water while keeping the tops of the towers below the tree-line.  Even opponents of the bridge grudgingly conceded that their fears were unfounded.

Could there be a more fitting allegory for our troubled times than the new “miracle bridge” of St. Croix?  In a time of knee-jerk partisanship, of hyperbolic rhetoric, of militant groupthink that drives all proponents of moderation to the far extremes lest they be slaughtered on the altar of ideology by their own comrades – in times like these it is the concerted effort to bridge the divide that can calm the waters below.  All that’s needed is the courage set aside personal agendas and the willingness to work together for the general welfare.

Nothing puts an end to quarreling faster than a spirit of common purpose.  Nothing builds trust more certainly than a shared commitment and collaboration toward a universal goal.  The feeling of being united in a higher mission, combined with a sense of urgency to achieve results, raises the rewards of success above egoism and ideology.

Once we resolve to make the effort and take the first step, almost anything is possible.

King Solomon says, Like water reflects one face to another, so too the heart of one man to his fellow.  By showing our adversaries that we are committed to peaceful cooperation, the chances increase dramatically that they will see themselves reflected in our sincere intentions and respond in kind.

Of course, there will always be those too petty to seek common ground.  But strong, sure leadership will relegate them to the footnotes of history while inspiring others to discover greatness within themselves.  With vision and determination, we can refashion the world into a place where human spirit can overcome any obstacle and truly soar toward the heavens.

Published by Jewish World Review.