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.

Ethics Officer?

Many years ago when I was chair of the philosophy department we were gifted $25,000 as a result of a court case involving bid-rigging. The trial was held in a nearby county and as a result of the defendants being caught pretty much red-handed, they were fined $100,000.00. They settled out of court for $50,000.00 and the proviso was that the money should be split between two local colleges who were then directed to set up courses in business ethics. My department was one beneficiary.

Well, as it happens, we already had several courses in business ethics, including one in the Masters program in Business. I always enjoyed teaching that class because the students were older — often folks who had returned for their M.B.A. after deciding it would advance their careers a bit. They brought a fund of information and experience with them and we had some great discussions. And the business arena is a gold mine for those of us looking for ethical issues.

The problem was what to do with all that money when we already had those courses. I decided to set up a lecture series to supplement the business ethics courses and we brought to campus some very interesting people — including the founder of the Parnassus Fund in California which promised to invest only in ethical companies — companies that treated their employees well, didn’t produce cigarettes or liquor, etc. He was most interesting and gave an excellent talk and then went to a couple of business classes and interacted with the students.

We also brought to campus the “Ethics Officer” at Honeywell — a corporation in Minneapolis that bragged about the fact that they were ethically oriented as witnessed by the fact that they donated free computers to the schools and engaged in other charitable acts. In any event, the ethics officer was a lawyer(!) whose job it was to make sure the corporation didn’t take steps that would get them in a legal tangle and to help them out of those tangles if they slipped up. Hardly ethics! (As a footnote, I would add that when the company later ran into financial difficulties the first things they cut were their charitable works!). In any event, it was instructive to get a first-hand look at one corporation’s notion of what ethics is all about.

The problems, of course, is that the law is not always ethical and that, in fact, ethics and legality often conflict in the “real world.” I spent a good deal of time after the lawyer’s visit trying to make that point clear to my students. Something can be perfectly legal and yet replete with ethical conundrums. This would be the case, for example, in those companies that promote dishonest advertising in order to increase sales. The ads may stay within the perimeters of legal strictures and yet violate the principle of honesty. And it is not at all clear that major companies treat their employees with the respect that all persons deserve.

But in those years of teaching business ethics I learned that the publicly owned corporations care not a whit about ethics and focus almost exclusively on the bottom line. Honeywell we simply one of a host of companies that was dedicated to profits and regarded ethics as a bit of a pain in the ass.

This is not to say that all companies were unethical, though most of the publicly-owned companies have terrible track records. There are a number or quite remarkable stories about privately owned companies, however, that go out of their way to do the right thing by their employees and their customers. Malden Mills, a family-owned company in Massachusetts is a case in point. As a news story reported at the time,

[Aaron] Feuerstein, an Orthodox Jew whose grandfather had started Malden Mills in 1906, not only to decided to rebuild. He also resolved to continue paying the 1,400 workers left idle during the construction works their salaries for the next three months, and to cover their health insurance for 180 days.

Asked to explain his decision, he attributed it to the ethics he had learned from studying the Talmud.

“I have a responsibility to the worker, both blue-collar and white-collar,” he told Parade magazine. “It would have been unconscionable to put 3,000 people on the streets and deliver a deathblow to the cities of Lawrence and Methuen. Maybe on paper our company is worthless to Wall Street, but I can tell you it’s worth more.”

There are more such stories, but not as many as the horror stories about companies such as Johns Manville that know they were producing such things as cancer-causing asbestos long before they were forced to change their product by the government. Or the tobacco companies that knew many years before their customers that cigarettes cause lung cancer. Which is why we need governmental controls — contrary to what we hear abroad these days. They act as watch-dogs to try to keep the unethical companies in line.

It’s not a perfect system. But while the law is not always ethical, at times it’s all we have.

Persons

Antonio Brown, an outstanding football player who just can’t seem to get his act together, is much in the news of late — for all the wrong reasons. A warrant for his arrest has been issued lately because allegedly he beat up the driver of a moving van outside his house. Details are sketchy.

Last Fall it appeared he would play football for the Oakland Raiders but his odd behavior resulted in his dismissal from the team. He was later picked up by the New England Patriots and then let go for, again, behavior unacceptable in an adult human. He apparently has a court case ongoing involving possible aggressive behavior toward a former girl friend. And the list goes on.

The talking heads are all in a dither and it seems to be the consensus that this man is a loose canon and needs help — and fast. They all agree, to be sure, that aggravated assault against another human is not acceptable behavior. The same conclusion surfaced when Kansas State and Kansas basketball players got into a brawl at the end of their game recently and one of the players was suspended twelve games for raising a chair apparently in order to hit another player before it was taken away by one of the coaches. In all cases, most reasonable people would agree that this sort of behavior is simply not acceptable.

But why not?

We go along insisting that people should let it all hang out, do their thing, and generally be completely honest with their emotions — if not their actions. If this is so and the basketball player and Antonio Brown enjoy hitting other people why do we now say this cannot be allowed? On the face of it we seem to be inconsistent if not contradictory in our likes and dislikes, not to mention our ethical claims. Either we should allow people to do whatever they want or we should agree that they should not do whatever they want.

Many would say we draw the line at hurting other people. Folks should be allowed to let it all hang out and express their feelings until or unless their behavior involves harm to another person.

But what is “harm”? Physical harm seems straightforward, though there are masochists out there that love to be punished — the harder the better. But generally speaking physical harm is where we draw the line. What about emotional harm — such as bullying, for example? Surely we don’t condone that even though the bully is simply letting it all hang out: he enjoys making other people feel bad. But he is not physically harming anyone. Still, there is damage being done to another person and any sort of damage, whether it be physical or emotional is simply not to be allowed.

If this is then the place where the line is drawn then we can say that we have an ethical principle: one should not harm other people. Persons ought to be respected to the extent that they are persons and as such capable of feeling pain, both physical and emotional. Kant would argue, further, that they as persons they are capable of making moral judgments (whether or not they ever do); thus they ought to be respected by other persons. But in any case, whether  or not we agree with cumbersome Kant, we seem to have arrived at what might be said to be the cornerstone of an ethical system.

And I suggest that we have done just that and in staying this I would add that this lends the lie to the claim that ethics is simply a matter of opinion and feeling: what is good is what we want to do and what is bad are those things we find repulsive. This sort of emotional guide gets us nowhere, whereas the ethical cornerstone we have uncovered — persons are valuable in themselves — allows us to build an ethical system that leads to important conclusions — such as: slavery is wrong; women have the same rights as men; women are entitled to the same rewards in the workplace as their male cohorts who perform the same jobs. And so on. There is a plethora of legitimate ethical claims that stem from our one principle.

And in the process of uncovering those ethical claims we find ourselves thinking about ethics and not simply emoting. Any idiot can emote just as any idiot can take a swing at another person. But it takes a reasonable person to think his or her way through conflict and arrive at a conclusion that can stand up to criticism. That’s what ethics is all about.

Stealing Signals

In the midst of national news about the impeachment of a corrupt president we hear about corruption in the heart of “America’s favorite pastime” — baseball. I am sure you have heard about it and may even have given it some thought. We like to think that we can turn to the sports pages to read the good news while the main pages are filled with the rest of the dreck that we label “politics” and “things as usual.”

But not so.

It appears that the Houston Astros of Major League Baseball were caught with their hand in the cookie jar. Well, actually, in 2017 when they won the World Series, they were caught stealing signals the catcher sends to the pitcher and were thus able to let the batter know what pitch was coming before the pitcher even wound up! This sort of thing has been going on for many years, of course, but apparently Alex Cora of the Houston team raised the ante: he suggested that the team use the latest technical devices to their advantage. With a very sensitive camera set up in the center field bleachers pictures of the catcher’s signals were sent to a receiver in the club house just behind the dugout. Signals were then sent to the batter by means of a player banging on a can (!) and he was able to anticipate the exact pitch he was about to see.

So the proverbial shit hit the fan and the baseball world is in a dither. And the main concern is not that signals were stolen — since, as mentioned, that has always been the case — but that the theft was done by means of such clinical and expert (except for the can) technical devices. Think about this for a moment: The problem, as perceived by the sports world, is not that signals were stolen but that it was done in such a careful and precise manner. Apparently it has always been done and that seems to be the reasoning so many use to excuse a wrong-doing: everyone else does it, why can’t I?

This, as we all should know, is faulty ethical reasoning. If stealing signals by means to technical gadgetry is wrong it is wrong because it is stealing — not because the manner in which it was done was so clever. Stealing signals is wrong because it is cheating and it breaks the rules of baseball. This is the fundamental fact (if there are any in such cases). The fact that Alex Cora raised stealing to new heights is beside the point — even though the media and most in the baseball community would make it the center of the discussion.

Once the door is open and stealing is condoned — as it has been for so many years — the fact that someone found a way to do it more efficiently and effectively is beside the point. But Cora, who later became a successful (?) manager for the Boston Red Sox, was fired as were two of the higher-ups at the Houston Astros. The players themselves who went along with the cheating readily so far as we know — and accepted the World Series trophy and all that cash —  will not be punished, apparently. This remains to be seen as baseball is “investigating” the matter as I write this. But given what we know about sports scandals it appears reasonable to assume that the players will get off scott free.

If the baseball world wanted to deal with this issue honestly and try to guarantee that it will not happen again they should strip Houston of the World Series Crown and fine all of the players who played in the game. Big Time! They were as guilty as their leaders.

But, in any case, it would be good to remind ourselves of what really happened here: stealing is not considered the problem; using high-tech equipment to do so effectively is considered the problem. This is nonsense.

Ethical Dilemma

In 1993 I wrote an ethics textbook designed to provoke thought in undergraduates and at the same time suggest that it is possible to think about ethical issues –not just emote. The book did not sell particularly well but was later picked up by a larger publisher and is still in print and selling fairly well (which amazes me no end). But one of the things I was particularly pleased about in that book was the final chapter which consisted of a number of case studies in fields as far apart as medicine and business — though those two are not so far apart these days. One of the categories was sports and I included a case that was actually based on a young man who had played football at the university where I taught — a “small potatoes” football team with a top-line player. The example changes his name but is based on what actually happened to that young man. I place it here to provoke thought (!) and to raise the question of whether what is legal is always necessarily moral or ethical.

At the age of 17 William”Willie” Smith was caught dealing drugs in his home state of Florida. While he was awaiting trial he enrolled at a local Junior Colleege and later transferred to a four-year university in Minnesota to complete his degree and play football — which he did very well. In the interim he was tried and found guilty of the drug charge, but he was given a delayed sentence to allow him to complete his college degree. After the completion of his degree he was to serve a nine year sentence.

Willie’s understanding was that his case would be reviewed at the end of his college career and that he would almost certainly be placed on probation (and not sent to jail) if he kept his nose clean — which he did. He continued to work on his degree and he played football so well he was drafted by an N.F.L. team in the ninth round. When it was announced that he had been drafted a reporter form his home town ran a story about his brush with the law and his later success. In the ensuing confusion the judge who had tried Willie’s case three years previously held  a press conference and, noting that athletes should not be given special treatment, repeated her ruling that Willie was to serve nine years in prison as soon as he completed his degree. The N.F.L. team that had drafted Willie immediately announced the they were no longer interested in Willie.

Did the judge do the right thing? What do you think?

The Moral Imagination

Many years ago when I first wrote this post, a comment was made by someone calling himself “Auth” in which he (or she) characterized the poor as “folks who are usually smoking crack and pumping out babies at 1 a year.” I thought at the time that the comment, such as it was, deserved an extended response. So I wrote the following piece.

Some years ago during the Summer I was a visiting professor at the University of Rhode Island and taught a course in Ethics to a class of about 30 students. It was a good class and we had some lively discussions. At one point we were discussing Kant’s Categorical Imperative: “Act so the maxim of your will can serve as a universal law.” We tried to unpack the peculiar words in order to make some sense of them and perhaps see how they might help us resolve moral perplexities — which is the purpose of an Ethics course, after all. We decided that Kant was saying something like this: adopt a moral principle that would affect both yourself and others equally. Don’t think of yourself as the exception; we are all morally equal. In a word (though somewhat of an oversimplification) Kant was saying something very much like the “Golden Rule” — do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

The interesting part of the discussion came about when we were trying to use examples to see how the rule might be applied in a particular case. We finally came around to the case of a poor person who required assistance and we decided that anyone who was in the position of the person in need would want, even welcome, assistance. We all pretty much agreed — except for one student who simply could not imagine that he would ever be the person in need. He denied that it was morally right to help those in need if the rule depended on the one making the rule supposing himself or herself to be the person in need. He simply would not allow that the right thing to do was to help the other person. The entire class went after the young man to the point where I was genuinely concerned about his well-being. He never did change his mind.

It is possible the young man was just trying to draw attention to himself, or make a scene. But I suspected that he honestly could not imagine himself ever to be a person in need of assistance from someone else. He was not stupid by any means, though he certainly lacked empathy. But above all he lacked the faculty of imagination. He simply was incapable of putting himself in the place of another person — even for a moment. As a result after the discussion was over and I reflected on the class, I decided that this young man was incapable of acting morally in Kant’s sense of that term. If he were to do the right thing it would have to be by habit, training, or accident.

I think this is the case with the anonymous comment to my previous blog: the author of the comment simply cannot imagine that he might be poor and in need of assistance. Otherwise, how could he possibly take such a narrow, superior, unfeeling, condescending attitude toward another human being? I suspect that in this person’s mind, the poor are less than human — certainly nothing like him! Perhaps this is what allows such people to adopt the superior air. In any event, most of the comments on the blog suggested that “Auth” is in the minority: most people responded with feeling to the possibility that they might themselves be poor, given the uncertainty of today’s economy, for example, and that we do have an obligation to help those in need. I just hope that the majority of those who responded to the blog are typical of the rest of the people in this society. If they are like “Auth” or the student in that class then heaven help us!

Visiting John Carroll

I have drawn considerable inspiration from John Carroll’s book The Wreck of Western Culture. Readers of this blog will recognize his name by this time. He is an Australian sociologist who writes with clarity and insight. After finishing his latest book I decided to take a look at an earlier attempt, this time Ego and Soul, in which Carroll clarifies his notion of what culture is and why he is concerned about its demise. I discovered that he not only embraces the notion of truth (gasp!) but also the notion of soul (double gasp!!) which he carefully distinguishes from ego and which he is convinced is not only very real but also immortal. In a word, the man is out of the intellectual mainstream and has the courage to defend ideas that most “thinking persons” would reject with a snicker. That’s what  makes him interesting and thought-provoking. Accordingly, I thought I would share some of his remarks about the “three levels of truth.” The first level is ordinary truths which we call “facts,” such as “The president tweeted again today.” The second level of truth has to do with “a body of cardinal laws” about which has this to say:

“The backbone of the ethical order is a body of cardinal laws. They are universal; that is, they are found in every human society. They include ‘thou shalt not kill’; ‘thou shalt not strike or damage another human being without due cause’; thou shalt protect the innocent’; thou shalt not betray trust’; and ‘thou shall not lie about important things.” These laws constrain all humans, except those whom we classify as ‘psychopaths’ — people who transgress major interdicts without conscience. [Who might that be??] . . .

“In the West, the recognition that all humans are equal in terms of the cardinal moral laws and some of their derivatives, has come to be called ‘universal human rights.’ These apply irrespective of tribe, ethnicity, age, sex, status, wealth, or power.

“This is an exceptional historical development. Humans have generally been tribal. The tribal view constrains me to treat members of my own tribe, nation, or culture justly, but those outside may be dealt with by looser standards. Outsiders — distinguished disparagingly as barbarians, gentiles, heathens, infidels, or savages — are legitimate prey to my self-interest.

“It is only since the mid-twentieth century that a belief in universal human rights has become predominant in the West. This is one of Western Civilization’s great achievements. It has its sources in the teachings of Jesus and in classical Greek philosophy, consolidated in the European Enlightenment and, since then, developed into a staple of liberal-democratic political form.”

The third, or highest form of truth is Culture. These are truths that come to us in “stories and myths, images, rhythms, and conversations that voice the eternal and difficult truths on which deep knowing and therefore wellbeing, is dependent.” And these are the truths that seem to have died out with the death of religion and humanism, as Carroll examines that topic in his latest book. In his earlier book he hints at what the problem might be and he lays the blame clearly at the feet of the colleges and universities whose role has been, from the Middle Ages, to protect and conserve culture and pass it on to subsequent generations. About this, Carroll has this to say:

“The great weakness in the West over the last century has been in the domain of Culture. The mainstream of literature, art, music, and philosophy has largely abandoned its mission to retell the timeless stories in new ways, and to interpret them. It has betrayed its responsibility to help people make sense of their lives and times. In its relativisms, surrealisms, deconstructionisms, and  postmodernisms it has denied that there are fundamental truths. It has sometimes even denied that there are universal moral truths.”

Indeed, since Carroll wrote this book in 2008 one could say without fear of contradiction that the failure of the colleges and universities has become even greater and that the denial of truth has escaped from the citadels of “higher learning” and now have found firm ground in the “real world,” especially in the world of business and politics. But that’s another story. For now it suffices to say that when John Carroll, sociologist and student of human collective behavior, worries that our culture is floundering, if not dying, we need to take heed. At the very least, we must embrace the fact that there are truths, even truths about what is right and what is wrong. We prefer to think truth is all subjective — perhaps because that makes us feel good about ourselves — but it is not.

Moreover, we need to think beyond our narrow selves, our egos which drive us to succeed, and embrace others and the world as a whole. Because it is only when humans balance ego with soul — that which makes us part of the entire human community and, indeed, a part of the whole of existence — that we can become happy and at peace with ourselves and the world.  As Carroll would have it:

“It is the business of each culture, at home in its own backyard, to cultivate its singular understandings of mortal life. It is the business of all humans, wherever they dwell, to defend cardinal moral laws and universal human rights.”

Imagine That!

Years ago I taught an ethics class in a Summer session at the University of Rhode Island. We sat in a circle and had an open discussion of the topics raised in the book we had been working through. As I recall we were discussing examples of unmitigated evil — of which history presents us with innumerable examples. Soon we were talking about the Holocaust and we were attempting to understand what it was about that horrible event that made it so horrible. At one point one of the more taciturn students spoke out and said he saw nothing wrong with what the Nazis did to the Jews. Several students, including one eloquent and outspoken Jewish woman, asked him to explain and he made a sorry attempt. After considerable discussion I asked him to imagine that he was one of the victims, hoping to open his mind to the possibility that we were indeed discussing unmitigated evil. But he was quick to respond.

I wouldn’t be one of the victims. I would be one of those turning on the gas.

What does one say to that? I was at a loss and the others were as well. I don’t recall what happened after that, except that the young man repeatedly refused to admit that he could ever be a victim of evil. He even denied that there is such a thing. Without knowing anything about Thracymachus in Plato’s Republic he was defending the notion that “might makes right.”

But while I recall that discussion long ago I turn to today’s events and think about the MAGA minions who follow their feckless leader blindly and I suspect that they feel they have been given the dirty end of the stick all their lives and it is now their turn to grab the clean end and start beating others with it. Surely this exhibits the same sort of crippled imagination. There’s an element of self-pity and self-righteousness in their blindness it seems to me. But, to be sure, in their minds might does make right and it is now their turn!

If this is possible, then what we are dealing with today is not the inability of many people to use their imagination — which was what I thought for many years about that student I mentioned above. It’s about their inability to use their imagination to see themselves as anything else but one having power over others. I am not a psychologist and I cannot begin to understand how this pathology develops, but it seems clear to me that the only way to remedy this situation, if it is at all possible, is for those who can only imagine themselves to be in a position of power to suffer dramatically, to become victims in actual fact. They think they have been handed the dirty end of the stick all their lives, but in our society today there are few who cannot clean off the stick and use it to their advantage. Few of the MAGA minions know what real suffering is all about, I dare say. And in the case of many of those who, because of their circumstances, really cannot clean the stick, I doubt that they have time to even think about politics and whether or not it makes sense to follow a vapid leader wherever he leads. They are too busy trying to find food to put on the table (if they have one).

Ethics requires the ability to imagine oneself to be the victim, in the full sense of that term — not just to feel sorry for oneself, but to imagine that one has been taken away in the dark of night and herded onto a cattle car and sent off to be gassed. Or had your child snatched away and know he will be shot. If one cannot imagine that, then there is little hope that he or she will ever want to do the right thing. Because the right thing is staring them in the face and they cannot, or will not, see it.

Self-Interest

I recall reading years ago a book in ethics that built an entire ethical system out of the notion of self-interest. This was not simply ego-centricity, not raw selfishness. It was self-interest properly understood: enlightened self-interest. If I ask not “what do I want here and now,” but “what will I want in a few day’s time” I begin to see what is in my true self-interest. I will denote the difference by putting caps on the notion of Self Interest properly understood.

On a mundane level, Self Interest translates into “I will scratch your back because there may come a time when I need you to scratch my back.” Thus, if your car breaks down and you need a ride to the garage I will take you there in spite of the fact that I was on my way to the Mall to buy the item I really wanted because it is on special this week and the sale ends today. I really want to go to the Mall, but I realize that it is in my Self Interest to help you out, because there may come a time when I need you to help me out. Conscience may enter into it, or it may not. It may simply be a matter of calculation. But the end result is that I do the right thing. Similarly, if you make me really angry and I want to smack you upside the head, I realize that if I walk away you will still be my friend and we can continue to have fun together. It’s in my Self Interest to swallow my anger and simply walk away and cool off.

A good citizen who is calculating his or her Self Interest will realize that they need to vet each candidate carefully, get out and vote, and continue to keep an eye on the voting habits of the candidates of choice in order to determine whether they deserve to be reelected. He or she will pay taxes because they realize that they will benefit the schools (whether they have kids in the schools or not) and help the state pay for road repair, support fire and police salaries, and keep up the public parks — all of which benefit me in the long run. (Even someone else’s kids will vote and act wisely in the future if they are well schooled, presumably.)  In a word, Self Interest requires taking the long view, considering the consequences of actions and asking the question: what will benefit me in the long term.

The owner of a factory who knows he can save big bucks by neglecting to put scrubbers on his factory’s chimneys takes the view of Self Interest and spends the money for the scrubbers because he realizes that this will improve air quality that benefits the health of those around him, including his employees, and himself and his family as well. Short-term profits are sacrificed for long-term benefits to a great many more people. And, in the end, these are the people that will continue to work for him and will buy his products. The long term always involves a sense that each of us is in a boat with others. It’s not just about me or you: it’s about all of us. What is good for each is good for all. It’s not rocket science, but it takes a bit of imagination and patience and a willingness to think before acting.

At the highest levels, of course, ethics demands that those who make the major decisions that indirectly affect us all require the perspective of Self Interest. It may be in my self-interest (small case) to cheat on my taxes and save a few bucks, put pressure on my political cronies to get them to vote my way, cut health care because it will benefit those few who support my candidacy, fail to fill vacant federal judgeships that stand in the way of my political objectives, or eliminate regulatory agencies because they interfere with profits. But if I step back and take the perspective of Self Interest I realize that paying my taxes, cooperating with my political cronies (whether I like them or not), promoting universal health care, promoting a strong and healthy judiciary, and funding regulatory agencies that protect us all are in my Self Interest: they are in the best interest of all and therefore of myself as well. When we all benefit each of us as individuals benefits as well.

This system is not the be-all and end-all of ethics, but anyone who seeks to follow the path will find that he or she ends up doing the right thing most of the time. It takes imagination and a willingness to ignore short-term desires for long-term benefits. But if each of us followed that path our democracy would be a stronger and healthier political system that does, in the end, help to promote  the Common  Good — which was always the goal of a republican system of government.

Good Behavior

I taught ethics for many years. It was my area of primary study in graduate school; I wrote and defended a dissertation on the subject and later published a book trying to convince readers that one could think critically about ethical issues — one doesn’t simply have to go by hunches and gut feelings. But the thing I always found most difficult when teaching and thinking about ethical issues was how to close the gap between the determination of what is right and wrong and actually doing what one has decided is right.

For example, let’s say I live in a border state in the American Southwest. My government has decided to build a wall to keep the Mexicans out of this country and I am aware that the local police randomly arrest Mexicans off the streets, whether they are here legally or not, and keep them locked up for days at a time. I fear for the lives of my family because I am aware that many of these people who are here from Mexico are poor and unable to find work; as a result I worry that they are likely to steal from me and possibly harm my family. It matters not whether these people actually pose a threat to my family: what is important here is the perception that this may be so, because that is my primary motivation. In any event, I know that from an ethical perspective determination to keep “foreigners” out is wrong, as are the racial profiling and the false arrests. But I support the efforts of my government and the actions of the police because it seems to be a way to keep my family safe.

Note the conflict here between the ethical considerations of the rights of the Mexicans to share our way of life if they so choose — certainly as much right as we had, if not more, to take this country away from the native people. Human rights are based on the capacity to make moral choices, according to Immanuel Kant. And the Mexicans have that capacity as surely as I do. So, on the one hand, I must recognize their rights while, on the other hand, I experience fear and suspicion of those who are different from me and I support steps I know are wrong in order to keep my family safe. Here’s the gap between what I know is right and my ability to act on that knowledge. In the best of all possible worlds, where everyone does the right thing, I would welcome the Mexicans to my town and make an effort to ease their transition to a new way of life. But this is not the best of all possible worlds. This is the real world where people base their actions on perceived danger, real or not, and act out of ignorance or on impulse rather than on sound reasoning.

In my book I distinguish between justification, explanation, and rationalization in ethics. The first is the ability to find sound ethical reasons to support a claim. I know, for example, that the right thing to do in my example is to treat all humans, including “foreigners,” with respect. An explanation simply accounts for my determination to act as I do. I can explain my reluctance to welcome those who differ from me even though I cannot justify my actions: I fear for my family’s safety. And finally, I find it easy to rationalize my actions: it’s what everyone else is doing so why shouldn’t I? The latter is an attempt to find bogus reasons for  what we are inclined to do anyway. One would like to find sufficient justification for doing the right thing. But, as Dostoevsky noted in several of his novels, the problem is frequently not one of justification, explanation, or rationalization but of reconciliation —  to the fact that at times we must do the thing we know is wrong.

In the end the gap is still there. I may know what is right, but I am unable to do it even though I can rationalize and even explain it. I cannot justify my actions from an ethical perspective. I know I am not doing the right thing. Knowing what is right and doing what is right are two entirely different things. How to close the gap between thought and the real world which as Machiavelli tells us is full of humans who are “ungrateful, fickle, liars, deceitful, fearful of danger, and greedy of gain.” In the end  I have come to realize that this is not a philosophical problem; it is a psychological problem. Why do we find it so difficult to do the right thing?