Thursday, August 29, 2013

Hertzberg on Ethics & Education

I was happy to read this paper by Lars Hertzberg, after my post below. He says much of interest about what an ethics class does and doesn't (or should and can't, and so shouldn't try to) do. Here's one highlight (but you should really go read the whole paper; it's very rich, but brief):
Ethics courses do not aim at raising the moral quality of the students, rather they are aimed at deepening their awareness of their prospective tasks and the way they fit into some bigger pictures. Through these courses, doctors, lawyers and engineers are not necessarily to be turned into better human beings, but into better doctors, lawyers and engineers, by coming to reflect on various aspects of their work. Perhaps one could say that what happens in these courses, if they are good, is that one turns one’s professional competence inside out, one comes to see the limitations and the difficulties of what that competence can achieve. What one is acquiring should not be thought of as a specialized skill; rather, one’s attention is drawn to the things that tend to get overlooked in more conventional forms of professional training.
(I believe this paper also appears in Ethics and the Philosophy of Culture: Wittgensteinian Approaches, ed. Gustafsson, Kronqvist & Nykänen.)

Should I Be Trying to Make My Students Behave More Ethically?

Or, Schwitzgebel is at it again. (I'm a couple weeks late on this.)

Schwitzgebel (henceforth, ES) doesn't say that ethics classes ought to be changing students' behavior. He's just asking whether there's any evidence that they do. Although there's little evidence one way or the other, he suggests there's likely little hope for an affirmative answer, given the apparently minimal impact of ethics classes even on students' attitudes.

I have many and mixed thoughts about all of this. Rather than trying to weave a narrative or argument, I'm just going to number them.

1. Is this really surprising? I've never taught an ethics class where changing the students' ethical behavior in a particular direction was an explicit (or even implicit) goal. True, in accord with the education goals of the courses, I want my students' behavior as thinkers and writers to improve and deepen, but that's more of an intellectual than an ethical goal, even if the two are related. (If they are related, the positive changes would not be detected by attitudes surveys. The instrument is too superficial to tell us anything about how students' thinking--that is, their process of thinking--about ethical issues has changed. A student could change her views for superficial reasons, or maintain a previously held belief for better reasons. ES's methodology has no depth.)

2. What about professional and applied ethics courses? Maybe ES should look at those kinds of classes and leave aside classes where the focus is theoretical and historical (perhaps with some "hot topics" added to the mix). But even in applied courses, focus is often given to complex ethical issues on which reasonable people might disagree.

3. ES's question might seem innocent, but it seems to implicitly affirm the idea that ethics classes should bring about ethical changes (improvements) in student behavior. Maybe that's not entirely fair to him. But my point is that asking the question, treating it like a good question to ask, would seem to affirm the misguided idea that ethics classes can and ought to be geared toward changing students' ethical behavior.

4. What kind of ethics class could--in a liberal society and as part of a liberal education--have that as a goal? What code of ethics would all the relevant professors affirm? If we stuck with things that all, or almost all, would agree upon, then I'm not sure what ethics classes would be teaching anything of much depth or interest: don't kill people for fun, don't steal just because you want something, don't plagiarize your homework.

5. Charitably, one could see ES as dealing with a version of the "can virtue be taught?" issue--or, is it taught in ethics classes? But if Aristotle was right, then ethics class has never been the place where we become better (more ethical) people. It happens in the world, not the classroom. And again, the connection between what we learn about ethics and ethical thinking in the classroom and how that translates into action in the world is not obviously something that can be assessed by attitudes surveys. (Would there be a useful way to compare changes in attitude and behavior in a service-learning course in contrast with a traditional classroom course? Only, it seems, if the content covered in the course were the same.)

6. No doubt, we want our classes in one way or another to help mold our students into better people--more informed, better critical thinkers, better communicators, better at doing rather mundane things that they need to know how to do in order to be successful in the workplace (like doing their work on time, speaking and writing clearly, behaving decently around others, even others with whom they might disagree)--but those are fairly common educational goals that have something to do with "ethics" in a very broad sense. But then ethics class is not the place where those kind of ethical goals are pursued. Does ethics have any specific goals? Well, of course, there's the content and the philosophical skills involved. One might say it's a problem if ethics classes are all "head" (or, reflection) and no "heart" (or, no action), but then we have to think back to Point 4 above. Is anyone exactly prepared to appoint ethics professors the priests of our culture who will set about telling students how they must live and granting them the authority to punish those who fail to follow the rules? (Are ethics professors ready to accept that role?)

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Schopenhauer's Patience, Continued

On the one hand, Schopenhauer’s advice seems perfectly sensible—accept what you cannot change, choose your battles wisely, don’t put yourself into situations where the patience required overreaches your own capacities. But on the other hand, it might seem that his pessimism about the fixity of character—that is, his unflinching determinism—is ultimately self-defeating. If character is fixed and all is determined, then what’s the point of offering advice? It’s tempting to think that the advice must be either futile or unnecessary. If I am hopelessly impatient, then the advice is futile, since impatience is an unalterable fact about my character. If I am patient, then the advice is unnecessary. But if the advice works, then doesn’t that show that character isn’t fixed? That is, if I take Schopenhauer’s advice to heart, practice being patient first with inanimate objects and then with other people, and if I thereby become more patient than I have been in the past, then doesn’t my own growth in patience disprove his claim that character is unalterable?

A determinist like Schopenhauer could respond in at least two different ways. First, he might argue that the advice is still good advice even if some people are incapable of following it. Patient acceptance of what cannot be otherwise is a necessary part of coping with life. Some people find life unbearable because they are deeply impatient rather than because they’re really that badly off. That’s too bad for them. Their example makes clear the advantages of patience. But second, Schopenhauer can also argue that the truth of determinism doesn’t imply that advice has no point. Advice itself can serve as a cause. A person might have the capacity to be more patient than he has been in the past, but there must be something that activates (or triggers) that capacity. Schopenhauer’s Counsels and Maxims might turn out to be just the thing I needed to see how important and useful patience is, and to see at the same time that I have the ability to be more patient than I have been. Or perhaps reading Schopenhauer will stimulate me to recognize the limits of my own patience, and cause me to limit my own exposure to situations that I can expect to require more patience than I have. I wouldn’t become more patient in that way, but perhaps my life would go better in virtue of living within the limitations of my own lack of that virtue. So it’s not true that his advice is pointless; rather, its effectiveness (or lack thereof in some cases) is simply subject to the same causal laws that govern everything in the universe. This will be little consolation to the hopelessly impatient, but there’s nothing to be done about that. And it’s hard to imagine someone who is hopelessly impatient taking the time to read Schopenhauer anyhow!

These possible responses might raise questions about what it could then mean for Schopenhauer to claim that character is fixed. Perhaps that for any given person, only a certain amount of flexibility and growth is possible? A more pessimistic view would be that people can’t change or grow in any significant way, but it would be difficult to know how exactly to vindicate such a universal claim. It may be true that we tend to settle into our ways, that, for the most part, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but tendencies aren’t universals, and even radical changes seem to be compatible with the general truth of determinism. (A radical change would simply require a radical, or unusual, cause.) Whether it is compatible with Schopenhauer or not, perhaps a realistic outlook would involve being mindful that we are at risk of fooling ourselves if we start thinking that we just happen to be exceptions to general rules of human nature and psychology. We should aspire to patience, but also be mindful of the possible limitations of our own capacities, and try to avoid setting ourselves up for the failure and frustration of testing our own patience beyond its limits. Of course, if determinism is true, then we ultimately do whatever we do. We succeed or we fail. We repeat past mistakes or we learn from them and grow. But since we aren’t omniscient, the truth of determinism doesn’t itself provide any practical guidance: we don’t know what our own deterministic future holds. So, at the practical level, the best we can do is to try to do the best we can do. The best Schopenhauer can do is to advise us to accept patiently what cannot be changed. Life may be pointless, but if so, then there’s no point in being miserable about it. (See his "The Emptiness of Existence.")

[Reassuring, I know. But here I'm mainly just trying to work out a reading of Schopenhauer's advice with an eye toward moving to some extent past it. Thoughts on the middle paragraph above are especially welcome!]

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Schopenhauer's Patience

Schopenhauer says a few things about patience with others in Chapter 3 of Counsels and Maxims. He begins the general discussion with the following remarks:
No one who has to live amongst men should absolutely discard any person who has his due place in the order of nature, even though he is very wicked or contemptible or ridiculous. He must accept him as an unalterable fact — unalterable, because the necessary outcome of an eternal, fundamental principle; and in bad cases he should remember the words of Mephistopheles: es muss auch solche Käuze geben — there must be fools and rogues in the world. If he acts otherwise, he will be committing an injustice, and giving a challenge of life and death to the man he discards. No one can alter his own peculiar individuality, his moral character, his intellectual capacity, his temperament or physique; and if we go so far as to condemn a man from every point of view, there will be nothing left him but to engage us in deadly conflict; for we are practically allowing him the right to exist only on condition that he becomes another man — which is impossible; his nature forbids it.
One question I have is about what sense it makes to be offering practical advice if our individual characters are as unalterable as Schopenhauer claims. (On a related note, Tommi comments here.) Of course, a determinist can say that such advice can cause others (readers) to act thus-and-such, and so perhaps there's not that big of a problem. If the advice works, it is because it works upon a pre-existing character that is receptive to such advice. (And perhaps those who are "beyond reach" would quickly lose interest with Schopenhauer's advice, or even despise it?) I've only glanced at Schopenhauer's discussion of freedom of the will and his endorsement of a Kantian conception of moral freedom as transcendental--but I've yet to read closely enough to make sense of this. (Help if you can!)

He goes on about patience thus:
The art of putting up with people may be learned by practicing patience on inanimate objects, which, in virtue of some mechanical or general physical necessity, oppose a stubborn resistance to our freedom of action — a form of patience which is required every day. The patience thus gained may be applied to our dealings with men, by accustoming ourselves to regard their opposition, wherever we encounter it, as the inevitable outcome of their nature, which sets itself up against us in virtue of the same rigid law of necessity as governs the resistance of inanimate objects. To become indignant at their conduct is as foolish as to be angry with a stone because it rolls into your path. And with many people the wisest thing you can do, is to resolve to make use of those whom you cannot alter.
Not surprisingly, this is similar to things said about patience by the Buddhist Shantideva, e.g. "22. I am not angered at bile and the like even though they cause great suffering. Why be angry at those who have minds? They too are impelled by conditions [causes]."

But later, Schopenhauer says:
He who criticises others, works at the reformation of himself. Those who form the secret habit of scrutinizing other people’s general behavior, and passing severe judgment upon what they do and leave undone, thereby improve themselves, and work out their own perfection: for they will have sufficient sense of justice, or at any rate enough pride and vanity, to avoid in their own case that which they condemn so harshly elsewhere. But tolerant people are just the opposite, and claim for themselves the same indulgence that they extend to others...
The patience of "live and let live" would seem to be inconsistent with this, especially if one thinks of the patience Schopenhauer recommends as a form of tolerance. But it seems important that Schopenhauer characterizes this criticism as a "secret habit" and thus not criticism that is offered to the offending party. (There are other places in Chapter 3 of Counsels and Maxims where he emphasizes the prudence of being silent, of not sharing thoughts and judgments that are bound to offend to no fruitful end, and so forth.)

So, on the one hand, we have the deterministic idea that we should be patient with others because impatience, anger, open condemnation, and the like will be unlikely to have any good effect on the "unalterable character" of the person who is testing our patience (as we say). Better, he suggests at one point, just to be polite (and, to the extent possible, to avoid the company of blockheads altogether). But, on the other hand, we should not, in our patience, fail to judge the characters of others as they are (to call the coward and the blockhead, etc., what they are). However, we should in general keep those judgments to ourselves. I wonder if that goes for the determinism and pessimism, too, since as I suggested when reflecting on Strawson, it might seem insulting (condescending) to express that position to the offending person. (Is the truth of determinism--whatever exactly it is--something we thus must pass over in silence--not because it cannot be expressed, but rather because it does not good in our personal interactions to express it?)

There's something to the idea that it is absurd to expect others to be something (or someone) that they aren't, and to the idea that patience should be distinguished from uncritical indulgence (though I would say the same of tolerance). But I think what puzzles me about what Schopenhauer is doing is that there must be some kind of wiggle room in our allegedly "unalterable character" in order for all of this to get off the ground as advice. Of course, one might reject "ought implies can," and hold that it's still good advice--or the right kind of advice--even if some are incapable of following it. And perhaps the advice is to serve as a kind of trigger for those who are capable of following it, i.e. those who have it in their character to act with greater patience if given the right kinds of reasons and reminders. Is that how this is supposed to work?

I'm just trying to think out loud, as it were, about all of this. Bear with me.