Aristotle’s “Formation”: From Camp Lore to Trolley Navigation

Some unconvincing reasons not to philosophize.

"Thomas Cathcart, coauthor of the bestseller Plato and A Platypus Walk Into a Bar, will present a blog series about philosophy for Big Think, in preparation for the release of his new book,The Trolley Problem, or Would You Throw the Fat Guy Off the Bridge?: A Philosophical Conundrum."


Recently, a local public radio host here in New York City asked listeners to weigh in on a contemporary issue: should kids at sleep-away camps be allowed to take their iPhones to camp?  One mother called in to say that of course digital devices ought to be banned; the whole point of summer camp, she said, is to get back to nature.  I said a silent “Yeah!”   

Then a mom called in to make the case that, in the twenty-first century, digital devices are a fact of life; she thought it was absurd to train kids to live in the woods like a Native American or European settler from hundreds of years ago, an experience they would probably never again have or regret not having, because they would always have an iPhone available to help them cope.  I admit that gave me pause.

But only pause.  I reflected on my own experience at camp over sixty years ago.  We didn’t have cell phones, and the internet wouldn’t be invented for another forty years.  But we did have maps.  We had no real need to ever learn how to get by in the woods like Squanto or Lewis and Clark.  So what was the point of teaching us how to live off the land?  Part of it, I guess, was to entertain us by playing to our romantic sense of adventure.  But I think another part of it was to form us in some way by putting us in touch with our historical roots; by stripping our experience down to basics; by showing us our common humanity with people of other cultures, other experiences, other times; by putting us in more direct relationship with nature; and by making us think about what was gained and what was lost by relying on our technology. 

What, you may ask, does this have to do with the trolley problem or the question of “why philosophize”?

We’ll get there, but first consider the following facts:

1. Visitors to the Moral Sense Test website vote overwhelmingly (89%) that it is wrong to throw a fat guy in front of a trolley to keep it from hitting and killing five other people.  On the other hand, 89% say it is permissible to throw a switch that will divert the trolley onto a siding where, alas, one man will unfortunately be run over.  These percentages are consistent, regardless of gender, age, education, ethnicity, or whether the responder has been exposed to moral philosophy. Why philosophize indeed?

 2. Most of the professional philosophical literature on the trolley problem starts from the writer’s intuitive sense that throwing the man is wrong and throwing the switch is right and then tries to find a reason to justify the disparate conclusions.  Sounds a lot like rationalization. Why philosophize indeed?

3. A study at Notre Dame finds that today’s young adults are less likely than their predecessors to be able to discuss moral issues articulately; yet their behavior is no worse than that of prior generations. Why philosophize indeed?

The author of the study [Christian Smith, “Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood,” Oxford] concludes that today’s young adults have an impoverished moral sense and that that impoverishment is itself a real loss.

I would argue that to sort out the questions posed by the trolley problem (for example, the greatest good for the greatest number vs. honoring an individual’s right to life) changes us in some way, enriches us, forms us, makes us less impoverished, more appreciative of such distinctions going forward.

It makes no practical difference whether a child grows up thinking that food originates in grocery stores or thinking that at one time it had to be foraged or hunted down in the woods. But it makes a difference to the soul of the kid.  And it makes a difference to our souls whether we simply take the world as a given or ask why it is the way it is and not some other way.  Maybe that’s what Socrates meant when he said the unexamined life is not worth living.

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