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Smart or Good?

Entry 1567, on 2013-08-30 at 14:09:31 (Rating 3, Philosophy)

I recently listened to a podcast where Australian educator and writer Michael Parker discussed his new book "Ethics 101: Conversations to Have with Your Kids", also known as "Talk to your Kids: 109 Character-Building Conversations that Really Matter". Naturally, given my casual interest in philosophy and ethics, I was intrigued and felt the need to comment here.

Philosophy is often viewed as an obscure and esoteric subject with no application to the real world. In fact that is the way I used to look at it too but more recently I have changed my mind. I think some of the various branches of philosophy are of the utmost importance and everyone should study a bit of philosophy during their education (OK, I admit I didn't).

Maybe the most interesting and controversial part of philosophy is ethics. And that is what we need more of, because ethical behaviour is not only conspicuously absent in many parts of modern society, but unethical behaviour is actively encouraged in many. That, of course, assumes that there are ethical standards we can all agree on, and to complicate matters further, many would claim that the idea that absolute ethics can even exist is debatable.

But let's move all of those minor issues aside and move on (which is something you can do in philosophy) and look at some of the issues Parker discusses in his book.

Is it better to be smart or good? This is one of the more basic questions he asks. Schools try to make kids smart but it makes little effort to make them good. And any efforts which do seem to encourage goodness tend to be limited to unthinking obedience to authority which in my opinion has little to do with genuine morality.

But in considering this question, clearly the answer is "both". Being smart without being good is dangerous (many dictators, master criminals, and murderers are quite smart) but being good without being smart rarely leads to anything worthwhile. What's the point of having the best intentions in the world if you don't have the knowledge or intelligence to achieve them? So saying both is a bit of a cop out, I know, but at least it does emphasise the point that being ethical is important.

Many commentators think that people are basically more good today than they have been in the past. Parker believes this and the most famous proponent of the idea might be well known psychologist and author, Steven Pinker, who promotes it in his book "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined" (which I really must read some day!)

Despite the rather lame beliefs of many people in society today the facts seem to show that successive generations are, in general, more moral (by any reasonable standards) than in the past. The objective evidence supports this: we have less crime, more racial and sexual equality, less slavery, less violence, fewer wars, and better treatment of animals now than ever before. Surely these are all good measurements of morality.

One interesting point here is that the increase in morality has happened simultaneously with a decrease in religiosity. It is difficult to prove any link or causality here but it is clear that morality has little to do with religion and a good case could be made to say that the less religious you are the more moral you are likely to be (with many exceptions).

Parker isn't quite as positive about the demise of religion as I am. He see's the decline of the authoritarian moral guidelines of religion to a more liberal and critical perspective to be a good thing, but thinks this swing has gone too far in the direction of excessive permissiveness and relativism. I think that there is merit in this view, but that seems to be the nature of society: it tends to swing from one extreme to another.

One subject we agree on is the immorality of many big businesses and financial markets. In those communities greedy accumulation of wealth is the only aim. The financial collapse was caused by the banking and financial sector doing the wrong thing simply because they could. They must have all known that what they did was both immoral and potentially disastrous yet they did it anyway because their whole culture is based on unethical principles.

Despite the excessive power of large corporations I think over the longer term business practices are improving. They probably aren't as good now as they were 20 years ago but they are certainly a lot better than they were 200 years ago, and it is the sustained trend we should be looking at.

I did mean to mention some interesting ethical questions which can initiate interesting discussions here but seem to have got a bit hung up on the smart versus good thing. Maybe I'll examine those questions in a future entry.

I will finish by saying that philosophical thought is an essential element to help answer our big questions, such as: how do we distribute wealth fairly, who has the right to initiate war and in what circumstances, how can we deal with global problems like climate change, and what rights do other species have, to name just a few. To solve these problems being smart is essential... but so is being good.

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