Published on
the Kent Ravenna Record-Courier (Ohio)

We All Have a Voice in Right vs. Wrong

Five years after suicidal zealots crashed planes into our comfortable lives, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld scolded us: "Any kind of moral and intellectual confusion about who and what is right or wrong can severely weaken the ability of free societies to persevere."

Leave aside Rumsfeld's arrogant and patronizing attitude, showing evident contempt for anyone who didn't agree with his notions of right and wrong. Were we, are we, morally and intellectually confused?

In the last eight years we have learned the hard way that any society which lets the wealthy and powerful determine what is right and wrong is not a free society. We were bamboozled into accepting Bush as president by partisan tinkering with the election process. We were cheated by a Congress in the pay of the military industrial complex, and robbed of freedoms and our good name through secrecy and fraud.

We didn't want to attack Iraq - we let ourselves be seduced by fear and the simplistic myth of Good Guys/Bad Guys, and we allowed our natural skepticism be overwhelmed by the covert management of news overlaid with the glitter of clever script-writing.

But we did finally recognize that the Bush administration was neither moral nor intelligent, and elected an eminently sensible man to be our President. Somehow we had the good sense to choose someone who expects us to participate in the moral and intellectual processes that determine what is right or wrong for all of us, for all of humanity and for the planet we live on. Not who is right or wrong - we are all fallible, and capable of committing wrongs -- but what is right or wrong. And not so our society can ‘persevere' (meaning ‘win at any cost'?) but so all of humanity can survive and share in the goodness of life on our small planet.

Morality is necessarily confused: the demands of self, family, friends, community, faith, and nation pull us in different directions. As long as we construe morality in terms of sexual behavior and the unworthiness of some to share in our goods, rights, and freedoms, we're going to continue down the road to perdition - ecologically, evolutionarily, economically, and morally.

What is the moral value of freedom, if it's based the unfreedom of others: prisons, torture, wars, walls, famine, sickness and ignorance? Are we morally convinced that the use by Israel of tanks, attack helicopters, F-16s, white phosphorus bombs and depleted uranium weapons is not only justified but necessary to control a few impovrished rocket launchers? Is it moral to believe that the only way to teach Palestinians to behave is to kill 100 of them for every Israeli killed?

And who is morally confused? The parents of sick children with no health insurance? The laid-off worker with a mortgage he can't pay? John Thain with his million-dollar redecoration? Rod Blagojevic?.

Are we confused intellectually? Richard Gregory, the British neuroscientist, crafted this definition of intelligence to generalize to all systems: the ability to generate and understand successful novelty. Intelligence is creating new things that work, and understanding the value of what they do.

Its opposite would be the inability to generate and assess new ideas, and the tendency to insist on orthodoxy, conventionality, and the same old ideas that don't work, like ‘war brings peace,' ‘tax cuts make everyone rich,' ‘gun ownership makes everyone safe,' ‘criminalizing abortion prevents sin.'

Since we came down out of the trees we have been releasing into our air, water, soil, food and surroundings thousands, maybe millions, of pathogens and substances that are toxic, carcinogenic, teratogenic or that we are otherwise unadapted to handle. Sometimes these substances made enough ‘noise' that we noticed them and took steps to mitigate their effects: plague, TB, HIV, lead, coal smoke, mercury, poison gas, nuclear radiation, tobacco smoke, salmonella, mad-cow disease, melamine. Some we actually used to subdue or destroy enemies; most were merely used to improve profitability or market share.

In the last hundred years science and technology have given us unimaginably novel tools and opportunities we are ill-prepared to deal with either morally or intellectually, including artificial insemination, cheap oil-based polymers, genetically-modified organisms, organ transplants, computers, access to space, nuclear weapons.

We can't decide whether it is more moral to do things for fun or do them for profit. We too often don't ask who pays, and is the price right? The octuplets recently born are a triumph of medical technology, yet we are far from agreed that multiple births are a blessing that ought to be available to all.

Have we the intelligence to generate some successful novelty that will stop the slaughter of Palestinians?Are we moral enough to demand funding for contraception, or an end to drone attacks on impoverished villages?

We've come this far because millions of us got engaged with the moral and intellectual issues of the 21st century. Staying engaged, generating, using and understanding new ideas and ways of doing things is our best hope. We will need really sturdy processes of consensus; we will need excellent schools and honest information systems. We will need shared concepts of the common good, and equal treatment under law.

And we will need to exercise our moral and intellectual muscles by trying out the novel web-based applications like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and the new "Organization for America" e-mail list of 13 million people, and see if they work.

Most of all we need to talk with President Obama, our Congress, and our neighbors about the moral and intellectual challenges we face.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

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Caroline Arnold

Caroline Arnold retired in 1997 after 12 years on the staff of US Senator John Glenn. She previously served three terms on the Kent (Ohio) Board of Education. In retirement she is active with the Kent Environmental Council and sits on the board of Family & Community Services of Portage County. Her Letters From Washington has been published as an e-Book by the Knowledge Bank of the Ohio State University Library.  E-mail:

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