Systematic teaching versus Eclecticism in Ethics

To the reader of good will

This is written, as much that I write, in a dash. I will ramble, yet I will make my point. There is no attempt to give it professional polish. I will not even run a spell-check. It is written to answer a request, that I defend a certain way of teaching ethics. I am defending teaching ethics as a coherent system. The approach I am criticizing is what I would call an eclectic approach, which is, to present all or the most significant philosophical opinions on ethics and then let the student muddle his way through to the truth. The detractors of systematic ethics consider it too close to catechetics, that the teacher is simply handing a rigid structure with rigid strictures to young questioning minds.

Sometimes it is "just because I say so"

However, we know what Aristotle says about authority. In the case of beginners, the truth is best presented from a position of authority, and then we can build our case afterward. Descartes would disagree, thinking that we must each discover (within ourselves even) each first principle in all its resplendent evidence. Descartes' own example shows how utterly silly this is. He seriously planned to solve all problems of science, but the first was to reason his way through medicine so that he could live long enough to complete his plan. If only he had listened to his mother, to eat his vegetables, and get enough sleep, without trying to figure out first why vegetables came out of the mind of God and what the mechanism of sleep is. I may give another example, with which my readers will be familiar if they are of a "certain age". In ancient times (ending in the 1960s) a child would be forced to memorize multiplication tables and mechanical mathematical procedures. In the new age, the educators became Cartesians and Deweyites, and insisted that children discover the principles of mathematics for themselves. Each child must now be a Neumann or a Pascal before he can be permitted to add, subtract, multiply and divide. He must do the work of a Bertrand Russell before he is allowed to calculate sales tax. For the most part this has failed, but perhaps this is deliberate. Education is a self-sustaining institution, where educators justify their existence by the self-fulfilling prophency that without an education one cannot get a good position in life. The years a child must spend in school are constantly increased, yet there is no real reason for this in terms of what knowledge a child needs.

Education has become the haunt of the bean counters

Jeremy Bentham may be at the origins of this cult of education, with his idea of Chrestomathy (education not for the sake of truth, but for profit and business), and his idea of the Panopticon. In his model prison, which he also proposed as a model for the educational system, every inmate would be constantly monitored efficiently and scientifically. His ideas have been carried over to the educational system where the major task of a teacher has become testing, grading and recording grades. It may be hard to believe, but before Bentham uniform tests were rare. A teacher knows very easily when a student has mastered the material. A short one-to-one conversation can easily determine this. Yet this hardly fits with education as panopticon. The one-to-one conversation cannot be easily quantified, and the Benthamites insist that everything be quantified. That, of course, shows their own lack of education. (Aristotle: it is the mark of an educated man to insist only on that degree of proof/detail/precision that is fitting in a given subject matter; it is rude to insist that a discourse on ethics have the same rigor as a discourse on mathematics).

Education has become a filtering mechanism for the social engineers

After Bentham comes Darwin, and the educational panopticon is at the service of social evolution. The quantified milestones of education (grade school, high school, BA etc.) become the criteria by which the social engineers determine who will be allowed to prosper and who will become dregs. So it is an employer may insist on a high school diploma from someone is doing an entirely menial task for which no learning at all is required. He has applications from someone with one, and someone without one. The choice is clear, the social engineers have told him so. But of course, I have digressed.

Knowledge for its own sake — sometimes

The point is that education in the true sense has an end. The end is the formation of a perfect human being. Knowledge is one human perfection, and this perfection is the prime concern of education. But since educators in most cases are in loco parentis, the moral education is also important. Knowledge is a human perfection, but not without qualification. We prize (in order) theoretical wisdom, practical wisdom (moral wisdom and prudence), and technical wisdom (know-how). Wisdom is knowledge of first principles. We do not prize all knowledge. We may be amused by a man who can boast that he memorized the phone-book. There are those who have an enormous knowledge of baseball statistics, the numbers on train engines, or the names and doings of pop musicians, hollywoodites or whatever else, but I suspect that such knowledge is actually a vice, since it is at the cost of things more important. Likewise, it is not philosophical prowess to know all the reasonings of various philosophers. If so, I could say that because students have read Nietzsche and Feuerbach, they are superior to Aristotle, because Aristotle had not read them. Philosophy is not just so much information, yet the advocates of the eclectic approach would present it as such. They fail to see that they themselves are the product of the Benthamite panopticon. By treating philosophy as so much information, they can more easily package it into a gradable product. The more easily quantifiable something is, the more justification they have in presenting it as a real university course. In some cases, this provides support when they seek government funding, because when the government is involved, a bureacracy of record-keepers is inserted, and these record-keepers are only happy with what can be quantified. I am absolutely serious here. There is only one college in the USA that does not accept any government funding. It also has the lowest tuition and is the most profitable. I do not recall the name, but it was founded for the education of Americans of African descent (or however you may put this, I do not know the current protocols). The acceptance of government funding and involvement produces results contrary to the purpose of eduction.

Politicians versus Academics

The eclectic spirit in the teaching of philosophy also results from the involvement of government in education. The political arena and the academic arena are of two different natures. The political system is "democratic", which is that we accept as a working principle in politics that all opinions are equal and that all votes have equal wait. The academic arena is different. To be a "professor" is to "profess". If a professor has formed an opinion as a result of study, research and contemplation, he is entitled to that opinion. Further, not only is he entitled to it, but he betrays his calling if he presents it as a mere opinion among others under a guise of false democratic humility. So the professor "teaches" Nietzsche. If he is asked — was Nietzsche right or wrong? — woe to him if he refuses to take a position. Freedom of opinion was described by Thomas More in his Utopia (I do not know to what extent that work is tongue-in-cheek). Let all opinions come forth in the public arena, and then the true opinion will be able to triumph in public over the false ones, and its position will be all the stronger. First, note that Thomas More never denies that some opinions are true and others false. Second, he does not go into what happens after the true opinion has prevailed over the false one, but one may suppose that the true opinion must constantly shout itself out if the false opinions won't keep silence. Suppose that one could say, there has been a public debate on the humanity of the human fetus, and the abortionists lost. There has been a debate, and they did lose, if anyone bothers to read what has been said. Rather, what is said? The abortionists say, there IS a debate, so it is debatable. There is no debate. There was a debate, all positions were stated, and I can say who made the reasonable argument.

The Professor must say he is right — or he is not a professor

Debates never end in the political arena. No matter how cogent one party's arguments, and how many votes bring them to victory, they must restate their case in four or five years. Debates do end in science. Why then is philosophy treated as perpetual debate? If we consider that a philosopher who reasons on principle will come to a conclusion on many matters that are politically hot, the philosopher will be at variance with the politician. The politician has no problem when a physicist proves a new theory and silences his rivals. He does have a problem when a philosopher proves that a country should be self-sufficient, that the only moral justification for war is self-defense, that abortion is morally wrong or any number of other positions. He does have a problem when a philosopher demonstrates that there is one absolute Being, since he must treat atheists, polytheists, agnostics all as possessing opinions of equal weight. Those who teach ethics in particular everywhere feel the pressure to democratize their presentation of ethics.

Democracy rests on an ethical culture and ethical absolutes

Those who promote democracy have often made the false claim that it is democracy that is the reason for our prosperity, and democracy alone. Therefore, it is enough simply to let the USSR allow voting and political parties, and everything will prosper. It did not happen. Our prosperity is based on ethics. When people are reasonably confident that agreements will be kept, business is possible and they prosper. People keep agreements if they are ethically good. It is impossible to enforce every agreement with the coercive instruments of law. The problem the USSR had in its transition is that whole generations were morally corrupted. People did not trust each other, the religious and philosophical grounds for trust and honor had been systematically undermined by years of revolution. No matter how corrupt this society is, the root of our prosperity is the acceptance (more or less) of a universal ethical standard in matters of business. Democracy, although it proclaims a plurality of opinions on what is right or wrong, only works if it rests upon a level of ethical culture. The function of democratic debate is to provide a forum by which people can discover the truth as it applies to their current situation. When democracy is imposed from without upon people who do not have this culture, the result is often that there are hundreds of political parties, anarchy, and opportunities for people with hidden agends to form coalitions and seize power. So it is in Poland, where the ex-communists run under several parties and then regroup after every election. So it is in many former colonies. The reader doubtless knows more examples and details than I of such stories.

Ethics is a threefold science

To repeat what I was mandated to teach as a lecturer in Ethics, from the textbook Man as Man by Thomas Higgins (available at Tan Books), ethics has three characteristics. It is a philosophical science, it is a normative science, and it is a practical science: a practical, normative science. The first point, that ethics is a science, is in fact disputed. It is mostly disputed by people who have been persuaded by the abuse of democracy that all opinions in matters of conduct are equal (and in so opining, such people cannot themselves avoid philosophizing, but that is another matter). If this were so, there is no point in teaching it at all, especially in a university setting, except as a rather useless appendix to a sociology based on polls and statistics. Even after studying ethical opinions in such a setting, the student would not be inclined to one opinion more than another, except for the human inclination to go along with the crowd and fall in line with some prevalent opinion.

In fact ethics is a science. For example, it can be argued and demonstrated that it is morally wrong to put military targets in the middle of civilian territory. It is morally wrong deliberately to target civilians in a war. The principle of double effect is a timeless principle: it is allowable to commit or permit an act where there are two consequences, a good one or an evil one, if certain conditions are met. First, the good consequence is directly intended, the evil one is only permitted. The good consequence is not the child of the evil consequence. The agent does not intend (or rejoice in) the evil consequence. Second, there is some proportional reason for allowing the evil, i.e. the good outweighs the evil.

One of the few situations when correct ethical arguments have been publically stated in recent years has been during war. It is wrong deliberately to destroy a building with the aim of killing civilians. In war, a building may be destroyed (with civilians in it) if there is some very important military target within. For example, if the evil leader places a nursery school beside the factory where he is building biological or nuclear weapons, it is he who is responsible for their deaths if in war the factory is reluctantly destroyed. I am not demonstrating these things exhaustively here, but when I teach I do. To hell (literally) with what Utilitarians would say about this. I mention the principle of double effect and its application as an example of what should be taught.

Ethics as a science is philosophical. In common with other sciences, ethics reasons according to principles and discovers principles. It is based upon principles. Other sciences pursue principles to a certain degree. The task of a branch of the natural sciences is to find the principles that govern a certain realm of nature, such as the laws of chemistry, such as valences, the properties of elements. A philosophical science differs in that it pursues ultimate principles and causes. In ethics, the principle and cause which is most important is the final end of human acts. This in turn involves the philosophy of man (what is man and what is his final end), and metaphysics (the first principle of all being, called God in religion). Some philosophers deny human nature (Sartre et al.), final ends (Hume et al.), and an absolute and transcendent first principle of all being (many indeed). In all these cases, it should be stated simply that any attempt to build ethics is an arbitrary exercise. No cogent reason can be provided for doing anything if the first principles are denied. In fact, if any of these philosophical principles are denied, the word "should" (and "can") become meaningless. Let us recall the terrible mental commotions that J.S. Mill suffered when he tried (religiously) to live by Bentham's calculus of pleasure. His conscious bothered him when he thought that he had failed to maximize his pleasure according to the system. Too bad his reason did not bother him, and tell him that Bentham could not say that we "should" do anything. But I digress.

The first principle in ethics, the ultimate cause of the human act (as Aristotle stated) is beatitude. In final causes, it is the one that is furthest in the future that is the cause of everything that goes before. (As your ultimate great grandchildren are the final cause of you faling in love with your spouse). According to Aristotle, beatitude is philosophical contemplation, and he admits that we must make do with this, that it is not ideal. It would seem that our ultimate happiness is to acquire enough leisure to spend our old age curled up with a book about the first principle. Thomas Aquinas argues further, a happiness that is tainted by the thought that there is something imperfect about this happiness cannot be considered happiness. Happiness tainted by the prospect of death, by the sense of separation from what we desire to behold, by the sense of limitation, cannot be happiness. Yet our nature drives us to seek happiness, and nature cannot act in vain. Therefore happiness must be possible, and for reasons he makes clear, this happiness can only consist in man's direct and eternal vision of God.

In this matter Aquinas is right. If God exists and is the source of all being, then by participation, all that is must manifest reason and order. Nature cannot work in vain. It would take four university semesters to make this point, if debate were desired, but I am handing it out gratis. Man desires absolute happiness, and it must be possible. Aristotle was on the right track, and every step Aquinas takes relies on Aristotle, but ultimately Aristotle falls short. Aristotle describes happiness as the highest faculty operating in the best way toward the most perfect object, and Aquinas accepts this, but he is capable of taking it more seriously than Aristotle. The ultimate purpose of human acts is deiformitas, that in seeing God, and (in Aristotelian terms) becoming in a certain intentional and participative way what we see, we become God.

As an aside here, Greek and Roman culture was really inferior to Christian culture. We admire their sculpture, but really consider what that world must have looked like with its painted statues and monuments, and it must have appeared like a cheesy carnival or a department store full of lascivious mannikins. Worldly men could not build something like Chartres cathedral.

Ethics as a science is normative. That is, it is not merely a descriptive science, as all other sciences are, dealing with the link between cause and effect. Other sciences take this approach to human behavior, such as psychology. It is possible to show several causal influences (genetic, environmental, psychological, rational) for acts that are either good or bad. Ethics, however, does not state what is, but what should be. Ethics then must evaluate human acts in the light of man's final end. That final end must be studied scientifically, and this study actually is a prelude to ethics, not ethics itself, but it is necessary. Ethics as normative is precluded in a system of thought where "what can be" is a priori dismissed. Thus empiricism in its radical and exclusive forms leaves no room for ethics. Since classical utilitarianism is bsed on the premises of this empiricism, it cannot be considered a system of ethics.

Ethics as a science is practical. The purpose of studying ethics is not to produce individuals who are adroit at discussing both sides of every issue with finesse. The purpose is to produce individuals who can decide upon the right course of action, and when necessary provide a verbal defense to others for what is right. The ancients recognized that a person who habitually does what is right and one who has had a proper upbringing can act properly in difficult circumstances (he can reach the right decision according to the science of ethics), even if this same person has not studied ethics as a formal science. This ethical and virtuous individual may not even be aware of any discursive ethical thinking. This was called connatural knowledge, but it is not a mysterious knowledge that bypasses reason. It is reasoning which has become so habitual and ingrained that the person jumps along the familiar lines of reasoning to the correct conclusion. He is able to act quickly in a difficult situation.

When someone teaches ethics, they often face several limitations. First of all, the learners may be at different stages of ethical formation. Even a very scholarly person who is lacking in proper upbringing or confirmed virtue may have difficulty grasping certain points, while less talented students may move quickly. Second, there is a limited time, for example, thirty hours or so of course time. Third, there may be additional requirements. Students who are faced with learning unfamiliar matter may have the added burden of writing a paper in such a way that it distracts them from studying the fundamental principles. Fourth, the students may not have mastered the necessary prerequisites to ethics. These consist of at least three points which are scientifically proven in other parts of philosophy: the immortality of the soul, the freedom of the will, the existence of God. All of these most people accept, but if ethics is to be taught scientifically, its conclusions must flow from these premises.

Ideally, the teacher will be able to build a foundation of principles and an ethical vocabulary, and then move on to the particular applications of ethics. The students will learn particular points important to conduct, but based on general principles. Some object to ethics as casuistry, as particular case studies, with ready-made solutions to each case. The real world, obviously, can throw more situations at us than we could possibly enumerate or predict. However, some cases are common enough that they do merit such a treatment, and the student should also have a habitual grasp of how to apply principles to situations.

If all conditions were favorable, a teacher could teach objective and scientific ethics by a dialectical process. For every position, he could go into depth into what opposing philosophers had to say, use reductio ad absurdum and other methods to show which positions are internally consistent or inconsistent, and let the student discover for himself where the truth is. Dialectics is the best way to teach, and it is not at all opposed to systematic teaching. The scholastic procedure employed by Thomas Aquinas, to present the objections before resolving them, went hand in hand with his systematic teaching. However, with a mere forty hours in front of students who do not have the adequate philosophical prerequisites, it is wrong to be forced to present to them Plato, Aristotle, Nietzche, B.F. Skinner, Hume, Hobbes, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Max Scheler, and Thomas Aquinas. The thought of these philosophers cannot be represented adequately in the time allowed. This is especially so, when at the end of it all, the teacher must still be sure that he imparts to his students the rudiments of ethics and some important applications.

Despite a confused treatment of ethics …

University graduates, by virtue of their education, can every quickly upon graduation be thrust into situations where their decisions are important. An ROTC student may find himself one week later flying a plane above a target. A nurse may be asked to assist in an abortion. A lawyer might be asked to defend as innocent a man he knows is guilty. The teacher must consider this when he weighs how and what he will teach. Is it his intention that when the pilot sees the target, or when the surgeon asks for a knife, that the student may run through the opinions of all the philosophers, or that the student should promptly do the right thing? Some good people send their children to institutions where an eclectic approach to ethics prevails (for example, in a Great Books program, to read the books of the various philosophers). The students may be expected, in ethical terms, to leave by the same door whereby they entered. If the students already had a proper upbringing etc., they will benefit because they will be able to express their views, the views they already held. Others may in fact become worse. It is one thing to be a college party animal, but give the party animal a dose of Nietzsche and he has a rationale for carrying on this way for his whole life. Corruptio optimi pessima — the corruption of the best is the worst. To give clever and evil people the means by which they can be even more clever at evil is to make them worse. At good Catholic schools there are other things going on besides the teaching of ethics, such as peer pressure in the good sense, the life of the Sacraments, the personal example of committed professors. Yet this does not justify shortcomings in the teaching of ethics, for the student may become a good citizen in spite of these shortcomings, not because of them.

In ethics, the truth is harder than the lie. Bentham's calculus of pleasures is easy to grasp. It is also wrong, but it takes longer to demonstrate this and one knows that some will walk away only with the calculus. In systematic (Thomistic) ethics, we rarely mention the names of individuals such as Franscisco de Vittoria, even though his contributions far outweigh those of Hume, Nietzsche and their ilk taken together. The reason is, that Francisco de Vittoria wrote within the system of St. Thomas. St. Thomas in turn was working within the system called reality. Vittoria's doctrines concerning slavery, the conditions of waging just war, and the treatment of indigenous peoples encountered in colonization have become standard in our time, but he rarely gets the credit. For that reason, should a teacher give the whole history of the Salamanca school and the New world, and the protracted debates in which his doctrine took shape? No. That is to fall in the trap.

But this says you know ethics!!!

To sum up. A university teacher (any teacher) has this basic responsibility before the world. If he gives a student a passing grade, he is proclaiming to the world that this student is competent. If he teaches ethics, he is proclaiming to the world that this student has rationally mastered the science of ethics, and at least at the intellectual level, you can count on his superior knowledge of ethics. It may be that within academia, the appearance of ethics on a transcript means something else, but there is no avoiding the fact that when an employer sees "ethics" on a transcript, he will expect someone who is competent to give ethical guidance. If he is wrong to expect this, the university has misled him.