Wednesday, December 2, 2009

I Cannot Tell A Lie

American mythology tells us that Washington said that.  Of course, if someone says "I never lie," you cannot tell from that statement whether it is true or not.  And if they say "I always lie," it's hard to make sense of what they are saying.  But that is beside my point here.  There are a number of ethicists and theologians who tell us that we should never lie.  Kant, for instance, says that lying is a violation of the Categorical Imperative.  That is, when you lie you are acting according to a rule that you wouldn't want others to adhere to, and you're manipulating what others believe, which is a way of using them as means rather than respecting them as ends.  Augustine and Aquinas both tell us that all lies, even "jocose" or humorous lies, are sinful because they are ways of bearing false witness, something we're commanded not to do.

Are they right?  Is there never a time when lying is justified?  What do you think?

Socrates and the Trees

It's always dangerous to assume one knows what Plato thinks, since Plato goes out of his way not to tell us what he thinks.  Nevertheless, inasmuch as Socrates is his mouthpiece, here is one place where I think Socrates is mistaken.  Socrates, speaking to Phaedrus, says, "I'm a lover of learning, and trees and open country won't teach me anything, whereas men in the town do." (230d)

I disagree with what Socrates says here, and it is an unfortunate fact of history that many Platonists have taken a similar position to this one.  I just read this line in an otherwise very good book, David Keller and Frank Golley's The Philosophy of Ecology: From Science To Synthesis.

It's a fine collection of key articles in environmental philosophy.  In the introduction, however, they contrast Socrates with Thoreau - something Thoreau himself did - and make Thoreau out to be the one more interested in trees.  Thoreau was interested in trees, especially at the end of his life, but that does not make the comparison apt.

The irony of this line is that it comes from a dialogue in which Socrates continues to point out to his interlocutor just how much one can learn from a close observation of nature.  He repeatedly draws attention to the trees, the water, and the cicadas.  Socrates and Plato are not known as fathers of empiricism, but the view that their heads are so far in the Clouds that they cannot see the well they're about to step into has occupied too much of our attention.  We would do better to notice that Socrates pays attention to the trees.  We would do better still to pay some attention to the trees ourselves.

Lying and Letters of Recommendation

Each fall I write a lot of letters of recommendation for my students.  This fall is no exception.  In fact, I'm writing more this fall than ever before, and I'm happy to report that I think all the students I'm writing for are in fact worthy of strong recommendations.

I'm also reading Sissela Bok's book Lying, in which she has a sub-chapter on letters of recommendation.  She makes the very sensible point that inflated letters of recommendation do some harm to everyone involved, and urges us to consider being far more honest than we tend to be in such letters.  The problem is that as this kind of letter has become mandatory, there has been something like "grade-inflation" across the board with these letters.  Arguably, no one expects letters to do much more than give a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down.  But the form of the letter implies that the recommendation is not a binary decision but a nuanced exposition of the character of the recommendee.

Now, my principle has been to avoid saying behind someone's back what I would not say to their face.  But maybe I have the wrong orientation; maybe I should be more concerned about the person to whom the letter is addressed than the one about whom it is written.

I take my role as an advocate for my students seriously, and I attempt to do so with integrity.  I will not lie about my students, or so I tell myself.  But if I fail to point out small character flaws, does that count as a lie?  Am I obligated to make letters of recommendation into tell-all sessions?  What obligation do I have to scrutinize my students' weaknesses for future employers and for graduate schools?  What do you think?