I recently wrote to the president of a local college about the possibility of presenting a course on the foundation of human value. The college is private and is run by a Catholic religious order. I am appropriately trained and degreed to teach such a course.
I received a letter back from the president a few weeks later, and I was stunned to learn from that letter that this college, formally identified now as a university, does not teach any courses in philosophy or theology, and that apparently there was no room in its curriculum for a course on human value. Not long afterward, I received from a friend a magazine article indicating that so-called institutions of higher learning around the country had minimized, or even eliminated, such courses. The apparent reason was lack of interest. Fewer and fewer students were signing up for such courses and were instead concentrating on science and technology, particularly digital technology.
There is an old saying: not to philosophize is to philosophize. What it means is fairly simple. We all operate on first principles. We all, every day, make decisions about how we will conduct ourselves, what goals we will seek and what means we will use to achieve those goals. We choose careers. We choose relationships. We choose matters of daily health and diet and grooming and other living conditions. We do all of this on some basis, and that basis constitutes a philosophy, that is, a set of first principles upon which we make such decisions.
One might think that it would be a matter of the highest importance to examine that set of first principles, to identify them and decide what principles will guide us. After all, these principles are the basis upon which we make the most important decisions in our lives. What career will we pursue? Will we raise children? How will we relate to those around us? Pretty much every choice we make as to how we live our lives is based on these principles.
Two things are true about the process of examining our first principles. First, it is a very difficult thing to do. Why? Primarily because, to do it properly, you have to put aside all your prejudices, your biases, those unexamined assumptions on which you have previously operated. You have to, as it were, stand back from yourself, critique yourself, undergo a radical, and often painful, self-examination. You have, in a sense, to let go of a fundamental anchor in your life, to critique, and perhaps doubt and cast aside, those principles that were likely drilled into you from childhood. Painful, even dangerous.
Second, and on the more positive side, the vast majority of people operate on first principles that define what is best about being a human. They live lives of care and consideration for those around them. They do their best to serve their local communities. It is for others more insightful than I to determine how they came to such first principles, but by their actions the vast majority of people demonstrate a dedication to the noblest and most truly human of first principles.
If that second point is true, then why undergo some excruciating self-examination? Why examine our guiding principles when most of us get them right without such an examination? Answer: because without such an examination, it is too easy to be led astray. Rather than undergo such a painful self-examination, it is far easier to simply commit to the thinking and directions of some authority. It is far easier to accept the directions of a religious authority or a political authority or even a business authority. Witness, for instance, the sincere commitment of the people of North Korea to their leader or the commitment of Muslim zealots to Osama Bin Laden or the commitment by substantial groups of Christians to bizarre leaders like James Jones.
The grave danger of not examining our first principles is that, instead of that examination, we will abandon reason, abandon that which defines us as human, and we will put in its place blind and truly undefined labels. We will replace human discourse with name-calling. We will, for instance, reduce all political issues to labels, terms that have no real meaning except “them, not us.” My opponent is a “Commie” or a “Fascist”, although I have no real idea what either term really means. I vote, not for a program but for a person, and those who do not vote for that person are not fellow Americans but enemies. Most of all, I do not engage in discourse. Instead I yell, I shout down, I ridicule and condemn.
This is, unfortunately, where we are today, and the growing tendency of our educational system to abandon the examination of first principles does not bode well for our future. Wise old Socrates once said that the unexamined life is not worth living. We seem these days determined to prove his point.