Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Don't bother to tell me how you feel about a topic

Once in an elective political science class I asked a student to defend a statement. She responded that she had a right to her opinion. I agreed but added that if she expressed her opinion aloud she should be prepared to defend it. She was offended and I had been too abrupt. Thenceforward I delivered that speech at the beginning of the semester rather than challenging an individual. I was reminded of that experience when I read this lecture by law professor Adam J. MacLeod, delivered to a class before a unit on legal reasoning. It is wonderful. From MacLeod:
Before I can teach you how to reason, I must first teach you how to rid yourself of unreason. For many of you have not yet been educated. You have been dis-educated. To put it bluntly, you have been indoctrinated. Before you learn how to think you must first learn how to stop unthinking.

Reasoning requires you to understand truth claims, even truth claims that you think are false or bad or just icky. Most of you have been taught to label things with various “isms” which prevent you from understanding claims you find uncomfortable or difficult. ....

...[E]xcept when describing an ideology, you are not to use a word that ends in “ism.” Communism, socialism, Nazism, and capitalism are established concepts in history and the social sciences, and those terms can often be used fruitfully to gain knowledge and promote understanding. “Classism,” “sexism,” “materialism,” “cisgenderism,” and (yes) even racism are generally not used as meaningful or productive terms, at least as you have been taught to use them. Most of the time, they do not promote understanding.

In fact, “isms” prevent you from learning. You have been taught to slap an “ism” on things that you do not understand, or that make you feel uncomfortable, or that make you uncomfortable because you do not understand them. But slapping a label on the box without first opening the box and examining its contents is a form of cheating. Worse, it prevents you from discovering the treasures hidden inside the box. For example, when we discussed the Code of Hammurabi, some of you wanted to slap labels on what you read which enabled you to convince yourself that you had nothing to learn from ancient Babylonians. But when we peeled off the labels and looked carefully inside the box, we discovered several surprising truths. In fact, we discovered that Hammurabi still has a lot to teach us today.

One of the falsehoods that has been stuffed into your brain and pounded into place is that moral knowledge progresses inevitably, such that later generations are morally and intellectually superior to earlier generations, and that the older the source the more morally suspect that source is. There is a term for that. It is called chronological snobbery. Or, to use a term that you might understand more easily, “ageism.” ....

...[Y]ou should not bother to tell us how you feel about a topic. Tell us what you think about it. If you can’t think yet, that’s O.K.. Tell us what Aristotle thinks, or Hammurabi thinks, or H.L.A. Hart thinks. Borrow opinions from those whose opinions are worth considering. As Aristotle teaches us in the reading for today, men and women who are enslaved to the passions, who never rise above their animal natures by practicing the virtues, do not have worthwhile opinions. Only the person who exercises practical reason and attains practical wisdom knows how first to live his life, then to order his household, and finally, when he is sufficiently wise and mature, to venture opinions on how to bring order to the political community. ....

Disagreement is not expressing one’s disapproval of something or expressing that something makes you feel bad or icky. To really disagree with someone’s idea or opinion, you must first understand that idea or opinion. When Socrates tells you that a good life is better than a life in exile you can neither agree nor disagree with that claim without first understanding what he means by “good life” and why he thinks running away from Athens would be unjust. Similarly, if someone expresses a view about abortion, and you do not first take the time to understand what the view is and why the person thinks the view is true, then you cannot disagree with the view, much less reason with that person. You might take offense. You might feel bad that someone holds that view. But you are not reasoning unless you are engaging the merits of the argument, just as Socrates engaged with Crito’s argument that he should flee from Athens. ....
It is all worth reading, perhaps especially if you are a teacher.