Relevance of Humanities: An Epistemological Skeptic Teaches Ethics

This discussion began as a presentation I made to the West Virginia Philosophy Society back in 2012.  After that, some colleagues jumped into the discussion, with my extreme gratitude.

Joe PetrulionisUndergraduate Ethics: A Skeptic Teaches What, Democracy?

How might an academic discipline justify its relevance to the stakeholders of educational institutions? Who are these stakeholders? How should curricular requirements for a diploma be fairly determined? How much time, effort, and money should be invested in each field of study? How will we know that these resources have not been wasted? How relevant is any branch of knowledge; and which yardsticks should be used to measure this relevance? Finally, who should pay for it? None of these questions is new. No answer has ever satisfied everyone involved and very little progress has been made toward sustainable solutions. Traditionally, when a bundle of vexing questions seems too paradoxical a careful re-framing can help. The training offered to practitioners in advanced Philosophy and Logic classes may assist when the problem arises from linguistic instability. Through a careful analysis of the language in use, a question might be framed with fewer fallacies and more stable terminology. In this case, reaching agreement on the meaning of terms such as “relevance” or “stakeholder,” might prove helpful first steps. But when multiple perspectives render a problem to be a naked struggle over resources or dominance, solutions are not to be found in linguistic analysis but in negotiation and political processes.
The political act of allocating precious resources among the many candidates for society’s beneficence does not require advanced logic, higher order mathematical analysis, or fluency in an ancient language. Yet the logician, mathematician, and classicist should not be turned out of the negotiations unheard. Their standing is similar to all other stakeholders and their perspectives are as valid. The consumers and the providers of education must have clear and candid conversations with the underwriters. These negotiations must be unmuddled by any pretense to inordinate complexity of the subject matter or access to specialized knowledge. The public deserves a clear answer to their demands for an explanation of why our particular courses and academic efforts remain relevant. My essay is not an attempt to present one side of this argument. Among a long tradition of scholars working in the History of Philosophy, Martha Nussbaum has attempted to articulate, in everyday language, her own views on why one group of academic studies is important to democracy itself. While there remain many opportunities to refine, to restrain, and to elaborate her arguments, this comment intends, instead, to provide an example of a Humanities course that serves the functions described in Nussbaum’s “manifesto.”(A)
Despite that explanation of my purpose, I feel morally compelled to state my own perspectives in these debates, and to try to outline my departures from other participants. As does Nussbaum, I see humanities coursework as highly relevant. But I think that any course in any academic discipline, when it is appropriately designed for such ambitious themes, and when it is presented by a competent teacher to students who are receptive to and prepared for the message, any course can be an important setting for modeling democratic attitudes and institutions. Yet, for me, the relevance of the humanities transcends even democracy itself. If we define “profit” as a valuable return on expenditures, I am convinced that the humanities are profitable to our students and to the societies in which they live. In these so called liberal arts courses we explore what it might mean and has meant to be human. Our conclusions, if any, must be complex enough to encompass a broad description of human experience, even those humans pursuing careers and majors in non-humanities disciplines, or living in non-democratic social situations. So the efforts that we generally describe as “the humanities” have no monopoly on the ability to develop and sustain democracy, and if we make such a claim we are making an unsupportable and egotistical boast and deserve to be soundly disregarded.
Wholeheartedly agreeing that humanities courses are highly relevant and like other parts of the educational spectrum they are vital to our world, I intend here to describe one course that has been designed to help students become democratic participants in a pluralistic world. Before I commence with the description of this undergraduate Ethics course, however, some of our terminology deserves yet more attention. When we debate the relevance of “the Humanities” we may mean the complex of academic disciplines themselves, we may also mean the undergraduate majors offered to students who are specializing in these fields, additionally we may mean the exposure to the techniques, traditions, and talents that a student might gain by taking one class within one of these disciplines. Clearly, a complex of disciplines and a course in, say, persuasive writing techniques would have differing kinds of relevance. So distinguishing between the field, the programs, and the courses would help us make progress in the discussion.
Likewise, since some of the more vocal spokespeople on all sides of this issue have little to do, themselves, with real undergraduate students in any face-to-face sort of way, I will briefly describe the present diversity which is often masked by the use of the generic term, “undergraduate.” Some may imagine a large class of young American scholars at the beginning of their college careers. Yet this group of people remains difficult to categorize; they may be generalized only in error. I have had students who have ranged in age from sixteen to seventy-five years, from the early entry high school student seated in the front row of her very first university classroom, to the retired physician auditing classes for fulfilment and stimulation. Also, we now “serve” a group presenting a broad spectrum of ethnic and gender self identifications, a proud achievement for the academy that does not get enough celebration. We meet students of varying physical and emotional challenges, life experiences , and many stages of academic preparation. All of this diversity can be astounding: veterans, freshly returned from foreign deployments, young people who have never spent more than a night or two outside of their parents’ home, so called, returning adults from rural areas hoping to open a door for a promotion at work, and young people from a metropolis in southern China to a village in Northern Argentina, we strive to provide relevant learning opportunities to people for whom relevance may mean quite different things. As we witness the various choices these students will make for their academic majors we may rightly ask how a particular course will fit with all of the needs of the specializations our students will be entering.
These are the beings who fill our undergraduate classrooms. Many of my younger students would tell you, with no trace of intended irony, that they intend to go into some sub-field of “CEO’ing.” Since I ask in their first homework assignment I learn that in fifteen years they will be running energy and automobile companies, managing sports teams, founding computer based social networking conglomerates and working their way up to the top tiers of Google Corporation. The amazing thing for me to remember is that perhaps they will. In addition to these organizationally oriented students, I have the next generation of forensic scientists or criminal psychologists, who will be solving international crime for the CIA, FBI and the NSA. Sitting well to the rear of the class, periodically during the semester, you can find the “talented tenth” so vital to democracy, rock stars in the making who may end up working in the “film and documentary” industry or perhaps working for the United Nations or Peace Corps. Or perhaps there is a philosophy teacher among them. And there well might be! Competing for the seats at the front of my classes are students who tell me they will be teaching in public schools, becoming nursing professionals, veterinarians, engineers, and accountants. Scattered among these are students already majoring in some branch of the humanities or social sciences, some intending their degrees to prepare them for entry into a professional program, many contemplating graduate study in their chosen fields. All of these together represent what we describe with that blanket term “undergraduate.” If we do not tell them how our courses are relevant to these diverse careers and lives, how do we expect them to see it?
As we describe the relevance of the humanities, our initial question might be better framed into something like, what are the kinds of relevance of humanities classes to various types of undergraduate students? After we handle this question, we can then proceed to questions of relevance to the nation, to the human species, and to the academic efforts we might call the pursuit of truth.
But the shrill tone and exaggerated warnings of some partisans in this discussion, declaring yet another crisis in education, leads me to doubt the reliability of the conclusions and evidence being offered. It certainly does not enable communications between underwriters, providers and consumers. If we are conducting a civil negotiation among the stakeholders of educational resources and public funds, let us describe the situation in realistic terms. (B)
With that extended description of my own views on the debates over the relevance of the humanities, I hope to have underlined my own opinions: that humanities classes have many types of relevance, that humanities teachers have no monopoly on the delivery of democratic skills or attitudes, and that the relevance of a particular course, any course in any field, depends on the goals and design of that specific educational experience. As such, I would like to describe a course that has been designed and taught with Martha Nussbaum’s goals for humanities education in mind. A version of the Introductory Ethics Course, offered at Penn State University, Altoona Campus, presents a broad sampling of the history of moral philosophy to undergraduate students who are majoring in any field. Most participants are not Humanities majors. This experience helps to develop capabilities important to democratic peoples and institutions, skills of critical thinking and the courage to argue with a perceived authority figure, for example the professor. By challenging a student’s unquestioned and foundational assumptions about life, with constant reference to skeptical epistemology and the resulting imperative to withhold judgments, this course drives home its central theme, that real tolerance requires an admission of uncertainty. I should also note that this course is not a degree requirement but is one of many options to fulfill a broad “general education” requirement. So questions of the course’s relevance are, in part, answered by the fact that students typically register and fill these sections despite the fact that they might have chosen many other courses to fulfill the requirement.
The study and learning of academic ethics depends, to a large extent, on the teaching of ethics. The manner of presentation can often lead students to unfortunate, yet predictable conclusions. On the one hand, a sophisticated presentation of moral philosophy as logical and linguistic analysis can be so complex that only someone with graduate level exposure to symbolic logic and meta-language might disentangle the syntax enough to apply these theories to the real world. On the next hand, a student might hear that since all opinions are matters of individual or cultural perspective and worse, speculation without evidence, there is nothing helpful being offered; On the third hand, that since constructions such as right and wrong are just opinions we use to bludgeon others into doing things our way we should learn to persuade if possible but to force, without shame or compunction, when we must. Finally, the last hand dealt, the dealer’s hand, an ethics course is sometimes taught as if the teacher has and is delivering the factual truth to apprentices who are at the early stages of their own moral development and who, with enough diligence and imitation of the master, will grow to share that professor’s certainty, probable ideology, and even religious foundations as they master, for themselves, more of the facts.
These sorts of ethics instruction enable students to become comfortably satisfied with their own moral opportunism and encourage reliance on undisciplined rationalizations or unchallenged doctrine. These poorly executed classes help to create individuals who are less concerned about the dignity of other people. While students so trained may learn how to seem more respectful of authority, these students may easily imitate their mentors and become intolerant of views outside their own dogmas and experiences.
So let us quickly return to the undergraduates who take ethics classes specifically, what are the moral needs of these students? We should have the broad group of undergraduates in mind when we approach such a question. What should we offer this diverse group of individuals in a course called “Introduction to Ethics?” Many of our students will face challenges of extreme financial stress, not aided by the trends in our tuition costs and disappearing possibility for a civilian student to earn his or her way through college, as I and many of my own generation did, by working summers, weekends, and evenings. Fewer of our graduates seem to be getting compensated for their long and expensive investment by landing jobs paying any perceptible premium for the degree. These people will find themselves with unprecedented debts, represented by indentures protected by statute from bankruptcy recourse, repaid out of uncertain and inadequate wages they might have earned without the degree that got them into hock in the first place. Many of our students realize the high likelihood of this scenario when they describe their own career goals to me in their first homework assignment. Can I imagine any ethical reason that these students should not be fixated on the earnings potential that their degree will afford them? Is there any just reason to discount the idea of future earnings from the discussion of relevance?
The design of this course also includes opportunities for the teacher to demonstrate the importance of humility. Some of our students are politically astute and we can wager that it will come up in the class discussions. Some students are altogether disinterested, wearing the nomenclature of “a-political” as their grandparents wore the badge of “existentialist” in the mid twentieth century. The teacher’s opinions in such discussions and in democratic institutions should be afforded no additional weight, and it is most helpful if the teacher would conduct the course accordingly. Students should realize that the strength of an argument should be central to the direction of the discussions, not the power to grade and certainly not the degree worn by the instructor. Almost all of our students will be moved, I hope, to participate in the political processes of their homelands. Tempted as I might be to offer moral flash cards with the correct answers printed in block letters on the back, were I to tell them what to think about political and even topical ethical issues I would be playing what I have often called “the dealer’s hand” and teaching them only to feign agreement with an authority. Were I to argue only one side of an issue in an attempt to persuade my students to my own way of thinking, they would see through me very quickly. I think this would also be inexcusable malpractice since what I intend to generate with an Introductory Ethics class are courageous or at least independent thinkers who respect other people and who want to find ways to accomplish decisions without the constant recourse to coercion.
I have had students who have lost limbs in distant places where I have personally never yet been, having coped there with ethical situations I can hardly imagine. And yet I teach a class that will masquerade as their “Introduction to Ethics,” for which they will be awarded three credits of college coursework, approximately the same credit they will have been granted for their enlistment time served, and transferred into their transcript as “Career Experience Credit–Military Service.” Worse, here at Penn State they will be granted three hours of “Kineseology” for their military service, the same credit they would receive for a semester of basketball, golf or fly fishing. We are obligated to provide encouragement and hope where we can, but one of the most important lessons we can offer is that it is okay to be uncertain; many of our students really need to hear some of us tell them that we are grateful and proud of their service, that it’s all going to be okay. Then we need to help make certain that it will be. By providing a course that includes opportunities for public expressions of humility, a teacher is showing that uncertainty is not a shameful situation, but an ethical and honest admission of the human condition.
My own version of Introduction to Ethics intends to inoculate participants against overstated certainty claims, because a frank admission of one’s own uncertainty is the first step to understanding and empathizing with another person’s situation. I hope students learn that if they consider their own views to be “the truth” then they are likely to consider others who disagree as wrong, not holders of alternative viewpoints. At the same time, philosophy courses, and the discipline itself, should provide some means of coping with this newly recognized uncertainty. There are many coping mechanisms that do not depend on attainment of “the truth.” A majority of the course is devoted to evaluating these coping mechanisms in an attempt to find ethical means of dealing with others. Many of these discussions involve epistemology and its ethical ramifications woven into the narrative of a brief history of philosophy intended to familiarize students with the names and broad ideas that they will encounter in more advanced humanities studies.
Before I describe the organization of the course, I should mention one additional benefit of this historical approach to ethics. A course with these goals and content is already a very full semester. There can be little time devoted to the “ethical issues” that today’s students will be encountering in their churches, around the family dinner table, on their social network websites, and on talk radio shows. I have tried to teach issues-based ethics courses in the past and I realize that students are quite often unprepared to discuss these topics in a calm and dispassionate manner, they tend to mimic the “sky is falling” heated diatribe often offered as entertainment-news. First students must learn that their own viewpoints are viewpoints and not “the truth.” In the past, my own opinions expressed about issues such as “pro-life vs. pro-choice,” the “separation of Church and State,” “the responsibility of society to care for its less fortunate,” “the death penalty,” “self directed suicide,” etc., have rendered intolerably large percentages of my students unreceptive to anything else that I might utter during the course. By focusing on the history of theories relating to moral philosophy, there is already a significant content to master. Since what I really hope to achieve is a small group of students who are examining their own views, less certain of their own truth claims, and more receptive to people who hold alternative opinions, I have found ways to focus on these goals. Evading heated class debates is one step in this direction.
Within these broad goals for the introductory ethics course are some chronologically arranged units. What follows is an outline of these units and a few of the historical episodes that I narrate in class to meet these goals. I will be summarizing the historical content here, usually commencing with questions in a class discussion, followed by examples, stories, mental experiments, paradoxes, hypotheticals, skits and even magic tricks.
After the requisite administrative discussions about the syllabus and the course expectations, I will usually begin the first week’s discussion by asking, “Why is Ethics even in the Philosophy Department?” In this discussion, we will discover that the terms of the question should be defined if we hope to make any progress, specifically, the terms “Ethics” and “Philosophy.” Students will learn that the words have “Greek” backgrounds and that the word Philosophy is a compound word meaning “love of wisdom,” a convenient definition that will enable our mobilization of this word wisdom in its everyday meaning. We will become aware of peoples living long before the Greeks and Ionians who asked and submitted speculative answers to questions that we would call “Philosophy,” even today. And we will tentatively acknowledge that while the word “philosophy” may have started with the Greeks, Philosophy, the study, has always been a part of the human experience. It is neither western nor eastern, but human. This week we will read about the Avesta Language, Vedic Literatures, Zarathustrianism, and early Hebrew ideas. We will discuss what makes a question philosophical, and we will discover that this nomenclature has changed over time. In today’s academy, as we will learn, a question is usually considered philosophical if it requires one of the special talents that philosophy is still quite good at teaching its practitioners. These talents include handling paradoxes of perspective, instability in linguistic and symbolic systems, logical analysis, and the architecture of the interrelations of the academic disciplines. We will discuss the concept of a meta-field and submit to general discussion the notion that Philosophy is a sort of meta field to all other academic pursuits, carefully reiterating that this is not a ranking but a focus. We will conclude the first week with a question to consider, how do we distinguish the philosophy from before the Ionian Revolt from the Philosophical traditions that followed it?

Fresh from a weekend struggle with an informal writing response on the question, “How are we still fighting the Ionian Revolt?” The big lessons of the second week will include ethnocentrism in our language, the way it distorts our understanding of the history of philosophy, and worse, how it makes us feel about our own relations with other people in the world. After defining ethnocentrism, exploring the possible reasons this adaptive trait may have been a useful part of our early evolutionary baggage, we then discuss the many ways it can disrupt cooperation and mutual respect. Finally we try to distinguish the notions of “Western Philosophy” and “Eastern Philosophy.” Each semester, some students will submit the premise that western philosophy was somehow less religious, more scientific, and less prone to supernatural explanation. This is, unfortunately, an indication that that student has been doing the textbook reading, since most textbooks seem to reinforce if not state explicitly this historical mistake. While we read excerpts from Hesiod and Homer I assure the students, and they will see over and over, from Descartes to Locke, Berkeley, Kant, Hegel and many others, that western Philosophy, assuming that we are able to define it at all, will prove to be at least as religious, equally scientific, and as prone to supernatural explanation as any other philosophy in the world. As we attempt to describe “The West” we will find that this territorial construct migrates over time. Even when we use the notion of Greek and Roman traditions, we will find that we must make ethnicity based exceptions for places that were a part of the Hellenistic and Roman Empires but that are not generally considered western. Worse, the rules for gaining “membership” in the West seem to depend strictly on ethnicity. When a new place is colonized by colonists from a “western” nation, the new place becomes a part of “the west.” See for example the colonization of the North American East Coast. But when a place in “the west” colonizes a new place with people who do not share a western ethnicity, the new place is often ejected from our notion of “the west.” See for example, Liberia.
The third week of this course goes quickly to the root of the epistemological problem of Truth and the implications of this problem on ethics. This week I will introduce some of those those thinkers often called the “Pre-Socratic Greek Philosophers.” Beginning this unit with the epistemological skepticism of Xenophanes, a well travelled, proto-skeptic living circa 540 BCE in Colophon on the Ionian coast, we will attempt to define truth and knowledge using the highest standards for absolute truth, as set forth by what we would today call the Correspondence Theory Of Truth.

In short form, if a claim of truth means that your understanding corresponds with reality, we are at an impasse of sorts. We might think it possible to check our understanding against reality and thereby justify our truth claim. But clearly, improving an understanding does not equate to comparing that understanding with reality. If we are honest with ourselves, our understanding is all that we might achieve since there is no opportunity readily apparent to observe both your understanding and reality for a fair comparison. As students are encouraged to hold their own ethical opinions to this high truth standard, they begin to understand Xenophanes puzzling claim, preserved only in a fragment named “B34” in the Diels/Krantz Classification developed in 1952.
…and of course the clear and certain truth no man has seen
nor will there be anyone who knows about the gods and what I say about all things.
For even if, in the best case, one happened to speak just of what has been brought to pass,
still he himself would not know. But opinion is allotted to all.  (C)
Post contact with the Correspondence Theory, this fragment is no longer an impenetrable aphorism, but an honest statement of Xenophanes’ own uncertainty.
Also during this third week we quickly review the projects of the Sophists while students are introduced to several forms of ethical relativism. A puppet show portrays the differing viewpoints of a rabbit and a hawk as the hawk shreds “Fluffy” into little bits of nourishment for the chicks waiting for mom in the nest. The same act, stuffing little bits of Fluffy into the hungry beaks of hawk chicks can be both good and evil, depending on one’s perspective. Are you a rabbit or a hawk? After this demonstration, students are usually quite willing –too willing, in fact– to acknowledge relativism in ethics. After a weekend project, playfully designed as a class effort to teach the instructor “right” from “wrong” by suggesting and defending successive definitions on a class blog, we are ready to begin discussing the social ramifications of relativism. With no guiding principle of right and wrong, we find ourselves fixated instead on winning and persuading.
But the convenient meaning of the Greek word Philosophy as the love of wisdom gives ethics a way to cope with relativism and uncertainty. An inability to prove the truth of a particular claim does not shipwreck philosophy, neither does the inability to find justice in a test tube or telescope. Wisdom is not truth; even in our everyday language, for one example, folk wisdom is not measured so much on its truth content, but on how it assists people to live.
For purposes of this undergraduate ethics class, then, I postulate that wisdoms are all of the coping mechanisms that help us deal with uncertainty. We can not prove that a person’s understanding of right and wrong actually corresponds with reality. But we have wisdoms that do help us cope with this inability to prove truth. Negotiation, tradition, conventions, coherent explanations, law, science, codes of polite behavior, and yes, religious faith are several of these wisdoms that assist human beings in coping with an inability to prove our own views to another. Democracy, constitutions, Universal Declarations of Human Rights and more simple notions like “take turns,” and “share and share alike” are others. The first, and probably the most helpful wisdom we will discover in this class is the proscription of Sextus Empiricus in his Outlines of Pyrrhonism where we are enjoined to exercise the important talent, “withholding judgment.” (Trans. R.G. Bury, Harvard U. Press, 2000).
Of course we meet Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, learning variations of absolutism and virtue ethics as we go. We also meet stoics, Epicureans, and skeptics. We visit the House of Wisdom in Baghdad and Moses Maimonides in the Iberian Peninsula. Then these writers in Arabic hand off much science and theology to the scholastics of Christendom, as travellers and merchants like Ibn Battuta, Marco Polo, and Mansa Musa begin treating Europeans to the ideas which initiate the European Renaissance, a discovery that the rest of the world both exists and matters. As you can see I hope our discussions of cultural interactions lead students to the constant realization that diversity and contact with new ideas makes us stronger, smarter, and more creative.
At this point, shortly before the midterm exams in the class, our effort to solve for the truth of ethical problems has been divorced of any person’s ability to credibly cloak themselves in a broad claim of absolute truth. We find that we are all in the same epistemological situation, the human condition. We may each think we have the correct views, but our opinions, we realize, can only be imposed on another using some form of coercion. It becomes clear that individual, gendered, cultural, religious, and national coercion efforts remain, from the Thirty Years War to the so called “War on Terror.” But rarely does the resort to force, itself, solve anything in the long term. People who are forced to act in a particular way, learn to resist in time. The victim of such coercion learns to appreciate the role of force in decisions; what will have been generated is not compliance but an armed resistance movement. The role of philosophy and ethics in the modern era becomes the evaluation of the kinds of wisdoms that offer assistance in reaching decisions without recourse to force, or at least to refine those mechanisms that might delay the use of such coercion during which pause other more humane and respectful methods might have the opportunity to work.
As the semester progresses, we will learn about more of the recent big names in ethical theory. From the Rationalists to the Empiricists to Hume’s call for mutual respect and empathy, we will see Philosophers attempt and fail to provide reliable foundations for metaphysical truth, turning instead to “work arounds” intended to foster cooperation and mutual respect. Kant’s imperatives, Historicisms of Jena and Berlin, Utilitarian attempts to justify action on some basis of general welfare, and Wollstonecraft’s demand for equality in basic rights of all people. Then the class will pause to digest the Darwinian breakthrough, considering at length the implications of a world without prior plan, overarching purpose, and no central controlling authority. At about the same time we encounter Mill and Marx, and the radical nature of ideas becomes evident.
The last few weeks of my own version of such a class seem to dwell on the near simultaneous philosophical responses to the breakthroughs of Darwin , Mill and Marx. We will introduce Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, James, Heidegger, and Kropotkin. But we can not avoid Lenin and Ayn Rand in this narration either. As the semester closes we explore bundles of wisdom set forth in non-ideological, non-technical language by very recent Philosophers such as Richard Rorty, and Martin King, Jr, and Martha Nussbaum. Post structural pragmatism and capability ethics provide an introspective examination of a student’s treatment of others and a courageous demand for one’s own freedom to act in ethical ways.
But near the end of our course, we always take a close look at the highest law of all of the lands, the UN Declaration of Human Rights, itself one of these wisdoms that certainly help us cope with uncertainty. For example, the reciprocal nature of individual rights is described in:

                 Article 29.

(1) Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full
development of his personality is possible.
(2) In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only
to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of
securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others
and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the
general welfare in a democratic society.
(3) These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the
purposes and principles of the United Nations.
(United Nations Declaration: December 10, 1948)

I can not make the claim that my students will have achieved anything like a comprehensive understanding of the history of Philosophy in such a semester. They certainly will not have discovered the truth about any particular ethical issue. In fact, I usually consider the delivery successful if students are still attempting to coax from me my own personal opinions on issues such as abortion, religious freedom, or political affiliation. Because what is important to me is that my students have learned to appreciate their own tolerance for others, developed some courage to voice their own opinions, and founded a basis for further exploration of philosophical ideas.

As a way to conclude for now, I would like to submit one final possible meaning of the word relevance, as we continue to suggest that Humanities classes in general and this introduction to ethics course in specific are relevant. Basic human rights, especially those rights such as freedoms of speech, assembly, the press, and conscience which exist simply to bolster and protect democratic institutions and individual freedoms, these rights are relevant by virtue of the status of the law, a wisdom, which preserves them and in which state they exist. No further evidence of the relevance of the freedom of speech should be required. I would like to finish today, therefore, by reminding you all of the content of two sections of Article 26 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, two sections of law which require no “unpacking” at all:

(1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.

(2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human
personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and
fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and
friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further
the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.

_____________________________________________________
Notes
A.  Martha C. Nussbaum, Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs The Humanities, Princeton University Press, 2012. This book is such an attempt to articulate the relevance of the Humanities.
B. An important analysis of the ways a public has been herded into thinking of successive stages of educational “ crisis”, and the book that initiated my own thinking about this process is Andrew Hartman’s Education and the Cold War: the Battle for American Schools, Palgrave-MacMillan, 2011.

C. Lesher, James, “Xenophanes,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2011 Edition),Edward N. Zalta, ed. Stable URL <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2011/entries/xenophanes/&gt;.   

36 comments:

  1. Ben Majuskovic: Both Hume and Kant distinguished the Ought and the Is, Value from Fact, Morality from Science. The point is that science cannot tell us what ought/should be done. Science can tell us how to produce an atomic bomb but not when or how too use it (Hussrl, Max Weber). The study of the Humanities is relevant in that it essentially addresses questions of value, humanistic, ehtical, aesthtic.

    ReplyDelete

  2. Hi Ben. Thanks for your thoughtful comments. Yes the distinction between Ought and Is has its formal origins in Philosophy. But that distinction is not a property of the Humanities, nor is it taught in only Humanities courses. Every engineer is working with the Ought when she designs a new switching mechanism. Every sociologist is working with the Ought the moment he begins to use his data set as evidence to bring about a change. Nor is the Is a property of any other single discipline. I like to think of the Is as what we try to explain in History, for one example. I hope I am not too far astray when I say that this distinction between humanities, the bundle of disciplines, and humanities, the manner of thinking that gets taught in many kinds of courses, is precisely what my original comment was so clumsily digging at. We in the Humanities Disciplines like to think that we are relevant because of special talents when in fact this relevance comes from something even bigger. I am trying to get at that “bigger.”
    I certainly don’t think we build democratic institutions and individuals. But we help other fields build critical thinkers who may help build democracy.
    The way I express this to my students is with the diagram of the earthworm. We list all of the things that are important — even relevant — to earthworms. Then we list all of the classes of things that are important to humans. Then we remove the overlaps. What is left is the constructs such as good, bad, beauty, truth, right, wrong, god, music, math, science, painting, sculpture, history, property, ownership, democracy, and table manners. Their relevance comes from the notion that we only listed those things that were important — relevant– in the first place. But this is a clumsy and allegorical way to describe the relevance of the humanities. And again, almost all fields are busy at work on problems that impact these constructs as well. Yes, I agree with you that the humanities addresses values. But these questions of value are implicit in all of the academic efforts underway in every wing of the academy.

    ReplyDelete

  3. Ben Majuskovic: Well, if what I suggeted doesn’t seem helpful, maybe you can see if Wilhelm Dilthey’s distinction between the Geisteswissenschaften and the Naturwissenschaften is of some assistance.
    As for values, all human exsitence is vaue-laden and so perhaps there is no special function for the humanities.

    ReplyDelete

  4. Ben, your comments are most helpful. Sorry if I did not seem appreciative. It is my conviction that these kinds of discussions, with informed and interested people such as yourself, can cause a writer to dig deeper into a topic, if only to defend his/her side of an argument. You are making me dig. Your comments are most helpful. Yes values are the focus of most of the fields of The Humanities. But we will have difficulty in convincing a mathmatician that he/she is also not concerned with values, or that an engineer is not deciding between competing values of tensil strength vs weight in a materials decision. So while I agree with you that “all human experience is value-laden” I do not agree that there is no special function for the humanities. Your Dilthey reminder goes closer to the origins of the modern distinction between the groupings of the fields. His Naturwissenschaft relates to objective kinds of studies and Geisteswissenschaft to subjective experience kinds of studies. So if we were to pursue your recommended embrace of Dilthey’s distinction, and relating Humanities to the Geisteswissenschaften, how would the question of relevance be different?

    Delete

  5. Ben Majuskovic: Joe: I certanly think you are on to something incredibly important–the question is whether you are “swimming against the tide.” I was an undergraduare student at the University of Chicago from 1956-1963. The liberal arts program was grounded in the Great Books (Hutchins, Mortimer Adler). In the 1950’s. Liberal Arts was considerd an ideal “well rounded” education; once completed, one was omnicompetent. However, there was no major. Upon graduation, parents became distressed that their young adult children had all sorts of deficiencies when they went on to graduate school. About that time, the Ivy League schools were forced to compete with the growing strength of the powerful state universities, e. g. Berkeley. At the same time, the age of specialization started to take hold and young Americans gravitated toward increasingly specialized disciplines and occupations. The Liberal Arts took increasing hits. Americans are very competitive, pragmatic, anti-culture, pro- indidualistic. They worship science and technology and it was inevitable that the fine arts of culture lost ground to the automobile and cell phone. I currently teach in the Humanities program at CSUDH and at the lst two retreats we agonized how to make the Humanities relevant–i.e. join the enemy.

    Delete

  6. Ramanath Pandey: Merely Ethics introductory course is not sufficient.

    ReplyDelete

  7. Ramanath, Thank you for your response. Unfortunately I can think of several interpretations of your comment. You may mean that introductory ethics is not sufficient exposure for any educated person and therefore there should be many requirements. You may mean that you would like to suggest augmentations to this particular description. (I hope you will!) Or you may mean something entirely different. Please elaborate if you have some time to spare… With much gratitude, JP

    Delete

  8. Ramanath Pandey: At this stage, I must say the perfection of ethics is the base for any kind of organization. Therefore practical applications of the principle of ethics must be taken into consideration, which includes, conduct, thinking and expression as well. We should not act towards others in such a manner which creates problems for them

    Delete

  9. Thank you Ramanath. The relevance of something that is the “base for any kind of organization” should therefore be beyond question. I must admit to being a trifle unsatisfied with that claim, that there is something so foundational that it is beyond all need for further probing. I’ll have to give your comments some more consideration. Thanks again, JP

    Delete

  10. Paul Peters: Ethics is becoming increasingly important, luckely. In the way that automation developes in the form of ethical and compassionate robots for healthcare (robo-nurse), to ethical website, ethical decision making (stakeholder vs shareholder) and also ethical consumerism (is it ethical that food additives cause most modern diseases).

    i’ve just written an article that tries open up towards establishing a utilitarian ethical framework.. http://www.albertoforchielli.com/2012/10/11/a-tale-of-obsolesence-and-exclusivity/

    Delete

  11. Robin Pearce: Hi Joe

    I am not sure if you mean the relevance of the Humanities in general or its relevance for ethics so will jump to your main issue.
    The introduction to ethics course should, I feel, sit within the Philosophy Department for 2 related reasons.
    Firstly, as an introductory course you will want to cover the basic ideas which sit outside of any other single discipline.
    Secondly, placing the course(s) ‘inside’ other disciplines can immediately introduce bias, with the discipline finding (and therefore teaching) that what it wants to do in its core areas are ethical whether this would be the case if looked at from ‘outside’ the discipline or not. This is easier to explain with an example. The UK’s advisory committee’s findings as to what is and is not ethical in the field of human genetic engineering, provides an interesting case study in this area. The findings of the committee changed over a number of years initially finding that somatic cell therapy would not be ethical (when considering the ethical issues of, and sanctioning the use of, IVF treatment). At that time somatic cell therapy was not developed to the point of being a useable technology. However when, a number of years later, somatic cell therapy was put to the committee for consideration in its own right (the technology was now possible for humans) it was sanctioned as ethical, the goal posts moving to state that germ line therapy (which was not doable at the time) would not be ethical.
    Of course, once the introductory course has been completed those completing it may take the view that ethics is socially constructed and if this is applied to individual ‘discipline communities’ then varying ethical solutions, although in conflict with each other, are equally legitimate – but that is where the fun starts.

    Delete

  12. Ramanath Pandey: I think that Ethics should be separate department not must be included either with Philosophy or Religion. My research paper Buddhist Ethics and Globalization is available online IAFOR Journal of Ethics, Religion & Philosophy

    Delete

  13. Paul,
    Thanks! Your description of a three by three system of valuation incorporates ethical considerations at several unavoidable junctures. I am taking the liberty of forwarding this to a colleague who regularly teaches the Ethics of Manufacturing and Technology! I am certain he will find it useful. This kind of ethical approach does not evade the value and descriptive needs for broad discussions about such virtues as “fair,” “optimal,” “sustainable,” and “socially responsible,” but by forcing a decision maker through this matrix, I can see that parts of the technical moral problem become a part of the process.

    Delete

  14. Robin,
    Thanks for your thoughts here. On the one hand, I can see and, to some degree, agree with your reasons for parking an introductory ethics class in the Philosophy Department. But try as I might, I can find nothing “more credible” about the training Philosophy Scholars receive that would make that particular training less biased than any other field’s practitioners. Perhaps the interesting example you give is more indicative of the need for technocratic oversight (informed practitioners rather than generalists designing the ethical guidelines) than for granting domain to one particular field, no?

    Delete

  15. Don Franceschetti: I think we can’t escape the relevance of the humanities because we are human and we have histories, personal and collective, we communicate in language, we are heirs to a treasury of literatures and science can inform, but now answer in itself, the really important questions: What (if anything) is the purpose of life? How should one behave? What does it mean to know something? and, oh yes, what follows personal death? Since I am a physicist, I must add: Is there an objective reality and what can I know about it? The dialectic between physicists and philosophers is very salient here.

    Delete

  16. Don Franceschetti, Thanks very kindly. I might have expected Engineers and Scientists to provide the most credible specific answers to my question about the “relevance of the Humanities” that I have yet encountered. This is not to say the other answers were not full of insights and stimulants for productive dialogues for other questions and problems contained in my initial post. But why does it seem that the best answer to the questions about relevance seem to come from outside the Humanities? I think this is because those of us who see ourselves as inside the Humanities often attempt to overstate. (See for example Nussbaum’s book _Not for Profit…_ where she makes the unsupportable claim that our relevance is that we generate democratic institutions and people.) In fact, Don, I fully endorse your view that the humanities explore what it means to live the human experience. Asking what is the relevance of a study of the human experience would be like asking “what is the relevance of importance itself.” I often think that these imaginary walls between disciplines provide little in the way of anything productive. But there are people who make their entire life’s work policing the boundaries and punishing the trespasses. A quick glance at the history of human intellectual activities should convince us that most of the things we call “breakthroughs” happen when these boundaries are breached. A touch of optical mechanics applied to astrophysics, can create as big an Eureka moment as the application of a touch of poetry to drama, or genetic engineering to pharmacology, or even Arabic number systems to computing. The boundaries are probably there for good reasons (they help us train a next generation of specialists, preserve jargons, develop critical practices) but when we begin to believe that disciplines really exist as something akin to a domain or property is when they become ankle chains on innovation.

    Delete

  17. Robin Pearce: Joe. Sadly I have to agree with you regarding the possibility of bias with Philosophy Departments. However, I would still put the Introductory Ethics course there. The Philosophy department should be best placed to give an overview of ethics and the variety of methodologies available when working in the field. Hopefully a good Philosophy Department could hold back any bias at the introductory level; after that it may be a free for all!

    Delete

  18. Paul Peters: The lessons learned from early Aritificial Intelligence and Robotics is that the map is not the territory, but our map is out territory.. We’re limited to the extend our sensory organs are capable of experiencing sensory stimuli. In that sense we can talk about corresponding intersubjectivity and try to come up with some global covergence towards objectivity, but we may very well be missing out on something.
    Our sensory organs have been shaped by the sensory experiences though, so eventhough there is some degree of indirectness (which becomes obvious with e.g. optical illusions) it is not an unbroken chain. So, there is no transcendence in that sense.

    It’s similar to our natural habit, the space-time continuum as a large elastic sponge made out of light, but where neutrino’s as they don’t interact via electro-magnetic forces we can only sense them in some indirect way via gravity. But as gravity only is noticeable as a prefered orientation, towards the ground in our case, there would need to be an enormous amount of neutrinos grouping together for us to actually notice it.

    So, in that sense we could talk about sensory granularity, intersubjective experience, correpondence and universality, but “objective reality” is a term than doesn’t really work anymore as far as i am converned.
    For the rest, Frans de Waal has some interesting views to share.. i guess most of morality is simply an efficient of group interaction. Ethics is a biological extention, just like culture.

    ReplyDelete

  19. Christine McNulty: Check out what the 20th century philosopher Ayn Rand said on the subject . Christine

    ReplyDelete

  20. Thanks Christine. May I presume that you mean that wonderful scene in _Atlas Shrugged_ where Dagney, the COO of a major rail line, encounters a rather competent fry cook? She likes her meal and so of course wants to hire the cook for her private diner. The cook turns her down politely and Dagney asks the cook his name. She is astounded. Cooking her meal is the world famous Philosophy professor from the very same university that all of Dagney’s sexual encounters attended. “Is this some kind of a stunt? Are you conducting some sort of research?” she asks him. And in one of the most compelling replies ever given by a fictional character, the Philosophy professor replies, “No, Miss Taggert, I am earning my living.”
    I think Ayn Rand is quite clear here. We Humanities teachers are doing something akin to a hobby, not really earning a living. We should be cooking steak cheese sandwiches, or taking tickets on a rail road, i.e. “earning a living.”
    Sorry, but I think that those of use lucky and fortunate enough to work with young people who are learning about the human experience, and who willingly choose those classes which may provide a window to those experiences, I think we are earning a living. This is not the first time that I disagree with Ayn Rand, a terrific writer who is now being hailed as a Philosopher. But I will admit to having named my first two dogs, “Gault” and “Frisco” for reasons that the adult me would rather forget…

    ReplyDelete

  21. Paul Peters: Like many hyper intelligent people Rand makes the mistake that logic equals rationality, that intelligence is reasonable. She’s a fascinating occurence in a chronotopean “social construction of reality” with a rather cultish following.. but it’s not really much different than a Francis Galton or Thomas Huxley who insisted on interpreting Darwin’s work as in favour of individualism and a near absolutist freedom of choice, whereas Darwin’s idea were much different.
    If only she had stumbled on Schopenhauer’s “man can do what he wants but he cannot will what he wants” instead of Nietzsche “will to power”, then she might not have been so radical in favour of a mindset so very close to Italian fascism ala D’Annunzio although more intelligent but less cunning.

    http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/all-watched-over-by-machines-of-loving-grace/

    Delete

  22. Christine McNulty: Firstly, thank you for evoking that Ayn Rand scenario, Joe. The plot line, of course, fully explains why some of her characters have iconic status within their different professions – not unlike that, developed during his life, by Steve Jobs – and why, one by one, they elect to abandon their hard won careers and effectively go on strike.

    Rand was primarily a philosopher who wrote her novels as vehicles for her philosophy.

    Logic is not the same as rationality, Paul. A computer uses logic but it is not rational. To be rational you need to be a volitional human being with the ability, and the motivation, to integrate your own personal value system with the data at your disposal.

    I have not yet read it but I believe Leonard Peikoff’s newly published book, ‘The D.I.M. Hypothesis’ covers this subject. D.I.M. stands for Disintegrated, Integrated, Misintegrated.

    Delete

  23. Paul Peters: Christine, exactly, that is what i mean. Not what you’re saying, but what you’re saying.

    Delete

  24. Christine McNulty: Please explain, Paul.

    Delete

  25. Paul Peters: After a rational weighing of the available options, of which my attention can even juggle some eight or nine around in my active but limited mind, i have to decline your request for further explanation. Then you’ll say it is childish.. and then i will say exactly, although we have the capacity for rational though, it is all build on a foundation of emotions.
    Be it as it may i find her thinking not particularly original or enlightening, and “objective” criteria are a nice idee fixe but caught up in a Kantian knot.. With her impact on the society at large i would position her role as being one of a guru, not a philosopher.. but she definitly was no mystic. I do like very much what she is aiming for, the Sturm und Drang, but she takes an absolutist stance on things that are relative.

    Delete

  26. Christine McNulty: Actually, Kant was Rand’s bete noir together with Plato. I think that gurus invoke mystical authority and for that reason inspire cult followings. Rand was not a supremacist; she did not believe in faith and force which, she said, always go together.The separation of church and state underpins western civilisation, does it not? Rand was a fan of western civilisation and of free market ideals.

    Delete

  27. Paul Peters: See, that is what i mean.

    Delete

  28. Ramanath Pandey: The relevance of the humanities lies in this fact that human being is more rational than other beings so this his duty to care for the welfare of all beings on this earth. In fact, whatever he can contribute must contribute. However, “in the present age of globalization, the main objective of a human being is to satisfy his material or physical needs, and in doing so he does not care about the sentiments of others. He wants to earn money more and more by any means for his physical & sensual enjoyments. He does not care about ethical or unethical behavior in his work performance. This is the reason that the world is facing challenges of economic crisis, a warming planet, ethnic violence, various kinds of health problems, poverty and so on. In this situation, if we apply the core concept of Buddhism, especially of Mahayana Buddhism, and as exemplified in Bodhicaryavatara, i. e. ethical code of conduct, in our day today affairs, whether it is home, work place, organization, institution, business community and corporate section or in any society most of the challenges can be resolved. Thus, there is a need of creating harmony at our workplace and society. The ethical principles of Buddhism may play very important role if taken into consideration in all affairs.

    Delete

  29. Thanks Ramanath, I certainly agree with you that the idea of Philosophy…the discipline, the study, the traditions should include the philosophical ideas from the Vedic and even the Avesta traditions. I see Ethics as an even more important benefactor of this openness for several reasons. First, the notions of The West and Western Philosophy turn out to be bold faced ethnocentrism when someone follows through and honestly tries to define the terms. (For reasons detailed in my initial post.) Second, and most important, those ethical systems that are not based on revelation, but on human reason…even reason enshrined by tradition from a revered philosopher or enlightened teacher…instead of supernatural speculations or directives in holy texts written or relayed to humans by supernatural beings, that tradition has at least as much doxastic veritas as what we like to think of as Western Philosophy. Perhaps being forced into a recognition of our Epistmic Peer situation by encountering ethical systems from throughout the world, perhaps this is the largest possible reward that might be offered by an ethics course.

    Delete

  30. Thanks Christine and Paul, I won’t wade too far into the definition of “Philosopher.” For some it is a profession and a type of training producing specialists well suited for some very specific problems: (linguistic stability, perspective paradoxes, and logic). In this limited but useful definition of the term, Ayn Rand is probably not a Philosopher. But more traditionally, the term has been used as an honorific. Even Socrates refused the self identification, offering to take vistors to see philosophers, should they wish to do so. As an honorific, anyone who has written on ultimate issues can be a philosopher since it is a title designated by others. Who is to say about Ayn Rand? As a colleague is often heard saying, “I think most people who hang out in Philosophy journals probably initiated their love of wisdom by becoming charmed by Socrates.” He, through his student, Plato, boiled complex ideas of relativity and meaning down to very simple ideas that could become important to the monotheistic religions that arise during and after Rome. In a similar way, Ayn Rand devised a too simplistic defense of the notion that constructs such as good and bad, black and white, property and the external universe were real. Many young people encountered their first taste of logical analysis by reading John Gault’s speech. And that book and speech have been important to the development of some frames of political arguments…if only as a strawman. So if you want to call Ayn Rand a philosopher, there is certainly good reason to do so.

    Delete

  31. Christine McNulty: Ayn Rand and Aristotle: Reality exists. There can be no contradictions in reality. If you find a contradiction, check your premises. Plato: there is no reality!

    Delete

  32. Thanks Christine:
    Aristotle: a man loses one hair from his head each time he has an ejaculation.

    Ayn Rand: Contradictions don’t really exist, only mistaken premises.

    Wish those could have been the final words on the topics. Unfortunately, there is a long reading list on both topics that any student of Philosophy must trudge through. But Aristotle and Rand are both productive places to pause and think along the way.
    And I am digging through my annotated bibliography, and am having difficulty in finding the Plato, “there is no reality” quote.

    Delete

  33. Paul Peters: A colleague recently suggest Peter Koestenbaum’s “The Inner Side of Greatness” when i was discussing the fact that books like “The 48 Laws of Power” have become highly popular and are actually being taught at some management courses. In modern business ethics is becoming increasingly more important.

    As far as labelling anyone as a “philosopher” goes.. i must say that i very much enjoyed the few months i tried studying it.. although despite the high grades the rector asked me to let it go as in his opinion i clearly didn’t need this study and it was just confusing for the other students. So, all i have to say on Rand is that her reasoning is flawed, not wether or not she fits the label. She is provoking thought which is a good thing.

    With todays access to such wide variety of good quality information it is hard to maintain the limited definition of ‘philosopher’ anyway. Where do you draw the line? I think Ramanath is referring to that, although i’m more of a hypermaterialist in a Deluezean sense, so i feel closer with Vajrayana.

    Delete

  34. Christine McNulty: Joe, I paraphrase. Think of Plato’s cave

    Delete

  35. Thanks Christine. I am glad I did not live in the days of Diogenes when people were having the same discussions about Plato. Was he a philosopher? Or a theologian? A speculator? An unhelpful impediment to understanding the nature of the world we live in? He proved very helpful to the religious foundations of the Judeo-Christian-Muslim world. No fan of Plato’s thought, I tend to agree that his speculations were something like a bubble in reason. When you can doubt that the universe is really like it seems and worse, without any evidence, postulate that reality is ideal, eternal, and absolute, I must also wonder if I would have considered Plato a philosopher had I lived near Diogenes. The good news for us all, I guess, is that the world is so complex that there appears to be room for all kinds of explanations and speculations. My own view of who should be included in the grouping of Philosopher is nearly meaningless anyway. So sure, let’s call Ayn Rand and Plato philosophers. Funny, they would have agreed on so much. For example the reality of property, truth, right, wrong…

    Delete

  36. Christine McNulty: Well, Joe, as you say, Plato was the philosopher whose ideas inspired the Judeo-Christian-Muslim world. He was a mystic. Rand, by contrast, was an Aristotelian and Aristotle was the father of scientific method.

    Philosophy underpins everything because we humans, having no automatic instincts, must always ask, why? And in order to survive as fully volitional beings we must answer that question for ourselves and specialise – as Adam Smith said in his ‘Wealth of Nations’. A society of specialists trading under an agreed legal system that protects the individual, and his property is the environment that perfectly optimises the trading potential of volitional beings. Religious elites codified the rules of such societies, e.g. the 10 Commandments, without separating church and state. But a capitalist free market, which has never been tried so far, would codify the rules that protect trading individuals and their property in a very simple and economic way without the need for vast expensive bureaucracies.

    I think that the language of religious literature, originating as a purely oral tradition, is very beautiful, rhythmic and sonorous. It had to be memorable before writing was invented. As such, religious phrases, metaphors and comments on the human condition are often beautifully expressed and timelessly original. The problem arises when primitive Platonic mysticism prevents communities of believers accessing science and all that it can do to promote individual specialisation and progress.

Advertisements

About jmp479

For years I taught History and Philosophy at a community college in Central Pennsylvania. Now I am learning all sorts of things, from growing veggies and fruit, to fixing small engines and maintaining home systems. I am learning to live deliberately. Still love to hear from my past students, though. So drop me a line and tell me what you are up to.
This entry was posted in Joe Petrulionis Academic Site and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s