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Fiala on Ethics: Scary times call for courage

Ginger Sizemore, right, breaks down while paying her respects at a makeshift memorial near the Inland Regional Center on Friday, in San Bernardino.
Ginger Sizemore, right, breaks down while paying her respects at a makeshift memorial near the Inland Regional Center on Friday, in San Bernardino. The Associated Press

These are terrifying times. Mass violence plays across our screens. Frightened people want reassurance. And fearmongers manipulate anxiety. But dread is no substitute for deliberation.

The world’s philosophical traditions teach us to temper trepidation. Here is some practical advice from the ancient philosophers. Acknowledge the inevitability of suffering. Don’t dread evil. Accept what is beyond your control. Avoid panic. Minimize violence. Overcome hate.

But panicked, violent and hateful proposals abound. Some call to ban Muslim visitors. Others want to carpet-bomb the Islamic State. Some encourage us to arm ourselves.

Bombs and bans won’t build a better world. For that we need courageous commitment to democratic and humane values. We also need to understand the nature of fear and its role in political and moral life.

Fear undermines mental health. It clouds judgment. And it feeds on itself. Scare mongering is useful as a rhetorical tool. But reactionary panic makes for bad policy and risks betraying central values.

Wisdom requires courage, justice and moderation. Moral decisions depend upon calm reflection. A key to wisdom and equanimity is careful consideration of the object of our fears. It turns out that we often fear the wrong things.

Consider the risk of mass violence. Since 1982 there have been 73 mass shootings in the United States, resulting in nearly 600 deaths. If we add in the fatalities from the terrorist attacks on 9/11 and other terror attacks on US citizens, we end up with fewer than 5,000 deaths from mass shooting and terrorism during the past 33 years.

Even one mass shooting is horrible. We should work to end these atrocities. But there is no reason to panic.

Other things are much more dangerous. There are around 16,000 homicides and 38,000 poisoning deaths every year. Approximately 2,000 people are killed annually by weather-related causes. More than 33,000 people are killed yearly in vehicular traffic.

We accept the risk of driving, while taking common sense precautions: drive carefully and buckle up. But no one is panicking about traffic deaths. No one is calling for background checks on vehicle ownership or radical changes in the speed limit. No one is calling for a ban on alcohol or drunken driving, even though drunken driving is much more deadly than terrorism. Drunken drivers kill 28 people every day – more than 10,000 people per year.

Some fears are magnified because we associate them with evil. Death by terrorism seems worse than death by drunken driving. Fear of evil seems more dreadful than fear of accidental death. But one wonders why that matters: When you are dead, you are dead.

Rhetoricians manipulate our fear of evil. They also manipulate our hopes and dreams. Hope is, in a sense, the opposite of fear. Hope can moderate fear. But unrealistic hope also clouds judgment. We hope that war, crime and atrocity will be abolished. We hope that politicians will behave themselves. We hope that rationality will prevail. We hope that evil will disappear. Or we hope that strangers will conform to our expectations.

But history dashes these hopes. We should give up hope for a perfect, risk-free world. Evil people will always exist. Idiocy often overcomes common sense. Politicians routinely fail to impress. And diversity is a fact of life. We may wish things were otherwise. But wishing does not make it so.

Like fear, hope is a tool of demagogues that is used to hoodwink and manipulate. The danger of hope is that when idealistic hope crashes on the rocks of reality, despair sets in. Cynical hopelessness is as dangerous as ruthless idealism.

The key is moderation. Equanimity develops from understanding the nature of hope and fear. Fear is useful – when it is based on facts and prevented from becoming paranoia. Hope is also useful – when it is modest and limited in scope. Without moderation, however, hope and fear overwhelm good judgment.

A temperate mind is immune to the buffeting winds of fortune and the alluring buzz of political hot air. Wisdom teaches that evil is unavoidable, suffering is inevitable, panic is counterproductive, and good judgment is difficult and rare. Understanding this can liberate us from fear. Philosophical fortitude frees us from reactionary outrage and allows us to build a better world, one fearless step at a time.

Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State. Contact him: fiala.andrew@gmail.com.

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