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Models of Dignity

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The notion of model building can sound technical at first, perhaps even esoteric. To make it clear that the use of this tool is not limited to scientists and philosophers but can be used expertly in "ordinary life," here is an example provided to me by writer and educator Dr. Pamela Gerloff, who reflected on her upbringing on an Illinois farm:

I learned about model building from my mother. No one called it that; it was just what you did, the way you solved problems or made decisions, the way you lived in the world. If I asked my mother why I had to do something a certain way, she never said "because I said so,"or even just "because." She always had a reason for why this way worked better than others. I was free to propose a different way--a different model--if I could come up with a more useful, effective, or efficient one, based on reason, observation, experience, or insight.

Whether it was folding laundry, dealing practically with difficult (i.e., rankist) school officials, or understanding the complex psychology of human interaction, no model was static. Solutions and approaches changed and improved, and the superior model won out. I remember how her model for unloading hay bales from a wagon saved me from my own less effective approach, which had caused me considerable strain and struggle. ("I think of it as a puzzle," she said, as she gracefully selected the next bale most easily removed from the pile.)

When I was a young adult interested in child rearing, she explained to me how, periodically, she used to secretly put new books on the bookshelf for her small children to "discover" on their own. She read philosophy and psychology, using others' thinking as a springboard to develop and refine her own theories about why the people we knew acted the way they did.

It was exciting and adventurous, this way of approaching the world. No job was mundane, no chore particularly tedious. Everything was an opportunity for model building, for intellectual engagement. From my mother, I learned to observe, to contemplate, to formulate hypotheses and theories, to seek new and better solutions.

An example of the changing nature of social models is provided by the evolution of governmental models in the twentieth century. The United Nations Development Program reports that eighty-one countries moved from tyranny toward democracy in the 1980s and 1990s and that by 2002, 140 of the world's almost 200 independent nations had held multiparty elections--compared to just a handful a century earlier.

When we recall how few democratic states there were at the beginning of the twentieth century, a dignitarian world does not seem to be quite such an unrealistic goal for the twenty-first. Ironically, the apparent infinitude of our ignorance about the universe and ourselves has an upside. In a perpetually unfolding reality, our business will always remain unfinished, our knowledge incomplete. We will never lose the opportunity to contribute by extending our understanding. Therein lies a transcendental refuge for human dignity.

Modeling Our Uses of Power

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Only yesterday our forebears moved out of Africa. They multiplied and spread out across the earth. One tribe became many.

At every step of the way, we sought out nature's power and cleverly turned it to our purposes. We tamed fire, domesticated plants and animals, and built cities. By the time different tribes began bumping up against one another, they no longer recognized that we are all one family. They looked strange, sounded stranger, and inspired fear in each other.

So under threat of enslavement or worse, we designed ever more potent weapons with which to protect ourselves. Sometimes, thinking we had the advantage, we turned them on branches of our estranged family. Over some five thousand generations we have accumulated enough might to return us all to the Stone Age. As Enrico Fermi, nuclear physicist and Nobel laureate put it, "What we all fervently hope, is that man will soon grow sufficiently adult to make good use of the powers that he acquires."

Although Homo sapiens often misused their powers in the past, many of our species' misadventures can be chalked up to "youthful experimentation."How else to learn that certain actions have long-term negative consequences except by seeing what happens when we execute them? Moreover, on many occasions we have used power well. A species that can go from living in caves to landing on the moon in some tens of millennia must be doing some things right.

With luck, adolescence ends without serious mishap. But its inherent recklessness sometimes lands the young in trouble before they complete the dicey transition to adulthood. Because the powers we now command are capable of putting the entire human project in jeopardy, it has become ever more important that we learn to predict in advance the ramifications of their proposed uses. And we must institutionalize safeguards to minimize the damage should we miscalculate. When it comes to our use of power, building predictive models has become a matter of life and death. For example, based on models of global climate change, a scientific consensus is now forming that if we don't curtail greenhouse gas emissions, we may inadvertently induce a planetary catastrophe.

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We took one step out of the Dark Ages as we ceased to accept the idea that authorities could make up the "facts" to suit themselves and began to substitute knowledge, evidence, and reason for hearsay, superstition, and dogma. Now we must bring the other foot forward out of the past.

Today's challenge is distinguishing between rightful and wrongful uses of power. It's a distinction that goes to the heart of virtually all political issues, both local and global. The consequences of asserting rank range from the relatively harmless (as in the alienation of an acquaintance) to the fate of life on earth (as in global nuclear war or a man-made pandemic). We must begin to make a practice of refusing to acquiesce when people in positions of authority misuse that authority, even if we are the beneficiaries of their actions.

Likewise, we ourselves must expect to be held accountable in this regard. By modeling the uses of power and choosing only those that protect dignity, we can do for standards of justice what modeling nature has done for standards of living.

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