Sam Smith – News of over a third an increase in working age suicides and alcohol deaths in recent years is a reminder of something that has been puzzling me for a long time: whatever happened to leaders who showed us a direction of understanding, hope, morality, and purpose? Have they vanished or just not invited to appear on TV?
Having been in the news business for six decades, I’ve noticed not only the change but also the fact that it’s not something folks even talk about. Yet I wonder from time to time: could Martin Luther King do today what he did during his lifetime? Would CNN have bothered with him? Would MSNBC hire Walter Cronkite? And whatever happened to those professors who used to appear regularly on news shows?
Of course, it’s not just the media that’s changed. Education has lost interest in ethics and morality as well. Programs like Common Core and No Child Left Behind have shoved them out the door even though you can’t be a decent grownup without dealing with them. William Isdale of the University of Queensland in Australia describes it well:
In his book Essays on Religion and Education, the Oxford philosopher R.M. Hare argued that ethics can be taught in schools, because it involves learning a language with a determinate method, “such that, if you understand what a moral question is, you must know which arguments are legitimate, in the same way in which, in mathematics, if you know what mathematics is, you know that certain arguments in that field are legitimate and certain arguments not.”
As Hare argues, teaching morality is not about inculcating substantive positions. The purpose isn’t necessarily to answer questions, but to raise them, and at the same time to provide students with a method (rules, or boundaries) in accordance with which the questions must be discussed. “As in mathematics, having taught them the language,” Hare said, “we can leave them to do the sums.”
So, whilst there may never be consensus on the ‘right answer’ in ethics, this is not an insuperable hurdle. Ultimately all secular-ethicists are engaged in the same task: reasoning and reflecting on our intuitions, principles and values. This is what teaching ethics in schools should involve. Secular ethics is about challenging students to provide reasons for their views, and to counter the reasons of others without invoking flawed arguments or fallacies.
Imagine how some might react differently, say, to the bizarre ethical perspective of Donald Trump if they had been taught how do confront ethical issues better back in the eighth grade. If they had learned how to differentiate an obvious con from a worthily debatable position.
I recall one of the ways I was taught this: a class segment on the manipulations of advertising. For a young teenager, what a much more appealing way to approach the English language than reading Shakespeare and yet a useful one as well because for the rest of your life you would be far more absorbed in the former than in the latter.
Then, in the years before television took hold, there were comic books, which not only taught you how to avoid con men like Trump but gave you moral heroes in the alternative.
Today, even MSNBC and CNN introduce the young, as well as their parents, to a world in which the most respected honor is power, especially power in one city, Washington. While a few, like Morning Joe, invite professors and thoughtful authors on their shows, and the other day Joy Reid actually had two black ministers talking about the South, for the most part the answers to the questions of life are asked of politicians, journalists, entertainers and corporate types. It is no accident that for the first time in American history, people have been seriously discussing a potential presidential race between two high ratings television personalities: Donald Trump and Oprah Winfrey.
A big factor has also been the growth of corporatism in America, the idea that government’s role is to serve business rather than citizens. It happened in Italy and it became something called fascism. We’re not there yet, but thanks to things like Citizens United, we’re moving in that direction.
I have sometimes argued that the decline of America can be blamed in part on airport bookstores, where too many of the shelves offer advice on how to “succeed” in a corporatized society. If you think I exaggerate, look for books by a professor, minister or philosopher and count the difference in numbers. The truth is that the major advice we’re getting is how to survive in a country that no longer listens to its best minds and hearts.
And even this seventh day agnostic can admit that the decline of religion has played a part in all of this. Obviously, religious practice has varied over time from contemptible manipulation of the soul to the celebration of morality and ethics, but a church remains one of the few places Americans can go each week and be pressed to wonder whether what they are doing is right.
Back in the Sixties, for example, I had several close ministerial friends. They never questioned my faith or lack thereof, but shared with me what we could do with what we believed. Our common faith was in action.
And it doesn’t need to be in church. I took a break from writing this article for my daily time at the piano playing a bunch of old songs and it suddenly dawned on me how many of the tunes I have been singing all these years raised ethical issues: “If you’re gong to play the horses and waste all your dough, don’t run to me baby when the horse doesn’t show. . .Just keep draggin’ your little red wagon along.”
The basic truth is that you can’t get through life well without considering such issues. It’s how we got into civil rights and out of Vietnam. And it starts with having places where you can talk and think with others about what’s right and wrong.
If we don’t talk about morality and ethics, we won’t practice even a imperfect version of them and we will grow into more perfect prisoners of the narcissistic, immoral and corrupt. What we now consider characteristics of an evil presidency will turn into the story of our lives.