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Tag Archive: Utilitarianism

My biggest regret isn’t that I didn’t learn Fortran, but that I didn’t study Dante

Posted: Saturday, January 7, 2012 (11:34 pm), by John W Gillis


Quote of the Day for Saturday, January 7th, 2012.

Virginia Postrel, posting at Bloomberg yesterday in a piece called How Art History Majors Power the U.S. Economy, on the misguided but largely unexamined tendency of many critics of higher education to apply a supposed realpolitik of utility to the evaluation of programs and curricula, becoming in the process shadows of the smug, short-sighted central planners they typically scorn:

The students who come out of school without jobs aren’t, for the most part, starry-eyed liberal arts majors but rather people who thought a degree in business, graphic design or nursing was a practical, job-oriented credential. Even the latest target of Internet mockery, a young woman the New York Times recently described as studying for a master’s in communication with hopes of doing public relations for a nonprofit, is in what she perceives as a job-training program.
[…]
The critics miss the enormous diversity of both sides of the labor market. They tend to be grim materialists, who equate economic value with functional practicality. In reality, however, a tremendous amount of economic value arises from pleasure and meaning — the stuff of art, literature, psychology and anthropology. These qualities, built into goods and services, increasingly provide the work for all those computer programmers. And there are many categories of jobs, from public relations to interaction design to retailing, where insights and skills from these supposedly frivolous fields can be quite valuable. The critics seem to have never heard of marketing or video games, Starbucks or Nike, or that company in Cupertino, California, the rest of us are always going on about. Technical skills are valuable in part because of the “soft” professions that complement them.

The commentators excoriating today’s students for studying the wrong subjects are pursuing certainty where none exists. Like the health fanatics convinced that every case of cancer must be caused by smoking or a bad diet, they want to believe that good people, people like them, will always have good jobs and that today’s unemployed college grads are suffering because they were self-indulgent or stupid. But plenty of organic chemists can testify that the mere fact that you pursued a technical career that was practical two or three decades ago doesn’t mean you have job security today.
[…]
The skills that still matter are the habits of mind I honed in the classroom: how to analyze texts carefully, how to craft and evaluate arguments, and how to apply microeconomic reasoning, along with basic literacy in accounting and statistics. My biggest regret isn’t that I didn’t learn Fortran, but that I didn’t study Dante.

While Postrel focuses primarily on what we could call the economy of institutional higher education – and makes some excellent points concerning the unexamined potential of unintended consequences stemming from the growing chorus of calls for the marginalization of humanities studies for the sake of promoting technical learning – she opens up some other aspects of the problem as well, which seem lost on most of the respondents in the combox. The whole idea of judging education for its practical utility and economic results reflects a deep poverty of understanding what education is all about – moreover, of what human life is all about. It’s not that I think professional training is not important, just that it’s not education, and it does not serve the economies of either training or education to conflate or confuse them.

One commenter correctly notes that our institutions of higher learning have become outsourced training providers for the business world, and what he doesn’t explicitly add to that is that these training costs are wholly socialized from the perspective of businesses that benefit from it (the costs being moved onto a combination of the trainees, the government [taxpayers], and other grant providers). I would argue a step further: that these institutions have largely been balkanized by ever-increasing federal government funding over the past 65 or so years into production facilities geared to produce an ideologically compliant and functionally useful citizenry supporting the on-going consolidation of the power and wealth of the governing class. This could not be farther from the purposes of education or its institutional manifestation. Going back to Dante would surely be a step in the right direction, though we could always start with Newman.

It is only human to be exhilarated if one thinks one is riding on the crest of the future.

Posted: Saturday, January 22, 2011 (10:47 pm), by John W Gillis


Quote of the Day for Saturday, January 22nd, 2011:

Sociologist Peter L. Berger, concluding his 1970 book, A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural:

I would like to emphasize once more that anyone who approaches religion with an interest in its possible truth, rather than in this or that aspect of its social manifestations, would do well to cultivate a measure of indifference in the matter of empirical prognoses. History brings out certain questions of truth, makes certain answers more or less accessible, constructs and disintegrates plausibility structures. But the historical  course of the question about transcendence cannot, of itself, answer the question. It is only human to be exhilarated if one thinks one is riding on the crest of the future. All too often, however, such exhilaration gives way to the sobering recognition that what looked like a mighty wave of history was only a marginal eddy in the stream of events. For the theologian, if not for the social scientist, I would therefore suggest a moratorium on the anxious query as to just who it is that has modernity by the short hair. Theology must begin and end with the question of truth.

I’m spending quite a bit of time lately pondering what went wrong in Western society during the 1960s – 1970s, especially as it relates to the breakdowns which the spirit of the age precipitated in the Catholic Church. It’s a complicated matter. Reading popular theologians of the period tends to put my stomach in knots, and Berger here captures much of the reason why: the politicization of even theology in an academic environment infatuated with modern ideas of history, in what Henri de Lubac, near the end of his Splendor of the Church, identified as “the most subversive temptation” within the Church: an anthropocentrism that loses sight of the transcendent goal of the Christian faith. Theology, indeed, must begin and end with the question of the truth, not with inquiries into fashionable notions of either “relevance,” “inevitability,” or social utility.

Only If Liberty Is Beautiful… Can It Really Be Worth the Courageous Risk of Life

Posted: Monday, December 6, 2010 (8:29 pm), by John W Gillis


Quote of the Day for Monday, December 6th, 2010:

With the Thanksgiving holiday still lingering in the air, I found this excellent article on the continuing value of America’s Puritan forebears over at the always worthwhile First Principles Journal site. Written by Peter Augustine Lawler, it is entitled: Praising the Puritans:

Because the Puritan conception of political freedom wasn’t based on the apolitical, selfish, rights-obsessed, and duty negligent Lockean individual, it both not only demanded virtuous civic participation but also connected political freedom with the creature’s charitable duty to the unfortunate. It set a high or virtuous standard for political competence and incorruptibility, and it didn’t seem to need to rely on institutions with teeth in them to restrain the spirit of faction and boundless ambition of leaders.

Whatever Puritan government was, it was not another name for a band of robbers, just as Puritan freedom could never be confused with another name for nothing less to lose. The Virginians’ view of freedom was finally merely useful or materialistic; it is the liberty of beings with interests and nothing more. The Puritans distinguished themselves by their “beautiful definition of freedom,” “a civil, a moral, a federal liberty,” “a liberty for that only which is just and good.” That’s the liberty for which it makes sense “to stand with the hazard of your very lives.” Only if liberty is beautiful or for the display of the most admirable and virtuous human characteristics can it really be worth the courageous risk of life.

The citizens of New England took care of the poor, maintained the highways, kept careful records and registries, secured law and order, and, most of all, provided public education for everyone—through high school when possible. The justification of universal education was that everyone should be able to read the Bible to know the truth about God and his duties to Him for himself. Nobody should be deceived by having to rely on the word of others; they had the democratic or Cartesian distrust of authority without the paralyzing and disorienting rejection of all authority. That egalitarian religious understanding, of course, was the source of the American popular enlightenment that had so many practical benefits.

readersmIn contrasting the worldviews of two early colonial communities within what would become the United States (Virginia and the New England Puritans), Lawler sketches out a sound defense of the much maligned New Englanders, showing how their characteristic reading of man’s place in the world laid the groundwork for much of what came to be the best of the American genius, and how it could provide an important corrective today to some of the more narcissistic and utilitarian tendencies that threaten to undermine the American community.

HT to Joe Carter over at FirstThings for the link.

A Vicious Conception of the Whole Purpose of Education

Posted: Tuesday, November 23, 2010 (5:58 am), by John W Gillis


Quote of the Day for Tuesday, Nov 23, 2010:

An encore: J. Gresham Machen, this time writing in The Presbyterian, February 7, 1918, on the waning of Greek & Hebrew knowledge within the (protestant) ministry of his day (quoted from Dr. Rod Decker’s NT Resources Blog):

jgmachen

“The real trouble with the modern exaltation of practical studies at the expense of the humanities is that it is based upon a vicious conception of the whole purpose of education. The modern conception of the purpose of education is that education is merely intended to enable a man to live, but not to give him those things in life that make life worth living.”

It would be easy to say that nothing much has changed in the past 90 years, but I think this modernizing, flattening, utilitarian tendency in educational (mal)practice has actually been accelerating – and I don’t think that assertion would meet much serious contention. Modern education exists to equip a man to make a living, but not to make a life. And I don’t see any improvements on the horizon.

People often ask me what I’m "going to do with" my Theology degree, should I manage to complete it. Well, I’ll give thanks for the gift of time to pursue it… Will that suffice?

Body/Soul Dualism, the Commodification of Man, and the Contradiction of Death

Posted: Friday, July 31, 2009 (11:16 pm), by John W Gillis


As a rule, I like Jeff Jacoby’s columns, but every now and then he comes out with something I find downright unconscionable. His July 5th Boston Globe op-ed promoting the marketing of human organs is an unfortunate example. The recent liver transplant of celebrity tech guru Steve Jobs having roiled again the waters of the debate over the “fairness” of our current organ donation system, Jacoby has added his voice to the rising tide of liberal, utilitarian opinion promising free market “solutions” to the “problem” of death.

I’ve read a number of these proposals over the years, and they all seem to involve the same three basic errors. As can be surmised from the title of this piece, I see these errors as involving misunderstandings of the nature of man as a being both physical and spiritual, in ontological unity; the fundamental and unique character of human subjectivity in differentiation from other material objects (or ‘what are people for?’ – to steal a phrase from Wendell Berry); and the inability of mankind to cheat death (or “what is not given to man” – to steal a phrase from Leo Tolstoy).

The premise of these proposals is that there are currently many people dying from organ failure who could be spared death if more organs were available for transplant, and that the economy of transplant organs would produce at least part of the requisite supply if it were freed from legal constraint, to function more or less unimpeded in the liberal model of supply and demand, therein saving lives. The thinking is that everything else is for sale, after all, including all the other products and services involved in actually transplanting an organ – the organ donor is the only non-compensated person in the entire chain, and that not only introduces market inefficiencies, but may even be unjust.

The most fundamental moral or ethical dilemma that arises from these proposals stems from the fuzzy — and yet now widely appealed-to — notion of human dignity, which itself has its origins in the recognition of the sacredness of human life. Meanwhile, sacrality is a concept that is all but alien to modernity (my spell-checker didn’t even recognize it as an English word when I typed it!). Jacoby, like most any writer promoting blasphemy, marginalizes the matter of sacrality, conflating the transmission of human organs with the broad vista of “medical care” ( a concept which does not share with organ transmission the very characteristic at issue), and substituting utilitarian arguments about “needless” deaths.

Ethical concerns also arise around the prospect of the rich and powerful exploiting the poor under such a system. Jacoby, ironically, writes these off as resulting from misguided altruism (but see, for example, this column from University of Minnesota Bioethicist Jeffrey P. Kahn, discussing a JAMA article on organ sales in India, where it is legal). Though I am convinced that Jacoby is actually the one suffering here from a misguided altruism (and am not in the least surprised by the realities come to light in India, as per the linked article), I am not particularly interested in this angle of the argument, as it is clearly a secondary issue: the unjust character of any specific policy implementation is wholly subordinate to (and inevitably predicated upon) the immoral nature of the proposal in and of itself (in other words, it is secondary because there is simply no right way to do a wrong thing, so there’s not a lot of point in harping on method, or even consequences).

Both of these areas of ethical concern refer directly to the second area of error I am pointing out: the commodification of man; the failure to adequately distinguish between the human being himself, and those things which are produced by man. When the term “human dignity” is used properly, it refers precisely to the ontological distinction between the human person (a subject) and an objective reality that lacks subjectivity, or personhood, or a spiritual soul. The dignity that humans distinctly possess within the material world derives from our unique spiritual character, which is the capacity to love rationally – or to choose love. The violation of humanity consists in asserting that that subject can be objectified, and treated as a thing.

The idea of the wrongness of treating people as things is widely acknowledged, even among people who don’t put a lot of thought into moral issues. That does not mean that it can’t be (and isn’t often) trumped by utilitarian arguments, but at least the notion is readily available to most people. So when folks like Jacoby argue that the human being (or human parts) should be a commodity, because everything else is for sale, the argument runs against the grain of an intuitive sense that it is wrong to treat people as things. Or, to be more precise, even if we allow that everything should be for sale (a dubious proposition in and of itself), people are not things.

This is the moral or ethical problem with the human parts market proposal, but it is not the root of the problem, because the moral error is itself grounded upon an inadequate understanding of human nature, or what it means to be a human being. It is furthermore, in this case, driven by a culturally pervasive but irrational view of death, but that is a point to be taken up later. It can be clearly demonstrated by example how the “commodification of man” proposal fails the moral test by noticing how the “everything else is for sale” argument not only meets intuitive resistance to treating people as things, it also runs smack into the fact that, no, not everything is for sale – or at least it shouldn’t be.

peopleforsale1 For examples, we have only to look at slavery and prostitution to see that society does not accept as morally licit the notion that anything can be bought and sold: people cannot morally be bought and sold. Sure, there are those who will argue that prostitution should be legal, just as there have been many who never flinched at legal slavery, and we have our chorus today calling for the buying and selling of human body parts, but civilization has come to see that people cannot morally be themselves reduced to commodities, and this insight is the genius behind the modern ideas of human dignity and human rights, being long anticipated in the ancient idea of tsedaqah (righteousness), or what we owe one another as fellow beings created in the image of God.

If someone who despises slavery promotes the marketing of body parts (whether for medical purposes or sexual purposes), he most likely has fallen into one of the two popular errors concerning the nature of man: naturalism, or (much more commonly) dualism. In a follow-up post, I will explore how slavery, prostitution, and organ sales share a common mode of unrighteousness in the degradation of the self, properly understood. This is no trivial matter, as it is the unrighteousness itself, not this it that particular expression of it, that is a growing menace to a human civilization that has largely succeeded in forgetting that righteousness comes from God, and is rooted in right relationship with Him. We must not allow our “misguided altruism ” to feed the beast of unrighteousness.

Religious Coping Superstitions

Posted: Monday, March 30, 2009 (10:17 pm), by John W Gillis


A couple weeks ago, I came across an article on Boston.com that really struck me as being foreign to the world I live in. "Patients with strong faith more likely to get aggressive end-of-life care" looked at a Journal of the American Medical Association article that explored the influence of religious faith on end-of-life medical decisions by terminal patients.

What startles me in the writing is the apparent assumption that religiosity among these men and women was not something constitutive of them as persons, but a selected process of "coping." The clinicians quoted in the story seem fascinated by what they call "religious coping," expecting that some kind of objective analysis of the phenomenon will yield a "better understanding" of how it factors into decision making. These patients, essentially, were viewed not as persons of particular personal character, but as a sample of concept-consuming human laboratory rats who "used religion to some extent to cope with their illness."

Aside from the sadly comical image of clueless empiricists standing around a scene of deep human meaning with clipboards, kind of like they’re trying to measure changes in friction, for example, to explain human sexuality, I’m left with the disturbing realization that these people see "coping" as the fundamental human act. Everything is a tactic to be utilized in a complex story of universal manipulation. Even the human being as a subject is nothing more than the object of external phenomena that must be "coped with," for there is, in this barren and shallow worldview, no truly interior life.

Of course, the belief that reality can be manipulated is the very heart of superstition…

Even the chaplain gets into the act, finding “diverse choices” associated with “high levels of religious coping.” This makes her almost a dissenter to these “findings.”

I’m sorry, but I just can’t imagine entrusting someone I love to these imbeciles during his or her final days. I just don’t know how I’d cope.