Former Brooklyn Law School Dean Nick Allard Shares Poignant Letter to Grandson at Russian Forum
Where could I possibly begin after so many meaty and filling presentations? We heard about whether new Japanese ‘smart’ digital musical technology might replace human artists. Will a computer ever come close to the Rachmaninoff classics we heard interpreted and performed so beautifully by Boris Bevesovsky Tuesday evening after the 2019 Private Law Prize ceremony? I think not. For one thing, when we listen to how such an artist puts his own creative, never identical, signature on the music, and as we anticipate, as if he is an artist on a high wire, to see whether he will successfully complete his difficult passage through the music without misplaying quite humanly any of the torrent of fabulous notes, we know that no machine could generate that kind of excitement.
And, we heard a great deal about whether we humans will work for robots with artificial intelligence, or whether they will work for us.
As the only American in this program, I also took note of the considerable comments about U.S. policy and even about President [Donald] Trump. I am sure you will understand me when I say what a pleasure it is to be outside the U.S. and not to talk about Trump. So, I will address other matters related to philosophy about globalism and the rule of law.
The moderator has just described me as being “the dessert” I will try to be sweet.
I admit that the subject matter of this program is quite daunting. Last night, as I worried about my preparation, I tossed and turned in bed. As I lay there in my room, I kept thinking about recent conversations with my grandson Nicky, who is almost six years old.
For example, he recently asked, ‘Who were the first man and woman?’ I was not prepared, but I answered, ‘Uh, maybe Adam and Eve.’ He followed with questions such as, ‘If they were first, who named them? Who took care of them? Who taught them to speak?’ … and so on. Well, I could not sleep, so I got out of bed and wrote my grandson a letter. I could not do better commenting on today’s topic than to read to you my letter to Nicky.
Dear Nicky, I am writing to you from St. Petersburg in Russia, where, once again, I am learning a great deal from highly intelligent lawyers, judges, educators, government officials and other experts; more than 5,000 people from more than 100 countries on six continents.
This morning I am getting ready to participate in a program about the world’s big problems and big challenges. As I think about this topic, my mind flies to you, one of my cherished grandchildren. This is because you have a big brain and I know from your parents and teachers that you are thinking of big things and often worry. You ask, ‘Why is the universe growing?’ ‘How can I understand infinity?’ ‘When will the world die?’
I wish you were here to help me because you already are a philosopher and because you and your brother and sisters and cousins and your fellow young people all over the world will have to continue the hard work on the world’s problems that your grandparents and parents have been doing. I hope … no … I believe you can do a better job.
I also write to you because I need to confide to someone that I am very humbled by the invitation to join and speak with this incredibly distinguished group of lawyers and philosophers. Do not tell your parents, or my parents (your great grandparents) this: I was not a very good philosophy student. When I arrived at Merton College, Oxford University many years ago, my philosophy tutor, John Lucas, once commented that ‘Allard not only knows nothing about philosophy, he suspects nothing.’
In truth, the main thing I remember about philosophy is this one thing: If I am alone in the woods, and I say something, and my wife, your grandmother is not there, then I am still wrong. In fact, a few years ago, your father was with me when I unexpectedly encountered my old tutor during a visit to Merton College. Cheerfully, I said to my tutor, “Mr. Lucas, you cannot imagine how much I now recall and think about from our time together so many years ago.” Quickly – too quickly – he replied, “Mr. Allard, for the first time you are correct.”
So, Nicky, I wonder what you think and wish you could tell me about the world and where it is going. As we have discussed, you know that since the earliest women and men lived on earth, human beings have always wanted and needed to live together. The human race has always been composed of unique individuals who seek the community of others.
For this reason, people have experienced a basic conundrum built into the human condition throughout history; they must learn to live with a tension between what is best for the individual, what is best for a small group of similar individuals who are most alike and comfortable with each other, like you, your twin brother Benny, your family and friends in New York, and the larger, more diverse and often different community and communities beyond your small part of the world.
I think you will learn, although I bet you already suspect, if you do not yet know, that throughout the history of mankind society and civilization have organized themselves under a system of laws and rules for peaceful cooperation, productivity and enjoyment of life based on common values, beliefs and ethical standards. What communities share transcends the marvelous differences among individuals.
And so it is with different communities who benefit from living peacefully together. These core elements shared within communities can vary from place to place. It is helpful for us to strive to understand and accept rules that work across all people and all continents and across different eras.
Perhaps all the world’s laws and rules can be distilled to just one: “Love thy neighbor as thyself’’ or a variation – “Do to others what you would want them to do to you.”
Now, throughout history there have been struggles, horrific cataclysms, disease, war, deprivation and suffering. But civilization has endured, while at the same time every so often reimagining itself, recreating renewing its rules and beliefs, but even so continuing on by observing its new laws, the rule of law and pursuit of justice, instead of the alternative. The alternative is chaos driven by power, violence, influence, immorality and chance.
I doubt I will live long enough to know for sure, but maybe you will come to understand that today we are living in a historic moment. It feels like a time of reformation of laws, institutions and beliefs. A time where new ideas are struggling to be born.
Throughout its ups and downs, by adherence to the rules or laws of society, civilization has generally experienced an upward trajectory for the better. Today, despite all our problems worldwide, there is more knowledge, better health, less disease, more productivity and greater wealth in every sense of the word than ever in history. Even so, the planet faces risks from climate change to conflict, from intolerance and hatred to rejection of our longstanding way of life. Economic inequality and disparity are greater throughout the world’s population than at any time in history. And, throughout this all, the acceleration of new technology creates new problems.
But, Nicky, never forget that new technology also offers new opportunities and solutions, as it always had done since the ancient time when people discovered the dual beneficial and dangerous nature of fire. Globalism is accelerated by these trends –especially by new digital networked technology and biomedical innovations.
For one thing, our political and economic theory, our foundation for law, has always been based on our understanding of the nature of mankind. Now, through biomedical advances, we have for the first time in history the ability to change or shape human life rather than to accept it as it evolves naturally. What impact will that have on law and philosophy? Countering the mega-trend of globalism, as has always happened and there is nothing new about this – there are the contrary tugs of localism, nativism and the desire to preserve cultural and social uniqueness.
Nicky, the big question is how do we continue to live and work together with all the changes going on while also maintaining our ‘selfness,’ our unique selves, our personal and cultural identity? How do we decide and continue what is good and change what can be better?
Discussing tirelessly and discerning agreeable universal principles will be a useful starting point. For your consideration here are some suggestions:
Truth and facts are essential to progress. The path to solutions begins with agreements on facts and truth.
Mutual understanding and continuous communication are invaluable, but easier to say than to live by. Consider the excess of information we drown in and how difficult it is to sort out accurate from misleading information.
Mutual respect and tolerance are fundamental ingredients for cooperation, coexistence, progress and peace.
May I also suggest as a point of departure that we return to reconsider the imperative of the Four Freedoms. These principles were ratified in Resolution 217A by the United Nations, and later included in the preamble to the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They were inspired by a speech given in 1941 by U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Belief, Freedom from Want, Freedom from Fear.
The Four Freedoms are also easier to say, much less to live by and attain for others. Yet it seems to me they are as important as ever. Learn and think about them.
Nicky, I will not have enough time today in St. Petersburg to solve the big problems. This short letter is not meant as a sermon to tell you what to do; it is a request for you to use your beautiful mind to think about what I have written. I am sure the time soon will come when you and people your age take up the world’s good fights. I wish you every success for your own grandchildren’s sake.
My friends here who have listened to me read my letter to my grandson, you might now ask, ‘What can we do?’ I urge you to help teach the lesson that will be hard to learn for Nicky’s generation, as it is for every new generation: the need to understand the value of persistence and patience.
Each of us at any time usually can at best only do a little. The great philosopher John Locke described his own effort in the epistle of “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding” as “an under labourer in clearing some of the ground a little and removing some of some of the rubbish that lies in the way of knowledge.”
Or in the words of Sir Edmund Burke, the greatest mistake one can make is to do nothing because one believes they can only do a little.
Friends, let us together keep stumbling forward!
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