Again, Crito, may we do evil?

I once had dinner with a prominent local business man. He was the retired CEO of a large and very profitable insurance company. I found him to be a nice enough guy, and the dinner and surroundings were first rate. As we chatted there in his private club atop the city's highest building, our conversation turned to the subject of education, a topic upon which my dinner companion had many opinions.

During the course of our discussion, he informed me with a self-satisfied look that the business world was actually much better suited for teaching critical thinking than liberal arts colleges. I asked him what he meant and he replied, "Well, we teach managers all the time how to think strategically, how to problem solve, how to prioritize and make decisions. More importantly, we hold people accountable. It's not just an academic thought experiment."

I nodded but refrained from explaining the distinction between horizontal critical thinking (How shall we accomplish X?) and vertical critical thinking (Is X morally right?). I didn't say anything about Enron and the Third Reich having some of the most brilliant horizontal critical thinkers on the planet. Neither did I point out that cleverness is a morally-neutral capacity equally useful for curing diseases or fattening one's profits by denying the insurance claims of gravely-ill people. I just nodded and made nice to the nice man. It's best not to wake sleepwalkers.

This memory came back to me while reading Chris Hedges' Empire of Illusion and his chapter on higher education, in which he excoriates colleges and universities for abandoning the traditional liberal arts and allowing themselves to be transformed into the vocational training arm of the private sector. Hedges argues education's main purpose should be to teach people how to be critical, to ask questions and to insist upon answers that meet their reason's demand for consistency, logic and evidence. Of the current economic fiasco, he writes:
Our elites--the ones in Congress, the ones on Wall Street, and the ones being produced at prestigious universities and business schools--do not have the capacity to fix our financial mess. Indeed, they will make it worse. They have no concepts, thanks to the educations they have received, of how to replace a failed system with a new one. They are petty, timid, and uncreative bureaucrats superbly trained to carry out systems management.
He has a point. Do any of the top-flight MBA programs require their students seriously to question the morality of free market capitalism? Socratic inquiry starts with the assumption that all assumptions should be questioned in an effort to avoid acting immorally or in ignorance. Later today, for example, I'll be teaching The Crito, a 2,400 year-old text. In it Socrates will examine whether it is right to flee Athens now that he has been convicted and sentenced to death. He will define justice, the value of being self-critical and his moral obligation to society.

After we discuss the dialog in class, the students and I will spend some time seriously considering the possibility that Socrates was wrong. We will question the idea that it's good to ask critical questions, because the habit of questioning all assumptions--even and especially our own--ought to be the real measure of a good liberal arts education. It certainly isn't that students will necessarily make better decisions or think strategically. It isn't that they will be superbly trained in systems management. It's that they learn to ask hard questions about everything and take seriously the possibility that systems can be dead wrong and their actions evil.


Amanda said…
Hi...I am in your 470 class this semester. Normally I would feel really weird about leaving my professor a comment on his blog, and I suppose I still do a little bit, but I didn't want to take up a whole class period discussing my theoretical situations. (You'll probably chastise me for not volunteering my input, so I should also add that I am shy in group situations).

ANYWAY, I just really wanted to say that the ethical issues with which we are currently grappling are ones that I deal with every day. I am far more extreme than most people in my desire to live ethically, but I can't fathom any other way to live a life other than to have your principles as your guide.

So...I am what extent do you live by Socratic principles? Also, I was wondering whether Socrates is primarily referring to human interactions in his discussions of ethics? What about treatment of animals? What if you have a situation in which you have one belief, such as the desire to only eat cruelty-free animal products, pitted against another, such as the desire to make your grandmother happy by eating her (factory farm) pumpkin pie?

I just needed to ask some of my questions because I was concerned that I was going to regurgitate all of my hypotheticals to the next person I see on the street. You don't have to answer them, although I hope you will. I do not have much of an outlet for this stuff because most of my friends/peers are fairly complacent.

Thanks! I am looking forward to more insight!
Professor Quest said…
Hi Amanda,

Socrates certainly wasn't asking his fellow Athenians to be perfect, but he did want them to be concerned with their moral goodness. And that meant being willing to question things and look for answers that satisfied their reason's demand for consistency, logic and evidence. He just wanted people to be more critical and--just as importantly--self-critical. He was always as willing to have his own assumptions challenged as he was to challenge those of others. He knew he was just as capable of moral error as anyone.

As for me, I try to be true to my principles and live ethically, but it isn't always easy or fun. Dilemma--as in ethical dilemma--is actually a Greek word. It means two-horned or two-pronged. It means you are in a situation that may get gored whatever you decide. After all nothing in life prevents circumstances from arising that may cause two things you love to come into conflict. You may love your work and your children, but the time may come when you have to choose between doing something important for your career and attending your daughter's piano recital The measure of your moral goodness in this situation may not be that you adhere to some hard-line ethical principle (family first or a duty to keep my word to my employer); it may be in the degree to which you are wiling to face the dilemma honestly and acknowledge the pain of having to choose. I would not call someone good who used ethical principles as an excuse to avoid feeling remorse over life's hard choices.

I try to do the right thing and sometimes I fail. Good people should try to live by the their principles to the bets of their ability, but they won't always feel good about it.

If you are interested in a really good book about ethics and animals, I would check out Peter Singer's "Animal Liberation." It's a bit old, but it brilliantly lays out a provocative argument that animals have rights. Or you could check out this site:

Thanks for the comment! See you in class.
Amanda said…
We don't have to be perfect...that's a key thing to remember.

I agree with your perspective on an ethical's nice to see it in writing, though, because it makes me realize that sometimes there is no clear right or wrong, and that you have to choose what you value most in that moment.

Thanks for the reply and the book recommendation. I like to get other people's perspectives so I can validate (or not) my own.

See you tuesday!

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