Thursday, April 28, 2011

Big Upset in Philosophy 1100 Election

Yesterday was the last lecture of the semester in my Philosophy 1100 Intro to Ethics class. We begin the semester by reading Tolstoy's novella The Death of Ivan Ilych, the story of a life gone wrong, a life lived in service to convention and conformity. As Ivan Ilych lies dying, he is tormented by the question, "Did I live as I ought to have lived?" and he keeps reassuring himself with the answer, "How could I have not? I lived exactly as everyone else lives!" Only in his last hours does he realize that the real answer is that he has not lived as he ought, but that he can still make things right and turn his thoughts at last to what is really important, to living not just for himself, but for others.

During the course of the semester we read seven books that are advice manuals for how to live our lives as we ought to live them: Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, the Discourses of Epictetus, Kant's Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, Mill's Utilitarianism, Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil, selections from the existentialism of Sartre, and then the neo-Buddhist Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior. On the final day, I have the students vote: if you could give just one of these books to the young Ivan Ilych, in time to influence how he lives out his life, which would you choose?

Different books win in different semesters. Yesterday the winner was Aristotle. A text from almost two and a half thousand years ago was the one that resonated most with my students in the year 2011. The second-place finisher was Shambhala. The huge surprise was who ranked third. It was a philosopher who in my decade of doing this has perhaps scored one vote, total, in those ten years, everyone's least favorite every single time, the crusty old, stern, rigorous Immanuel Kant. Kant came in third!

I asked them why. They liked Formula II of the Categorical Imperative, which tells us to treat humanity, whether in our own person or the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means. They thought that one of Ivan Ilych's problems was that he treated everyone else in his life too instrumentally. Kant would have showed him how to regard each one as having an inviolable dignity. Reading Kant would have made Ivan Ilych's life go better.

Yay, Kant!

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