Tuesday, December 13, 2011


E. Ethelbert Miller asks: " Might you be able to  develop a short list of philosophical questions that could guide our society?  I'm thinking of the "big ideas" that politicians, teachers and business people need to be thinking about.  For example, what ethical questions should a police officer always be aware of?

Okay, I'm willing to take a stab at this question. I offer 12 questions for E-Channel readers, politicians, teachers, and business people to think about.

  1. (For a police officer): Is the "thin blue line" of which I am a part the last defense between civilization on the one side, and barbarism and chaos on the other? If not us as unionized, public servants (like teachers), then who will prevent crime and the unraveling of civil society?
2. (Let's add one for a soldier, especially those in special ops): Am I one of the "rough men" George Orwell spoke of when he said, "People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf"?" (Yes, it's OK to think of this in terms of the recent killing of Osama bin Laden.)
3). Thinking of JFK's statement, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country," what as an American are my personal, daily responsibilities in regard to perpetuating civilization---and hard-won civilized and moral values in the Western world---from one generation to the next?
4. What does it mean for someone to be truly civilized?
5. Where do I end and you begin?
6. What counts as "knowledge"? What does it mean to truly  "know" something or someone? What are the rigorous, empirical requirements for "knowing" something? Can we "know" anything (outside of tautologies) with absolute certainty?
7. As a teacher, am I personally responsible if a student mistakes what I say in class and uses my words to commit a crime or some immoral action? (See my short story "The Education of Mingo.") As a parent, if my child grows up to become a serial killer, am I responsible?
8. As a writer (especially a screenwriter) or public figure, am I responsible if what I create or say leads someone to do an act we would consider to be evil? (Movies has often turned up in court as the defending lawyer's justification for a person's actions.)
9. How do we define "the good life"? Depending on your definition, is a society (or government) able to deliver this? Or is its realization in the hands of the individual?
10. If, as Hobbes stated in Leviathan, men and women give up the freedom they have in the dangerous "state of Nature" in order to live more comfortably and safely by a "social contract" with others, what are the specific terms of that "social contract"? When has society failed to hold up its end? When have citizens failed to hold up theirs? What is the American social contract?
11. Should societies have a collective goal? If so, what should that be?
12. If, as writer John Gardner once said, the tension in society is always between order and permissiveness, how do we find a middle ground between these extremes? When does the impulse toward order turn into fascism and permissiveness turn into the breakdown of shared values? Was Freud on to something when he said in Civilization and its Discontents that the id or sexual impulses must be restrained for the sake of social order---or was he just an old-fangled fuddy-duddy?
This is just a short list. I could go on and on.


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