|Nicole Decostre presenting her paper at the International Conference for Philosophy with Children, Graz, Austria 2014|
Citizen's Responsibility and Matthew Lipman's
Philosophy for Children Program
By Nicole Decostre
“Hiking through a nearby woods on a Spring day recently, I followed the turning path and suddenly saw a tiny lake, then walked down a hill to its edge as birds chirped and darted about, stopping at a clearing to register the warmth of the sun against my face. Feelings welled up: physical pleasure, delight in the sounds and sights, gladness to be out here on this day. But something else as well, curious and less distinct, a vague feeling more like gratitude than anything else but not towards any being or person I could recognize. Only half-formed, this feeling didn’t fit into any familiar category, evading my usual lenses and language of perception.”
This text comes from Living Without God by Ronald Aronson, professor of the History of Ideas at Wayne State University in Detroit MI. (A book I translated into French)
What sort of gratitude is he talking about? Why such a vague feeling? This is because giving thanks, central to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, is virtually absent from the author’s secular culture.
In the beginning, man, feeble and ignorant, feels himself dependant from forces that overwhelm him and threaten him as well. He puts himself in a position of submission to what he imagines as supernatural. He then develops a feeling of gratitude towards all positive elements he comes across. He is grateful to be alive. For him, life is not to be conquered: it is just given to him. He feels in debt.
That idea of debt has been secularized with the time and has become anthropological. We can see that, for example, in the various forms of ancestor worship of which the secularized form, more reflexive and more symbolical, represents an intellectual recognition for all we owe to our past, to our history. What is nowadays called “duty of memory” should be enlarged.
It is important to fight against habits, practices, values, ideologies, individuals, and institutions that hinder freedom. Marcel Gauchet in his book La Religion dans la démocratie (Gallimard, 1998) (The Place of religion in a democracy), states that a limitation of the religious consciousness goes together with a stronger sense of responsibility. Since Nietzsche’s anarchism, ethic has become central through the individual’s autonomy. Far of being an ethic of sacrifice or of duty, ethic appeared to be the possibility to account for the reasons of one’s own conduct. Religion can continue to play its role, but it cannot anymore base the individual’s conduct on a total submission of the consciences to what it carries with it, Book, Dogma, and Scriptures. Far from fatalism, this constitutes an accountability of one’s doings. A secularized conscience becomes conscious of itself and of its limits.
Consequently, and logically, that feeling of gratitude imposes us a large number of responsibilities and obligations towards future generations. But as we are vulnerable and dependent, that feeling has to be educated. As Nietzsche says in Ecce Homo, we have to become conscious of our lives. Thus, we have to become conscious of the Universe, of Nature, of the Earth; of vegetal and animal lives, as well as of ourselves. And it is so that ecology, major subject nowadays, has begun to develop.
Ecology makes us feel conscious of our ethical debt, which to me becomes a philosophical debt towards the human community. One may say that the ethical debt applies even towards animals and the recognition of their rights, if we take in consideration numerous recent scientific discoveries that – finally – put together animals and humans.
Despite the scientific discoveries however, many people still believe that there is a simple and global explanation of the Universe and that everything that exists is due to a supreme Being who has to be coaxed and who – supreme vanity – cares for each of us especially. That position is easily thought incongruous when, with the help of astronomy, physics, biology, or chemistry, we are able to understand the cosmic and natural forces making us what we are. Green leaves are part of the life-sustaining process of photosynthesis, which uses the sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water to create both the energy that fuels living things and the oxygen in the atmosphere. We dwell in and breathe in the oxygen, we are made of water and Earth’s other elements, and we consume living things in order to survive.
But all this happens only because we all possess the very same chemical, physical, and biological structures. As Charles Darwin wrote in On the Origin of Species: “The structure of every organic being is related, in the most essential yet often hidden manner, to that of all other organic beings, with which it comes into competition for food or residence, or from which it has to escape, or on which it preys.” All plant and animal species have evolved from “one primordial form”, a common ancestor, single-cell eukaryotes. “All species have changed and are still slowly changing by the preservation and accumulation of successive slight favorable transitions.” We all know many critics Darwin has provoked and still provokes, especially in certain religious people who still don’t go beyond the level of conviction, and keep interpreting literally the Bible and the Coram, remaining firmly attached to the idea of creation.
Our debt is of course not only ecological. Debt takes many other forms. The debt that outweighs nowadays the destiny of humanity is the economical debt, which has become a part of the almighty financial power of the global debt. The economical debt is considered as a fatality we have to undergo in an unexplained and unexplainable way. The anthropologist David Graeber in his book Debt: The First 5000 Years, published in 2011 (Melville House, N.Y), explores the relationships between debt and money, community, marriage, slavery, morality, honor, law, war and government. And I don’t mention the others. In short, almost all that weavers the fabric of life and social relationships. Graeber’s book documents the author’s argument that as far back as we can see in the historical and archeological records, people with power have often established rules to benefit them, and have impoverished and enslaved everyone else. Graeber shows that our society is divided into debtors and creditors, and he presents 5000 years of fights for self-interests hidden behind moral arguments. He states that the best way to justify relationships founded on violence is to expose them in terms of debt, which makes debt moral and makes the victim feel guilty. He also says what that system has perpetuated with tremendously violent consequences means for the present credit crisis and the future of our economy. The poor borrowers (poor people of rich countries or poor of Third-World countries) are chained up to the credit system.
Another debt we have is that for our History. This history is made of struggles for survival or power, as well as of evolutions and developments, of personal, regional, national, and ethnic stories. Despite the numerous miseries of History, we benefit of a world built, equipped and developed by the previous generations.
We are also indebted to our education and to the society we belong to. Particularly to the family where children often feel unconditionally bound to the will and choices of their parents, something that is enforced by a traditional education, and by the parental idea to have the right to expect thanks from those children, only by the fact they gave birth to them.
The problem of the debt imposes us a large number of responsibilities. The sense of responsibility is as ancient as the world. Anthropologists have observed it to a certain number of primitive people, respectful of Nature, of the animals they hunted, of enemies they asked pardon to or for whom they organized rites of reconciliation. The chief is often responsible for the future of the group. It sometimes happens that the charge is so heavy that it is necessary to look for a candidate outside of the clan.
Nowadays, how far does this responsibility go?
We have to think of our responsibilities and to analyze the moral problems of our lives.
How can ordinary citizens be responsible for what their government dictates to them? How far can individuals be accused to have been complicit to the horrors of the twentieth century? The network of responsibilities is infinite.
For instance, what is our attitude towards social injustice? What do we do in order to help money of the State – our money – to go to social security or to education instead of going to the army?
Struggling against social injustice, the conventional religious belief is morally very narrow. Its “You must” and “You must not” are not very useful. For example, there is nothing in the Ten Commandments to forbid slavery. They only concern individual behavior (to honor one’s parents, not steal, not kill, not commit adultery, not covet). In his Letter to a Christian Nation (2006) – quickly a best seller – Sam Harris has showed it very well.
What sort of responsibility is that?
If we refer to the sociologist Max Weber (Politics as a Vocation), the ethic of conviction differs from the ethic of responsibility by the fact that the last one makes people feel responsible for the foreseeable consequences of their doings, while for the ethic of conviction one does one’s duty because one has to, whatever the consequences can be. Here, good intentions are sufficient whereas the ethic of responsibility leads to a reasoned choice. The ethic of conviction indicates us a moral life as the necessity of absolutely respecting one’s obligations. These obligations can be fixed by reason, but also by belief, by ideology, by a government, by the immediate interests of the group we belong to. Consequently, the ethic of responsibility is more near reality, more adapted to the circumstances in which a decision is taken. It is more human, more flexible. For example, somebody can be pushed to steal so that they are able to feed their children. That sort of responsibility is the result of a process and of reasoning; it tries to reach the most objective judgment possible. And this needs of course the biggest information possible, a deep knowledge of a situation, a serious inquiry to be able to take the best decision possible following the circumstances.
There is another problem about responsibility: is it individual or collective responsibility? If we are responsible towards society, society is responsible towards us too. Admitting this is difficult in a world where extreme individualism is encouraged…
Primitive people often neglected their own responsibility in the organization of their lives, where they too often saw the result of supernatural interventions. The historical narrative had also the tendency to magnify the hypothetical supernatural influence, as well as the role of providential men, depriving by that citizens of responsibility. In family, a sort of sacralization of parental authority has often undermined the moral and intellectual autonomy in children.
Those deleterious forms of fatalism undermine and deny the possibilities of human understanding and confuse their willingness, even their will to act well.
That is why it is absolutely necessary to make an inventory of all our responsibilities and to assume them consciously, out of any idea of sin or guilt.
As citizens, we are responsible. Our political world is very far from such a heavy responsibility. It is as if the sense of public service has constantly been diluted in our modernity. The responsibility of citizens also seems eroded, particularly among young people. The idea of “common good” is getting lost.
Furthermore, the globalization of economical powers breeds irresponsibility. Anonymity and impunity of the financial powers, the feeling of helplessness of the populations and of their defensive organs add up to destroy the citizen will and cooperative experience.
Accountability cannot come without a true engagement of the citizens, without a real training to responsible citizenship. Citizenship has to be built. If we understand better the mechanisms of that responsibility, we can find our place in those mechanisms and find ways – even modest – to influence our world.
Critical thinking is of course indispensable and creative thinking becomes more and more necessary to imagine new politics in a quickly changing world.
LIPMAN AND RESPONSIBILIZATION
Indeed, a feeling of guilt and our resentment face to injustices before which we are powerless could lead us to try to find a remedy in psychotherapy.
In fact, that sense of guilt and that resentment are concerned by moral, by ethical requirements. And it is here that P4C can help us.
This year, the conference’s aim is to study the relationship between knowledge and responsibility, as well as the role of critical thinking in that kind of relationship. It is therefore great time to appeal to Lipman’s program by which most of us here are concerned.
The traditional school is no more adequate. Knowledge has to be permanently revised. We need an education open to imagination and to rationality, an education leading to a polyvalent society rather than to an industrial specialization.
Furthermore, school is far from having nowadays the monopole of education and of instruction. Young people are much more attracted by media than by a school where they feel terribly bored. It is important to build up a conscience as lucid as possible, against every form of brainwashing imposed by modernity.
In Thinking in Education, Matthew Lipman wants to develop intellectual autonomy and encourages a “cognitive responsibility”.
What does he mean by that? To him, even if giving cognitive skills is a manner to make the young people more capable of inform and instruct themselves, it entails obligations and responsibilities, especially to themselves. In their lives, they will have to take decisions that nobody can take for them.
What is best than a philosophical community of inquiry? In a community of inquiry, participants are responsible of their interventions and of their choices; they must give reasons, examples and counter-examples. Participants are responsible for themselves as well as for the others. They enrich themselves through confrontation with the reasons of the others and to what was first unthinkable to them.
The community of inquiry is the place where they can practice democracy. Each participant has the right to give their opinion, to evaluate the realizations of the institutions as well as of the people who work in them (of their school for example…).
Only through a constructive dialogue young people can acquire a better idea of the concepts of freedom, of justice, of equality, of a person and also of democracy.
Social responsibility means more than giving accounts: it includes their ability to answer adequately to a problematic situation, and to find reasonably new solutions.
If giving students cognitive skills is a way to make them more performing, these better possibilities entail more responsibilities, particularly towards themselves. It happens that you cannot leave people to think for you: with P4C you learn how to do it. Nobody can teach anybody else how to do things, except by placing them in a community of inquiry where things become relatively easier.
For a sound political education, Mark Social Inquiry is the ideal tool. What has been insisted on till today is to socialize young people, considering that society is a structure to which they have to adapt themselves, rather than a supple and open order accepting original contributions and giving them a place in society. In fact, young people should be able to make original contributions to the social process. In his introduction to Social Inquiry, Lipman writes: “Citizens must have a working knowledge of the ideals of the society which the institutions are supposed to implement. (…) Without a clear understanding of such concepts as freedom, justice, equality, personhood and democracy, how are students able to tell whether elected officials or operative institutions are performing well or badly? We can teach students the laws of the society, but unless they have some grasp of the philosophical issues that underline the constitutional ones, their attitudes towards the laws will be contaminated by doubts and misconceptions.”
For an ethical education, Lisa is of course very well indicated. Ethical Inquiry tries to help to understand moral conduct while practicing an objective and dispassionate inquiry about moral problems and moral situations. Lipman explains in the introduction of that book that the objective “is never to indoctrinate, but rather to help people more clearly to understand what their ethical options are and how those options can be critically assessed. Ethical inquiry should not be equated with ‘values clarification’, ‘decision-making’, or the moral dilemma-stage theories. (…) A sound moral education minimally involves helping children understand: what criteria are and how they function; the significance of assumptions; the process of reasoning; the giving of good reasons; the moral character of a situation; the relative importance of and proportion between parts and wholes; the opinions of other people; the interests of the community in which one finds oneself; the need to take all relevant factors into account; the need to weigh consequences; the importance of neither overestimating or underestimating the role of the self in the context of a moral situation; the importance of sizing up other people’s and one’s own intentions; the anticipation of possible harm as the result of one’s actions, both to others and to oneself and the fundamental importance of preventing moral crises before they occur.”
As the quality of information is essential, it would be interesting to use Tim Sprod’s book Discussions in Science for science education and environmental problems. Tim Sprod applies to the study of science the methodology of P4C.
Humanity has never attained such a power on itself and on Nature. Unhappily, the search for immediate profit dominates economy and risks to take on it a destructive power without a limit or conscience. It has become of vital importance to build up a sense of global responsibility. Pedagogy like P4C is surely adequate to sustain such a project.
And to finish with an extract from that marvelous book of Rabindranath Tagore, Gora :
“You the people have the power, the power to create machines, the power to create happiness. You the people have the power to make life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure. Then in the name of democracy let's use that power - let us all unite. Let us fight for a new world, a decent world that will give men a chance to work, that will give you the future and old age and security.
By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power, but they lie. They do not fulfill their promise, they never will. Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people.
Now let us fight to fulfill that promise. Let us fight to free the world, to do away with national barriers, do away with greed, with hate and intolerance. Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men's happiness.”