Talking to college students brought home that modern philosophy is a nihilistic numbers game intended to support a given philosopher’s preferred goals.
With colleges winding down for the year, young adults are returning to my community. This has yielded some interesting conversations, and given me a first person insight into the nihilism that passes for deep thinking and philosophy at American universities.
It all began when one of the young adults mentioned enjoying a philosophy class at school. As best as I can tell, most of the class was discussion, with students trying to figure out the philosophical or moral path in response to a series of hypotheticals. One hypothetical envisioned a car with no brakes that was heading for five people, with the only alternative being a hard swerve to the left, that would hit one person. The student said that one of today’s modern philosophers holds that the driver should sit there, unmoving, as the car heads towards five people because it’s wrong to take any affirmative action that might kill even one person.
The way the student described the course reminded me strongly of my Tort class, back when I was a first year law student. The teacher would pose a hypothetical and pick a student to answer that hypothetical. As soon as the student answered, the teacher would throw in a factual twist and, subject to that twist, again ask the student to answer.
For example, in a civil liability case for an assault that left the plaintiff with a broken jaw, the teacher would begin by saying that the defendant hit the plaintiff. Then the scenario would repeatedly change with the defendant intentionally hitting the plaintiff, but not meaning to hurt him; with the defendant intentionally moving his arm, but not meaning either to hit or hurt the plaintiff; with the defendant carelessly moving that same arm; etc. The hypotheticals might also address the plaintiff’s conduct (was he attacking the defendant? did he carelessly put himself in the line of fire? did he have an unexpected glass jaw?).
At the time, I found these professorial interrogations terrifying because I actually believed there was one right and moral answer. In fact, there is no moral answer. As in law school, so it is in the actual practice of law: There is only a constantly shifting legal battle, with each side advancing those facts and legal theories that most benefit its case.
Indeed, there should be no doubt about the fact that the law is completely unrelated to morality. I figured that out in my third year, when all but one person from my graduating class sacrificed a Saturday to attend an all-day review class on “professional ethics.”
The only student who didn’t attend, a very dear man who had grown up in Latin America, the son of Christian missionaries, explained that the Bible was the only book he needed to study to prepare for the test. He was also the only student in the school’s history to fail that exam.
In the context of law, “professional ethics” are merely a set of rules intended to ensure that attorneys do not engage in professional behavior that can harm past or present clients. There is no morality involved.
Just as law is unrelated to morality, it seems as if modern philosophy is too. In pre-modern, as opposed to post-modern, times, philosophy existed within the confines of Judeo-Christian morality. You could certainly debate nuances to death, but you were still constrained by the big ten — that is, by the Ten Commandments. From the rabbis to Thomas Aquinas, the Bible was the starting point for abstract discussions or for concrete debates about issues affecting people in daily life. [Read more…]