Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Free Education: nerd alert

Okay so my joy at discovering this makes me the biggest nerd ever. Now I may be behind the times, and everyone may already know about this, but this is new for me. Apparently, you can audit classes online. No fees, no registration. Just pick a class and watch the streaming video. Wow. The link above is for some of Yale's classes, but I guess if you search the web you can find others (from Notre Dame, Berkley, and others). I got excited because there's a philosophy class I'm going to watch after break. Who knows what else is out there. Get excited. Free education for nerds everywhere. The idea behind it all is to give folks who love to learn, regardless of their qualifications or financial situation, the chance to do what they love. Now you can't get a degree from watching these classes (which does nothing for the positional goods problem with higher education), but you can indulge in some shameless self-edification. So now I can add some educational viewing to my trashy online tv (the OC, the Hills, Laguna Beach, Grey's...I have no shame).

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Misusing History in the Classroom

Today's post, as you can guess, is about how history is misused to promote other people's agendas. I used to think, quite naively, that history was about facts. History class, I thought, was about memorizing those facts and then proving on my test that I had memorized them. Wrong, oh so wrong. History is closer to literature than science. It has to be written. It has to be passed on from the perspective of someone else. History isn't pure and indisputable. It's living and active, and controversial. Who knew? You know what else I didn't know? I didn't know that the history I learned in the States was, for the most part, pretty cushy and pro-American. I didn't learn about the uncomfortable periods. Sure we talked about slavery, but it was the south, and not us, and you know, we can focus on the fun stories instead like the few slaves who escaped. Civil rights was much the same. Let's glorify the heroes and sweep the jerks (um, the majority, of us) under the rug. I feel sadly misinformed, to be honest. Recently, I've been doing some thinking about how schools use history to shape students (mainly thanks to Harry's chapter about it). Are schools justified in promoting patriotism, for example, by glorifying past patriots? Of course no one's claiming to do a whole 1984 history change-up, but still, it's meddling by omission. Who you put in the curriculum will vastly change the overall attitude of the student towards the society being studied. Not that I think it should be a completely depressing and somber lineup, but it shouldn't be so gosh darn warm and fuzzy. It's all a bit disturbing, to be honest. I won't go into arguments and details (go read Harry's chapter if you want), but you can see where the problem is.

Okay so I told you that to tell you this. In France, Sarco's doing some history meddling of his own, and it's rather upsetting. I had heard rumors just after his election that he wanted to use history classes "to produce better citizens," but I dismissed it then because I didn't think that was possible. Oh I was wrong; it is possible. And this is how he's started doing it: Guy Moquet. Ever heard that name before this year? I didn't think so. Neither has the typical French student (well, at least not this generation, he was famous for awhile but I think newer generations hadn't heard of him). Anyway, from this year onward they will celebrate the life (and death) of this teenage every October 22. So who was Guy? Well, to be honest, he was pretty cool. He was a teenager that refused to side up with the Nazis, joined the Resistance, and was eventually executed for it. He was only 17 years old when he decided to pay the ultimate price for his convictions, his own life. So what do I have against Guy? Nothing. He's a cool kid, and sure, his story bears repeating in the classroom. The problem is this: Sarco has purposefully given Guy his own day (where his letter will be read and the French Resistance will be discussed) that all schools have to honor because he, admittedly, wants students to emulate Guy's model of good citizenship and patriotism! Yes my friends, Sacro admits to using history to shape impressionable minds into being more patriotic. (Interesting, Guy's communist ties are downplayed.)

Now I can see why Guy's example would be a good example of political dissidence, which can be a very good thing. He was someone who stood up for what he believed in, and kids should know that. But, the problem comes in the glorification of this one story. Sure Guy was cool, and sure you talk about the importance of the Resistance, but what about everyone else? In the newsletter our high school gets there was a huge story about Guy, and then another page with a timeline of important dates for the Resistance. It talked about the Reich, the Jews, and the good French folks... but it left out an important element. There was one sentance about the Vichy government. One. And it pretty much said that it was Petain's fault, and it said that his government (notice, not the French government) collaborated with the Germans. What about everyone else? Yes, a heroic few stood up for humanity, but they are hardly representative of everyone. French students need to learn about Guy, and then also learn about the hundreds of other French men and women who looked the other way. Why should they, because that's what many of us are doing today! You have to learn about history's uglier stories if you really want to produce good citizens. If you lull students into a false sense of righteousness, then they won't be equipped to stand up for justice. Sure we can talk about the heroes, but let's not forget that the villains were one of us too. They weren't demons in disguise, they were regular people like you and me. We are all capable of doing what they've done. We can't turn a blind eye to history's stains, or we'll continue to make the same mistakes.

Okay, I'm climbing down from my soapbox now. Sorry for that. I just don't think it's right, what we do with history. Not only is it bad to purposefully manipulate students, but I don't even think it works the way you want it to. Ignorance doesn't fight for justice, it just keeps things from changing. Though, that may be just what the government wants... Who knows.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Evolution can't bridge the moral gap

(UPDATE: I've added an important thought that I forgot to put in before. Look for it below)

I've recently read a rather good paper by John Hare about the failings of evolution to explain morality. His paper pretty much aligned with my prior intuitions, but he obviously explained what the problem was much better than I had every been able to. The main problem is this: there is a moral gap between what we ought to do and what we can do. If ought implies can, as many people believe, then we are only obligated (morally speaking) to do what we can in fact do. So if ought implies can, then what we ought to do will, seemingly, be considerably constrained by what we have the capacity to do. Herein lies the problem. If we can't live up to morality (as is evidenced by, well, everyone everywhere), then how can we be morally responsible for our failure? You can only be responsible for what you have the power or capacity to accomplish, and it seems that our moral capacity falls rather short of our moral obligations. The question is: can evolutionary theory provide any help in bridging this gap? Hare thinks no, and I agree. Here's why...

So we'll start by fleshing out Hare's moral schema. He traces the origins of his view way back to some medieval folks, but we'll skip the history lesson. The important part is that we have two different affections, or inclinations. The one affection is called the "affection for advantage" where advantage can be defined, roughly, as self-interest. This affection is pretty obvious to everyone. We are often motivated by our own desires, and many of our actions are results of this motivation. The second affection is the "affection for justice" where justice is, for the most part, the recognition that other moral beings carry as much weight as the self, so the self cannot be promoted above those other beings. Self-sacrifice, altruism, and all that jazz fall into this category. Now, Hare doesn't say that first affection is inherently bad. It can be a good thing. What Hare does say is that the affection for advantage must come second to the affection for justice. In other words, the first affection isn't bad so long as it is subordinated to the other affection. Now that that's clear, an obvious problem arises. The ranking of affections ought to be one way, but humans, by and large, come with the ranking reversed. Not only is the ranking reversed, but it's super hard to switch around. In fact, it's impossible for us to live with the proper ranking.

And that's the problem. If we can't live with the proper rankings, at least we haven't proven thus far in the course of history that we can, then it's hard to say we ought to. Remember, we only ought to do what we can do, and if we can't switch the rankings then we can't very well be obligated to do so. This is the performance gap. We can't do it, but our sense of morality says that we ought to. Yikes. What now? Well, Hare would say that the theist approach (in his case, the more specific Christian approach) offers a bridge. Yes it's true that we can't switch our rankings alone, but we still ought to because it is possible for us to do if we get help from God. Ought is still in, because we can if we get some support from the Big Guy. Well, that makes sense. We clearly can't live up to moral obligations on our own, but we still ought to, so maybe there is a way that we can and that way is by getting help from God. God is the bridge between our actual performance and how we ought to perform.

So what's the problem then? Well not everyone buys into the God bit, so there is still that nasty problem of can't. Can't takes away our ought, and we want to keep the ought (well, some of us do). We want to be able to say that mass killing is wrong and that slavery is bad. We want to because we have this deep sense of ought, and no matter where the ought came from we want it to mean something. But can it mean something if it's a product of natural selection?? This is where Hare recognizes 3 strategies that are often used to bridge the gap sans God:
1. Lower the moral standard
2. Exaggerate our capacity to meet the standard
3. Find a substitute for God's help (a new bridge)

The first solution is the one Hare treats at length in his paper. It's the one I think most people are tempted to buy into. If you never fail morally, then you've met the standard, and that standard is perfection. Perfection, you might then say, is too high a standard. Let's lower it to be "good enough," or something like that. (This wasn't talked about by Hare, and I'll get back to his critique momentarily) My problem with that is: what is good enough? Perfection is an easy line to draw. Good enough is messy. Where does it go, and can it even be one line? Is there a range, and can only one moral failure knock you out of that range? This suffers from the "no sharp distinction" problem (hair on head, pile of sand, say what you will). There is no way to judge where that lowered standard should be drawn. So then maybe you'd clarify it and say, well you are only responsible to be as good as you can possibly be. That too poses some problems. What if Hitler was a good as he could possibly be (taking into consideration environmental factors, genetics, etc)? Does he then have no moral blame for his actions?? I doubt it. The truth is, lowering the standard is really just making things even harder, and no bridge is being built. Instead we're just saying that we're content to sit on the moral failure cliff.

(UPDATE: I forgot to mention that perhaps the standard could be considered not as an all things considered measure but in a case-by-case basis. If we can do the right thing in each particular instance --which is evidenced by the fact that we sometimes do-- then the can survives and the ought does too. It's not until you look at morality as an all-choices-taken-together standard that it looks so bleak. Or maybe it still looks bleak case-by-case. I suppose you could also say that while it's highly improbable that we will be morally perfect, it is possible. If in every situation we could do the right thing, then in every situation we ought to. All because it's highly unlikely that we will always do the right thing, and all because no one else ever has in the past, well that doesn't necessarily mean it's impossible. You could offer Jesus as an example if you were so inclined. It's possible. In that case, we still ought to even though there's not a very good probability that we will live up to the ought. But still, this grim probability verges on the border of can't so I'm not sure. In this case we are responsible, bridge or no, for getting to the other side. It's sort of a depressing set-up, but you could roll with it if you really want to keep ought without the help of God.)

Hare sees the lower standard as a rejection of the affection for justice. Evolutionary psychologists try to pin morality on a naturally selected trait that will increase the survival of our species. That being said, morality must then be based on self interest, or affection for advantage. Affection for justice essentially disappears. In this way the standard is lowered so far that morality really just means our affection for advantage. That's it. And that's pretty depressing. Hare clarifies it with this example: "To see the effect of Arnhart’s view [a guy who proposes this sort of compromise], consider the case of slavery. Arnhart is not entitled to condemn it morally, since it results from the satisfaction of natural desires for dominance, and he thinks the satisfaction of natural desires is good. The most he is entitled to say is that slavery is tragic, since it results from the conflict of natural desires between the masters and the slaves." To me, and to Hare, this is unacceptable. Slavery is not just tragic, it is morally reprehensible. If you can't condemn slavery, or similar evils, then why speak of morality at all??

It's clear that evolution, in this case, is not building a bridge. It's merely deciding that getting across the gap is either not something worth pursuing, or it's nonsensical because there is no other side to get to. Now Hare mentions a point here that I think is not made enough, and it's that evolution need not be a complete explanation of all that there is. Why should evolution think that it must explain morality? If it can't, that doesn't mean that it's a failure as a theory; it just means that there are limits to what it can speak to. Evolution can't explain mathematics (certainly Pythagoreans theorem was not invented by man to ensure our survival --recognized by us maybe-- but we don't invent mathematical truths). Evolution needs to stop trying to over-explain things. Hare says: "[The] view [held by some guy called Alexander] is that humans invented mathematics, and therefore mathematics has to be understood fundamentally in terms of genetic self-promotion, just like religion or any other feature of life. But then this claim is no longer a part of the theory of evolution, but it is a metaphysical view added onto it: that every domain above the physical and the chemical which human life encounters is to be explained ultimately by natural selection at the genetic level. It is important to see that this metaphysical view cannot itself be justified biologically; it is, I believe, an article of faith for Alexander, though it is not recognized as such."

And there's the key: evolution can only be a complete world explanatory theory if taken on faith by it's proponents to be all that there is. That doesn't mean evolution can't explain some things; it just means that when you try to say evolution can explain all things you are taking a metaphysical leap of faith that you can't back up with your theory. So there's something to think about.

Another concern is the publicity standard. If people lose the willingness to conform to some standard after discovering the true foundation of that standard (or lack thereof), then that standard has a pretty big strike against it. Example, if I am nice to my sister because my mom says that Santa will give me coal otherwise, and if I then find out that Santa isn't real, then I loose a big motivation to be nice to my sister. In fact, I probably won't be very nice if that was the only reason I bothered to be nice in the first place. If you take away the foundations of morality, then people won't be bothered to follow it. And why should they? If morality is really only a manifestation of self-interest, then why bother? Why not just promote the self at all costs if that's where morality stems from anyway? That's a problem.

So evolution is looking grim as far as finding a bridge for the moral gap goes. It just can't, on it's own, get us from one side to the other without making things more complicated. At best you can just decide not to worry about, and at worst you can abandon objective morality all together (which is getting more popular to do). There was way more in the paper, and you should read it, but I'm out of space/time for now. More later if I have the chance.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

More Golden Compass Stuff

I've recently come across this interview here with Philip Pullman. It was a very interesting read, and I recommend that you check it out. The most interesting Pullman quotes:

On being ingrained with the culture of the Church of England:
"My answer to that would be that I was brought up in the Church of England, and whereas I'm an atheist, I'm certainly a Church of England atheist, and for the matter of that a 1662 Book of Common Prayer atheist. The Church of England is so deeply embedded in my personality and my way of thinking that to remove it would take a surgical operation so radical that I would probably not survive it....My own background, as I've said many times, is Christian to the core. Christianity has made me what I am, for better or worse. I just don't believe in God."

Then he was asked a question about his books carrying Godly messages, though obviously sophisticated, despite his own atheism:
"That would be embarrassing, wouldn't it? But I think this question touches something that I answered in my previous email, namely the tendency among Christians (and no doubt other religions too) to think that anything they like in the work of an avowed atheist or agnostic is a sign that really the said a. or a. is deluding himself, and that he's really Christian, only he doesn't know it. But I resist that interpretation, as you'd expect me to. I'm not deluded: Christians are. There is no God."

In the interview he makes it clear that he gets very upset with Christians monopolizing virtues. If I say that love and self-sacrifice are Christian virtues, then I'm not wrong in the sense that my religion is wrong, but wrong in the sense that my religion cannot monopolize those virtues. I can see what sort of attitude he's talking about, and it's one that's rife in the Church. The attitude is that only believers can do or know good, and non-believers can't. Well that's obviously wrong. Non-believers can cherish the same virtues as we do, and many of them can live by them better than we do. It's not a question of monopoly. Good is universal for the doing, and evil is the same.

Christians need to be careful not to say (or think) that only Christians can have access to these virtues. On the contrary, the existence of these virtues on a universal level testifies to the whole point of Christianity, or the Gospel. The fact that everyone does think love and self-sacrifice are good things, and that selfishness/etc are bad things (and the fact that we often have more of the latter than the former) gives us a good reason to think that the Christian world view isn't all that crazy. No, Christians don't have a monopoly on virtue. But, if the Gospel is right, then the fact that so many stories and authors point to these virtues should be a good sign that there is universal truth in the message of Christ. If you don't believe the Christ bit, that's your own deal. But Christians have good reason to see Christian virtues in non-Christian works. If they didn't, then they'd have a reason to be suspect of what they believe. If, for example, Christ said it was virtuous to be lazy and disobedient, well we'd have to wonder. Not many people of any cultural variety would call that virtuous. Not that all morality of all religions and cultures is equal, which it's not, and not to say that the message of Christ wasn't radical in ways, but rather he spoke to a deeper story and struggle that every human faces. Do you see where I'm going with this? It's okay for Christians to point to the work of non-believers and see a greater message embedded in them. It's because the struggle is universal that you will inevitably find evidence of that struggle everywhere. But no, don't think that only Christians know about or can be live by these virtues. The difference is that Christians (should) realize that they fall short, that everyone does. That's the point.

Now for those books, you can check out my thoughts on them here. If you're a Christian, go read them. The story is great (though the end is wanting), and you won't go to hell for it. In fact, you may just learn something. The opposite of faith is fear (I shamelessly steal from Pastor Chris), and being afraid of a story won't get you anywhere. You need to be able to evaluate everything for what it is, for it's good points and bad. Pullman has some good lessons, and he has some I don't care for. The important part is being able to test for yourself what's worth taking from the books, and what's not. But don't let his atheism put you off. Rather, see this as an opportunity to learn from a different perspective.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

French Political Culture and Strikes

Let me begin this post with a disclosure: I know very little about politics, domestic or otherwise. Consequently, I know even less about French politics. I've tried to educate myself, but much of the process and games played just boggle my mind (and I have a suspicion that I'm not the only one this is true of). So any and all opinions expressed here are solely based on my intuitive response to the recent events going down in France. I have no substantial foundation to base them on, I have no great understanding of their system, but I DO have the perspective of an outsider looking in. And this is what I see.

As some of you may (or may not) have heard, France is in the midst of a political showdown. The easiest way to describe it is France is fighting change, and France is winning. Some may say it's France v. Sarckozy, but really it's more than that. France has been fighting this battle for a long time, and it's a battle that is totally bizarre from the American perspective. This is what usually happens: some politician proposes some change (for whatever reason), that change may be an all things considered (atc) good thing or not (it doesn't really matter), that change will inevitably affect someone somewhere negatively, those people will go on strike, and the proposed change will be taken back. In the end, nothing changes. No progress is made, for better or worse. The culprit: la greve (the strike). Now don't get me wrong, strikes can be a very effective means for social change, but they can just as easily be obstacles to change. There is a difference between striking occasionally for things that really matter for a large group of people and striking because you happen to get the short stick this time. In the US, I think that there are probably too many groups of people who really do need to stand up for themselves (perhaps by striking, perhaps not) who don't, but in France I think the opposite problem is true. I think too many people who shouldn't strike, who shouldn't complain, do.

Some people think that the French shouldn't strike so much because it decreases their efficacy. If everyone strikes all the time, then no one will listen anymore. Strikes will become so routine that they loose their impact. And that probably is right, for some strikes, but it's not why the French strike-culture itself is bad. That's one downside, sure, but there's more to it than that. The problem is that the French have gotten so accustomed to going on strike in order to protect their interests, that they've lost perspective on collective interests. By collective, I don't mean collective groups of teachers, students, or transport works. They have plenty of that. This is by no means a collective action problem. No, the problem is that each worker is only worried about her own interests (or the interests of her profession as a whole). She doesn't worry about the interests of the nation as a whole (or more accurately, the interest of a wider group of individuals within the nation). I limit this to nation because I don't think they go on strike for foreign policy, so we'll keep this a domestic discussion (though I by no means think that they should only be concerned about the interests of their co-nationals).

Why do I say this? Well think of it this way: in any non-ideal situation (so like, pretty much any imaginable earthly arrangement short of some sort of heaven) the advancement of justice will require tradeoffs. To achieve the most justice society, there has to be some give and take. Some things are important enough that they will trump other things, even if those other things are also worth promotion. So you see, no matter what, the only way to secure the most just society will require sacrifices. Justice in our non-ideal situation can not be a totally win-win-win (cue Micheal Scott) situation. If trade-offs or sacrifices are needed for some greater amount of good, then someone somewhere will be unhappy for some indefinite period of time. The only way to enact whatever policy that is ATC the best bet for the most justice or flourishing (yes, I think that's a legitimate goal for governments to promote, won't defend it here or probably ever, sorry) is for the person who has to temporarily (or maybe permanently) give up some good/right/privilege to be willing to compromise. Yes my friends, compromise. Compromise does not mean you gun for the best deal for your own interests, it means you recognize that everyone has equally important interests and sometimes you have to give things up to make life the best it can be for the most amount of people. And no, I am not a utilitarian, but there are obvious undertones of that view here.

Now I'm not saying that folks currently on strike in France don't have legitimate interests to protect. I'm just saying that in general the power of the strike is used inappropriately. It's better for the parties involved, when they can, to sit down and discuss the problem with more than their own interests in mind. Yes I realize you won't end your strike until your pension is however much money at whatever age, BUT, maybe your pension isn't as important as the downfall of France's entire economy? Yes I'm being dramatic, but I worry for these folks. Every change is met with opposition. Some changes should be met with opposition, but some should not. Some changes are needed, desperately. Example, France's economy really is facing a crisis. Sure it seems to be doing well now, but in our global economy it is not fluid enough to compete. France just isn't able to change at the pace needed to stay in the game, and that's just the economy. Who even knows what will happen in the other sectors (education itself is looking rather grim, of that I can attest). Talk first, strike later, but only IF it's actually critical.

So why are there so many strikes? I have no idea. I can guess that it's strongly linked with France's overall conservatism (small c) regarding anything. They protect their language like a mother bear, so you can imagine how protective they are of keeping things the same, regardless of whether the current situation is worth keeping. Now this may make it seem like all French folks are strike-aholics, but that's not true. In fact, my most illuminating information has come from several French friends or teachers who are very frustrated with the strike-culture. Don't get me wrong, I've met my fair share of strike-lovers, but I've met more people than expected that are getting quite fed up. There are people here who want change, who think things aren't as good as they could be. I'm just not sure if things will ever get better here, not if attitudes don't change first.

This post was obviously inspired by the recent transportation strike (national rail and Paris metro). Now although the strike was a particular pain to me personally, that's not why I feel frustrated with the strikes. I made it to Paris and back this week despite the strikes. I'm not just bitter about the inconvenience they caused me (though it was annoying). To be fair, I've had several strikes that have worked in my favor. When I studied abroad my university went on strike for 3 months (pretty much because the govn't wanted to let companies fire workers who had been there for under 2 years if those workers weren't any good-- it's very hard to fire anyone and so companies just don't hire-- it's messed up), and I didn't have to go to school. Just yesterday MY students went on strike. That's right, my little lyceens have barricaded our school and decided that they just won't learn until Sarco takes back the partial privatization of universities plan. They could keep striking for another 2 weeks, and I won't have to work at all. So common sense would make you think I'd be in favor of the strikes. But in all seriousness I'd gladly return to work if it meant this country would free itself up for progress. So, there you have it.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Democracy for Sinners

“Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; man’s capacity for injustice makes democracy necessary” (emphasis mine). Reinhold Niebuhr makes this powerful observation as early as the forward to his book, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness. Essentially, Neibuhr is a realist regarding human nature, and his views are largely influenced by his Christian beliefs. Niebuhr argues that political idealists, despite their good intentions, always fail in the execution of their ideals because they don’t fully understand the intricacies of human nature. The book doesn’t say much in the way of Neibuhr’s own principles of justice (with one notable exception that I mention later), but instead he focuses on how you move from ideals to reality. He does make it clear that democracy is probably the best bet, but the problem lies in democracy’s traditional justifications. These justifications, according to Neibuhr, not only fail in their justification but also hinder democracy’s ultimate success. Of course this book happened to fit perfectly with the last philosophy class I took, which studied ideal and non-ideal philosophy. And even better, Niebuhr borrows heavily from the Christian world view, to which I am also a believer, so as you may imagine I enjoyed the book immensely. (Let me note before I go on that apparently Niebuhr was a pretty important theologian and philosopher in the previous decade, and this is the first I’ve ever heard of him. My education, both philosophically and theologically, has failed me.)

So let’s start by setting up the scene as proposed by Niebuhr. On the one hand you have the CLs (children of light), who are all those who “believe that self-interest should be brought under the discipline of a higher law.” That includes pretty much all political idealists (the forerunners of democracy, Marxists, and whoever else). Let me point out that the higher law need not be God’s, and in the case of many of the political idealists described by Niebuhr it isn’t. The only common denominator is that they believe there is something bigger than the self out there, and that something is important enough to trump individual interests every now and again. For all intensive purposes, you can call this a sort of objective moral standard, which includes a standard of justice. Now on the other hand you have the CDs (the children of darkness). These are the pessimists, or moral cynics, who “know no law beyond their will and interest.” I would go so far as to include the relativists in this category. So the CDs don’t buy into the whole objective moral standard. Maybe they believe there is no such thing as morality, or maybe they believe morality is really just the pursuit of selfish ends. The point is these folks don’t think there is a greater ‘justice’ to attain, just a will to either suppress or pursue.

Needless to say, the different views of morality will have a profound impact on each group’s political theories. For the CLs, they rightly strive to subordinate society to the claims of justice. For the CDs, they either don’t want to subordinate self-interest, or think that the only workable society will have to completely subordinate people’s selfishness (think Hobbes). The CLs get it wrong because they underestimate people’s capacity to screw things up and be selfish and unjust. The CDs get it wrong because they either pursue self interest shamelessly, or they don’t remember that the leaders of more authoritarian regimes (intended to suppress this sort of pursuit) also have selfish pursuits. Of the two groups, the CDs have the best understanding of the inner crookedness of human nature. Call it sin, call it selfishness, call it whatever you want. Humans have complicated motivations, and it’s rarely ever black and white. The CLs presume that people are basically good and will, for the most part, care enough about justice to make society work. For the CLs that promote democracy, they justify their ideals on the basis that most people will pursue justice within a democracy, and that’s why the government should be controlled by the people. Neibuhr disagrees. Instead, he thinks the justification for democracy is that the government is always going to be made of people, people who are selfish, and so that government should be held accountable to everyone. Democracy is the best way to go because it leaves (in theory) no person unchecked. Authoritarian regimes have no such check. So for Neibuhr, we don’t vote because deep down we’ll all vote for justice; rather we vote because deep down even the leaders of our government will be selfish and ought to be held accountable for their actions.

Neibuhr sees the human struggle as this: we want to flourish but deep down we have these fighting convictions that are hard to reconcile. We have a need to flourish (or as he says, reach our full potential), which is essentially a pursuit for the self. But, we can only reach our full potential in community with others by contributing to other people’s flourishing. So although we have this selfish pursuit of flourishing, its fulfillment depends upon non-selfish means. That’s one part, and he calls it the will-to-live-truly. The other part is called our will-to-power. We have a will to power that is rooted in our recognition of our own insignificance. In the scheme of things, each person is nothing. To compensate for this insignificance, we try to make ourselves as significant as we can, which is translated into a desire for power. The power can be inner power, or power over others (sounds a bit like choice theory). So anyway, the point is that we have two battling desires, and they can (and do) make it both possible for us to do really good things or really bad things. I’d say most people would agree with this. People have the capacity (and desire) to be good, but we have an equal capacity (and sometimes desire) to be bad. It’s Milton’s “able to stand but free to fall” dilemma. Unfortunately, it’s the capacity to fall that most CLs don’t take into consideration. That’s where Neibuhr’s realism comes in. The CLs should borrow from the wisdom of the CDs, who understand the capacity for man to be evil. BUT, he warns, they should “be careful not to borrow too much.”

The lesson: we need to self-critical all the time, and we need institutions that allow us to put this criticism into practice. Democracy is one such institution. But it’s not as simple as that. We can’t, Neibuhr warns, just set up a rigid system and leave it at that or problems will ensue. Neibuhr’s main focus is how to go from the principles of justice (to which he doesn’t propose his own, as I mentioned earlier) to their implementation. This is a big step, from ideal theory to non-ideal situations. How can it be done? What process do you follow? What’s the formula for turning principles of justice into policy? Niebuhr say’s there aren’t any! But, there are important constraints to think about if you’re dealing with a human nature as Neibuhr describes it.

Okay, so let’s say you set up a society with working laws, that are really only relative to the society itself at a certain time period, and you make those relative laws subject to criticism as time, technology, culture, etc changes. Surely that’s enough? Or, should we be able to also criticize the principles of justice themselves? Surely that’s going too far, to allow the principles of justice to be subject to popular mood and selfish interest? Right? Wrong. To the idea that the principles of justice are subject to change, I was initially taken aback. For if even the highest principles are relative, then what is the higher standard supposed to be?? Well, Niebuhr says that even our principles must be subject to criticisms because the beings that discovered them are themselves fallen creatures tempted by selfishness and whatnot. So really, it’s not that justice changes, it’s that our conception of justice must be flexible because it’s always, at some level, tainted by our own capacity for error and sin. Okay, I guess I agree with that. The standard is immutable, but our conception of that standard must be flexible, because our reason is not pure. This differs decidedly from the liberal idolization of human reason. Neibuhr claims that because “reason is something more than a weapon of self-interest it can be an instrument of justice; but since reason is never dissociated from the vitalities of life, individual and collective, it cannot be a pure instrument of justice.”

He goes on to add that as you go from ideal to the real world, each step closer becomes more and more relative because it is linked closer with a specific time in history. The principles are the least flexible, but they still are flexible to some extent. As you go down the latter, the laws and policies must be more and more flexible, because they are too dependent upon currant circumstances.

Neibuhr follows this thesis with an interesting discussion of religious humility, which is the greatest contribution of religion to society. It’s not common even among religious folks, but some religious folks do have it and the best thing for the rest of society is to emulate it. Deep humility comes from an encounter with something so much greater than yourself that, while you have important beliefs in that being and the society you live in, you can’t help but be acutely aware of your own fallibility in the face of this being. In other words, no matter how strongly you hold your beliefs, if you have religious humility, then you are very aware of just how wrong you can be because you realize your own powerlessness and ignorance. That, Neibuhr claims, is very rare, but it is the best sort of toleration for a pluralistic society. What’s more common is religious indifference, which doesn’t come from one ounce of humility, and is the worse for it. Democracy desperately needs this sort of humility for it to work properly. If everyone was aware of how wrong they could be and probably are then we’d all get along much better. Neibuhr worries that “blind ideological devotion” (of either the secular or religious variety) is the greatest threat to democracy, and to justice as a whole. I totally agree, but I don’t anticipate any great humbling of our prideful race any time soon. It’s too bad. (His thoughts on humility are way more extensive and interesting than I’m letting on here, but I just don’t have space to elaborate).

Before you think Neibuhr is himself a pessimist, let me mention this. Neibuhr is very aware that our capacity to fall is equally matched by our capacity to overcome our fallenness. We possess the power to go either way, often we do a bit of both. So the flexibility of the government is not only there to check our fallen moments, but it is also flexible to allow for our moments of redemption. He's not a pessimist, but he's not an optimist. He's a realist. We can go either way. We ought to go one way, and sometimes we should, and our society should be set up in a way to allow for that to the greatest possible extent. But we shouldn't be foolish and forget that we can just as easily mess it all up.

The one principle of justice that he does propose is our global responsibility. His book was written at the culmination of the second world war, and he was very aware of the looming global crisis at hand. Our community, he argues, is not limited to our nation. But, it’s easier said than done, and he also realizes the very real issues involved in a global community. I just thought it was nice that he didn’t limit his discussion to the nation. Justice is worldwide, and there’s no reason for us to be just within our own nation and unjust elsewhere.

He also said something about libertarians that I found quite interesting. He pretty much puts them into the CD category of pessimism about the human race, but they suffer from the opposite problem of Hobbes and the other authoritarians. Where Hobbes didn’t see that the rulers of his government were just as prone to selfishness as the people they rule over, the libertarians overestimate the guiding hand of the market. The hand, Neibuhr argues, is just not strong enough. And if you limit government because you don’t trust the people running it, then you should be even more worried about the people running the market (business leaders) because they can’t be checked. At least the government, however imperfect, can be held accountable, but those in charge of the market can run amuck without reprimand, and that is much more dangerous for justice than a corrupt government. Let me add that I thought libertarians were essentially too optimistic about our ability to run ourselves. I just figured they thought we were better people outside of the government than within. But I see Neibuhr’s point.

Now, what I would really love to know is what Neibuhr thought (or would think) about Rawls’ principles. They are, for the most part, harnessing self-interest, but Rawls doesn’t give much guidance for their implementation. I wonder. And I wonder what Rawls thought about Neibuhr, if he thought about his ideas at all. (I’m sure there’s a book or paper out there about this already)

So the moral of the story: we suck. We need to be checked and rechecked all the time. The good news? God doesn’t suck and He offered to take away our suckiness while at the same time being happy that we tried to not be sucky. Neibuhr puts it more elegantly:

“The task of achieving a [just world community] must be interpreted from the standpoint of a faith which understands the fragmentation and broken character of all historical achievements and yet has confidence in their meaning because it knows their completion to be in the hands of a Divine Power, whose resources are greater than those of men, and whose suffering love can overcome the corruptions of man’s achievements, without negating the significance of our striving.”

Well said.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Is God a feminist?

I'm new to the Hugo Schwyzer blog, and recently came across this post (amongst a series of feminist posts) that I enjoyed. Hugo is taken to task by Anti-Feminists who attack not only his ideology, but also his self described "passionately feminist marriage." The post caught my attention for two reasons. First, I used to be afraid of feminists (seriously) but now realize that I am one. Second, it speaks to my recent appreciation of combating social norms concerning the family sphere.

As both a woman and a Christian, I'm acutely aware of the tension between old culture roles (as are typically 'Biblically' supported) and the rise of women's equality. I used to be afraid of feminists, actually, because I thought it was really just a group of militant women trying to reverse the roles instead of equalize them (oh the ridiculous prejudices of youth). That was until a teacher told me that feminism really just means you think women should have equal status in the world (in the same way that egalitarians think about different races, cultures, classes, etc should). Ohhh... I guess am I a feminist. I've since discovered that the great part about feminism is its insistence that the world treat women as God does, as an equally loved child of His. I find myself going back to this verse a lot, but it's a great one:
"There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." Galations 3:28

Feminism doesn't mean that a women can't be a stay at home mom. Rather, it gives women freedom to choose that role instead of being forced into it. They also have the freedom to choose a different role that they're better suited for. I use 'choose' loosely, however, because I think God gives us gifts independent of our desires, and with that a responsibility to make use of them for His glory. The same goes for men, many of whom are terrifically suited to play a larger role in the raising of their children. I hate to use a political philosophy buzz-word, but the best way for many people to 'flourish' is to give them the access to roles that society may not be accustomed to seeing them in. I think many more fathers would flourish from being stay at home dads then currently do, and there are probably many women who would not flourish as much as their husbands would from that role. And obviously, vise versa.

God didn't make us all elbows, if you'll remember (and I am in no way comparing typically female roles to elbows), but rather gifted us all with different talents and desires to make the body more complete:

"Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. If the foot should say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. And if the ear should say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? 20As it is, there are many parts, but one body.

The eye cannot say to the hand, "I don't need you!" And the head cannot say to the feet, "I don't need you!" On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it." (1 Corinthians 12:14-26)

Those verses are typically used in the context of church-roles (spiritual gifts), but I think it applies to all of the roles and gifts that God has given us. Typical gender roles are essentially saying that half of the body is ears and half is eyes. Well that makes for a pretty silly looking (and rather inefficient) body. God has made us wonderfully diverse in our gifts and callings, so let's not limit His options by saying God can't gift women outside the home or He can't gift men inside the home. Now this in no way means that a feminist husband is a push-over. Rather he is more acutely aware of the fact that old gender norms try to limit God's creativity and blessings. By saying that women are made for the home, you are essentially telling God that you know better than He does what all women are suited to do.

As usual, though, this message is easier proclaimed than heard amongst religious believers. I've never understood why. If you truly feel God's presence in your life, then you are necessarily humbled before His awesome glory. Anyone who has been humbled by God in their life should find it hard to suppose that they have all the answers. Feminists aren't saying that they know better than God; they're just trying to open up the possibility that God may have more in plan for women than the world has traditionally offered them.

I won't say anything about how this plays out in marriage, partly because Hugo already has a good description of how it works in his but mainly because I'm not married and won't go so far as to presume that I have anything enlightening to add to a discussion about a situation I've never been in. But go read the post, and the ones before/after it. It's an interesting discussion.

Saturday, October 6, 2007


This is just to say that I won't have a post for another few weeks or so. I've relocated to France, to teach, and I haven't had too much time yet. I promise a good one soon about the crazy French.

A bientot.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Children and Philosophy part 2

At the end of my last post on children and philosophy, I mentioned a project that I've started with a bunch of GT 8th graders. The project is this: they can read whatever they want, and then they have to blog about it. It's simple enough, really. I've compiled a booklist of reads that are on the HS or college level that they may or may not find interesting. Pretty much, I've thought of books that I think I might have been able to enjoy when I was in the 8th grade (that is, before they were ruined by literature classes). The books are actually a little on the risque side, but what great literature isn't? And besides, they'll encounter it eventually, so why not pique their interest early?

I told the kids this: "You should pick any book you want, even if it's not on the list. Try to make it a hard book, you know, so you'll be challenged and stuff. Make sure your parents say it's okay for you to read the book. If you start a book and it sucks, then stop reading it." At this point, they were floored. They were never given the choice to stop reading a book they weren't enjoying. Several of their faces showed mistrust. Was I for real? I continued, "Then I want you to think about what the author is trying to say about life, or society, or morality. You know, the philosophical questions." Now they were confused. "What exactly is philosophy," they asked. Ha! Heck if I know. I only studied it for 3 years, but I can't for the life of me explain it to 8th graders. I explained their mission like this, "You guys are sick of doing plot diagrams, finding the climax, and making character sketches, right?" Total agreement. "Well, I don't want you to write about any of that. I want you to look for the deeper issues, and all of these books talk about them in some way or another. Your job is to figure out what questions the books bring up, and how are they answered. You can agree or disagree with the author. Or maybe the author doesn't even answer the question, but you may think you can. It's up to you. I want you to go beyond the plot when you read. Find what you are interested in. Then, write about it. If you are only interested in one page, write about it. This is not a book report; this is a blog where you can take your interests and develop them. The blog is very informal. Write about whatever you want, but try to be meaningful. I don't want you to tell me what happens. I've read these books; I already know. And frankly, I don't care. I want to know what these books make you think about."

Now I had their attention. They looked excited. For once they could get credit for doing what they do anyways, read books for fun. I also stressed that they should be reading each other's posts and leaving critical/helpful comments on them. I was overjoyed to see them that excited. Several of the students went out that very night to get a copy of Heart of Darkness from the public library. They were ready to get started.

The cons: blogs are on the Internet, and older people are afraid of the Internet. My fun project was not met well by some teachers, and probably won't be by some parents. A blog, heaven forbid. Is that like myspace? Yeah, wonderful. No a blog is not like myspace. Yes, the students can write whatever they want. But, the students are well aware that their teachers, parents and principal plan on reading their blogs/comments regularly. They have been instructed to post at their own risk. Their blog may be on the Internet, but that also means that their parents (for the first time) will really be able to see what their kids can do. I think it's great, and thankfully so do some of the teachers and the principal (and now I think, the superintendent!). We have had one student's parents opt out, which is fine. That student will be writing within the school's network, so it won't be online. The point of having the blogs be independent and online was for them to be able to keep it if they want when they leave the 8th grade. I wanted them to develop a skill that doesn't stop when the grades come in. They may not keep them, but they can, and some might. Sure, a crazy person could find their blog and leave a strange comment. But they have been removed from the listings, and honestly, unless someone goes to the 2 millionth page on a google search, their blogs won't be found. But because the blogs are open, we can show their project to other schools/students/teachers/etc. So we'll see how it all pans out.

Now back to the philosophy bit. These students are not formally exposed to philosophy at their school, and they won't be at their high school. Some may never really come across it at all, depending on what they study in college. But, that doesn't mean they can learn how to exercise some critical thought on their own. Because their blogs are independent, they won't have any formal instruction on how to argue, analyze, etc. But they will start looking for these questions on their own. And they will at least start to think about their own answers. This project is about getting them to start thinking critically on their own. It's not the perfect way to do it, but it's not a bad option. The other teachers and I will be reading their posts and writing comments to challenge them to think harder. The dialogue will begin. It may be the best we can do, and I think it's worth a shot.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Human Rights Blog...

My good friend's sister is meandering her way around Africa, documenting human rights violations and publishing articles while she's at it. She's a terrific writer with some interesting stories to tell. Go check it out here. (warning, it's under construction so most of the links don't work yet...)

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Children and Philosophy

In the public school system where I grew up, philosophy was never an option. Physics, yes. Calculus, yes. History, of course. But philosophy, never. To many of you, this is no surprise. Philosophy hasn't been considered a core subject for some time (and by sometime, I mean at least as far back as I can remember, which isn't far...), and the future isn't looking good for resurrecting it. Of course you can sometimes find a philosophy class (or something like it) in some private schools, but especially in a religious private school, it's not likely to be taught as openly as it ought to be. It hasn't always been this way though. Philosophy used to be the subject, and all other subjects were really only subdivisions of it. So where did it go? Why aren't we teaching it anymore?

I think it would be a mistake to think that philosophy, or at least a course in philosophy, is about learning something. Learning philosophy is more like learning some way. Yes, you can teach a history of philosophy course and teach about all the different philosophers and all of their theories. However, a real philosophy class focuses on the method of obtaining knowledge. Whether you're studying what exists, what we ought to do, or how we can know anything, you have to learn a method for reaching those answers. I think philosophy hasn't been taught precisely because it's not a matter of simply presenting information and having students commit it to memory. If it was, then it would be easy enough to include. It isn't easy to teach a method for thinking, for critical thinking. In fact, I standby the rather heretical claim that I never really learned how to think critically before college. I probably did it on my own sometimes, or by accident, but I was never formerly taught that I ought to be doing it or how to go about doing it properly. At this point, you may be wondering, if the difficulty is that it's a method, then why do we teach math? Math, at it's best, is the method for rationally reaching a numerical sum for whatever problem we are facing. When you teach math, you teach a method for reaching a solution that is more than just the memorization of formulas and conversion factors. So why can we teach math and not philosophy?

That's a good question, and the only answer I can propose is that perhaps it's because no one ever fought over the square root of 25. And people certainly don't disagree over the sum of real numbers, or the multiplication of fractions. Math is numbers, and numbers are neutral. You can replace the numbers with letters, and even those letters are neutral. But moral realism, dualism v physicalism, does God exist, etc, are not neutral issues. Philosophy tries to get at basic truths about our world, and these truths are philosophical precisely because they can't be verified empirically. You can't argue about a math solution done correctly, but you can argue about a conclusion reached in philosophy even if the argument was valid. If we only taught a philosophy logic class, that wouldn't be very controversial. But I think children ought to learn much more than mere logic.

I think the biggest obstacle to introducing philosophy into primary/secondary education would be the lack of qualified teachers. Some universities make select students take some sort of philosophy course, but not everyone has to. And even if future teachers did take an introductory course in philosophy, that doesn't mean they would be well-equipped to teach it to impressionable students. If you're going to teach philosophy, you have to do it right. It's hard enough at the university level to teach a philo course without it being clearly biased by the ideology of the professor. If done improperly, students walk away with the ideas of their teacher, not the ideas that they examined on their own. It's difficult to teach because a philosophy teacher can't just lecture, he or she must facilitate open and critical discussion. The teacher must teach students how to think about ideas, but then give them the space to explore the issues on their own and as a class.

I think that the best way to introduce this sort of thing into schools would be to slowly spark an interest for philosophy in the students. You don't have to teach a full blown philosophy class to start raising philosophical questions and to think critically about them. Students should be critical of what they learn in school, whether it be in literature, history or science. We emphasise excellence on standardized tests or AP tests, and we forget that teaching to tests limits students' scope for independent thought. There's no time to criticize when you must learn said amount of information for such and such test to earn said amount of money for the school or said credit for college. Not that these tests are completely bad, but they have become the ends instead of a way of gaging whether the means are leading to knowledge.

Subjects that are already being taught are a good place to start. History and literature, for example, provide wonderful starting blocks for these sorts of discussions. When you learn about the civil war you can ask the students why slavery is wrong. Most just take it for granted that slavery is bad, just like their southern predecessors probably took for granted that slavery was okay. It's bad to blindly accept a moral truth regardless of whether you're right about it. So students should be actively discussing why slavery is wrong, and why we believe all people have equal moral standing. We didn't always think that (still today not everyone thinks this), and they can begin to learn how to understand the moral foundation their lives which may not always jive with that of modern society.

In the same way, literature classes are wonderful starting points for philosophical discussions. From Where the wild things are to The Giver to 1984, books perform the necessary probing to get students thinking. Unfortunately, too many lit classes focus on plot diagrams, character sketches, and other useless time wasters that are designed to analyse books to death. I had many a book ruined by literature classes where we spent more time on conventions, like: what is the climax? the anticlimax?, than on the actual questions of the book. For example, in a course we would have spent more time talking about what happened in The Giver then we would have on what the book had to say about society, diversity and the value of a human life. Even in the classes where we did find those questions, we never attempted to answer them. Even if we figured out what the author had to say about those questions, we weren't really given the opportunity to discuss whether we agreed or disagreed. We didn't even get that far until high school, and before HS we would never have looked past the actual plot of the book. Though, as you can probably guess, I strongly believe we should have.

I think that if I was forced to learn the origins of western society, and the shape of electron clouds, and the inner workings of a cow's eye, then I should have at least learned how to think for myself. Part of being a responsible citizen, or for being a responsible person is to be able to think independently and to think critically about our world. So why aren't we equipping students to do this?

I'm not the only who thinks this, and in one house at one school the change has begun. One of of the teachers at the school I've been helping at teaches literature to 8th graders. She happens to agree with me that the way books are currently taught isn't working. Kids aren't learning to love books, and they certainly aren't thinking deeply about them. So this teacher has let me try something new with the GT kids. The GT kids were singled out because they are the least challenged by the current system, but the method we're experimenting with is not only for gifted kids. I think all kids should be allowed to do what the GT kids will have the chance to do in this class. I'll leave it at that for now, and I promise to explain more soon!

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Advertising to children

Today I went to the grocery store, and I saw the most appalling site. I was walking down the pasta aisle and I heard a little voice start yelling, "Scooby! Scooby momma!! Scoooooby!" I turned to see what all the fuss was about. A little girl, no older than 4 or 5, had a box of Scooby Doo macaroni and cheese in each hand. She was holding not one, but two boxes of the cartoon endorsed all-American meal. She threw the boxes into the cart against the pleadings of her mom. The mom, apparently, wasn't enticed by Scooby... This bothered me, not so much because of Scooby, but because the boxes were placed on the 2nd to last row from the bottom. I hadn't even noticed it, because I'm not 2 feet tall. The little girl, obviously, stood at the perfect height to see Scooby. I scanned the rest of the shelves and as you go up the products have a more adult appeal. The products advertised to kids are the bottom and about at the spot where a child sitting in a cart would see it. I was outraged. How had I never noticed it before? It was a stroke of marketing genius, that I'm sure many of you have already noticed, but I had never seen it before. How dare they market to kids (this isn't new, I understand, but my outrage is newly discovered)? I asked my mom if I did that sort of thing when I was little and she answered with a resounding "yes!" She had to resort to the rule that my sister and I could only pick out 1 thing to buy because we were so obnoxious. It's a wonder I never noticed before.

I think the reasons I was so oblivious were that a) I wasn't the one being targeted and b) I have only recently started studying up on this sort of thing. Now I wonder, what are they targeting at me?? I'm fairly certain that I am a marketer's golden child, because I truly am a product of advertisements. It makes me sick. I need to just start buying things I've never heard of with uninteresting boxes. That's the only way to be safe!

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Choice Theory and Nussbaum

So today I started volunteering (for the month) at my mom's middle school. She's an 8th grade math teacher, and this year she's decided to implement something called Choice Theory. You can find more out about it here at her blog. I witnessed the students first debriefing in Choice Theory, and below I've copied what I wrote for my mom's blog about what happened. The reason I'm including this because it seemed to me to be strikingly similar to what Nussbaum has to say (and other political philosophers) about flourishing. The approach with Choice Theory is more stoic, but overall the needs are quite familiar to Nussbaums list (life, bodily health/integrity, etc). I'm not in psych or education, but what I witnessed today was certainly familiar. Anyway, here's what I wrote about today (in the voice of a teacher, but really I was just a bystander):

Today was our first day with the 8th graders, and to start the year off we gave them their first lesson in Choice Theory. We started by having them play the triangle game during the 8th grade bonding time. The goal of the game was to pick two other people (who you aren't friends with) and --without letting them know that you've picked them-- position yourself in such a way that the three of you form an equilateral triangle. The game was a bit of a bust, because the students formed their triangles by talking and signaling to their friends. If done correctly, the triangles wouldn't be obvious, and you wouldn't know if someone else had formed a triangle with you in it. Instead we saw a bunch of mini-triangles comprised mainly of friends, that had clearly been organized amongst themselves. Down further I'll explain what the game was intended to teach, and I'll explain how the students proved our point even though they didn't complete it correctly.

Next we had them fill out index cards.
1. In the upper right corner they wrote a list of 3 people: one older, one younger, and one peer. These are people who have impacted their life in some meaningful way.
2. In the upper left corner they wrote a list of 3 things they would rather do today if they didn't have to come to school and money wasn't an option.
3. In the bottom left corner, they wrote 3 things they are good at or accomplishments they've made.
4. In the bottom right corner they filled out one rule they think everyone should have to follow (always), one rule that they think is really stupid, and one pet peeve.

Next we asked the students who, in the whole universe, they have the power to control (in thought, action, emotion, etc). Some said siblings and pets, but after a short discussion they all agreed that the only person they truly have control over is themselves. We told them that when they talk out of turn (which they were doing quite a bit of) it is irritating to us but there is nothing we can do to make them stop. They must stop themselves and exercise self-control. We also told them that all behavior is purposeful, and if they chose to sit and listen quietly, they were making that choice. If they choice to not listen and think "whoa, I wish they'd shut up," they were purposefully choosing to think and feel that. If someone makes you upset, you choose to be upset. We all try to control other people, but we can't. We can only control ourselves. We can try to coercive, manipulate, or persuade them, but ultimately each person must choose their own behavior.

This brings me back to the triangle game. The goal was to end up with a win-win situation where everyone formed their triangles without trying to control the other people that formed it. Had they done it properly, they would have shown the goal that Choice Theory works towards. However, they played the game by controlling other people, which showed one of their basic needs. At school, to succeed, you have to be right. They all wanted to be right, to get the game right, so they controlled each other to accomplish that. The need they were satisfying was their need to have power. Below I'll outline the four basic needs (taking survival for granted as a basic need), and how they fit into the index card activity.

The first need is love and belonging. The people in #1 represent those people who they love and value as friends or family. Everyone needs to be loved and feel belonged. Our goal this year is to make sure that every student feels like they are loved and like they belong. The second need is fun. The activities in #2 represent every one's need to have fun. Fun can be any activity that they enjoy, which can (and often) includes learning. One of our other goals is to make the learning process fun, so that they'll enjoy their time at school. The third need power. The positive form of power is power within. When you succeed or accomplish a goal, you feel power within yourself. That's a positive form of power. We want our students to learn how to tap their power within to succeed in the classroom. The other form of power that is not constructive is power over. When you try to control people other than yourself, you are using this form of power. We want to minimize the need people feel to have power over (including the teachers). The last need is freedom, which is represented by corner #4. Everyone wants a certain degree of freedom, and we need to determine what we want to be free to do and what boundaries we want other people to respect.

The overall aim of this year is to find a compromise between the students and the teachers. We want to have a win-win school year. That may mean that we need to allow more talk time in class or allow them to listen to their ipods during work time. At the same time, they will compromise by respecting our classrooms and behaving calmly. Ultimately, the choice is up to the individual. We want to teach the students to take responsibility for their actions. The atmosphere we will have this year will be determined by each and every student in our classes. If we can teach them how to choose wisely, then everyone will win. Let the year begin!

Monday, August 27, 2007

Working without benefits

I came across this article in Sojourners. It's worth taking a look at (though I think you have to sign up to see it, but don't worry it's free and worth the sign up because they have other great articles). The article is about how it sucks to be a worker in the US because so many jobs don't have benefits that are desperately needed, and it's taking it's toll on the family. There wasn't much in there that I hadn't already come across, but I was glad to see that a Christian based magazine was showing awareness and concern for this problem. Here's my favorite part:

"We need to think long and hard about what kind of economy we want to create for the next generation of workers. What are the basic standards that should be common to all jobs, not just the best jobs? At the very least, the United States should follow the lead of other advanced economies and provide paid time off for workers who are ill, have an ill family member, or need time to care for a new child. We should also ensure that safe, affordable, and enriching child care is available to every parent. We need to incorporate into our policymaking the recognition that those working in low-wage jobs may be unable to make ends meet and that their employers are not filling in the gaps with benefits."

Of course the other side of this discussion is what will happen to businesses, esp small ones, when the fringe costs (is that what they are?) go up. Perhaps it shouldn't be all on the business' shoulders? Some days I wish I was an economist so I'd have a better idea of what was really at stake here.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Potter problem and some philosophy to boot:

Two weeks ago a friend of mine gave me the first 5 Harry Potter books. I had yet to read any (or watch any of the movies), because it was just so trendy. I felt like reading them would be the equivalent to listening to N’Sync in the 7th grade. It was a matter of principle. It didn’t help that I’m not too keen on magic and the like. I try to avoid books/movies/shows that make magic look fun and cool and innocent. If you believe in the supernatural (which I openly admit that I do), then magic is nothing to take lightly. Those who do practice magic aren’t channeling positive forces (even if they think they are). If you remember my post on CS Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, I really believe that there are spiritual powers at war in this world. Any time you tap into a power not from God, well you can guess where I think it comes from. So I just never bothered to read the books. They were too trendy, and they make little kids think magic is cool (and I admit, after reading them, there have been several occasions where I’ve wished I had a wand to stupefy my students in swim lessons).

But even though I didn’t read them, I didn’t think they were any worse than every other secular book out there (unlike many other vocal Christians in the US that ardently boycott the series). A book without God is just that, a book without God. Of course there are wonderful books with God, and I love many of them (Narnia, Rings, etc). But that doesn’t mean that any book without God is bad to read just because He’s missing from it. Literary achievement isn’t limited to the pious, and there’s a lot you can learn (I know this is obvious) from those who don’t write from a religious perspective (see my Golden Compass post for one example). So I’ve decided to write about Harry Potter from my perspective, and I know many other Christians have already done this but I haven’t read a word of it because I didn’t want anything to be spoiled (so forgive me if I repeat what other thoughtful writers have already written, it isn’t intentional). And I think my discussion of the merits of Potter lends itself to a short discussion of whether we should introduce philosophy to children through their own literature (a subject I have never thought about myself, but have recently been introduced to by Professor Brighouse).

I don’t know if I’ll spoil the books for anyone, so don’t read this if you haven’t read them but plan too (though I don’t think I’ll give away too much, and I doubt there are many people left who haven’t read them yet).

The central plot in HP is one of a war between good and evil, a common enough story line. Voldemort, the evil antagonist, does a Satan slash Darth Vador move by moving to the dark side. His move was motivated by pride and a lust for power. Then you have Harry who is not extraordinary in himself, but rather becomes extraordinary by the combination of the love in his life and his willingness to do the right thing. In the end, love conquers all. Without love, you just can’t win, and you’re pretty miserable in the process. No amount of power can replace love. So minus the glorification of white magic (which, I suppose, is a powerful enough objection on its own, but I don’t think it outweighs the importance of the message in the books), the book does a good job of promoting the story of all time. Why do so many stories focus on the battle between good and evil? Why does love always seem to win out in the end? Why are the underdogs able to do extraordinary things? Well, you can guess what I have to say about that. Love wins because God is love. Evil is here because moral agents are prone to pride, and they have the choice to abandon God is they want. God’s love will win anyways, so those who embrace it (and those people tend to be the underdogs, those who need all the help they can get) also gain the power of His love. It’s a universal story because the battle is etched in our hearts. The God hole is there, the temptation to follow the route of pride is there, the love is there for the taking… The story can come in any shape or form, the characters may change, the setting may be different, but the conflict is the same.

The fact that so many stories have the same conflict speaks to the need that we have for God and His love. By reading secular novels (and going to secular movies and listening to secular songs) you witness humanity’s longing for it. I’ve always thought that sheltering yourself from the shouts of humanity for God is tantamount to ignoring God Himself. We need to listen to everyone else so we can begin to show them the love that we prize so dearly. A few years back some friends of mine and I decided to make a CD about God, but it would be filled with only secular songs. The songs we found spoke of love and redemption and second chances and the need to belong and be satisfied and have a purpose. The overwhelming cry of humanity is this very deep need for love, the unconditional and extraordinary kind. When I read Harry Potter, I hear this cry.

Well I was going to say more on that, but I fear I may just be repeating what other Christians have no doubt figured out already. So that’s all really. Not earth-shattering, but I thought it was worth saying again, as it’s an important lesson or us (believers) to learn.

Here’s where I was going to write about how HP and books like it lend themselves very nicely to discussing philosophy with children, but I think I’ll save that for a future post. Expect it soon enough.

More Egally Business

I was recently referred to this article by Arthur Brooks in the City Journal. In light of my obvious egalitarian convictions, the article voiced one of the most common objections I’ve encountered. Strickly speaking, the concern is that egalitarians are too focused on equality of income. This could very well be true, egallies of all varieties may be missing the point as much as everyone else. But, my sort of egalitarianism (and the sort that I’ve had the most exposure to) is not like this at all. Equality of income (or even, overall assets) is not only ridiculously hard to maintain without an absurd amount of interference into people’s lives, but it also doesn’t achieve the sort of equality that I think every person deserves (which I will explain below).

The article goes on to show how conservatives tend to be more optimistic about people’s opportunity to move upward economically and socially, whereas liberals tend to think people are stuck where they are. Well, there is truth on both ends. Of course there are many people who are gifted with the necessary market-skills that will allow for them to break free from their less advantaged roots, but not everyone has the right sort of talents to do so. If a person is born more charismatic, good looking, intelligent, etc –they can’t boast that they deserve to have been born so. They also can’t say that they themselves achieved any sort of feat by being lucky enough to live at a time when such traits are highly marketable. Not that hard work doesn’t come in at all, I believe it certainly does, but there are many people in the lower ranks of society who work very hard with the talents they have, but they don’t have what the market requires for them to rise. Is that their fault? No. The fact that there are many working poor is sad, but true. There are working poor. If you work 3 jobs but earn only a meager salary with no benefits, what else can be expected of you? The question isn’t whether there is the opportunity for some to rise, but whether all those who deserve to rise can do so. Why should the back breaking work of the custodian go unrewarded all because he wasn’t born 7’ tall with a great lay-up shot? It’s not about opportunity for the lucky few, but for those who really are contributing to society in a meaningful way (not that bball players don’t, but do they really contribute millions of dollars worth—seriously?).

This quote made me smile (being a former conservative, yet not a liberal –sort of disliking all sides –but with definite lefty tendencies):

“It is small wonder, then, that conservatives tend to be happier than liberals today. The 2004 GSS showed that 44 percent of people who identified themselves as “conservative” or extremely conservative” were “very happy” about their lives; only 25 percent of self-identified liberals or extreme liberals gave that response. Conservatives believe that they live in a more promising country than liberals do, and that makes them happier.”

Couldn’t this just mean that conservatives might be more ignorant of the situation of everyone else in society, and so they may be less worried about the overall situation? I certainly wouldn’t put it past them ;) . This, of course, followed the explanation of a study where liberals (rich ones) thought there was less mobility in the US than poor conservatives. Well, perhaps the happiness with what you’ve got isn’t so much a function of your political leanings, but more about other ideological sympathies. Growing up as a WASP, you are taught to be content with what you have, but to work very hard anyways. WASPs also tend to be conservative (and don’t usually run into much if any discrimination). If the right really has a monopoly over the religious sect, then I wouldn’t be surprised if they were a bit more optimistic about their situation in life. But, that’s just a hunch. Maybe they controlled for religion, who knows.

This quote (and objection) didn’t surprise me:

“And those left behind, it’s important to note, will almost certainly not become happier if we redistribute more income. Indeed, they will probably become less happy. Policies designed to lower economic inequality tend to change the incentives of both the haves and the have-nots in a way that particularly harms the have-nots. Reductions in the incentives to prosper mean fewer jobs created, less economic growth, less in tax revenues, and less charitable giving—all to the detriment of those left behind. And redistribution can, as the American
welfare system has shown, turn beneficiaries into demoralized long-term dependents. As Irving Kristol put it three years before the federal welfare reform of 1996, “The problem with our current welfare programs is not that they are costly—which they are—but that they have such perverse consequences for
people they are supposed to benefit."”

Of course if we try to mend our already shoddy system it won’t do much good. That’s because you can’t build a house on the sand. Maybe we just need to tear it down and start again, which means we may also mean that we need to be a bit more creative. Income equality won’t cut it (though making the inequality itself less stark certainly wouldn’t hurt). It’s about making equal opportunity for people to live a flourishing life. You needn’t make 100 grand a year to flourish. What do you need? Well that varies from person to person. But Nussbaum has some ideas (bodily freedom, health, development of the mind, meaningful relationships, etc). I think I would just need enough money to ensure decent living arrangements, food, clothes, etc and maybe a family and a job that challenges me and is interesting. I don't think equality of income is necessary to give everyone a shot at this, but I think everyone does deserve a shot at a worthwhile life (even if their talents aren’t very marketable). If you are willing to work and do your share, you should have this opportunity (though you could argue that work ethic itself isn’t something you deserve to have but that you have by chance –a combination of genes and how you were raised). Income isn’t the only thing we need, but maybe we need a more encompassing education (how to take care of yourself, emotional ed, resources for parents, etc) and better healthcare.

This is more in line with what I think about things (though I think Brooks is mistaken about how well conservative policies really promote the sort of opportunity I’m thinking of):

“A more accurate vision of America sees a land of both inequality and opportunity, in which hard work and perseverance are the keys to jumping from the ranks of the have-nots to those of the haves. If we can solve problems of
absolute deprivation, such as hunger and homelessness, then rewarding hard work will continue to serve as a positive stimulant to achievement. Redistribution and taxation, beyond what’s necessary to pay for key services, weaken America’s
willingness and ability to thrive. This vision promotes policies focused not on wiping out economic inequality, but rather on enhancing economic mobility. They include improving educational opportunities, aggressively addressing cultural
impediments to success, enhancing the fluidity of labor markets, searching for ways to include all citizens in America’s investing revolution, and protecting the climate of American entrepreneurship…Placidity about income inequality, and
opposition to income redistribution, are evidence of a light heart, not a hard one. If happiness is our goal, those who promote opportunity over economic equality have no apologies to make.”

Brooks is right, it’s not just about the money. It’s about so much more! So let’s get things going already…

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Where did all the egalitarians go?

This post has been in the works (or at least in my head) for quite some time. I thought it would be a good idea to take a look at two fairly familiar political philosophy ideologies (egalitarianism and libertarianism) and for me to show you what I think of them and how I believe they stand in relation to the Christian faith. To be perfectly honest, I only just recently became aware of the former ideology this past year, so I can only skim the surface of this discussion and am not at all qualified to have much of an opinion. But that's never stopped me before, so here it goes.

I'll start with a basic overview of the egalitarian perspective as I understand it. According to the Standford Encyclopedia, egally's favor "equality of some sort: People should get the same, or be treated the same, or be treated as equals, in some respect. Egalitarian doctrines tend to express the idea that all human persons are equal in fundamental worth or moral status." As far as the general attitude, who wouldn't be an egalitarian? Most people (at least as far as they'll admit to others) believe that all people are just as important as any other person, and that no race/religion/sex/sexual orientation/etc makes you less valuable as a person. So far, so good. In fact, this attitude is proclaimed quite prominently by Christ and his followers. We are all, according to Jesus, beloved children of God. Each one of us is dearly cared for and loved just as much as every other person, and we should treat each other with that in mind. Love thy neighbor as thyself, because thy neighbor is just as important and worthy of respect and love as you are.

Of course, this is a lovely attitude to have, but a hard one to live. What does an egalitarian government look like? What sorts of policies would it have? The common conception is that everyone would have equal income/wealth. But that's not necessarily the case, because equality of income wouldn't be enough, nor would it accurately reflect an equal treatment of all persons within a society. Income and wealth (as Rawls would say, 'conceived broadly as they must be') aren't important in and of themselves; they are only important in so far as they can achieve some greater good (for what use is a bunch of paper bills that are intrinsically worthless?). Sen would go the 'capabilities approach', where what you're looking at are people's actual capabilities to achieve certain functionings. His approach is rather interesting, but of course I don't have much time to go into it here. The point is, equality is not limited to equality of resources, but can (or should) include people's opportunity to live flourishing lives. That's the sort of equality that I want to take a look at.

For me, everyone has some sort of initial right (as much as possible) to have an equal shot at living a flourishing life (which can, and will inevitably, vary from person to person). Being born to different parents or a different race/sex/etc shouldn't damage or better one's shot at flourishing. That of course, brings in all sort of problems when it comes to our market place, education system, family policy, etc. The currant range of incomes, for example, is completely ridiculous. People should earn more for more time spent working, and their job pay should reflect either the need for people to work in that field (ie backbreaking, drudgery jobs should be high in the pay range because they suck and those that have to do them should be compensated accordingly) or the importance of the field itself. That also means that education should be equalized so parents can't buy their children into better schools and therefore better paying jobs. That may also mean that parenting itself should be more closely monitored or better parenting education set up so parents can learn how to do a better job of it (those who know me well know that I'm often tempted to say parents should have to get a license to have kids-- which I'm only half kidding about). I think natural talent (intelligence, beauty, etc) should only be rewarded in so far as they help better the lives of everyone, because who can say they deserved to be born smart or attractive?

In non-ideal theory, it's all much harder than that. But you get my drift. It's the attitude that I care about for right now. The details can be decided by smarter people later on. Now, it seems as though Christians have a good reason to be egallys. After all, we all are equal in God's eyes, so why shouldn't we also treat each other equally? Why aren't more of us tempted to follow the egalitarian trend? I believe there may be several reasons that hold many of us back. And these reasons have a lot to do with (or in common with) the libertarian field of thought.

The Stanford Encyclopedia tells us that "libertarianism holds that agents are, at least initially, full self-owners. Agents are (moral) full self-owners just in case they morally own themselves in just the same way that they can morally fully own inanimate objects." In other words, I am mine and my stuff is mine and I have the right do with me or my stuff what I so choose unless it interferes with you and your stuff. This thought is very tempting, because who doesn't have a complex about their stuff and control of it? You do your thing and I'll do mine and that'll be that. When I put it like that (admittedly biased -- explanatory anecdotes to follow), you may wonder what this has to do with Christianity. It doesn't seem very Christ-like, so why would a Christian be tempted to embrace it? Well, there's this whole doctrine of free will that comes into play. God put us here, many Christians believe, with free reign over the course of our lives. He thought it good (for whatever end He has in mind) to give us the latitude to do with our lives what we will, so why shouldn't we give each other that same latitude? Of course with that freedom comes the freedom to mess up other people's lives (whether directly or not), but that's the price we pay. If God can appeal to some higher good than comfort (at the cost of suffering for many), than why shouldn't we? (I'm stealing this question from a friend--thanks for asking it)

Well here's how I think that sort of thinking goes astray. God did give us freedom over our own lives, but He did so to give us the opportunity to choose the righteous life. That means, we have the opportunity (and He wants us to use it) to do good in this world. We are given our freedom not so that we will choose to cause suffering, but so that we will choose to love each other and bring comfort to each other. To take that a step further, if we have a government set up in such a way that we have enormous influence (at least, compared to our predecessors) over how it runs, then we should use our ability to choose to choose a system that will best reflect the attitude of Christ, one where all citizens are treated equal. Libertarians value freedom as a concept, but freedom to really live requires more than latitude to do what you can with what you've got, esp when what you've got with the status quo sucks. Real freedom requires the capability to reach goals, not just the legal right to do so. That requires a whole different playing field from the one we've got right now. You may ask: why can't helping others be on a voluntary basis, why should the government be able to coerce our help? Well, collective action is one thing. We can only do so much as individuals, and it's hard to organize on the same level that the government could. Besides, if the government did go the egally route, it would be because the people chose it. Jesus told us to help each other like we're all one big family, and leaving everyone alone to fend for themselves won't cut it.

There's another issue I have with the whole set-up of the libertarian philosophy and the Christian perspective. Self-ownership (and ownership in general) bothers me quite a bit. I don't deserve to be here. I don't deserve to live as long as I do. I don't deserve the abilities and circumstances I was born with and into. I don't own my body. All that I have is on loan, and it's all a gift. I'm supposed to do with what I have what I can until it's time to give it all back. I am a steward of my life and the "stuff" I have, and if I act like I own any of it then I won't be doing what I'm supposed to at all. Focusing on your rights and ownership and freedom to do what you want is all a very self-centered business. It's one we're quite prone to, and it's an attractive idea but it's not the right idea. We aren't our own, we are God's, and we are charged to take care of each other (even if we have to make sacrifices). Lay down our lives for each other-- that's the goal. It's tempting to say, like above, that if God lets us choose suffering then we should allow each other to choose suffering, but that's missing the whole point. My last post on Romans talked about that sort of attitude and how it doesn't make much sense. The gist was: all because our evildoing makes God look better (or makes people turn to him more), doesn't mean we should take that as license to do evil. We're still supposed to do the right thing, even if God can use our doing the wrong thing to further his plan. That might not make sense, and you might not see the connection with that and the libertarian attitude, so I'm sorry for not being able to better put into words my feelings on the matter.

That all being said, I'd like to leave here with some words of wisdom from my Pastor who gave a phenomenal (but challenging) message today. You can check it out here if you want (it's called "It's all mine"). The message was about Romans 12:3 which says, "Share with God's people who are in need." Sharing isn't a new concept, but it's so hard to do because we get so caught up in what's mine. So we looked at the parable in Matthew 25:14-on that talks about the master and the talents (probably 70lbs of silver, or the equivalent of an ordinary laborers wages for 20 yrs). The point is that the master gives his servants some of his money, and the servants are entrusted with it until he returns. The servants that take his money (notice, never their own money) and use it to make more for their master are considered faithful. The one who sits on the money and does nothing with what he's been entrusted with gets in trouble. We have to live like the first two servants, knowing that all that we've been given is never ours. We should use everything we have to give glory to our master, and when he returns he'll be pleased with us. It's never about what's mine, but what is his and how we use it for his purposes. Do I own myself? No. Do I have stewardship over myself and my "stuff" for the time being? Yes. So let me use what I've been given to follow Christ's command to love everyone in every way possible.

So where have all the egalitarians gone in our Churches? Why do we still care too much about our stuff and our lives and not other people? God is wondering the same thing...

(fyi, I don't think you have to be an egalitarian to be a Christ-follower, and you can still be a libertarian and be a Christ-follower, but I think it's important to remember the attitude we are supposed to take when we make these sorts of choices... and from my perspective the attitude of the egalitarian more closely aligns with Christ's message. But many other Christians may disagree, and my opinion is once again just that-- only my opinion and nothing more.)

**And as promised above, here are several anecdotes about my encounters with libertarians that have made me wary of them ever since. I thought it best to share my bias openly, because my opinion is obviously influenced by my real life experiences with libertarians and not just their ideology:

My first encounter with a real libby came in my discussion section for my contemporary moral issues class. The discussion was unproductive as it was because the section was loaded with business majors and no other philosophy students. While discussing surrogate motherhood (or some such topic), a fellow classmate volunteered that he disagreed with whatever stance we were talking about. When asked his reasons, he promptly replied that he was, in fact, a libertarian. When further asked how that affected his decision, he merely replied again that it was because he was a libertarian. End of story, no more discussion. You can imagine the thoughts that were reeling around my head after that display of willful ignorance.

My second encounter came when I met the heir to a rather large company. He was a very very wealthy white boy who stood to inherit more money than I'll probably earn in a lifetime. For him, being a libby was the "cool" and "trendy" way to be conservative economically without being thrown into the not-so-cool-for-20-somethings Republican camp. To be fair, he had every practical reason to be a libertarian, as that position would ensure that his large wealth and influence remained in tact. It's almost hard to blame him... other than the fact that if he weren't a white rich male he would hardly be so eager to preserve the status quo. So as you can imagine, I don't have much sympathy for the actual libertarians I've met (even if I have more for what their ideology actual says), because so far they've just been naive white boys with lots of money...