If freckles were lovely, and day was night,
And measles were nice and a lie warn’t a lie,
Life would be delight,–
But things couldn’t go right
For in such a sad plight
I wouldn’t be I.
If earth was heaven and now was hence,
And past was present, and false was true,
There might be some sense
But I’d be in suspense
For on such a pretense
You wouldn’t be you.
If fear was plucky, and globes were square,
And dirt was cleanly and tears were glee
Things would seem fair,–
Yet they’d all despair,
For if here was there
We wouldn’t be we.
- E.E. Cummings
Teaching the challenges of morality
I’ve spent a lot of my life teaching young adults. Every subject begins with teaching “declarative knowledge”, the labels for things, the things that can be tested with multiple choice. Then we move on to “procedural knowledge”, getting our hands dirty, and the things you can only know if you have done the job yourself. It is here that morality arrives. We have to consider consequences. And we have to consider that we will not always be “right”.
Let me explain with two extreme moral positions
At school, a friend of mine didn’t like putting sulphuric acid on zinc chips She was convinced that she could hear them squeal with pain. That is one extreme. She saw consequences which others did not see.
In social sciences, we are required to fill in forms in lieu of considering ethics. We even go to great lengths to remove the effects of what we do from experiments. That is the other extreme. We pretend, indeed we are required to pretend that we are not acting in our self-interest and that our actions have no impact on the world.
The world in flowing motion
Of course, all this is a nonsense. Everything we do affects the people we do it with. And we are affected in turn.
This is the lesson that students should learn. They need to learn to listen and to understand how other people are affected by their even seemingly innocuous actions.
And yet moral choices are not ‘pc’ or paralysing
And then they must decide. The students must decide. Are they going to act anyway, and why?
Students find it hard to accept that moral choices don’t leave us feeling good
Somewhere buried in there is a hard lesson of life – that are our actions and circumstances don’t always reflect well on us ~ and that we are never comfortable with that. But that is a good thing. The day that we are uncomfortable with the uncomfortable, then we have lost it. We should feel bad about bad stuff.
But we also have to make choices despite the fact we are not going to feel good.
But feeling bad is shared and it important to recognize that the bad feelings are both valid and shared
I like that Cummings ends with We wouldn’t be we. Because the journey that brought us together into this uncomfortable place is our shared journey. Our discomfort is a product of our shared journey.
I may not like that I am in this bad place with you, but I am. That cannot be denied. And I have to act anyway. Just as you do. I just try to act thoughftully, knowledgeably, fairly. Often I don’t even achieve that, but I try.
And that I act does not deny that all this is bad. It’s bad. I act. That is.
And that it is bad does not change that tomorrow may not be bad. With you or without you. That is, too. It just is.
And to pretend that we don’t have agonizing choices to make denies that We are We. That is bad. Very bad. That is much worse than the lousy circumstances and awful decisions. The worst thing we can do is deny that We are We.