Revisiting Duty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doubt Leads to Thought

I went all the way back to 2011 to find this post which only garnered one comment at the time. I still think it worth reading and even worth pondering as we seem to have entered a world in which Google has replaced history and the population on the whole seems to be increasingly disinclined to think about things that truly matter.

I have been reading Hannah Arendt’s excellent book, Responsibility and Judgment. In that book, like so many of her other books, she draws lessons from the debacle that occurred in Germany before, during, and after the Second World War. Chiefly, she reflects on the nature of evil — which she calls “banal” — and the fact that so many of us seem to be capable of it. Evil comes, she is convinced, from our unwillingness, if not our inability, to think.

Arnold Toynbee once said that thinking is as difficult for humans as walking on two legs is for a monkey and we do as little as possible the more comfortable we are. We all assume that if we open our mouths and utter an opinion the process involves thought. Such is not the case, however. As Socrates showed many times, our opinions most often are mere “wind eggs,” unexamined prejudgments that  prevent real thought by suggesting that we know when in fact we do not. To make matters worse, we are urged in our culture these days not to be “judgmental,” when, in fact, it is precisely judgment that is at the heart of thought.  For Socrates, as for Arendt, thought requires a constant dialogue within oneself, a conversation with oneself, if you will. It requires doubt and an insistence that we do not know in spite of our pretensions. As Socrates was fond of saying, we only know that we do not know — at least that is the claim he made for himself. We don’t seem inclined to take on his mantle of humility.

Evil is “banal,” precisely because it issues forth from men and women who do not seek evil ends, but who simply don’t want to be bothered to think about what it is they are doing. Those few who opposed Hitler in Germany, for the most part, were not the intellectuals (who are supposed to be the thinkers), but the ordinary men and women who carried on an inner dialogue with themselves and simply decided they could not cooperate with those who would do terrible things. They would rather die than cooperate with evil men.

Hopefully we will never be called upon to make decisions that make us party to evil; but we are called upon daily to question, to doubt, to consider, and to think about the things we do and the things we choose not to do. And when we have reached a conclusion, the doubt and thinking should begin again. When we have reached a point where we no longer feel doubt is necessary, we are in danger of falling into a dogmatic trap. As Kant would have it,

“I do not share the opinion that one should not doubt once one has convinced oneself of something.”

Doubt must be ongoing if it is to rise to the level of real thought. Arendt is convinced that if the German people had been more (not less) “judgmental” during the 30s of the last century Hitler never would have risen to power and the Second World War and its atrocities would never have happened. Today it is precisely the tendency we have not to think that is the greatest danger as we listen to the bloat and rhetoric of the politicians and demagogs who would capture our minds and take them prisoner.

Our best hope for staying out of this prison is, of course, our schools. But it is clear that they have taken a wrong turn and the schools at all levels are now preoccupied with job preparation instead of mental preparation. This trend feeds into the lethargy that makes it just too much trouble to think seriously about what is going on around us. That is the trap it would seem we have indeed fallen into, preoccupied as we are with creature comforts and job promotions.

We need to recall Socrates’ words, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

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.

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!

So What?

I have been kicking a dead horse of late in the form of the movement that started in the 14th century and which has been called “humanism.” This movement went head-to-head with Christianity for many years — especially in the form of the Protestant Reformation in the 15th and 16th centuries, which, for all intents and purposes humanism defeated. But humanism also died. Following John Carroll’s lead I made some pithy comments about the death of humanism which he and I both lay at the feet of thinkers like Charles Darwin and Karl Marx — both of whom played pivotal roles in the scientific revolution and in the growth of capitalism which in many ways define our shallow “commodified culture” and certainly lay to rest any notion anyone might have about the possibility that humanism still lives. It does not.

But a comment by a reader of the last of three posts on that topic said, in effect, “so what?” The reader feels that the humanities in the colleges and universities. for example, are dead because there is no longer any call for them; students don’t want to study esoteric subjects that will not lead them directly to jobs, etc. To be honest, I wasn’t writing about the death of the humanities as academic disciplines in the colleges and universities which have been dying for many years. I will simply say that the humanities, and liberal arts generally, were designed to help young people think, to help them gain possession of their own minds, regardless of what job they undertake. What has happened as they died out is that education has been replaced by training, the academies of higher learning, generally speaking, have become trade schools. Let’s leave it at that.

I would rather turn to the larger question of the humanistic movement. So what if this movement has also died out?

The problem lies not so much with humanism itself but with what humanism brought to the table, historically speaking. Let’s focus exclusively on the fact that humanism generated the Enlightenment and at the height of the eighteenth century, when humanism was in its glory the German philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote his monumental works defending the role of human reason in ethics. One of his books, in fact, was titled Religion Within The Limits of Reason Alone. He defended the place of reason in determining right and wrong which he thought were no longer capable of being defended by the Roman Church or its Reformers. Christianity may have died out as a cultural force, thought Kant, but we no longer need it to do the right thing. With reason alone, following the categorical imperative, human beings were capable, Kant insisted, in determining in any given case which course of action was “in accordance with duty” and therefore morally right. The Kantian ethic, together with remnants of the Christian ethics combined to create in the Western world a moral high ground from which it was possible for anyone who made the attempt to determine in a given case what he or she should do.

With the death of humanism — and anything like the Kantian ethics — the notion of the moral high ground was leveled. Virtues such as courage, wisdom, justice, human rights, all notions that the humanists regarded as self-evident, were replaced by “values,” which were regarded as relative if not subjective. No longer universal in their appeal, values come and go with the winds of change and the level moral high ground provided no one a place to stand in order to see clearly what is right and what is wrong. Indeed, right and wrong have disappeared along with the moral high ground. And with it such virtues as courage, civility, honor, and chivalry, the virtues that Don Quixote fought to defend, have been lost — perhaps forever. Thus, even before Kant took up his pen the hero of Cervantes’ novel was made to look ridiculous, even mad, in his attempt to defend the virtues that were already beginning to disappear.

Today there are no more Don Quixotes. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the last man to defend the moral high ground. All around us lie the dead husks of that humanism that gave those virtues and indeed morality itself breath. What we have today is pragmatism, a careful calculation as to which course of action will turn out best for me in the short run. Reason simply calculates and for growing numbers of people compassion for our fellows has been lost along with  those virtues that were predicated on helping others, or as Quixote would see it, helping those who cannot help themselves.

There are remnants left of the Kantian and the Christian ethics, to be sure. But they pale in comparison with the virtues that Quixote defended. Humanism died and along with humanism the commitment to human reason that can lead us, along with centuries of tradition and various religions, to universal truths about right and wrong also died. So when we ask “so what?” we ask “why be moral?” The two questions amount to the same thing.

 

Intelligence

IN 2008 Northwestern University Press published a collection of essays by Lionel Trilling edited by Leon Wieseltier under the title The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent. Wieseltier chose the title because one of Trilling’s teachers, John Erskine, had once published an essay by that title. The problem I have with this title is that it makes no sense whatever and given that Trilling was a brilliant man he would have known this. The collection is in some way an insult to the man Wieseltier hoped to praise. There is no question he held Trilling in very high regard, but he should have given the title of the book more thought.

The title makes no sense because we cannot have an obligation to be intelligent. We either are or we are not intelligent. As Immanuel Kant argued many hears ago, “ought implies can.” We cannot choose to be intelligent, though we can choose to be as intelligent as possible. Thus the title “The Moral Obligation To Be As Intelligent As Possible” would have made sense. But it is a bit cumbersome and was doubtless rejected on those grounds. Again, we can try to be intelligent. Indeed, according to much of the collective wisdom of the Western tradition, we have a moral obligation to develop our potential, including our mental capacity, and not to waste it.

Our president and his minions have set the benchmark for intelligence at a very low level. In addition, the electronic toys the kids are addicted to have been shown to diminish intelligence. Popular culture and the entertainment industry have replaced “high culture” and civil discourse. And our schools don’t see intelligence as having any real value. But then intelligence in this country has never been regarded as an especially good thing, a thing to be sought after as desirable in its own right. Ours is a nation of practical folks who have always been suspicious of those who exhibit intelligence, those “eggheads” so derided not long ago. The notion that we should pursue knowledge for its own sake and not simply because it may someday translate into greater profits for ourselves and the companies we might happen to work for is anathema in this culture. And, to a lesser extent, it always has been, despite the fact that the founders of this nation were a remarkably intelligent group of men, as were the two presidents we revere most highly — namely, Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. But, then, consistency has never been our strong forte.

Moreover, it makes no sense to say that we have a moral obligation to do something we cannot do. I cannot tell you, for example, that you really should leap off the highest building in town and fly — where “should” reflects the moral obligation to do just that. This makes no sense whatever. Thus, if intelligence is something we are either born with or not, then it makes no sense whatever to tell someone that they really should be intelligent. Even the phrase reflects the nonsense at the heart of the demand. But the notion that we should all, in this day and age, try as hard as we can to become as intelligent as possible makes perfectly good sense — despite the current cultural pressures to be as stupid as possible. Wasting our time and our minds on electronic toys, social media, violent movies, and listening to mindless people shouting at one another on television is not designed to make us smarter. It is tantamount to wasting our talents, our potential as human beings, our potential as a specific human being with specific abilities and talents.

We pay lip service to this idea when we note that “the mind is a terrible thing to waste” (or as Dan Quayle said in this regard, “What a waste it is to lose one’s mind. . .”  Quayle knew whereof he spoke.) And our sitting president who spends his time tweeting inanities and taking mulligans on the golf course at the expense of the American taxpayer is certainly not my choice to be captain of the intelligence corps. But he is revered by countless Americans who see him as the Great White Hope, a man of extraordinary intelligence (as he insists he is) who will lead us to a brighter tomorrow. Probably not. Certainly not if we continue to waste our minds on trivia and toys and ignore the obligation to try to be as intelligent as possible and to elect politicians in the future who exhibit at least a modicum of intelligence.

We, Thee, and Me

There are lessons to be learned from looking at such things as the Protestant Reformation, the break in the dam that held devout Europeans for so long close to the bosom of the Catholic Church.

Put simply, perhaps too simply, the break with the Catholic Church marked a radical change in the world view of the vast majority of Europeans. From identifying with a major Authority figure that demanded obedience and exacted tribute suddenly (from an historical perspective) men and women were on  their own. With the invention of the printing press the Bible was available to an increasingly literate population and folks were being told that it was up to them to determine right and wrong and find their own way to Heaven. They were no longer to be shown the way, though it was clear form the Bible in their hand. In a word, their mind-set went in a very few years from We, to Thee, to Me. The individual was born and the Enlightenment brought with it a new fascination with human reasoning powers and a sudden awareness of human rights — with little discussion of the responsibilities that went along with those rights.

To be sure, there were thinkers like Immanuel Kant in Germany whose profound books wrestled with the new awareness of ethics based on human reasoning powers, and Kant stressed the priority of duties over rights — without the former the latter make no sense whatever. But few read Kant and many who read him didn’t understand him. And in any event thinkers like Thomas Hobbes, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and John Locke were busy constructing political theories that made the individual prior to the community of which they were a part. The concept of the “social contract” stressed the benefits to the individual over the state. What’s in it for me?

If we think back to the political thinking of folks like Thomas Aquinas, Plato, and Aristotle we realize what a radical change this was. To the ancients, the state was prior to the individual in the sense that no human being could be regarded as in any sense human without membership in a political community. Political communities brought with them laws and the peace of mind that made possible the growth of intellection and the creation of beautiful works of art, the development of our human potential. Membership in communities made possible such things as language which is not necessary for the hermit in the cave who lives alone and cares about no one else and is therefore less than human. The remnants of this view found their way into the writing of such thinkers as Ortega y Gasset early in the last century who warned us about the dawning of a “new barbarism” and also remind us that “civilization is above all else the will to live in common.” The Enlightenment had given us the notion of the common good which groups of virtuous individuals were supposed to realize made possible their own good. But by this time “Me” had gained ascendency over “We and Thee,” though folks like Adam Smith insisted that others are necessary for each of us to fully develop our sympathetic nature. Still, it’s a case of what others can do for me, not the other way around. Increasingly it was the case that the individual is seen as one who lives in a social body because it is of benefit to him.

Today we have groups and individuals that insist upon being recognized and accepted for what they are. Everyone is a victim and everyone is shouting (at the same time) about their rights. Rather than think about how greatly they benefit from membership in a social body we clamor for the benefits we insist we have coming simply because we are who we are — whoever we are. The alteration in mind-set is radical: from seeing the whole as prior to the part we now see things the other way around. The part is prior to the whole. From a preoccupation with my rights it is a very short step to insisting “it’s all about me.”

This transition is made clear, if we stop to think about it, from a consideration of our attitude toward such things as income taxes. We resent having to pay a part of our hard-earned income to the State in order to have them take that money and do with it we know-not-what. We really don’t know, we just know it’s our money and THEY are taking it away from us. In fact, however, the concept of taxation is consistent with any sound political philosophy: the State needs funds in order to protect its citizens. Today, for example, despite the fact that the lion’s share of our tax money goes toward what we call “Defense” it also takes care of the infra-structure, supports education and also such things as health care and the preservation of the environment. Or it is supposed to until or unless some clown declares himself Lord Muck-A-Muck and decides to cripple those agencies that are designed to make life better for the majority of our citizens.

In any event, the point I would like to stress is that radical alteration in worldview, from We and Thee to Me. We demand our rights and ignore our responsibilities. We insist that the State exists to serve us and not the other way around. We applaud John Kennedy when reminds us not to ask what our country can do for us but what we can do for our country, but we don’t think about the demands this places upon us, demands that our need to live with others requires that we recognize that others are just as important as we ourselves and we are a part of a whole that is ever so much greater than our little part.

 

One More Time

I shall once again refer to Lionel Trilling’s excellent novel The Middle of the Journey because it raises a fascinating question, one that so many of us have forgotten to think about. I refer to the problem of human freedom and responsibility. Rather than accepting blame for our many mistakes we have become used to making excuses, prodded on by the social sciences (or the “pseudo-sciences,” as a friend of mine would have it) that insist we are the product of social causes, environment, education  (or lack of education), economic pressures, the “character pattern imposed by society” (as Trilling puts it). This leaves us no room whatever for human freedom and when freedom disappears so also does moral responsibility. We buy into this tripe because it is an easy way out. After all, if there is no responsibility for human beings then since I am a human being I bear no responsibility whatever for anything I may happen to do — including taking the life of another, or inciting others to do the same. How very comforting!

Trilling raises this question toward the end of his novel when a small group of friends is gathered around following the death of a young girl who was slapped by her father and died because she had a weak heart about which he knew nothing. The question is whether the man deserved to be published. The liberal view, the view of the social scientist, the view shared by the majority of the small group, is ready to make excuses for the man, though the most vehement member of the group wanted to have nothing more to do with the man, despite the fact that he could not have known his daughter would die from his slap. In a word, she didn’t hold the man responsible yet she can’t forgive him. These are human beings after all, albeit fictional ones, and they are as full of contradictions as are the rest of us.

In any event, Trilling insists that this woman, despite her strictly deterministic viewpoint, cannot forgive the man. Moreover, he has the former leader of the group, Gifford Maxim, the former card-carrying member of the Communist Party who has found God and left the Party at considerable risk to his own life, reply to the notion that there cannot be any responsibility — or forgiveness. Maxim makes a series of points to counteract the view of the social scientist who would blame “society” rather than individuals:

“I can personally forgive [the father of the little girl] because I believe God can forgive him. You see, I think his will is a bad one, but not much worse, not altogether different in kind, from other wills. And so you [who cannot condemn the man because you blame society] and I stand opposed. For you — no responsibility for the individual, but no forgiveness. For me — ultimate, absolute responsibility for the individual, but mercy. Absolute responsibility is the only way that men can keep their value, can be thought of as other than things. . . .”

Now whether or not we buy into the religious aspects of this point, it is worth pondering. It is so because the notion of human responsibility can be rescued only if we insist upon the fact of  human freedom — if we reject the notion that we are products of society, simply. We might be forced to admit that society, broadly speaking, plays a role in the formation of who we are. Doubtless it does. But to insist, as so many in the social-sciences do, that we are totally the product of our social conditioning — poor potty training, angry baby-sitters, or a third grade teacher who hated us — a claim that cannot be proven, is to leave no room for responsibility whatever. As Maxim points out, there can be no forgiveness because everything is pre-determined.

But the point that strikes me as the salient one in this discussion is near the end of Maxim’s comment above, when he notes that “Absolute responsibility is the only way men can keep their value, can be thought of as other than things.” This, of course, is the heart and soul of Kantian ethics as it is of the Christian ethic, and it is a point that cannot be denied without reducing, as Maxim says, human beings to things. In the end human freedom can be rescued from the snares of the social scientist by virtue of our own felt-experience; the fact that no logical proof has ever been devised to prove that we are not free; and even Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, which shows that activity on the sub-atomic level is in principle unpredictable. Accordingly, human beings can be held responsible. And they can be forgiven, or condemned as the case may be — depending on the degree of their culpability.

 

Dumbing It Down

When I was hired in 1968 to start a philosophy program and coordinate a required Freshman course called “Ideas In Flux” at a brand new state college in Minnesota I had high hopes. I was only four years out of graduate school but I had already taught a number of the great books to “marginal students” at one of the many colleges that flourished in those days to keep young men out of the draft — colleges with non-degree programs designed for students  who were simply enrolled in order to avoid going to Viet Nam. I was therefore determined to initiate a reading program in what was then a brand-new state college, with better students presumably, that would challenge the students and inspire the faculty who taught them. All faculty were required to teach at least one section of “Flux” a year and all Freshmen were required to take three quarters of the course to provide them with a foundation to build on later in their major fields of study.

The first quarter focused on the question “What Is Man?” a title that would be regarded as sexist today and not allowed by the PC police. I thought long and hard about the reading list and came up with selections that would be challenging but not too difficult for the average student, especially if he or she had the guidance of a dedicated faculty member. I submitted the reading list before arriving on campus, and it included (among other works) the very short, eminently readable, masterpiece by Pico Della Mirandola, The Dignity of Man. The remaining works sounded, perhaps, less imposing (I don’t remember), but in any event the entire list was rejected by the Dean of Faculty as too difficult for their students. An anthology was selected by a committee at the college before I arrived on campus and I was informed that this would be the text. I was to read the selections before the classes met each week and submit questions for the faculty members to ask in order to generate discussion within their groups.

Many of the classes were successful, but more were not. A large number of faculty members resented having to teach something out of their area of expertise. One of them, when faced with a small paperback dealing with the basic concepts of Freudian psychology, told his class that he didn’t understand a word in the book and said they didn’t have to read it. Here was an excellent educational opportunity wasted: they could have explored the text together! Eventually the Freshman requirement was dropped, primarily because so many faculty resented having to teach outside their disciplines where they were busy building up their major requirements, despite the fact that a number of them not only enjoyed teaching the subject but raved about the success they were having. For one thing, it got Freshmen students involved at the start of their college career, since the classes were small and encouraged discussion. For another, it gave interested faculty members a chance to explore intellectual territory they were unfamiliar with — though, as I found out, many saw this as a threat!

I have always been angry that the Dean of Faculties had turned down that initial reading list that included books he had almost certainly never read and probably had never even heard of. I fought that battle for several years with him and with others on the faculty. But, being young and powerless, I lost the battle in the end. But I always thought the students were being cheated: they were being regarded as less able than I knew they were. And the reluctance of so many of the faculty to fully support the course didn’t help. If you aim low, I thought, you will hit low. Instead of stretching the minds of the students (and many of the faculty) which was the initial intent of the course, the trend was downwards. “Dumbing Down the Curriculum” it has since been called. And we see it happening all over the country, at all levels.

I recall the first time I read Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason as a Junior in college. I had no idea whatever what the man was saying. But after a presentation on the subject by one of the tutors and struggling with the very difficult material myself, and especially after meeting with other students in a seminar and discussing the book, I finally began to see what Kant was saying. It was difficult going, but the end result was extremely satisfying. It was like striking gold after hours of work in a dark cave! I went from a slightly better-than-average student at a technical high school memorizing and regurgitating dull material to a more mature student committed to lifelong learning.

We deprive our students of that sort of experience by selling them short, by assigning easy reading material and taking them by the hand to lead them through it — or encouraging them to read Cliffs Notes! They will never know what they have missed, and that is truly sad.

John Stuart Mill once said that we will not know what is possible until we attempt what is impossible. I have always thought that was a profound thought, and that even so-called “average” students could benefit from walking, even briefly, in the company of genius. Instead of dumbing down the curriculum we should raise it to heights we may think the students (or faculty) cannot reach. They just might surprise us!

Rights Of Man

Back in the day when folks used the word “man” to denote all humans and before the rad-fems got their collective drawers in a bunch because they were convinced that the term was another sign of male dominance in their world, there was talk about the “Rights of Man.”  The doctrine was decidedly an Enlightenment concept and could be found in declarations from the French after their revolution in 1789 and was later to be found in the title of Thomas Paine’s famous book that attempted to encapsulate the rationale behind the American Revolution and the subsequent attempt to ratify a Constitution. It did not, of course, talk about the rights of the males of the human species. Rather, it spoke about the rights of all human beings — French or American, or anything else.

The recent movements the world over toward a new Nationalism is disturbing  on many levels, but most disturbing of all is its tendency to fly in the face of the notion that lies behind the declarations of the rights of all humans; namely, the notion that all humans regardless of race, color, creed, or sexual preference have the same rights. We see this in the recent decision of Great Britain to go it alone and separate itself from the rest of Europe and in the recent movement in this country to “Make America Great Again” by building a wall between the United States and Mexico and refusing sanctuary to those who have been displaced and are homeless. These attempts to isolate the countries reinforce the notion that England or the United States are somehow different from the rest of the world and, clearly, superior in that there is a thinly disguised jingoism hiding behind the movements. We don’t need you: stay away; we can go it alone.

This is absurd on its face, of course, because the economy of any single country these days is dependent on the rest of the world; but more important than that is the “hidden agenda” of jingoistic nonsense that denies the fundamental Enlightenment notion that all human beings have the same rights and while we are not the same in any other respect we are none the less the same in our right to be (as Kant would have it)  respected as “ends in ourselves.” Kant regarded this as the cornerstone of his ethical system: all persons are ends in themselves and ought never be treated merely as a means. That is, regardless of who we are we are not to be used or to use others “merely as a means” to our own ends. This undermines slavery, obviously, but it also undermines what has come to be called “discrimination” of any sort.

I have always thought Kant’s ethical system to be the strongest of any I have studied even though it places huge responsibilities on all of us to acknowledge the fact that other humans are basically the same as ourselves. It’s a truly Christian notion, of course, though Kant doesn’t couch his theory in the language of the New Testament. There is no talk about loving our neighbors. Still, he would insist that we must acknowledge our neighbor’s rights because they are the same as our own. The notion that we should build walls to keep them out, or that we should send people away because they practice another religion or seem to pose a distant threat because others who look like them pose a threat, is in direct contradiction to the fact that all humans have the same rights.  This is so despite the fact that we show ourselves ready at a moment’s notice to de-humanize other people by gearing up the propaganda machine and inventing pejorative names for the “enemy.”  After all, if they are the enemy then they are not really human and they are to be destroyed. War propaganda is a terrible thing, but in its way the movement toward Nationalism is a step in the same direction. It makes us out to be better than “them” no matter who “them” happens to be.

I am not naive and I do realize that others do not always recognize our rights and there are those in this world who would just as soon that we not exist and would love to make that happen. But we should never lose sight of the moral high ground and insist that any violence toward other people, in the form of walls or the nightmare of another war, should never be an option until all else has been shown to fail. There is no moral defense of war. When it happens it is always a matter of expedience and neither side is right if it is willing and able to kill those who wear a different uniform or have a darker skin, or practice a different religion. All humans have the same rights and we have a responsibility to recognize those rights until it has been demonstrated that they refuse to recognize ours. Even then, if he must, the soldier goes to battle with a heavy heart because he knows that what he does is wrong. And, in a small way, this is true of those who build walls.

It is one world and we are all in this together, like it or not. And we must always keep in mind that all humans have the same rights and no one has any sort of claim to be superior in any legitimate sense of that term to any one else.