Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Ethics of Stealing

Recently I have been starting my philosophy sessions in the 5th grade with the students raising questions they want to discuss that have come up since I've last visited. This afternoon, the students mentioned that they wanted to discuss an event that had happened in the classroom.

One boy's iPod touch was stolen this week and, after a long class meeting, the boy from whom it was stolen stated that if the person just put it back in his backpack by the end of the day, there would be no questions asked. At the end of the day, the iPod touch had been returned to the boy's backpack. The students were still feeling unsettled about the event and wanted to explore it.

"Why did the person steal it?" one student asked.

"Because they wanted it," a second student responded.

"Or maybe they wanted to get back at me for something," ventured the child who owned the i-touch.

I explained the principle of Occam's Razor to the students, which states that the simplest explanation is usually the best one. We concluded that while it was possible that someone was plotting an act of revenge, it was more likely that someone saw the i-touch and just wanted it. We talked about the income disparity in the community, where some children come from families who can afford to buy lots of things and others live with families who have trouble paying for food, and the way in which this created temptations for someone to take something they wanted and couldn't afford to buy.

"We all make mistakes," declared a student. "Here the person made a mistake and then thought the better of it."

Does it change how we see an act if it is later regretted?

“Well the person still stole it and that was wrong,” asserted a student.

What makes stealing wrong?

“It hurts other people. It takes something from them that belongs to them.”

“It can also hurt their feelings. You could have something you really cared about and then someone takes it away from you, and it affects you emotionally.”

“Stealing hurts the thief too. You can become someone who steals all the time, and all of a sudden you’re not the kind of person you want to be.”

We talked about what it means to be the kind of person you want to be, and the way in which your whole view of yourself can change based on something you’ve done. We also talked about the effects on the classroom community of this event.

“I felt like this was such a great class and all of a sudden it wasn’t anymore.”

The students talked about suspecting other students of being the thief, and the way in which the classroom environment changed during this time. We discussed whether, one the item was returned, it mattered who had stolen it.

“We’re talking about this person, who is probably in the room,” reflected a student. “I think it’s harsh for us to keep talking about this because even though the person did steal it, they returned it. If I was the person who stole it, and there was all this talk about how horrible it was, I would feel really shriveled inside.”

“If you regret stealing something and give it back, you should be forgiven,” agreed another student.

We talked about forgiveness and who has the power to forgive the person who stole the i-touch. Could the fact that the student regretted his or her act and returned the item actually be a sign of the strength of the classroom community? Perhaps upon reflection this event was an ethical plus, in that someone made a mistake, thought the better of it, and decided and was able to fix it.

We spent the entire 45 minutes talking about this, and so the planned discussion about the nature of time will have to wait for our next session!

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Phantom Tollbooth

I recently reread The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, one of my favorite books in elementary school. Published in 1961, with marvelous line drawings by Jules Feiffer, the book tells the story of Milo, a bored young boy who sees thinks that everything is a waste of time. He is given a gift of a magic tollbooth that allows him to explore new places and teaches him that the world is fascinating and beautiful.

Full of puns, logic puzzles and philosophical jokes, the novel is a great one to read and discuss with your child or with a class of children. It raises questions about perception (can you see sounds?), the nature of reality (what is infinity?), the meaning of life, knowledge and the mind, the power of words and numbers, nothingness, and the ways in which our perspectives construct the reality we think we know. Funny and exciting, the book is great fun and a philosophical treasure chest for young people.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Experience Machine

In a conversation about Plato's Allegory of the Cave with eighth grade students last week, we spent a lot of time talking about Descartes' dream argument and whether we can know whether we're dreaming or not at any particular moment. A couple of students contended that even if our whole lives are a dream, it wouldn't make any difference, as it would feel exactly the same to us as our lives do right now.

I described for them Robert Nozick's thought experiment. Suppose there was an "Experience Machine, " which could give you any experience you desired. Your brain would be stimulated when hooked up to the machine so that you would think and feel that you were doing anything you wanted to do: playing on a major league baseball team, being a famous actress, skiing on a fabulous mountain, part of a rock band, writing a great novel, etc. You won't be aware of it when you’re hooked up to the machine – you’ll think that it’s all actually happening. Would you map out the rest of your life and then hook up to the machine for life?

Some of the students had no problem with the idea of hooking up to the machine. Others, though, raised some of the same reasons that Nozick gives for refusing to hook up to the machine: that we want actually to do certain things, and not just think we are doing them, and that they wanted to be people who did these things, not just thought they were doing them. One student contended it was the choice that made the difference.

"If I were born into the machine, or into living a life that is really a dream, or whatever, it would be one thing. Maybe I it wouldn't really matter if it was a real life or just in my mind, because it would feel the same either way. But choosing to plug into the experience machine is a different thing, because you're making a choice to live a fake life, even if it will feel good."

"I think it's really a moral problem," another student commented.

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"Well, you're making a choice to leave your real life behind when you plug into the machine, to live a life that's all in your head, and to abandon all of the people who are part of your life now."

We talked about this idea for a while. This was the first time in all of the years that I've taught this topic that anyone raised this point. Examining the moral dimension of the choice to plug into the Experience Machine, the fact that it is not just as individuals that we make this decision but as members of a community, produced a thoughtful discussion about the choices we make and the way we make them.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

What is normal?

When I was in a fifth grade classroom last week, the students told me that they had been puzzling a little together about the meaning of "normal," and wanted to ask me about it. What is normal?

The dictionary says being normal is being "an average person," the students told me.

"But no one is the same," one student said.

"Well, what does it mean to be an average person?" I asked.

"Well, an example of not normal would be pouring gasoline on your cereal," offered a student.

"But what if there was a city the size of Washington DC whose population all poured gasoline on their cereal every morning? It would be normal for them," countered another.

"And what would make that normal?" I asked.

"The fact that most people do it," answered the student.

"So then is the meaning of normal what most people are or do?" I asked.

"Perhaps normal is whatever your tradition or culture thinks you should do," suggested a student. "Something might be normal to other people, but not within your tradition."

"I think that normal is just something that we think," mused another student. "Like nothing is really normal. Normal is just something people round things off to. It's normal to open a door to go to school, so it's usually true, but sometimes it's not like that. Normal is just a thought people use to round off how we understand things."

"Kind of like a shorthand, to describe how we ordinarily do things?" I asked.

"Yes, exactly," he replied.

"But it's a shorthand for what most people think," responded a student.

"Sometimes it's good to be what people call 'not normal,' " another student broke in. "It would be really boring if everyone was normal, whatever normal is."