The Malta Independent 24 September 2017, Sunday

Teaching ethics and social responsibility

Kenneth Wain Sunday, 10 September 2017, 09:45 Last update: about 14 days ago

Until I read Mark A. Sammut’s contribution of 20th August (‘Kenneth Vain’) last Sunday morning, I had intended not to reply to his August 13th contribution. But reading it with its childish pun and cheap jibes changed my mind. For the record, I did not put myself on Wikipedia nor do I know who put me, I was neither consulted nor informed of the initiative, I have not contributed to its contents at all, nor do I keep any sort of track on it to ensure whether it is accurate or complete. 


But to come to the substance. Sammut had nothing to say about my main point about Kantian Ethics namely that he had misrepresented them entirely (maybe he took my advice to google ‘Kantian Ethics’), that he had misrepresented Kant entirely, and that his ‘hunch’ that the Ethics programme in our schools is Kantian is nonsense. Instead he picked on my objection to his fanciful representation of Kant’s supposed pessimistic ‘world-view’ (his supposed notion of humanity’s place in the world as ‘idiotic’), and advised me to take the matter up with Hegel. You know, one would think the ‘conservative’ Hegel is Sammut’s bread and butter, like the ‘liberal’ Kant!   

I am not going into Hegel. With Kant, he was a fervent Christian with a Christian world-view and a theistic Newtonian cosmology, his deontological ethics (particularly his belief in an objective moral law) are basically a secularised version of Christian ethics, and while he was pessimistic that happiness can be made the goal of the moral life (especially since it is such an indeterminate), this is very different from harbouring a pessimistic world-view. This scepticism towards the moral fruitfulness of the notion of happiness delivered a succession of German philosophers (most Kant critics) that found its epitome in Nietzsche, and then Adorno and Heidegger in more modern times. (Hegel himself, while he rejected the deontological basis of Kantian ethics, had no use for the concept of happiness, or for hedonism in general utilitarian or eudaemonist, either.)

Kant believed in the power of reason to produce tangible human progress in science, ethics and religion providing it recognises its own boundaries, which it is the object of philosophy, of metaphysics, to define. His ethical connection with liberalism relates to the centrality he gave to the notion of autonomy in his ethics, defined as the individual will’s compliance with a universal ‘law of reason’ conceived also as a law of nature. Politically, he favoured an enlightened monarchy such as he believed was at work in his day in the figure of Frederick the Great of Prussia, and had no time for despotic rule of whatever kind – his political connection with liberalism is his defence of free speech. His ethics also articulated the modern conception of humanity as a single moral community (a ‘kingdom of ends’) where each is bound to recognise the other essentially as a being with intrinsic moral worth or value, unenlightened maybe, but capable of enlightenment and not essentially an ‘idiot’ at all. This is the complete opposite of Sammut’s invented account of Kant – but then it is pretty obvious that he is no Kantian scholar.

“Browbeating” Sammut is not my intention; he is at liberty to disagree with me on any subject to his heart’s content. I would have had no trouble giving him a reasoned reply to his issue about the inclusion of life and death issues in the Ethics programme as I do below. It is his persistence in distorting the views of philosophers, name-dropping to suit his attack on the Ethics programme that I will not let him get away with. Despite his pretensions Sammut has not read Kant, even less has he read Richard Rorty. He just pretends he has to impress his readers with his erudition trusting that they are incapable of seeing through him. When he writes “whereas I am lukewarm about Kant, I viscerally dislike Rorty and his namby-pamby ideas about sentimentalism in ethics”, he wants to impress readers that he knows both philosophers well and therefore knows what he is talking about. His reckless audacity leaves me aghast.

It is just blatant slander to say of Rorty that he “believed that if you teach the younger generation about sentimentalism (sic!) then they will readily accept the basic tenets of liberalism (including abortion and euthanasia)”. Moreover, referring to Rorty’s supposed ‘sentimentalism’ as “balderdash” is a kind of arrogance that stems only from ignorance. One wonders what Sammut thinks his philosophical credentials are if he feels confident and qualified enough to dismiss a philosopher generally recognised as one of the most original and influential of the late 20th century in this way! But, in reality, Sammut is a fraud on Rorty as he is on Kant, albeit a bold one. Here’s why.

Rorty did endorse a sentimental education (not sentimentalism) based on his view that our feelings, desires and emotions are key influences (as they surely are) on our ethical behaviour, and that its tool therefore is not primarily reason but the imagination (using literary and other texts visual, auditory, and narrative). The major purpose of such an education in ethics is to help learners identify imaginatively with the pain and suffering, their humiliation, of others who are different by enabling them to see these others as ‘one of us’; and thereby as beings deserving our moral consideration. This is how Rorty would have us educate in solidarity, tolerance, and human rights – a key target for the Ethics programme. Do I endorse this intention and this method? Yes, and wish to see it used by our teachers. This endorsement contradicts describing me as Kantian. For Rorty liberals are those people “who think that cruelty is the worst thing we do.” (Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989) p.xv) And yes, I am a liberal of this kind too. Does this ‘basic tenet’ of liberalism of Rorty’s lead where Sammut speculates it does? No. Are these ideas ‘namby-pamby’? I’m not even going to answer that.

And so to his other challenge, his “main” objection, which, he says, I have avoided; that adolescents are not sufficiently mature to navigate life and death issues in the classroom without bringing great harm on themselves and on their society. In fact, I did answer it in the course of describing the Ethics programme last time, but let that pass. He thinks that the best way to avoid such ‘harm’ is by protecting the youngsters from the issues, by not broaching them and engaging with them in discussion. In other words, to act as if they did not exist and simply teach the students to obey the extant laws on abortion, euthanasia etc.  Discussing them as moral issues in the classroom, he thinks, will encourage the students to disregard if not break the law and amounts to “ideological brainwashing by stealth at best and outright debauchery at worst.” And this is supposed to serve the supposedly ‘neoliberal’ agenda I am covertly promoting. Anyone who wants an account of my politics can consult John Baldacchino and Kenneth Wain, Democracy without Confession (Allied Publishers 2013)). Neoliberal I certainly am not.

My statement of last time that the last module in Form 5 moves seamlessly into ‘Life and Death Issues’, meaning that it concludes an educational programme which will have prepared students to deal with issues of this kind comfortably, i.e. in an informed, critical, and confident way, didn’t satisfy him. This is because he believes teenagers are not old enough, mature enough, to be so prepared. Apart from the fact that he doesn’t support this belief with any evidence, these are the same teenagers we are agreeing today to be mature enough to vote at age 16; i.e. at the end of Form 5 or thereabouts, where their vote could influence issues which he claims them not to be mature enough to discuss with their teachers. Sammut could well reply that he would deny them the right to vote on the same grounds also. Which raises the question who he is imagining these teenagers to be? His answer is an embarrassment (one cannot describe it in any other way). Teen-agers, he says, are “half-children and half adults” – I don’t know what today’s psychologists would make of this one, but I won’t press the point! It seems that he understands adolescent psychology as much as he understands Kantian and Rortyan ethics!

His belief that protected from life and death issues in the classroom teenagers will not encounter them elsewhere is incredible. Any experienced teachers or parent will tell him that. If he hasn’t noticed that today’s teenagers live in a media saturated environment which exposes them to just about everything, he is living in a parallel universe. Youngsters today are very far from being the naïve and ignorant innocents he assumes them to be. You cannot protect them from life and death issues because these issues are with them all the time, advertised and discussed everywhere in the print and electronic media, not least the local ones. (Examples abound: the morning after pill which raises issues of contraception and abortion, the case for assisted suicide made to a parliamentary committee, IVF legislation and embryo freezing which raises issues about the moral status of the embryo, and so on.) The idea of protecting them from anything today is as realistic as that of banning them from the media also. Today only education can work. Youngsters are going to encounter the issues as controversial (which is what they are), and they will be interesting to them precisely for this reason.  

Sammut is naive if he thinks that many of them will not have encountered them closer to home. This has nothing to do with the efficiency or otherwise of the police but with reality. Teenagers may find themselves in situations where, unfortunately, suicide may seems to them the only escape, from cyber-bullying for instance, or where abortion is an escape from an unwanted pregnancy, or they may be troubled with the spectacle of a loved one suffering a drawn-out painful death, or of children dying in the Mediterranean sea or in Syria. Does he think that just teaching them what the law says on these issues will satisfy them? Conceding, as one must, that teenagers cannot be protected from issues of this kind, the alternatives are either to let them navigate the issues by themselves unaided or with friends or siblings, or maybe parents, or to provide them with the safe space of the Ethics classroom to navigate them with a trained and experienced adult, a teacher. Which is the more socially responsible position to take? Which position is the more responsive to the needs of the youngsters themselves? Incidentally, Sammut’s representation of how the Ethics programme is taught is as much a fruit of his fantasy as everything else he writes on the subject. 

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