McGowan: Diversity? Plato Has a Few Questions

August 24, 2021

by Richard J. McGowan, Ph.D.

Plato’s dialogue, “Meno,” begins abruptly. Meno asks Socrates, “Can ethics be taught?”

I followed Plato’s approach. On the first day of class, I asked my students, “Can ethics be taught?” They wrote that “Ethics and moral standards depend on the individual and their upbringing,” “Morals are not absolute in that they change from culture to culture and over the course of time,” “What one person deems ethical, another may think is unethical,” “Ethics can differ from one group of people to another,” and ““One person’s set of ethics may differ from another’s and we can never really say who is right or wrong.”

Of 100 students, 75 of 85 presented some variation of those responses. So much for diversity.

I will not address the wisdom of those students who wrote “ethics cannot be taught” and submitted it to the person who had the responsibility of teaching the required ethics course. I will address the problem the student responses demonstrated, namely, relativism.

The student who wrote, “Ethics and moral standards depend on the individual,” captured the position known as ethical subjectivism. In Plato’s day, Protagoras, the great sophist, said something similar: “Man is the measure of all things.” The claim that morals “change from culture to culture” presents the position of cultural relativism, that right and wrong depend on the culture or society. Plato, who lived under the Thirty Tyrants, witnessed first-hand how cultural relativism works out when his teacher, Socrates, was put to death. Plato thought a floor of universal moral standards exists.

If my students’ responses were any indicator, this is an age of relativism; and my claim does not depend on what “is” is. Too often I have observed that some notion of diversity is used to defend a cultural practice: “It’s not wrong; it’s just different,” as though women being raped in some culture’sbackwater is defensible.

That’s the kind of thing I heard from my students. But looking at the responses to the question of ethics being taught, the responses show patterns, clear patterns. The patterns are shared by many people, as researchers such as Lawrence Kohlberg and William Perry have observed. The social sciences could not work unless people were predictable, though not invariable. 

I asked my students who their heroes were. The most common answer? Around 90 percent said “Mom” or “Dad” or” my parents.” So much for diversity. 

I asked why they were heroes; The students listed virtues — caring, giving, faithful, courageous, honest and so on. After one class named the virtues, I’d cover their responses. The next class went through the same exercise. They listed the same virtues. Some might say that the virtues are cultural to Americans. If my foreign students are any indication, cultures all over the world value and identify the same virtues. One class now knows of Prince Faud, from the royal family, who defended Kuwait from Iraqi invaders. Naser al-Mutairi told us “He did not have to take arms. He was from the royal family but he showed courage and died in battle.” 

Every society needs and has people who show courage, taking risks on behalf of the good. Virtues are universal. So much for diversity.

All societies have laws and, remarkably, many are similar. I asked my Korean students, “Is murder illegal in Korea.” He looked at me as though I’d grown a second head. “Of course.” Turns out, murder is illegal in every society where my foreign students lived. Note: stealing is illegal, too.

That is not surprising given that the Golden Rule can be found in all the major cultures and their derivative cultures. I drove home this lesson by reading variations of the Golden Rule and asking students to identify the source. One source states, “Regard your neighbor’s gain as your own gain and regard your neighbor’s loss as your own loss” and another states “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” One states that “What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others” and another says “As you deem yourself, so deem others.” One source states that “None of you truly have faith if you do not desire for your brother that which you desire for yourself” and another says “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.” The sources (Taoism, Christianity, Confucianism, Sikhism, the Quran and the Talmud, respectively) suggest that cultures have the same broad moral injunction. 

And what if ethics and morals are not thought to be universal? J.K. Rowling provided the answer 25 years ago. In the climactic chapter of the first Harry Potter book, “Professor Quirrell,” a stand-in for Voldemort says to Harry, “There is no good or evil, there is only power.” The Nazis had power, too. How did that turn out? In an age of relativism, nihilism appears defensible.

It is not.

Richard McGowan, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, has taught philosophy and ethics cores for more than 40 years, most recently at Butler University. 



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