Bring on the Ketchup!

This week’s question about whether I consider myself a consequentialist or a deontologist was an interesting one, since it was basically asking me why I consider the things I do “right” or “wrong”. For me, the answer is consequentialist, and it was an easy choice for me to make. Quickly, to define:

Consequentialism: the consequences of one’s conduct are the ultimate basis for any judgment about the rightness or wrongness of that conduct

Deontological ethics: judge the morality of an action based on that action’s adherence to a rule or rules. Also duty- or obligation-based ethics; the rules bind you to your duty

Personally, I am not much of a rule-follower. I dislike being told what to do based on someone else’s view of what is right or wrong, because I feel that I can make that judgment call myself. However, there are rules I follow—not because they are rules and I should follow them, but because if I don’t follow them, there are consequences. In my mind, consequences—for others or for myself; e.g. if I killed someone, the consequence would be that person’s death and the hurt I dished out to their loved ones—are the primary motivating factor in life. I go to school, because as a consequence, I will have a degree with which I will have a job that I enjoy. I don’t steal, because that would be taking something someone else worked hard for, or received as a gift, which I have no right to. I often jaywalk, because although there is a law against it, I understand that the consequences of that action are my own (and it’s not like I jump out in front of a moving car).  In II Samuel, the consequences of David’s actions are that his child is killed because he broke the rules. While this would make more sense to me if the consequences had been laid out ahead of time rather than done as a reactive measure, David should have known that what he chose to do was hurtful to others and would have a negative impact on their lives and his. In a classroom, I think a consequentialistic approach is more effective than a deontological approach. Children do not follow rules because they are there (maybe some do). What’s more important is that children understand that their actions can have consequences—both positive and negative—and they need to be aware of these consequences. As teachers, we should be teaching them the pathways their choices can take, and help them learn to make positive choices so that everyone benefits rather than hurting others. In All the King’s Men, Cass Mastern made some choices that were against the rules. He didn’t think about it more than that—he knew it was wrong, but he didn’t understand why. Only after Duncan Trice, his friend, killed himself and Annabelle and he went down their own individual paths of guilt and destruction, did he realize that his affair with Annabelle has consequences, and they were harmful to his friend, his lover, and himself. In a classroom and in real life, students need to be aware of these pathways before they happen, not after. In The Abolition of Man, Lewis describes a situation with eugenics where humans are changing the fate of their children without realizing that they are really taking away their children’s power over nature. He seems to take a more deontological approach, where he says that those who follow the rules of the Tao will succeed in having a better future for their children. However, I see it as those who are selecting traits for future generations (in a more modern sense, I’m thinking of genetic manipulation) are attempting to overpower nature without understanding the consequences of their actions (which Lewis believes will be the “abolition of man”). They don’t know the pathway they are on, only the “rules” of society. I recently heard a funny analogy about the difference between a proactive and a reactive approach, and I think it can apply here: when you order fries at a restaurant, would you rather the waiter anticipate your desire for ketchup and ask you before (or bring it with your fries), or would you rather have them ask you as they bring your fries, and give you ketchup after they have all gone cold? Though obviously less extreme than Cass Mastern’s case (his was a bit too extreme), the point is the same: kids need to be able to see the positive effect of bringing the ketchup and the negative effect of not bringing it, and be able to make these choices for themselves.

The Tao in Moral Education

Although I can see how people might think the opposite, I do not believe that the Ten Commandments are a form of what Lewis refers to as the Tao. Perhaps some of them are, such as “you shall not murder” or “you shall not steal”. The Tao in The Abolition of Man is not a set of values from one religion or another, but rather a collection of common morals agreed upon by societies, and many of the commandments are not something you’d see across cultures. For example, “you shall not covet your neighbor’s house”. While the other commandments described actions you should not take, this one describes thoughts you should not have. However, in US culture, it is often widely accepted that thoughts of something you want are fine, so long as you don’t act upon them (or if you do, do so within the bounds of morality). One thing I found interesting about Exodus, and all the rules God imposed on his people, was that he was very explicit in many things. Though most of the rules hardly apply to a school setting, it put me in mind of something I was reading for another class. In Teaching with Love and Logic, Funk (1995) describes a situation where a school had a rule for everything. They thought they had covered every aspect of misbehavior by the students, until one day a boy threw a dead fish at a girl, and there was no rule that stated that “boys can’t throw dead fish at girls”. This approach, having an explicit rule for everything, can be confining, and it’s easy to work around. For example, in All the King’s Men, Hugh Miller—considered an “honorable” man, though he was considered thus by Jack, whose judgment I question—believes that doing the right thing involves following the rules set down by the American government. These explicitly state what should be done in a situation regarding Byram White and his misuse of his political position. However, Willie Talos (Stark) finds a way to work around the law by forcing Byram into a position where he should do as Talos asks lest he lose his place in politics (which he apparently wants). Willie, despite his questionable morals, I still think at this point in his career intends to do right by the people, and believes he is doing so. He is guided more by a set of moral principles (so he thinks), and these are more difficult to break. In the classroom and in life, I think this is a more reasonable approach. I think it’s easier to break God’s rules in Exodus than it would have been had he stated “You shall respect your neighbor, and be kind” or something (which are both rules I have had in my own classroom), and in the classroom it’s easier for students to break “You shall not throw a dead fish at a girl” (maybe they’ll throw a live one next time!) than “be kind”. Though I will add that three of the Ten Commandments are values I personally hold (don’t murder, steal, or lie, essentially). I mentioned in my study guide that I read a book somewhere where a character thinks that stealing is the ultimate sin. To murder is to steal life, to embarrass someone (or bully them) is to steal their dignity and comfort. We all have basic human rights, which are protected by what Lewis calls the Tao. These are basic rules for living in society. He claims that to make an argument against the Tao requires use of the Tao itself, and therefore invalid, which means it’s basically a code we all follow. There is some overlap between the Tao and the Ten Commandments, though again, I don’t think one is the other.