Saturday, September 26, 2009

Calling all Sandelistas!

Many years ago, because classrooms were overcrowded, the Sorbonne in Paris introduced the practice of broadcasting some popular courses over the radio waves. I have long felt that our most prestigious universities must begin systematically to offer their best courses on television. The classes would be free--though not the course credit. For that you would still have to enroll and do the papers and exams. So why is there a problem?

In fact things seem to be moving in that direction. Lectures given at Duke and Stanford are available on iTunes U. Some years ago M.I.T. developed its own software to make classes available. Or so I am told; I haven’t sampled these offerings personally.

I am tempted by a new initiative from Harvard, as reported by Patricia Cohen in the Arts Section of the New York Times for September 29. Over the years Professor Michael J. Sandel has attracted some 14,000 students to his wildly popular course commonly known as “Justice.”

“Now Mr. Sandal [sic] gets to play himself on television, not to mention online, as Harvard and public television stations across the country allow viewers to sit in on his classroom discussions about Wall Street bonuses and Aristotle, same-sex marriage and Kant, for the next 12 weeks.

“But what is new about Harvard’s venture, more than five years in the making, is that it is the first time that public broadcasters can remember a regular college course’s being presented on television. What’s more, it is also a highly produced multimedia event, with high-definition video, interactive Webcasts, podcasts, a new book and a speaking tour.”

In short, the telecasts will lure viewers with high-production values and spinoffs, instead of being shunted off to watch a dreary "video that looks as if it were made with a convenience-store security camera, as most Internet courses do, without the slides, syllabus, and other materials available to actual students.” (Sandel)

It is somewhat disappointing to learn that the lectures are not being televised live. In fact they were taped in 2005 and 2006 and first used for Harvard’s Extension School and for alumni. In 2007 WGBH, the Boston public broadcaster, joined forces with Harvard.

The station secured a grant from POM Wonderful, the juice company, to put the course on the air. Then Professor Sandel raised the rest of the money — about $600,000 in all — much of it coming from former students, Sandelistas if you will. Each 50-minute class has been edited down to 30 minutes; two appear in each television episode.

Patricia Cohen offers the following sample problem. “Would you switch a runaway trolley from one track to another if it meant killing one person instead of five? Would it be just as moral to push a person in front of the speeding trolley to stop it and save the five? What about a surgeon killing one healthy person and using his organs so that five people who needed organ transplants could live? Is that moral? Why not?”

The example given seems typical of the hypothetical dilemmas that abound in popular classes and newspaper columns on ethics. To his credit, Sandel tries to use real examples as reported in the media. However, they still tend to be atypical, and therefore are not representative of the issues that call for decisions in everyday life.

I am a bit skeptical, as is my wont. But others are euphoric. One observer thinks that if Sandel can keep going before the national media “he might do for us what Socrates did for the ancient Greeks. He might succeed in making moral reflection a public endeavor, not a solitary activity. . . . He and his students (disciples?) might shame our politicians into doing the right thing more often.” This comment sounds a bit like a goo-goo wet dream. I should explain that "goo-goo" is not a sexual term, but a sobriquet for those earnest folks who think that “good government”--as they define it--will solve all our problems.

According to Sandel, the issue that arouses the strongest feelings among the students is affirmative action. I gather that the professor is for it; many students are dubious, in part because they worked so hard to get into Harvard.

Sandel has made telling criticisms of that ubiquitous windbag John Rawls, supposedly the last word in enlightened political theory. To his credit, he is not a doctrinaire “progressive.” Still one wonders if Harvard would choose to showcase someone who is actually critical of affirmative action.

On and off campus, academics lean to the liberal side. This perceived imbalance is one of the reasons why ordinary citizens distrust professors, especially when they seek to offer moral guidance.

At all events, I may not watch the TV series. Instead, as an old Gutenberg type, I can just read the accompanying book, which has drawn praise from both E. J. Dionne, a liberal, and George Will, a conservative. Yet one reader of the book, found on Amazon, points up some instances of liberal bias--though not so labeled. These reported views are those the reader favors, so perhaps we should take the account with a grain of salt.

“He wants philosophy to be used on economics, not just on matters of abortion and gay marriage. Sandel demonstrates that the growing inequality in the U.S. undermines the solidarity that a democracy requires. Sandel points to the hollowing out of the public realm on which a democratic society depends. As public services decline and decline, as we let our common spaces for all but wealthy Americans deteriorate, we undermine our shared democratic citizenship.”

Also on Amazon, Herbert Gintis provides a more searching critique:

“The most important thing the student learns from this book is that . . . leading a moral life is the highest goal to which we can aspire. I learned moral philosophy in an era dominated by the sort of analytical philosophy according to which moral statements are meaningless utterances, and moral behavior is irrational and constricting. At its best, I was taught that moral principles were an individual's private property, and were about as important as one's musical or artistic taste. For Sandel, morality is not an accoutrement of the genteel life, but is the source of all meaning in life, and he conveys this message to the reader without an ounce of preachiness or self-righteousness.

“In his previous writings, Sandel has been a major critic of John Rawls's theory of justice, which has been the centerpiece of liberal democratic political philosophy for almost forty years. Rawls embraces a Kantian ethic that extends the Categorical Imperative (do unto others ... ) in a way relevant to social policy and political philosophy. According to Rawls, we must erect social institutions using principles that we would individually be willing to accept if we were behind a "veil of ignorance" that prevented us from knowing what position we would hold in the resulting social order. He suggests two major principles. The first is the lexical priority of liberty, meaning that no social order has the right to constrain freedom in the name of some type of social engineering. The second is the principle that society should be organized so that the well-being of least well off is maximized. This leads to a radical egalitarianism in which the question of the justice of the distribution of wealth and income is the major moral issue in society. In particular, it leads to a hyper-individualism in which the moral principles of individuals [are] of no importance in their claim to a "just share" of the material wealth of society, and individuals are worthy of respect whatever they happen to choose as a way of life, provided they leave room for others to pursue their individual goals. Sandel rightly rejects this political philosophy on the grounds that by favoring "rights" over "the good," we necessarily degrade political democracy and republican virtues.

“Sandel's alternative is to embrace a form of virtue ethics according to which the moral is what would be enacted by the virtuous individual, and we can tell what is virtuous by inspecting the character of human nature and the embeddedness of individuals in a close fabric of social life. The virtuous individual will "flourish" through acting in according with his or her highest nature, and immorality is a form of self-destruction brought on through ignorance or laziness.

“The main thing missing from this book is an appreciation for the science [sic] of human morality. Humans make morality in the same sense that they make food, babies, art, music, and war. Sandel does not appear to realize that theories of morality should explain moral behavior, much as linguistics attempts to explain human verbal communication. Philosophers appear to have the idea that the philosophical "experts" have no more reason to study people's actual moral beliefs than physicists have to study folk-physics. This is a serious error, which leads philosophers to seek the "one true theory" from which all moral truths can be deduced. There is no "one true theory." All of the major branches of moral philosophy are represented in the everyday moralizing of people. Obligation, consideration of consequences, a sense of virtue, and even visceral feelings of cleanliness and propriety are all involved in how people make moral choices.

“Because Sandel does not treat moral behavior as worthy of scientific study, he misses one major point about human morality: the strong underlying unity of moral sensibility across all societies and covering most social issues. The motivating force of Sandel's book is moral conflict, either in the form of an individual having to make choices that necessarily involve opting for the lesser evil (for instance, should soldiers kill an innocent shepherd to save the lives of nineteen patriotic soldiers, or should a living fetus be sacrificed to satisfy the preferences of the importuned mother), when in fact most major moral choices concern good versus evil, and what is considered good and evil is pretty much the same the world over. Everywhere, people cherish honesty, loyalty, hard-work, bravery, considerateness, trustworthiness, and charity. Similarly, everywhere people prefer insiders to outsiders, and take pleasure in hurting those who violate personal integrity or social rules. It is these moral values that have made humanity the imposing presence . . . upon the planet, and, if we are to survive into the future, it is these basic moral values, which are universal from small tribes of hunter-gathers to the vast populations of advanced technological society, that will provide the energy for the tasks that lie ahead of us.”

So Herbert Gintis.

As a former, though wayward student of cultural anthropology, I am a little dubious about "universal moral values." Also, preferring insiders to outsiders does not make for harmonious relations with others. It is a universal that is also a nonuniversal.

The gratuitous assumption that human beings all agree on certain core values reminds me a bit of the vacuous naivete' of a Karen Armstrong--horresco referens.



Blogger The Gay Species said...

Mr. Gintis apparently cannot distinguish between "morality" and "ethics," and even thinks the "categorical imperative" is the "Golden Rule." I hope he did not attend Harvard, because his ignorance is glaring. As for Sandel, he may be "liberal" and a "virtue theorist," but in today's world what are the alternatives? Consequentialism? Kantian deonotology? Biblical laws? Or pragmatism's "what feels good?"

I recognize some individuals prefer to "survive" rather than "flourish," but then some people prefer "suicide." Aristotle grants us all these choices, which is very proto-liberal of the Greek philosopher, who continues to speak to academics, students, and even "bloggers" 2,500 years after his students cribbed his comments. The "herd" and "slavish brutes" need their "morality," which the Greeks gave them almost three millennia ago: Do No Harm or Injury. But that only preserves our "survival."

Those that desire to "flourish" prefer ethics, and those that are self-destructive (or life-destroying, to quote Aristotle) make bad choices, but their bad choices still cannot "do harm or injury" to another. That Universal Moral Imperative was established before the 6th C. B.C.E. in Greece, which J. S. Mill resurrected as the "Harm Principle," only to undermine it with his utilitarianism "ends justify the means." Aristotle would correct that claim, only the singular END could possibly justify the means, and The Mean of the means is established as virtuous and the Excess and Defect are vices. The singular END is "the complete life lived well," or what we call "human flourishing." Through this prism, all the virtues, including liberal principles, find their instrumental value.

11:28 AM  
Blogger Dyneslines said...

To judge from other pieces I have read. Sandel seems to be a moderate, sensible person. However, one must ask the hard question: is his liberal ideology coherent? I think not.

I have had a good deal of experience with this sort of endeavor in my own 35 years of academic service. This is the way it usually goes. First one stipulates one's conclusions--generally of the PC variety--and then one seeks arguments that appear to lead "logically" to those conclusions. It doesn't take much investigation, though, to see that this procedure in inverted, and consequently unconvincing to those who do not share this particular world view.

Of course preaching to the converted is standard operating procedure in the strange archipelago of squirrel scholars known as Academia.

6:04 PM  

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