Thursday, September 30, 2010

On Intellectual and Moral Courage – Part II

The second site I found which proved useful in bringing to consciousness this question of intellectual courage v. cowardice comes from perhaps an unlikely source. Lloyd Flack is an Australian statistician, according to his limited biographical information, writes a blog entitled “It looks different from here: Irregular postings on science, politics, science fiction, games, comics, history and whatever takes my fancy.”

What took his fancy on May 15, 2006, was a discussion “On the Nature of Fear and Courage.” While statisticians are hardly known for their philosophical reflections, being among the lowest disciplines in principled moral reasoning according to results from the Defining Issues Test, this statistician clearly is an exception to both the ideal type of statisticians and the stereotype that is easily drawn from it of amoral number crunchers.

Flack begins his musings with a critical overview of fear from an evolutionary perspective:

Fear is an emotion that tends to override all other others and to control our actions….[I]ts function is to protect our safety, our very existence. Those among our potential ancestors who did not react strongly to fear tended not to leave descendants. But evolution is a short sighted mechanism and what has evolved in one environment can be quite dysfunctional in another. And it does not take account of an organism's needs other than leaving descendants of itself or its kin. It cares nothing about happiness or morality.

He continues by dividing fear into four categories: physical, moral, intellectual and personal/social fears. He notes three basic strategies of dealing with fear: flee, freeze or fight. And then he discusses each type of fear and response in detail.

While Google picked up on the search terms “intellectual courage and cowardice,” Flack’s site was one of hundreds produced by that search. What caught my attention was his distinction between moral and intellectual courage/cowardice:

Moral courage is the ability to act according to one's conscience despite the risk of disapproval from those whose approval one wants or the fear of bearing the moral responsibility for an action.

Intellectual courage is the ability to accept unpleasant truths and to act on them. It is the courage to admit that you might be wrong.

Flack lays out many aspects of moral courage: acting according to one's own conscience rather than the judgment of others; words or deeds that tell others that they are wrong; incurring the disapproval of those whose approval matters to oneself; accepting responsibility for a judgment call rather than acting according to a set of rules.

His definition of intellectual courage contains aspects of resisting the temptation to believe what one wants to believe if the evidence and reason say otherwise, being willing to admit to oneself [or one’s parents?] that one might have been wrong or to admit that one doesn't know the answer, that uncertainty and doubt might be appropriate.

These are very fine delineations of moral and intellectual courage. But it is not until the two are considered in tandem that they prove useful to the student encountering cognitive dissonance. Flack draws a bead on the many would-be martyrs among my undergraduates who feel compelled to “take a stand” for their revealed truth observing that moral courage “is not taking a rebel pose. Those taking such poses are offending only those whose approval they don't care about. They are usually seeking to impress an in-group of like-minded people.”

In other words, self-imposed martyrdom is almost always less about principle than about ego and the perceived need for affirmation from one’s tribe. Flack continues, “Moral courage can come from intellectual cowardice. A zealot can have moral courage. They don't have intellectual courage.” Hence the reason they avoid classes in which their zealous but often poorly considered and often insupportable understandings would be drawn into question.

He also exposes the disingenuity about “I had no choice” arguments to which undergrads – and sadly many adults who know better - tend to be prone. Flack observes that arguments about
[d]uty can be a mask for moral cowardice. Especially duty to the law or duty in war. Seeking a wickedly excessive sentence because the law demands it or it is what is usually done by prosecutors is often an act of moral cowardice. Currently this is especially common for drug offenses in South-East Asia or in the United States. Moral cowardice is involved in many, perhaps most atrocities in wartime.

Sadly, he’s got us pegged.

Flack is particularly critical of fanaticism observing that:

Fanatics and zealots all have the combination of intellectual cowardice and obsession. Almost by definition.

But intellectual cowardice does not have to lead to fanaticism. It can simply lead to prejudice. To refusing to admit that homosexuality is not a choice. To refusing to admit that transsexuality is real or that chronic pain or chronic fatigue syndrome are real. I'm not talking about ignorance. I'm talking about willful blindness about other people stemming from religious or ideological motives.

No one likes to think their understandings and values could be wrong. No one likes to have their prejudices exposed. And most of us like it even less when the prejudices – if not fanaticisms – of our trusted moral agents, our parents and significant others, are brought into the harsh light of critical reflection. It is painful to consider we’ve been wrong and that our beliefs could have harmed others. It is often even more painful to consider that our parents could have held views which we now recognize as wrong, sometimes even destructive.

Intellectual cowardice is not terribly surprising when human beings are exposed to potentially disaffirming arguments and evidence which draws their previous understandings into question, particularly undergraduate students, many away from home for the first time, trying to figure out who they are. Some humans deal with cognitive dissonance better than others. And some are more comfortable with a lack of definitive answers than others, particularly those who score high on the Perceiving (as opposed to Judging) temperament on the Meyers-Brigg Temperament Inventory as does my students’ instructor.

The question then becomes what we do with such recognitions. Do we confront ourselves, wrestle with our conscience, talk with others to get other opinions? Or do we avoid the disaffirming other, skip the classes and assignments where we will be confronted with critical consideration of our inherited understandings, and rationalize it with ad hominem attacks on the Lucifer who would dare to shine light in the darkness of our inner recesses?

Ironically, if there is anything undergraduate students seek, it is to be seen with respect by others. This is particularly true vis-à-vis their peers but also extends to the faculty whose courses they take. Students who confuse questioning of their thought with attacks on their persons are often merciless on faculty evaluations and usually direct their comments in ad hominem form. Not surprisingly, such students are often seen in less than respectable ways by the faculty member who has called them to grow and develop only to be demonized for their efforts.

The truth is that there is nothing respectable about intellectual cowardice. There is even less respectable about ideologically self-blinded approaches to higher education which by its very nature demands critical reflection and evaluation of one’s perspectives. Arguments that Bibles speak and dictate certain required understandings of the world, that the invisible hand governs and guarantees the best economic policy possible, that the US is inevitably the best country in the world in every aspect are simply not credible given their birthplace in ideological matrices - much less respectable.

All of us are capable of operating out of less than critically considered lenses. All of us are capable of intellectual and/or moral cowardice when something near and dear to our hearts is challenged. The question becomes simply what we do when that challenge arises. In my own life, I have developed a sort of fall back position when such challenges arise in which I simply admit to myself and others, “But I could be wrong.” And I could be and have been. But the chances are I will wrestle with such questions for weeks if not months on end. Living with one’s understandings in an ongoing state of being under construction is not comfortable and probably would prove untenable to many. But it is the only way I have learned to live with as much intellectual integrity, if not courage, as possible.

As for my intellectually cowardly students, they have my compassion but not my respect. I realize that my classes will not prompt every student who walks through my doors to become critically reflective human beings and it would only be a monumental ego who would set such as a pedagogical goal. For those who would avoid the opportunities to grow and learn that I seek to provide, I console myself with the belief that even if they have avoided confronting themselves this time, they no longer have the luxury of naïveté in assuming that there are no possible problems with the understandings they felt the need to protect from critique.

Borrowing from the parable of the sower found in all the synoptic Gospels, in some the call to critical reflection my classes offer is a seed that will lay barren on the stony ground on which it fell waiting for the birds to swoop down and eat it. In others it is a seed that may take years to sprout but eventually it will do so. In either case, the sower has done his job.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

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