Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Field Values, Teaching Ethics, and Sheroes as Role Models

C. Ewing gives us three questions. Taking them in order:

precisely what work is accomplished by physical objects so far as the theoretical is concerned? I'll readily concede that it fits our intuitions better (or at least, most of our intuitions), but what does the existence of physical objects do that is of particular importance? If you prick me I bleed, surely, but do we need blood and sharp objects for that?
Actually, modern physics does away with the notion of object altogether. Everything ends up becoming (oversimplifying a bit) blobs of field values that are more or less localized in spacetime. Parts are made up of smaller parts, but when you get down to subatomic size, objects lose what philosophers call "genidentity," that is unique selfness that differentiates them from other basic objects and everything can be seen as waves in a great universal field.

Number two:
Is ethics or moral thinking (whatever term we're liking today) something that can actually be taught, and assuming it is, must it be taught whilst young? It seems sensible (in some manner of speaking) when we say things like, "He just wasn't raised right", but later in life (and I don't think I'm alone here) we deal with cyclic behavior that intellectually we know is bad for us (and possibly others), yet seem to have an absurdly difficult time changing behavior that we know should be changed. Are we just dense as grandmum's biscuits or is there something to the Catholic idiom, "Get 'em while they're young"?
Doing the right thing is a two-step process. Step one (moral deliberation) is deciding what is the right thing to do in your context. Step two is doing it.

Step one is taught when we are young. When children do something wrong we not only correct them, we explain why their action was wrong or at least what the proper action should be (or if there are less enlightened parents, the children figure out which things they don't get yelled at or beaten for). Of course, these lessons break down for the tough moral conundrums and that is why philosophers still have jobs.

Step two is a function of character. While there is no doubt that some degree of personality is innate within each of us, the way we choose to behave and the decisions we make are often -- as Aristotle rightly observed -- a function of habit, habits that are often (but not always) formed when young by observing how others act and by positive and negative reinforcement. You see an out of control child and when you meet the parent, you are rarely surprised. While some people are likely more naturally empathetic than others, empathy (or guilt or fear) can be encouraged or discouraged when young and this will screw you up for the rest of your life, although it can be mediated by a good therapist.

And lastly:
On the topic of super heroes: are characters like Supergirl, Power Girl, Wonder Woman and Wonder Girl, etc., beneficial to women or does the sexual appeal undercut the good that can be done? Does the good message of strong, smart, assertive, independent women get low-balled by cup size and wardrobe?
I think the costumes are part of the problem. I always thought with Wonder Woman's invisible plane that surely people were constantly saying, "Hey, who is that scantily clad woman squatting across the sky?" But an additional issue is that they are just male superheroes -- displaying culturally gendered masculine behaviors -- in women's bodies. There is still the black and white, absolute good versus absolute evil plot lines, violence and force are seen as the only justifiable means of dealing with those who are "them." If my daughter were to look for a fictional hero, those would not be the ones I would encourage as they are certainly pregnant with classical patriarchal baggage.