Making Distinctions

One of the ways philosophers attempt to clarify issues and get a handle on how to work their way out of confusion is to make key distinctions. For example, I have made a number of them in recent blogs and they do help to clarify the problem at issue. In this day when we tend to gloss over distinctions and use words carelessly it makes sense to pause and try to “show the fly the way out of the milk bottle'” as Wittgenstein said some years back.

For example, we need to distinguish between what a person would do in a moral crisis and what he or she should do. Kant focused exclusively on the latter problem and has been often criticized for being too “formalistic.” But we need to be clear in a particular case what is the moral principle involved and often when we focus on that issue alone, it is fairly easy to see what should be done. Kant thought we should focus on the motive behind our actions, and act in accordance with duty. Others have argued that we should focus attention on the consequences of our actions. Whichever it is, we need to attend to the question of what ought to be done . Once that has been determined, then we need to ask the entirely different question: now, what would I do in  this situation?  I stressed this distinction recently in a blog examining Israel’s decision not to induct Khaled Abdul Wahab into the Yad Vashem commemorating the “righteous” who saved Jews during the Hitler regime. I wondered then whether I would do what Wahad did, knowing that what he did was the right thing. He did what he should do, based on clear ethical principles, but I wonder whether I would do what I should in the circumstances, whether I would have the courage to do the right thing. The questions must be kept separate, though even philosophers often seem to confound them.

Another distinction is that between “explanation,” “justification,” and “rationalization.” These are often confounded, as when we ask how to “rationalize” a moral decision. The process of rationalization is simply giving reasons, usually for a conclusion we have already reached. Period. Justification, which is often confused with rationalization, means the giving of sound moral principles and pertinent facts to support moral conclusions. Explanation, finally, means the giving of reasons  that help us to understand what happened — whether or not we can justify it morally. We might be able to explain why so many people capitulated to the Nazi regime, but we cannot justify it.

A third distinction that needs to be made is that between “need” and “want.” We often run these terms together as we claim we need to maintain our current standard of living, for example, when we really mean we simply want to maintain it. College faculty make this mistake often as they consistently refuse to admit that students don’t know what they need to study in order to become well educated persons, they simply know what they want. The faculty are in a much better position to know what the students need, though they are reluctant to take that responsibility.

Along those lines, we should distinguish carefully between education and information. We often hear it said that Jones should be “educated” about how to use tools. We need to educate Jones about sex or brushing his teeth. We mean Jones should be informed.  An educated person is well informed, but the reverse is not the case. Education means knowing what to do with information, being able to assimilate and bring it to bear on problems that require solutions. That is, it means thinking, not just knowing. As Robert Hutchins said some time ago, education is what is left after we have forgotten everything we learned in school.

In the end, making distinctions helps us to achieve conceptual clarity and work our way out of moral and intellectual confusion — often, but not always. But it is a good place to start, as Socrates knew so well. Critics will say it is getting “picky” over words, but the words we use are central in expressing our thoughts. And the more fragile our grasp is on the words we use, the more likely we are to run aground.

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