Thursday, February 05, 2009

Kant, "Culture," College, and Wall Street

Deneen is just wonderful. Here he discusses an Inside Higher Education article which addresses a book by a Notre Dame prof, S. Blum.

What caught my attention was the article’s title: “It’s the Culture, not Morality.” What the anthropologist – Susan Blum – argues is that there are deeper cultural reasons that large numbers of students cheat that are separable from moral considerations


This is an extraordinary claim that it seems only possible to make in the context of the particular “culture” reigning on today’s campuses. The study and teaching of Ethics is now a distinct domain of a particular subfield of philosophy (or, a distillation of this field that is then given various “applied” forms, e.g., “Business Ethics.”). Alternatively, the study and teaching about Culture falls largely to Departments of Anthropology and Sociology, the former which in particular is governed by the reigning disciplinary assumptions of Cultural Relativism. Morality – the effort to discover the Right – is wholly separable from culture - a governing particular worldview that happens to exist and can’t be subjected to questions of Right or Wrong.

Some will recall that I am no fan of the "ethics" czar-ette at Children's Hospital. Now you know why.

Drawn largely from the overwhelming influence of Kant, Ethics is a largely seen as a domain of decision-making, the weighing of various considerations that go into making a decision about particular cases.... Ethics is largely shorn of any cultural considerations whatsoever, but rather exists in the realm of the mind – deliberation shorn of context


...culture exists and one brings to bear imperialistic or authoritarian or extra-cultural considerations if one attempts to critique or raise questions about some forms of cultural practice. In our division of academic disciplines, it’s obvious that one is either speaking of “culture” or “ethics,” but that the two are separate and distinct.

And that is a problem how, exactly? Well, consider this:

...properly understood, culture is the locus of ethics and morality. [Note the conjunction "and."] Culture exists in significant part to transmit to new generations various norms and standards that become part of the background assumptions of each new generation. Properly understood, culture is morality – it is its necessary precondition, the means of moral conveyance and transmission. Morality is approached not as a course requirement in the core curriculum, but as part of the deepest fabric of everyday lived life ...


A properly constituted culture is a moral “system,” albeit not systematized or reliant upon constant conscious deliberation or rational deduction. Indeed, a “culture” that regards “ethics” as separable or separate from culture is a broken culture, just as a “culture” that increasingly resorts to law or official deterrence reflects the loss of the central vitality of culture

Recall: The more corrupt the republic, the more numerous the laws. ~Tacitus, Annals

Deneen is legitimately concerned.

The particular "culture" to which teachers and educators need to understand and accomodate themselves to is the all-too-familiar "culture" fostered and supported not only by the contemporary academy, but a "culture" that teaches immorality as a way of life. As reported by the article’s author (based upon interviews with students at Notre Dame - a Catholic university - students are driven to cheat by expectations fostered by the dominant "culture":

"In terms of explaining student culture, Blum uses many of the student interviews to show how education has become to many students more an issue of credentialing and getting ahead than of any more idealistic love of learning

And where do the "credentialed" go?

That "next step" for a large number of students who regularly cheated to "get ahead" was doubtless those many firms on Wall Street (and their various cosmopolitan counterparts) where those who could cut corners received many of the greatest rewards. We should not see this student "culture" as separate or separable from the "culture" that has led to our current economic and deeper moral crisis: the mentality that encouraged widespread cheating as a means of achieving success at "the next step" was a deeply ingrained feature of the modern American psyche of success

Of course, that "culture" is not endemic to all. But it is present in a measurably large minority. And it is visible, recently.

The shenanigans of our "elites" or "leaders" - Geithner, Daschle, et. al., is only a continuation of the widespread behavior of our class of elite students. In the meantime, we eschew the language of "character" for the language of "ethics," above all because character is a quality of person and soul that is embedded in a culture, while ethics is a detachable set of rationalizations that say very little about the sort of person that we are or the condition of our soul

Deneen's conclusion:

To repair or foster a culture or ethic of responsible adulthood is the great challenge of our time...We must indeed begin the long, slow, and difficult process of repair, and our time of crisis provides a very salutary moment for that process to begin. Still, we must see clearly the obstacles that lie before us, beginning with our own complicity in the ills we might otherwise decry and seek to blame on this or that malevolent actor. The repair of culture will begin with the effort to achieve a proper ordering of our own souls, and from there an encouragement of a proper ordering - and a genuine education - of the next generation


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