Stories, Learning & Place

Sunday, December 26, 2004

The limits of critical thinking
   Argument is ineffective in morally pluralistic societies

One problem teachers sometimes encounter when they think their job is to teach critical thinking is that they wade into controversial topics where, one would think, critical thinking would be of help. But once the arguments start, the lack of moral consensus in a post-sixties world sometimes leaves them with nothing they feel they can say.

So they turn the kids loose to do their own thinking on such questions as whether torture is always wrong or abortion is defensible or what marriage means. What follows, naturally, are the arguments we have all heard, ad nauseum. The kids repeat what they have heard, sometimes from home but often from media, and teachers stand by in more or less idle tolerance.  They make it clear that on the large moral questions of the day, they are being taught, but that the teaching is being done by churches, by MTV, or by Hannity and Colmes. It is not being done by schools.

Another thing that becomes clear is that people seldom change their minds about fundamental beliefs because of arguments. The interminability of the arguments is itself a rather vivid illustration of the ineffectiveness of argument in a morally pluralistic society. This was a central point in Alasdair MacInyre’s stunning book, After Virtue. The enduring disagreements tend to be at the level of perception and emotion rather than at the level of concept and logic. Many positions people hold were not formed by critical thinking and will not changed by it.

All this is fine for the teacher who simply wants kids to be fluent, able to indulge, perhaps, in the intellectual pleasures of pointing out and naming the fallacies in others’ thinking. But for a teacher dedicated to preserving the truth in a chaotic world, the tenuous relationship between true belief and logic creates a dilemma. What is to be done when young people hold beliefs that are wrong or bad?

Though I hope most of us have corrected and revised our own thinking by coming across arguments that changed our minds, this normally happens when we believe there is a right order to things and that we have a responsibility to search for it and to change ourselves as our understanding improves. But it is now common to meet young people who believe there is no right order to things. There is instead an authentic self struggling for validation.

Logic that doesn’t validate their feelings about themselves is, like, whatever.

When we begin with true beliefs, logical reasoning doesn’t lead to false conclusions, but neither does logic generate true beliefs. In practice, our beliefs tend to be socially constructed. We may have certain political beliefs because our parents had them, religious beliefs because our tribe has them, occupational beliefs because our co-workers have them, and beliefs about what books and movies are good because our friends have them.

We can get true beliefs from observation, such as the belief that men on average are larger and stronger than women or that politicians frequently deceive in the manner of magicians, getting us to watch the silk handkerchief in the right hand while the left hand does its trick.

The realm of truth derived from observation is the realm where science excels. Science teachers are still quite willing to correct mistaken beliefs that students hold--such as the belief that summer is warmer than winter because the earth is nearer the sun. Science teachers even manage to use constructivist approaches without lapsing into silly solipsism. They remain firmly dedicated to the proposition that there are wrong answers--many more wrong ones than right ones, in fact.

Maybe it is time to discuss focusing the public school curricula much more intensely on math and science. Not only is there more consensus in these subjects, they also pay better. Where’s the money? has always been a central question of American schooling.

Why continue teaching the humanities in the public schools? Why not empower all our ethnic and religious groups who want self-determination to teach their view of right and wrong? Why not celebrate the diversity? If we continue in the cultural direction we have been moving since the sixties, Might it not make more sense to accept the reality that as the realm of moral consensus shrinks, so may the scope of practice for public school teachers?

Much of the value of the humanities derives from complicating, refining and extending beliefs that we know by faith, such as the belief that truth is a virtue, that justice is better than injustice, or that love is a form of cognition. Without such beliefs, it’s possible to enjoy even the Holocaust as a historical spectacle, in somewhat the ways it’s possible to enjoy films staged by Mel Gibson or Oliver Stone as a theatrical spectacles. This was brought home to me years ago when I visited a classroom where high school seniors were watching Speilberg’s movie Schindler’s List. At the most brutal moments, some of the kids laughed--a response they might have learned from Schwarzenegger’s films. In any case, the teacher did not correct their thinking. It was, after all, theirs.

People who do not believe this or that moral truth cannot be made to believe it by logic. It isn’t possible to prove that one world view is right and the other is wrong. Many ideas might follow from this observation, but one that has been highly favored among university humanists is that right and wrong are not very useful categories.

This is probably the defining charcteristic of secular rationalism, also calleded modernism and liberalism. If God is dead, then we are free to make our decisions about what we think is right.
We are morally autonomous, and we get to set our own standards. People who come to feel this often feel liberated. They can do whatever they want. The trouble with this world view comes into view when somebody wants to do something to them that they don’t want done. They want to call on some absolute moral authority to claim that it’s unjust or intolerant or inhumane. But who is that moral authorty?

In a 1979 lecture, “Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law,” Yale Law Professor Arthur Leff called this the problem of “the grand sez who?” If there is none but human authority and every person’s moral authority is equal to every other person’s, then we have no basis from which to condemn what anyone does. We can say that homosexuals have a right to express their sexuality as they desire, but then we also must agree that someone else has a right to refuse to hire them. Who has the authority to say otherwise?

The problem is that in modernist thought normative statements claiming this or that action should not be taken are foundationless.  When modernists feel the need for foundations, they often cite Darwin. It seems plausible that a tendency for cooperation or for telling the truth increases our chances to survive. Unfortunately, so does a willingness to kill the weak and take their property. The latter is, in fact, a closer fit with the theory of natural selection.

Modernists sometimes claim other sources of moral authority, trying to derive it from the rationality of utilitarianism or the prgamatism of majority rule, or simply trying to assert it with vague platitudes about equality, but as more and more people learn how simple it is to challenge the pretensions of such authority--a simple sez who will suffice--we find, as Leff said, “Everything is up for grabs.”

Leff ended his lecture not with reasoned conclusions but with undisguised assertions of what he wanted to be true:

Napalming babies is bad. Starving the poor is wicked. Buying and selling each other is depraved. Those who stood up and died resisting Hitler, Stalin, Amin, and Pol Pot-and General Custer too-have earned salvation. Those who acquiesced deserve to be damned. There is in the world such a thing as evil. [All together now:] Sez who? God help us.

Modernists who want goodness usually feel that rational minds will reject such things as slavery, but they have not been able to establish rational reasons why this should be so. They take refuge in believing that people are simply good by nature or they slide on into post-modern nihilism. We are left with no basis for public authority, and as groups get farther from each other in our moral pluralism, they find it increasingly difficult to talk with each other in ways that make sense and can be understood. They find it increasinly difficult to keep the peace.

To keep the peace, humanities teachers avoid speaking with authority, which in practice means taking seriously viewpoints they think are corrupt. The hard issues we face as a people, if it’s reasonable to say we are a people, are not discussed in classrooms lest classrooms take on the ethical tone of those cable news shows where controversial topics are handled by letting representatives from all sides have their say. If bestiality becomes newsworthy, we will get someone who’s for it and someone who’s against it, and let them hash it out. Who is to judge?

The consumer, of course. We’re not quite to the point where we give up on truth, as can be seen when partisans of all sides try to get schools to teach the one correct view. Darwinists abhor the idea of allowing Intelligent Design to be taught alongside mainstream biology, because they feel doing so gives the yahoos credibility they should not have. Evangelicals do not want homosexuals presenting their views on marriage at school because they feel such ideas are the products of malformed consciences, and to present them to young people is to corrupt rather than to educate. In such disputes, no side can appeal to any authority recognized by the other side, so resolution is not possible. In time, even co-existence may seem too much to ask.

Because the schools have not yet become pure markets, we still struggle with politics, with notions of right and wrong. We argue about what is to be taught about sexuality, evolution, history and literature. But more and more, the arguments come down to, sez who? So within classrooms, the market approach grows apace. Teachers take the safe course, which is the cable news approach: all opinions are aired and no authoritative positions are taken. The old nation America continues to fade way into this new market state. In the market state people consume moral points of view just as they consume ethnic cuisines. They select from an array of opinions peddled without judgment and without authority by a media system that has no morality beyond that of ratings, which is to say, money.

Meanwhile, critiques of liberalism and modernity have spread from moral philosophers to the masses. Its incoherence has become fodder for radio talk shows. Its moment has past and I don’t think it can regain either the intellectual or the moral authority needed to govern.

The task for teachers today is not easy. We do not live in times when we can simply pass on the traditions, such as modernity, that we grew up with.


Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 12/26 at 07:52 PM
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©2004 Michael L. Umphrey
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