Thursday, March 01, 2007

Why Are We Here?

Copyright © 2000 by Joel Marks
Originally published in Moral Moments: Very Short Essays on Ethics (University Press of America, 2000)

"The prescriptions needed by a doctor in order to make his patient thoroughly healthy and by a poisoner in order to make sure of killing his victim are of equal value so far as each serves to bring about its purpose perfectly." -- Immanuel Kant (trans. James W. Ellington)

This observation from the Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals (section 415) was brought home to me in a rather striking way at my university. No, we don't have mad poisoners lurking about, but there did come before the Faculty Senate a most peculiar-looking document one day last term.

It is standard academic procedure for a proposal for a new course to come before the Senate for faculty review. On this occasion the agenda informed us that the Department of Fire Science wished to offer "FS 409: Arson for Profit."

I don't recall if nary a snicker emanated from the august chambers (actually, a dilapidated classroom), but there certainly was no commotion. The matter was dealt with in routine fashion, for the course appears to be a sound one for the program.

The content has to do with detecting and prosecuting this particularly vicious brand of white-collar crime. As the course description states, "The investigation of arson for profit requires that a large amount of data be collected from various sources. None of the data means anything unless it is properly organized and presented. Investigative techniques such as link analysis are used to interpret data obtained from studying fire behavior, motives, lab results, and financial records."

Naturally the intended market is persons in careers in fire science and criminal justice. But, in the light of Kant's remark, one may pause to reflect: What is to prevent an individual with incendiary intentions from signing up for this course? The very knowledge that would enable a police investigator to detect arson would help an arsonist to avoid detection.

Of course precautions might be instituted, such as a criminal background check before admitting anyone to the course. But Kant's point in citing his case was perfectly general: Any knowledge has the potential for good or evil.

We may therefore, with Kant, draw the conclusion that skill in means is not enough to make someone an ethical agent ... however effective an agent they may be. There must also be reflection on ends, on the purposes to which we apply our skill.

Perhaps the most stark and chilling example in modern times of the failure to do this is the crematoria of Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps. Using their technical knowledge, engineers and other professionals worked constantly to increase the destructive capacity and efficiency of the gas chambers and ovens that obliterated millions of innocent human beings.

But we need not look to the past or to Nazism to find this emphasis on "how" over "whether" to do something; it is everywhere in our own society, even right here in Connecticut -- from the technicians manufacturing weapons of mass destruction that would dwarf World War II, to the tax accountant and computer programmer helping the local supermarket magnate bilk the government ( = other taxpayers) of millions of dollars.

A running joke in my ethics classes, which are typically taken as part of the university's "core curriculum" outside the student's major field, is for me to pose the philosophical question, "Why are we here?" and for a student to answer, "Because it's a requirement!" Seldom would a student -- not to mention a professor -- raise that question in a course in the student's major field. The assumption is that the student has his or her reason(s) for pursuing that field, for example, employment opportunities, higher salary, career advancement, lifestyle.

But in a class like ethics, it seems fair to turn that assumption into a question: "Do you have good reasons for pursuing your chosen field?" For example, "Have you considered a different career path in that field (not to mention, a different field altogether) which perhaps promises greater benefit to society, if somewhat less financial benefit to yourself?"

The real answer, then, to the perennial question, "Why am I here (in this ethics course)?" is, "To raise the question, `Why are you there (in your other courses)?'"!

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