Sunday, March 29, 2015


A prayer in progress.

O Holy Spirit of justice
How little my relationship
with you has cost me
I have spent my days
with you finding fault in others
But I did not want to hear
your words to me

O Holy Spirit
Is this why you have abandoned me
To confusion and uncertainty?
Which way are you blowing?
I cannot feel you on my face
The air is still.
I will be still too.
And listen for you.

O Holy Spirit of Justice
I am making my home
in a wrong place
There is blood on the land
that I have stolen
Your hot air dries the ground
about my feet
My garden withers
As it should
But I am listening

O Holy Spirit of Justice
I swear I can walk from this throne
in the land of my forefathers
into the unknown
where I am unprotected
that my life will be full of life
that my life will sustains others
In your faintness I will heed you
Only do not leave me entirely.

I'm posting this poem as an re-introduction to thinking about discernment. Discernment is most simply to "judge well", to tell a tonic from a poison, to gauge the wisdom of a course of action, the merit of a tool for a job, the relevance of advice for a situation.... that kind of thing. Also discernment can refer to distinguishing more abstracted notions such as right from wrong or just from unjust. Whether these abstracted concepts relate directly to pragmatic concerns or whether they are somehow separate to them is also a matter of discernment itself. 

We are all involved in discernment all the time. It is a mark of our age that we like to conceal the moral dimensions of our conversations with the language of science and its objectivity. Debates such as whether children should be "pushed" to "excel" (both loaded words) by their parents, really struggle to hide their assumptions of value. Still even here both sides like to cite statistics and data about long term outcomes. In ages past conversations like this may have depended more on notions of moral debt and duty such as our responsibility to use our "gifts".

This is a re-introduction to talking about discernment rather than introduction. A quick perusal of my old blogs will show a number of times that I have tried to articulate what I think are good general principles of discernment. Going right back to a post from the second month of this blog almost four years ago I proposed something I called Empathy-led ethics. I still hold to the general gist of what I argued then. The same reliance on empathy pops up again in the perception of the ideal which forms the basis of "good morality" in a later post.

One recurring theme of this blog is its concern with fundamentalist (or biblicist) readings of Christianity. Here too the question is about discernment. Does submission to the texts of Christianity divorce us from a more reliable oracle, namely the relationships with people via which we intuit what is good and healthy for them in particular? Is fundamentalisms generation of universal truths imposed upon people after being determined, exactly what morality should avoid? I think so.

Despite these firm views I have a huge question about my own discernment. I think Buddhism has a great insight when it recognises that enlightenment comes after practice. In my daily acts of selfishness and laziness I can't perceive what is truly fair or even possible ethically. My perceptions are distorted by my priveleges and self-indulgence. The more I try to live well however the more I stop magnifying my sufferings and minimising what I can give. The more good I do, the more I can perceive what good I can do. Likewise the more I look after myself first the more I normalise to myself that I am number one and the less giving seems reasonable. The discernment of what is right and just is therefore something quite vulnerable to my actions. In the poem above their discernment is almost lost through misuse. This is a real fear I have for myself.

Because I hold ethical philosophy to be the most important branch of philosophy I am also saying something genuinely revolutionary about philosophy here and potentially to theology as well.  I do believe frankly that a stint of volunteering with people in need will do more to improve your perception of moral truth (God's truth if you like) than either studying scriptures or improving ones rationality. (Once again I have mentioned this before in a blog on killing. ) Seeing and doing are interwoven and we truly risk our ability to see justice while we are involved in injustice.

Philosophy and theology however are not immune to the hierarchies of our world. The person who makes the tea is considered less worth consulting than the academic at their books learning a fourth language, even on matters of tea!  Likewise we make experts of moral philosophy, people who study a lot. We make course on ethics that don't involve any practice. We assume our perception of what is right and just and healthy can be made with our nose in a book, even the Good book. We accumulate ways to perform wisdom without kindness and we never seem to ask ourselves whether this method of discernment has ever worked before.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Please stop teaching my child the difference between a fact and an opinion.

Last year my six year old received instruction in her grade one class as to the difference between a fact and an opinion. She was taught by example;
A horse has four legs. This is a fact.
Horse riding is fun. This is an opinion.

In order to define the difference alluded to above, multiple similar examples were given. Students gradually figured out that anything a person liked or disliked was called an opinion. Anything a person could count or weigh or that would be commonly agreed upon (like the colour of something) was a fact. The distinction rested, as far as I can tell, on the difference between the category of things for which we admit multiple right answers (opinion) and the category of things for which we admit only one (fact).

Of particular concern to me is the value discrepancy my child seemed to pick up between opinion and fact. I perceived a hidden message that opinion was “just” opinion while a fact was something much more real about the world; A person “feels” an opinion with far less certainty than they “know” a fact. I don’t see why my child should at the age of six consider the fun-ness of horse riding as somehow belonging to a less real category than the four-ness of horse legs. Is the declaration of the beauty of a sunset less real than a matter of fact description of its colours? To make such a case would require a whole host of philosophical assumptions that I doubt were adequately explored in her class.

This automatic insertion of judgment in philosophical conversations is common; when people are considered to be animals they are often not just considered animals, they are considered just animals instead (a profound difference).  It’s very possible that teaching my child to devalue opinion in relation to fact wasn’t the teachers’ intent. However any dichotomy tends to settle itself into a hierarchy, especially if a particular order of importance already has currency. We live in just such a culture that privileges the objective above the subjective and in school more than anywhere. Consequently the value discrepancy my child learnt was a predictable outcome.

This begs the question, was the purpose of this lesson meant to inform this hierarchy? Is it part of some social skills curriculum with the intent to ensure children permit each other to have different opinions while accepting they cannot choose the facts they like? I’d rather my child was taught social skills by empathizing with others feelings. I’d rather my child was encouraged to support all her opinions with reasons and to expect the same of her teacher – no need to restrict this to “facts.”

Regardless of these preferences it is a form of wishful thinking to believe in a model of truth and the world because of its implications for social behaviour. At least we can choose to engage in this wishful thinking as adults. Is it morally permissible to teach a model of truth to children for its social benefits without admitting that agenda? The Village, directed by M. Night Shyamalan explores that question. For a range of reasons I don’t think it’s either desirable or necessary to do so.

Hearing my child come home with a respect for fact over opinion wasn’t my only concern with this lesson. The distinction is also incorrect; an opinion is not the opposite of a fact. What makes something an opinion is just that someone believes it. All opinions, in order to be an opinion, are my opinion or your opinion or someone else’s opinion. They belong to someone. There is no such thing as a category of statement which is an opinion in isolation from whether someone believes it. The statement “Horse riding is fun” describes a subjective quality of horse riding which is only an opinion if it is my opinion or yours or someone’s. It is not an opinion by virtue of any independent or intrinsic quality of itself.

Even more importantly there is no kind of statement that we can declare is not an opinion. It is now a common opinion that the earth moves around the sun, just as it was once a common opinion that it didn’t. It is an opinion that horses have four legs. Whereas the statement that horse riding is fun is an opinion about the subjective quality of fun involved with riding, horses has four legs is an opinion about the objective quality of number of legs involved with a horse. But the latter is still an opinion. Someone, possibly almost everyone, believes it. It is their opinion.

Failure to understand this meaning of opinion sets children up for failure in any scientific endeavor. Science is not the process of discovering facts which are magically not anyone’s opinions. Science is the process of forming one’s own opinions based on observations. Unlike the concept of an orphan fact, a scientific opinion has to be owned by the scientist who takes responsibility for their observations and fairness towards them. This responsibility is the moral crux of being a scientist.

This personal responsibility enables scientists at their best to do what scientists do best. They can change their opinion. The importance of retaining this attitude does not lessen when an opinion is rarely contested, even as rarely contested as horses have four legs. Yes, you can get away with treating commonly held opinions as if they weren’t opinions at all. You can even prosper, as no doubt the witch hunters of the inquisition did, but you won’t be meeting the responsibilities of the scientific method. To do that all statements must be recognized as opinions - differing by the degree to which they are supported and informed, but never fully transformed into facts.

My last objection to the teaching my child received is to the notion that opinions have multiple right answers. If we include in this category of opinion descriptions of fun, beauty and yumminess it may seem obvious what we are saying; people will not always agree on these things. I personally might even accept that people will never agree and that we might be better of not trying to achieve agreement in these areas. I am however aware of the huge ramifications that spring from accepting that there is no case for agreement ever to be made – particularly in the case of beauty.

Many of our moral and ethical ideas relate directly to some sense of beauty. A school yard covered in litter is aesthetically less pleasing than one kept clean, and students are encouraged to appreciate that. A forested mountain is considered more beautiful than a clear-felled one. If beauty is entirely in the eye of the beholder then it becomes possible to simply argue that one person’s preference for nature is the same as another’s preference for a shopping centre. Less obviously our admiration for a life spent seeking truth and justice rather than one spent submitting to arbitrary authority is also about principles of beauty. We only have to look at a life like Malala Yousafzai’s to feel inspired and in awe. Is the art in her life-choice equal to that of her oppressors?
We should teach this possibility to kids, but not as a forgone conclusion. Let them explore how the permission of multiple (infinite?) right answers to certain types of questions is contestable with curious implications. For example, ask them why they think a butterfly is pretty (if they do) and whether a person who disagrees about that is wrong. That there are certain questions which we do not and can never know a definitive answer to is itself an opinion – something someone believes. So too is the idea that other questions have one right answer. Like all opinions these claims should have to be supported by reasons rather than simply declared a fact,