Up@dawn 2.0

Friday, February 6, 2015

A bioethicist tackles David Brooks's anti-secularism

A bioethicist weighs in (along with other philosophers), responding to the latest David Brooks column in the New York Times. Her reference to John Rawls foreshadows our next class on Tuesday, on the justice of bioethics:
How presumptuous of David Brooks to instruct us “secularists” on how to live the moral life. We have to build our own moral philosophies? Nonsense. I learned mine from my atheistic parents and from teachers throughout my education (not to mention Aristotle, Kant, Mill and the many other moral philosophers I studied).
We have to reflect on spiritual matters? No, I reflect on the injustices in this world, why so many children in the United States go hungry, and why centuries of violence continue to persist in the name of religion.
In place of the religious spiritual life, we atheists may be enraptured by a Beethoven symphony, moved by the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, enchanted by a Rembrandt portrait. We have to build our own Sabbaths? No, thanks; I’ll spend my secular weekends at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, attending a New York Philharmonic concert or rereading “A Theory of Justice,” by John Rawls.

The writer is a professor of bioethics in the department of epidemiology and population health at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
UPDATE: An interestingly oblique, if  self-serving, non-follow-up by Brooks in his subsequent column:
If you read the online versions of newspaper columns you can click over to the reader comments, which are often critical, vituperative and insulting. I’ve found that I can only deal with these comments by following the adage, “Love your enemy.”
It’s too psychologically damaging to read these comments as evaluations of my intelligence, morals or professional skill. But if I read them with the (possibly delusional) attitude that these are treasured friends bringing me lovely gifts of perspective, then my eye slides over the insults and I can usually learn something. The key is to get the question of my self-worth out of the way — which is actually possible unless the insulter is really creative.
It’s not only newspaper columnists who face this kind of problem. Everybody who is on the Internet is subject to insult, trolling, hating and cruelty. Most of these online assaults are dominance plays. They are attempts by the insulter to assert his or her own superior status through displays of gratuitous cruelty toward a target.
The natural but worst way to respond is to enter into the logic of this status contest. If he puffs himself up, you puff yourself up. But if you do this you put yourself and your own status at center stage. You enter a cycle of keyboard vengeance. You end up with a painfully distended ego, forever in danger, needing to assert itself, and sensitive to slights.
Clearly, the best way to respond is to step out of the game. It’s to get out of the status competition. Enmity is a nasty frame of mind. Pride is painful. The person who can quiet the self can see the world clearly, can learn the subject and master the situation...
Stepping out of the troll-game is one thing, refusing to engage serious and fair-minded criticism is something else. The ever-pressing deadline of the next column is, I suppose, an excuse.

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