Ethics in the Outdoors
Last week, our Friday night was pretty eventful. From seven to nine PM the students and the Resident team gathered around a campfire to engage in our first Chautauqua, an idea we derived from the Chautauqua tradition of adult education. The Chautauqua tradition began in the late nineteenth century in upstate New York as a successor to the earlier Lyceum movement. Teddy Roosevelt deemed the movement “the most American thing in America” because of its grassroots focus on educational enrichment and entertainment for adults in a community setting. We started our own Chautauqua series with a discussion of ethics, including a small group exercise in which the students analyzed ethically complex scenarios and were pushed to draw conclusions about the “right” or “wrong” behaviors.
But let’s back up. First was a quick warm up. Like exercising, philosophizing shouldn’t be done cold. If you jump into thinking all stiff and sore, it’s going to hurt, and it’s not going to look pretty. So to get things loose and get those brain muscles flexing, I asked the students “would you rather” questions and asked them to place themselves on either side of the field depending on their answer.
This way they could see their opinions in relation to other individuals as well as in relation to the group as a whole and notice how what they perceive as assuredly “right” might seem absolutely “wrong” to a close friend. Some questions got exciting:
“Would you rather take a job that you absolutely love but keeps you at a poverty income, or take a job that makes you miserable for 5 years and make enough money to be able to retire for the rest of your life?”
Almost all placed themselves in the 5 years of misery category. I laughed immediately, realizing of course that my career choice somewhat speaks for me on this question, and that however many times I might call myself a pragmatist or utilitarian, these students may repeatedly prove me wrong.
In our small group discussions I posed one group a question I’ve been grappling with for a while now. To spare you the details, I asked the students to imagine they were an athlete whose sport of choice had a very high fatality rate. At what point, I wanted to know, were the risks too high? Did one’s family, or lack thereof, impact the level of risk they were willing to take? The initial answers were skeptical and conservative and there seemed to be some consensus:
“Why would I do something I could die from?”
“I’d need at least a 75% chance of survival, maybe higher.”
And then one risk taker spoke up: “What if you loved it more than anything?”
At this point I thought, but did not ask, “what does it mean when you love rock climbing, or kayaking, or professional football for that matter, more than your family?” Other questions began bubbling and the key problem really came down to “at what point does it become worth it, when does the love outweigh the risk and vice versa?” These are the questions that stick with you, that come up again and again, just as unanswerable and just as revealing about human behavior. Ethical questions are powerful ways of noticing personal change over time: As we grow, we might notice our position on these questions shift and change as well. With more time and space, this conversation could have continued indefinitely with little agreement. I hope it will do just that.
The night closed as we ate S’mores and each group presented their scenario, the key problems and any potential solutions they had developed. As things wound down, I went back to our warm up, and what I saw as the perfect example of the deeply frustrating beauty and excitement of ethics as a school of thought:
“You can rescue all of OA Semester 37, or the entire canine species, who do you save?”
This one was sharply divided.
“The ENTIRE canine species, guys, all dogs ever,” one student reasoned, trying to appeal to his peers.
This was one I couldn’t place myself on. And despite this I had told our students to choose a side, to take a stand, say it was right to save themselves, or that it was wrong. I don’t know what I would do. I don’t really think any of us do, but maybe now we all realize that choices aren’t wrong or right sometimes. Sometimes they are bad and worse, or just bad and bad, neither really outweighing the other in any meaningful way. And hopefully we can know too, that sometimes choices are good and better. To choose between one love and another, that sounds pretty good to me. These hard choices will come quickly once we leave OA, and maybe even sooner, and hopefully every student will remember to warm up first, and then think.