Saturday, August 9, 2008

Manifest falsity: why do we embrace stupid ideas?

Aristotle was insightful about moral development. As I briefly explained yesterday, Aristotle views each of us as responsible for his character because he believes that we form our character over time through the actions that we choose to perform. If, for instance, Little Suzie allows herself (or is allowed) always to run away from fearful things and to indulge her fears, she will fall into the habit of running away and feeling fear. It will become a settled disposition.

If, however, Little Suzie is encouraged to stand her ground (within reason!) and to combat her fears, insofar as she succeeds in repeatedly doing so, she will develop the habit of standing her ground despite fear. No doubt, over time, her fear will become less severe. Eventually, she will establish a firm disposition to stand her ground (when appropriate) without undue fear.

I have chosen the example of courage/cowardice, but the analysis works for all virtues and vices. (I’m assuming the existence of “free will” here. Whatever else might be said about free will, it is the sine qua non of morality, of responsibility. Of course, that doesn’t show that free will exists or that the idea even makes sense….)

According to this (highly plausible) way of viewing moral development, each of us is the author of his character, although, naturally, parents can FUBAR the deal. I think it would be absurd simply to hold teen-aged Ralph responsible for his character—say, his tendency to deal with conflict using violence—if virtually everyone in his formative environment routinely dealt with conflict using violence. It seems to me that some people imagine that the nature of virtue (and vice) is like a magical light that glows within all of us—the light of reason?—and it reliably guides us if only we would allow ourselves to be guided.

I can think of no more groundless idea than that one. What on earth would inspire it? Like the idea of a “self” within us that cannot be identified or explained but that is the final answer to who we are, the notion of a “clear light of reason” that burns inside us to direct us, even if we are being raised by wolverines, is nonsense. You might as well believe in ghosts or “chi” or the memory of water molecules. C’mon!


The Aristotelian “model” seems right about moral development as understood as the progress of a person from infancy to maturity, but it also provides a fine model of moral life for the mature moral agent. None of us is perfect—far from it—and so we need to examine ourselves (at least periodically) in relation to the virtues and vices. Our characters are somewhat plastic; we can slowly mould ourselves in the right directions.

Sadly, our culture has abandoned the language of morality—virtues such as “magnanimity” and vices such as “pusillanimity”—in favor of the vague and stupid word “values.” (As Gertrude Himmelfarb explains, the modern word “values” comes to us from Nietzsche!) But, even so, most of us have a rich enough moral vocabulary to catch the big stuff—e.g., one’s impatience with others, one’s endless concern for oneself at the cost of mindfulness about others’ welfare, one’s tendency to loll about.

Thanks to Aristotle, we know how to address these defects. Just start—and keep—doing the right thing! "Do as the virtuous person does." Maybe doing it will never become “second nature,” but it will surely grow easier.

I have to say, I think this self-molding is a beautiful and admirable process; and it is available to all of us. Or so I tell my students. Mostly, they buy it.


Why do we so often say stupid things? I have in mind such remarks as, “You can achieve anything; all you need to do is want it!”

Good Lord!

The remark has an embarrassing feature: manifest falsity. Why say this stupid thing when we can say something true and helpful instead? Whatever our current standing as moral beings (or as athletes, conversationalists, or underwater basket-weavers), we can do better if we try. And if we try hard and persistently, we will achieve improvement (at least in the moral realm), and that will be a great and admirable thing. It will be a good and honest reason to feel good about ourselves.

Telling a kid that he can be a professional basketball player or a major architect if he just wants it badly enough is almost guaranteed to produce one disappointed and resentful kid.

The psychologist Robyn Dawes explains that, years ago, the state legislature in California set up a task force to study “self-esteem” and its supposed efficacy in promoting childrens’ well-being. The team got to work identifying all of the studies that showed that, by fostering “self-esteem” (or banishing low self-esteem), children would be much less likely to use drugs, become pregnant, or become couch potatoes.

But there was a problem. No such studies existed. None. In the end, that silly task force acknowledged as much.

Why do we so often go in for stupid ideas? Children (and people generally) should not be encouraged to feel good about themselves. Rather, they should be encouraged to try to do well and to achieve what they can. All of them can do that. And if they do that—that is, if they really try—then, of course, they should, and they will, feel good about what they have achieved.

And if they drop the ball, and they keep dropping the ball? Well, in such cases, the natural feeling can be disappointment, shame, guilt, etc. (Please note: disappointment, shame, guilt—just because these things can be excessive or neurotic doesn’t establish that they are intrinsically so.)

The solution to the pain of being an underachiever or screw-up? Tell them: "stop screwing up, kid. Start doing as you should. That’s the road to self-esteem."

Now, obviously, this should be done with sensitivity (which is not to say that we should treat children as though they were mental patients). And not every kid has the advantage of having been taught what to seek in the first place. Telling a kid who has no conception of what goodness or excellence might be to straighten up and fly right would just be cruel and stupid.

I love myself


Philosophers often say, “ought implies can”—that is, the statement “X ought to do Y” assumes that X can do Y. Thinking along the same lines, one might suppose that, if one is called upon to do Y, but one cannot do Y, then one should not be blamed or held responsible for failing to do Y. That is, one should feel no guilt or shame for having failed to do Y.

But that last idea doesn’t work.

I had a friend—I’ll call her Mindy—who had a terrible fear of birds. She was very smart, but she had this one stunning phobia. I won’t go into details.

Now, we all know how one might go about addressing such a phobia. It ain’t rocket science. You’d just expose yourself to birds, degree by degree. Eventually, if you were to persist, you’d achieve some degree of success in quieting your fear.

Hanging around Mindy, it would occasionally occur to me that she was a kind of walking time bomb. It did not require much imagination to think of situations in which her (yes) paralyzing fear of birds might prevent her from doing something that desperately needed to be done.

Suppose that a child is drowning in the pond at the park, and only Mindy is there to save him, but Mindy can’t do that because: birds.

Let’s just grant that, as a matter of psychological fact, Mindy’s fear of birds is so great that she literally cannot save the drowning child in this case.

Nevertheless, it is not absurd to suggest that, in this case, she would be somewhat blameworthy. Why? Well, we can appeal to Aristotle’s model. To some extent, Mindy is responsible for her continued phobia. She may not be responsible for acquiring it--it was that nasty crow that landed on her stroller and bit her on the nose that’s to blame. But she should recognize the potential hazard in her continued phobia. Having done that, she should have addressed it (if, that is, she didn’t have other, distracting concerns and obligations, etc.--life gets complicated).


Most of my students, as students, drop the ball bigtime. Most of them have no conception how much homework they should be doing. They resent my efforts to clue them in. They seem not even to understand that they should be concentrating in class. Unless I take steps, they just come and go as they please. I spend much of my time trying to get my students to do as they should, or to at least approach that level of commitment to the course.

One is tempted simply to view their conduct as abject ball-droppage.

One thing is clear: the complex of parents, teachers, FaceBook, YouTube, iPod, etc.—the students' Enviro-Parent—has surely dropped the ball bigtime in rearing these kids. For many of them, I wonder not only whether they can do the work for the course; I wonder even if they were ever taught how to be a student, a being who studies.

As Zorba said, it's "the full catastrophe!"

Still, each semester, we try to make the best of it. And, often, at the end of the semester, we have every right to feel good about ourselves.

"Teach me to dance!"


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