Work and Wealth

It is fascinating to consider that for centuries work was regarded as demeaning and beneath all other human activity. This is the reason that even the seemingly enlightened Greeks regarded slavery as a good thing: the slaves’ role in life was to work and to save the citizens from such demeaning and distasteful activity. Even the great Aristotle defended slavery on the same grounds: human beings were never meant to do work. Slavery is required in order that those who are able to use their minds and engage in creative activity are free to do so.

The slaves, in the case of the Greeks, were the unfortunate victims of countless wars, of course, and the thinking may have been something like this: if these people were not able to win this war or this battle then they are not deserving of genuine human status. I don’t know, but I suspect I am not far off — given some of the things Aristotle said and the attitude of the Greeks generally toward slaves.

Slavery continued for centuries, or course, as did the attitude toward work. It was John Calvin in the sixteenth century who first argued that work was in fact a good thing — while slavery, with no attempt whatever to justify it, continued to make men wealthy in both England and America. According to Calvin work actually was directed by God and enabled human beings to demonstrate how much they relished the life they had been given. In a word, work was a good thing. Indeed, as Calvin insisted: work promotes the glory of God.

For Calvin human beings have no free will. Some are saved and others are damned. Only God knows which of us will be saved or damned. But we must act as if we have freedom and we must glory in our work which is not in the least demeaning; it is glorifying. Not for ourselves, of course, since pride is a sin, but for God. The fact that  a man profits from his work demonstrates that he is among “the elect.” It is a sign that God has touched him, as it were, and made it possible for him to do well. Work requires self-control and the acknowledgment of duty, that one is doing what God wants him to do. It must be approached with singleness of purpose and the determination to glorify God. This is true of the wealth that accrues from hard work as well.

As increasingly money became the means of accumulating wealth, the ethical problem changed from determining the nature of work to the question of whether or not the accumulation of wealth was a good thing.  John Locke, for example, argued that in a primitive society a man has a right to only that which he can make use of himself.  He is speaking of pears and apples. In the case of money, the notion of rights became irrelevant — for Locke. Not, however, for John Calvin who worried about both work and wealth.

In no way did Calvin, or what came to be called “the Protestant work ethic,” condone the gaining of untold wealth for the purpose of the greater glorification of those who are wealthy. For the Calvinist, wealth is a sign that God is pleased, but one must always keep in mind how this wealth came about, Who made it possible. Max Weber, in his study of the Protestant Ethic, notes that:

“Wealth is thus bad ethically only insofar as it is a temptation to idleness and sinful enjoyment of life, and its acquisition is bad only when it is with the purpose of later living merrily and without care. But as a performance of duty in a calling it is not only morally permissible, but actually enjoined.”

Note, please. the strings attached to the accumulation of great wealth:

“[A person] must, like the servant in the parable, give an account of every penny entrusted to him, and it is at least hazardous to spend any of it for a purpose which does not serve the glory of God but only one’s own enjoyment.”

That is to say, those who are touched by God and able to achieve great wealth have a responsibility to increase it by “restless effort.” The greater the wealth the greater the obligation to do good with it. Calvin repeatedly warns against the “irrational use of wealth” and the hazards of losing sight of where it came from.

One does wonder, then, how the founder of the Work Ethic that has taken over the Western World — and increasingly the Eastern World as well — would regard the fact that in this country, at any rate, a tiny fraction of the population has gained the bulk of the wealth and for the most part show no signs of a willingness to share it with others or recognize any responsibilities whatever to guard against “the irrational use of wealth.”

Calvin, and those who follow him, thus rescued the notion of work from derision. But they warned against the gaining of wealth for its own sake. There were always strings attached, duties to be acknowledged and others to regard. Those strings have been cut, have they not?  As Weber notes in his study,

“the religious roots [of the Protestant Work Ethic] died out slowly, giving way to utilitarian worldliness.”

Thus, along with so many of the virtues that modern humans have tossed into the bins of irrelevant, ancient history, we can add the Protestant Work Ethic and any sense that wealth carries with it a burden of responsibility to others. This is sad, indeed.

Homecoming

In the Fall of the year alumni of our many, many colleges and universities across this great land of ours prepare to return to campus for a day or two, party a bit, watch the homecoming parade and, perhaps, take in the homecoming game on Saturday. I remember this, because I was at Northwestern for four years and recall all the hoopla and, I must admit, I enjoyed myself thoroughly, though I never attended Homecoming as an alumnus. But while I was a graduate student I never missed a home football game with the “Wildcats” then under Ara Persigian and surprisingly successful.

But I now receive annual notifications in the Spring of homecoming at the small college of several hundred students I attended before going to Northwestern. That college is located in Annapolis, Maryland — we used to say the Naval Academy was in our shadow, but we all know it was the other way ’round. The college was St. John’s College and it is centered around the reading of “the hundred Great Books,” a marketing ploy that was designed to attract students. Today I suspect  it would turn them away! But we read many of the Great Books, however numerous they were. In any event, I thought I would share with you some of the events of this year’s homecoming at the Annapolis campus and the Santa Fe campus as well — there are now two campuses where the exact same program of studies is pursued. All classes are required; there are no electives to speak of. The assumption is that the faculty know better than the underclassmen what will be of most benefit to them as they go out into the world.

Alumni are requested to arrive on Thursday, September 27th where they are invited to sit in on a regular Thursday night seminar. Undergraduates attend seminars every Monday and Thursday evening for at least two hours each. On Friday the alumni are invited to sit in on a class in session, foreign language or mathematics, as I recall; attend a session on “Admissions and Career Services,” where their input is heartedly invited; attend a “conversation with college leaders (?)”; eat an evening meal with fellow alumni, after which all are invited to attend the Friday night lecture — the weekly lecture is the only lecture the students at St. John’s are required to attend during their four years! All classes and the seminars, of course, are based on discussion, not lectures.

On Saturday the fun begins! There are alumni Seminars at 10:00 AM. Past seminars have involved such topics as Chaucer’s “Wife of Bath,” Shakespeare sonnets, Plato’s Meno, Milton’s Paradise Lost (Book IX), Goethe’s “Metamorphosis of Plants,” Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (Books 8 and 9) Plato’s Phaedrus, and Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part I. Alumni are encouraged to re-read these before attending the seminar. After that there is a lunch break followed by soccer on the back forty (which is participatory. The college does not have a soccer team. Or any other intercollegiate team, for that matter.) The strenuous activities of the soccer match (which resembles to a large degree a caucus face, as described by Lewis Carroll) are followed by a discussion of Ptolemy in the planetarium, followed by a session on career planning, including alumni involved in Finance, Consulting, and Business. St. John’s alumni can be found in all walks of life, including medicine. Such are the advantages of a liberal education! At the end of the day there is an outdoor movie on the back campus. On Sunday there is a brunch and folks take their leave — after an exhausting, but exhilarating, couple of days.

That’s Homecoming St. John’s style. And a good time will be had by all!

Friendship

Strange to say we do not often hear folks talk about friendship, the relationship between two people which can, in some cases, last a lifetime and makes both people so much happier than they would be otherwise. Clearly it is an important relationship, but since it doesn’t involve sex (as a rule) it doesn’t seem to be of interest to a great many people.

Interestingly enough both Plato and Aristotle discussed friendship at some length. Plato wrote a dialogue about it, called Lysis. Aristotle spoke about friendship at length in the Nicomachean Ethics where he says, in part:

“Friendship is clearly necessary and splendid, but people disagree on its precise nature. Friendship consists of a mutual feeling of goodwill between two people.

“There are three kinds of friendship. The first is friendship based on utility, where both people derive some benefit from each other. The second is friendship based on pleasure, where both people are drawn to the other’s wit, good looks, or other pleasant qualities. The third is friendship based on goodness, where both people admire the other’s goodness and help one another strive for goodness.

“The first two kinds of friendship are only accidental, because in these cases friends are motivated by their own utility and pleasure, not by anything essential to the nature of the friend. Both of these kinds of friendship are short-lived because one’s needs and pleasures are apt to change over time.

“Goodness is an enduring quality, so friendships based on goodness tend to be long-lasting. This friendship encompasses the other two, as good friends are useful to one another and please one another. Such friendship is rare and takes time to develop, but it is the best. Bad people can be friends for reasons of pleasure or utility, but only good people can be friends for each other’s sake.

“On the whole, friendships consist of equal exchanges, whether of utility, pleasantness, or goodness. However, there are some relationships that by their nature exist between two people of unequal standing: father-son, husband-wife, ruler-subject. In these relationships, a different kind of love is called for from each party, and the amount of love should be proportional to the merit of each person. For instance, a subject should show more love for a ruler than the reverse. When there is too great a gap between people, friendship is impossible, and often two friends will grow apart if one becomes far more virtuous than the other.

“Most people prefer being loved to loving, since they desire flattery and honor. The true mark of friendship, though, is that it consists more of loving than of being loved. Friendships endure when each friend loves the other according to the other’s merit.”

For Montaigne true friendship consists in a blending of wills. One wills what the other wills, wants only what the other wants. I suppose this is what Aristotle meant when he mentions being friends “for each other’s sake.”  It is the blending of two souls into one. The key for both men is that one must be primarily concerned about another person — not oneself.

As I look back on my life I realize that, aside from my wife who is my best friend, I had only one or two “good” friends in the sense that Aristotle mentions. I feel myself very lucky to have had those few since some people never have any at all. And in an age in which friendships are often superficial and made and broken by way of social media we may lose the notion of good friends altogether. That would be very sad indeed. For as Aristotle insists, friendship is essential for human happiness.  But it requires that we come out of ourselves and “admire the other’s goodness and help [that person] strive for goodness.” In a word, we must care about another and want that person’s happiness in order to find happiness ourselves. And please note that love plays an important role in friendship. It cannot be found on an electronic toy or in the casual relationships most of us form with the others with whom we work or play — unless we get to the point where we think more about them than we do ourselves.

I have found the friendships I have formed on these blogs to be very important to me and to my own happiness. I am delighted when I hear from my blogging buddies, worry about them when they are silent, and wish them well in whatever they undertake. I realize this is not the highest form of friendship, but, while it may be based on utility to a degree, it is none the less a type that Aristotle could never have imagined and I suspect he would have been only too happy to discuss it at some length!


Great Men Can Be Foolish

Can we call great men truly great if they have said things we now know are not only false but even offensive? For example, Aristotle thought that some men are “naturally slaves,” and that women should be subjects to men. Heidegger was a Nazi supporter, Plato supported a closed society in which the few ruled with little or no restraint, Ptolemy thought the earth was at the center of a finite universe. And so on. Are these men still “great”? This is an interesting question and it was raised in a comic I read on a daily basis, believe it or not.

But the issue fails to focus on one central point: we need not worry about who said what; we need to focus on what was said. I realize that Curtler’s Second Law states that we should consider the source of comments in weighing their worth — in the case of complex national issues involving, say, the future of the planet where special interests are involved. But in general, we are prone to the ad hominem fallacy in our culture, where we reject an argument because of who put it forward. “Oh, that can’t be true, the man’s a liberal.” Or, “that is absurd; after all she is known to be a loose woman.” Or whatever. We forget that liberals (and even conservatives) and loose women can put forward excellent arguments. In the vast majority of cases the arguments stand or fall on their own feet. It matters not who put them forward.

Aristotle said many foolish things. And he was certainly wrong to ignore what his predecessor Plato said about women: they can also be rulers of his Republic. But Aristotle also invented logic and was the first empirical scientist who was interested in all things living and dead. He invented the complicated system of taxonomy which is still used in the biological sciences.  One could say he is the father of modern science. He also observed that cities whose leaders become motivated by self-interest rather than the common good degenerate into base forms of political systems — democracies, for example, degenerate into oligarchies (as we are finding out to our chagrin). And Heidegger was a brilliant man who made important contributions to philosophy. The same could be said of Plato who wrote the book to which, according to John Dewey, the history of philosophy is merely a series of footnotes. In order to evaluate the greatness of a mind, no matter whose mind is in question, we need to read and consider carefully what that person said.

It has been said that because Thomas Jefferson had illegitimate children with Sally, one of his slaves, we should reject all he wrote and said. This is part of the P.C. movement that is sweeping the academies of “higher learning” as well as the country itself. Now, whether or not this is true, it is irrelevant. We need to separate the man from what the man said or wrote. He was a genius and his contributions not only to political philosophy but even to things as remote as agriculture and architecture are of seminal importance. Again, we need to be wary of the ad hominem argument. Aristotle, Heidegger, Plato, and Jefferson were extraordinary men and their contributions have made us all better informed and a bit wiser. But we need to work our way through their claims carefully.

Ideas stand or fall on the basis of the evidence and support that is offered in their behalf. Why did Aristotle think some men were naturally slaves, for example? It is not an absurd argument, after all, simply because it will offend some people. He looked around and saw a great many people who simply went along with the crowd, who seemed to lack autonomy, the power to think for themselves and take control of situations much less direct the actions of others. Other men, meanwhile, had those qualities and he concluded that some men were natural slaves while others were natural leaders. We blanch at the word “slave,” and well we should. But the fact that Aristotle points to is undeniable: some people would rather follow than to lead. We even find this in considering the corporate ladder where we discover men and women who are perfectly content to remain on the lower rungs rather than to step higher and take on more responsibility. It’s not a foolish thought or a weak argument. It is simply that we are today hypersensitive to certain words — like “slave” or “Nazi” or “closed society” to carefully consider the argument itself.

Real thought moves past the question of who put what argument forward and regards critically the argument itself. Ptolemy was wrong, but we do not dismiss him as a fool. We simply realize that we now know a great deal more than he knew and we realize the mistakes he made. Science, and knowledge generally, moves progressively forward by fits and starts. Trial and error. But the worst thing we can do is ignore the evidence and the argument altogether simply because we don’t like the person putting it forward. I will allow that in complex arguments where we cannot possibly follow the reasoning process we are warranted in rejecting the claims of those with vested interests in the outcomes. But, in general, critical thought demands that we focus on the ideas themselves regardless of who out them forward.

Meeting Great Minds

I received a brochure in the mail yesterday (I will probably not go out today as it promises to be well below zero until tomorrow afternoon!). I usually don’t pay much attention to the bulk mail since it is filled with vapid messages from marketers whom I would rather ignore. But this one was from my alma mater reminding me of a classics series it offers every summer which has always fascinated me. This post may sound like a promotion for that college, but that is not my intention and the college will go unnamed.

The brochure starts out with the usual banter:

“The backgrounds of your fellow attendees span religions, cultures, interests, and ages, and each seminar, regardless of individual focus, makes room for multiple points of view. We are united, however, in a commitment to the texts we study and an unwavering belief that to understand another’s point of view is an act of generosity.”

OK, well that’s not the usual tripe. So I read on. The college is one of two sisters in Annapolis, Maryland and Santa Fe, New Mexico that has a four-year curriculum, based on reading the “Great Books.” And they offer summer seminars like those mentioned in the brochure — not for college credit, but simply for those who have a “passion for learning.”

I should point out that as one who spent four years at the college, I can attest that they mean what they say. The brochure is not simply passing along empty promises thrown up by a marketing firm. The colleges center around the seminar with two leaders, each of whose role is that of facilitator, not lecturer, and no more than eighteen participants. And they read serious material. Some of the great minds the participants will encounter in the brief weeks of the seminars are the following:

Aristotle, reminding us in his Politics how important civilization is, that we are more human as we interact with and care about others and reap the benefits of law and education. As Aristotle himself noted:

“That the city is by nature prior to each individual, then, is clear. For if the individual when separated from it is not self-sufficient, he could be in a condition similar to that of the parts in relation to the whole. One who is incapable of sharing or who is in need of nothing through being self-sufficient is no part of the city, and so is either a beast or a god.”

Then there’s John Stuart Mill from his essay On Liberty:

“The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental, or spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.”

And so it goes. Snippets from the pens of great minds — minds that have been under attack in our colleges and universities by many who have traditionally been assigned the task of preserving the very best that has been passed on to us from our collective past. It is refreshing to know that there are small outposts in the din of daily chaos that passes for culture these days that still embrace civil discourse, the meeting of minds, and invite us to participate in the great conversation that is growing faint in the aforementioned din.

 

Consistency

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”  Please note the modifier: “foolish.” He is not saying that it is foolish to be consistent. He is saying it is foolish to cling to a position despite the evidence that displaces that position, despite evidence to the contrary. We seem to love foolish consistencies in this country and to distrust anyone who changes his or her mind — thinking, perhaps, that the person who does so is weak. George McGovern, years ago, lost the presidency, according to many experts, because he changed his mind about his running mate early on in the race. Heaven forbid that a man change his mind because he has determined that he was wrong! We had better be thought strong — even at the cost of foolish consistency.

As one who taught logic and critical thinking for many years and who thinks consistency in itself is a good  thing — not a foolish consistency, just ordinary consistency — I am amused by the ability of so many of us to hold on to two or three conflicting claims at the same time. Recently Terrell Owen, a football great in years past, was voted into the Football Hall of Fame — on the third ballot. He was incensed. He, suffering from entitlement as do so many athletes today, thought of himself as a “first-ballot” candidate. It was not to be and he fumed. The induction occurred recently and he determined not to attend the official ceremony in protest. He had his own celebration in McKenzie Arena in Chattanooga,Tennessee where he grew up and had friends clothe him with the gold jacket which had been sent from Canton, Ohio. He then gave a speech to approximately 3000 people who were there to support him. They also thought he should have been a first-ballot inductee. And later several talking heads on ESPN lauded Owen for his “honesty,” not to say, his courage. Many have agreed that it shouldn’t have taken this long.

In his speech Owen started off by insisting that he was not going to excoriate (my word, not his) the sports writers for not voting him into the Hall as soon as he was eligible. He then went on to excoriate the sports writers for not voting him into the Hall of Fame as soon has he was eligible! It was an astonishing example of inconsistency bordering on outright contradiction. And inconsistency can be so obvious that it amounts to a contradiction, a violation of what Aristotle thought to be the first “law of thought.” To be logical and indeed to make sense, we must avoid contradiction — especially in these days of false news and alternative facts. A square cannot be a circle at the same time and in the same respect. That is a law of thought. One cannot logically begin by saying that he is not going to criticize the sports writers for their egregious mistake and then go on to do just that!

We ignore the laws of thought, and indeed the common-sense notion of consistency, at our peril because it behooves us as intelligent creatures — more intelligent one would hope than the evidence suggests we are — to think clearly and cogently in order to find our way in the dark to something that we can accept as true. Not that we can ever be certain that we have happened upon the truth, but there are claims that simply are evidentially true and if we group them together they must be consistent, one claim cohering with another.

In the end, it would appear, we must avoid consistency of the foolish variety, fiercely embracing claims that are mutually exclusive, and insist upon consistency of the ordinary kind, making sure our claims fit with one another. Emerson was surely right: it is foolish to cling to claims once they have been shown to be false. But I would add that it is equally foolish to lay claim to “truths” that conflict one with another when such cannot possibly be the case. We must think our way through the maze and seek to be coherent and consistent throughout. That would appear to be the first rule of critical thinking.

 

Religion and Mammon

I recently blogged about what I argued was the inverse relationship between morality and wealth, insisting that we have somehow lost the proper perspective — one that the Greeks shared, for example — between wealth and morality. Aristotle, for example, insisted that the accumulation of wealth was a means to an end, not an end in itself, and that too much wealth was a threat to a balanced character. The goal of humans is to be as happy as possible and a certain amount of money is necessary to that end. But when the accumulation of wealth becomes all-consuming it is problematic. In my argument I suggested that the preoccupation with wealth in this country since the Civil War has brought about the reduction of our moral sensibilities. But, it might be asked, what about religion? Folks like Gertrude Himmelfarb insist that Americans are among the most religious people on earth. Doesn’t this undercut my argument somewhat?

I would say not because, as I argued in a blog not long ago, much depends on what we mean by “religious.” If we mean, simply, that many Americans attend church regularly, this is probably true — though there are a great many empty churches in this country and traditional religions are struggling, especially in attracting the young. Furthermore, mere attendance at church hardly sets one apart as a deeply religious person. In any event, William Dean Howells noted in a most interesting novel, A Modern Instance, that religion — even in the late nineteenth century — had become something less than all-consuming and considerably less important than such things as the pursuit of pleasure. Speaking of the small New England town in which his novel was set, the narrator notes that:

“Religion had largely ceased to be a fact of spiritual experience and the visible church flourished on condition of providing for the social needs of the community. It was practically held that the salvation of one’s soul must not be made too depressing, or the young people would have nothing to do with it. Professors of the sternest creeds temporized with sinners, and did what might be done to win them to heaven by helping them to have a good time here. The church embraced and included the world.”

Howells was good friends with Mark Twain and we can see the same scepticism in his novel that I noted in some of Twain’s comments quoted in the previous post. The Civil War did something profound to the ethos of this country. The death of 620,000 young men almost certainly had something to do with it. But the sudden accumulation of great wealth by many who took advantage of the war to turn a profit was simply a sign to others that this was the way to go. And the Horatio Alger myth was born as inventors and business tycoons seemed to appear out of nowhere. The cost to the nation as a whole was the conviction that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Wealth increasingly became a sign of success and even of God’s favor. As I noted, the relationship between the accumulation of wealth and the sacrifices necessary to pursue one’s sense of duty was turned upside down and instead of looking askance at those with fat pocketbooks, as was the norm for hundreds of years, the rich became instead role models for the rest of the country — and the world, as it happens. Simultaneously, as it were, morality was set on the shelf by many who now insisted that right and wrong are relative concepts and virtue is something to be read about but not to bother one’s head about. It certainly shouldn’t be allowed to interfere with pleasure and the accumulation of as much money as possible.

 

How Much Alike?

“The fact that man knows right from wrong proves his intellectual superiority to the other creatures; but the fact that he can do wrong proves his moral inferiority to any creature that cannot.” (Mark Twain)

Back in the early 90s of the last century Carl Sagan co-wrote a book with Ann  Druyan (Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors) that bears directly on what Mark Twain had said nearly a century before. In that book the authors stress the similarities between humans and other animal species, perhaps with the object of letting some of the air out of human puffery.

Aristotle insisted that humans are “rational animals,” thereby seeking to differentiate our species from the rest because of our abilities to reason, our use of tools and also our use of language. Subsequent studies have shown that many other animal species can not only reason, and even use tools, but also many of them do so remarkably quickly; some even use language. There have been studies of chimpanzees that have not only learned several hundred words but have shown and  ability to teach that language to their young! Jane Goodall studied the amazing Lucy, a chimpanzee brought up by humans who showed many of the signs of being human herself:

“No longer pure chimp but yet eons away form humanity, she was man-made, some other kind of being. I watched, amazed, as she opened the refrigerator and various cupboards, found bottles and a glass, then poured herself a gin and tonic. She took the drink to the TV, turned on the set, flipped from one channel to another then, as though in disgust, turned it off again. She selected a glossy magazine from the table and, still carrying her drink, settled in a comfortable chair. Occasionally, as she leafed through the magazine, she identified [in Ameslan] something she saw. . . .”

This doesn’t sound, to my ear, much different from the description of a great many humans we can observe pretty much any day, a condition that has been worsened by the addition of mind-numbing electronic toys that are putting our minds to sleep and causing even greater Lucy-like behavior. But the one thing that Sagan and Druyan missed when trying to make the case for the similarity between humans and other animal species, was the presence in humans of the capacity to act morally.

In saying this I am aware of the studies that have shown macaque monkeys, for example, that are unable to inflict pain on others of their species, refusing treats when asked to turn a dial that will increase an electronic charge connected with another monkey and causing him to scream in pain. They simply will not do this. This would appear to be evidence of a moral sense, a determination to do the right thing. And it is in sharp contrast with studies of humans put in the same, or similar, situations who are perfectly willing to turn the dial and inflict pain on other humans when asked to do so by another human in a white coat.

However, the behavior of the monkeys does not show the presence of anything more than an instinct to act, or refuse to act, in a certain way. It provides no evidence that there is a reasoning process involved. On the other hand, humans have a reasoning capacity and, as Kant insisted, also the capacity to ask the pivotal ethical question “what ought I to do?” And yet many of them will turn the dial. This would seem to prove Twain’s thesis stated at the outset of this post: we are inferior to other creatures. But does it?

What the experiment shows is that some humans are simply unable or unwilling to do the right thing — not that they could not do so under different conditions. Kant does not say that humans always do the right thing, he says we have the capacity to do the right thing. Often we do not do it. And this does help Twain make his case. Moreover, as Sagan and Druyan note at the conclusion of their careful study:

“The many sorrows of our recent history suggest that we humans have a learning disability.”

And yet we are the species who now have nuclear arsenals at our disposal, weapons numerous and powerful enough to end all life on earth. In addition, in this country any certified moron can walk into a gun shop with a credit card and ten minutes later walk away with an automatic weapon with the capacity to kill dozens of other humans in a matter of seconds. And our only solution to this situation is to insist that more morons arm themselves against the possibility that they might be the next target. This seems to be the best we have been able to come up with so far, though if this plan were to be realized it would surely mark the end of any pretense that we are a civilized society and announce to the world that we have once again returned to a state of nature where life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

I do agree with Kant that humans have the capacity to act morally and that this is what separates us from the other animals on earth. But the evidence is overwhelming that increasing numbers of us tend not to exercise that capacity and are becoming less and less inclined to do so as our species becomes more numerous, more self-absorbed and disinterested in others. However, if we fail to exercise our inborn capacity to do the right thing we have no instinct to fall back on, as do the macaque monkeys. This is a difference that makes a real difference.

Good Habits

In a comment I made to a recent post I noted that in my view many faculty members I have known, including myself at times, are a bit too lax when it comes to demanding that students toe the line — that they read the assignment and turn in papers on time. In my own experience, the temptation is to give the students a break, especially the good ones, the ones who usually do the work on time. But, as I noted in my comment, this does not serve the student well when he or she graduates — and it does not serve the business well for whom that student goes to work. It’s all about good habits, and they must be learned. And our colleges don’t do a very good job encouraging them, preparing the students for the so-called “real” world.

Aristotle notes that the example of parents who are fair, honest, and decent people will, if they encourage those traits in their offspring, usually raise children who have what used to be called “good character.” Good character is formed by imitation and habit. And if the examples are not there or the reinforcement is not consistent, the chances are the young person will turn our with weak character and perhaps worse.

These are old-fashioned ideas and we are all too quick to toss them in the bin simply because they are old-fashioned, instead of considering whether, perhaps, they are not a good thing to hang on to. But, then, this takes work on the part of parents and teachers and the former are too busy with their own lives these days and teachers are asked to do far too much to ask them to also raise our kids. So character has become something only folks like Martin Luther King, Jr. mention in speeches, not something that we work to develop in the young.

In any event, I do think that teachers in the schools — from the early years right through college — should hold the feet of their students to the fire. They should demand that they get the work done on time and that they develop those habits that will carry them to success when they later graduate or should they continue on in school. I studied with a number of very bright fellow graduate students who failed to earn their PhD simply because they lacked the discipline to get papers finished on time or never were able to complete their dissertation. Allowing students to slack off is doing them no favors, though the temptation is greater today then ever, since student evaluations are made public on the internet and students are encouraged to take classes from “easy” professors. Enrollments can determine such things as job security for the professor. Even tenured professors can be “let go” if it is determined that their department needs to be cut for financial reasons. Thus, there is every temptation to “go easy” on the students. As far as the students are concerned, this translates into a much easier path and they know well how to tread it.

Again, it’s a matter of habit: it’s what they have become used to. And it’s not the kids’ fault. It is the fault of those adults who have shirked their responsibilities to those kids and not taken the time to instill in them the habits of good character that will bring them success later in their lives. I speak generally, of course. But I do think it is a safe claim. Teachers want to be well-liked (who doesn’t?) and they want to hold on to their jobs; the temptation to give way in the face of what are often very poor excuses is great indeed. It is easier to say “yes” even though when a student is allowed to turn a paper in late, for example, it is clearly not fair to those other students who have met the deadline, and, of course, it can become a habit. Indeed, there are a great many reasons for doing the right thing in parenting and teaching. But we all tend to take the path of least resistance. It’s the road well-travelled and we think we are doing the kids a favor when we clearly are not.

And, again, I include myself in this indictment. I was guilty of allowing the better students greater leeway than I should have done. Mea culpa! Good character, and good work habits, come from setting a good example and demanding that the young develop good habits. And it will make the students more successful employees when they graduate and find work.

The Ring of Gyges

In Plato’s monumental work, The Republic, after dispensing with the loudmouth Thracymachus who insisted that “justice is the interest of the stronger,” Socrates is confronted by a stronger opponent. Glaucon, one of Plato’s brothers, has been listening to Socrates dismantle Thracymachus’ argument when he confronts Socrates with the possibility that justice really is the interest of the stronger and that Socrates has not fully addressed that possibility.

Glaucon places in front of Socrates the myth of the shepherd boy, Gyges, who while sitting around a fire with his chums playing with a ring he found that day he turns the ring inwards and disappears. While he is “gone” his chums start talking about him and he learned how they truly feel about him; but he also sees the possibilities of such a ring. In brief, he later seduces the queen, kills the king, and finds himself the most powerful man on earth. All because of the ring. Glaucon insists that no one could resist such a temptation: all men and women would do what they want to do rather than what they should do — if they could get away with it.

This is a powerful argument and it takes Socrates nine long chapters to create his Republic in which, he insists, good men and women  would rise to the top and they would, in fact, be able to resist the temptations of the ring of Gyges. Aristotle will later call this “character” and insist that it is instilled in young men and women in their youth and later determines the choices they make when it comes to justice and injustice.

It is difficult for the modern reader to agree to the logic of Socrates’ argument, to allow that ordinary men and women would not succumb to the temptations of such a ring — if it allowed them to get away with anything. Some might say that “conscience” would prohibit unjust actions among many — or at least some — but even this argument is weakened these days when we seem to have lost sight of such a thing as “character” and tend to let people pretty much do what they want. Most, I suspect, would insist that it is naive to suppose that anyone today would resist the ring of Gyges. The only thing that keeps us on the straight and narrow is the fear of getting caught.

I’m not sure if we can settle the disagreement one way or the other, since we know so little about why people do what they do and even those who seem to do the right thing most of the time may be driven by self-interest and the fear of getting caught. It’s never quite clear in our own cases why we do the things we do! But if we recall that Plato imagines a perfect society (as he sees it) in which from birth children are raised to do the right thing, to place the welfare of others before that of themselves, to form what will later be called “good character,” then perhaps we can allow that such a thing is possible — at least in theory.

The difficulty is, of course, that ours is not a perfect society — supposing that there is such a thing — and we have turned our attention away from character to such things as “self-esteem, “honesty,” and “getting in touch with our feelings.” In a word, we don’t stress the importance of caring about others so much as we stress making sure we take care of #1. I have blogged about this before and I will not go there again. But it is interesting to think that both Plato and Aristotle were convinced that the main thing that brings political bodies down is the turning attention away from what was later called “the common good” toward self-interest. When rulers and those who make the rules care more about themselves than they do about the voters who put them into office it is the beginning of a process that can only result in the dissolution of the political body.

Morality is not simply about Jimmy doing the right thing when he finds a wallet on the sidewalk. It is also about the people in power, who make decisions that effect so many others, caring more about themselves than they do about those who matter most — to wit, their constituents. The Other has been lost in the preoccupation we seem to have with ourselves, rights are all the rage while correlative responsibilities are seldom mentioned. The moral high ground disappears in the mist of looking our for #1.

How many could resist the temptations of therein of Gyges? Very few, I fear. And those who lust after money and power are least likely of all.