June 29, 2009

Dilemmas and Moral Reasoning

Category: Education,Ethics :: Permalink

In Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right from Wrong, William Kilpatrick criticizes both “Values Clarification” and the more sophisticated “dilemma” approach to moral education developed by Lawrence Kohlberg.  In the latter approach, the teacher presents students with a moral dilemma and then encourages the students to debate and discuss what they would do if they were in such a situation.

Here’s one of Kohlberg’s favorite dilemmas: “Your wife suffers from an incurable and potentially terminal disease for which she must take regular doses of a very expensive medicine.  The medicine is manufactured by a single company, and you have exhausted all of your financial resources in past purchases of the medicine.”  Now, should you let your wife die or should you attempt to steal the drug to save her life?

Interestingly, when Kohlberg presented this dilemma to a bunch of prisoners, the discussion did not go the way he expected:

The convicts were unperplexed.  To a man, and without hesitation, they said, “Steal it.”  “But why,” Larry Kohlberg asked them, “would you do that?”  Laughing, they answered, “Because we steal things.  We wanna know why the stupid husband didn’t steal it in the first place” (cited p. 87).

I had heard about this approach before but hadn’t thought much about it.  Kilpatrick’s treatment of it is helpful.  He points out that “the decision whether or not to steal is only a dilemma for those who already think stealing is wrong” (p. 87).  And that is part of the problem with this “dilemma” approach to moral education.   It presupposes that the students are already committed to being people who want to do the right thing.  But if they don’t care to do what’s right, if they think that it’s okay to lie or cheat or steal or commit adultery, the “dilemma” is no dilemma at all.

Moreover, as Kilpatrick points out, dilemmas are not the best way to teach students morality.  Difficult dilemmas can engage students’ imaginations and lead to lots of discussion and even disagreement.  The result may be an entertaining class (and even popular teachers), but the result is not moral education.  Why not?  Because most of the decisions we have to make in life are not difficult moral dilemmas:

The danger in focusing on problematic dilemmas such as these is that a student may begin to think that all of morality is similarly problematic.  After being faced with quandary after quandary of the type that would stump Middle East negotiators, students will conclude that right and wrong are anybody’s guess.  They will gain the impression, as Cornell professor Richard Baer has pointed out, “that almost everything in ethics is either vague or controversial…” (p. 85).

Furthermore, the “dilemma” and discussion approach does not provide students with guidance.  As a result, it gives the impression that there are no right and wrong answers, not only to the particular dilemma being discussed but to all moral questions.  The answers given by the Bible (or, for that matter, by a student’s parents) are accorded no more weight than the answers given by a kid who wants to be controversial or who wants to justify his own rebellion or whatever.

That doesn’t mean it’s always wrong to talk about a moral dilemma.  But, as Kilpatrick’s discussion of this approach suggests, such discussion ought to take place in the context of a commitment to rigiht morals, to moral guidance, to (though Kilpatrick doesn’t say it outright) the Bible as the standard.  Commitment to Scripture doesn’t free us from all moral dilemmas, of course, but it does provide a context in which we can evaluate the various options.

Furthermore, it would seem, dilemmas shouldn’t be the primary focus, lest the students focus on rare exceptions instead of on the choices they must make every day.  As Kilpatrick says,

Before students begin to think about the qualifications, exceptions, and fine points that surround difficult cases they will seldom or never face, they need to build the kind of character that will allow them to act well in the very clear-cut situations they face daily (p. 88).

Posted by John Barach @ 4:15 pm | Discuss (0)
June 8, 2009

Fantasy Virtue

Category: Family,Theology - Pastoral :: Permalink

In the second issue of the Mars Hill Audio Journal, there is an interview with the British mystery writer P. D. James.  The interviewer, Ken Myers, asks James why evil characters are easier to depict than good characters.

James responds by saying that evil characters are often more dramatic.  They commit dramatic crimes, such as murder.  Virtuous characters, on the other hand, are often less dramatic.  A man may have courage in dramatic situations: the man who runs into a burning building to rescue a child.  But most often, courage is expressed in small, undramatic situations and in ways that no one else might notice: the woman who bravely faces a day in which she must carry out a number of duties in spite of ongoing terrible pain.

What James says about virtue resonates with something I’ve noticed recently myself.  Paul tells husbands to love their wives, “just as Christ also loved the church and gave himself for her” (Eph. 5:25).  Husbands are to model themselves after Christ, giving themselves, pouring themselves out, laying down their lives for their wives.

But more than once, when I’ve said that, I’ve received a certain response.  A man will begin talking about how he would be willing, should the need arise, to give his life for his wife.  If, say, they were out somewhere and someone held them up at gunpoint, he would be willing to die so that his wife could get away.  He would be willing, in other words, to do some dramatic act of self-sacrifice to rescue his wife should the need arise.

What strikes me is how common this response is and how unrealistic it really is.  For some reason, it seems to me, we have a tendency to romanticize virtue, to dream of dramatic acts of virtue, to fantasize about being dramatically virtuous, and then to feel good about our willingness to perform such acts if they were ever to be required of us.  Our fantasies allow us to feel virtuous without actually having to act virtously.

In fact, we are not likely to be called to risk our lives for our wives in such dramatic ways.   What is far more likely to happen is that our wives are going to want us to do the dishes or help clean the house or take out the trash or play with the children or sit and talk when we would rather not be bothered.

“Oh, sure,” we say.  “I would lay down my life for my wife, if someone broke into my house and threatened us.”  We pretend we’re willing to do the great thing.  But all the while, we’re not willing to do the little thing, to pour out our lives for our wives when all they require is a bit of time and attention.  We would rather fantasize about being dramatically Christ-like than actually get up, turn off the TV, and serve our wives.

Service seems too undramatic, too ordinary, too humdrum, too much to ask of such virtuous people as we dream ourselves to be.  And so we affirm Paul’s words about self-giving love, romanticize them by fantasizing about virtually impossible situations in which we could obey them, and … fail to heed them at all in the real situations in which we live.

As P. J. O’Rourke put it, “Everybody wants to save the earth; nobody wants to help Mom do the dishes.”

Posted by John Barach @ 4:03 pm | Discuss (0)
June 4, 2009

Between Heaven and Hell

Category: Apologetics :: Permalink

On November 22, 1963, John F. Kennedy was assassinated.  On that same day, C. S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley (author of Brave New World) also died.  In Between Heaven and Hell, Peter Kreeft presents an imaginary dialog between these three men, located in a sort of holding area “somewhere beyond death.”  Lewis, of course, was a Christian.  Huxley was something of a pantheist and monist, infatuated with eastern religions.  Kennedy was Roman Catholic, but, Kreeft argues, was functionally a humanist.

The dialog itself is a lot of fun, and Kreeft gets in some great lines:

Kennedy: Well, I find it a lot easier to believe in the goodness of man than in the badness of God.

Lewis: The badness of God?

Kennedy: Yes; can you imagine a worse God than one who claps human beings into hell for all eternity?

Lewis: Yes, I can imagine a much worse God than that.

Kennedy: What God?

Lewis: One who would put people in hell who didn’t deserve it.  An unjust God (p. 18).

Also insightful is Lewis’s (and when I say “Lewis” or “Kennedy” or “Huxley” here, I’m referring to the characters, of course, not the real people they’re based on) response to Huxley’s claim that Jesus didn’t do miracles but did go around doing good things:

But what good did he do?  Did he visit prisoners?  Did he clothe the naked?  Did he clean up local politics?  No.  He did miracles.  Eliminate them and there’s not much left that he did (p. 79).

Kreeft also gives us three good lines about mysticism and Huxley’s belief that all religions are one.  The first is borrowed from Chesterton:

Lewis: It seems to me you are saying that Christianity and Buddhism are very much alike, especially Buddhism (p. 83).

The second is an old standard, and I don’t know who said it first:

Huxley: You’re probably one of those suspicious fellows who thinks mysticism begins in mist, centers in “I,” and ends in schism.

To which Lewis responds:

Lewis: Actually, I had a different quip up my sleeve: Ronald Knox’s remark about “comparative religion.”

Huxley: What’s that?

Lewis: That it makes you comparatively religious (p. 84).

That kind of stuff is fun and made the book enjoyable to read.  But in the end, I found Kreeft’s dialog disappointing.

In an interview on the very first Mars Hill Audio Journal, Kreeft mentions that C. S. Lewis once tried writing Socratic dialogs, found them difficult, and gave up.  Kreeft thought he would try and the book practically wrote itself.  Having read the book, however, it occurs to me that perhaps the reason Lewis found dialog difficult to write is because it’s too easy to make the characters say what you want them to say instead of what they might really say.

It’s rather like having an argument with your wife or your boss in your own mind, or like Robert Benchley’s essay “Take the Witness!“: In your fantasy arguments, you control the questions people ask and you pretend that they’re convinced by your replies, but in real life, the people may ask questions that embarrass you or find your strongest arguments uncompelling.

In Between Heaven and Hell, Aldous Huxley actually defeats one of Lewis’s arguments.  Lewis is arguing that, in claiming to be “Son of God,” Jesus was affirming that he was himself fully God.  The son of a wolf is a wolf, says Lewis, and the son of an oyster is an oyster.  Therefore, it must follow that the son of God is God.  But, says Huxley, the Bible calls angels and other people “sons of God,” and yet they aren’t themselves God on Lewis’s view.  That’s true.  In fact, the term “son of God” is applied in the Bible to Adam, Israel, and Israel’s king, none of whom are members of the Trinity.

So what does Lewis say in response?  Nothing.  He moves on.  That’s convenient, but it’s not satisfying.  It means that Lewis’s argument has been overthrown, and yet we, as  readers, are not supposed to notice.

Later, Lewis presents a number of verses which, he thinks, establish that Jesus claimed to be God.  But several of the verses don’t make that identification explicit.  For instance, how is “I am the bread of life” a claim to be God?  Lewis never explains.  A bit later, he argues that Jesus said “I am” and “Only I AM can say ‘I am’” (p. 45).  But on the face of it, that sounds ludicrous, doesn’t it?  We say “I am” all the time without identifying ourselves as Yahweh.

So why don’t Kennedy and Huxley go after Lewis when he blunders around like this, in the midst of trying to establish the crucial premise (“Jesus claimed to be God”) of his central argument for following Christ?  The answer appears to be simply that Kreeft didn’t want them to.  Kreeft controls the dialog, and so when Kreeft’s Lewis slips up, even if Kreeft’s Huxley catches it, Kreeft himself can just move the dialog on.

I don’t doubt that the real C. S. Lewis could have written a dialog.  But, unlike Kreeft here, Lewis might have thought that writing a good dialog is too hard precisely because it’s too easy to make your imaginary opponents say and do what you would like them to so that you can get in some good lines in response.

Posted by John Barach @ 3:19 pm | Discuss (0)
June 1, 2009

The Trouble with Martha

Category: Feasting :: Permalink

In our practice of hospitality and our desire to create a culture characterized by joyous feasting together, we need to watch out for some pitfalls, the kinds of things that give hospitality a bad name.  One is the sort of hospitality that keeps score: “We had you over last month, and now it’s your turn to have us over.”  Another is the sort of hospitality that turns having people over into a competition, where the food is so abundant,  and so amazing, and so elaborately presented that you can almost hear the host and hostess saying, “Top that!”  Yet another, closely related to the previous one, is the sort of hospitality that really doesn’t care about the people or delight in the food itself but seeks the admiration of the guests.

In Outlaw Cook, John Thorne has a chapter on Martha Stewart.   According to Thorpe, Stewart’s approach to “entertaining” is the farthest thing from genuine hospitality. Instead of wanting to have people over to enjoy spending time with them, you have them over to impress them.  Instead of them coming to see you, you aim for them to see things: the impressive display you have created, the books you have artfully arranged on the shelf, the origami-like complexity of your napkins.  Behind it all, Thorne detects self-pity and a strong desire to be admired and liked.

This approach extends even to the recipes she provides:

Food writers have accused her of appropriating their recipes without due credit.  This, whatever the truth to it, is a peculiar charge, for apart from her gala pastries they’re rarely of much interest.  This, too, I think, is by intent.  It is a truism of catered food that it can only appear unique — caterers know that what their clients want is risk-free originality: arresting dishes that never fail to please.

All too often, in fact, her solution is simply a knee-jerk recourse to richness.  In Martha Stewart’s Quick Cook, she gives a menu for four that starts with a salad dressed with one-half cup of blue cheese and two-thirds cup of olive oil, features thick-cut pork chops served with a side dish of turnips into which a quarter cup of butter and one-and-a-half cups of heavy cream have been mixed.  Dessert is vanilla ice cream over which is poured a chocolate sauce made of twelve ounces of melted chocolate and three-quarters cup of heavy cream.

Our reaction to all this migiht be different if we could imagine Martha Stewart herself digging into such a meal, but there is something disquieting about the killing richness of such food and the slender appearance of the person who insists we take some.  To do so is to feel as if, on accepting an invitation for a piece of pie, your hostess cuts you a slice and then sits down to watch you eat it … all too eager to serve you more.

“I made this to make you happy,” her books all say, not “I made this for us to share” (271-272).

Posted by John Barach @ 5:10 pm | Discuss (1)