Andreas Lubitz: From Depression to Moral Callousness

LubitzOften, I can make sense of a person committing suicide.  Indeed, I can even make sense of a morally decent person doing that.  However, ending the life of other innocent people is another matter entirely. Andreas Lubitz knew that he had significant psychological problems.  Indeed, he knew that his psychological problems were sufficiently significant that he would never become a pilot who is captain.  I can certainly comprehend that Lubitz was deeply pained by the reality that his options as a pilot were significantly limited. However, at first glance I was absolutely unable able to fathom is Lubitz’s utter indifference to the lives of some 150 other individuals, a number of whom were children.

Andreas Lubitz’s behavior stands as one of the most horrendous degrees of moral callousness that I have ever heard about.  And it is unequivocally clear that Lubitz’s act of destroying some 150 other lives was absolutely intentional.  After all, he deliberately hid all information from his superiors that would have justified their telling him he cannot be the co-pilot of the Airbus A320.  What is more, Mahmoud El Habashy, the first-officer was deliberately locked out of the cockpit.

There is an ever so real and significant line between (a) being so psychologically diminished that one is simply not able to function properly and (b) taking very clear and well-defined steps to harm countless others.  It is simply false that whenever we have an instance of (a) we thereby have an instance of (b).  With Andreas Lubitz, it is unequivocally clear that we have an instance of (b). It seems true that he had difficulty becoming a full-pilot and it appears that his fiancé had abandoned him.  Just so, there were a number of positive things that remained in his life.  He was certainly sufficiently well-off and it appears that he had caring parents.  In other words, nothing withstanding the fact that Andreas Lubitz’s dream of becoming a first-officer yet seemed to be beyond his reach, it is still the case that he surpassed a substantial number of others throughout the world in terms of having advantages.

But there is a fundamental sense in which Lubitz seems to have lacked perspective.  With all due respect, 27 seems rather young to be the first-officer of an Airbus A320.  And there does not seem to be any evidence at all that folks were on the verge of making him a first-officer.  Nor again does there seem to be any evidence that folks were overlooking absolutely extraordinary talent in not moving to make him a first-officer.

However, it would seem that Andreas Lubitz was not taking “No” for an answer.  And that configuration of circumstances may shed considerable light on Lubitz’s very calculated and willful act to crash the plane. Andreas Lubitz wanted to get even with the company Germanwings.  And killing innocent passengers in the plane as well as the plane’s first-officer, along with entirely destroying the plane itself, was deemed by Lubitz—who was still allowed only the role of a “mere” co-pilot—to be a way of doing just that. Invoking the idea known as “inference to the best explanation”, it would seem that the line of thought in the preceding paragraph has considerable explanatory power.  Quite simply: Lubitz abhorred taking “No” for an answer.  Indeed, getting even was so much more preferable to him than was taking “No” for answer.

© 2015 Laurence Thomas

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Teaching and the Egotistical Impact of Technology

Whilst in the midst of a wonderful discussion of freewill in my class of approximately a 70-person enrollment, a student lifted his cell phone to show an image (picture or whatever) to the individual sitting next to him.  I do not think that I shall ever be able to forget that moment.  The moment was such a profound indication of the negative impact that technology is having.  Of course, let me acknowledge straightaway that technology can be used in truly wonderful to enrich our knowledge or to be altruistic towards another.  But from the two truth just mentioned what does not at all follow is that most people use technological in either of the admirable ways just mentioned.

As an aside, what happened yesterday (17 March 2015) is the primary reason why I do not use power-point presentations while teaching.  I have jokingly said that professors are often so absorbed with their power-point presentation that any two students in the class could take their clothes off, have sex, put their clothes back on, and the professor would never even notice.  Of course, the claim that I have just made is surely over the top, as they say.  Just so, the claim mightily speaks to the reality that for so very many students power-point presentations by a professor are very much an excuse for the students to occupy themselves with other things while sitting in the classroom.  And this point holds all the more so if the professor posts her or his power-point presentations on blackboard.  And every time I have made that claim to a student, the response is sheer amusement.

Given the present trajectory in terms of the use to which students put their gadgets during class, it is manifestly clear to me that technology will destroy the academy as we presently know it.  And that is a problem.  For nothing on the face of this earth can take the place of the learning that comes through interaction.  A great discussion can be ever so rewarding as two individuals go back-and-forth in the exchange of ideas all the while witnessing the reactions and responses, including the non-verbal behavior, of each other.

How often does a student student—or for that matter a professor—say the following:

“Wow!  What a great power-point presentation. I shall never forget that.”

But throughout my career as a professor, some of the most affirming moments of my career as a professor have come from students expressing their appreciation and delight over the rich of the discussion that took place during a given class meeting.

My view is that technology will destroy the academy because technology is mightily undermining what Adam Smith called the virtue of self-command.  For instance, it has increasingly become more important for students not to miss a message than it is for them to be attentive and be a part of the class discussions.  And we are not talking about a message of major significance.  Similarly, the typical student who claims to be taking notes with her or his computer is far more likely to be browsing the web than taking notes.

The very gift of being human—a factor that mightily distinguishes human beings from animals‑‑‑is that all by themselves human beings have the psychological wherewithal to refrain from a morally inappropriate form of behavior notwithstanding the fact that they significantly tempted so to engage themselves.  So to behave is to exercise a very powerful and profound sense of self-command; and such behavior is one of the very defining features of being a morally responsible person.  Technology is mightily undermining the exercise of self-command in the classroom.  Indeed, technology is doing so even at an institution where the parents of many students are paying the full tuition bill of $60,000 a year and thus $240,000 over four years, which is a mere $10,000 short of being a quarter of a million dollars.

The late-President Ronald Reagan famously asked the “Are you better off than were before?”  Well, in terms of being able to communicate with others and amuse ourselves, there is no doubt about: We are much better off nowadays on account of technology.  But in terms of our moral sensibilities and, in particular, our self-command, it is simply not the case that we are far better off on account of technology.  Quite the contrary, it is arguable that we are much worse off.  And as the saying goes: The exceptions prove the rule.

I shall never forget the instance, when three healthy guys in their 20s who were seated on the metro and were listening to music.  I was seated facing them; and I did not see that in the small section of the metro car that was behind me, a pregnant woman who also holding a baby had gotten on.  It was not until I heard an explosive like sound behind me that I turned and looked into the section where she standing.  Upon seeing her, I immediately, I jumped up and offered her might seat.  There could be no greater indication of the times than the question she asked me: Are you getting off?  The idea that I was getting off the metro made more sense to her than the idea that I was offering her my seat.

A very profound and disconcerting truth is that some terrible times are ahead.  Indeed, I think something akin to a formal proof can be constructed which shows that owing to technology the moral fiber of human beings is unequivocally deteriorating.  Painfully, there is ample student behavior in the classroom nowadays that lends tremendous support to that ever so poignant claim.  Why is technology having a negative such a negative impact upon so very many people when countless are the constructive and positive ways that technology can routinely be put to use?

© 2015 Laurence Thomas

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Courtney Wagner: You Are My Hero

Dear Courtney Wagner you stand as one of the most inspiring human beings I have ever seen.  At the age of 17, and fighting cancer of the brain, you have shown more strength of cCourtney Wagnerharacter, goodwill, and self-motivation that perhaps any person whom I have ever encountered.  There people who are suffering from far less who are yet wallowing in despair.

Of course, someone might say “Look at the tremendous positive attention that Courtney Wagner is getting.  After all, so the point would continue, she was invited to appear on the Ellen DeGeneres show”.  Alas, that line of thought overlooks the profound reality that you were an extremely positive person long before you received the invitation from Ellen DeGeneres to appear on her show.

I am absolutely in awe of you.  For were you to have started wallowing in self-pity the moment you found out that you have cancer of the brain, no could have blamed you.  But instead you have shown a strength of character that is absolutely majestic.

It is of course true that wallowing in self-pity would not have benefited you at all.  All the same, your wallowing in self-pity would have been perfectly understandable.  Alas, what is ever so impressive is precisely the fact that you have chosen not to wallow in self-pity, although absolutely no one could you have blamed you if you did, given the affliction of a brain tumor.

I have no clue whatsoever as to what is the deep, deep basis for your ever so extraordinary strength of character.  But what I do know is that your life stands as a most majestic instance of inspiration.  On the one hand, I cannot say that I have the courage to want to go through anything akin to the suffering that you are going through.  On the other hand, though, there is a very straightforward sense in which your life has redefine the criteria by which I evaluate my own life.  For the perspective that you so wonderfully convey stands as an ever so sublime and significant moral lesson.  If you can be an ever so delightful person in the face of what you are going through, then an absolutely indisputable truth is that there can no excuse whatsoever for me not being an upbeat individual given what are the vicissitudes of my life.  And that point applies with equal force to so very many other individuals.

Part of the title of this blog entry reads “You Are My Hero”.  By definition, a hero display a considerable excellence when it would have been perfectly understandable if she or he had failed to do so.  An incontrovertible truth, Ms. Courtney Wagner, is that are displaying an absolutely remarkable level of excellence—a point that holds all the more so given the reality that you are a young teenager.  Sometimes a quite significant mistake can be none other than not learning an ever so important lesson that unfolded right before our very eyes.

Today, Ms. Wagner, I have extraordinary clarity regarding one kind of mistake that I do want to make.  You, young lady, have been a most brilliant example in the firmament of human life of a kind of mistake that I want never to make.  Psalm 8:2 reads thus: Out of the mouth of babies and infants, you have established strength because of your foes, to still the enemy and the avenger.  In so very many ways, you could be the poster-child for that biblical passage.

Ms. Courtney Wagner, I shall be forever grateful for the truly majestic example that you are living with respect to how we should live.  Thank You.

© 2015 Laurence Thomas

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Technology and Perceiving the Other

Texting or listening to music while walking has become commonplace.  Likewise, listening to music while walking has also become commonplace.  The question that I ask myself is the following: Is there a respect in which technology is cultivating a very deep measure of indifference with regard to being socially perceptive.  In the two examples that I have given, there is a very straight forward sense in which the individuals are more pre-occupied with texting or listening to music than being observant about what is going around them.  And the question that I ask myself over and over again is the following: Is such a posture of indifference in public space a good thing?

At Syracuse University, I watch students turn to texting or listening to music within seconds after a class has ended.  And that means that there is a very straightforward sense in which these individuals have essentially adopted a significant stance of indifference to what is going on around them.

The preceding point can be put a different way, namely that owing to technology lots of individuals have a quite significant posture of indifference in public space to what takes place around them.  And if that is right, then there is a very straight forward sense in which the self-satisfaction occasioned by technology mightily facilitates wrongdoing.  For indifference is very, very fertile soil for wrongdoing.

For any person interested in committing wrongful behavior, such an individual is given a tremendous advantage on account of the sheer obliviousness on the part of others with regard to what is taking place around them.

In view of what has just been said with regard to technology and wrongdoing, clearly it follows all the more so that the forms of technology mentioned undermine basic politeness all the more so.

Some of the simplest and most common forms of basic politeness is that of holding the door open for a person whose hands are full or who is particularly elderly or who physically limited in some significant way.  Alas, given the significance that so many attach to attach to texting or listening to music while walking, it is clear that basic politeness is far less important to them.

For the record, let me be clear: I absolutely love music.  It would not be an exaggeration to say that I cannot imagine my life without music.  It is also the case that I equally love technology.  In addition to having more than one computer, I love having devices for doing significant and innovative things.  But in public space, the things that go on around me are what have my primary attention.  And I do not want that way of being to change.

A fact about human beings is that for any skill that we might have we will lose that skill if we do not use it on a regular basis.  Being perceptive to what is going on around us is not at all an exception to that rule.  Our perceptive skills require constant reinforcement.  My students are typically stunned at quickly I can pick up on whether they are paying attention or doing something else during class.  Well, the skill of being perceptive in that regard is that I nourish semester after semester after semester.

So, are we better off on account of technology?  Well, in the sense of being able to do more things and pursue self-satisfaction to a far greater degree, the answer to the question just asked is a resounding “Yes”.  But in the sense of being more aware and having greater self-knowledge, it is far from obvious that the answer is a resounding affirmative one.  And guess what?  There is a very profound sense in which our humanity is diminished if it becomes mightily commonplace that our awareness of others diminishes to such a degree that we are in need of assistance in order to reach those heights of social perceptibility that 15 years ago was once ever so commonplace among human beings.

Evil is opportunistic.  And a most surprising reality is that a world in which we human beings are so utterly besotted with our gadgets is a world which is ever so fertile soil for evil.  Of course, it may be that technology can be a mighty impediment to the rise of evil.  But that will not change the reality that we are relying upon technology rather sustaining and enhancing those human skills of perceptibility that play a most decisive role in keeping evil at bay.  In the matter of preventing evil, humanity is much better off if human beings rather than technology are the ever so decisive factor for why evil is kept at bay.

© 2015 Laurence Thomas

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Technology and the Lack of Self-Command

If Marc Goodman is right, then humanity is in big trouble.  Marc Goodman is the author of the amazing book Future Crimes.  Back in the day, comparatively little self-command was required of individuals.  This is because it was far more difficult for people to commit acts of secrecy in those days than it is nowadays.  For example, adultery is hardly new.  But that poignant truth is compatible with the incontrovertible reality that technology has mightily facilitated the wherewithal of individuals to commit adultery.  The cell phone alone has been a major factor in that regard.  After all, a spouse can easily have a cell phone that her husband or his wife does not about, where the very point of having that “private” cell phone is none other than to be able to pursue sexual relations with considerable discretion.  More generally, there are a multitude of ways in which people can discretely meet-up nowadays—ways that were simply not available a mere 3 decades ago.

Again, it is obvious that owing to technology it is very easy for a person to have an alter ego and to present herself or himself as someone other than whom the person actually is.  In fact, I know someone in Europe who has 3 credit cards from the same company, where there is an entirely different name on each card.  So, the credit cards make it possible for that person to have two alter-egos.  A somewhat analogous points holds with respect to email addresses.  There is no guarantee at all that an individual is the person that she or he claims to be in the email that one receives from that person.  It is essentially effortless to have an altar ego via email.  And when having an email alter-ego is put together with having a credit card alter-ego, then it is quite clear that an individual can come across quite convincingly as being so-and-so, though in point of fact that is not the case.

Using the language of the economist and philosopher Adam Smith, the advances in technology are clearly requiring a considerable measure of self-command.  Needless to say, the question that mightily presents itself is the following: Are human beings capable of having the level of self-command that technology is requiring?  Well, that is not quite the right question; for there is a purely formal sense in which that question can be answered affirmatively.  But a most striking reality is that from the fact that a person has the capacity to do that which beneficial to her or him, what does not follow at all is that the individual will so behave.  Indeed, the history of humanity is full of instances where individuals fail to do what is beneficial to themselves.

Indeed, when I claimed in my first book Living Morally that human beings are quintessentially social creatures, one thing that I failed to appreciate is that in far too many instances a person prefers to fit-in with others than rather than do that which will very much contribute to her or his self-advancement.  Indeed, for all the talk about being autonomous that philosophers engage in, the reality is that most human beings give pride of place to fitting-in rather than to being autonomous.  So, while it is true that human beings are formally capable of being autonomous, it is simply false that being autonomous typically has pride of place in the life of most human beings.

If self-command at its very best is very much tied to being autonomous, then a quite striking reality is that even at this point in the history of human beings self-command does not routinely have pride of place in the lives of most human beings.  And it is that truth that is ever so disconcerting when one considers the tremendous developments in technology that will continue to occur.  For a most poignant truth is that technology in the hands of human beings who lack self-command is ever so likely to be used inappropriate ways—indeed, in countless many immoral ways.  Alas, that very point is the very substance of Goodman’s book Future Crimes.  If in general human beings were as creative in putting technology to good use as they are in using technology in silly and inappropriate ways, the world would already be a vastly better place in which to live.

© 2015 Laurence Thomas

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Can Professors and Students Be Friends?

Famously, Aristotle observed that friendship at its best should be between equals.  So at first blush, it would seem that we cannot have friendship at its best between a professor and a student, since there is a very clear sense in which a student and a professor are not equals.  But the notion of equality is very, very complicated; and there is a straightforward sense in which it is very for rare for two individuals to be completely equal.  For instance, are there countless many significant differences between professors although they are all professors.  And even with two tremendously close friends, there will surely be ways in which they are not equal.

I have a friend who speaks French and Arabic, whereas I speak French and English.  And we come from two different religious traditions.  Finally, he is married and I am not.  Clearly, there are some non-trivial respects in which we are not equal.

Perhaps what Aristotle had in mind is that with friendship at its best, no friend has authority over the other.  But that move is not precise enough, since there are different forms of authority.  I read Aristotle as holding that with friendship at its best, neither friend has moral authority over the other.  And it is quite possible to have some form of professional authority over a person without having any moral authority at all over that person.  For example, there is a very clear respect in which my physician has some measure of professional authority over me, whereas I have no professional authority over him.  However, I do not see that my physician has any moral authority over me at all.  Most significantly, although I fully respect my physician’s professional authority, there is no doubt at all in my mind that my physician is fully aware that he and I are equal in terms of moral authority.

If my rapport with my physician is accurate, then it would seem that it is indeed possible for a professor and a student to be friends, where a professor has a measure of professional authority over the student but no moral authority at all over the student and, moreover, the professor fully recognizes that she or he has no moral authority over the student.  And the student recognizes this as well.

Now, it may very well be that some professors are emotionally and psychologically configured in such a way that they too readily blur the distinction between professional and moral authority, just as a physician might do so with respect to a patient.  But clearly, a professor need not blur that distinction.  And if a professor does not blur that distinction, then we get something quite interesting between a professor and a student who are friends, namely that in the face of an ever so evolving world both can mightily learn from each other and both very much recognize that very reality.  What is more, clear points of agreement prove to be quite affirming and illuminating.  The same holds for disagreements but in a rather different way.  An unexpurgated truth is that it can be very, very informative and ever so thought provoking to know that a person disagrees with one about an issue.

In this regard, my favorite passage from the novel The Color Purple proves to be ever so relevant.  The passage reads as follows:

A good listener, listens not only to what one says
but also to what one does not say.

I do not ask the very few students with whom I have a friendship any questions about their personal life.  Likewise, they do not ask me any questions about my personal life.  Needless to say, there is nothing at all trivial about the fact that we have listened to the reality that we have not asked any such questions of one another.

Every now and then, the door of personal information may be cracked open just a tad.  But then precisely what can be counted upon is that the other will say no more than is appropriate given the measure of exposure that has been allowed.  All parties to the friendship can be (1) counted upon to grasp fully how far the door of personal information was opened and can be (2) counted upon not to go beyond that point.  It is absolutely awesome if the student behaves that way towards the professor.  And it is just as awesome if the professor behaves that way towards the student.

The perceptivity that is required here is not at all different from the perceptivity that is required between any two close friends whether they are of the same age or not.  For example, I have some very close male friends who are married.  Well, unless that male friend opens the conversational door, as I shall say, I never ask the friend about his wife or make a comment about his wife, with the exception being an obvious issue of health such as cancer or an obvious display of public excellence on her part.

I conclude with the following rather sublime observation.  As Aristotle observed, the reality is that good friendships are ever so rare.  But guess what?  Good friendships are rare regardless of the age difference or lack of age difference between the two individuals.  What is more, it is a consequence of modernity nowadays that it is far less likely than it was during Aristotle’s era (when geographical proximity was the norm) that the best of friends do just about everything together.  A professor who is friends with a student mightily recognizes this; and, of course, the student who is friends with a   professor mightily recognizes this.  Each knows that the other recognizes.  This last point is ever so important.  Just as I count on a student with whom I am a friend not to ask me any inappropriate question, it is equally the case that the student who is a friend counts on me not to ask her or him any inappropriate question.  Thus, a fundamental part of each us having chosen well is none other than the fact that such mutual respect is an ineliminable part of our interactions with one another.  Well, age differences to the contrary notwithstanding between students and professors or, for that matter, any two individuals: The accurate perception of warranted trust to that degree is an ever so phenomenal basis for friendship at its best.

I have recently learned that various officials at Syracuse University think that there should be no friendship between a student and a professor, even if that friendship marvelously reflects Aristotle’s idea of friendship at its best.  Alas, the University has lost sight of the profound truth that intellectual inspiration is so very often occasioned by those whom we admire—a truth that holds equally from professor to student, on the one hand, and from student to professor, on the other.

© 2015 Laurence Thomas

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Barack Obama: The Killings of Christianity and Islam

It is simply impossible for a reasonably intelligent person not to grasp that there is an ever so significant difference between (a) the Crusades of Christianity that took place centuries ago in which Christians harmed and killed non-Christians and (b) the killings that are being committed nowadays in the name of Islam.  And that difference is none other than the indisputable moral and biological knowledge that we have nowadays regarding the equality of all human beings.  And if the Crusades of Christianity (which took place between 1095 and 1291) were not justified, then it follows all the more that the killings in the name of Islam that are occurring nowadays are not justified.

So when President Barack Obama invokes the Crusades of Christianity as a way of suggesting that, at the very least, we are not entitled to think so poorly of Islam on account of the killings that are taking place in the name of Islam, then he thereby reveals himself to be a morally despicable person.

Indeed, there are countless many other parallels that Obama would not dare to make.  For instance, the view that morally decent men have of women nowadays is vastly superior to the view that morally decent men had of women thousands of years ago, nay even a few hundred years ago.  Accordingly, it would be just absurd to say that we should not be so harsh in judging a particular man’s horrendous mistreatment of a woman nowadays because, after all, such mistreatment of women was commonplace centuries ago.  Any man who made such a statement would reveal himself to be ever so morally callous.  Obama never says anything comparable with respect to women.

But with Islam, it somehow turns out that Obama thinks we should at the very least be less harsh in our judgment of the horrific behavior committed in the name of Islam because, after all, Christians did likewise a millennium ago.  It does not take a genius to see that Obama’s moral reasoning here is ever so defective.  More importantly, short of Obama explicitly saying that he is more committed to Islam than to Christianity, I cannot think of anything that he could have said that would have so fully revealed the depth of his commitment to Islamic ideology.

So is it really surprising that Barack Obama did not fly to France as a show of support for the rally that took place by the French people over the terrorist attack by Muslims that took place at a kosher grocery store in Paris?  Absolutely not?

Likewise, it is no accident at all that Obama was a member of Pastor Jeremiah Wright’s church for some 20 years—the pastor who said “not God bless America.  God damn America”.  In effect, Pastor Wright articulated the very conviction that Barack Obama embraces.  As the saying goes “Actions speak louder than words”.

Most white people rushed to support Barack Obama because their doing so seemed to be a marvelous expression of the rejection of racism in America.  And to this day many whites are reluctant to engage in even the constructive criticism of blacks because whites wish to avoid the very appearance of racism.  Well, let me just point out that Barack Obama is far more committed to Islam than he is to the well-being and flourishing of black Americans.  Indeed, other than Obama’s stupid remark that if he had a son, the son would be like Trevon Martin, I cannot think of anything that Obama has done that comes even remotely close to inspiring greater self-actualization on part of blacks.  And let me be clear here: I am not claiming that Obama has done this or that in the name of inspiring blacks; however, I thought he should have done something entirely different.  No, I am claiming that he has not done anything at all to inspire blacks.  Indeed, it is my considered view that he has merely exploited black Americans.

I not a Muslim.  However, in terms of raw percentages, I suspect that I have helped a far greater percentage of Muslim students than the percentage of black people in America Obama has helped.

I have been criticized for calling Barack Obama an evil person.  All that I shall say is that only a despicable human being would invoke the Christian crusades (which took place between 1095 and 1291) as a consideration that would warrant an attitude of tolerance towards the killing of innocent people that is being committed nowadays by Muslims in the name of Islam.

© 2015 Laurence Thomas

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The Best Letters of Reference are Comparative

Nowadays, letters of reference are almost always positive.  For fear of a lawsuit, those who write a letter of reference are extremely reluctant to say something negative or critical in the letter about the person for whom they are writing a letter.  This mentality marks a major difference between letters of reference of nowadays and letters of reference of at least two generations or so ago, when it was perfectly common for a letter writer to speak to a form of improvement that the person for whom the letter was being written needed to make.  These days, a letter of that type seem to leave the letter writer open to a major lawsuit.

Everyone walks on water these days.  The difference is only in how high above the water or how fast the person walks on water.

However, there is another factor that plays a major role in a very good letter and that is that the person for whom the letter is being written can be compared very, very favorably with other individuals for whom the letter writer has written.  For example, if Professor Schmidt wrote a letter of reference for student Susan who was accepted at Ivy League University and Susan was most successful at Ivy League University, then in a letter for another student—say, student Mary—Professor Schmidt can say that Mary is as bright and as talented as Susan.  And that claim gives the letter that Professor Schmidt is writing on Mary’s behalf considerable credibility, no matter where Mary is applying.  So much should be obvious.

But of late there is a problem that presents itself.  And that problem is tied to the simple fact that nowadays students have the opton to “waive” or “not waive” their right to see the letter that is being written for them.  It is increasingly common for students to choose the “not waive” option.  Alas, the “not waive” option is problematic precisely because the latter applicant gets to learn both the name and the qualities of the preceding applicant.  And I can see justification whatsoever whereby the following applicant is entitled to know, via his or his own letter of reference, the name and qualities of the preceding applicant.  Indeed, conveying such information to the following applicant strikes me as a clear violation of the rights of the preceding applicant.

The concluding sentence of the preceding paragraph strikes me as so obvious that I am unable to make sense of why applicants are allowed the option to see the letter of reference that is written on their behalf.  Unless I am missing something, allowing the applicant to see his or his letter of reference strikes me as a very clear violation of the rights of the person who is mentioned in the letter of reference.

If I think that applicant Alpha is brilliant owing to qualities A, B, and C, on what grounds does the following applicant, namely Beta, have the right to know that Alpha has qualities A, B, and C?  Surely Beta has no such right.

Well, if the point of the preceding paragraph is sound, then there are only two ways to go: (1) The letter writer can write a less rich and informative letter.  (2) The person for whom the letter is written can waive her or his write to see the letter.  I am prepared to argue that one reason why standardize tests are increasingly being given greater weight is that it is also the case that increasingly people are not waiving their right to see the letter that is being written on their half, which essentially leaves the letter writer no option other than to write a letter that is far less rich because the letter writer does not want to mention the names and successes of other individuals at the time that the letter was written for them.  And this is for good reason, namely that no new applicant is entitled to know that information.  And it is clearly wrong for the letter writer to convey that information without the consent of the person whose name is being mentioned.

So in the name of being more informative, we have in point of fact mightily underwritten greater mediocrity.  So much for progress.

© 2015 Laurence Thomas

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Time for Self-Reflection

Self-Reflection stands as one of the truly marvelous aspects of my life.   And I am grateful beyond measure that I find some time for a significant measure of self-reflection each and every day of my life.  The usual pattern for me is merely to take a walk.  A good 20-30 minutes of walking occasions a wealth of insight into my character and thus my motivations as wells as my fears and hopes and also the things that I so profoundly appreciate.  To be sure, on no occasion of walking do I cover all the categories just mentioned.  It suffices that I cover one or two on each instance of taking a walk.

As I look back over my life it is rather striking how committed I am to finding an excuse to take walk somewhere; for, as I have already indicated, it is in walking that self-reflection achieves both extraordinary depth and majesty in my life.  Quite honestly, I cannot remember when I did not engage in walking as a means for self-reflection.

Insofar as I am blessed to be a person with considerable self-knowledge, the explanation for that reality is none other than those moments of self-reflection that are a routine part of my life.  Likewise, insofar as I am not a bitter person, the explanation for that reality is none other than the moments of self-reflection that are a routine part of my life.  And last but surely not least: insofar as I consider myself to be a quite fortunate person in this ever so complicated world, self-reflection has been the key to that reality in my life.

A mere email from a student or a friend may be the occasion for a walk.  Reflecting upon a wonderful conversation may incline me to take a walk.  Or, in the other direction, a very painful experience may be the catalyst for a walk.  In the first case, a walk may be the occasion to appreciate just how much a friend means to me.  In the second case, a walk may shed so very much light on the role I played in someone’s life and the trust that the person has in me.  In the third case, a walk may be absolutely key to my not becoming a bitter person; for the walk may help me to see that notwithstanding the wrong that I may have endured, it nonetheless remains the case that the wrong I endured did not in any way diminish my abilities or hamper my successes or opportunities for success.

It is my considerate view that a wealth of self-knowledge is absolutely key to avoiding major mistakes.  Far more positively, I hold that self-knowledge is absolutely key to living well.

Whilst my death does not appear to be eminent, I hope to be able to go to my grave with an ever so profound sense that I have lived a good life.  In other words, self-knowledge will play a most majestic role in taking the sting out of death.

It also seems to me that self-knowledge plays a most significant role in eliminating jealousy.  When in my youth I first read the biblical passage that “Jealousy is as cruel as the grave” (Song of Solomon 8:6), I thought to myself that passage was utterly ludicrous.  I no longer think that.  Indeed, I can see that jealousy has been the catalyst for considerable evil on the part of human beings.

The self-reflection that I engage in whilst walking has been an absolutely key factor in my being able to live a life that is essentially shorn of jealousy.

At this point in the history of humanity, with our constant pre-occupation with this or that gadget, I wonder if people give much time to self-reflection these days.  I look around me; and it appears that people cannot walk from place A to place B without texting or listening to music or chatting on their cell phone.  Of course, it is perfectly possible that whilst at home these individuals engage in deep and ever so admirable self-reflection.  But possibility is one thing and probability is quite another.  Lots of things are possible.  Yet, they are not very probable at all.  While it is possible that I will defecate in public tomorrow, the probability of my doing so is surely next to zero.

Of course, taking a walk is surely not the only way in which people can engage in self-reflection.  Absolutely not.  But there is the following question: Are people becoming so besotted with their gadgets these days that they accord precious little time to self-reflection?  I would that I could be convinced that the answer to the question that I have just asked is a resounding “No”.  If not, then there is an extremely poignant sense in which humanity is worse-off on account of technology precisely because technology has become an impediment to self-knowledge.

Living well entails being the author of one’s life.  And that is absolutely impossible in the absence of a tremendous measure of self-knowledge.  With the prevalence of technology, having tremendous self-knowledge requires far more self-command (to use Adam Smith’s term) than anyone would ever have imagined.

© 2015 Laurence Thomas

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Modernity and Evil

There is more evil in the world today than there was in the past.  At first blush, it might seem that such a claim is absolutely absurd.  And it might be thought the very existence of slavery in the past clearly demonstrates that there was far more evil in the past than there is nowadays.  Alas, this line of reasoning is false.  And it is false for the simple reason than in terms of knowledge, human beings nowadays know far more than even some of the most brilliant people of yesteryear knew.  For example, the idea that all human beings are equally human is manifestly obvious nowadays.  Even the most diehard racist has to admit that not all members of her or his privileged racial group is morally or intellectually superior to all members of some other ethnic group.  Basic biological evidence will simply not warrant such an absurd view of superiority.

Yet, a most disconcerting truth is that in comparison to the indisputable knowledge that we have that all human beings are equally human, physical differences to the contrary notwithstanding: The degree of evil that human beings are committing nowadays is utterly astounding.

If, as most would claim, that there could have been no excuse—let alone justification—for the slavery of yesteryear, then surely what follows is that the evil of the present is far less excusable, given the knowledge that we now have of the biological make-up of human beings.  As I often note, if person of group Alpha is in need of a blood transfusion and person of group Gamma is entirely healthy, then it follows that the person of group Gamma is in the position to provide blood to the person of group Alpha.  There is simply no way to deny that truth—a truth that in point of fact would have been utterly incomprehensible a 400 years ago.

There mere fact that there is so much violence taking place in this very century is proof par excellence that there is a most disconcerting respect in which human beings are a despicable species.

Here is simpler piece of evidence in support of the above line of thought.  A most disconcerting truth that trust betwixt human beings has not mightily grown over the centuries.  Indeed, in comparison to the level of knowledge that basically constitutes a form of commonsense these days, it is arguable that there is significantly less basic trust between human beings nowadays than there was the past.

If indisputable knowledge of the equality of human beings, physical differences to the contrary notwithstanding, has not occasioned a far greater degree of trust among human beings, then there is every good reason to believe that humanity is in big trouble.

On the one hand, the respect for humanity in general has not risen to the level that it should be.  On the other, the ability of just one person to commit tremendous harm against a group of human being has risen substantially.

I often point out that one is hardly a pessimist if one thinks that a plane is going to crash, given the fact that the plane has just lost one of its wings.  Au contraire, one is quite a realist.  An analogous point applies to human beings.

Needless to say, I do not deny the good that some human beings do for others.  The support of Karen Klein and the giving to help the people in Thailand hit by a Tsunami are marvelous examples of goodwill on the part of some human beings.  Alas, it is also the case that we have far more instances of horrific behavior on the part of human beings nowadays than we do of goodwill.

Most informed people are aware of the individuals who have converted to Islam with the very aim of committing horrendous harm to others: Christopher Lee Cornell in one instance and Alton Nolen in another.  Nolen beheaded a woman in the name of trying to convert her; whereas Cornell was aiming to blow up the U.S. Capital thereby killing countless many human beings.  I am not interested in criticizing Islam here.  Rather, the far more interesting point is simply the fact that these individuals used as Islam as an excuse to pursue acts of horrendous harm.  In effect, their behavior is no different than Christians endeavoring to blow up a Planned Parenthood building.  Alas, the very fact that at this point in history people can think that it is morally acceptable to commit evil for the sake of bringing about what they take to be a good is as inconvertible an indication as we could have that the moral character of humanity has declined considerably.  In the 21st Century, there are way too many human beings who are morally indifferent to committing (or aiming to commit) acts of evil that rival the evil committed many centuries ago.  And that is rather equivalent to a plane at high altitude losing one of its wings.  Barring a miracle, sheer disaster will occur.

© 2015 Laurence Thomas

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