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Philosophical Insights from Great Literature

photograph of tall stack of children's books

I expect that some of you are feeling a little worn down, it has been a tough year. And so I want to try something a little lighter than usual, I want to talk about some of the philosophical lessons we can learn from great literature.

Of course, by great literature I mean great children’s books.

I should perhaps mention that the inspiration for this post is a passage in chapter four of G.K. Chesterton’s book Orthodoxy. There Chesterton notes, in passing, that many great ethical principles can be extracted from children’s fairy tales.

“But I deal here with what ethic and philosophy come from being fed on fairy tales. If I were describing them in detail I could note many noble and healthy principles that arise from them. There is the chivalrous lesson of “Jack the Giant Killer”; that giants should be killed because they are gigantic. It is a manly mutiny against pride as such. For the rebel is older than all the kingdoms, and the Jacobin has more tradition than the Jacobite. There is the lesson of “Cinderella,” which is the same as that of the Magnificat— EXALTAVIT HUMILES. There is the great lesson of “Beauty and the Beast”; that a thing must be loved BEFORE it is loveable. There is the terrible allegory of the “Sleeping Beauty,” which tells how the human creature was blessed with all birthday gifts, yet cursed with death; and how death also may perhaps be softened to a sleep.”

So let us extend this analysis, what are some philosophical lessons we can learn from great literature?

To make things more difficult, let’s also limit ourselves to non-obvious lessons. Obviously, we can learn from The Little Engine That Could about the value of optimism and hard work. And obviously we can learn Where the Wild Things Are lessons about emotional management and community. But those books are, at least in part, written to teach us those lessons. What I’m looking for are hidden lessons, insights deeper than the author’s own awareness.

For example, I don’t know if Crockett Johnson read much of Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason when writing Harold and the Purple Crayon. But whether he had Kant in mind or not, I know of no story that so well captures the Kantian idea that the world we experience, even up to and including space and time, are a construction we create out of the order our minds to impose on the world.

Nor are the insights of that book limited to metaphysics. Consider the profound psychological insight revealed when Harold, after drawing up an apple tree bursting with fruit, frightens himself away from the good things he created by enlisting a frightening dragon to guard the tree. How often, I wonder, do we fence ourselves off from goods simply because we overreact to the fear that others may take something we think our own?

Or perhaps some of you are looking for a more political lesson to draw from the book. And so we reach the point of the book where Harold was looking for his own window. And since “he couldn’t think where it might be. He decided to ask a policeman.” But of course “the policeman pointed the way Harold was going anyway,” and so Harold learnt, even from a young age, the way that police power is employed to maintain the, even unjust, status quo.

But let us move on from Harold and the Purple Crayon. 

There is the profound lesson of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie; that your reward for doing a good deed is not usually the relaxation of conscience, but rather the deepening of charity and so a dawning appreciation of the higher and harder acts of love still required of you. And then there are the prosaic lessons of Goodnight Moon. First on the value of attending to the commonplace goods of the everyday, and second the value of taking goodbyes and goodnights seriously, since you never know for certain that you will both wake again in the morning.

There are some obvious Aristotelian themes on temperance in The Very Hungry Caterpillar. (What with how unhealthful attempts to indulge appetite, rather than leading to relief, merely result in the appetites growing all the more persistent; and how he is only sated when he eats his proper food of a single leaf). But there are also deeply hidden philosophical nuggets. For instance, do you remember how the pages of that book grew with each passing day? You could see what foods were coming up, but not yet see their quantity nor read what the effects of indulgence would be. What a profound commentary on what happens to us when we try to pursue future goods. We see, at least somewhat, the good we are after. But we are insensitive to quantity, and rarely notice the unfortunate unintended consequences of the pursuit of the apparent good.

Of course, sometimes the philosophical lessons of children’s books are more abstract and less practical. Thus, in Chapter III of A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh (entitled In Which Pooh and Piglet Go Hunting and Nearly Catch a Woozle”) Pooh starts tracking what he thinks is a Woozle, only to find as he tracks that a second Woozle seems to have joined the first. Piglet joins the hunt, and before long yet another type of animal seems to have joined the pack they are tracking. Eventually Pooh realizes that he has “been Foolish and Deluded,” because of course it was his own tracks that he was chasing.

This is, of course, almost identical to the story that John Perry tells in his famous and rightly acclaimed “The Problem of the Essential Indexical”:

“I once followed a trail of sugar on a supermarket floor, pushing my cart down the aisle on one side of a tall counter and back the aisle on the other, seeking the shopper with the torn sack to tell him he was making a mess. With each trip around the counter, the trail became thicker. But I seemed unable to catch up. Finally it dawned on me. I was the shopper I was trying to catch.”

Perry might extract more philosophical insights about the essential indexical than our foolish and deluded Pooh does. But I’m still glad to know that our bear of very little brains came up with the raw material for the philosophical insight 53 years before Perry did.

I hope you’ve found these examples entertaining. There are dozens, maybe hundreds, more hidden philosophical lessons to be drawn from children’s books, but I’d rather hear the examples others come up with. Send me an email with your own favorite examples of hidden insights from great literature; I’ll eventually make a follow up post either here or at least on my personal blog.

But What Are We Doing Here?

Before I end this post, I just want to head off a certain potential skepticism. Some of you may doubt that it is the business of the ethicist to be extracting lessons from children’s books. Philosophers are trying to make great new ethical discoveries, seeing ethical truths others have missed! Why bother with the moral insights so humdrum as to trickle down to the tales we tell kids?

Well, perhaps there is sometimes a role for ethicists to find new ethical truths, identify unnoticed principles, or apply principles in original ways. But I don’t think that is what ethicists should usually be doing. Consider, for instance, this footnote in Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason:

“A reviewer who wanted to say something censuring this work hit the mark better than he himself may have intended when he said that no new principle of morality is set forth in it but only a new formula. But who could even want to introduce a new principle of all morality and, as it were, first invent it? Just as if, before him, the world had been ignorant of what duty is or in thoroughgoing error about it.”

Kant’s point, and I think it is a good one, is that ethics is not like natural science at least in this one respect: ethical truth is something to which humanity has always had access just in virtue of being human. We do not need to discover ethics the way we discover that force equals mass times acceleration. Rather, we need to recognize and remember those ethical truths which, in a sense, we already knew. Thus, it is the job of the ethicist not to invent new principles, nor even discover unknown truths, but to give us new and clearer formulations of those principles which we somehow had already.

Computer Simulations and the Ethics of Predicting Human Behavior

A row of black supercomputer processors

In an episode of the British sketch comedy series That Mitchell and Webb Look, a minister of finance is sitting across from two aides, who are expressing their frustration at how to deal with a recent recession. They have run a number of scenarios through a computer simulation: increasing or decreasing value-added tax, lowering or raising interest rates, or any combination thereof, fail to produce any positive result. The minister then suggests adding a new variable to the simulation: “Have you tried ‘kill all the poor’?” At his behest, the aides run the simulation, and show that it wouldn’t have any positive result, either. The minister is insistent that he merely wanted to see what the computer would say, as an intellectual exercise, and would not have followed its advice even if the results had been different.

Although this example is clearly fictitious, computer simulations that model human behavior have become a reality, and bring with them a number of ethical problems. For instance, a recent article published at The Atlantic reports results of the Modeling Religion Project, a project which addresses questions about “the most compelling features of religion” by “turning to an unconventional source: computer modeling and simulation.” According to the project, some of these models “examine processes of group formation, religious leadership, extremism and violence, terror management, ritual patterns, and much more.” One such model, called MERV, models “mutually escalating religious violence,” while another called NAHUM models “terror management theory.” For instance, one recent publication coming out of the project called “Can we predict religious extremism?” provides a tentative answer of “yes.”

These and other models have been used to test out various policies in an artificial environment. For example, the Modeling Religion in Norway project is currently modeling policy decisions concerning the immigration of refugees into Norway: “Governments and organizations seek policies that will encourage cohesion over conflict,” the project outline states, “but it’s hard to know what ideas will lead to harmony and tolerance, facilitating integration between local and immigrant communities. Problems like these need a road-map that can point us towards a better future, and tools for considering all of the possible outcomes.” One study suggested that, since Norwegians have a strong social safety net, religiosity is expected to continue to decrease in Norway, since one factor that predicts higher degrees of religiosity is a feeling of “existential anxiety” (to put it bluntly, the researchers suggest that the less worried one is about dying, the less religious one will tend to be).

While such models might be interesting as an intellectual exercise, there are a host of ethical concerns when it comes to relying on them to influence policy decision. First and foremost there is the concern about how plausible we should think such models will be. Human behavior is complex, and the number of variables that influence that behavior is immense, so it seems near impossible for such models to make perfectly accurate predictions. Of course, these models do not purport to be able to tell the future, and so they could still at least potentially be useful at predicting broad trends and changes, and in that regard may still be useful in guiding policy decisions.

Perhaps an even more significant problem, however, is when the example of comedic fiction becomes disturbing close to reality. As The Atlantic reports, Wesley Wildman, one of the directors of the Modeling Religion Project, reported having developed a model that suggested that the best course of action when dealing with extremist religious groups with charismatic leaders was to assassinate said leader. Wildman was, understandably, troubled by the result, stating that he felt “deeply uncomfortable that one of my models accidentally produced a criterion for killing religious leaders.” Wildman also stated that according to a different model, if one wanted to decrease secularization in a society that one could do so by “triggering some ecological disaster,” a thought that he reports “keeps me up at night.”

Some of the results produced by these models clearly prescribe immoral actions: there seem to be very few, if any, situations that would justify the triggering of an ecological disaster, and it seems that assassination, if it should ever be an option, should be a very last resort, not the first course of action one considers. Such simulations may model courses of action that are most efficient, but that is hardly to say that they are the ones that are most morally responsible. As Wildman himself noted, the results of these simulations are only potentially useful when one has taken into consideration all of the relevant ethical factors.

One might worry about whether these kinds of simulation should be performed at all. After all, if it turned out that the model predicted that an immoral course of action should result in a desired benefit, this information might be used to attempt to justify performing those actions. As The Atlantic reports:

[Wildman] added that other groups, like Cambridge Analytica, are doing this kind of computational work, too. And various bad actors will do it without transparency or public accountability. ‘It’s going to be done. So not doing it is not the answer.’ Instead, he and Wildman believe the answer is to do the work with transparency and simultaneously speak out about the ethical danger inherent in it.

If one is indeed worried about the ethical ramifications of such models, this kind of reasoning is unlikely to provide much comfort: even if it is a fact that “if I don’t do it, someone else will,” that does not absolve one of their moral responsibility (since they, in fact, did it!). It is also difficult to tell how being transparent and discussing the ethical danger of their simulation’s proposed course of action would do to mitigate the damage.

On the other hand, we might not think that there is anything necessarily wrong with merely running simulations: simulating ecological disasters is a far cry from the real thing, and we might think that there’s nothing inherently unethical in merely gathering information. Wildman certainly does seem right about one thing: regardless of whether we think that these kinds of models are useful, it is clear that they cannot be relied upon responsibly without any consideration of the moral ramifications of their results.

“Nudges” and the Environmental Influences on our Morals

A photo of a telephone booth

Richard Thaler, a behavioral economist, won the Nobel Prize in economics this year. He co-authored the book, Nudge, in 2008. The theory behind “nudges” (a term he coined) changed the perspective of economics on the agents to be studied. Instead of picturing humans as rational preference satisfiers, Thaler suggests that we are susceptible to all sorts of irrational pressures and rarely do we decide to behave in ways that can be modeled on principles of rationality and our individual preferences. The “nudge” is one tool he uses in order to see one way in which we deviate from the rationalistic model of classical economics.

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Untangling the “Sincerely Held Moral or Religious Belief”

A photo of Donald Trump and Mike Pence leaving Air Force One

On February 10, 2012, the Obama Administration announced that the preventive care benefits mandated by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”) would be interpreted to include contraception coverage. This decision proved controversial from the very beginning and elicited numerous legal objections. Many religious organizations and religious owners of businesses objected to the narrow scope of religious exemptions originally allowed in the mandate. Notably, the Supreme Court ruled in 2014 to expand the exemptions to the mandate to include closely held for-profit corporations with “sincerely held religious beliefs.” At issue in these legal challenges was whether the contraception mandate substantially burdened the free exercise of religion, as it is protected under the First Amendment to the US Constitution and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

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Defending Normative Governance: A Matter of Language

It is a time-tested notion of politics that the delivery matters just as much as, perhaps more than, the message. It is also a notion that feels painfully appropriate to describe our current times, as the country prepares to inaugurate a former reality show star to its highest office. In light of Donald Trump’s ascendence, and in preparation for the days to come, those looking to rein in the President-elect’s most unethical tendencies are approaching this lesson with fresh eyes.

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