Sunday, December 2, 2012

Why Is It So Hard To Do The Right Thing?

Our Society

by Perry J. Greenbaum

Moses ben-Maimon, also called Maimonides or Rambam, was a preeminent medieval Jewish philosopher and one of the greatest Torah scholars and physicians of the Middle Ages. (This is a 19th century portrait.). As he said: "We are obligated to be more scrupulous in fulfilling the commandment of charity than any other positive commandment because charity is the sign of a righteous man."

Source: Wikipedia

In 1997, Martha Nussbaum, the well-known American philosopher and professor at University of Chicago, wrote Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education, a spirited defence of liberal education (see excellent review by Nicholas C. Burbules of Harvard Educational Review.) Among other things, Nussbaum advocates for the importance of a liberal education, for the centrality of philosophy and for cosmopolitanism.

Like many others before her, Prof. Nussbaum raises good points on the importance of liberal education, the need for Socratic reason and the importance of reading the literature of other cultures to develop as empathetic citizens of the world. Of course, she is talking about the examined life, of self-criticism, of self-development and empathy of the Other—people unlike ourselves. Nussabaum also warns about the dangers of education leading to vocationalism, where students enter higher education chiefly as a means to get a job.

That explains such university slogans as "Education for the 21st century," and "Real Education for the Real World." The screaming symbolism in such slogans is telling: only practical education leads to a better life. That is what the high priests of commerce want students to believe, if only to serve industry's desires: an educated workforce focused solely on obeying orders and getting the job done.

Or, in other words, higher education becomes a job-training institute. While getting a job is important, and no one is arguing against work and getting well paid for it, the job-training approach that many universities are emphasizing is problematic. (For an interesting take on utilitarian education, John Allemang's thought-provoking article in The Globe & Mail, Can the liberal arts cure jihadists?)

Socrates: "False words are not only evil in themselves, but they infect the soul with evil."
Photo Credit: Qbricard, 1983.

In many cases, this equates to a high-paid job in a high-paying field, which today would be high finance, high-tech, law and medicine. It seems that the common denominator of the high-paying vocational jobs is that students graduate with little understanding or, more important, fine appreciation of art, history, philosophy and the culture in which they reside. Even so, while I applaud the merits of education in general, and liberal arts education in particular, education alone is insufficient to instill humans with humanity. It takes something more. It is important to understand that humans crave attention, respect and a sense that they are worthy and valuable members of society.

Humans are not human resources. Humans are not means of production, used and then discarded when the expiry date is near. Each individual human is born into the world as a unique individual, with the capability to contribute something worthy and beautiful to society. Truly, it doesn't take a philosopher to tell us that, although philosophers can warn us and advise us of societal trends and dangers. Even so, we can know many things of both the human heart and mind, if we observe our world and others carefully. And, more important, learn to do the right thing. Generally speaking, we will do right, if we view that all humans have value and are worthy of respect and dignity.

Yet, today's emphasis on money and wealth acquisition has made us profoundly less human. The late historian Tony Judt thought so. “Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today,” he wrote in Ill Fares the Land. “For 30 years, we have made a virtue of the pursuit of material self-interest: Indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes whatever remains of our sense of collective purpose.”

Yet, a collective purpose based on the dignity of humans tends to lead to good and honourable actions. Here's a worthy example. During the Second World war, a tiny village in southern France banded together to save 5,000 Jews from Nazi death camps, in what has been called a Conspiracy of Goodness. When asked why they risked their lives, the common response was, "it was the human thing to do." Such describes the height of human goodness.

For many, such is the exception rather than the rule.

A version of this post was originally published on Perry J. Greenbaum.


  1. It's interesting that Socrates said "False words are not only evil in themselves, but they infect the world with evil." Socrates also called for the Noble Lie.

    1. The quote is taken from "The Phædo of Socrates," which might explain much.


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