NY Times Book Review: Steven Pinker’s Latest Book, Enlightenment Now

March 4, 2018

NY Times Book Review: Steven Pinker’s Latest Book, Enlightenment Now

The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress
By Steven Pinker
556 pp. Viking. $35.

Optimism is not generally thought cool, and it is often thought foolish. The optimistic philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote in 1828, “I have observed that not the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage.” In the previous century, Voltaire’s “Candide” had attacked what its author called “optimism”: the Leibnizian idea that all must be for the best in this best of all possible worlds. After suffering through one disaster after another, Candide decides that optimism is merely “a mania for insisting that all is well when things are going badly.”

Yet one might argue (and Steven Pinker does) that the philosophy Voltaire satirizes here is not optimism at all. If you think this world is already as good as it gets, then you just have to accept it. A true optimist would say that, although human life will never be perfect, crucial aspects of it can improve if we work at it, for example by refining building standards and seismological predictions so that fewer people die in earthquakes. It’s not “best,” but it is surely better.

This optimist’s revenge on “Candide” is one of the passing pleasures in “Enlightenment Now,” Pinker’s follow-up to his 2011 book “The Better Angels of Our Nature.” The earlier work assembled banks of data in support of his argument that human life is becoming, not worse as many seem to feel, but globally safer, healthier, longer, less violent, more prosperous, better educated, more tolerant and more fulfilling. His new book makes the same case with updated statistics, and adds two extra elements. First, it takes into account the recent rise of authoritarian populism, especially in the form of Donald Trump — a development that has led some to feel more despairing than ever. Second, it raises the polemical level with a rousing defense of the four big ideas named in the subtitle: progress, reason, science and humanism — the last being defined not mainly in terms of non-theism (though Pinker argues for that, too), but as “the goal of maximizing human flourishing — life, health, happiness, freedom, knowledge, love, richness of experience.” Who could be against any of that? Yet humanism has been seen in some quarters as unfashionable, or unachievable, or both. Pinker wants us to take another look.

Much of the book is taken up with evidence-based philosophizing, with charts showing a worldwide increase in life expectancy, a decline in life-shattering diseases, ever better education and access to information, greater recognition of female equality and L.G.B.T. rights, and so on — even down to data showing that Americans today are 37 times less likely to be killed by lightning than in 1900, thanks to better weather forecasting, electrical engineering and safety awareness. Improvements in health have bettered the human condition enormously, and Pinker tells us that his favorite sentence in the whole English language comes from Wikipedia: “Smallpox was an infectious disease caused by either of two virus variants, Variola major and Variola minor.” The word “wasis what he likes.


Credit Alessandra Montalto/The New York Times

He later adds that he could have ended every chapter by saying, “But all this progress is threatened if Donald Trump gets his way.” Trumpism risks knocking the world backward in almost every department of life, especially by trying to undo the international structures that have made progress possible: peace and trade agreements, health care, climate change accords and the general understanding that nuclear weapons should never be used. All this is now in question. Pinker is particularly sharp on the dangers of ignoring or overriding the systems that make nuclear war unlikely.

Image result for Steven Pinker

This book will attract some hammering itself: It contains something to upset almost everyone. When not attacking the populist right, Pinker lays into leftist intellectuals. He is especially scathing about newspaper editorialists who, in 2016, fell over themselves in their haste to proclaim the death of Enlightenment values and the advent of “post-truth.” His (rather too broadly painted) targets include humanities professors, postmodernists, the politically correct and anyone who has something nice to say about Friedrich Nietzsche. “Progressive” thinkers seem to consider progress a bad thing, he claims; they reject as crass or naïve “the notion that we should apply our collective reason to enhance flourishing and reduce suffering.”

In fact, there may already be signs of a change in mood, with chirps of optimism being heard from varied directions. The musician David Byrne has just launched a web project entitled “Reasons to Be Cheerful,” celebrating positive initiatives in the realms of culture, science, transportation, civic engagement and so on. Quartz, a business journalism site, ended 2017 with a list of 99 cheerful links to the year’s good news: snow leopards being taken off the endangered species list; a province in Pakistan planting a billion trees over the last two years as a response to the 2015 floods; a dramatic fall in sufferers from the hideous Guinea worm (from 3.5 million in 1986 to just 30 in 2017); and a slow but steady increase in women holding parliamentary seats worldwide, from 12 percent in 1997 to 23 percent now.

Related image

Bertrand Russell once pointed out that maintaining a sense of hope can be hard work. In the closing pages of his autobiography, with its account of his many activist years, he wrote: “To preserve hope in our world makes calls upon our intelligence and our energy. In those who despair it is frequently the energy that is lacking.” Steven Pinker’s book is full of vigor and vim, and it sets out to inspire a similar energy in its readers.

He cites one study of “negativity bias” that says a critic who pans a book “is perceived as more competent than a critic who praises it.” I will just have to take that risk: “Enlightenment Now” strikes me as an excellent book, lucidly written, timely, rich in data and eloquent in its championing of a rational humanism that is — it turns out — really quite cool.

On Becoming A Philosopher

March 3, 2018

On Becoming A Philosopher

by A.C. Grayling

Image result for A.C.GraylingPhilosopher A.C. Grayling and Harvard’s Steven Pinker


“Socrates liked to tease his interlocutors by saying that the only thing he knew was that he knew nothing. There is a deep insight in this, for the one thing that is more dangerous than true ignorance is the illusion of knowledge and understanding. Such illusion abounds, and one of the first tasks of philosophy – as wonderfully demonstrated by Socrates in Plato’s “Meno” – is to explore our claims to know things about ourselves and the world, and to expose them if they are false or muddled.”–Philosopher and Teacher A.C. Grayling,

When asked my profession, I say that I teach philosophy. Sometimes, with equal accuracy, I say that I study philosophy. The form of words is carefully chosen; a certain temerity attaches to the claim to be a philosopher – “I am a philosopher” does not sound as straight-forwardly descriptive as “I am a barrister/soldier/carpenter,” for it seems to claim too much. It is almost an honorific, which third parties might apply to someone only if he or she merited it. And such a one need not necessarily be – indeed, may well not be – an academic teacher of the subject.

When I reply in the way described, I see further questions kindle in the interrogator’s eye. “What do philosophers do in the mornings when they get up?” they ask themselves, privately. Everyone knows what a barrister or carpenter does. The teaching part in “teaching philosophy” is obvious enough; but the philosophy part? Do salaried philosophers arrange themselves into Rodinesque poses, and think – all day long?

But the question they actually ask is, “How did you get into that line of work?” The answer is simple. Sometimes people choose their occupations, and sometimes they are chosen by them. People used to describe the latter as having a vocation, a notion borrowed from the idea of a summons to the religious life, and applied to medicine and teaching as well as to the life of the mind. No doubt there are people who make a conscious decision to devote themselves to philosophy rather than, say, tree surgery; but usually it is not an option. Like the impulse to write, paint, or make music, it is a kind of urgency, for it feels far too significant and interesting to take second place to anything else.

The world is, however, a pragmatic place, and the dreams and desires people have – to be professional sportsmen, or prima ballerinas, or best-selling authors – tend to remain such unless the will and the opportunity are available to help onward. Vocation provides the will; in the case of philosophy, opportunity takes the form of an invitation, and a granting of license to take seriously the improbable path of writing and thinking as an entire way of life. In my case, as with many others who have followed the same path, the invitation came from Socrates.

When Socrates returned to Athens from his military service at Potidiae, one of the first things he did was to find out what had been happening in philosophy while he was away, and whether any of the current crop of Athenian youths was distinguished for beauty, wisdom, or both. So Plato tells us at the beginning of his dialogue “Charmides”, named for the handsome youth who was then the centre of fashionable attention in Athens. Always interested in boys like Charmides, Socrates engaged him in conversation to find out whether he had the special attribute which is even greater than physical beauty – namely, a noble soul.

Socrates’ conversation with Charmides was the trigger that made me a lifelong student of philosophy. I read that dialogue at the age of twelve in English translation – happily for me, it is one of Plato’s early works, all of which are simple and accessible; and it immediately prompted me to read others. There was nothing especially precocious about this, for all children begin as philosophers, endlessly voicing their wonder at the world by asking “wh–” questions – why, what, which – until the irritation of parents, and the schoolroom’s authority on the subject of Facts, put an end to their desire to ask them. I was filled with interest and curiosity, puzzlement and speculation, and wanted nothing more than to ask such questions and to seek answers to them forever. My good luck was to have Socrates show that one could do exactly that, as a thing not merely acceptable, but noble, to devote one’s life to. I was smitten by the nature and subject of the enquiries he undertook, which seemed to me the most important there could be. And I found his forensic method exhilarating – and often amusing, as when he exposes the intellectual chicanery of a pair of Sophists in the “Euthydemus,” and illustrates the right way to search for understanding. Presented with such an example, and with such fascinating and important questions, it struck me that there is no vocation to rival philosophy.

These juvenile interests were more or less successfully hidden from contemporaries in the usual way – under a mask of cricket, rugby, and kissing girls in the back row of the cinema – because being a swot was then as always a serious crime; but although all these disguises were agreeable in their own right, especially the last (the charms of Charmides notwithstanding; but they anyway expanded my view of what human flourishing includes), they could not erase what had taken hold underneath – a state of dazzlement before the power and beauty of ideas, and of being fascinated both by the past and the products of man’s imagination. It was a fever that took hold early, and never afterwards abated.

My youthful discovery of philosophy occurred in propitious circumstances, in the sense that I grew up in a remote region of the world, the parts of central and east Africa described by Laurens van der Post in his “Venture into the Interior.” This was before television services reached those high dusty savannahs and stupendous rift valleys, and therefore members of the expatriate English community there, of which my family was part, were much thrown on their own devices, with reading as the chief alternative to golf, bridge and adultery. In the pounding heat of the African tropics all life is shifted back towards dawn and on past evening, leaving the middle of the day empty. School began at seven and ended at noon. Afternoons, before the thunderstorms broke – one could set the clocks by them – were utterly silent. Almost everyone and everything fell asleep. Reading, and solitude of the kind that fills itself with contemplations and reveries, were my chief resources then, and became habitual.

With parents and siblings I lived the usual expatriate life of those distant regions before Harold Macmillan’s “winds of change.” It was a life of Edwardian-style magnificence, made easy by servants in crisp white uniforms, who stood at attention behind our wicker chairs when we took our ease on the terrace, or beside the swimming pool or tennis court, in our landscaped garden aflame with frangipani and canna lilies. Maturing reflection on this exploitative style of life, together with the realisation that Plato’s politics are extremely disagreeable (today he would be a sort of utopian Fascist, and perhaps even worse), gave my political views their permanent list to port.

My mother always yearned for London, and clucked her tongue in dismay, as she read the tissue-paper airmail edition of the Times, over the shows and concerts being missed there. I agreed with her, in prospective fashion. But a good feature of this artificial exile was the local public library. It stood on the slope of a hill, on whose summit, thrillingly for me, lay the skeletal remains of a burned-out single-seater monoplane. In the wreckage of this aircraft I flew innumerable sorties above imagined fields of Kent, winning the Battle of Britain over again. But I did this only in the intervals of reading under a sun-filled window in the empty library, eccentric (as I now see) in its stock of books, but a paradise to me. I had the good fortune to meet Homer and Dante there, Plato and Shakespeare, Fielding and Jane Austen, Ovid and Milton, Dryden and Keats; and I met Montaigne on its shelves, Addison, Rousseau, Dr. Johnson, Charles Lamb and William Hazlitt – and Hume, Mill, Marx and Russell. From that early date I learned the value of the essay, and fell in love with philosophy and history, and conceived a desire to know as much as could be known – and to understand it too. Because of the miscellaneous and catholic nature of these passions, the books in the strange little library gave me a lucky education, teaching me much that filled me then and fills me still with pleasure and delight.

One aspect of this was the invitation to inhabit, in thought, the worlds of the past, not least classical antiquity. In ancient Greece the appreciation of beauty, the respect paid to reason and the life of reason, the freedom of thought and feeling, the absence of mysticism and false sentimentality, the humanism, pluralism and sanity of outlook, which is so distinctive of the cultivated classical mind, is a model for people who see, as the Greeks did, that the aim of life is to live nobly and richly in spirit. In Plato this ideal is encapsulated as “sophrosyne,” a word for which no single English expression gives an adequate rendering, although standardly translated as “temperance,” “self-restraint” or “wisdom.” In his most famous and widely-read dialogue, the “Republic,” Plato defines it as “the agreement of the passions that Reason should rule.” If to this were added the thought – reflecting the better part of modern sensitivity – that the passions are nevertheless important, something like an ideal conception of human flourishing results.

Image result for Plato

Plato and Aristotle

When not in Athens I was in ancient Rome. For the Romans in their republican period something more Spartan than Athenian was admired, its virtues (“vir” is Latin for “man”) being the supposedly manly ones of courage, endurance and loyalty. There is a contrast here between civic and warrior values, but it is obvious enough that whereas one would wish the former to prevail, there are times when the latter are required, both for a society and for its individual members. For a society such values are important in times of danger, such as wartime; and for individuals they are important at moments of crisis, such as grief and pain. The models offered by Rome were Horatius – who defended the bridge against Tarquin the Proud and Lars Porsena – and Mucius Scaevola, who plunged his hand into the flames to show that he would never betray Rome. Unsurprisingly, the dominating ethical outlook of educated Romans was Stoicism, the philosophy which taught fortitude, self-command, and courageous acceptance of whatever lies beyond one’s control. The expressions “stoical” and “philosophical,” to mean “accepting” or “resigned,” derive from this tradition.

One Saturday afternoon when I was fourteen I bought – for sixpence, at a fete run by the Nyasaland Rotary Club – a battered copy of G. H. Lewes’s “Biographical History of Philosophy”, which begins (as does the official history of philosophy) with Thales, and ends with Auguste Comte, who was Lewes’s contemporary. Lewes was George Eliot’s consort, a gifted intellectual journalist, whose biography of Goethe is still the best available, and whose history of philosophy is lucid, accurate and absorbing. I could not put it down on first reading, and in all must have read it a dozen times before I had my fill. It superinduced order on the random reading that had preceded it, and settled my vocation.

When I returned to England as a teenager it was to a place intensely familiar and luminous because whenever in my reading I was not either in the ancient world or somewhere else in history, I was there – and especially in London. Everywhere one goes in London, even on ordinary daily business, one encounters its past and its literature – retracing Henry James’s first journeys through the crowded streets of what was in his day the largest and most astonishing city in the world, seeing Dickens’s Thames slide between its oily banks, and Thackeray’s Becky tripping down Park Lane smiling to herself. In this spirit my imagination heard the roar from Bankside, where pennants fluttered above the Bear-garden and the theatres, and saw crowds milling under the jewelled lanterns of Vauxhall Gardens, where fashion and impropriety mingled. Deptford on the map seemed to me a horrifying name, because Marlowe was stabbed there. On the steps of St Paul’s I thought of Leigh Hunt’s description of the old cathedral, before the fire, when it was an open highway through which people rode their horses, in whose aisles and side-chapels prostitutes solicited and merchants met to broker stocks, and where friends called to one another above the sound of matins being said or vespers sung. London is richly overlaid by all that has happened in it and been written about it. There is a character in Proust who is made to play in the Champs Elysees as a boy, and hated it; he later wished he had been able to read about it first, so that he could relish its ghosts and meanings. Luckily for me I came prepared just so for London.

It seemed entirely appropriate to me later, as an undergraduate visiting London at every opportunity, to spend afternoons in the National Gallery and evenings in the theatre (every night if it could be afforded – and even when not) because that is what my companions – my friends on the printed page under the sunlit window in Africa, such as Hazlitt, Pater, and Wilde – intimated was the natural way of relishing life.

But it was not just the relish that mattered, for everything offered by art, theatre and books seemed to me rich grist for the philosophical mill, prompting questions, suggesting answers for debate and evaluation, throwing light on unexpected angles and surprising corners of the perennial problems of life and mind. An education as a philosopher involves studying the writings of the great dead, which enables one to advance to engagement with the technical and often abstruse debates of contemporary philosophy. But philosophical education requires more than this too, for in order to do justice to the question of how these debates relate to the world of lived experience – of how gnosis connects with praxis – a wide interest in history, culture and science becomes essential. The reason is well put by Miguel de Unamuno. “If a philosopher is not a man,” he wrote, “he is anything but a philosopher; he is above all a pedant, and a pedant is a caricature of a man.”

Image result for A.J. Ayer


At Oxford I had the good fortune to be taught by A. J. Ayer, a gifted and lively teacher, and P. F. Strawson, one of the century’s leading philosophical minds. There were other accomplished philosophers there whose lectures and classes I attended, but I benefited most from personal intercourse with these two. And when in my own turn I became a lecturer in philosophy, first at St Anne’s College, Oxford and then at Birkbeck College, London, I appreciated the force of the saying “docendo disco” – by teaching I learn – for the task of helping others grasp the point in philosophical debates has the salutary consequence of clarifying them for oneself.

Socrates liked to tease his interlocutors by saying that the only thing he knew was that he knew nothing. There is a deep insight in this, for the one thing that is more dangerous than true ignorance is the illusion of knowledge and understanding. Such illusion abounds, and one of the first tasks of philosophy – as wonderfully demonstrated by Socrates in Plato’s “Meno” – is to explore our claims to know things about ourselves and the world, and to expose them if they are false or muddled. It does so by beginning with the questions we ask, to ensure that we understand what we are asking; and even when answers remain elusive, we at least grasp what it is that we do not know. This in itself is a huge gain. One of the most valuable things philosophy has given me is an appreciation of this fact.

Trump’s America First Philosophy and Ayn Rand

February 23, 2018

Trump’s America First Philosophy and Ayn Rand

by  Elan Journo


Image result for Ayn Rand and America First

Kant Goes to Berlin

January 7, 2018

Kant Goes to Berlin


by Michael G. Heller

Image result for immanuel kant quotes

I can slip into this unique meeting of a group of European policymakers with Immanuel Kant only because I am an intern with training in stenography who is discreet and presentable and good at making tea and arranging chairs.

My boss at the Ministry (who is not allowed entry and will be so jealous of me!!) was asked at short notice to organize the reunion which will explore in the broadest possible terms an outline of the country’s philosophical stance on Fiscal Union. Someone at the European Commission is insisting we find a historical defence of the institutions and procedures of the new macro surveillance mechanism to deploy against “cheap criticism” of the democratic legitimacy of EU institutions.

The Year Ahead 2018

The world’s leading thinkers and policymakers examine what’s come apart in the past year, and anticipate what will define the year ahead.

Order now


Mario Draghi is here. So is Jens Weidmann. Guido Westerwelle has at the last minute invited Radoslaw Sikorsky who happens to be visiting Berlin today.

Image result for Chancellor Merkel

Chancellor of Germany–Angela Merkel–An Intellectual in her own right

Schäuble is in a hurry. He whispered to Chancellor Merkel that time is short, they should push on. Merkel would have liked to wait for an agreeable atmosphere to settle upon the room. She changed her mind, however, when she overheard Immanuel Kant muttering that “progress in time determines everything and is not itself determined, and every transition in perception to something that follows in time is a determination of time”. Kant arrived punctually, and has finished his tea. It would be advisable to begin discussion while the caffeine still circulates through whatever remains of his veins.

Merkel:  Ladies and Gentleman…

Wow! She is talking directly to *me*. I am the only other lady in the room! Wow!

Merkel:  The German government has always made it clear that the European debt crisis is not to be solved with a single blow. There is no such single blow…

Schäuble:  All quick solutions, like printing money or collectivizing our liabilities without a common finance policy, are the wrong solution…

Merkel:  Thank you Wolfgang. As I was saying, I hope our partners understand we are not willing to trade concessions such as bond-buying, joint debt-issuance and sovereign bail outs. This is not about give and take. The precondition of continuation with the single currency is that sovereignty in fiscal policy be delegated to European institutions. So, where today we have only loose agreements we need in future to have legally binding regulations.

Schäuble:  It does not make any economic sense to start endlessly pumping money into stability funds, nor starting up the ECB printing press. This would create disincentives for countries to carry on consolidating and reforming. Piling on more debt now will stunt rather than stimulate growth. We need to take big steps to get Fiscal Union done. It was not possible politically in the 1990s but the crisis shows we need it now. That is why crises are also opportunities. We can get things done that we could not do without the crisis. Do you agree Prof Kant?

Image result for Kant
Immanuel Kant

Kant:  The only way for the philosopher, since he cannot assume that mankind follows a rational purpose of its own in its collective actions, is for him to attempt to discover a purpose in nature behind this senseless course of human events. An organ which is not meant for use or an arrangement which does not fulfill its purpose is a contradiction in the teleological theory of nature. This purpose of nature can be fulfilled only in a society which has not only the greatest freedom, and therefore a continual *antagonism* among its members, but also the most precise specification and preservation of the limits of this freedom. The highest task which nature has set for mankind must therefore be that of establishing a society in which freedom under external laws would be combined to the greatest possible extent with irresistible force. It requires a perfectly just civil constitution. Man is forced to enter this state of restriction by sheer necessity.

Draghi:  Yes. And the sequencing matters… For example, it is first and foremost important to get a commonly shared fiscal compact right. Confidence works backwards. If there is an anchor in the long term, it is easier to maintain trust in the short term… It is time to adapt the euro area design with a set of institutions, rules and processes that is commensurate with the requirements of monetary union.

Kant:  Europe’s citizens should be informed, so that they may comprehend the flow of history, that the fiscal union is but the most immediate feasible step in the direction of a federation of peoples in which every state, even the smallest, could expect to derive its security and rights not from its own power or its own legal judgement, but solely from this Great Federation. However wild and fanciful this idea may appear, it has been ridiculed as such only because they thought that its realization was presented as imminent. It is the crisis, not the Germans, that have made it imminent and feasible. This crisis is the signal that nature sends to man about the current dysfunction of his institutional organs.

Sikorski:  But it is a crisis of apocalyptic proportions!!! I demand of Germany that, for your own sake and for ours, you help the eurozone survive and prosper. You know full well that nobody else can do it. I will probably be the first Polish foreign minister in history to say so, but here it is: I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity. You have become Europe’s indispensable nation.

Merkel:  Radoslaw, let me assure you that is exactly why we are meeting today. I fear we are not winning the philosophical argument. It is bizarre that some people think we wish to dominate Europe. In order to win back trust, we need to do more. What is the fundamental historical argument we must make for Fiscal Union?

Westerwelle:  Sound budgeting is not a German idée fixe based on our historical experience of hyperinflation. It is in the interest of Europe as a whole. There is no time to lose. It is vital to send a clear message to markets that the eurozone is determined to end the policies of debt-making.

Schäuble:  When things get really difficult, suddenly solutions which seemed impossible become possible. The crisis represents an opportunity. I’m not saying that I enjoy being in a crisis, but I’m not worried. Europe always moved forward in times of crisis. Sometimes you need a little pressure for certain decisions to be taken. We can only achieve a political union if we have a crisis.

Kant:  This crisis opportunity is not a lucky accident arrived at by random collisions but rather reveals that nature is purposive in its parts. As in war or any systemic catastrophe, the aftermath is felt by the state in the shape of a constantly increasing *national debt* whose repayment becomes interminable. And in addition, the effects which an upheaval in any state produces upon all the others in our continent, where all are so closely linked by trade, are so perceptible that these other states — Germany and France — are forced by their own insecurity to offer themselves as arbiters, albeit without legal authority, so that they indirectly prepare the way for a great political body of the future, without precedent in the past.

Schäuble:  This is true. We achieved monetary union, in the short term we want fiscal union, and in a larger context naturally we need a political union… Yet the Mediterranean countries will not become German, and Europe will not be speaking German.

Kant:  Although this political body exists for the present only in the roughest of outlines, it nonetheless seems as if a feeling is beginning to stir in all its members, each of which has an interest in maintaining the whole. And this encourages the hope that the highest purpose of nature, a universal *cosmopolitan* existence, will at last be realized. If we trace the influence of the Greeks upon the shaping and mis-shaping of the body politic… we shall discover a regular process of improvement in the political constitutions of our continent. We must always concentrate our attention on civil constitutions, their laws, and the mutual relations among states, and will then notice that a germ of enlightenment always survived, developing further with each revolution.

Weidmann:  I’m with you Prof Kant. Right now we’re talking about the EU treaty and I don’t see how you can build trust in a system that violates laws. I am president of an institution which is bound by a legal framework. We should respect the division of labour in a democracy. This has nothing to do with pragmatism or dogmatism. You won’t solve the crisis by reducing incentives for the debtor governments to act. It’s really an absurd debate in which we are telling institutions: ‘don’t care about the law’. In any model you must penalize rule violations. In the Maastricht model, the rules would be the stability and growth pact, with automatic sanctions for violations and the no bail-out clause. In the fiscal union model you also need strict rules for deficit and debt. If you breached those rules you would need to delegate your national sovereignty on fiscal policy to a supranational level. I think the true question at the heart of this is: are governments, parliaments, and *people* ready to accept a supranational level, a European level that assumes the ultimate responsibility for fiscal policy, at least in case of a breach of the rules?

Kant:  If the law is such that a *whole people* could not possibly agree to it (for example if it stated that a certain class of subjects must be privileged as a ruling class) it is unjust; but if it is at least possible that a people could agree to it, it is our duty to consider the law as just, even if the people is at present in such a position or attitude of mind that it would probably refuse its consent if it were consulted… in a referendum, for example.

Weidmann:  And, furthermore, it’s not about being more German or not being German. Fiscal solidity is not only a German issue, and the crisis has clearly revealed its importance as the basis of financial stability and political stability.

Draghi:  I agree. On my appointment as ECB president a British newspaper worried “the euro could be felled by an Italian trying too hard to be a German.” I mean it’s just absurd…

Kant:  Take no notice, Mario. They probably meant another country whose name begins with ‘G’. Germany is a successful country. All this fuss about budget sovereignty! In times past we lost our cities not just our deficits. Because I’m forced to live in Russia I can see things as an outsider. I see that, after wisely moving away from corporatism, Germany and like-minded northern European countries have consolidated as the world’s sustainably strongest and most competitive economies. The BRICS will at some stage inevitably crash against or only slowly clamber over internal institutional roadblocks. Germany already has good institutions *and* the right economy. If the Great Federation is modeled on impersonal non-discriminatory legal-procedural process then it can also be sold to the German people as their victory to be proud of. The voters are bound to like it.

Image result for jurgen habermas and max weber

Max Weber

Image result for habermas
Jurgen Habermas

Merkel:  Since we’ve drifted to the question of democracy I would like to mention that we are planning another meeting, this time with Max Weber and Jurgen Habermas, who have opposing views on the present democracy debate in Europe.

Weidmann:  I think Habermas disagrees with our idea for taking away the budgetary privileges of national parliaments.

Kant:  It sounds like the makings of a first-rate quarrel. Can I come too?

The meeting finishes. As intern, I busy myself helping everyone to find their way out of the room without mishap. I give them each my card — discreetly — and tell them what a pleasure it has been. Angela says to me “see you at the next meeting then”, which means I can truthfully tell my boss I will be expected to attend. The Chancellor expects it.

Italic Credits:  Kant: Political Writings, The Guardian, New York Times, Der Spiegel, Financial Times, The Economist, Reuters, Google

NY Times Book Review: What The Qur’an Meant And Why It Matters by Garry Wills

December 22, 2017

by Lesley Hazleton

What The Qur’an Meant And Why It Matters–Garry Wills

I know many well-intentioned people who’ve begun reading the Quran and given up within a few pages. The historian Thomas Carlyle considered Muhammad one of history’s heroic greats, yet called the Quran “as toilsome reading as I ever undertook. A wearisome confused jumble.”

It’s hard not to sympathize. Over the years, I’d picked up various translations, started reading, and rapidly found myself very much an agnostic Jew lost in a Muslim landscape. Good intentions, it seemed, were not enough. The Quran may look like a short book, but it’s not one you can curl up with on a rainy Sunday afternoon and read cover to cover.

I finally read it properly — as properly as I could, that is, using several different translations alongside the original Arabic — as part of my research for a biography of Muhammad. And that’s when I realized that the fact that so few people actually read the Quran is precisely why it’s so easy to quote. Or rather, misquote. In what I call the highlighter version, phrases and snippets are taken entirely out of context and even invented out of thin air, like the 72 virgins in paradise (I kept waiting for them, but they never appeared). This is the version favored by both Islamophobes and their partners in distortion, Muslim extremists — partners in bigotry and its correlate, ignorance.

Image result for Catholic Writer Garry Wills

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Garry Wills has spent his career taking a close look at the Roman Catholic Church. But for all that thinking about religion, he had never read the Qur’an until recently. What he learned about Islam is the subject of his new book, “What the Qur’an Meant: And Why It Matters.  Wills says it’s important not to mistake Islamic terrorism for Islam itself. ISIS and other jihadist groups, he explains, are not indicative of the true nature of Islam. He debunks a number of misconceptions by discussing what the Qur’an actually has to say about holy wars and Sharia Law.

So what happens when a leading Catholic intellectual reads the Quran, especially one as attuned to language as Garry Wills? The answer, as unlikely as it may seem at first glance, is a delight. Which makes it a shame that his book is ill-served by its title.

Wills is hardly so presumptuous as to try to explain what the Quran means — or “meant,” that past tense evidently the heavy hand of the marketing department trying to link to previous Wills books on what Jesus, the Gospels and Paul all meant. Even the cover design is similar. And the subtitle (again I suspect a marketing decision, going for the obvious) refers to what prompted Wills to read the Quran. In his case, it was politics. He blasts away at the multiple varieties of religious and secular ignorance that led to the invasion of Iraq and thus to one of America’s longest foreign wars. He also includes a third kind of ignorance — the “fearful ignorance” displayed in “anti-Muslim animus,” too often reminiscent of the anti-Communist hysteria of the Cold War.


And Why It Matters
By Garry Wills
226 pp. Viking. $25.

Once he gets to the Quran itself, however, Wills shines. With the same sensitive eye deployed in his Pulitzer-winning “Lincoln at Gettysburg,” he approaches the text in the spirit of exploration, bringing fresh perspective even for those who imagine they already know it well.

The Quran is “haunted” by the desert, he writes. “Nowhere else do you get a greater feel for the benignity of rain — or of water in any form.” Where heaven is “an urban ideal” in the Bible (the heavenly Jerusalem), in the Quran it’s “the oasis of oases, rinsed with sweet waters, with rivers running on it and under it, and with springs opening unbidden.” And in a lovely coda to that observation, he adds: “When I was growing up in the 1940s, a song was everywhere on the radio, ‘Cool Water’ sung by Vaughn Monroe. As I read the Quran, it keeps coming back to me, unbidden.”

Wills calls this book “a conversation — or the opening of one,” so there’s a particular joy when he discovers that “all things talk in the Quran. It is abuzz with conversation. For Allah, the real meaning of creating is communicating. The Quran is an exercise in semiotics. God speaks a special language, in which mountains and words and springs are the syllables. Everything is a sign.”

Where Wills’s Catholicism might have limited how he reads the Quran, on the contrary, he brings it to bear in interesting ways. I can’t think of anyone else who could place quotes from St. Augustine and the Quran side by side, enjoying both the unlikeliness and the aptness of the juxtaposition. Or revel in both the similarities and the disparities between the biblical and the Quranic versions of the stories of Moses, Abraham and Jesus (all three of whom, along with many other figures from the Bible, are revered prophets in the Quran).

As you might expect, Wills is deeply alive to context. In his discussion of jihad, for instance, he compares the word to “crusade,” which has long been a “time-bomb word” in the Middle East. Where the idea of a crusade may have “a rosy glow in Western minds … it is stained a dirty blood-red in the Arabic world.”

In fact, he points out, jihad does not mean “holy war.” It means “striving” — as in striving to lead a moral life. The main point of the Quran’s discussion of violence is to establish limitations on its use, and to “abstain from violence to the degree that that is possible.” While a few endlessly cited verses have to do with violence, “the overall tenor is one of mercy and forgiveness, which are evoked everywhere, almost obsessively.” This is what is striven for in the Quran, not war.

As for Shariah, Wills notes that the word appears only once in the Quran, and it does not mean “law,” but “path,” as in Allah’s reassurance to Muhammad that he is “on the right path.” Moreover, there is no single body of Shariah law. The “vague and sketchy elements of law in the Quran” were fleshed out “over a long and contentious history,” and in multiple branches, in much the same way as the many bodies of Christian law. So while “some seem to think that the fanatical punishments dealt out by the self-proclaimed Islamic State … are the essence of Shariah law … the vast majority of Muslims, and their most learned teachers, do not recognize these as bearing any relation to the Quran.”

Wills falters only in three brief chapters on women in the Quran, which come right at the end of his book. (Back of the bus, anyone?) A sense of discomfort and hesitation creeps in here, and both are justified. True, it might come as a surprise that while the Quran advocates modesty for both women and men, it never even mentions veils, let alone mandates them. And its take on polygamy is basically an accommodation to pre-Islamic practice — a stance of (in my words) “O.K. if you insist, but better if you don’t.” The “you,” of course, being male. As Wills notes, “Torah, Gospel, and Quran are all patriarchal and therefore misogynist — as were the societies in which they took shape. But misogynism is not all that all of them are. In all three of them there are traces of dignity and worth intended by the Creator when he made women.” The problem being that “traces” by definition don’t leave much of an impression.

Over all, however, Wills has written perhaps the best introduction to the Quran that I know of: elegant, insightful, even at times joyful. He may not be able to make reading the Quran an easy pleasure, but his encounter with it is a pleasure to read for anyone as open to discovery as he is.

Remembering Nelson Mandela and India’s Rocket Man Dr. A P J Abdul Kalam

December 6, 2017

Remembering Nelson Mandela and India’s Rocket Man Dr. A P J Abdul Kalam–Both were embodiment of Moral Leadership, which is sadly lacking in the world today. –Din Merican

Image result for Remembering Mandela on the Anniversary of his death.latest

5 Principles for Moral Leadership


Accomplished leaders are like master craftsmen: their first principles are best practices, the felt wisdom of experience and reflection.

Take Benjamin Franklin. In his Autobiography, he describes 13 precepts for self-improvement he coined as a young man. They include Resolution (“Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve”), Industry, (“Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions”), and Order (“Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time”).

Image result for benjamin franklin on moral leadership
Image result for benjamin franklin on moral leadership

When the penniless printer from Philadelphia became one of the leading men in America, his admirers understood the enormous benefit his example could provide. “[Y]ou yourself framed a plan by which you became considerable,” observed one, who implored Franklin to share it in hopes of “aiding all happiness, both public and domestic.”

For inspiration, I assign Franklin’s Autobiography to students in my business ethics class at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Then I challenge them to derive principles of their own with an eye toward strong moral leadership. With their permission, I wanted to share five favorites from my fall class.

1. Put a Face on It

Unlike Franklin’s experience, many of our work relationships will involve people we will never meet. Dan, an IT professional, makes the obvious but often overlooked point that it is “easy to engage in unethical or immoral behavior when you don’t have to see the person whom you are affecting.” Accordingly, he always tries to put a face with a name, finding photos of the people he interacts with on LinkedIn or other online directories. “Associating a face with the interactions reminds me that my actions affect a real person,” he says, “not just some faceless name in an email address line.”

2. Manage by Listening Rather Than Telling

Unusually precocious, Franklin knew the awkward status of being junior in age but senior in position. Drawing on her own experience working for an industrial supplier, Lindsay observes that a promising associate is often placed in a leadership role “before she may be ready,” with the result that she finds herself “fighting an uphill battle to do well and gain the respect of those around her with more tenure and experience.” Accordingly, Lindsay contends that one must establish a professional dynamic of mutual respect. “I am only successful if the people I manage have my back and respect me,” she says. “I am nothing if I do not respect and support the work that they do day in and day out.

3. Be Flexible, Not Dogmatic

Franklin’s rejection of a rigid approach to problem solving spoke to Drew, a corporate trust analyst. “Businesses leaders need to be flexible and not dogmatic about their beliefs and intellectual frameworks,” he says. Reflecting on Alan Greenspan’s leadership in the years before the financial crisis, he faults the former Fed Chair not for failing to anticipate the crisis, but for believing that such an event could never occur. “Greenspan relied too heavily on frameworks,” he says, “and not enough on doing everything in his power to rationally understand what was going on and make adjustments to his policies as needed.” For Drew, strict adherence to dogma not only binds a leader’s hands, it can blind him to problems his framework won’t admit.

4. Follow Published Rules of Conduct

Franklin wrote his precepts in a memorandum book he carried with him wherever he went. The aim was to remind him of the behavior he aspired to — and to shame him whenever he failed to live up to it. An executive at a Fortune 50 company, Megan observes that, while the “Code of Conduct” is a mainstay of the modern office, “many people disregard these published rules.” Such a tendency not only undermines the rules, when managers flout them, it reinforces a spirit of lawlessness. A fish rots from the head down. If rules are important enough to be written down, they are important enough to be followed — by everyone.

5. Respect the Bottom Line, but Don’t Worship It

Image result for The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin


“[A]fter getting the first hundred Pound,” Franklin observed in the Autobiography, “it is more easy to get the second.” Yet, as Patrick, a student with experience working in renewable energy, observes, the additional gain can sometimes come at too high a cost. “I don’t believe that the pursuit of profit on its face is immoral,” he says, but “I do believe that a relentless focus on profit often leads to immoral behavior.” The same may be said for any single-minded focus that excludes all other goods. For leaders, a sense of perspective and an ability to step back are essential to balancing moral integrity with corporate mission. At the same time, Patrick notes, the emergence of companies that have double or triple bottom lines of profit, social impact, and sustainability “indicates that certain businesses either share this principle or have very slick PR teams.”

Benjamin Franklin wasn’t above a little “slick PR” — how else to explain a book where one presents himself as a paragon of self-improvement? — but he believed that the appearance of integrity would inevitably be undone without the reality in support of it. The principles described above are no doubt demanding, but so is any standard of leadership worth the trouble of writing down.

John Paul Rollert teaches business ethics at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business