Dear Class

Socrates, the teacher of Plato, was told by the Oracle at Delphi that he was the wisest person. Socrates was baffled by this because he knew that he knew barely anything – he actually said that he knew nothing, which was a slight exaggeration – though it became a useful pretense when dealing with arrogant know-it-alls. Then he realized that this was precisely what made him wiser than other people. He knew that he knew nothing, while they thought they knew a lot. Thinking you know a lot makes you incapable of becoming educated because why would you search for answers or listen to anyone else if you already knew them all!? So, Socrates made it his life mission to convince famous, successful, and powerful Greeks that in fact they knew nothing – so that they could become “life-long learners” like him. He did this in public to ensure the lesson could not be denied or ignored, and so his audience too could learn something in the process. These dialogs he had with famous judges about the nature of justice, and generals about the nature of courage, demonstrating their cluelessness, earned him the undying hatred of the rich and powerful who had no interest in wisdom, but only in their reputations which had now been destroyed. They got their revenge by sentencing him to death for “corrupting the youth” by all this querulousness.

There are prodigies in music. There prodigies in mathematics. But there are no prodigies in ethics and philosophy. Nobody at all goes to a twelve-year-old and says “My wife and I are thinking of getting divorced. What do you think?” Thus, it is impossible to be very advanced in philosophy at the age of twenty. People simply have not had enough life experience to test the truth of what they have read, heard, and thought, about topics like ethics. Twenty-year-olds have typically just left home, are still trying to find their way in the world and have no idea yet how anything works, but they often want to put a brave face on it and pretend like they have a clue what is going on. This stance is counterproductive in the classroom. Better to acknowledge that you know nothing.

So, when a young student reads philosophy for perhaps the first time in his life and says “Well, I’m an atheist, so this can’t possibly be true,” he is expressing an unwarranted arrogance based on nothing. It is impossible to prove that atheism is true, so you may be wrong. It is impossible to prove God exists, so that may be wrong. Neither position can be proved with certainty. So, it is worth your while to entertain the possibility that a philosopher who has spent his life studying such topics, who says that a belief in God is necessary to provide a firm foundation for ethics and for productive philosophical speculation about ethics, might have more to say then you do, who have never read much on the topic at all, or perhaps nothing, and have not yet had enough life experience to be in a position to make any sort of informed judgment on the topic. If you are so sure that the ultimate foundations for ethics has no need of God, please write a book explaining your position, because that will be a truly unique contribution to all human understanding and the rest of us will have to live in gratitude for your profound insight; an insight that has evaded every human being who has ever lived before you. Your name will be put in lights, and grandparents will whisper to their grandchildren of your achievement for evermore with awe and reverence.

Good and wise philosophers spend their lives studying thousands of years of accumulated thoughts on ethics and philosophical topics written by some of the smartest, most well-informed individuals who have ever lived, from multiple countries and languages. To dismiss their conclusions out of hand is as immature as attending a physics lecture and announcing that since you do not understand what the professor is saying, but are sure you disagree with him, it is all clearly nonsense. The fact that YOU do not understand the arguments of someone who has devoted his life to a field does not mean that what he is saying in nonsense, or that he is suffering some perverse defect of character.

Please do not make yourself incapable of becoming educated by imagining that you know all the answers in a field you have never studied in your life, and at an age so tender, you simply do not have a clue – it is all theory and very little practice. And, unable to actually form an argument, do not resort to name-calling and character assassinations. This is the last resort of a scoundrel, not someone who sincerely wants to learn anything: like pulling out a gun after a severe drubbing in a boxing match. Take your beating and retreat. If you want a revenge, first, discover what error a philosopher has made, then point this out, and then, give your own argument – a positive assertion backed with true and relevant reasons. Do NOT say, oh well, if the philosopher was not so close-minded, or if he knew more about other religions, he would not have argued the way he did. You have no idea if a philosopher is open-minded or knows about other religions or not. Your attacks on the man, on the philosopher, leave his argument untouched and just as valid as before your ad hominem criticisms. If you do not like an argument, show what is wrong with it. Merely not liking it, is not a rebuttal. Take each premise in turn and show what error the philosopher is making so that we can learn from your superlative wisdom; assuming you have any.

5 thoughts on “Dear Class

  1. Hi Bruce: I would respond with the old trick of saying that for any sort of meaningful wisdom, age and experience is necessary but not sufficient! It is not automatic or foreordained.

  2. At what age do you think wisdom is greatest? As you say, there can be no wisdom without experience, but isn’t it also possible to have too much experience? The wisdom of the old often amounts to little more than bitter disappointment. That life is a bitter disappointment for many people true, but it is not clear that it is wise for a youth learn this truth too soon.

    I have read that mathematicians peak around age 30, when the ascending line of mathematical learning crosses the descending line of cognitive power. Historians are often put at the other extreme, with a peak between fifty and sixty, because learning is more essential to history than cognitive power. I wonder if philosophy is bimodal in this respect, with logicians peaking early and sages peaking late. Bertrand Russell tried to hit both peaks, but I think Old Sage Russell was really riding on the coattails of Young Logician Russell.

    I appreciate your frustration with the moral arrogance of students, but I also believe that the moral intuitions are often better than the moral pettifoggery of the old. A young person will lie, but they haven’t yet worked out a sophisticated theory that excuses their lying. Only adults quote books to excuse their wickedness. Moral philosophy can be a means to clarify our moral intuitions, but I have not noticed that moral philosophers as a class are more moral than the first hundred names in any phonebook. If I were a banker, I would not be swayed if I saw that the applicant for a loan was a professor of moral philosophy. Would you?

    I think much of the problem you describe here is that our young people have been taught that social justice is justice. This of course excuses personal injustices like lying, infidelity, theft, and promise-breaking. And since the demands of social justice are beyond the power of any individual, individual commitment to social justice is expressed in cant, gestures, and scapegoating of nonconformists. So the morality our young people have been taught probably stifles their moral intuitions while at the same making them obnoxious moralizers.

    • @JMSmith – I have no idea at what age wisdom might be greatest. The idea that most old people are embittered with disappointment I admit is news to me. Maybe I don’t know enough old people. As a general principle, I think it immoral to teach embittered cynicism to students or anything that implies it, such as determinism. Determinism is a denial of agency and of consciousness and is utterly nihilistic. In fact, atheism is nihilistic. So, it is the job of the educator to provide an alternative to nihilism – to show some path beyond despair, even if the student chooses not to walk along that path, he at least knows it is there.

      I do know of some elderly people who have simply had enough, and wish to return their ticket. I make no negative judgment upon them, but do think they should be kept away from the young.
      Mathematical logic is just a variant of mathematics, mostly, and does tend to be a game for the young; not having anything in particular to do with wisdom. Goedel is an intriguing figure for me and Einstein went to the office just to walk home with Goedel, he said. But, he was also quite mad; certainly towards the end.

      Modern academic “philosophers” have rejected any interest in wisdom and thus are no longer philosophers. From their perspective, an interest in wisdom is a disqualifying attribute. They are neither wise nor do they aim to be. I have argued elsewhere that the moral philosophies of Kant, but most particularly, Mill, do nothing but corrupt the youth. They aim to subvert untutored moral intuitions and achieve their aim quite admirably. Aristotle is reimagined as “virtue ethics,” in an attempt to turn him into something compatible with modern “moral theories.” Aristotle’s philosophy cannot be understood apart from his concept of the unmoved mover, and all the rest of his metaphysics, which, of course, is removed from the picture.

      On the topic of studying moral philosophy, Aristotle wrote that what is needed is for students to have been raised as fine, moral people with healthy habits. His classes would then explain to them why they should continue doing what they were already doing. But, taking an ethics class does not itself make one moral. It is possible to get an A on your ethics exam, while being devoted to lying and cheating. Business students are often the least scrupulous; many being happy to cheat on exams.

      Given that modern moral philosophers are typically either Kantians, more likely utilitarians, or “virtue ethics” devotees, with maybe Rawls thrown in, their discipline is likely to have deleterious effects on their students. They are certainly not more moral than anyone else, but neither are they actual philosophers. Students are better off either knowing nothing about them, or to be innoculated against them, which is what I tend to do (partly because I am compelled to teach them).

      Bankers regard academics in general as excellent prospects for mortgages. My wife and I needed no down payment for either house we bought due to being academics. My guess is that getting all those degrees demonstrates a willingness to jump through hoops and demonstrates a certain kind of dogged determination – mostly to follow the rules as dictated by someone else. We are nothing if not reliable.

      Mostly, it is not social justice advocacy that has been a problem for me as of late, other than from administrators. It is the pigheaded arrogance of someone who has no idea that he doesn’t know what he is talking about. Half of my students reject social justice scapegoating and half accept it, just like the rest of the country. If I taught at “elite” universities that proportion would change. My business ethics students are aware that no one is safe from social justice scapegoating and are running scared, as am I. But then, being future accountants for the most part, they tend to be more on the conservative side.


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