Teaching the Greeks and Critical Thinking - Part 4: How Greek Ethics Conquered the Western World

One of the purposes of a humanities course is to stimulate critical thinking. It need not always be a free-fire zone of narrowly focused rat-a-tat questions, but can be a leisurely ramble through a laid-back moodscape that poses a question in search of an answer. Let me give an example. I wanted to explain how Western civilization began to think about moral behavior since the Greeks, specifically with Plato and his famous theory of the World of Forms, those eternal Essences that exist beyond time and space, of which the "real world" and everything in it are pale reflections.

Everything in our world that is good, true, and beautiful reflects these eternal Essences of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful in a transcendent world beyond here and now. This is a realm of ultimate standards, everlasting perfection, the eternal North Star which guides us amidst the distractions of this world. To the degree that we become one with this spiritual world, we draw closer to who we ideally are.

All the virtues we practice, like prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance, are but the shadows of the eternal Forms of Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance that exist in this immutable realm. All deeds are virtuous, therefore, to the extent that they reflect the eternal Essences of the particular virtue we strive to embody. There are also the Essences of Man and Woman, Horse and Bird, Tree and Table, and everything else that exists in our world.

This vision of a higher, purer, and nobler reality has cast a hypnotic spell over the Western soul since Plato and is the basis for the belief in an objective moral order that permeated all of Greek philosophy for centuries, so that mortals need only adhere to its moral absolutes to lead moral lives. This way of conceiving morality suffuses Stoicism, Neoplatonism, Christianity (Augustine), medieval Scholasticism, and later centuries until modern times. Let us call this theory Platonism.

Centuries later a reaction set in, when some claimed that no such realm existed, and that the codes of morality that exist in our world are only man-made and differ from age to age and place to place. Let us call this Moral Relativism.

Finally, there developed a middle position that claimed that, although there is such an objective moral order, it's up to each individual to decide whether its rules apply to each situation since every situation is different. Let us call this Situationism or Situation Ethics.

This brief summary took a few minutes to explain and was intended to give students some idea of what was to follow. I then asked students, "How would you go about proving which of these three theories was true: (1) that there is such an objective, eternal moral order that never changes and that you would have to live by its rules without exception to lead a good life; or (2) that this absolute moral order exists, but it was up to you to decide whether these moral principles were to be applied in each situation; or (3) that no such eternal moral order existed at all, and that moral laws are man-made and relative to time and place?"

I repeated the question to let students digest what was said, and waited for a response. Absolute silence. Then I continued, "This is the question we'll be living with for almost two weeks as we work on the next four assignments. The first three will deal with each of these three theories. Each assignment will begin with a description of the theory, followed by a number of objections. Your job will be to critically evaluate each of these objections to see whether they're valid objections or fallacies. If the objection is sound, briefly state why, but if it's a fallacy, give its technical name, and what's wrong with the reasoning employed."

The Assignments

I then gave students the four assignments and asked them to take a few minutes and read them in silence. (See here for assignments.) I talked students through all four assignments and answered their questions. By way of background, for the first six weeks of the course, I had given students a technical grounding in fallacy detection so that they could readily identify fallacies by name, whether they were written or spoken.

There was also training in statement classification, which divides statements into four different groups (facts, value judgments, explanatory and metaphysical hypotheses); explains the nature of each group; and shows the degree to which statements within each group are empirically verifiable. This skill enables students to analyze a chain of argumentation and determine precisely where its logic breaks down due to an unprovable statement. (It goes without saying that any statement that makes a claim in any of these four groups could be true, but the question is whether it could be proven to be true.) Both fallacy detection and statement classification are essential tools in analyzing and undermining an argument.

You may also have noticed that the assignments asked about the emotional advantages and disadvantages of holding each of these three theories. These questions were included not as examples of an ad hominem fallacy to impugn someone's holding the theory because of the emotional reasons that might predispose one to either accept or reject it, but simply to alert students to the degree to which emotional reasons may unknowingly induce someone to accept or reject that theory. Obviously, someone can hold a theory for an emotional reason because it brings comfort so that one wants to believe it, but wishing it were true is not evidence.

Assignments Later Discussed

After the four assignments were completed, I waited another week for the dust to settle, and then we discussed whether the theories' objections were valid or fallacious; whether the theories themselves were empirically demonstrable; whether any of the three views would be more apt to be accepted today by the general public; and whether rational or emotional reasons would prompt the acceptance or rejection of these theories. (For details, see assignments.) I simply asked these questions, and students discussed their reactions as everyone listened.

Toward the end of the discussion, I made two final points. (1) Although a theory could not be proven to be true owing to possible fallacies supporting it, that wouldn't mean that the theory was necessarily false. It still could be true, even though one hadn't as yet found a valid argument to support it. However, the claim that it was true would be weakened until one had found such an argument.

(2) Theories which are beyond empirical verification may be true despite the fact that they can be neither proven nor disproven. However, this very fact would weaken the claim that such theories were true for the following reason: If there are true theories which can be neither proven nor disproven, may there not also be false theories which likewise can be neither proven nor disproven? And, if so, how would one know the difference? (For details, see here, section 3.) That being the case, why would someone hold such a theory in the first place?

Students over the years have mentioned that, in view of the training they received in critical thinking, they sometimes felt reduced to the inner silence of a Buddhist monk because they found that there was so little they could actually say that could be proven - an important discovery for 17-year-olds or for someone of any age, and an insight that would induce intellectual caution and discourage one from making dogmatic statements of any kind.

The fact that these were written assignments gave students an opportunity to spend time alone with themselves while they observed the workings of their mind in an analytical way as they systematically worked through each of the questions, perhaps for the first time in their lives. Some preferred to write out their assignments, while others thought better at a computer.

However, either method enabled them to achieve a measure of detachment from what they were thinking. Seeing their views taking shape on the page afforded them more objectivity toward what they were writing, as well as greater ease in determining whether they were committing fallacies. I graded the assignments on the basis of depth and subtlety of analysis, speculative daring, and effort. Virtually everyone received an A or A+.

(The importance of working alone and being responsible for one's own assignments is an important, yet often neglected feature of education today, which often relies on group work to complete learning activities. There is virtually no quiet time given students to solve problems on their own, except in mathematics. Whether this is attributable to America's extrovert temperament, ADHD students, or suspicion of solitary reflection in general is difficult to say, but there seems to be an over-reliance on group work and groupthink to the exclusion of having to struggle with solving problems alone.)

Should a Situationist Marry a Situationist/Moral Relativist?

Finally, I asked a question that made our entire discussion more real: whether a Platonist should marry a situationist, especially with respect to the raising of children. Students saw no problem with this at all. They said it goes on all the time, with some of their parents, for instance. If the spouses truly loved one another, they would strive toward a mutual accommodation, which would create a healthy balance for both spouses, as well as for the children to have two points of view.

Many students felt that they themselves were situationists, although they had never realized it until doing these assignments. The ideal couple, they thought, would be two situationists because life is more than strict rule-keeping. Other students weren't so sure. They felt that people need boundaries, and Platonists showed how much they really believed in their morals because they were willing to suffer for them.

A situationist marrying a moral relativist, however, would lead to no end of "trust issues" and ultimately doom a marriage. Raising children would also be complicated by disagreements between the spouses, and be hopelessly confusing for children, who would be receiving mixed signals. Most of all, teaching children to become moral relativists would corrupt their innocence. Other students saw it differently. They felt that, although moral relativists would view the world in general in relativistic terms, they would exempt the home and the family from that view completely. In their private lives, they would be situationists and persons of integrity.

Concluding Remarks

These four assignments had introduced students to five branches of philosophy: metaphysics, epistemology, logic, moral theory, and psychology, while showing how these disciplines are inter-related in philosophical questions. These were a different kind of assignment than students were used to, inasmuch as they were addressed not only as students, but, more importantly, as human beings -- the hallmark of any humanities course -- and opened up a broad range of issues for their private reflection.

Moreover, they could see the immediate relevance of such questions to their living more meaningful lives, and why the immersion in the humanities is vital in keeping us human in a world which more and more threatens to dehumanize us.

By the end of the marking period, students could analyze an argument in terms of fallacies, types of statements, assumptions and implications. They also understood the necessity of including arguments, counterarguments, rebuttals, and counter-rebuttals to test the mutual claims of opposing viewpoints.

More advanced training was given later in the year when students submitted a minimum 10-page research paper that argued a course-related thesis of their own choosing. Three to five arguments and the same number of counterarguments and rebuttals were required, with embedded citations from secondary literature for both sides of the argument. In short, they were trained to hit the ground running from their first day in college.