Is a more generous society possible?

By Leah Shaffer

In January 2016, Cathryn Townsend set out to live among “the loveless people.” So named by anthropologist Colin Turnbull, the Ik are a tribe of some 11,600 hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers living in an arid and harsh mountainous region of Uganda.

Turnbull studied the Ik in the 1960s and famously characterized them as “inhospitable and generally mean” in his book The Mountain People. He documented how young children were abandoned to starve and how people would snatch food from the elderly. Townsend, a Rutgers University anthropologist, visited the Ik decades later to see how a culture that supposedly lacked basic kindness operated.

Her interest stemmed from an ongoing, multidisciplinary investigation called The Human Generosity Project, which examines why and how human cooperation, in the form of generosity, threads its way through different cultures. The project began in 2014, through a partnership between Lee Cronk, a Rutgers University anthropologist, and Athena Aktipis, a psychologist at Arizona State University. Together, the pair wanted to investigate the cultural and biological factors behind generous behavior. Today, through this project, more than 20 participating researchers use an array of tools, including economic simulations and computer modeling, to study altruism and cooperation at nine field sites.

In certain communities, giving to those in need, with no expectation of return, is normalized and expected. The project researchers have found such behavior around the world, including among herders and hunter-gatherers in East Africa. And findings thus far suggest that such generous societies are more likely to survive during difficult times.

If that pattern holds up, lessons from The Human Generosity Project could be vital as the world faces a multitude of unpredictable challenges from the onslaught of climate change and increasing economic inequality. “Ultimately, it would be nice if we could encourage higher levels of cooperation and higher levels of generosity,” Cronk says.

Townsend, a member of the project, went to study the Ik to find a counterexample to generous cultures. She and her colleagues wanted to see how an allegedly “selfish” society operated. But when she arrived, she found something different: Even among “the loveless people,” there was a thriving tradition of generosity.

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What science can tell us about how other creatures experience the world

Ross Andersen writes:

Amid the human crush of Old Delhi, on the edge of a medieval bazaar, a red structure with cages on its roof rises three stories above the labyrinth of neon-lit stalls and narrow alleyways, its top floor emblazoned with two words: birds hospital.

On a hot day last spring, I removed my shoes at the hospital’s entrance and walked up to the second-floor lobby, where a clerk in his late 20s was processing patients. An older woman placed a shoebox before him and lifted off its lid, revealing a bloody white parakeet, the victim of a cat attack. The man in front of me in line held, in a small cage, a dove that had collided with a glass tower in the financial district. A girl no older than 7 came in behind me clutching, in her bare hands, a white hen with a slumped neck.

The hospital’s main ward is a narrow, 40-foot-long room with cages stacked four high along the walls and fans on the ceiling, their blades covered with grates, lest they ensnare a flapping wing. I strolled the room’s length, conducting a rough census. Many of the cages looked empty at first, but leaning closer, I’d find a bird, usually a pigeon, sitting back in the gloom.

The youngest of the hospital’s vets, Dheeraj Kumar Singh, was making his rounds in jeans and a surgical mask. The oldest vet here has worked the night shift for more than a quarter century, spending tens of thousands of hours removing tumors from birds, easing their pain with medication, administering antibiotics. Singh is a rookie by comparison, but you wouldn’t know it from the way he inspects a pigeon, flipping it over in his hands, quickly but gently, the way you might handle your cellphone. As we talked, he motioned to an assistant, who handed him a nylon bandage that he stretched twice around the pigeon’s wing, setting it with an unsentimental pop.

The bird hospital is one of several built by devotees of Jainism, an ancient religion whose highest commandment forbids violence not only against humans, but also against animals. A series of paintings in the hospital’s lobby illustrates the extremes to which some Jains take this prohibition. In them, a medieval king in blue robes gazes through a palace window at an approaching pigeon, its wing bloodied by the talons of a brown hawk still in pursuit. The king pulls the smaller bird into the palace, infuriating the hawk, which demands replacement for its lost meal, so he slices off his own arm and foot to feed it.

I’d come to the bird hospital, and to India, to see firsthand the Jains’ moral system at work in the world. Jains make up less than 1 percent of India’s population. Despite millennia spent criticizing the Hindu majority, the Jains have sometimes gained the ear of power. During the 13th century, they converted a Hindu king, and persuaded him to enact the subcontinent’s first animal-welfare laws. There is evidence that the Jains influenced the Buddha himself. And when Gandhi developed his most radical ideas about nonviolence, a Jain friend played philosophical muse. [Continue reading…]

How Trump’s wall would harm immigrants and refugees

Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin writes:

Is the border wall ethical? President Trump has suggested the wall is moral and those who oppose it immoral. His critics claim the opposite.

To answer this, we have to consider its effect on humans. What harm could a border wall cause to immigrants and refugees, all of whom are equal to us in the eyes of God?

Some people who cross the border are in desperate search of work to support their families. A wall would probably drive them into more remote areas of the desert or mountains, possibly to their deaths, as the forces driving them — violence, persecution and extreme poverty — are more life threatening than a risky border crossing. In fact, close to 8,000 migrants have died in Arizona and parts of Texas since the construction of the San Diego and El Paso sectors of the wall in the mid-1990s.

The latest arrivals at our border are primarily asylum seekers from the Northern Triangle of Central America, who, when they cross the border and ask for protection, are in compliance with both our domestic and our international laws — the Refugee Act of 1980 and the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention and its 1967 protocols.

A wall would prevent asylum seekers from asking for protection at any point along our border — their right under the law — and would leave many of them at the mercy of drug cartels and other criminal groups in northern Mexico. More humane ways to achieve border security can be found to avoid these harmful consequences, through technology, additional legal avenues for entry and policies that address the factors pushing migration. [Continue reading…]

Bishop says pro-life activism ‘has become separated from the even more basic truth of the dignity of each human person’

Catholic Bishop John Stowe writes:

A perennial complaint from participants in the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., is that the secular news media largely ignore this massive protest of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision. In light of the viral news story of last weekend, of a group of Catholic high school students from Kentucky in a confrontation with a Native American elder after this year’s march, that claim no longer holds.

As the leader of the Catholic Church in the 50 counties of Central and Eastern Kentucky, I join the Diocese of Covington and other Catholic leaders in apologizing in the wake of this incident.

I am ashamed that the actions of Kentucky Catholic high school students have become a contradiction of the very reverence for human life that the march is supposed to manifest. As such, I believe that U.S. Catholics must take a look at how our support of the fundamental right to life has become separated from the even more basic truth of the dignity of each human person.

Without engaging the discussion about the context of the viral video or placing the blame entirely on these adolescents, it astonishes me that any students participating in a pro-life activity on behalf of their school and their Catholic faith could be wearing apparel sporting the slogans of a president who denigrates the lives of immigrants, refugees and people from countries that he describes with indecent words and haphazardly endangers with life-threatening policies. [Continue reading…]

‘If giving water to someone dying of thirst is illegal, what humanity is left in the law of this country?’

The Washington Post reports:

During the summer of 2017, when temperatures reached triple digits in Arizona, four women drove to a vast desert wilderness along the southwestern border with Mexico. They brought water jugs and canned food — items they later said they were leaving for dehydrated migrants crossing the unfriendly terrain to get to the United States.

The women were later charged with misdemeanor crimes. Prosecutors said they violated federal law by entering Cabeza Prieta, a protected 860,000-acre refuge, without a permit and leaving water and food there. A judge convicted them on Friday in the latest example of growing tension between aid workers and the U.S. Border Patrol.

Aid workers say their humanitarian efforts, motivated by a deep sense of right and wrong, have been criminalized during the Trump administration’s crackdown on illegal border crossings. Federal officials say they were simply enforcing the law.

The four women, all volunteers for the Arizona-based aid group No More Deaths, were convicted after a three-day bench trial at a federal court in Tucson. They could face up to six months in federal prison.

Their trial coincided with a partial government shutdown that has now entered its 30th day, the longest in the country’s history. Negotiations have stalled as President Trump stands firm on his demand for $5.7 billion in border wall funding, citing a humanitarian and security crisis at the southern border.

In his verdict, U.S. Magistrate Judge Bernardo Velasco said the women’s actions violated “the national decision to maintain the Refuge in its pristine nature.” Velasco also said the women committed the crimes under the false belief that they would not be prosecuted and instead would simply be banned or fined.

Catherine Gaffney, a volunteer for No More Deaths, said the guilty verdict challenges all “people of conscience throughout the country.”

“If giving water to someone dying of thirst is illegal, what humanity is left in the law of this country?” she said in a statement. [Continue reading…]

Mollie Tibbetts’ father: Don’t distort her death to advance the racism she opposed

Rob Tibbetts writes:

As I write this, I am watching Sen. John McCain lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda and know that evil will succeed only if good people do nothing. Both Mollie and Senator McCain were good people. I know that both would stand up now and do something.

The person who is accused of taking Mollie’s life is no more a reflection of the Hispanic community as white supremacists are of all white people. To suggest otherwise is a lie. Justice in my America is blind. This person will receive a fair trial, as it should be. If convicted, he will face the consequences society has set. Beyond that, he deserves no more attention.

To the Hispanic community, my family stands with you and offers its heartfelt apology. That you’ve been beset by the circumstances of Mollie’s death is wrong. We treasure the contribution you bring to the American tapestry in all its color and melody. And yes, we love your food.

My stepdaughter, whom Mollie loved so dearly, is Latina. Her sons — Mollie’s cherished nephews and my grandchildren — are Latino. That means I am Hispanic. I am African. I am Asian. I am European. My blood runs from every corner of the Earth because I am American. As an American, I have one tenet: to respect every citizen of the world and actively engage in the ongoing pursuit to form a more perfect union.

Given that, to knowingly foment discord among races is a disgrace to our flag. It incites fear in innocent communities and lends legitimacy to the darkest, most hate-filled corners of the American soul. It is the opposite of leadership. It is the opposite of humanity. It is heartless. It is despicable. It is shameful. [Continue reading…]

Everyone and everything Trump touches rots

Peter Wehner writes:

There’s never been any confusion about the character defects of Donald Trump. The question has always been just how far he would go and whether other individuals and institutions would stand up to him or become complicit in his corruption.

When I first took to these pages three summers ago to write about Mr. Trump, I warned my fellow Republicans to just say no both to him and his candidacy. One of my concerns was that if Mr. Trump were to succeed, he would redefine the Republican Party in his image. That’s already happened in areas like free trade, free markets and the size of government; in attitudes toward ethnic nationalism and white identity politics; in America’s commitment to its traditional allies, in how Republicans view Russia and in their willingness to call out leaders of evil governments like North Korea rather than lavish praise on them. But in no area has Mr. Trump more fundamentally changed the Republican Party than in its attitude toward ethics and political leadership.

For decades, Republicans, and especially conservative Republicans, insisted that character counted in public life. They were particularly vocal about this during the Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky scandal, arguing against “compartmentalization” — by which they meant overlooking moral turpitude in the Oval Office because you agree with the president’s policy agenda or because the economy is strong.

Senator Lindsey Graham, then in the House, went so far as to argue that “impeachment is not about punishment. Impeachment is about cleansing the office. Impeachment is about restoring honor and integrity to the office.”

All that has changed with Mr. Trump as president. For Republicans, honor and integrity are now passé. [Continue reading…]

Catholics call for mass resignation of U.S. bishops

Following the release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report on the sexual abuse of over 1,000 children by 301 priests, and following a similar scandal earlier this year in Chile that led to its Catholic bishops’ collective resignation, a statement by Catholic theologians, educators, parishioners, and lay leaders says:

After years of suppressed truth, the unreserved decisiveness of the Chilean bishops’ resignations communicated to the faithful a message that Catholics in the United States have yet to hear, with an urgency we have yet to witness: We have caused this devastation. We have allowed it to persist. We submit ourselves to judgment in recompense for what we have done and failed to do.

Some will feel that the resignation of all bishops is unjustified and even detrimental to the work of healing. After all, many bishops are indeed humble servants and well-intentioned pastors. This is an urge we recognize, but it is not one that we can accept. The catastrophic scale and historical magnitude of the abuse makes clear that this is not a case of “a few bad apples” but rather a radical systemic injustice manifested at every level of the Church. Systemic sin cannot be ended through individual goodwill. Its wounds are not healed through statements, internal investigations, or public relations campaigns but rather through collective accountability, transparency, and truth-telling. We are responsible for the house we live in, even if we did not build it ourselves. This is why we call on the U.S. Bishops to offer their resignations collectively, in recognition of the systemic nature of this evil. [Continue reading…]

Nuremberg prosecutor Ben Ferencz interviewed by UN’s human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein

 

According to the Aztecs, improvement doesn’t come from the self

Sebastian Purcell writes:

When Halloween rolled around last year, my wife and I were prepared to be greeted by scores of eager trick-or-treaters. Guided by the thought that too much candy was better than too little, we bought entirely too much, and simply poured the excess on to a platter in our living room. The problem is: I have a sweet-tooth. ‘I can’t stop eating these!’ I said to my wife, peevishly, a few days later. Nearly every time I passed the coffee table, I succumbed to my cravings for a sugar rush, and then I’d feel frustrated and irritated.

When I returned from work that evening, I noticed the platter was empty. ‘Oh, I just took it to work and gave it away to the students,’ my wife said, when I asked. Just like that, my cycle of transgression and guilt was broken.

This little episode illustrates two aspects of Aztec virtue ethics that distinguish it from ‘Western’ forms, such as Plato’s or Aristotle’s. The first is that I did not overcome my vice so much as manage it. The second is that I didn’t manage it on my own, but rather did so (almost entirely) with the help of another person.

While Plato and Aristotle were concerned with character-centred virtue ethics, the Aztec approach is perhaps better described as socially-centred virtue ethics. If the Aztecs were right, then ‘Western’ philosophers have been too focused on individuals, too reliant on assessments of character, and too optimistic about the individual’s ability to correct her own vices. Instead, according to the Aztecs, we should look around to our family and friends, as well as our ordinary rituals or routines, if we hope to lead a better, more worthwhile existence. [Continue reading…]