Political Thought Links: Parallels:
The Permanency of Natural Standards
J. Bennett, former Secretary of Education, is an excellent example
of a contemporary Aristotelian thinker. In the past several years,
he has authored and edited The Book of Virtues, The Moral Compass,
and several children's books, all of which are inspired by the
Aristotelian idea that people's moral virtues are not just products
of reason and choice but of habit. If virtue is first approximated
through habit, then training to virtue can start in early childhood,
as his latest book, The Educated Child, emphasizes. Bennett argues
that habituation to moral virtue starts with morally edifying
stories for children and young people, but even adults benefit
from continued exposure to such stories and edifying role models.
Such a perspective claims that much of what passes for entertainment
in America today is morally corrosive.
Aristotelians of our time argue for a return to "character
education" in our schools, especially the public schools
which, they argue, have turned toward moral relativism in part
as a response to the growing diversity of students' backgrounds
and beliefs. Bennett illustrated in a lecture the moral malaise
of our society in this way:
I was a philosophy professor, teaching freshman philosophy, the
answers I started to get from students in the '60s were, "I
think each person should do his own thing. I mean if they want
to do something, who am I to say something's right, who am I to
say something's wrong?" And then we would play this little
intellectual game of 'Catch-Me-If-You-Can', see if you can catch
me in a contradiction. But that's not what the idea is all about,
a game of 'Catch-Me-If-You-Can'. The idea that each person should
do his own thing and that there are no common responsibilities
or common values is a real notion which, if taken seriously, will
lead to the end of society and the end of all of these institutions.
good news is that not one of my students really believed it. You
know how I know? Because I cut through the rhetoric and got to
the point. In Philosophy 101, a student would say that there are
no values, no right and wrong. "Who are you to impose your
values on me?" Whenever I heard this I always did the same
thing. I'd say, "You don't think there are values, you don't
think there's a right and wrong. You don't think there's a difference?"
"No." I said, "Well, you are wrong." And they
said, "Well, who are you to say?" I said, "I'm
the professor in this class, and if you don't agree with me, you're
flunked . . . and I will have you removed from this institution
because you're too stupid to be here."
yourself on the other end of this, as if you're the student. You
know what the students invariably did? They stood up and said,
"You can't do that!" And I said, "Why not?"
And they said, "It's not fair." "It's not what"
"It's not fair." My reply: "Don't impose your values
on me, son."
this story illustrates, Bennet and people like him claim that
certain manners and morals are of a universal character and need
not be closely tied to any specific religious or cultural heritage.
These manners and morals, such as sharing, not stealing, being
kind to those less fortunate, are useful for all children to learn,
regardless of background. They argue that they should be integrated
into the curriculum, at first mainly through the use of morally
edifying stories, and later by other means appropriate to the
age of the students. Many schools around the country have begun
to adopt character education curricula of various kinds in response
to problems such as violence, drugs and delinquency.
enduring issues raised by Aristotle's Politics are varied, but
almost all of them eventually turn on questions of morality-what
is right and what is wrong. Like Plato, Aristotle bases his claims
on an understanding of human nature as having certain permanent
characteristics. Human beings, he says for instance, are political
animals. Human beings have a capacity for virtue and rationality
which sets them apart from the animal kingdom. Even so, in order
to achieve what they have the capacity to achieve, human beings
must be placed in certain circumstances, which include adequate
physical means, the proper government and the proper education.
As we have seen from reading excerpts of Bill Bennett's speech,
all of this can translate into controversy, as it did in Aristotle's
time and still does today.
there such a thing as bad music-that is, music that is bad for
you? As we have seen, Aristotle argued that there was hardly a
type of music that was bad in the abstract, but people should
be exposed to different types of music at appropriate stages in
their development. Children, he thought, should not be exposed
to music that was too passionate or violent. Of course, Aristotle
didn't know about Marilyn Manson or Madonna. Aristotle's contemporaries,
like Bennett, would claim that some of today's popular music is
not fit for anyone at any age, that it degrades the dignity of
people, oftentimes especially women. Bennett argues that people
should turn away from this music, not by demanding censorship,
but by a simple realization that it is not good or edifying. Government
should never be involved in supporting such "art." He
has called for shaming and boycotting entertainment companies
that produce offensive music and television programming. Aristotle
thought rhythms and melodies actually shaped people's souls, and
could either ennoble them or make them crass or base. But Aristotle
also thought that the "mechanics" of the world (who
shouldn't be citizens) were themselves base, and that these citizens
should be allowed their cruder form of entertainment without restrictions.
Bennett agrees with Aristotle that music is highly suggestive
and can corrupt youthful idealism and innocence, but it is precisely
the average U.S. citizen for whom he has the most concern. Unlike
Aristotle, Bennett seems to believe that ordinary
Americans can lead the way to a new cultural renaissance despite
the entertainment elite, who are bent on keeping their minds and
wallets empty. Can ordinary people be the true repository of good
taste, and more fundamentally, is there such a thing as good taste
on the other side of this debate are varied, but almost all would
disagree with Aristotle and critics like Bennett on the issue
of good taste. They would say that "good taste" is in
the eye of the beholder. The individual defines what is good for
him or her. Bennett's story about what is fair might have some
application in laying down rules about how to treat students in
college, who are "customers" after all, but there can
be no absolutes in aesthetic matters like music, art and literature.
One person's work of art is another's trash, they say, but that
is what makes art so interesting. Advocates of this individualistic
approach are put off by cultural critics like Bennett. They suspect
them of secretly wanting to stop certain forms of entertainment.
They often see boycotts or sharp criticism, especially from elected
officials, as forms of censorship. Even if they do not call such
reactions censorship, they still tend to see the criticism as
illiberal-an attempt to stop individuals from freely choosing
1999 a controversy erupted over an art exhibit in Brooklyn including,
among other things, the Virgin Mary speckled with elephant dung,
sharks preserved in formaldehyde, and a painting of the Last Supper
with a naked woman substituted for Jesus. The mayor of New York,
Rudolph Giuliani, complained that the exhibit was not art but
was obscene and that the museum had gone back on its commitment
to allow people of all ages into all exhibits (children were restricted
from viewing this exhibit). He threatened to pull city funding.
The museum and friends of the exhibit cried foul, and claimed
that Giuliani was attempting to censor and decide for himself
what was art and what was edifying for New Yorkers to view.
there such a thing as bad music-and is there such a thing as good
taste? Would you would take a young child to see that exhibit
or allow such a child to listen to sexually explicit and/or violent
music lyrics? If not, why not?
and Women - Different Natures?
nature or natures of men and women is such a complex subject that
to treat it thoroughly would take a library of books. Aristotle
obviously thought that the natures of men and women differed enough
to treat them differently in his political philosophy. Aristotle
classed free women above animals and slaves. Indeed, as free people,
they were to be considered citizens, although exactly how they
could be so when they were not to participate in politics, is
left vague. However, Aristotle clearly thought that the natures
of men and women differed. Men were in general more rational and
more capable of authority. Women were rational enough to perhaps
give or refuse consent to big family decisions, but not enough
to make the decisions themselves. Women's virtue was found at
home, in keeping out of politics, in taking care of household
management. Aristotle thought that women were the better at taking
care of children. The rule of men over women should be "constitutional"
and mutually respectful, and as women were half of the population,
the development of their virtue was not to be overlooked by the
would seem clear that the Aristotelian position on women is sexist,
and perhaps it is. But these days, one needs a scorecard to keep
track of the diversity of feminist positions on the female and
male natures. Some say there is no such thing as female or male
natures. Instead, different societies construct images of gender
which they then socialize their members to fit. People who see
gender (femininity, masculinity) as nothing but social constructs
often make proposals for educating children and young people
which would reconstruct or even eliminate gender identities. This,
they reason, would get rid of the problem of one sex dominating
the other. Other feminists focus specifically on the male nature,
either as a product of over-zealous male hormones or over-bearing
socialization. If they see the problem as a matter of male hormones,
they may even suggest medical treatments to cut down on the hormones
and "cure" the problem. These feminists tend to see
women's nature as so distorted by the discrimination of the opposite
sex that we will not know what female nature truly is until we
have totally eliminated the problem of male domination. Still
other feminists see femininity (whether a product of nature or
nurture) not as a problem but as society's salvation. These feminists
complain that because we live in a sexist society, women's special
qualities are either downplayed or treated as inferior, whereas
what we really need are more of these qualities, even among men.
Women's ability to be more nurturing and empathetic, is not a
problem but a boon-and makes them ideal candidates for leadership
positions. Some of these feminists even suggest that if women
were in top leadership positions in countries world-wide there
would be no more war.
though the latter feminists would agree with Aristotle on the
idea that men and women have different natures, and that women's
nature is to be valued as nurturing, that is where the similarity
ends. None of them would agree that women should only be in the
home, concerned only with the house and children, and taking no
part in politics. Indeed, today it is difficult to find anyone
willing to openly adopt these Aristotelian positions. Even those
religious groups which come close to such positions, such as the
Promise Keepers, would deny that separate roles for men and women
should exist because women are the intellectual or spiritual inferiors
of men. Rather they argue that men and women should have separate
roles because it is part of God's plan, or because this division
of labor is generally the most beneficial for the family, or because
they believe women should not be burdened with the task of bearing
and rearing children and working at the same time. They tend to
see the rearing of children as a full time, and intellectually
there are people who fully agree with Aristotle's position, they
probably do so for the same reasons Aristotle did-because they
believe that the inequalities that still exist between men and
women are a product not of socialization but of true differences
in nature and abilities between the sexes. And so, we return to
the debate of nature versus nurture.
shapes our characters more-our own decisions based on our own
reason, or the habits we have imposed on us from society and family
from infancy? Political thinkers from the 18thCentury Enlightenment,
and many of us today, prefer to believe that we can and should
choose our values based on an individual, independent and largely
rational exploration of alternatives as we move through life.
After all, how can we truly believe in and adhere to, moral principles
which we do not understand and to which we never really agreed?
It is a weak moral code, they argue, which relies on mere training
or habit or childhood conditioning. Those who see the development
of moral principles in this light tend to downplay moral education
in early childhood, and emphasize introducing questions of morality
or values still in youth but at an age when true reasoning can
take place, when the young person can see the rationale behind
the moral rule. Some think that many moral values really are matters
of choice and as such should not ever be imposed on people, young
or old. They may advocate training such as "values clarification,"
a curriculum which simply helps young people discover their own
value-systems, for instance, what they want to keep and what they
want to discard from their parents' moral code.
of relying mainly on reason to arrive at moral principles blame
the method of habituation for many of the injustices of the past,
such as sexism, racism, religious bigotry, and ostracism of social
"misfits." It is because what is customary may not be
right that they believe all morals must be examined anew in the
light of reason. Many things which are deemed matters of morality
in the past, such as sexuality, may turn out not to be a matter
of morality after all, but merely a matter of programming and
preference. They think that relying on reason to construct our
values will lead to less discrimination and cruelty.
who emphasize the need for instilling moral values into people
from a very early age emphasize habituation. Although it is sometimes
tried, it is difficult if not impossible to reason with a small
child about why they should or should not do something. However,
it is relatively easy to say "no" or "yes,"
and to guide children into certain activities and away from others.
Young children soak up every bit of information around them, so
those who wish to habituate them to virtue have only to surround
them with what they consider morally edifying stories such as
those in Bennett's Children's Book of Virtues and Aesop's Fables,
moral messages, examples and activities. Yes, children and young
people may not know exactly what all of this is about until they
are older, but by then they will already be accustomed to making
good choices and can more easily understand the reasons behind
those choices. Such would be the argument for praying at the table
with a two year old, or asking him or her to say "please"
and "thank you." The two year old child can reason very
little about the metaphysical being known as God, and has little
appreciation for reciprocity, yet advocates of this approach believe
that this is the first step toward understanding. They would say
that waiting until reasoning is effective would be waiting until
it is too late.
the approach of habituation is the belief that, left untrained,
human nature tends early towards its worst instead of its best
qualities. The better qualities, as Aristotle believed, only come
out if they are developed in the proper environment. Although
the young soul is the most pliable, they do not see this as a
form of "brainwashing" or "propaganda" because,
like Aristotle, they disagree that moral values are a mere matter
of choice or relative to the individual. Instead, certain values
are simply true, useful, and indeed necessary for the happiness
and even survival of the individual.
we are back to the issue raised by the excerpt from Bill Bennett's
story about his students. Advocates of habituation like Bennett
would introduce considerable amounts of morally edifying content
into the curriculum of our schools. Bennett's books have emphasized
moral role models from all cultures and a generic moral code which
does not rely on any specific religious or cultural underpinning.
This type of character education he finds suitable and proper
for public schools. Opponents of this type of character education
may see a subtle religious underpinning nonetheless, or they may
simply object to the imposition on young minds of strong moral
values chosen by someone other than the student or his parents,
such as the teacher, principle, school board or state legislature.
These opponents might ask, as did the student in Bennett's speech,
"who are they to decide what is right and
William J. Bennett, ed., The Book of
Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories, New York:
Simon and Schuster, 1993.
William J. Bennett, ed., The Children's
Book of Virtues, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995.
William J. Bennett, ed., The Children's
Book of Heroes, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997.
William J. Bennett, "The Education of Character,"
The Joseph A. Reich, Sr., Distinguished Lecture on War, Morality,
Military Profession, No. 8, United States Air Force Academy, Colorado,
19 September 1995, p. 6.
William J. Bennett, ed., The Moral Compass:
Stories for a Life's Journey, New York: Simon and Schuster,
William J. Bennett, Chester E. Finn, Jr. and
John T.E. Cribb, Jr., The Educated Child: A Parent's Guide
Through Eight Grade, New York: The Free Press, 1999.