Friday, October 25, 2013

How arguments with children can strengthen America

“People will do anything they want if they think they can get away with it.”

With stories of scams and scandals repeated at a frenzied pace in the era of digital media, I recently found myself musing on how, and why, individuals would jeopardize their careers, their family and their honor by making potentially devastating decisions. I remembered a conversation several years ago with a friend (whose identity is now lost to the fog of time) in which he suggested my leading sentence, that individuals are capable of any action, regardless of its morality if 1) they desire the perceived benefits the action would confer and 2) think that no-one will be the wiser (or judge them poorly).

I don’t particularly care for this suggestion, for it paints a very negative view of mankind. It depicts man as a selfish creature interested only in his own well-being, even at the expense of others. I’ve felt this way for a short time on many an occasion, as I’m sure all of us have at some point – but I just can’t accept it as true. However, I take it up wholeheartedly with the addition of one important corollary; “An individual’s conscience can judge a person to the same effect as a separate person altogether.” In essence, an individual’s conscience can be that angel on your shoulder. Unable to remain unnoticed and un-judged in decisions, a conscientious person cannot help but make the “right” decision.

So, the barrier to immorality is a conscience.

This means, by extension, the scams and scandals to which I referred are the result of underdeveloped or absent consciences.

Now perhaps I look at history through rose-colored glasses, and there were just as many scams and scandals in the past as there are now. But, if we as a Nation are now suffering from a general decline in morality (as I and many others would suggest we are), then we must work to ensure a greater function in our individual consciences.

“…ensure a greater function in our individual consciences…” What does that even mean?

It means effort, and it means study.

Ok, but how?

I attended the University of St Thomas, a (nominally) Catholic university located in St Paul, MN. Though many of my colleagues did not appreciate it at the time, our general education requirements included a minimum of two, four-credit classes studying philosophy and three studying theology. Though I learned a great deal about a variety of old-dead-white-guys’ ideas, what I really took away was a deeper understanding of how to make moral decisions. What St Thomas’ professors did well was to make us think about what we believe was right and wrong (often in contrast with the aforementioned old-dead-white-guys [ODWG’s]). In its simplest description, they exercised my conscience. Since the school is nominally Catholic, some of the classes attempted to show how those ODWG’s of the Catholic persuasion were more correct than others, but even these classes encouraged students to consider various viewpoints while drawing conclusions. The result? All students from physicians to musicians graduated with basic ability to draw logically sound conclusions, and with an understanding that such things as “right” and “wrong” decisions do exist. By developing this understanding, the students develop the beginnings of a barrier to immorality. Religious education isn’t for everyone, as my frequent arguments with professors could attest; however, an introduction to basic philosophy can benefit all students, whether 21 and in a university or 51 and in a corporate or government environment.

But, as a friend of mine succinctly put it, “study alone does not a conscience make.” Effort is central to this endeavor, like any other of value. Once developed through study, a conscience must continue to be exercised. Fortunately, this type of exercise shouldn’t make you out of breath, though your pulse might quicken at times. Discussions of what’s right and wrong, especially through logical argumentation, will build individual capacity for moral reasoning. The discussions can be based on current events, history, or even hypothetical situations. In working through a moral question, an individual can take a stance they believe in, or play “Devil’s advocate” and argue the opposite. Skills and intellect will be honed by practice and ingenuity. Even better for families, these discussions are an easy way for parents to pass on valuable lessons to their children, achieving multiple victories at once. Beyond discussions, small moral decisions are thrust upon each of us daily, giving opportunity for near-continual exercise and honest self-evaluation.

With a little bit of dedication and concerted effort, the next generation of Americans can easily outstrip their predecessors and parents in moral decisions and begin to reestablish America as the bastion of “right” in the world.

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