Is It Relative?

Throughout my teaching life I fought an ongoing battle with ethical relativism. My job was to help young people take possession on their own minds: to help them learn how to think. But everywhere I turned in the ethical domain I ran into the mindless question “Who’s to say?” In ethics, so it is said, it’s all a matter of opinion. You have yours and I have mine — and mine are just as true as yours or even Plato’s. So I heard. It’s difficult to get people to think about things when an easy escape is ready at hand: “that’s just your opinion.”

And yet.

Surely the events of the past few weeks and months — if not the past four years — have taught us something about ethics and the notion that it’s all a “matter of opinion.” We have been witness to a series of events involving the violation of most, if not all, of the basic ethical and religious values that have sustained us as a people for centuries. Lies, violence, bigotry, hatred — the list goes on.

And it is precisely the ethical principles involved here that are at the heart of the matters: principles such as respect for persons and fairness, universal ethical principles that separate us from the other animals who act purely on instinct.

One would think that having endured the travesties of recent months we would have learned that there are things that matter, things that go beyond simply my opinion or yours. We have lived through the reductio ad absurdum of ethical relativism. here are things that matter, things that make us “civilized” and take us out of ourselves and into the lives of others where we find there are things that can be done to make the world a better place — and displace the hatred and fear that have haunted us of late.

Or so one would think.

Good Folks

One of my favorite blogging buddies has a regular feature in her weekly blog. It’s called “Good People Doing Good Things,” and she culls stories about folks around the country and even the world who do good things each day — to remind us all that there are good people out there doing good. We need the reminder and I always enjoy reading about those remarkable.e people.

But one need not venture far to find good folks. Consider the following:

A few months ago a started chemo treatment to deal with a nagging cancer. I live in a small town and word soon got out. And then remarkable things started to happen. We looked out one morning after a snowfall to discover that the driveway had been plowed. I have no idea whatever who did that. But there’s more. A neighbor cut our lawn and shows up after every snowfall to offer to clean up the driveway and the sidewalks. He insists that we call him and he will be there. So far so good.

Another neighbor loaned me a walker to help me with my rehab after I fell twice and couldn’t leave the family room downstairs. She also went to the grocery store twice and brought back groceries since my wife thought it best not to leave me alone ion the basement! She also picked up prescription drugs for me. Twice. Another neighbor spent two hours also shopping for groceries. Several other people have offered to help out any way they can.

All of this is voluntary and simply a sign of good folks doing good things.

We really don’t have to look that far.

Have a great New Year!

The New Honesty

Time was when honesty meant telling the truth. Period. If one said what was true, regardless of the consequences, he was being honest. Indeed, the more serious the consequences to the speaker the more courageous seemed to be that person’s honesty — even rising to the level of “honorable.”

But no more.]

Now the word “truth” has been leveled to mean something entirely subjective: it’s what we want to be the case.It’s not about what is the case; it is all about what we want to be the case. If I believe it , it is true.

Honesty, on the other hand, now means “gut feelings.” If it comes from the heart or the gut — or somewhere in the nether regions of the human body — then it is honest. It’s about emotion, not about facts. The rawer the emotion the better. We admire those who are being honest with their feelings and regard them as in all instances “honest.” They become our role models. For the most part.

In fact, the man who leads this country at present is popular, I believe, because he is honest in this new sense of the word. Millions of people are willing and apparently happy to disregard his disdain for the truth because he is, in their view, honest. And remember: it’s all about perception, not about reality. He “tells it like it is.” It matters not that the man cannot recognize the truth and lies fall from his mouth without number. It matters only to millions of people that he is “honest.”

There are numerous problems with this new meaning of the word, of course. For one thing it reduces the other person to a non-entity. We owe them nothing, not even the truth. And as long as we are being “honest” little else matters. Even if in being honest we hurt another person’s feelings and, as I said, reduce them to a cipher. As long as I tell it like it is, as long as I speak from the heart, or the gut, or the anus — whatever — that’s all that matters.

Thus does the truth lie dormant on the scrap heap of so many other virtues, such as honor, courtesy, courage, and temperance. The other person does not matter; only I matter.

After all, I’m just being honest.

Dumbing Down America III

Here’s another oldie but goodie!

During the middle of the last century when Walter Cronkite was at the height of his popularity — “the most trusted man in America” — he spoke out against the growing tendency of journalists, especially TV journalists, to confuse news with entertainment. He noted that “television is too focused on entertaining its audience,” insisting instead that the job of the journalist is to present the news as objectively as possible — both sides of complex issues, with the broadcaster keeping his bias to himself or herself. “Objective journalism and an opinion column are about as similar as the Bible and Playboy magazine,” he quipped. In order to make news hold the viewer’s attention, he thought it was sufficient that the journalist simply make it more “interesting,” focusing on “good writing, good reporting, and good editing.” Even though his words were widely anthologized and incorporated into the curricula of numerous schools of journalism, they pretty much fell on deaf ears. It is clear that not only television, but also print journalism, has gone the route of entertainment, big time. It’s all about competition among the dozens of news programs that demand our attention and attracting the viewers to your news program in order to sell your sponsor’s products. And entertainment sells the product.

So, what’s wrong with news as entertainment? It has to do with what entertainment is: it is essentially fluff. It is designed to grab the attention of a passive spectator, demanding nothing of him or her in the way of intelligent or imaginative response. It doesn’t seek to engage the mind. It is less concerned with informing than it is with holding the viewer’s attention long enough to deliver the sponsor’s message by way of thought bites — which is what TV news has become, for the most part. And as attention spans shrink, the entertainment must get more and more sensational and more graphic in order to keep the viewer’s mind from wandering. The same phenomenon takes place in the movies. [And has recently occurred in the political arena.]

Hollywood has never really understood the difference between film as art and film as entertainment. With the exception of people like Woody Allen and Orson Wells, directors and producers in Hollywood for the most part opt for the blockbuster, with the latest technical gimmick demanding nothing of the spectator whatever, except that she pay for a seat and then sit glued to it with eyes on the screen. The movies that seek only to entertain, again, do not engage the imagination of the spectator: they require no mental effort whatever. Films that seek to rise to the level of art, films made by filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, and Federico Fellini, insist that the spectator make an effort to follow the plot and connect pieces, and think about what went before and how it connects with what is happening now — and what the implications are for human experience outside the movie theater. In a word, they teach.

And that brings us to the final point I want to make: thanks to TV shows like “Sesame Street,” teaching has also become an entertainment medium. The teacher is now supposed to engage the pupil’s shrunken attention span long enough to get bits and pieces of information into a mind that is frequently engaged elsewhere. The content is less important than the way it is delivered. Students are often asked to evaluate teachers and much of the evaluation has to do with “performance.” The popular teachers are the ones who put on the best show. The worst thing that can happen in the classroom is that it be deemed “boring” by a group of disinterested students who are surrounded by media that inundate them with noise and rapid-fire visual and aural sensations that overwhelm the mind and leave it spent and confused.

This is what people are used to and what they expect on a daily basis. What could be worse for such a mind than to be asked to sit and listen to a lecture that consists of nothing more than a man or a woman standing there reading from a text — or even speaking extemporaneously, without visual aids? Can we imagine an audience of thousands standing for hours in the hot Illinois sun to listen to a debate between two politicians on the pros and cons of slavery, as the folks did to listen to Lincoln debate Douglas? On the contrary, we demand thought bites, snatches and slogans. The quick 30 second news bite or political ad that tosses out a couple of bromides that are designed to fix themselves in the memory and guide the finger that pulls the lever in the voting booth. The point is not to inform, it is to entertain. And it’s not just Fox News, which is simply the reductio ad absurdam of the whole process.

That’s what bothered Cronkite years ago: news that lowers itself to the level of mere entertainment demeans the audience, and renders it a passive vehicle for any message that can be delivered quickly and effectively in order to somehow alter behavior — buy the product, pass the test, vote for this candidate. It lowers us all to the level of idiots who are waiting to be told what to do. It certainly doesn’t strengthen the mind by expanding its powers of imagination, thought, and memory. It is all about the dumbing down of America.

Failure?

The wag on “Get Up!” — a weekly sports show on ESPN — put it best when he said: “Failure is a good thing. It teaches us valuable lessons.”

The topic surrounded the recent loss of a football team that had been sailing along beating their opponents fairly easily. They lost the most recent game and the question for the table was weather or not this might be a good thing in the long run. It was generally accepted that it would in fact be a good thing as it would make the losing team more determined and work harder to avoid losses in the future. Indeed, it is a maxim — if not an axiom — in sports that losing can be the best thing for a team that begins to feel it is invincible.

This is one of the reasons why sports is so important a part of our culture, since sports teach important life-lessons. As a whole, we tend to think that losing is the worst thing that can happen. In our schools, for example, we hear that “no child should be left behind,” and I even had a colleague years ago who refused to give grades to his students because it would mean that some would fail. As you can imagine, students flocked to his classes and did absolutely nothing in order to simply be passed along — and get valuable college credit.

But the disparity between the sports axiom and the common notion in the schools (and in the home) regarding failure or success is worthy of thought. I maintain that the sports world knows what it is talking about and the rest of us should simply shut up: failure can be a good thing. It most often is as most of us would attest if we are honest.

Years ago I wrote a post about George Washington who reflected on his losses late in his life — the experience with Braddock in the French and Indian wars, for example — and insisted that they were the most important lessons he learned and steeled him later in life for future disappointments and losses and made him able to win out in the end.

So let it be agreed: failure can be a good thing. Let the kids lose and hope they learn from those losses and become future winners. Because, like it or not, there are winners and there are losers in life.

Ethical Dilemma

One of my favorite British mysteries is “New Tricks” which is both engrossing and, at times, funny. One of the episodes also provides considerable food for thought — which I want to share with you.

The chief detective, call her Sasha (because that’s her name) has a grudge against a criminal who is at present in jail — call him Jack (which is not his name). He is in jail, however, for a crime he has not committed despite the fact that he had, in fact, killed Sasha’s partner years before and is a thoroughly bad man. But he is not guilty of the crime he has been punished for.

During the course of the investigation into the basis for the prosecution of Jack for this particular crime it becomes apparent that he is not guilty and has been set up by a detective years before who simply wanted to get him behind bars.

The young woman who is, in fact, guilty for the crime that he is being punished for killed a man who had abused her cruelly many years before. She killed him with an empty bottle of wine during an altercation in a hallway at a party.

Sasha’s dilemma is whether or not to let things stand as they are — since Jack is not only willing but eager to take the rap for the young woman for whom he has a special bond (we won’t go into that) — or prosecute the young woman and let Jack go free. And to make things even more interesting, Jack tells her that he will plead guilty of the murder of her former partner and thus that crime will have been resolved.

But Sasha decides to prosecute the young woman, who is guilty (in some sense of that word) and let Jack go free. My question is: did she do the right thing?

From a Kantian perspective she did. Kant tells us that we are to respect all persons and the truth is a paramount value in any system in which the moral person stands at the center. The strict Christian would agree with Kant.

But the Utilitarian would argue that the consequences of letting Jack go free and prosecuting a young woman who has turned her life around and is guilty of nothing more that manslaughter of a known predator is the wrong thing to do. The greater good in this case is to keep Jack in jail where he clearly belongs and let the young woman go on with her life.

But Sasha took the former option. Dud she do the right thing? What do you think?

One Story, LOTS Of Good People

A truly uplifting story.

Filosofa's Word

Antonio Gwynn is an 18-year-old high school senior in Buffalo, New York.  Two years ago, Gwynn’s mother died and he was taken in by a friend, Duane Thomas.  On May 29th, Gwynn participated in a peaceful protest against the brutal murder of George Floyd, marching for hours.  Finally, tired, he went home to get some rest and watch videos of some of the nationwide protests.  But, what he saw when he woke the next morning stunned him.

He saw that his hometown’s peaceful streets had turned violent after he left, with a confrontation between protesters and U.S. marshals in front of the federal courthouse, windows smashed at downtown businesses, and protesters reporting that they had been hit by police rubber bullets.

“I was sad to watch all of that. There was a huge mess downtown. I thought, ‘I should go out there and clean it all up.’”

And…

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Good People Doing Good Things

While some around us are toting guns into state offices and threatening officials, others are out there trying to do the right thing. Jill posts these reminders each week and they are indeed worth reading .

Filosofa's Word

If it’s Wednesday, then it must be time for us to go in search of some good people, yes?  Oh wait … I think I see one over there …


His name is Kent Chambers and he is a teacher at Bob Jones High School in Madison, Alabama.  Since Mr. Chambers is still working, although teaching his math classes online, he and his wife did not have a pressing need for their stimulus check last month.  So, he and his wife anonymously donated $1,200 of their check pay the utility bills for some of the student’s families who he knew were struggling.  They also donated $600 to the burn care center at Shriners Hospital for Children in Cincinnati, Ohio, because the hospital has taken good care of his niece since she was hurt in a house fire.Kent-ChambersSays Mr. Chambers …

“I’m actually in better shape because I’m not having…

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Good People Doing Good Things – Pay It Forward Day

A reminder from a good blogging friend that there are good people out there doing good things in spite of everything going on around them.

Filosofa's Word

Yesterday, April 28th, was Pay it Forward Day.  Since it is too soon to find the many people who found ways to ‘pay it forward’ just yet, but since I did not wish to let the day pass unnoticed, I am reprising my post about the day from 2017.  For many of you it will be new, but even if it isn’t, some of the things these people have done is worthy of a second read, three years later!


“From what we get we make a living – from what we give, we make a life.” – Arthur Ashe

wed-pif-2

As usual, I am about a day late and a dollar short.  Well, actually about 5 days late, as it were.  But, better late than never, right?  Turns out that April 28th was the 10th annual Pay It Forward Day.  Yes, folks, there is actually an annual Pay It…

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Good People Doing Good Things — In Times Of Trouble

Need we remind ourselves that there are good people out there doing good things to make life easier for others?

Filosofa's Word

Wow … I have been writing a lot lately about the dark side of human behaviour in this time of pandemic crisis, but tonight when I pulled up my first resource in search of good people, I realized there is a whole ‘nother side!  Many, many people are doing things to help one another these days.  Some famous people, such as the heads of companies like Lowes and Carnival, and entertainers like Rihanna have done some wonderful things to help others, but for this post I am going only with the everyday people who have stepped up to the plate to help their fellow humans.  I find that I can relate more to the ones who don’t have anything more than you and I, who aren’t billionaires or millionaires, but just people with good hearts.  Now, grab your box of tissues and read on …


Helping seniors ‘stay in touch’…

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