President Trump: Poster Boy for Rankism

trumpRankism is the degradation of those with less power or lower rank. It’s somebodies using the power of their rank to humiliate or disadvantage those they see as nobodies. Rankism is no more defensible than racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. In fact, rankism—putting people down and keeping them there—is the mother of all the ignoble isms.
Eradicating rankism doesn’t require eliminating rank any more than overcoming racism means getting rid of race or delegitimizing sexism means eliminating gender. Rank can be a useful organizational tool that, used respectfully, helps facilitate cooperation.
The abuse of rank, however, is invariably an affront to human dignity. Rankism stifles initiative, taxes productivity, harms health, and stokes revenge. By giving rankism a face—his own scowling, mocking face—President Trump has unmasked it.
Once you have a name for it, you realize that rankism is everywhere in plain sight. Bullying, belittling, derision, corruption, harassment, and self-aggrandizement—these are all manifestations of rankism. The sooner we pin a generic name on them, the sooner we’ll be able to show them all the door.
The protests following the inauguration of President Trump were about more than the dignity of women. They were about dignity for everyone. Someday, the Women’s March on Washington may be regarded as marking the birth of a Dignity Movement.
Successful movements require two things: they must know what they’re for and what they’re against. A Dignity Movement is for dignity and it’s against rankism.
Thank you, Mr. President, for serving as poster boy for rankism and for jump-starting a Dignity Movement.

Curing the Poison of “Rankism”

I got a close look at the poison of “rankism” at the age of seven, when my classmate Arlene was sent to the hall for the whole school day. Arlene lived on a farm and wore the same dress to school each day. When she spoke, it was in a whisper. Our teacher, Miss Belcher, began every day with an inspection of our fingernails. One day she told Arlene to go to the hall and stay there until her fingernails were clean. I wondered how she could clean her nails out there, without soap or water. If there was no remedy in the hall, then the reason for sending Arlene out there must be to embarrass her and scare the rest of us.

Later, filing out to the playground, we snuck glances at her. She must have heard the snickering as we passed – hiding her face against the wall as I remember it, and trying to make her­self look small. I told my mother what had happened to Arlene, and, as I must have hoped, she made sure the same thing didn’t happen to me.

Other kids whom my classmates regarded as safe targets for abuse included Frank, who was shamed as a “faggot”; Jimmy, who had Down’s syndrome and was ridiculed as “retarded”; and Tommie and Trudy who were teased about their weight. The N-word was used only warily, typically from the safety of the bus that carried our all-white basketball team home in the wake of defeat to a school that fielded players who were black.

Not belonging to any of the groups that were targeted for abuse, I was spared – until I got to college. There I realized that higher education was less about the pursuit of truth than about establishing another pecking order. I found myself caught up in games of one-upmanship, and was reminded of my classmates once again.

The toxic relationships described above are all based on traits that mark people out for abuse, whether in terms of class, sexuality, disability, body shape, color or academic standing. And even if you fall on the privileged side of these traits you can still be treated as a nobody by people who want to make themselves feel superior. I call this “rankism”, and it’s the cancer that’s eating away at all our relationships.

Emily Dickinson spoke about this problem in her “nobody” poem:

I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us – don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know!

As she notes, nobodies look for allies, and stand on constant guard against potential banishment. As social animals, banishment has long been tantamount to a death sentence for us. It’s no wonder we’re sensitive to even the slightest of indignities.

Dignity matters because it shields us from exclusion. It assures us that we belong, that there’s a place for us, that we’re not in danger of being ostracized or exiled. Dignity is the social counterpart of love.

In a seminal work of the modern women’s movement, Betty Friedan wrote of “the problem without a name.” A few years later the problem had indeed acquired a name – it was “sexism” – and from then on women knew both what they were for (equal dignity and equal rights) and what they were against (indignity and inequality). That’s why pinning a name on any behavior that poisons relationships is the first step towards delegitimizing it.

NoRankismAs president of Oberlin College in Ohio during the early 1970s, I saw a non-stop parade of “nobodied” groups find their voices and lay claim to equal dignity: African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, women, homosexuals, and people with disabilities. In every case, the inferior social rank that had been assigned to these groups was challenged and came to be seen as groundless, though clearly discrimination of all these kinds remains widespread. Our view of human nature doesn’t change overnight, but it does evolve over generations. The process typically begins with martyrdom and culminates in legislation. In between come years of nitty-gritty organization. But once enough people stand up for their dignity it’s not long until they become a force to be reckoned with.

The task confronting us today is to delegitimize “rankist” behaviors just as we are doing with other forms of oppression. That means all of us – you and me – giving up our claims to superiority. It means no more putting down of other individuals, groups or countries. It means affirming the dignity of others as if it were our own. Sounds familiar? It’s the “golden rule” of dignity which rules out degrading anybody else. When denigrating behaviors are sanctioned, potential targets (and who isn’t one at some point?) must devote their energy to protecting their own dignity. A culture of indignity takes a toll on health, creativity and productivity, so organizations and societies that tolerate rankism handicap themselves.

The cancer of rankism persists as a residue of our predatory past. But, for two reasons, the predatory strategy isn’t working any more. First, the weak are not as weak as they used to be, so picking on them is less secure. Using weapons of mass disruption, the disenfranchised can bring modern life to a stop. Humiliation is more dangerous than plutonium.

Second, the power that “dignitarian” groups can marshal exceeds that of groups that are driven by brute force and fear. When everyone has a place that is respected, everyone can work for the group as well as for themselves. “Dignity for all” is a winning strategy because it facilitates cooperation. Recognition and dignity are not just nice things to have, they are a formula for group success, and their opposites are a recipe for infighting, dysfunctionality and failure. If we can put the spotlight on rankism and purge our relationships of this poison, then not only we will spare people from humiliation, we’ll also increase the creativity of ourselves and our communities.

One of the sources of Lady Gaga’s fandom is that she’s a leader of the dignity movement. The kid who protests when one of his classmates is “nobodied” is another, all the more so if he or she is able to do so in a way that protects the dignity of the perpetrator. When victims of rankism respond in kind to their abusers, they’re unwittingly perpetuating a vicious cycle. The only way to end such cycles is to respect the dignity of the perpetrators while leaving no doubt that their behaviors are unacceptable.

In a dignitarian society, no-one is taken for a nobody. Acting superior – putting others down – is regarded as pompous and self-aggrandizing. Rankism, in all its guises, is uncool.

Our age-old survival strategy of opportunistic predation has reached its sell-by date. A vital part of our defense against this strategy is not to give offense in the first place. Going forward, the only thing as important as how we treat the Earth is how we treat each other.


Robert W. Fuller is an author and independent scholar from Berkeley, CA. His recent novel The Rowan Tree is now available as an audiobook at Amazon, iTunes, and audible.com. The Rowan Tree is also available in paperback as well as Kindle and other ebook formats.

Reason to Hope: A New Deal for Religion and Science

Live your life as if there are no miracles and everything is a miracle.
– Albert Einstein

Crisis in Religion
A spate of bestsellers—The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins; The End of Faith by Sam Harris; and God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by the late Christopher Hitchens—argues that religion, as we’ve known it, no longer serves the needs of our scientific, cosmopolitan world.

Books like these appeal to a public put off by science deniers, repulsed by clerical abuses, and alarmed by fundamentalist zealotry. Contemporary religious leaders, painfully aware of the relationship between public participation and institutional viability, know that empty pews, like empty theaters, herald obsolescence.

If religion is serious about restoring its public reputation, it could do so by partnering with science. I know that sounds naive, but hear me out. Religion heralds “peace on Earth, goodwill toward men.” Science gives us reason to think we can vanquish famine, disease, and poverty. What would it take for these venerable antagonists to emulate Rick and Louis in Casablanca and form a beautiful friendship?

By way of introducing my answer to this question, I’d like to acknowledge that, despite its current ill-repute in some quarters, religion has in fact gotten some very big things right.

A Few Things Religion Got Right
Any short list of religion’s greatest hits would include (1) the idea of god, (2) the golden rule, and (3) a vision of universal human dignity.

With the idea of god, early humans were imagining a being who understands things well enough to build them. If there’s a God who comprehends the world, and we’re made in His image, then we, too, might someday understand. As Stephen Hawking famously said, to comprehend the world is to “know the mind of God.”

Humans gain understanding, and hence a measure of control, by building models. A model is a representation of an object or phenomenon that simulates aspects of the real thing. Models take the form of theories that describe natural phenomena, stories or human beings themselves who show us how to behave, and spreadsheets that forecast how businesses will fare. By studying models we can anticipate the behaviors of the real world phenomena they mirror.

For most of human history, though religious models met a need for shared communal beliefs, they lacked explanatory power. Today, they’re often dismissed as mere myths, but it’s more fruitful to think of them as stepping stones to better models. We now understand some things far better than our ancestors, and other things not much better at all. Whether we’ll ever know God’s mind is an open question, but that our models of Nature are good enough to steal some of His thunder has been answered decisively with twentieth century technology. If E = mc2 is a jewel in crown of modern science, the golden rule, which embodies a symmetry reminiscent of those that shape physics models, is a gem in religious thought.

In addition to the world’s comprehensibility and the golden rule—which by themselves warrant a tip of the hat to religion—there is also the notion of universal dignity.

Theistic religions proclaim the existence of a personal, caring god—a “father” who loves all his “children” equally, according them equal dignity regardless of their status, rank, or role. The universality of dignity is not a description of life as we know it, but rather a prescription for life as it’s arguably becoming. As Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Though we should anticipate setbacks, the circle of dignity is slowly expanding. Explicit demands for dignity fuel recent protests in the Middle East, Russia, Burma, China and, in the form of the Occupy Movement, in North America.

Like good science models, the golden rule and the universality of dignity derive their power not from the zeal of true believers, but from the truths they encapsulate. The alternative to fundamentalism is not relativism, it’s ever more realistic models.

Ingredients of a Beautiful Friendship
Learning to see science models as provisional has resulted in unimaginable technological and economic gains. By taking a page from science, and embracing the improvability of personal beliefs and religious teachings, religion could foster parallel gains in personal growth, social harmony, and international cooperation.

The truth is we’ve been living without absolutes from the start. There really never were any, but until now we’ve needed to believe in them much as children fix on certain beliefs while they find their footing. With adolescence, we temper these beliefs, and with maturity we can let go of belief in belief itself.

That any of the currently accepted scientific theories could, in principle, be incorrect or incomplete is taken for granted by scientists. To insist, for example, that the theory of evolution is “just a theory” is only to state what every scientist knows and accepts. Of course, it’s a theory. What else could it be? But it’s a rigorously tested theory and it makes sense to use it until we have something that’s superior.

When it comes to the discovery process, the differences between the eurekas of science and the revelations of religion are window-dressing. Yes, scientists wear lab coats and jeans, and we imagine prophets in tunics and loincloths, but investigators of every kind base their insights on meticulous observation and savor their “ah-ha” moments. The dysfunctional relationship that now exists between science or religion could be retired in favor of a beautiful friendship if both parties would acknowledge that:

  • Both science and religion make use of educated guesses to identify new truth, devise rules, construct theories, and build models.
  • Scientific and religious models that are found wanting must be revised or discarded.
  • Human fallibility means revisions are the rule, not the exception. We’re well advised to “try, try again,” because one success, which may then spread via imitation, makes up for countless failures.
  • Both scientific and religious precepts must be grounded in painstaking observation and are defended by reference to such evidence.
  • The act of discovery—though it goes by the different names of eureka, epiphany, revelation, and enlightenment—is basically the same in all fields. An occasional ah-ha punctuates a lot of ho-hum.
  • Science and religion reduce suffering in complementary ways: science by alleviating material wants and curing disease; religion by cultivating kindness and compassion.
  • Both scientists and religious leaders have sometimes put their institutional interests above the public interest. Both science and religion have also produced leaders who have sacrificed themselves for truth, beauty, and justice.

The Peace Dividend
As dignity’s discoverer and its defender of last resort, a larger, revitalizing role for religion would emerge if it partnered with science. If they made peace, together they could usher in an epoch of universal dignity.

Religion could blunt accusations that it’s just another self-serving institution and regain its voice by:

  • Sponsoring dialogues to clarify exactly what’s meant by “equal dignity for all.”
  • Developing models that close the dignity gap that separates those who are regarded as somebodies from those who are taken for nobodies.
  • Assisting organizations in aligning their cultures and practices with dignity-affirming values.
  • Actively supporting the dignity movement.
  • Critiquing the findings of neuroscience on the nature of mind, and helping us cope with advances in machine intelligence that may someday threaten our sense of selfhood.
  • Designing dignity-preserving institutions of global governance.
  • Ennobling the quest to achieve “Peace on Earth, goodwill toward Men.”

If science and religion cooperate to extend dignity, we could realize the promise of a fair, just, and peaceful world, not merely in our dreams, but here on Earth, not in the indefinite future, but before this century is out.

Indeed, there is reason to hope.

This article is a synopsis of my recent blog series “Religion & Science: A Beautiful Friendship?”. The complete series can be downloaded as a free eBook here, and it is also available as a print-on-demand edition.

Religion and Science

Einstein’s Question: Is the Universe Friendly?

[This is the 20th and last in the series. All twenty posts have been collected into a free eBook which can be downloaded at Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship?]

We are as gods and have to get good at it.
– Stewart Brand

The shift from opportunistic predation to inviolate universal dignity is an epochal one, and arguably, it’s one we now find ourselves making. However, it’s only prudent to ask “What could go wrong? What could postpone the advent of a dignitarian world? Are we overlooking new threats to human dignity?”

Challenges

[Someday human intelligence] might be viewed as a historically interesting, albeit peripheral, special case of machine intelligence.
– Pierre Baldi

Futurists are warning that at some point during this century we’ll be confronted with an unprecedented threat to what it means to be human—the advent of sophisticated thinking machines. It’s one thing to use calculators that outperform us; it would be quite another to face machines manifesting supra-human intelligence. Picture a cute little gadget perched on your desk who, by any measure, outperforms the cleverest, most creative person you know. We’ll probably program such devices not to condescend to us, but the knowledge that they beat us at our own game would take some getting used to.

A preview of how we’re apt to react to such a development is provided by looking at how we have responded to prior demotions in status. Copernicus’s removing the Earth, and us along with it, from center stage caused an uproar that lasted for centuries. Darwin’s depiction of us as descendants of apes was initially scorned and is still rejected by some. If, as now seems likely, life is discovered in various stages of development on other planets, the effect will be to further undermine human claims to a special role.

In the face of these previous humblings, humans found what appeared to be an incontestable basis for pride in their superior intelligence. How will it affect our identity if we’re pushed off that pedestal? We’ve rarely handled such blows with grace.

Faced with creations of our own making that outdo us, and notwithstanding a few valedictory tantrums, we’ll probably end up by humbly accepting the help of thinking machines much as aging parents reluctantly accept advice from their grown offspring.

Over time, what is most distinctive and precious about human beings could be preserved and incorporated into the machines that, with help from our clever progeny, may someday supersede us. Dignity will be challenged, yes, but expunged? Not by smart machines, if we make them our allies.

If the current trend toward dignity is reversed, it will likely be due to scarcity thrust upon us by our own actions. Obviously, the advent of a dignitarian world could be set back for decades, possibly centuries, by global economic collapse, war, pandemic, catastrophic climate change, and a host of other eventualities that could reinstate predatory competition for scarce resources. Though such calamities might slow the universalization of dignity, they are unlikely to permanently reverse a trend that can now be read between the lines on every page of the human story.

In the context of future challenges, it’s illuminating to consider the proverb “The poor shall always be with you.” Does “poor” refer literally to wealth, that is, does this proverb deny the possibility of an equitable world?

We could take the saying to mean that even if everyone has enough, there will always be variations in wealth, that is, there will remain some who are relatively poor. Or, we could take it to mean that although there may be no significant variations in financial security, there would still exist people who are poor in spirit, who lack recognition, or are lonely or otherwise unfulfilled. I find this maxim to be one of religion’s more provocative hypotheses. I hope it’s wrong, in both senses, but it’s too early to tell. We do seem to be getting a handle on malnutrition, and it’s not impossible that we’ll eliminate it entirely and go on to address the damage done by malrecognition. Success against both “maladies” would offer hope that the poor will not always be with us.

Likewise, with the admonition “Love thy enemies.” It sounds like a bridge too far in today’s world, but in a dignitarian world, where synthesis is the name of the game, love will be much closer to hand. Once again, religion is likely prophetic: sooner than we think, it’s going to become obvious that to be anything other than our brothers’ keepers endangers us all.

Being Ready

As it happens, we’re making the shift to dignitarian values in the nick of time. As the above list of possible setbacks suggests, the problems looming on the horizon are even tougher than those of the past, and solving them will require overcoming old divisions that block cooperation.

If we do discover life on other planets, we’ll want to know where we stand relative to it on the evolutionary scale. If this analysis is correct, then dignitarianism is universal and it won’t matter if extraterrestrial beings are more advanced than we because they will also be dignitarian and will protect our dignity much as we increasingly concern ourselves with the dignity of animals. And if it turns out that they are less advanced than we, then we will treat them with dignity. Either way, we should be okay—if, when that day comes, we’ve let go of our old predatory strategy in favor of a dignitarian one.

It’s worth reminding ourselves that although we’ve been making models from the start, we’ve only become really good at it in the last few centuries. This suggests that we are probably much closer to the beginning of human history than the end.

It’s myopic to believe that the problems we’re confronting now are insoluble and will continue to obsess humans of the future. Even in the last hundred years, we’ve halved the percentage of people whose primary concern is food and shelter. Likewise, there are already signs that our focus is shifting from issues of war and peace, and domination and dignity, to global threats like those listed above. These will likely prove as bracing as those we’ve been focused on.

The apparent infinitude of our ignorance has an upside. In a perpetually unfolding reality, our business will remain unfinished, our understanding incomplete. This means that there will always be opportunities to contribute to knowledge. We, or our successors, will never be out of a job. As David Deutsch argues, we’re at “the beginning of infinity.”

Is the Universe Friendly?

The eye with which I see God is the same eye with which God sees me.
– Meister Eckhart, 13th c. mystic

Asked what question he would most want to know the answer to if he returned to Earth in 500 years, Albert Einstein replied, “Is the universe friendly?”

Through an open skylight over my bed, I can see the phases of the moon, the stars, an occasional plane, and, at dawn, soaring birds. A few sparrows have flown inside and found their way out again. Now and then a squirrel peeks over the edge. But apart from these locals, I do not feel seen as I look into the cosmos.

Peering into its infinitude, I have no sense that the universe returns my gaze. Its eye is cold, if not blind. See someone seeing you and you exist. Look long enough into a fathomless void and you begin to ask, “Who am I? What am I doing here? Does anything matter?” My lifetime an instant, my body a speck, myself unremarked. At first glance, the universe seems uncaring; the indifference of infinite space, a cosmic, comic indignity.

But then the old saying “God helps those who help themselves” pops into my head. And President Kennedy’s variant thereof: “Here on Earth, God’s work must truly be our own.” If instead of gazing outward, we turn our attention inward, we discover that the universe does have a heart—indeed, lots of them. They’re beating in our breasts.

Any inventory of the cosmos that omits us is like a survey of the body that overlooks the brain. In evolving the human mind, the universe has fashioned an instrument capable of understanding itself and empathizing with others. We are that instrument, and since we are part of the cosmos, we err if we judge it to lack kindness, love, and compassion. If I believe the universe is heartless, it’s because I myself do not love.

But what if the impersonal forces that extinguished the dinosaurs should hurl a comet at us? There’s a crucial difference between then and now. The demise of the dinosaurs made room for the appearance of mammals and thus for hominids. In the sixty-five million years since the dinosaurs vanished, there evolved a creature possessed of sophisticated modeling skills. If we use our talents wisely, they will enable us to avoid all manner of potential catastrophes—those of our own making as well as asteroids with our name on them.

The passage to a dignitarian world will probably not be smooth. We still have to lift billions of people out of poverty. Each year millions of children die from malnutrition and millions more suffer from malrecognition. But despair is unwarranted. The universe cares as much as we do. It has a heart—our very own. We are at once compassionate beings and modelers—the questing knights of Arthurian legend. In that eternal pursuit lies the imperishable dignity of humankind.

The universe, for its part, is likely to be as friendly or unfriendly as we are. Indeed, there is reason to hope.

Religion and Science

[This is the 20th and last post in the series. All twenty posts have been collected into a free eBook which can be downloaded at Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship? Thank you for your interest in this series.]

The Brotherhood of Man and the Politics of Dignity

[This is the 19th in the series Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship.]

As prophets in every religion have tried to tell us, humankind is one big extended family. The simultaneous advent of globalization and the emergence of dignitarian values is no coincidence. Greater exposure to “foreigners” is making their demonization untenable, and, as discussed in previous posts, the predatory strategy is becoming obsolete.

An important factor in its demise is that it simply isn’t working as well as it used to. Victims of rankism have gained access to powerful weapons and can exact a high price for humiliations inflicted on them. Increasingly, they’re in a position to make the cost of predation exceed the value of the spoils. Weapons of mass destruction seize the imagination, but even if they’re never used, non-violent “weapons” of mass disruption, employed by aggrieved groups, can paralyze modern, highly interdependent societies. This represents a fundamental shift in the balance of power in favor of the disregarded, disenfranchised, and dispossessed.

Given that predation has been a fixture throughout human history, it’s not surprising that when one form of predation has ceased to work, we’ve devised alternative, subtler forms to accomplish the same thing. Although slavery itself is no longer defended, poverty functions in much the same way—by institutionalizing the domination and exploitation of the poorer by the richer. As Reverend Jim Wallis says, “Poverty is the new slavery.”

We shouldn’t be surprised if, using techniques of mass disruption and tactics of non-violent civil disobedience, the poor make their continued exploitation untenable. The Occupy Movement, like the Arab Spring, is a harbinger of a worldwide awakening to the inviolability of dignity.

Although moral precepts point the way, politics will play an indispensable role in setting aside predatory habits in favor of dignitarian ones. The next section shows the role that traditional Left and Right will have in crafting legislation to make “Dignity for All, Always” the world’s new default position and so, finally, to realize religion’s ancient dream of the brotherhood of man.

The Politics of Dignity

The tendency of societies to divide into two opposing partisan camps—conservative and liberal, republican and democrat, Right and Left—is universal and, in democracies, usually results in the parties taking turns in power. In one party states, the Left/Right division occurs within the single ruling party.

Simply declaring one party or the other wrongheaded fails to understand the complementary roles played by each. Both political orientations must serve a purpose or one would long-since have withered away. What purposes do the Left and the Right serve?

Partisanship has roots in the legitimate issue of how much authority to vest in rank. The Right has traditionally been the party that defends the authority and prerogatives of the propertied classes; the Left the party that would place limits on the power and privileges of those exercising authority. Accordingly, the Right tends to oppose, and the Left support, legislation that would make it easier for “nobodies” to hold accountable those entrusted with power. In the hurly-burly of history, the labels of Right and Left occasionally reverse. When the Bolsheviks, the party of the Left, seized power during the Russian Revolution of 1917, they abolished all constraints on governmental power.

Since both political persuasions have a valid role in good management, it’s not surprising that democratic electorates tilt first one way and then the other, like a navigator who makes a continual series of course corrections to avoid beaching the ship (of state) on the shoals (of extremism).

Which party fulfills the progressive or conservative role is secondary compared to the overarching need to maintain social and political stability while avoiding autocracy and stasis. A society that can’t trust anyone with power loses its ability to carry out complex tasks in a timely fashion. Systems of governance that cannot “people talking,” in Clement Atlee’s phrase, are vulnerable to what the women’s movement called the “tyranny of “structurelessness,” which often takes the form of interminable, inconclusive meetings. On the other hand, societies that don’t limit the power of their rulers (such as the USSR, Nazi Germany, and North Korea) find individual initiative stifled and liberty extinguished in a tyranny of conformity.

Aversion to abuses of power can blind liberals to rank’s legitimate functions. Likewise, attachment to the status quo can turn conservatives into apologists for rank’s misuse. To paraphrase an unknown pundit, we have lunatic fringes so we know how far not to go.

The dignitarian strategy is to put rank and the power it signifies in the spotlight, and so make abuses of power, and the indignities resulting therefrom, indefensible. It sees a world of equal dignity as a steppingstone to the more just, fair, and decent societies long foreseen by those who prophesied the brotherhood of man.

The French revolutionary slogan “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” overlooks the sine qua non of social harmony—Dignity. A persistent lack of dignity breeds indignation. Blowback may be suppressed for a time, but indignities, once lodged in the breast, fester until the aggrieved person, group, or nation sees a chance to get even.

No political theory predicated on either liberal or conservative values, qualifies as a TOE (Theory of “Everything”). By showing where each party’s attitude toward authority is relevant, a dignitarian analysis locates libertarian, egalitarian, and fraternitarian values within a new larger synthesis—the politics of dignity. Dignitarian politics, which finds its ultimate rationale in the co-creation and mutual maintenance of both our persons and our personas, subordinates the agendas of both the Left and the Right to the task of establishing dignity for all here and now.

The adoption of dignity as an inviolate political right marks a change fundamental enough to mark an era. Opportunistic predation—the survival strategy that we’ve long taken for human nature—has reached its “sell-by” date. Even wars by superpowers against much weaker states are proving unwinnable. When the long-term indirect costs are taken into account, domination is not profitable.

Rankism is the residue of predation. Humanity’s next step is to build dignitarian societies by overcoming rankism. Knowing that the moral arc of history bends towards justice gives reason to hope that the religious intuition of universal dignity is achievable.

If science and religion cooperate to uphold and extend dignity, and Left and Right remove the inequities that thwart fair competition, we can build a global society that’s as close to heaven as we have need for, and realize the brotherhood of man not merely in our dreams, but here on Earth, not in the indefinite future, but before this century is out.

With the appearance of the next and final post in this series (#20) we will provide a link to all twenty posts collected into a free eBook titled: Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship? Thank you for your interest in this series.

Religion and Science

[All twenty posts in this series have now been collected into a free eBook which can be downloaded at Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship? Thank you for your interest in this series.]

The Moral Arc of the Universe

[This is the 18th in the series Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship.]

The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.
– Martin Luther King Jr.

One reading of the human story emphasizes war, domination, pillage, rape, slavery, colonization, and exploitation. Wealth and leisure for the few and a subsistence living for the many. To the extent that we can put people down and keep them there, we take what’s theirs and force them to do our bidding. To the extent that we can’t credibly do so, it’s our ineluctable fate to be victims.

Another telling of history highlights overthrowing tyrants, expelling colonizers, and, by marshaling the strength of numbers, progressively emancipating ourselves from slavery, poverty, and other degradations.

The key to deciding which of these perspectives is predictive of the human future lies in a paradoxical property of power. Once it’s understood that a group’s competitive success vis à vis other groups depends on limiting abuses of power within the group, King’s optimism regarding the curvature of the moral arc of history is vindicated.

Here’s the gist of the argument: If a ruler is regarded as unjust or self-aggrandizing by his subjects, morale will deteriorate to the point that group solidarity is weakened and the will to defend the group is impaired. Unjust leaders neither deserve nor elicit loyalty and, when push comes to shove, their people turn on them.

This means that governance that promotes loyalty and solidarity has survival value. Even societies that adopt a predatory stance looking outwards, are short-sighted if they disregard dignitarian values looking inwards. Over the course of history, not to complement outward-directed predatory capability with a modicum of dignity for those within the group has been to lose out to groups whose stronger social bond enabled them to marshal and project superior force.

For this reason, upholding dignity is more than an admonition to be “nice.” A policy of relatively equal dignity enhances the power of groups that practice it. None do so consistently, of course, but some do so more than others, and this gives them a competitive advantage stemming from social cohesiveness. This suggests that, on a millennial time scale, the golden rule is self-enforcing. We were too quick to judge it toothless. Rather, it simply took a few thousand years to cut teeth.

As we realize that over the long haul dignitarian societies have a competitive advantage, and as less dignitarian groups are absorbed by more dignitarian ones, we gradually operationalize the golden rule and extend its writ.

It’s important to recognize that within groups, it’s not just “top dogs” who abuse power. Power abuse is a tempting strategy at any rank because everybody is a somebody to someone and a nobody to someone else. Accordingly, unless you’re at the very bottom, a predatory posture can be assumed towards underlings no matter where one stands in a hierarchy. And, even if you are at the bottom, you can always kick the dog. Much cruelty to animals is a result of indignation that humans feel towards other humans who have humiliated them, but whom they dare not confront because the abusers are shielded by the power attached to their rank.

Because societies predicated on equal dignity are more productive and creative, and are more strongly committed to their common cause—be it aggressive or defensive—they are, on average, fitter. This does not mean that dignitarian groups win every contest with more predatory groups. Factors other than social cohesion also figure in the outcome. But it does mean that, with starts and fits, organizations and states that tolerate power abuses effectively de-select themselves. Over a long enough time period, the circle of dignity expands.

The paradox of power is that, statistically, dignitarian societies gradually absorb less dignitarian ones until finally there is no longer a significant likelihood of inter-group predation. Disgruntled outliers may resort to violence or disruption, but they will not be successful unless they are serving as proxies for a larger group that shares their grievances and their indignation.

A selection process governed by the same dynamic unfolds among organizations. For example, more dignitarian companies will, on average, serve their customers and employees better, and will outperform less dignitarian ones. In a phrase, dignity works, indignity doesn’t.

While the evolutionary trend prophesied by Martin Luther King Jr. may at first sound like wishful thinking, it is revealed as a logical consequence of the free play of power within and among competing groups. The paradox of power—that in the long run, right makes might, not vice versa—provides causal underpinning for optimism regarding the curvature of the moral universe. Despite the relentless drumbeat of bad news, the twenty-first century could witness the gradual phasing out of our age-old predatory strategy and the adoption of a dignitarian one. Even if there are major setbacks—and we must expect reversals and prepare for them—there is reason to believe that the state toward which humankind is tending is one of universal dignity.

Is Competition Compatible with Dignity for All?

There’s a conceptual barrier to putting our predatory past behind us, and not to address it would be remiss in a series of articles claiming there is reason to hope.

Disallowing predation sounds utopian to many because, as a society, we haven’t quite figured out how to forego habitual predatory behavior without inhibiting competition. Although it’s natural to see competition as the culprit (because it is so very often unfair, and because many competitors interpret winning a particular competition as an excuse for demeaning and exploiting those who lose), no society that has curtailed competition has long endured. As libertarian ideology confuses predation with competition and may find itself an apologist for the former, so egalitarian ideology confuses competition with predation and may advocate killing the goose—competition—that lays the golden egg. To this dilemma—how to allow competition while disallowing predation—dignitarian ethics provides a possible solution.

Competition is an integral part of our past and fair competition is indispensable to a prosperous, robust future. To delegitimize gradations of power is not only impossible, it’s a recipe for dysfunction. Fair competition is in fact one of the best safeguards against rankism ever devised.

From the natural selection that drives the differentiation of species to the marketplace that refines products and ideas, competition determines fitness and protects us from abuses of power by economic and political monopolies. To abolish competition is to invite stagnation, and eventually to fall behind societies that hone their competitive edge.

The difference between predation and competition is that predation knows no rules. In contrast, competition can be made fair. In athletic contests, we do this by having referees to enforce the rules evenhandedly. Making sure that competition is fair—by disallowing rankism in all its guises—is a proper function of government.

At every point in our social evolution, power rules. Power is neither good nor bad, it just is, and trying to eliminate power differences is barking up the wrong tree. Abuses of power, however, are something else. They will persist only so long as the individuals or institutions perpetrating them wield greater power. This would be grounds for cynicism were it not that when power is abused there eventually surfaces a less abusive and therefore ultimately more powerful alternative.

Groups that harbor indignity burden themselves with the corrosive effects of suppressed indignation. The long-term trend of this evolutionary process is the discovery of ever more effective forms of cooperation, successively out-producing, out-performing, and finally replacing more rankist organizations, institutions, societies, and states.

Dr. King’s intuition regarding the curvature of the moral universe is correct: it bends toward justice.

Religion and Science

[All twenty posts in this series have now been collected into a free eBook which can be downloaded at Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship? Thank you for your interest in this series.]

Rankism vs. the Golden Rule

[This is the 17th in the series Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship.]

The Many Faces of Rankism

Rankism is a collective name for the various ways power can be abused in the context of a rank difference. It’s a name broad enough to cover a wide range of rank-based indignities and abuses. Whereas rank is meant to serve, rankism is self-serving, a perversion of service.

Examples of rankism (some may overlap):
• Illegitimate uses of legitimate rank (e.g., a boss extorting money or sex from an employee)
• The creation or use of social hierarchies that condone degradation and exploitation (e.g., the social construct of white superiority and supremacy, the caste system)
• Damaging or degrading assertions of rank (e.g., hate crimes, sexual harassment, child abuse)
• Actions or social arrangements that violate the principle of equal dignity (e.g., racial segregation, lack of the franchise)
• Putting others down; disempowering them (name-calling or obfuscation by elites)
• Using the power inherent in rank to strengthen the hold on a senior position or otherwise advantage incumbents. (E.g., office-holders exploiting the advantages of incumbency to insure retention of rank; life-time appointments that leave tenured teachers, professors, judges, and clerics virtually unaccountable.
• Self-service as contrasted with serving the avowed purpose of the organization (e.g., executives awarding themselves bonuses not on the basis of performance, but simply by virtue of their power to get away with doing so)
• Using the power of rank not to empower others, but to promote, enrich, or empower oneself (e.g., predatory lending)

I hope you’ll add to this list.

In many cases, ranking serves no purpose other than to create and maintain the privileges of the high-ranking. Although ranking is not inherently rankist, it’s often used as a cover for institutionalizing discrimination, for example, in aristocracies, caste systems, and schools. Hierarchies are famously prone to ensuring the privileges of rank-holders, to the detriment of those served.

Varieties of Rankism: The Mother of Many Isms

Racism
Sexism
Ageism
Homophobia
Ableism
Anti-Semitism
Classism
Childism
Exceptionalism
Speciesism
Bullying
Mobbing
Slavery
Elder abuse
Prisoner Abuse
Torture
Trafficking
Corruption (all kinds)
Influence Peddling
Graft
Nepotism
Tenure
Rape
Sexual Abuse
Sexual Harassment
Paternalism
Condescension
One-upmanship

The Golden Rule in the Model of Morality

As mentioned in post #15 in this series of blogs, the simple rule at the core of this model of morality is “Dignity for All, Always.” Look around and you’ll see that the world is manifestly in violation of this precept: predation and the consequence thereof—indignity—is everywhere.

But, the fact that we have successfully disallowed subspecies of predatory practice suggests that we might be able to give up predation itself. Though they’ve not been eliminated, many of the most egregious forms of predation have been made illegal. Delegitimizing residual predation, by disallowing rankism, would usher in a dignitarian era in human history, an era in which we’re obliged to respect and protect the dignity of others as we would have them respect and protect ours. Dignitarian politics gives the golden rule teeth—by naming indignities and so making them targetable. Together, science, religion, and politics could, plausibly, retire the predatory survival strategy, which has been characteristic of Homo sapiens until now, in favor of a dignitarian strategy that will describe our species going forward.

The manifest righteousness of the golden rule has long posed a psychological barrier to inflicting indignity on our fellow humans. The lengths to which we’ve gone to justify predatory behaviors belies our unease with contravening it. The excuses we invent to create loopholes to the golden rule are graduated in proportion to the degree of the indignity we inflict. For example, we demonize our enemies to justify killing them; we dehumanize captives to justify enslaving them; we disparage victims of discrimination to rationalize exploiting them; we dismiss people as nobodies to justify discounting their views.

So long as our individual survival depended on out-competing rivals for scarce necessities, we availed ourselves of excuses like these to suspend our intuition of the brotherhood of man and free ourselves to prey on our human kin. But, the fact that we don’t flout the golden rule without feeling the need to justify ourselves suggests that if these excuses were disallowed, the rule might become largely self-enforcing. That’s exactly what having a collective name—rankism—for the various causes of indignity can help us do. As mentioned, just having the word sexism in the lexicon helped to disallow excuses for discrimination against women. In a similar way, might not the word rankism enable us to spotlight residual rank-based abuses of power and put perpetrators on the defensive?

The self-evident nature of the golden rule and the success of Einstein’s relativity theory both have their origins in underlying symmetries. As the poet says, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” Mathematicians have discovered that the connection between truth and beauty lies in symmetry.

The symmetry undergirding the golden rule is the assumption of equal dignity for all. The symmetry underlying the theory of relativity is the assumption of equal validity of reference frames (of other observers). A deeper understanding of our place in the cosmos will likely shed further light on the role of symmetry in shaping both physical and moral law.

When, in 1915, Einstein succeeded in generalizing his theory of special relativity to general relativity, he was rewarded by a theory of gravitation that improved upon Newton’s classical laws of motion. So, too, when identity politics is generalized to apply to all victims of degradation (not just those distinguished by a trait like color, gender, age, etc.) then we’re rewarded with a universal theory of morality. The analogue of Einstein’s assumptions—that one reference frame is as good as another and the speed of light is the same in all of them—is the assumption of equal dignity for all people regardless of role or rank. Since indignity is caused by rankism, it follows from the assumption of equal dignity that the model of morality delegitimizes rankism.

So long as we see our “self” as a target that must defend itself against indignities, we’re likely to respond in kind. “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” is, among other things, the fundamental law of reciprocal indignity. But, if we see our “self” as nimble and porous, we can sidestep arrows with our name on them and respond to indignities in a way that does not attack the dignity of those who trespass against us. Breaking the cycle of indignity and violence is a dignitarian application of “turn the other cheek.” As reciprocal dignity becomes the norm, the roles we play in co-creating and maintaining each others’ identities become clear, and “love thy neighbor as thyself” begins to look like an obtainable ideal.

While the twentieth century saw progress in overcoming certain sub-species of rankism, many varieties of it persist unchecked. Reasons for pessimism and despair are not hard to come by. Since World War II there have been scores of wars, millions of casualties, tens of millions of refugees; fighting continues today in many parts of the world. Since the Holocaust, and despite the world’s determination that it not happen again, genocides have occurred in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur, and elsewhere. Poverty enshrouds one-third of the world’s seven billion people and experts warn that population pressure and/or climate change will pit us against each other in a struggle for scarce resources.

Many insist that man’s predatory practices are undiminished and ineradicable. But an opposing trend is becoming visible. While admitting that “the arc of the moral universe is long,” Martin Luther King Jr. believed that “it bends toward justice.” Did Dr. King, do we, have reason to hope for “peace on Earth, goodwill toward men,” or, is the brotherhood of man a pipe dream? The remaining posts address this question.

Religion and Science

[All twenty posts in this series have now been collected into a free eBook which can be downloaded at Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship? Thank you for your interest in this series.]

The Source of Indignity

[This is the 16th in the series Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship.]

What People Want – Dignity

There’s a place for us,
A time and place for us.
Hold my hand and we’re half way there.
Hold my hand and I’ll take you there
Somehow, Someday, Somewhere!
– Stephen Sondheim, West Side Story

What people really want in relationships is dignity, not domination. While it’s not hard to understand why people who have suffered oppression might fantasize taking a turn at domination, to actually do so is to over-reach. Domination is not a reciprocal, symmetrical relationship. It’s one of superior and inferior, and simply reversing the roles of sovereign and subject perpetuates indignity rather than ends it. Reversing the directionality of domination is not a long-term equilibrium solution to inequity, indignity, and injustice. Like other revenge-driven “peace” arrangements, it invariably unravels and the struggle for domination resumes.

Dignity is in a class by itself when it comes to establishing good relationships with our fellow humans. Why? What do we mean by dignity?

Each of us has an innate sense that we have the same inherent worth as anyone else, regardless of our individual traits or worldly status. Though religious practice may deny equality of dignity—there are, for example, plenty of sexist precepts in the world’s holy books much as there are many discarded theories in the world’s scientific books—these same holy books also teach that dignity is a birthright that cannot be annulled by any person, circumstance, institution, or government. That god does not play favorites is an article of faith common to most religions, and one of the sources of the egalitarian ideals to which governments of every stripe feel required to pay lip service.

Indignity – An Existential Threat

Dignity is not negotiable.
– Vartan Gregorian

Like other animals vulnerable to being preyed upon, we’re supersensitive to threats to our well-being. Among our ancestors, those who missed signs of predatory intent became someone’s lunch.

For this same reason, we’re alert to subtle attempts to determine our relative strength, from “innocent” opening lines such as “And you are?” or “Who are you with?” to more probing queries regarding our ancestry or education. All it takes is a faint whiff of presumed superiority or condescension and we’re on guard.

Indeed, we’re often unaware of our dignity until it is slighted. We know at once when we’re treated with disrespect, and for good reason. An intimation or overt gesture of disregard may be a test to gauge our resistance to subservience, or to put us in our place. An insult is often a precursor to ostracism, to casting us as a nobody. Whole groups may be marginalized, as well as individuals. I short, Indignity is an existential threat. No wonder we’re so quick to register it!

While those atop the social pyramid prize liberty above all, most people put dignity first. History is full of examples of humiliated peoples who willingly surrender their freedom to a demagogue promising to restore their pride. One has only to think of Weimar Germany in the aftermath of the punitive Versailles treaty that concluded World War I.

The need for dignity is more than a desire for respect. Dignity grounds us, nurtures us, protects us. It’s the social counterpart of interpersonal love. To affirm people’s dignity confirms their status as valued members of a group. Dignity and self-respect go hand in hand: dignity nourishes our self-respect, and self-respect inclines others to affirm our dignity.

By protecting the dignity of others as if it were our own, we not only give others their due, we simultaneously protect ourselves by not giving offense in the first place.

Every child knows that indignities flow downstream—from “somebodies” of higher rank (indicating greater power) to “nobodies” of lower rank (and relatively less power). No sooner do we understand this, than we imagine a solution: eliminate ranks that signify degrees of power.

But power differences are a fact of life. To bemoan them is like complaining that the sun is brighter than the moon. When rank differences reflect legitimate power differences, they cannot be wished away.

Fortunately, this stark reality does not doom the prospects of achieving equal dignity for all. In and of itself, rank is not a source of indignity. Unless rank is inherently illegitimate—as, for example, specious social rankings that foist second-class citizenship on particular identity groups—then the problem is not with rank per se but rather with its abuse. The distinction between rank and its abuse goes to the heart of many vexing and intractable political issues, domestic and international. In most cases, indignity has its origins in abuse of the power signified by rank.

Confusing rank with its abuse occurs because rank is so commonly misused that young and old alike jump to the conclusion that the only remedy is to abolish ranking. Conflating rank and rank-based abuse is logically unnecessary and it’s a mistake with grave consequences. The socialists of nineteenth-century Europe and communists of the twentieth century often suffered from, or cynically exploited, this misconception.

When egalitarian ideologies did prevail, the self-appointed leaders typically imposed even harsher tyrannies than the ones they replaced. This was the Soviet Union’s Achilles’ heel.

When it is legitimately earned and properly used, rank can be a useful organizational tool for achieving group goals. We rightfully admire and love authorities—parents, teachers, bosses, even political leaders—who use the power of their rank in exemplary ways.

Accepting such leadership entails no loss of self-respect or opportunity by those in subordinate roles. It is when people use the power of their position to aggrandize themselves or disadvantage those they outrank that seeds of indignity are sown.

Equal dignity is grounded in the fact of our dependence upon specialization and cooperation for survival, or, more fundamentally, in the co-creation of our very identities. This suggests that both the Left and the Right have equal stakes in, and responsibility for, universalizing dignity.

Rankism—The Source of Indignity

To have a name is to be.
– Benoit Mandelbrot

A key insight of identity politics is the importance of naming the malady you want to cure. When women pinned the label “sexism” on the attitudes and practices that had long kept them down, those practices became targetable. In the last half-century, identity politics has given a name to a half-dozen trait-based abuses and delegitimized every one of them. Eradicating a malady takes longer, of course, but it begins with the delegitimization that naming makes possible.

Absent a name for rank-based abuses, targets were in a position similar to that of women before the term “sexism” was coined. Writing in 1963, Betty Friedan characterized the plight of women as “the problem that has no name.” By 1968, the problem had acquired one – “sexism.” That simple word intensified consciousness-raising and public debate and provided a rallying cry for a movement to oppose power-abuse linked to gender.

When abuse and discrimination are race-based, we call it racism; when they’re age-based, we call it ageism. By analogy, abuse of the power attached to rank is rankism. Once there’s a name for it, you see it everywhere. And once it’s visible, its legitimacy can be questioned.

The relationship between rankism and the various isms targeted by identity politics can be compared to that between cancer and its subspecies. For centuries the group of diseases that are now seen as subspecies of cancer were regarded as distinct illnesses. No one realized that lung, breast, and other organ-specific malignancies all had their origins in cellular malfunction.

In this metaphor, racism, sexism, homophobia, and other varieties of prejudice are analogous to organ-specific cancers, and rankism is the generic malady analogous to cancer itself. Now that it has a name, it’s easier for victims of rankism to stand up for their dignity. Once victims are on their feet, they rarely stand down until their demands are met.

Religion divined the golden rule thousands of years ago, but has failed to bring about its widespread observance. In every society and every religion, leaders have downplayed, if not ignored, its implication of dignity for all and instead lent moral support to the degradation of racial and ethnic minorities, colonial subjects, women and girls, and homosexuals.

The twentieth century witnessed the successful application of the strategies and tactics of identity politics. Those same organizational techniques, applied to overcoming rankism, can render it as insupportable as the isms that identity politics has now put on the defensive.

In the next post, I’ll look at rankism’s many faces, and discuss how targeting it, in all its guises, would systematically operationalize the golden rule.

Religion and Science

[All twenty posts in this series have now been collected into a free eBook which can be downloaded at Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship? Thank you for your interest in this series.]

Peace Dividend: A Model of Morality

[This is the 15th in the series Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship.]

Somebodies and Nobodies

Bullying has always bothered me. Not just being bullied, though that too of course. I mean the phenomenon of bullying, in all its forms. I think bullying troubles everyone, even the bullies themselves. No one wants to be pushed around, to be forced to act against one’s own interests. And, if it’s happening to anyone, deep down we know it can happen to us.

Growing up, I saw bullying all around me. War was an extreme example of it. Slavery was, too. But, I didn’t need to look that far afield to find bullies. My schools were full of put downs, physical and verbal. Some of my classmates were regularly humiliated with epithets like “retard” and “fatso.” In college and graduate school, one-upmanship was the name of the game. Women were actively discouraged from studying mathematics and physics. Some educators even went so far as to claim that females lacked the “math gene.”

And, of course, in mid-century America everyone knew that blacks could be denigrated at will. When our all-white high school athletic teams lost to a school with black players, the N-word was employed to remind African Americans of their inferior social rank.

By the 1960s, the growing strength of the civil rights movement was forcing Americans to question race-based discrimination. Within a few years, other liberation movements took aim at the indignities that were routinely visited upon women, the elderly, homosexuals, and people with disabilities.

As a college president in the early 1970s, it was my responsibility to handle the grievances of various identity groups. I sensed that all of them had something in common—namely, those targeted for discrimination were taken for “nobodies” by their victimizers, who in turn saw themselves as “somebodies.” But, rank was relative. You could be a somebody in one context and a nobody in another. Somebodies could pull rank on nobodies, of course, but equally significant was that nobodies could lord it over people of still lower rank.

It was the power attached to rank that made degradation, discrimination, and abuse possible. If, by virtue of your place in a social or organizational hierarchy, you outranked someone, then the power of your rank shielded you from retaliation.

Identity politics had been effective at curtailing indignities that targeted solidarity groups defined by a common trait, but it was impotent when it came to disallowing indignities within these groups. My ah-ha was that all of the familiar isms were special cases of rank-based abuse and that, even taken together, they represented just the tip of the indignity iceberg.

But not to despair. In combatting racism, sexism, ageism, etc., techniques had been battle-tested that could now be leveled against the basic source of a wide variety of indignities—the abuse of power vested in rank.

Given the achievements of the identity-based liberation movements, is it unrealistic to imagine a day when everyone’s equal dignity will be as self-evident as everyone’s right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”? If one racial group can learn to treat members of another race with dignity, why can’t it learn to treat people of the same race with dignity? The same applies to gender and the other traits that have served as pretexts for abuse and discrimination. If we can learn not to put people down who carry certain defining traits, why can’t we learn not to put anyone down?

That we’ve found ways to curb the indignities suffered by minorities, women, gays, the elderly, and people with disabilities suggests that making dignity the norm universally may not be out of reach. We could teach kids that dignity is their right and that it’s also everyone else’s. We could teach everyone to defend the dignity of others as they would have others defend theirs.

When I heard this proposition sounding in my head, I recognized it as an echo of the rule we’d mouthed in Sunday School. But in those days, although we were exhorted to obey the golden rule, no one seemed bound by it, not even the teachers and preachers who urged it upon others.

Since then, liberation movements—as personified by Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., Betty Friedan, and others—have done more to put violations of the golden rule on the defensive than centuries of preaching. What if the techniques of identity politics were applied not just in defense of the dignity of minorities, women, and gays, but to overcome all forms of indignity?

The rest of this post sketches a model of morality that, by pinning a name on the rank-based abuse that causes indignity, addresses one of my take-away questions from Sunday School: How could we make the golden rule not only self-evident, but self-enforcing?

A Model of Morality

As mentioned in the discussion of modeling, the natural sciences search for grand unifying theories, also referred to as “theories of everything,” or TOEs. Everything? you may wonder. Really, everything?

Well, no, not quite everything. Not why some people like blueberries and hate broccoli, and for others, it’s vice versa. Not who will win the World Series next year. Not the answer to the question Einstein said would be his first if he returned in 500 years: “Is the universe friendly?” Chalk up the use of “everything” to poetic license. What scientists mean by a TOE is a theory that explains everything that current narrower theories do, but goes on to explain something more. In other words, a TOE is a broader, more inclusive, theory. It’s a theory of greater generality.

Whether it’s a theory of nature or human behavior, TOEs are important because they give us insight into the unruly margins where models of lesser scope break down. For example, by examining the intersection of the fields of electricity and magnetism, Maxwell discovered a broader theory that revealed that light was an electromagnetic wave and accurately predicted its speed. Radio was one of the early applications of Maxwell’s theory. When Newton’s laws of classical mechanics and Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory were applied to the atom, they gave false results, but in the hands of Niels Bohr a new theory emerged—the quantum theory of the atom—that opened up the hitherto unexplored world of atomic physics. Similarly, when Paul Dirac married quantum mechanics and relativity, his more general theory predicted a new family of elementary particles, known as antiparticles. In the natural sciences, nothing hollers “Nobel Prize” louder than a TOE.

A more modest acronym for the Moral TOE I’ll suggest in this chapter would be MOM—Model Of Morality. (Think of “MOM” as acknowledging the mothers of the world who model morality for their children. Although, I shall speak of TOEs and MOMs, it’s not without a dollop of irony, as the acronyms are meant to suggest.)

Models are sitting ducks—meant to be faulted and disproven. Like all models, the MOM I shall sketch immediately becomes a legitimate target: What does it not account for? What does it get wrong? After all, its certain destiny is to be replaced by a better MOM. But if this MOM serves to provoke others to come up with something better, then it will be worth whatever mockery it provokes.

In the spirit of full disclosure and minimal obfuscation, I’m going to reverse the usual practice and give away my MOM’s punch line up front. Like the truths of science, it is disconcertingly simple, yet has a host of non-obvious, far-reaching implications.

When science and religion stop fighting and pool their findings, the headline and bottom line of the MOM that leaps out at us will be:

Dignity for All, Always

Religion and Science

[All twenty posts in this series have now been collected into a free eBook which can be downloaded at Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship? Thank you for your interest in this series.]

A New Deal for Religion and Science

[This is the 14th in the series Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship.]

Those who argue that religion should be counted out are overlooking the role that religious leaders played in overcoming segregation in America, repealing apartheid in South Africa, and ending the communist dictatorship in Poland and Central Europe. That religion has not always lived up to its own ideals does not mean it hasn’t also made important contributions to social justice.

Religion is a repository of the time-tested wisdom of the ages, and a purveyor of precepts that have acquired the mantle of tradition. But as every reformer knows, tradition has its downside. Old moral codes can legitimize patterns of indignity; premonitions of a fairer world are then strangled in the crib. While the heavy hand of tradition saves us from our worst, too often it keeps us from our best.

Tradition and precedent, sometimes bolstered with assertions of infallibility, constitute a high hurdle that any new social or political model must clear. A case in point was the twentieth-century shift in the prevailing societal consensus on issues of race, gender, marriage, divorce, birth control, and sex. After decades of debate, new values gradually displaced older ones in the public mind. Where religious doctrine failed to adjust, the public gradually stopped paying attention. This has likely been a factor in the precipitous decline, since World War II, of church attendance in Europe. Over the long term, people increasingly look not to their church, synagogue, or mosque for their views on how to live and how to vote, but rather to culture and politics. This same trend is now becoming visible in the United States.

When either science or religion allies itself with a partisan political doctrine—no matter if it’s Left or Right—it weds itself to the biases of a particular time. That is what Soviet supporters of Lysenko did in the 1930s. It’s what churchmen who supported Nazism did when they invoked religious beliefs in support of the state’s nationalistic and anti-Semitic agenda.

Likewise, when religion attaches itself to particular social or political models—for example, racial segregation or sexual mores—it eventually loses relevance in those domains. To chain theology to the ship of state is to go down with the ship when it sinks. The nineteenth-century English biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, an early champion of Darwin’s theory of evolution, pointed out that, in just this way, “Science commits suicide when it adopts a creed.” Untold suffering is often the result of such partisan mistakes, and they are avoidable.

For example, when Alfred Kinsey’s studies on sexuality revealed the full range of human sexual behavior, we had two choices. We could label some of the behaviors that came to light “perverted,” and try to suppress them. Or, we could look upon the behaviors that Kinsey’s research revealed as falling within an enlarged domain of “normal” and modify our prescriptive models accordingly. The advent of reliable birth control only intensified the pressure to revise traditional sexual norms. The ensuing sexual revolution suggests that the public is moving toward a new consensus on sexuality.

What does this perspective suggest regarding the current debate about broadening the definition of marriage to include partners of the same sex? In the end, the matter will be decided not by the victory of one or another interpretation of scripture, but by reference to emerging social values, very much as disagreements over slavery and, a century later, segregation, were decided. As it became clear that second-class citizenship was indefensible, attempts to justify these practices through religion were abandoned and instead other religious values were enlisted on behalf of emancipation and desegregation.

If barring same-sex marriage is viewed as an infringement on the civil rights of homosexuals, then the tide of history suggests that these barriers will fall. Despite frustratingly slow progress and numerous setbacks, it’s hard to find examples of campaigns for equal minority rights—that is, movements to end second-class citizenship—that do not ultimately succeed. In the long run inclusiveness beats exclusiveness; dignity for all trumps indignity for some. Religion could as well lay claim to this general insight (which it co-authored), and consistently champion the indignified, as give its blessing to one or another kind of second-class citizenship.

The movement toward more inclusive, participatory models of governance shows no signs of abating in the twenty-first century. Protests for dignity and democracy have erupted in the Middle East, Russia, Burma, China and across the United States in the form of the Occupy Movement.

Let’s take a moment to consider what it would take for religion and science to end their stand-off and support each other’s role in the pursuit of universal dignity.

Moral laws can be seen as intuitions, based on observation, that are then elevated to absolute truths. It’s the elevation to absolutes that leads to trouble, not the intuitive guesswork that’s common to discoveries of all kinds. So, one way to resolve the perennial war between science and religion is for religion to accept science’s methodology and defend religious precepts much as scientists defend theirs. In such a framework, both science and religion would reserve the right to speculate and, before expecting others to accept their findings, they’d assume responsibility for demonstrating the validity of their ideas and theories by marshaling evidence for their support.

Such an understanding does not preclude specialization. Religion is free to imagine new worlds and to suggest things it cannot prove. Guessing the answer is a respected way of doing science and so scientists don’t have a leg to stand on when they dismiss religion as guesswork.

First you guess. Don’t laugh, this is the most important step. Then you compute the consequences. Compare the consequences to experience. If it disagrees with experience, the guess is wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It doesn’t matter how beautiful your guess is or how smart you are or what your name is. If it disagrees with experience, it’s wrong. That’s all there is to it.
– Richard Feynman

Science tests these guesses and intuitions against the evidence. Religion can do no less.

Under the terms of this deal, religion would be more humble about its teachings, acknowledging that they are sometimes wrong. When a hypothesis is disproven, religion would gracefully accept the result and propose something else. When science confirms one of religion’s guesses, it gives credit where credit is due for having “divined” the answer before it could be established beyond doubt (that is, verified to the satisfaction of investigators who were initially neutral or skeptical).

In time, science and religion would come to see each other as complementary aspects of a common truth-seeking strategy. Religion specializes in identifying cutting-edge, revelatory insights into human psychological and social dynamics (seemingly out of thin air, but actually, intuitively, after close observation). For its part, science specializes in testing these insights against the evidence, and either disproving or confirming them. Both vocations are at liberty to encroach on the other’s traditional turf.

Under this arrangement, science and religion would likely retain something of their traditional flavors, but gradually each would incorporate into its practice the others’ perspective. With the roles of science and religion clarified, their relationship would be characterized by mutually respect and collaboration. On matters for which there is insufficient evidence, people would be free to disagree. The difference, though, is that they would cease to berate and demean each other.

By interpreting religious principles not as holy, inerrant writ, but as fallible truths that are discovered in the same way as other truths, religion can defend itself against accusations that it is another self-serving institution, and, by assuming a leadership role in the transition to a post-predatory world, help realize the prophetic vision of peace on Earth, goodwill toward men.

For centuries, religion has served peoples’ emotional needs with its art and music, its theater and counsel. This will no doubt continue. But, as dignity’s defender of last resort, a new revivifying role for religion can be envisioned. In it, religion would:

• Provide a forum for debating and disseminating proposed models of morality
• Research and develop models that extend dignity to people subjected to indignity
• Facilitate society-wide and world-wide conversations aimed at defining exactly what is meant by “equal dignity for all”—until a broad consensus is achieved
• Assume the role of coach to organizations as they bring their practices in line with dignity-affirming values
• Support the dignity movement as it did the civil rights movement
• Teach the latest findings on the workings of the mind and the dynamics of self-transformation
• Offer enlightenment and creativity training (analogous to literacy training)
• Support scientific and spiritual seekers by reminding them of the mythic nature of the quest for truth
• Imagine better futures—such as the brotherhood of man—and ennoble our quests to actualize those dreams

With the advent of a beautiful friendship between science and religion, there is indeed reason to hope.

Religion and Science

[All twenty posts in this series have now been collected into a free eBook which can be downloaded at Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship? Thank you for your interest in this series.]