Transition Girl

Why transition girl?... Best answered by a quote from the Iliad....."The soul was not made to dwell in a thing; and when forced to it, there is no part of that soul but suffers violence."

Friday, August 17, 2018

the right thing to do

I just spent a week in Australia's capital, Canberra, with a small group of incredible, intelligent, articulate people exploring and discussing some great philosophical writers over history. It is a rare treat when my two vocations, as a public policy adviser and a speculative fiction writer, converge in the types of questions I have been grappling with for a long time. The public service is, of course, filled with consideration and application of the concept "what is the right thing to do" - in terms of fairness and justice. I am sure I chose a career path in this sector precisely because I wanted to make a difference to the quality of life for others. And I have known for almost as long that I write speculative fiction to delve into ethics in more detail and make sense of life.

The course was a welcome time-out, with use of technology discouraged. I spent my week - days and evenings - in a room at the back of Old Parliament House which overlooked the new building on the hill, blue skies outside, in open and thought provoking discussion exploring questions like: what is a good society; what are the basics for human rights, justice and fairness, and how should I behave as an individual to name a few. Readings covered significant philosophers old and new, many of which I had read before but never with the benefit of hearing other reader perspectives. This latter aspect made the course (offered by Cranlana) exceptionally worthwhile.

It probably should not have surprised me that the thought-provoking conversation on questions for which there are no easy answers left me with more questions to contemplate at the end of the course. What is it to be human, to be humane? What constitutes reasonable behaviour for a good life? What is at the core of human values (the corollary of which was are we really mainly driven by self-interest)? Even though every 'model' we examined was subsequently proven to have flaws, were there tools or models (refined) that could lead us to a good society? Was there a way to help balance that self-interest driver? There were many more questions.

Drawing on Plato's Allegory of the Cave, the most obvious question of all - once you have seen the light, can you ever truly ever go back to the darkness? I thought not and, moreover, also thought what I did in the light mattered. I lost track of the many different versions of the "trolley-problem" there were in everyday examples discussed by all and sundry among the participants.

I came out of the experience with a few ideas (and perhaps frameworks/tools) on how to 'apply' what I had discussed:
- we have a choice to be virtuous and we are judged by our choices - my own long applied personal "epitaph test" turned out to be a reasonable guiding principle. If I face a difficult choice, I am guided by the idea; for what would I want to be remembered.
- recognising that taking the high ground as a moral agent can come at a great personal cost and I should be prepared to wear that possible outcome.
- there are clear structural limitations in models of the role of government and tensions within myself (and individuals generally) that create a great range of trade-offs, compromises and (sadly) some seriously extrinsic incentives to use/abuse concentrated power (there's that self-interest thing again).
- there are a range of personal attributes that would make applying ethics a little 'easier' - such as mindfulness and inquisitiveness.
- there are a few key philosophical writers with useful frames on which to think about ethical issues - I particularly liked excerpts written by John Dewey, Zygmunt Bauman, Martha Nussbaum, John Rawls, Amartya Sen, Stephen Gardiner, Alistair Macintyre, and Martin Luther King Jr.
- think 'response-able', avoid the moderate path of least resistance, and find an independent 'sage' to test ideas.

Many years ago, in a similarly pitched course designed to build self-awareness and better leadership skills through conversations with other leaders, I was told a story of two men walking on a beach where thousands of starfish had washed ashore and were stranded in the low tide. One of the men was picking up starfish and throwing them back in the water. The second man questioned the first, asking why he was wasting his time saying there were too many stranded. The first man responded by saying to as he pointed to the single starfish held in his hand that he was making a difference, one starfish at a time. We were given a paper yellow starfish which, 27 years later, I still have as a reminder that even small actions can make a difference. The Starfish Story was one shared by another member of the group as if a serendipitous reminder in the last few days - a perfect punctuation of why we were there.

And finally, another idea shared by different participant about a recurring dream he had digging downwards and discovering one dead society one after another, each built on top of the other made me think do we ever really learn from our mistakes as a society. Are we destined to be in a continuing cycle of (un)constructive destruction and creation. I believe there is a short story in this idea, which I will add to my long list of pieces to write in the next 12 months.

At the end of the course, I shared with the participants a little personal poem I wrote that best summed up my contemplative mood:

I wish, I wish that I could be
the highest bird atop a tree
with hope to hear my inner voice
and understand a trying choice
on which direction I should take
and what changing winds my life will make.