Aporia and Ethics

As a philosophy student and as an assistant coach for Jesuit High School for a second year, I have witnessed the student participants grow in ethical awareness and intellectual curiosity and I hope to see the national competition grow.  As more high schools participate, it is also my hope that they can benefit from the early experience of its student coaches and administrators when preparing students for philosophical ethics.  To help students and teachers alike who are interested in the Ethics Bowl, I have articulated a few obstacles to be aware of when helping students reach an extremely important step on the path of critical thinking: aporia.

Aporia, as an over-arching state of perplexity, is not an answer to philosophical inquiry, but rather a prerequisite for being open to the possibility of philosophy.  It induces a self-conscious experience of one’s own thinking and how one’s initial sense of conclusive thoughts about everyday experience affects one’s activity in a kosmos politkos (kosmos, meaning “”something ordered”– properly, an “ordered system”; politikos, meaning “of, for, or relating to citizens).  Being morally perplexed opens up the possibility of seeing moral knowledge as requiring more than socially conditioned understanding; instead moral knowledge falls to each individual as a social project experientially based on self-reflection and conscious presentations of moral propositions through their use of reason over merely applying ideological convictions.  Current educational practices mitigate against knowing how to think when the problem is not clearly defined and the methods are not pre-selected. This is especially true for the problems that make up each year’s Ethic Bowl case-studies.

 The National High School Ethics Bowl organization’s mission to encourage critical thinking, civil discourse, collaboration and teamwork is definitely worthwhile considering our popular news media steeped in rhetoric, false dichotomies, and over-simplifications.  Facilitating a period for students to practice and experience the benefits of civil discourse with its elements of collaboration and teamwork is deeply rewarding for students.  Civil discourse is by no means easy to help students learn, but compared to critical thinking, it comes easily.  One way to begin imagining the problem of inducing critical awareness and aporia is to first characterize the absence of critical thinking.  For this I will turn briefly to the Kanzian Illusion:

Perceptually we complete the objects contours to give the impression of 5 shapes that are whole, with the white ‘square’ being stacked ‘on-top-of’ four black circles.  Simply put, we actively fill in the gap to produce the habitual illusion of regular geometric figure.  Upon closer inspection, we can visually resolve the image into a flat impression where the entire white space is seen as continuous and the four black figures are seen as ‘litte pac-men.’ This analogy extends to our individual conceptions of the world and how we often create a sense of continuity which implicitly guides our rational expectations about the world. 

Aporia would be the experience of metacognition when individuals recognize that they make leaps that reason tells us do not actually make complete sense. In the Kazian example, metacognition is not characterized merely as the recognition that there is another way of perceiving, but when the student recognizes that neither one can be said to be right or wrong without further examination and reflection about the object and one’s rational criteria for distinguishing between the possible reasons behind the particular differences in perception. If students haven’t concretely experienced perplexity upon personal reflection, than they are likely to miss the subtle challenges of examining the case studies. The challenge of the case studies is that they are ill-structured problems.  The cases are riddled with implicit values and dubious ‘facts;’ media sources and political rhetoric are persuasively structured towards anecdotal reasoning; and the students themselves are resistant to overcoming their convictions and prejudices.   

Dan M. Kahan, a law professor at Yale University, has written extensively about how the public misunderstands science and illustrates this with the example of public opinion about climate change. While the majority of scientists bemoan that a portion of the public is anti-scientific and unwilling to yield before climate change evidence, Kahan disagrees. According to Kahan’s interdisciplinary research on public opinion formation, there isn’t any substantial evidence that climate-skeptics are actually opposed to science.  Instead, the opposite is true; climate-skeptics do believe that scientists are on their side.  Rather, their confusion is a “consequence of distrust of a different sort”—fueled by cultural affiliation and fed by peers. What climate scientists have said didn’t create that confusion, so “nothing they say is going to dissipate that,” (New York Times).  The issue was not incomplete information or scientific illiteracy – we show any extraordinary ability to puzzle over facts and reorganize them to fit our view – but our deeper cultural world-view commitments.  Identifying four worldviews – egalitarian-communitarianism, egalitarian-individualism, hierarchical-communitarianism, and hierarchical-individualism – Kahan discovered that opinions on how scientific facts are associated with political issues seemed to be predicated on one’s established worldview.  Kahan’s work deflates the dominant information-deficient model (public opinion lacks the needed information to intelligently form opinions and make decisions) that scientists use when trying to explain the communication breakdown in the political arena.  

 The type of problem that Kahan refers to was clearly evident in the first few coaching session.  Initially I let the students work by themselves, only giving them minimal instruction, leaving them to parse out the problem’s relevant information, and tackle argument formation on their own to see their pre-reflective intuitions.  They spent the majority of their time gathering facts, while leaving the values that informed their inquiry implicit and unarticulated. As a result, they tended not to question themselves and their deeper worldview commitments (often the same worldview commitments held by the journalists and researchers who wrote and informed the news articles that the students were using for research).  They handled the information intelligently, but they would seize up imaginatively if another student had another way of organizing and interpreting the facts.  According to Professor Nisbet, we should be cautious of assuming that we just need to make a person aware of the other relevant competing theories and believing that it will somehow break them free of their biases.

 What can be done to overcome these biases? One suggestion is that Ethics Bowl practice should become process oriented. If the ability to handle the complexities of ill-structured problems depends upon inducing a state of aporia then it is best to avoid bombarding students with explicitly formalized theories. If education is to draw a student out of themselves and into a productive attitude of self-awareness and imaginative inquiry, then our first priority is not to expect a detailed propositional answer. Rather, we want students to develop their ability to recognize a problem (not having a problem pointed out to them) and experience constituting answers for themselves.  This is no easy task when most social institutions are based on using formalized rules that modern education has become so quick to furnish students with.  While this type of thinking is socially practical in the sense of creating a seemingly cohesive narrative of how and why we do what we do, it suppresses the finer distinctions that lie underneath – found with the ‘gaps.’ 

 One example comes from confronting a student about privacy and international diplomacy.  The case was addressing clandestine operation in foreign countries and whether or not it is ethical for such operations to invade the privacy of communities for national security.   Immediately the concept of privacy was thrown out.  When questioned about whether communities have a right to reasonably expect privacy, regardless of international concerns, the student immediately stated that ‘there is no such thing as privacy’.  This can be expected for a generation that has the virtual world permeating the physical world as a simple ‘matter of fact’.  While previous generations were raised during the infrastructure transition, the younger generation – ’97 onwards – has experienced it as a permanent feature of their concept of the social world and as an expected governmental tool.  The problem I was trying to get the student to recognize is not that there are other viable worldviews and that he needs to be able to defend his view against them. Rather, the problem was that without  being able to explicitly articulate his reasons for his worldview, he can’t say in good faith that he understands why he holds it. 

 Guiding students to a state of perplexity over their initial intuited position about the case studies should be distinctly different from confusion.  Confusing students would be to merely present them with numerous ways of forming rational opinions.  Inducing confusion would be akin to placing them randomly in an advanced class and expecting them to find it educationally engaging.  In contrast, inducing perplexity would involve encouraging students to believe in the potential of their own mental faculties and have them express their initial understanding.  Once you understand where their assumptions lie, you can work out the implications for the student by asking questions until they reach a contradictory impasse.  The benefit of the perplexed impasse is that students mapped out for themselves how they arrived at aporia and can retrace their steps. Instead of confusion before a problem, they find themselves concretely living in the problem.

Post by Louis Maltese, PSU Philosophy Major and Jesuit High School Coach

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