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No Character • Tallis and the Missing Self • Gettier Lettier • Illogical Lo • Identity Parade • The Myths of Trainer • Zealotry and Other Sins • Exceptional • Further Kraftiness • Balanced Thinking

No Character

DEAR EDITOR: Carolyn Suchy-Dicey’s article about character education in Issue 63 left me greatly concerned. Her statements repeat much of character education myth. The truth is that ‘character education’ is wholly unsubstantiated. Nothing in either theory or practice supports it. Research on the subject has yet to turn up one peer-reviewed study demonstrating any scientifically-validated need for character education programs. Flaws in the ‘research’ showing ‘correlations’ are well documented. The peerreviewed studies that have been done show character education programs to be not merely ineffectual, but negatively correlated with results! But apparently, all that is required in order to get popular support and adoption by most Boards of Education is a slick marketing campaign, complete with entreaties to emotional and fear issues and a healthy dose of language from pop psychology and a wink to religion.Who could object to ‘character education’, right?

Today’s character education would seem to fall right in line with a string of similarly flawed and famously failed school programs: religious education, moral education, values education, etc. Indeed, contrary to Ms Suchy-Dicey’s claim that “[the reason] school districts may have ignored moral development has to do with the revival and transformation of the social conscience in the 20th century”, moral education failed because it was fundamentally impotent.

Undeterred by deficit of theory, inability to demonstrate need or lack of results, character education programs abound, each trotting out entirely different lists of politically-entangled core values and the means for implementing them! Their dissensions from one another’s goals, and criticisms of each other is enlightening. Certainly it is unfortunate for the entire field that there is no valid psychological definition of ‘character’. The term has no clinical meaning – which probably also explains why there can be no way to measure if an individual has a deficit of it, or if a school program can improve it. If there was anything quantifiable, one might be able to judge the benefit of one approach over the other – or any benefit at all.

It is also telling, perhaps, that the one thing the competing programs all agree on is that the end goal is the child/future employee’s compliance with authority, and conformity with conservative values. Is that how we wish to define the greatness of our national character these days?What about the spirit of inquiry, independence and innovation, which truly defines great character for a great nation? On the much-lauded Magic School Bus TV show, the class slogan is “Get Messy, Take Risks,MakeMistakes” – just the opposite of the stated goals on character education lists. JohnHolt says in How Children Fail, “Teachers and schools tend to mistake good behavior for good character.What they prize is docility, suggestibility; the child who will do what he is told; or even better, the child who will do what is wanted without even having to be told. They value most in children what children least value in themselves. Small wonder that their effort to build character is such a failure; they don’t know it when they see it.”

Slick marketing is not enough to justify exposing our children to such an unknown, ideologically-driven policy as ‘character education’. As far as the schools go, even if character education could be proven to achieve its conservative aims, public education has no business taking the culture wars to children.

What should schools be focusing on, instead? Ms Suchy-Dicey suggests a morals rewards program, oblivious to the ‘unintended results paradox’ of any such behavioral program. In Effects of Rewards on Children’s Prosocial Motivation: A Socialization Study, Richard A. Fabes et al found: “In a troubling study conducted by Joan Grusec at the University of Toronto, young children who were frequently praised for displays of generosity tended to be slightly less generous on an everyday basis than other children were. Every time they heard ‘Good sharing!’ or ‘I’m so proud of you for helping,’ they became a little less interested in sharing or helping. Those actions came to be seen not as something valuable in their own right, but as something they had to do to get that reaction again from an adult. Generosity became a means to an end.”

On the contrary, anyone well read in the area of social behavior understands what the best academic minds in the business recommend: 1) Provide an even playing field by correcting antagonistic factors in the social structure; 2) Offer a fair, well-funded educational environment; 3) Present solid, verifiable facts; 4) Train in the critical thinking skills to separate the ‘angles’ and hype from the truth; and finally 5) Let children decide for themselves what kind of society they will create when they are grown.

In sum, character education sure sounds good – if only it worked. But isn’t it time for some real investigative reporting into the claims of character education, instead of all the cheerleading?


Tallis and the Missing Self

DEAR EDITOR: In ‘Saving the Self’ (Philosophy Now 63), Raymond Tallis strains to define the self in an attempt to defend its existence. But by trying to exhaust the subject, he exhausts the reader. Surely, any meaningful philosophical quest must be deep, rather than long or thinly spread.

To me the core of human self is empathy, and closely related to it compassion, of which Schopenhauer has made much. Without empathy the self remains fragmented, empty and oppressed by a sense of futility. Empathy is conspicuous in Tallis’ intellectualised universe only by its absence. Heinz Kohut (in The Analy-sis of the Self for example) saw a lack of empathy as a fundamental disturbance in a narcissistic personality. Narcissus, in real life as well as in the myth, dies ‘unmirrored’ (and ‘unmirroring’) whilst gazing at his own superficial image – an existential tragedy par excellence.


Gettier Lettier

DEAR EDITOR: In the article ‘The Gettier Problem: No Longer a Problem’ (Issue 63) Lukasz Lozanski claims to refute Edmund Gettier’s alleged examples of justified true beliefs which are not knowledge. He overlooked one important point in Gettier’s first example, and in so doing failed to refute it.

In Gettier’s first example, Smith is said to justifiably believe that Jones will get the job, and also that Jones has ten coins in his pocket, while unknowingly having ten coins in his own pocket and being about to get the job himself. Smith therefore justifiably believes the true statement “the man who will get the job has ten coins in his pocket” while not knowing it. Lozanski suggests that ‘the man’ refers either to Smith or Jones. According to Lozanski, in the first case the statement would be unjustified (Smith has no justification to believe he will get the job), and in the second the statement would be false (Jones will not get the job): thus the statement can not be said to be an example of justified true belief, and so this Gettier example proves nothing. However, the statement “the man who will get the job has ten coins in his pocket” does not refer to Smith or Jones. Rather, it refers to the state of any man who will get the job (thus not Smith, Jones, or any individual). As such, it does express both a true and a justified belief without qualifying as knowledge.


Illogical Lo

DEAR EDITOR: Lo’s train of thought (PN 63) starts “If I get through to Friday…” As the hangman proved on Tuesday, that was an unsustainable assumption.


Identity Parade

DEAR EDITOR: In his thought-provoking piece in Issue 62 about the conundrum of the continuity of identity, Professor Emeritus Michael Allen Fox discusses the possibility that the solution might lie in our DNA. As he points out, DNA seems like a tempting physical carrier for our personal identity. The main argument he raises against this notion is that 90%of the cells in your body are of bacterial origin, so that, from the standpoint of genetic coding, only ten percent of you is really you. Unfortunately, this argument is incorrect on two counts.

First, although it is true that 90%of the cells in our bodies are bacterial, we should remember that each bacterium contains only one thousandth the amount of DNA of a human cell. Thus, circa 99% of the DNA in our body is still really ours!

Second, there is convincing evidence that the set of microbiota inhabiting our skin and body cavities is in large part conditioned by our own unique genome.

We start life as single cell, around one nanogram in mass, and are born weighing approximately 3kg.Where does all this extra mass come from? It derives from the environment, of course, via our mothers. During the gestation process, our genome provides the information necessary to rearrange and transform the elemental molecules provided by maternal nutrition into the diverse, unique states of matter that constitute ourselves. Likewise, after birth, the same genome ‘selects’ the bacteria that will make up our microbiota from the innumerable colonies we come into contact with.

Thus, the argument presented by Professor Fox does not hold scientific water. Should we therefore accept a DNA-centric point of view concerning human identity? Alas, no: there are other objections. For instance, identical twins have identical genomes and yet are clearly different persons. In fact, they differ in their precise environment, which thus becomes a critical co-determinant of one’s identity. Indeed, recent data indicates that the genome itself may be modified by our life experiences.

Fifty years ago the great evolutionist Theodosius Dobzhansky pointed out in his delightful book The Biological Basis of Human Freedom that our phenotypes (who we are – including our bodies, our intellects, our emotions and, of course, our responsible actions) are at any given moment determined by our genotypes and our life histories. Our genotypes are stored in our genomes. On the other hand our life histories are registered both in our genomes and also in the synaptic arrangements of our brains. Thus combined, genome and brain permit the continuity of selves along human lives.Would it then be too fanciful to postulate, in analogy with the space-time continuum, that the locus of our personal identities is a ‘genome-environment continuum’?


DEAR EDITOR: Your fine publication outdid itself with Issue 62 (Who Are You?). Articles by Harrison and Fox were especially cogent. Regarding Fox, it is both amusing and dismaying to see us still mired in some form of mechanical reductionism (biological, chemical, physical, brain, DNA, etc) versus emergent property irreductionism (spirit, soul, mind) in our framing of matters related to identity, causation, intention and the like. A definition of self as an activity is indeed a good idea that might offer some ways out of this cage. However, while Fox would have it that questions of what constitutes a person are the territory of philosophy, I suggest that that perspective may be a little self-serving. Reading psychology might in fact save Fox and his philosophical colleagues a whole lot of time. George Kelly, Don Bannister, Joseph Rychlak and many other psychologists defined the self as a construct and hence a process decades ago, and have thoroughly investigated this conception in thousands of experimental and clinicalobservational studies. The subsequent theoretical position is now referred to as constructivism, personal construct psychology, logical learning theory, and other monikers. Themeta-construct of all these approaches is one of an anticipatory and process-oriented approach to life, and relativism in the sense that things (‘events’) are only knowable through a knowing system – in our case, a system of cognitive constructs organized in a particular fashion.

Thus ‘self’ is a construct used to organise the world. It is different according to time, place, cultural constraint and tradition, the life of an individual and myriad other variables. In these senses, ‘self’ is no different than any other construct, say ‘car’ or ‘sock’. The self is a psychologically- generated organizing process (and bipolar, by the way: self must also imply not-self). As Kelly noted in The Psychology of Personal Constructs (1955): “A person’s processes are psychologically channelized by the ways in which he anticipates events.” A self is one such tool of anticipation.


DEAR EDITOR: I rather liked Michael Allen Fox’s conclusion that the relevant continuity for personal identity is ‘responsible action’, but I am still puzzled.

First, he earlier rejected the concept of a spirit or soul. But the existentialist, no more than anyone else, can hardly be held ‘responsible’ without such a thing. If he has no choosing essence or spirit, any action, including all human activities and processes of the mind, must simply be the effect of purely physical states and causes preceding it. Nothing ‘responsible’ there, Officer Krupke.

Second, in what way does a ‘process’, which Fox’s person has become, or a fictional character, which he also seems to think exists, exist more substantially than a soul/spirit, whose existence he rejects?


The Myths of Trainer

DEAR EDITOR: I enjoyed reading Chad Trainer’s ‘Treason to Truth: The Myths of Plato’ (Issue 62), in which he demolishes Plato’s reliance upon myth with great care. I must however take issue with his attribution of ‘pragmatism’ to Plato, as well as his characterization of pragmatism as “among philosophy’s ‘domestic’ arch-enemies.”

It appears to me that Trainer accepts Bertrand Russell’s characterization of pragmatism as the doctrine that a claim is true if its consequences are pleasant. Thus, Russell argued, in Stalinist Russia, the claim that Trotsky is a traitor is true because the consequences of believing otherwise are very unpleasant. It was Russell’s consistent mischaracterization of pragmatism, despite numerous efforts to correct him, that led John Dewey to say of Russell, “You know, he makes me sore.” This was as close to an angry denunciation as the genial and eventempered Dewey ever got.

Pragmatists like Dewey do not believe that a claim is true if the consequences of its belief are pleasant. Rather, they believe that claims are instruments designed to further action. A claim is valid (ie one is warranted in believing it) if it solves the problem for which it was created. Factual claims are created for one purpose; ethical or aesthetic claims are created for others. Thus anyone who believes a myth is true because it inspires courage is misusing a particular type of instrument. Malformed beliefs such as this often generate future problems for those who believe them. This shouldn’t be surprising: after all, for a person who believes a factual claim on illegitimate or irrational grounds, the problem justifying the creation of the claim – the need to understand how the world works – has not really been solved.

I urge Chad Trainer to give Dewey and his fellow pragmatists the same close and careful reading he has obviously given to Plato. He might find that, far from being an arch-enemy of philosophy, pragmatism is the solution to many of the problems philosophers have faced since ancient times.


DEAR EDITOR: Is Chad Trainer (‘Treason to Truth: The Myths of Plato’) not aware of Plato’s historical setting? Plato was a disciple of Socrates, and Socrates was condemned to death for subverting the Greek gods. Does Trainer now expect Plato to promote atheism as vigorously as did Feuerbach and Marx?

Moreover, terms like ‘treason’, ‘archenemies’ and ‘moles planted by enemy nations’ are strong language. As an exercise for his undergraduate class, Trainer can hand each student a couple of chapters of Plato with instructions to underline the sexist, racist and elitist comments. By today’s standards of political correctness, Plato is merely another Dead White Male. But doesn’t he deserve a more sympathetic reading than that?


Zealotry and Other Sins

DEAR EDITOR: Mark Vernon in his review of The God Delusion, Issue 62, is so eager to accuse Richard Dawkins of every deadly sin that he literally stumbles over himself and straight into non sequitur and unjustified assumptions. For example, how does Dawkins’ desire to “raise consciousness of the ‘immorality’ of ‘branding’ young children with the religion of their parents” threaten to “encourage the kind of social engineering which would force the clumsy hand of government between parents and their children”? Vernon doesn’t say, and neither does he consider the possibility that it is the parents who might be influenced to change the way they teach their children about religion. Furthermore, why does Vernon assume that ‘social engineering’ is a bad thing? Are literacy programs a bad thing? Vernon should also reconsider his unspoken assumption that parents will always do what is best for their children. Sadly, there are parents who are incompetent or downright abusive, and their children deserve the concern and protection of others in their community. Sometimes this is a life-anddeath issue, as when children are denied medical care for religious reasons.


DEAR EDITOR: I was appalled by the intellectual laziness of Mark Vernon’s attack on Richard Dawkins. For only one example, Vernon brings up the issues of the atrocities committed by Stalin and Hitler, and says that Dawkins quotes Sam Harris about this. Rather than addressing Harris’ argument, or even saying what the argument is, Vernon says that Harris’ The End of Faith contains “contemplation of the possibility of nukingMuslims.” Here Vernon commits two fallacies: an ad hominem argument dismissing Harris because he holds a distasteful position on another issue; and guilt by association by implying that this also reflects badly on Dawkins. That’s not the worst of it though: Vernon presumably intends his readers to think that ‘contemplation’ means ‘advocacy’; but Harris says on p.129 that such an action would be an “unthinkable crime”. He raises the possibility not to say that it would be a good thing, but to argue that religion could ultimately be responsible for a breakdown of nuclear deterrence, with horrific consequences, no matter what we do.

The sort of thinking displayed in Vernon’s review is disturbingly common among Dawkins’ critics. It seems the majority have done nothing but produce red herrings, misrepresentations and complaints about style which ignore the substance of Dawkins’ work. Dawkins notes at the beginning of his book that we seem to have taboos about the frank discussion of religion. Do his critics see their behaviour as just retribution for his breaking of those taboos?


DEAR EDITOR: There was a little old lady who every morning stepped onto her front porch, raised her arms to the sky and shouted “PRAISE THE LORD!”

One day an atheist moved into the house next door. He became irritated at the little old lady. Every morning he’d step onto his front porch after her and yell “THERE IS NO LORD!” Time passed, with the two of them carrying on this way every day.

One morning in the middle of winter, the little old lady stepped onto her front porch and shouted: “PRAISE THE LORD! Please Lord, I have no food and I am starving. Provide for me, O Lord!”

The next morning she stepped out onto her porch and there were two huge bags of groceries sitting there. “PRAISE THE LORD!” she cried out, “He has provided groceries for me!”

The neighbour jumped out of the hedge and shouted: “HA! HA! THERE ISNOLORD! I bought those groceries!!”

The little old lady threw her arms into the air and shouted: “PRAISE THE LORD! He has provided me with groceries and made the Devil pay for them!”


DEAR EDITOR: I thought the readers might enjoy this anecdote to serve as information for a philosophy of science.

When I was growing up, my father, a college town psychiatrist, would caution me against the rigorous demands of a future career in the sciences (I had always told him I wanted to be a ‘scientist’.) Through my teen years, he would tell me the story of the devoted scientist.

The devoted scientist was a diligent note-taker and all around observant fellow. One day this scientist proposed to perform a specialized study of grasshoppers. He trained a grasshopper to jump over his finger whenever he said “Jump!” After some time, he successfully managed to make the grasshopper jump on command. The scientist grabbed his laboratory notebook, propped his finger up on a table, barked the command, and watched the grasshopper jump over his finger. He recorded profuse notes in his notebook. Then he tied two of the grasshopper’s legs together with fine thread, leaving four legs free. He again propped his finger on the table, gave the command, and the grasshopper jumped. He recorded his observations in his notebook. He tied two more legs together and repeated the experiment. Then he tied the remaining two legs together, propped his finger on the table, and gave the command to jump. The grasshopper did not move. The scientist recorded in his notebook: “When all six legs of the grasshopper are tied together, the insect loses its hearing.”

Hopefully you can enjoy the moral as much as I did all those years ago before going off to the University.



DEAR EDITOR: In his letter in Issue 62 on Ramsey McNabb’s moral particularism, Ernie Johns professes the old saying, ‘the exception proves the rule’. He gives the example of the rule that all children should grow up to be responsible adults: if there are irresponsible individuals who do not fulfil this ideal, does that mean we should discard the ideal? Rather, the opposite. But no exception has been provided to the rule ‘all children should grow up to be responsible adults’: the only exception shown is to the rule ‘all children do grow up to be responsible adults’. The only exception to the rule that they should grow up to be responsible adults would be if there was a child who shouldn’t grow up to be a responsible adult. If we could find such a child, then we would have to declare the rule untrue, since not all children should grow up to be responsible adults.We can see that contrary to the old saying, any exception to a rule disproves it.


Further Kraftiness

DEAR EDITOR: Robert Kraft makes some serious mistakes in his letter of Issue 62 in suggesting that neglect is not an ethical issue unless it is a breach of contract. In fact he winds up making the same mistake as those he is arguing against, by treating nearly all acts of neglect as the same. The Peter Singer position in its crude form treats a failure to give £10 to Oxfam as like failing to save a drowning child. The latter is obviously a bad thing, and therefore so is the former. Kraft instead seems to be suggesting that someone could say, Yes, they did fail to save the child, but some people fail to give to Oxfam, and as the latter is hardly grounds for moral censure, neither is the former.

Kraft also says that if giving is ethically required then the poor cannot be ethical. The suggestion of Peter Singer and others is, however, that people give what they can afford to. It would be silly to say that absolutely everybody has an ethical imperative to give, as presumably some must be recipients. Incidentally, it is also wrong to suggest that it is equally easy for everybody to do no harm. In some circumstances doing no harm could be an act of great courage, eg disobeying orders in Nazi Germany.

Kraft is also wrong to say there is not a contractual arrangement of mother to infant. There is: it is called parental responsibility. Parents who do not fulfil their responsibilities can be prosecuted for neglect. Most people would also recognise situations where, even though there is no legal responsibility, there is a moral obligation to act. To stand by and watch a child who is not in your care drown in a pond when you could easily save them would be to act unethically.

I would suggest that the issue of the extent of our ethical responsibilities to others is a complex one, and that both the above simplistic positions are wrong.


Balanced Thinking

DEAR EDITOR: In reply to Jean Kazez in Issue 61 about what makes a good life, and the Delphic Oracle’s command to ‘Know Thyself’, ‘Nothing to excess’ is also inscribed at Delphi. It is this oftenoverlooked philosophical truth which can cure excessive ‘bad’ philosophy.

As a bird eats from different sources to avoid becoming too sick from bad food, such is it with philosophical ideas. “Try harder,” says Nietzsche. “Chill out,” responds Epicurus. “Life means nothing” replies Sartre; while ColinWilson refutes everything with his ‘peak experiences’ [see this very issue – Ed]. I suggest it is the balancing of all these ideas that will produce a good society for all.


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