Thursday, July 22, 2010

That Hauerwas quote from the comments (Updated)

Update: In addition to my comments below, I strongly recommend the argument made here for anyone interested in this stuff.
Here is a bit more of it:
As a way to challenge such a [liberal] view of freedom, I start my classes by telling my students that I do not teach in a manner that is meant to help them make up their own minds. Instead, I tell them that I do not believe they have minds worth making up until they have been trained by me. I realize such a statement is deeply offensive to students since it exhibits a complete lack of pedagogic sensitivities. Yet I cannot imagine any teacher who is serious who would allow students to make up their own minds.
He is obviously being deliberately provocative here and I like that.

Do I agree? Well, I'd need more context and elaboration to say for sure but there is something right about it. Which is to say, there is a straightforward Aristotelian argument underneath this.

In the Nicomachean ethics, Aristotle says, very close to the beginning, that it would be impossible to teach ethics to someone who has not been brought up correctly. I think he is right.

There is an opposing liberal view that you can teach people evaluative skills independent of any moral content and then let them make up their own minds. It is usually argued in support of this approach that it leaves students more freedom. I think that is nonsense for exactly the reasons Aristotle outlines and are repeated by others. A good moral education will always begin with moral training, that is training in being moral—not with neutral critical evaluation skills. And if that is what Hauerwas meant, I think he was correct.


  1. I once attended a conference on medical ethics at the medical school of the university where I went to grad school. An older physician/professor made the statement that "You learn ethics at your mother's knee, its too late teach it when they get to medical school if they haven't learned it when they were young" which is essentially what your quote from Aristotle is saying. I agree with it. My degree is in Ethics, and all it did was show me how to frame the ethical questions and prioritize competing claims. The groundwork was done years before, and my professors assumed that. Why would anyone take an advanced degree in Ethics unless they already had some ethical philosophy or underpinning? So, unless Hauerwas was teaching kindergarten when he made the statement, he was just being provocative, nothing more. And to what end? So that his students would be afraid of him and never challenge him for fear of getting a failing grade? Some of the professors at my grad school hated the fact that the university was admitting "older" students, those of us who had worked many years in other professions after undergraduate school. The reason is that we challenged them, often put them on the spot, and I think that's a good thing and in the long run did them a favor because it forced them to constantly re-examine and prevented them from getting stale.

  2. We agree that it depends on whom you say such a thing to. I'd put put the cut off date considerably after kindergarten myself. I think it's a fair statement to make to undergraduates.

  3. Yes, definitely to undergraduates in 2010. One can't assume that they've had any kind of moral training.