Saturday, March 28, 2009

Does what we are matter when thinking about what we ought to do?

Is science relevant to moral philosophy? In the marvelously clear and accessible Experiments in Ethics, Kwame Anthony Appiah explores the relationship between morality and the empirical research of science.

Many philosophers have held that science in general, and moral psychology in particular, hold little relevance for moral philosophy (stemming in part from Hume’s distinction between "is" and "ought"). Appiah explores some of the findings of empirical moral psychology, including its demonstration that people don’t tend to have consistent character traits (say, honesty or kindness) in the way virtue theorists have imagined that virtuous people do.

Research shows that people's behavior varies depending on a multitude of factors, many of which are not morally relevant and about which we are wholly unaware (for example, the presence of a particular fragrance). Appiah argues that such empirical facts about human nature must be relevant to ethics, because there’s no point of applying moral norms to people that we are psychologically incapable of obeying. In other words, if it’s impossible for people always to be kind, what use would a moral rule be that requires kindness under all circumstances?

Appiah argues that the research of moral psychology is relevant for moral philosophy, but does not replace it. While moral problems can’t be solved by looking at the way people actually behave in various situations, it is helpful in thinking about morality to understand the research about how various situations affect our moral judgments. Appiah’s version of "experimental philosophy" traces a path for philosophers to utilize science’s insights about human nature to help to make sense of the central project of ethics: as Appiah sees it, this is to make the best possible life for ourselves, while recognizing that everyone else also has a life to make for themselves, and that we are all in this together.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009


The World But Seems To Be

The world but seems to be
yet is nothing more
than a line drawn
between light and shadow.
Decipher the message
of this dream-script
and learn to distinguish time
from Eternity.

-- Fakhruddin 'Iraqi (Fakhr al-din Ibrahim)
English translation by William Chittick and Peter Lamborn Wilson

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Forgiveness: "Forgiving Dr. Mengele"

This week I watched Forgiving Dr. Mengele, an interesting and provocative film about the life of Eva Mozes Kor. Eva and her sister Miriam were among the many sets of twins who were victims of Josef Mengele's horrific twin experiments in the Auschwitz concentration camp. They arrived at Auschwitz when they were nine years old, along with their older siblings and parents. The twins were the only ones to survive.

Eva Kor decided in 1995 that she would publicly and privately forgive the Nazis, including Mengele. She speaks about forgiveness all over the world. Her decision to forgive has been extremely controversial, with many Holocaust survivors incredulous, sorrowful and extremely angry about her stance.

Eva asserts that forgiveness gives the victim freedom from pain. For her, forgiveness is all about the healing process for the victim. Fundamentally forgiveness is not about the perpetrator, but has everything to do with the power of the victim to move beyond the victimization suffered. In the film, Eva reflects, "As a victim, all of us feel extraordinarily helpless. . . . I had the power to forgive a Nazi." She notes that "whatever was done to me, it's no longer causing me such pain that I can't be the person I want to be."

Other Holocaust survivors contend that one victim does not have the power to forgive Mengele and other Nazis, as most of their victims are dead and no one has the power to bestow forgiveness for them. And what is the point of forgiveness? Certainly it does not mean forgetting. Eva Kors created a museum dedicated to education about the Holocaust, and she is a frequent public speaker about peace, the Holocaust, and forgiveness. But, some of the survivors and other thinkers about the Holocaust argue, forgiveness is empty without acts of atonement by the perpetrators. Forgiveness, in this view, has an objective set of conditions. It is not up to one person to bestow it, based on his or her own feelings or views.

I understand the virtues of this objective position on forgiveness. Clearly, it is problematic to grant forgiveness on behalf of others who no longer have the power to forgive. It’s crucial that forgiveness involves clarity about who is being forgiven and for what. Eva Kors forgives the Nazis for the acts done to her and her family, and she insists that she is not bestowing forgiveness on behalf of anyone else. Does a victim have the power to forgive a perpetrator who was part of a larger evil?

The film really gave me another prism through which to look at this complex question of forgiveness. The difference that the act of forgiveness has made in Eva Kors’ life is inspiring. I think about how much difficulty people have in forgiving each other for injuries considerably smaller than what Eva experienced, and the ways in which failing to forgive can curdle the spirit of the person who remains unforgiving. Eva believes that forgiveness has transformed her from a victim into a person of her own. Her forgiveness of Mengele does not absolve him, but it is freeing for her. Is her forgiveness of the Nazis morally acceptable?

Monday, March 16, 2009

Moral Philosophy and the Holocaust: Blog Series Part I

I spent the morning last Friday with two eighth grade classes in the first sessions of a unit I teach every year on "Moral Philosophy and the Holocaust." I teach the unit with Jane Orme, the eighth grade language arts teacher at Liberty Bell Junior High School, and over the past four years we have worked each year to improve it. I thought I would write a series of posts on the unit this year.

The first class is an introduction to philosophy. We read Plato's Allegory of the Cave and talk about the questions it raises about how we can know things about the world, as well as related questions. We read the allegory aloud and then break up into small groups in each class, discussing a series of questions I give to the students on a handout, and then we come back together. The five questions on the handout are:

Would you want to be released from the cave? Why or why not?
What is like the cave in our world?
How is the way you understand the world, your ideas and beliefs, shaped by the actions of others?
Who has the power to shape your ideas and beliefs? In what ways is this good and in what ways is it not so good?
Are there things you know to be true? What are they, and how do you know them?

Usually most of the students immediately say they would want to be released from the cave, and so before I give them these questions I suggest that they think about the first question as follows: imagine that an alien from another galaxy appears to you and tells you that everything you think they are experiencing is an illusion (many of the students are familiar with the film The Matrix, and I compare this situation to Neo's choice to take the red or the blue pill), and that you have the opportunity to experience the true world if you go with the alien. This will mean leaving everyone and everything to which you are attached, knowing that what you learn will likely transform your lives and make your relationships very difficult when you return.

As the students were analyzing the questions, Jane and I walked around the room in both classes and talked with the various groups. The students took seriously the difficulty of deciding whether to leave the cave. Most of them said they would do it, from curiosity, a desire to know the truth, and because they thought they would regret it eventually if they didn't take this chance. Other students cited the fear that after they would returned they would experience great loneliness and isolation, as well as their need for security and familiarity, as reasons that they would choose to stay in the cave. One student reflected, "I think human beings have an ingrained need to be connected with other people, and leaving everything in our world and being the only one to know the truth would be too painful."

In each class, when we came back together we had lively discussions about what is like the cave in our world and what we know to be true. The students quickly concluded that the whole world is like the cave, because, as one student put it, "everything we experience is based on rules and assumptions and beliefs that we usually just accept." The students clearly recognized that there were many influences on their ideas and beliefs, and they noted that it's difficult to know if anything you think or believe is uninfluenced by some external person or force. One student asserted, "Everything we think is influenced by something or someone. Our parents influence us. Our friends. Religion. You come into our classroom today and teach us to question things, and that also becomes an influence on what we think."

When asked what they know to be true, the students agreed that once you start thinking about it, it's hard to come up with something you know is true, as opposed to just believe is true. One student offered that he knew that he was sitting in the classroom. Other students disagreed, contending that he could be fooled into thinking he was experiencing something when in fact he was just hooked up to a machine (as in The Matrix) and just experiencing only in his mind what he thought was the external world.

I told the class about Nick Bostrom at Oxford University and his assumption that in the future advanced humans will be able to run "ancestor simulations" by creating virtual worlds run by virtual ancestors with highly developed virtual nervous systems. In this world, the number of virtual ancestors would be far greater than the number of real ancestors. Couldn't the odds be good, then, that we're all virtual ancestors? How would we know the difference?

"Okay," responded a quiet girl sitting near the front of the room, "but what I can know is that if I'm thinking about what I can know, I can be sure that at least there is me thinking, even if that's all I can know about myself or anything else."

I thought this was breathtaking. I told her that Descartes had come to a similar conclusion almost 400 years ago when he was thinking about this problem.

And then, of course, the difficult question: does this lead us to anything else we can know? We talked a little about recognizing that the comfortable assumptions with which we conduct our daily lives might all be wrong, that they are at the very least open to question. Which I think is a central insight of philosophy.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Something out of nothing

This week in the 5th grade the students and I talked about whether the universe began at some point or has always existed. This is often a somewhat delicate discussion, because it can easily slide into religion and raise what especially in public schools can be thorny issues. But in this conversation, the students quickly seemed to get where philosophy ends and religion begins.

We started by wondering whether everything always has to have a beginning, or whether, as one student phrased it, "the universe has just always been there."

"It can't have always been there!" one student exclaimed. "Everything has to have a beginning."

"But how could it begin?" other students responded. "What would it begin from?"

"Well, I think God created the universe," said one student.

"Okay," I said, "but where did God come from, or did God always exist?"

"Not everyone believes in God," another student stated.

"Well, if you ask the question as where did God come from or did God always exist, or ask it as where did the universe come from or did it always exist, isn't it the same problem?" I asked.

"I see," replied a student. "The question really is about what was the beginning, or did there have to be a beginning, whether it's God or universe."

We puzzled about how there ever could have been nothing, from which something began, and, equally curious, how there could just always have been something, without that something ever beginning.

"I think the universe is like a circle," one student ventured. "It just goes round and round, and there's no ending or beginning."

"But is there anything outside the circle?" a student asked.

This led the students to speculate about multi-universes and parallel universes. One student suggested that there might be dinosaurs walking past us in a parallel universe, imperceptible by us, and wondered whether the existence of parallel universes would mean that the universe really was a circle. The students concluded that we would still end up with the same question -- how was it possible for something to have always existed? And if the universe, circle or not, at some point began, how could something come from nothing?

"What is nothing, really?" one student wondered.

"Can you imagine nothing?" I asked. "Let's close our eyes and imagine all the objects and other people in the room are gone, then the floor and ceiling disappear, then the building and everything outside it, and then space itself. Can you imagine that?"

We tried and the students concluded that no, imagining no space was impossible.

"I don't think you can imagine nothing," one student reflected. "When you imagine, you have to imagine something. If you try to imagine nothing, you imagine blackness, but that's still something."

"What really is nothing?" another student asked.

We decided that nothing was just the absence of something, and talked about whether because when we think or imagine, we always think or imagine something, imagining nothing isn't possible for us -- and if it isn't, does this mean that nothing isn't possible or just that nothing is impossible for us to conceive? This was the liveliest part of our discussion. The students were fascinated by the mysteriousness of this concept, nothing, that they had always taken for granted.

"I just thought of something! Maybe nothing is just clear," a student suggested. "You can see objects through nothing, because nothing is transparent."

"But just because we can't see something doesn't mean there's nothing. We look at the air and it looks transparent to us because we can't see all the particles and chemicals in it, but they're there."

"I think nothing is blackness. When it's really dark and there's no moon, and you can't see anything at all except the darkness, that's nothing."

"It's not! It's still blackness, and that's something. It feels like nothing because everything we're used to seeing isn't there, but blackness is something."

"Does nothing really exist? Maybe it's just an idea, but there is no such thing, really."

The students were very clear about the problem: it's impossible to imagine nothing because imagination by definition requires imagining something, but what is the relationship between our inability to imagine nothingness and the question of whether nothingness is possible?

"I don't think you can ever solve this problem," concluded a student who had been quiet for most of the discussion. "This is the kind of philosophy problem that just gives you a headache after a while."

"I like those kind of problems!" another student declared.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Update on the Science Fair

In an earlier post, I wrote about an ethical dilemma that some of the fifth grade students with whom I've been working were facing regarding the upcoming Science Fair. The students told me today that they had decided that the experiment they had been considering was too fraught with ethical problems for them to be comfortable with it. They've chosen something related to plants instead!

Monday, March 9, 2009


Between What I See and What I Say. . .
for Roman Jakobson

Between what I see and what I say,
between what I say and what I keep silent,
between what I keep silent and what I dream,
between what I dream and what I forget:
It slips
between yes and no,
what I keep silent,
keeps silent
what I say,
what I forget.
It is not speech:
it is an act.
It is an act
of speech.
speaks and listens:
is real.
And as soon as I say
it is real,
it vanishes.
Is it then more real?

Tangible idea,
comes and goes
between what is
and what is not.
It weaves
and unweaves reflections.
scatters eyes on a page,
scatters words on our eyes.
Eyes speak,
words look,
looks think.
To hear
what we say,
the body of an idea.
Eyes close,
the words open.

by Octavio Paz
from A Tree Within
Translated from the Spanish by Eliot Weinberger

March Birthdays

March 3 John Austin (British, born 1790), Georg Cantor (German, born 1845), and William Godwin (British,born 1756)

March 6 Nikolai Berdyaev (Russian, born 1874), Donald Davidson (American, born 1917), and Juan Luis Vives (Spanish, born 1492)

March 12 George Berkeley (British, born 1685)

March 14 Maurice Merleau-Ponty (French, born 1908)

March 18 G.E.M. Anscombe (British, born 1919)

March 23 Edward Caird (Scottish, born 1835)

March 24 Antonio Rosmini (Italian, born 1797)

March 28 J. L. Austin (British, born 1911) and Daniel Dennett (American, born 1942)

March 30 Stanislaw Lesniewski (Polish, born 1886) and Moses Maimonides (Spanish, born 1135)

March 31 Rene Descartes (French, born 1596)

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Hundred Dresses

The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes (1944) is a great book to inspire discussions about the nature of friendship, the ethics of being a bystander, and questions about what moral duties we owe to others. I have used this book with students from ages 8-18, usually taking three or four classes to read it together and talk about it.

The story is about a young girl named Wanda Petronski, a Polish immigrant living in a small town with her father and brother. She wears the same dress to school every day. One day she tells a group of students, who have been admiring another girl’s new dress, that she has a hundred dresses at home. This is the beginning of the “hundred dresses game,” in which every day a group of girls asks Wanda how many dresses (and hats and shoes) she has, and the girls laugh at her answers. The story is told from the perspective of Maddie, one of the girls in the teasing group, who has qualms about what is going on but never says anything. The story is a moving depiction of the conflicting feelings faced by someone who is participating in or witnessing something that they sense is morally problematic, but who do not want to risk their own friendships and reputations by speaking up.

These are some of the questions I have used to facilitate discussions about The Hundred Dresses:

Chapters 1-2
• Why do you think that Wanda didn’t have any friends?
• Why do you think that Wanda said that she had a hundred dresses in her closet? Was she lying?
• Was the “hundred dresses game” a cruel way to treat Wanda?
• Why was how they were treating Wanda bothering Maddie?

Chapters 3-5
• Why was Maddie afraid to speak to Peggy about her feelings about making fun of Wanda? (pp.34-35)
• Maddie thinks to herself that standing by silently while Peggy teased Wanda was worse than Peggy’s teasing. She thinks she was a coward because she had known that teasing Wanda was wrong and had not done anything to stop it. Was she a coward? Why didn’t she do anything? (pp. 48-49)
• How do you think Peggy and Maddie felt when they saw Wanda’s drawings?
• Why did Wanda move away?
• Are Peggy and Maddie friends? What is a friend?

Chapters 6-7
• Maddie says that nothing will ever seem good to her again because she’d always know that she made Wanda move away. (p. 61) Do you think she is right?
• Peggy says that teasing Wanda about the hundred dresses probably gave her good ideas for her drawings, and maybe she wouldn’t have won the drawing contest otherwise. Do you think that this makes sense? (p. 62)
• Maddie decides that she is never going to stand by and say nothing again. (p. 63) Do you think that this is a good rule? Do most people “stand by and say nothing?” Why or why not?
• When Maddie and Peggy receive the drawings Wanda made, Peggy concludes that Wanda really liked them and that everything was all right. Maddie isn’t so sure about that. (p. 76) What do you think? Why was Maddie still sad?
• Was writing a letter to Wanda the right thing to do? What would be better: to write a friendly letter to Wanda, as Maddie and Peggy did, or to write a real apology letter? Why?