Seminar Discussions



































    November 18   Virtue

    Really nice discussion today.  Interesting and stimulating contributions!

    Today's discussion centered around the idea of virtue using Dovid Brook's article: "The Moral Bucket List."

    Questions for discussion included the following: 

    Brooks describes people who radiate an inner light..  What is it that makes them shine?

    How would we define virtue?

    What does Brrooks mean when he says we lack a moral vocabulary?

    Is it hard to be honest with ourselves about our own weaknesses?

    Do we learn virtue in school?  Should we?  Can it be taught in schools?  What might be some of the obstacles to teaching virtue?

    From where or whom do we learn virtue?

    Do we measure our political candidates for virtue?  Should we? 

    Students generally agreed that virtue accounts for the radiant inner light of which Brooks speaks.  We discussed whether virtue could be described in the negative.  In other words, can a person be described as virtuous simply because they haven't murdered anyone, or stolen or been unfaithful?  Or does virtue imply actively doing good for another? A student suggested that people are capable of convincing themselves they are virtuous but deep down they know the truth. 

    Students generally struggled to explain what Brooks meant by a moral vocabulary.  The example we explored was the virtue of  humility.  How would we define humility?  Can someone have humility and at the same time be confident and bold? Students were in agreement that one could indeed be both.  Humility was given a tentative definaition as being aware of one's weaknesses or shortcomings and others' strengths.

    Several students expressed the idea that our pride or arrogance gets in the way of our seeing our weaknesses.  Students had differing opinions as to whether virtue could be taught in a public school context.   Several thought parents should be the teachers of virtue whereas others felt schoools could play a supportive role.  Almost everyone agreed that a course in virtue would be problematic for reasons of assessment, the danger of faking virtue and what particular virtues might be taught.  One suggestion envisioned students placed in ethical situatiions and their responses observed.  Students seemed to suggets virtues are individualized, in the sense that peoople have different virtues.

    Regarding political candidates and leaders, most students felt that the candidates' skill set and agenda would always take precedence over their virtue. Most agreed that it was proper to focus more on the agenda.  Many students gave the impression that virtue might in some way be incompatible with strong leadership.  I hope that's not true!

    Once again, great discussion.  Really enjoyed listening to your responses and contributions.



    October 11  Charity/Altruism

    Discussion around Charity

     We discussed why people give to charity and why it might be important to do so.  Most agreed that it arises out of a sense of obligation to our fellow man.  We proceeded to discuss whether charity or altruism can really be selfless or whether it is always, in some way, morivated by selfishness.  Students were divided on this question, a good number expressing a more cynical view and others a more positve and even idealistic view.  Part of this discussion centered around whether the giver of charity who wants publicity for it is really being charitable?  Is it better to be ananymous?  if so, why?  Many students agreed that it would be better to remain anonymous to ensure against selfish motivations.  Others felt that publicity is essential to inspiring others to give.  The prospect was raised - with irony - that our entire charitable culture might ultimately be selfish.  Part of this discussion focused on how we might know whether an act of charity was selfishly motivated.

    We then discussed whether someone can legitmately argue that the taxes he/she pays should qualify as charity since a portion of them go to social welfare programs.  The consensus was that taxes are coerced whereas charity is a voluntary personal offering, a self offering. 

    Conversation then turnmed around whether the warm, good feeling one gets from giving to others is tantamount to selfish motives.   One student strongly distinguished between cause and effect or motivation and consequence.  

    We then addressed the C.S. lewis statement that charity has to hurt a little for it to be charity.  In other wors, it has to hurt a little.  Most of you disagrreed with this statement feeling that any act of giving should qualify although some agreed that sonething is lost if it is too convenient or easy.

    Our exploration of the person who jumps in front of an oncoming train to save someone he/she doesn't even know as an example of "pure" altruism will be discussed at a later time.


    September 19   Punishment

    Really enjoyed today's discussion!  You are proving to be a class of real thinkers.

    Today we discussed the idea of punishment.  Does punishment have a purpose?  Why do we punish?  What is our reasoning when we punish? 

    We first discussed whether punishment was simply a matter of retribution; we punish precisely because the wrong-doer did wrong, or is there a purpose to punishment such as deterrence or reforming the criminal.  Most of you saw punishment in terms of retribution.  Julia and Elma expressed their belief that punishment should seek to reform the criminal - make him/her a better person.  We discussed whether punishment does indeed lead to understanding and you were largely mixed on this.  Some of you saw punishment as a form of behavior control - do that and this will happen to you.  The idea that the community needs to see punishment so that it will deter others from committing the same crime was also expressed.    We discussed whether punishment necessrily entails pain.  Could one conceive of punishment that is painless -physically or emotionally.  

    We also discussed whether a person who committed a horrible crime and was not caught but went on to live an exemplary life of giving and caring for others should still be punished and why.  Again, opinion was divided among those who felt justice needed to be served and those who felt punishment would serve no purpose as the person had proven him or herself to have changed.  We discussed whether good works could be a "just' substitute for punishment.  And for those who believed the changed person should not be punished, does the scale of the crime matter?  Should a Nazi who killed thousands but has genuinely changed be spared punishment? Some felt society still need  to see punishment administered for the purpoise of deterrence or the principle of justice and retribution while others felt a society willing to recognize genuine change would help others to genuinely change.  

    We discussed whether punishment really does give the victim satisfaction and whether a person's change of heart can also give a different form of satisfaction.

    Several of you tied the discussion to prisons in the US contrasted with some prisons in Europe, specifically the Scandinavian countries.  Some of you also raised the issue of criminals who have served their time no longer being welcomed back into society.  

    I hope you found this discussion enlightening and thought-provoking.  Loved your participation.  I'm sorry if I wasn't able to ask everyone multiple questions and hear multiple responses form everyone - the class is very large! But I'll be sure to reach each of you multiple times over the course of several seminars.



    September 10,  2019   Beauty

    Nice discussion today around our seminar topic of Beauty.  We discussed whether the prehistoric Leonardo was motivated to represent something beautiful, whether he was conscious of Beauty.  There was no clear answer to this. Many of you felt he was indeed conscious of making something beautiful whereas others suggested it might simply be inspiration elicited form the power and strength of these creatures, and not necessarily the idea of beauty.

    Discussion also turned around whether the cave paintings served a public purpose - a community purpose.  Does all art serve a public purpose?  Some of you suggested the art was used to teach, while others suggested a religious function.  

    We also discussed the question:  Is a work of art beautiful even if no one sees it?  Is beauty in the eye of the beholder or is there something intrinsic to the object itself that makes it beautiful?  Overwhelmingly, you expressed your belief that beauty is simply in the eye of the beholder.  even in the caseof Roses or a sunset or... But most of you couldn't deny that there are still qualities inherent in an object that render it beautiful!  Hhmmm!

    If a masterpiece is created and left in the forest for no person to view it, is it still beautiful?  You had mixed opinions about this although some of you did claim that viewing it was essential to the objects beauty. A person's viewing an object as beautiful was essentially connected to the beauty of the object.  Whew!!! That's food for thought!!! 

    Finally, we discussed who in society determines what is beautiful.  Responses included social media, film, opinions passed down... Apparently, at least according to some of you, we have been corrupted as to our ides of beauty.  

    Questions remaining:  is there a real distinction between inner beauty and outer beauty?  What makes someone inwardly beautiful?

    See you tomorrow.

    It was a brief discussion today but you seemed to identify virtue with the concept of inner beauty.  So now, beautiy applies not only to form but to personal qualities such as kindness, nobility of spirit, courage and goodness.  

     Over dinner, you might ask your parents what they think about beauty.



    September 5  "The Archaeology of Compassion"

    Great discussion today; hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.  

    You raised many interesting points and here is a quick summary.

    We discussed whether man was fundamentally brutish and selfish as described by Hobbes.  Most of you were of the opinion that man is indeed selfish but some of you made exceptions around the people we love.  But if we show compassion only to  the people who love us, isn't that still selfish?

    The question was also raised whether compassion is in some ways a selfish act.

    We discussed whether the evidence in this archaeological find did indeed point to compassion or whether there were other reasons that motivated the group of early humans to care for their deformed group member.  Some of you suggested the value added to the group if the deformed individual was the smartest individual or possessed a particular valuable skill.  Others suggested the deformed individual might have been viewed as possessing some special magical or mystical value.  Others suggested a darker motive - keeping the individual alive as an object of ridicule and abuse.

    We then discussed whether we are hard-wired to be compassionate or it is instead a learned behavior.  There was a real mix here among those who thought there is something in us - in some ways mysterious - that moves us to be compassionate and others who felt it was fundamentally learned behavior - usually from our parents.

    Next we discussed whether compassion was advantageuos to the survival of our species.  Most felt it was beneficial but mainly for reasons of added value.  It was not clear what benefit there was in compassion for a member who could not contribute in any significant way to the group!  An interesting point was made when it was suggested that the act of being compassionate benefits the person showing compassion, and this, in turn,  is of benefit to the group.  It was also emphsized by two classmates that compassion and cooperation were the only way for mankind to avoid self destruction.  A sobering thought!

    It was was also suggested that compassion could be a disadvantage;  too much compassion could be interpreted as weakness and the person culd be taken advantage of.

    It was generally agreed that compassion does not imply love.

    It was agreed that everyone has the capacity to show compassion.


    Have a good evening!  And share some of these thoughts or questions with your parents!