Revisiting Duty

I was brought to philosophy by means of Immanuel Kant’s ethical philosophy which I first encountered as an undergraduate many years ago.  I was drawn to Kant’s ethical position, I think, because he saw clearly that the heart and soul of ethics is the struggle between duty and desire, the obligations we have to ourself and others as opposed to the pleasure that we naturally prefer. I have had this struggle myself many times over the years.

Later on I found myself drawn to the novels of George Eliot and the reason, I think, is because she, too, saw the importance to human life of the struggle between the urge to find pleasure and the duties we all have as human beings. Kant was convinced that this duty stems from the fact that we are all persons and as such are “ends in ourselves” and never a “means to an  end.” That is, we ought to recognize the obligations we have to ourselves and others as persons and not use others for our own purposes. This thought is the basis for any meaningful discussion of human rights — another area of keen interest for Kant and also for George Eliot.

But in all of Eliot’s major novels we find the central characters wrestling between the sense of duty and the powerful urges of pleasure that motivate us so much of the time — some would say always, that even when we do what we ought to do (that is, do our duty) we do so because it gives us pleasure. I respectfully disagree.

Be that as it may, Kant and Eliot both saw the struggle between duty and pleasure as the major battle that determines what sort of person we are to become and what sort of life we will lead. Both thinkers come down in the end on the side of duty. Nowhere is this more evident than in Eliot’s seldom read but brilliant historical novel Romola — set in fifteenth century Florence and involving many of the major players we connect with that city at that time in Western history. It is a time following immediately upon the death of Lorenzo de’ Medici and the struggle within the city to maintain the stability he had brought to a volatile city at the height of the Renaissance.

In any event, the novel centers around the lives of Romola, a beautiful young woman, and Tito Melelma, a chancer (as the Brits would say) who wins her heart only to break it in the end. Tito, you see, is a man who discovers gradually that his only motivation is pleasure. Initially he struggles with his conscience that demands that he use the jewels his adopted father has given him in trust in order to ransom him from captivity at the hands of the Turks. But in the end he realizes that he doesn’t really want to give up the jewels and the respect and favor they have brought him in Florence; he engages in the most remarkable rationalization I have ever encountered  in order to persuade himself that he really has no duty whatsoever to his adopted father — who saved him from poverty and despair and carefully raised and nurtured him into a scholarly and disarming young man whose brilliance and charming smile easily won over those around him. And this included Romola, as it happens.

Eliot spends en entire chapter describing the remarkable process of rationalization during which Tito persuades himself that he has no duty whatever to his father. In the process he persuades himself that the jewels his father has entrusted to him are really his and there is no reason whatever to think that he must give them up in order to save the life of an elderly man who is nearing the end of his life while Tito its just beginning his own. Indeed, Tito reasons, his father may not even be alive. Why spend the best years of his young in what may well be a pointless endeavor?

In the process of rationalization — during which he (like the rest of us) persuades himself of the strength of reasons that support his desires rather than those reasons that might lead him to do his duty in opposition to those desires — Tito’s conscience dies and he becomes desensitized to the pain and suffering of others while immersed in the river of pleasure he is convinced gives his life meaning.

“. . .but could any philosophy prove to him that he was bound to care for another’s suffering more than for his own?”

A novel such as this will not appeal to many of us today because so few of us would see any reason not to side with Tito who fears only those things that might rob him of pleasure. Can we even begin to understand why there might be a struggle going on within his soul? We tend to think little about the duties we all have to ourselves and to others out of a preoccupation with the here and now and the satisfaction of those desires that tend to motivate us most strongly while the nagging voice of conscience is silenced in the process.

I speak in generalities, of course. And there are those who prove the rule, exceptional people who would side with Kant and with Eliot in insisting that we are persons with obligations that define us. But we might do well to ask ourselves how many of us would agree with Tito that “the end of life is to extract the utmost sum of pleasure”? I do wonder.

Distinctions

The German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once told us that the way to begin any philosophical discussion is to first “show the fly the way out of the milk bottle.” I gather what he meant is that we must begin discussions with definitions to make sure we know what we are talking about. If we debate, for example, who is the greatest athlete to ever perform on the public stage we must  start with some sort of stipulation as to just what “greatness” means. Otherwise we are much like the fly in the milk bottle: we beat our heads against an unforgiving surface.

This reasoning allows us to solve the age-old question of whether the tree that falls in the forest with no one around to hear it makes a sound. That depends on what we mean but “sound.” If we mean vibrations in the air, simply, then surely it makes a sound. If we mean vibrations heard by at least one person then, obviously, it made no sound.

But I have always found that making distinctions is also extremely helpful in showing the fly the way out of the milk bottle. For example is the distinction between WANT and NEED. I have made mention of this in previous posts and it remains a focal point in my thinking about so may complex issues — as in the case of what students need as opposed to what they want.

Take, for example, the current discussion over whether or not collegians should or should not play football this Fall. This is what is known as a “hot” topic and everyone and his dog has an opinion.

In a recent informal poll on a sports show I learned that nearly twice as many people say”yes” to the question as say “no.” The vast majority want to play or to watch football this Fall. Additionally, a football player at Ohio State has initiated a petition among football players nationwide and has nearly a quarter of a million “yes” votes that show clearly that a great many football players in this country want to play football this Fall. Even the President of the United States, who cannot keep his fingers still, has plunged in and insists that it would be a “tragedy” if the game were not played this Fall.

Seriously? A tragedy. Let’s define our terms! I jest, of course, but the word does seem a bit overworked, to say the least. If the absence of football this Fall is a tragedy then what do we call the death of a grandmother whose young son brings back the Covid-19 virus after football practice, infects her, and she dies? Surely there are tragedies and there are simply unfortunate or even sad circumstances: things we don’t like.

For a great many Americans what they like or want amounts to what they need (in their minds). As a people we are not very good at denying  ourselves what we want. Calling those things “needs” makes us feel better about our choices, I suppose. The petitions and the polls show us clearly that many people want to play (or watch) football. But do the polls and the petitions show us anything about what the people need as far as football is concerned? Surely not.

It might be argued that a great many people genuinely need to play or watch football for their own psychical well-being — as a release of pent-up frustration, perhaps. But it is a game, after all, and the one thing we know for certain is that given the circumstances these days, it is a game that courts danger: it is risky, at the very least. We know nothing about the long-term consequences of infection from this virus. There are indications that there might be as many as one hundred possible side-effects, some of them very serious. And the wise choice in this case is to err on the side of caution. In general that might serve as a viable general rule, one would think.

But in the end, we do not really need football. We (or many of us) want it. And that is something entirely different.

 

Revisiting “E-Literacy.”

As much as I hate to admit it, there are some who would disagree with my take on the sad state of affairs in the world of American education. Indeed, there are a great many people — some of whom write books and many others who teach in that world — who insist that things couldn’t be better. They love the kids and they love the way things are going. They explain away the wealth of data that show that the kids are not learning anything with the claim that the tests are simply archaic and don’t register the intellectual skills the kids in the millennial generation are acquiring with their electronic toys. Indeed, many of them think the schools themselves are archaic and the kids are learning what they really need to know to get along in tomorrow’s world OUTSIDE of school, with those toys. While there are those of us who would insist that the toys are rotting the kids’ brains (as I have said in an earlier blog), there are a great many people who defend the toys and insist that the kids will save the world with the digital facility and e-literacy they are acquiring with those very toys.

In fact, in 2005 Randy Bomer of the National Council of Teachers of English (!) attacked as too narrow a study called the American Diploma Project that was designed to help design curricula that would assist young people become better prepared for work in a changing world. Bomer defended the use of electronic toys and applauded the proficiency with which the kids use the toys, insisting that their critics are out-of-the-loop idiots. He remarked that today’s high school graduate (who may not be a-literate, as they say) is e-literate, he or she

“can synthesize information from multiple information and technical sources. . . .[they can] analyze the setting, plot, theme, characterization, and narration of classic and contemporary short stories and novels. . . .They are inventing new forms of literature.”

High praise indeed. And a breath of fresh air for those who find the constant criticism of America’s schools unsettling. We always like to hear those things that make us feel better about the way things are and allow us to dismiss the nay-sayers with a sigh of relief. Unfortunately, however, it’s a pile of rubbish.

One must wonder what this new “viewer literacy” really amounts to — if it can be called “literacy” at all. And the claims Bomer makes are outlandish — given that every test devised (and one must agree that tests don’t always tell the whole story) reflect the inability of these young people to understand the printed word or work with figures. How can such people be said to be able to “analyze the setting, plot, theme, characterization, and narration of classic and contemporary short stories and novels.”? Especially when they don’t even read comics or cereal boxes — as the students themselves defiantly tell investigators (reading is “too analogue”). They take great pride in the fact that they don’t read and generally regard reading as a waste of time — though they will spend more than three hours a day, on average, watching television (while they send text messages and check their Facebook page) and never think for a moment that it is a waste of time.

But, in the end it is all about thinking, which requires both synthesis and analysis. Mark Bauerlein, author of The Dumbest Generation, has made a study of e-literacy. He quotes his critics who defend it on the grounds that e-literacy

“is not just knowing how to download music, program an iPod, create a virtual profile, and comment on a blog. It’s a general deployment capacity, a particular mental flexibility. E-literacy accommodates hypermedia because e-literates possess hyperalertness. Multitasking entails a special cognitive attitude toward the world, not the orientation that enables slow concentration on one thing, but a lightsome, itinerant awareness of numerous and dissimilar inputs.”

So say its defenders who go on to insist that

“The things that have traditionally been done — you know, reflection and thinking and all that stuff — are in some ways too slow for the future. . . .Is there a way to do these things faster?”

But, jargon and wishful thinking aside, thought does take time, much as we might hate to admit it. And faster is not necessarily better. The fact that the kids show remarkable dexterity and quickness with their toys — one claim is that they can read four books at once (!) — is praiseworthy on some level. But when we are told that this dexterity will (or should) replace the traditional way of knowing and thinking about the world we must pause. The kids feel out of place in schoolrooms. I get that. But we know enough about them to realize that this is a statement about their narcissism, not about the schools, and many would consider it a condition that needs to be addressed and remedied so these kids can make their way in the real world where things are not always to our liking and problems need to be thought through and solutions found by careful, and slow, reflection and the consideration of possible outcomes in dialogue with other thinkers. If computers can help speed up that process, perhaps this is a good thing. Defenders of video games contend that they encourage “collateral learning,” and how to “make the right decision” and do it quickly. But there is no hard evidence that these toys teach anything that can in all seriousness be called “thinking.”

In the end a human being, or a group of human beings, must carefully consider what the computer spews out and determine which of several alternatives is the best course of action. Whether games will help people acquire the necessary skills remains to be seen. The “right decision” taught by the electronic game may simply prove to be the one that directs the drones to kill the most people. But the kids themselves will become adults who are expected to play a role in this democracy. Electronic toys cannot make moral judgments or judge which of two or three political candidates will do the best job. E-literacy won’t get them there. A-literacy is required: the ability to read and understand what they read, write coherent sentences that can be readily understood by others, and speak persuasively in order to help others grasp the claims they are determined to make. And people need to judge of better or worse, whether they like to admit it or not.

In the end, we may well admire the skills these kids show with multiple electronic toys, and even their ability to learn new ways to do things that take their elders seemingly forever. But we should hesitate to admit that this way of doing things will prove superior at the end of the day — especially since we really don’t know where e-literacy will take us. And as a general rule, we should not allow the kids to tell us how to design educational curriculum: they have no idea where they are going: their toys may indeed be taking these kids down an intellectual blind alley. In any event, given the addiction that has already been attributed to so many of them, we will have to depend on the toys themselves to pave the way to a new tomorrow: the kids will simply be doing what their toys tell them to do. I prefer to take the path well-travelled. At least I have a pretty good idea where the traps and pitfalls might be found and I can use the wisdom of past generations as a guide.

Watch Out For Snakes

I reached back to 2011 for this repost. It deals with one of my favorite topics and remains as relevant today as it did then — especially with an election coming up. 

If I enter a room filled with paper bags, one of which holds a rattlesnake while the others are filled with treats, am I free to grab a bag filled with treats? In one sense I am, in another I am not. I am free to grab any bag I want to because no one is holding a gun to my head and my hands are not tied. But I am not free in the sense that I do not know which bag holds the treats and which might hold the rattlesnake. Real freedom consists of knowledge and if I am ignorant I am not really free. There is a fundamental difference between blind choice and informed choice.

This is a simple illustration of a very important point that has been lost on most of us because we think that the more bags we have, the more bread in our stores, the more items on Amazon, the freer we are. And in this sense we in America are more free to grab almost any bag we want to — well, most of us are, and the wealthier we are the more bags we can grab. But real freedom is not a function of the number of bags. Unless we know which bag holds the snake, we are hopelessly ignorant and our ignorance can render us very sick or even dead from a fatal rattlesnake bite. Just think about political elections and the snakes we have grabbed, especially of late, to guide the country!

This is why education is so important: because it is only through an education properly conceived that we can be truly free. A liberal  education sets us free from ignorance, that is, from the things that can truly harm us. Ironically, Harvard College introduced the concept of “elective courses” into their curriculum in the 1930s when they mistakenly assumed that freedom is a matter of blind choice. Other colleges soon followed their lead, as did the high schools and even many grammar schools (the “free schools”). Now the idea has become so entrenched in the heads of educators that they are eliminating any semblance of liberal education by reducing — or eliminating altogether — the core courses that are pretty much all that remains of the notion that there are some things people should know in order to become truly free. The assumption that the young are free is absurd, since freedom does not consist in the ability to choose the bag with the rattlesnake in it.

Freedom regarded simply as blind choice will eventually become chaos when carried far enough. Real freedom comes from a restricted number of choices based on knowledge and the ability to think about the clues that might lead us to the bag with the treats and away from the bag with the rattlesnake. Education, properly understood, is about real freedom, not about blind choice.

More Critical Thinking

My elder son recently sent me a U-tube segment in which George Carlin rants for a minute or three about the stupidity of the American people who, as he would have it, allow the very wealthy and powerful to lead them about by their noses. As long as we are diverted and entertained we will allow those in positions of power to do whatever they want to do. He puts it down to our lack of critical thinking on our part. It is very funny. And it is spot on.

In a more serious vein Hannah Arendt said many years ago the same thing about the Nazis. She insisted that if the Germans had been more critical they never would have allowed Hitler to take power and eventually destroy their country — murdering millions of people along the way. She would have us all be more, not less, “judgmental.” Imagine that!

When I taught philosophy in a public undergraduate university I knew that I would never have many majors who would go on to graduate school and eventually become professors of philosophy themselves. There were a few who did so and they have done me proud. But there would be hundreds of students who were taking my courses simply to full a requirement or as an elective to see what all the fuss was about (!). In any event, I made the major quite small in order to encourage more students to sign up and also to allow them to get philosophy as a second major along with, say, sociology. Or biology.

My goal in teaching my courses was to teach critical thinking. In a word. I used the material not in order to drum a few assorted and esoteric facts about the history of philosophy into their heads, but in order to try to get them to think about the issues that have always perplexed and confused mankind (if I can use that word any more). I wanted, above all else, to have my students — most of whom would take only one or two philosophy classes in their four years — to think about things they never thought about before. I also wanted them to think about the things carefully and critically — not just sit around and bullshit.

Robert Hutchins once warned against “thugs who teach you what to think and not how to think.” I never wanted to be a thug!

Early on I wrote an ethics book in which I combined the rudiments of ethics with some of the elements of critical thinking — such things as informal fallacies, for example. Throughout the book I asked the question “why?” I wanted those reading the book to revert to their childhood when all was wonderful and their curiosity was unlimited. I suggested a number of theories as I went along and then asked the reader what he or she thought. “What do you think?” I wanted them to realize that what they read is not the TRUTH, but words on a page which they should subject to their critical thinking skills. I wanted them to develop their own thoughts about ethics while at the same time coming to the realization that ethics is not all about opinions, but it is about principles and suggestions as to how we can better make sense of complex moral issues. In the end we cannot do the right thing if we lack compassion, but ethics can help us become clearer about which path to choose.

In a word, I had two goals. I wanted the readers to have a new respect for orderly and systematic thinking about complex ethical issues while, at the same time, they began to develop critical thinking skills that they would take with them to other disciplines within and without the university. I wanted to help them begin to take possession of their own minds and not be puppets of others, like those Carlin mentions, who would take their minds prisoner and lead them by the nose.

Did I succeed? I do sometimes wonder, though I do know there are a scattered number of success stories (including one of the best students I ever taught who regularly makes comments on this blog). To a retired teacher this is what it is all about. But for those who took my classes — and who read the book (which did very well in the market place, by the way, and is still selling copies) — I wanted them to learn and grow.

But, in the end, Carlin is right because what I was doing was so terribly small and the ignorance that surrounds us is so terribly large. I do know, however, that it all begins with the question WHY?” We all need to ask it more than we do. And we need to embrace those thoughts that might be uncomfortable but which stand up to sustained, critical thought.