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A conversation with Chris Bobonich of Stanford on "what to do..."

My visits of American stories as reported from my beat, United States, emphasizes the regional appeal of various topics related to religion. My hope is to catch a flavor of the United States and make a statement on religion in its news sense. I focus on regions, so the reader gets an idea of regional flavors to gain an understanding of the national religious identity. In this story from the Western Region of the United States, the subject is Stanford University, one of the major universities in this area and even America.

Professor Chris Bobonich, Stanford University
Professor Chris Bobonich, Stanford University

A sometimes arrogant attitude held by the University demonstrated in contact with various communication people and sometimes, though not so often, professors themselves. The school is an elite institution with an honored collection of faculty preparing young people for a role in society that serves in leadership positions of authority. This is not news, but is nonetheless a remaining fact of the school’s life and purpose since it was founded in California. It is a school that can be compared in status and academic achievement, so it is said, with Harvard, Yale, Princeton and a list of other fine institutions.

In this piece we take a look at one teacher’s work whose goal is to prepare students in an undergraduate level class in Philosophy to think and to make decisions in their coming school years, and their life after graduation.

Though Chris Bobonich, Professor, is described as teaching a course that is touted in this manner by “Stanford New,” Stanford philosophy professor calls for a generation of more responsible thinkers, it is more fully explained by the Professor this way: "Both Plato and Aristotle are – for quite different reasons and in quite different ways – more favorable to the idea that ethical knowledge is a rare intellectual accomplishment…" Leah Stark, author of the Stanford News report goes on to say of the class purpose: “Finding inspiration from the ancients, Stanford philosopher Christopher Bobonich underscores the moral consequences of reflecting upon bad means to good ends.”

The reason this Religion Writer chose to report on Professor Bobonich’s class is a result of the concrete need for religion to touch on the practical and to engage in the kind of decision making in the real world with its critical skills that the Professor offers in his class. This class in philosophy serves to illustrate some methods of thinking and approach to contemporary difficult decision making. Hence, it fits in a tangential but still contributory way to better or good thinking in the real world, where religion and its purposes of contributing good to the concrete world play such an important part.

A key element for future decision makers like these students is the same as for contemporary decision makers in elite situations, including those where life and death are involved even to the extent of sending drone aircraft to take lives and destroy property in our American strategic international work of settling various conflict situations. This is what the Professor makes as one of his key points for the class, and probably the major emphasis he holds for decision making at many levels: "Maybe we shouldn't get very much credit for doing the right thing, even if we are doing the right thing, if we do it unreflectively," Bobonich argued.

This is one of the questions asked of Professor Bobonich during the course of this Religion Writers conversations with him (by email).

Peter Menkin: Talk a little about teaching students, especially the Stanford student, and of course students in general.

Professor Chris Bobonich: What I think is absolutely vital is to get the student to reflect on what they think and what they do with it. To think on questions like: one doesn’t go to a philosopher to (find out) why there is an earthquake. We don’t have a special science as to why knowledge is possible. These are paradigmatic questions.

We are going to find answers to these questions. We are going to find out what we think about them. It may seem trivial. What I am going to try to show them that’s false, they are going to wind up puzzled by what they believe. In good Socratic style they are going to find hey [they] are going to contradict themselves. If they contradict themselves. They should believe, Hey, I have to give up something.

I’m trying to get them to read the text with great care and to think about why they believe one thing instead of another and believe things sympathetically… They should not assume that the only reason why someone disagrees with them is that he or she is a bad person. One thing I would like to do is give you an example of this:

First example: After graduating from Stanford, you get a job as counterterrorism professional. To get attention to their cause, they (those you are dealing with) are going to torture ten small children for publicity purposes. The only way to find out about this is find out which school will be attacked. She (the terrorist) declines.

Do you threaten to torture her? That doesn’t work. Clock is still ticking. Are you wiling to torture her to extract the information? She has with her her innocent six year old child. Are you willing to threaten the child in the presence of the mother (the terrorist you have in custody).

Threatening the child doesn’t work. Are you willing to torture the child to extract the information? Three out of 200 are willing to do this. But if we could save 10 children or 1 from some impending disaster, we would all choose to save the one rather than the ten. In this care, we prefer that one bad thing happen rather than ten. In the torture case, it seems we prefer 10 bad things happening rather than one.

How is that possibly consistent? Perhaps they would say that they don’t know if the torture would be effective. But if they thought it effective would they do it? Do they say, Even if to prevent the ten, I’m not going to do it?

Sooner or later one will say] I am allowing a bad thing to happen when I save the one child from some disaster, I’m not actually doing anything bad. I’m not actually doing something bad. There is a moral issue of doing something bad and allowing something bad to happen.

In law, very few states have strong good-Samaritan laws if you pass by the Samaritan you’re not liable. So if you just pass by someone on the side of the road and they die you aren’t guilty. Thus, both common sense and law say doing something bad and allowing something bad are different: Appealing to something bad and allowing something bad.

The Ancients didn’t confront this issue; it is more a medieval and modern issue. It is the Catholic Church’s double effect issue…

You’re on a train and in the engineer’s compartment going down the track. The Engineer keels over, dies of heart attack. You can’t open the door. There are ten small children playing on the track. The brakes don’t work. There is a button on the steering wheel. If you push it and change the track... If you switch the train you do something and don’t allow something to happen. On the left hand track there is one small child playing. Most of us would switch the track. But in this case, we’re willing to do something bad and not just allow it to happen. So there is doing something or allowing something to happen.

Please note that these are examples that are highly artificial.

In the web site description, this quote noted by Stanford of Professor Bobonich: "Morality is tremendously demanding," says Stanford philosophy professor Chris Bobonich, who encourages students to consider whether ends justify the means. Philosophy at Stanford

Chris Bobonich (Ph.D. Berkeley, Philosophy; M. Phil., Cambridge, Philosophy; B.A., Harvard, Government) is C.I. Lewis Professor of Philosophy and Professor, by courtesy, of Classics at Stanford University. He is the author of Plato’s Utopia Recast: His Later Ethics and Politics (Oxford, 2002). He has also published a number of papers on Greek political and ethical theory and ethical psychology. At present, his work focuses on the relations between knowledge and action in Plato and Aristotle. He previously taught at the University of Chicago, was a Fellow at the Princeton University Center for Human Values, and Junior Fellow of the National Center for Hellenic Studies. At Stanford, he was a Fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center, a recipient of the Dean’s Award for Distinguished Teaching, a Marta Sutton Weeks Faculty Scholar, and is currently Barbara Finberg University Fellow in Undergraduate Education.

There is more about the Professor and his teaching on the Stanford website. It is here:

Peter Menkin: You tell me about morality as taught in your class and how it is presented in the Stanford class--if you like.

Professor Chris Bobonich: There are two purposes to teaching courses on ethics: To know what significant thinkers thought about these questions…and... There are intellectual purposes about morality.

Morality is more practical for we all must make moral decisions in our lives. It is particularly important for Stanford students to know about morality in their lives, because many of them will be going on to affect individuals. They will be going on to be leaders and affect other human beings. It is very important they think about other human beings and reflect about them in the best way they can.

Here are some thoughts about the purpose of the class…

The most relevant course I teach every year at Stanford is a course called Thinking Matters; and this is designed primarily for freshman. It is to give them an introduction to college thinking. It’s designed to be an introduction for making the transfer… to making the correct answer and how to find right answers and deal with right answers. Including the how to find right answers—to call their beliefs into question.

Schools vary a lot in what they do and even good schools don’t have a course in such matters. Otherwise students can just go on and specialize in their major and not think about their [other things instead of major] major.

As the Professor pints out: I also teach undergraduate and graduate student courses in ancient philosophy. For this is a course I also teach undergraduates and graduate students and students in ancient philosophy.

I was brought up Catholic and stopped going to Church in my 20s, and would describe myself as an agnostic. I certainly think that there is a real possibility that there is a God, but I am not convinced that there is. Certainly, I think using philosophical reflection of deciding what to do.

Regarding the Stanford student or college students in general: How many hours have they spent giving reasons for ethical beliefs they hold? Almost none. This disparity is really quite shocking to me.

From the time I was very young, 6th grade, I was fascinated by law and wanted to be a lawyer. One course had to take was history of political philosophy, and I fell in love with the question and text and topic of the questions of ethics. Ethics is practical. I have friends who are mathematicians and I ask why they decided on that life. They said they found the ideas beautiful. I do too. I find the ideas of ethics beautiful.

In Leah Stark’s Stanford News story the writer says this of Professor Chris Bobonich’s work: Bobonich said that in World War II, "The United States Air Force was feeling morally conflicted about area bombing." The dilemma persists with unmanned drones today. Although the United States has the technology to more precisely hit targets, civilian casualties continue to be an ongoing risk…

…Bobonich said that reflection, whether performed by a national figure or by an individual, is the key to arriving at an answer to this complex debate.

"Morality is tremendously demanding. It requires enormous sacrifice," Bobonich said….

….He struggles with the question of whether ethical knowledge can be intelligently gained and applied in the same way that, for example, a chess player might laboriously study the proper moves and become a grand master of chess.

Professor Bobonich claims this kind of work is a rare intellectual accomplishment. It is one reason this Religion Writer claims students at Stanford University, and especially of this class, are studying to be part of the elite in society. In fact, they are an elite to work with this kind of thinking and even as future leaders to be exposed to the kind of education Professor Bobonich offers in his classroom. (The complete article published by Stanford News is here: )

Readers of this piece may want to catch another glimpse of Professor Bobonich’s work in the classroom. The book, “Mortal Questions,” by Thomas Nagel, as published by Cambridge publishing (Canto Classics) is a title he recommends. The Amazon page for the book is here: The publisher’s page is here:

There is a point where the subject of thinking and decision making includes involving one’s life and how to live it. Professor Bobonich makes this statement, and with this statement of his the article ends:

Here is an example of the Reflective moment: One of the great lessons of ancient philosophy is the need for How shall I live. All the ancient philosophers answer that question by asking themselves why and reflect on it. For many of us, if we ask why we ask why we do what we do; it is.

This is an unreflective example: I live in Palo Alto. It is very nice here. What if they just adopted these views out of habit? What if they adopted their beliefs in Nazi Germany or slave owner society? When our thinking is unreflective, we end up doing all sorts of horrible things.

(Reflection is a jumping off place and it is also an ongoing practice of life.)

In a classroom and the discussions I have I do think that often our behavior is formed by desires and beliefs we are not aware of. At a conscious level, on an ethical level, in the religious sense, even the practice of confession…we need some sort of reflection on what we are doing and why we are doing it.

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