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Off to Grad School Again: The Second Essay

The other day I posted the first of the essays I had to write for my application to CSUDH’s Humanities Master of Arts External (HUX) program. As promised, here is the second, longer essay. The prompt asked me to describe two to three events, works, or people which inspired my interest in the humanities. I chose to write about two professors I worked under as a teaching assistant the last time I was in graduate school who made particularly effective use of the Great Books in their courses.

Two professors, Dr. Sean Jasso and Dr. Paul Beehler, did more to inspire my interest in studying and teaching the humanities than anyone else I have met. Ironically, I met both of them not by taking humanities courses, but by being assigned as their teaching assistant in business school. Each of them, however, is serious about integrating the humanities in their undergraduate business classes and expects their assistants to do the same. While working for them I learned more about writing, criticism, and the great authors of the Western canon than I did in my entire undergraduate career.

Dr. Sean Jasso’s background is in hospitality management but his research is in public policy and corporate ethics. For several years he has been fine-tuning a class titled “Business Ethics and Law in Society”. The main text for the course is Michael Sandel’s Justice, which uses real world examples to illustrate the ideas of ethical philosophers such as Aristotle, Kant, Rawls, and Mill. All of these authors were new to me. I nearly panicked the first time a student appeared in my office saying that she “didn’t really understand Kant’s theory of categorical imperatives,” and could I explain it for her. As every teacher knows, however, teaching a subject is the best way to understand it. My own pedagogical style relies heavily on Socratic questions to encourage students to think critically and make connections, so my weekly discussion sections became a shared journey of inquiry with my students as we found new ways to apply the teachings of these philosophers to weekly case studies.

With Dr. Jasso’s help, I soon found ways to apply the philosophy we were teaching to situations in my professional life. One ethical issue that affects everyone in higher education is academic integrity. Catching a student cheating or plagiarizing creates an ethical dilemma for any teacher teacher, especially an overworked graduate assistant. To simply ignore the offense and pass the student is easy, but is a betrayal of one’s duty and, in utilitarian terms, hurts the whole society by lessening the value of a university education for all students. Failing the offender and turning them over for disciplinary action is nearly as easy and can be justified on the grounds that cheating is categorically wrong and that punishing cheaters rewards those students who do not offend. Dr. Jasso believes, however, that because a teacher’s purpose is to educate, a cheating incident needs to be used as an additional opportunity to teach the student. He expects his assistants to call a meeting the student and himself. In this meeting teaching assistant confronts the student, who is given an opportunity to confess. Students who come clean are then prompted to explain why their actions were wrong and allowed to write an essay titled “Why Cheating is Wrong and I Won’t do it Again”, supporting their points with material from the class. If the teaching assistant is satisfied with the essay then they are not referred for disciplinary action (they still have to repeat the course). These “cheater meetings” were emotionally exhausting for the teaching assistant and created extra grading work, but Dr. Jasso convinced me that they were the right thing to do.

Dr. Paul Beehler is an English professor who teaches “Business Writing and Communications” for the School of Business Administration. One of the texts for his course is Machiavelli’s The Prince. As their term project students are required to write a research paper analyzing the strategy of a real corporation in terms of Machiavellian philosophy. When grading papers and exam blue books I found that I usually knew within a few paragraphs whether I was looking at ‘B’ or ‘C’ work (there were very few ‘A’s), but a letter grade is almost useless to a student because it doesn’t tell them what they are doing right and wrong. Dr. Beehler pushed me to become not only an editor, but a critic: deconstructing a student’s work and offering comments on their style, logical reasoning, creativity, and use of semiotics. This was a painful process for me, because Dr. Beehler spot checks his assistants’ grading work and often returns papers to be regraded. I was frequently frustrated when his opinion of a paper differed widely from my own. As time went on, however, I realized that my criticism tended to be fairly shallow and he was teaching me to read at a deeper level– to go beyond mechanics and rhetorical flourishes and assess the sophistication of a student’s thoughts. I soon I realized that I was applying a deeper level of analysis to everything I read, including my own work. I was also able to give much better comments to students who brought in their work in progress to show me during office hours. This made me a better critic and editor which in turn made me a better writer.

Another benefit of teaching the class under Dr. Beehler is that it introduced me to Machiavelli’s work, which I now understand represents a watershed in Western philosophy. Machiavelli stands upon the divide between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and represents one of the first articulations of the basically humanistic path which Western thought has followed for the past five centuries. His decision to embrace republican political philosophy over the traditional divine right of kings not only influenced all of the enlightenment authors who followed him, but eventually led the way to the liberal democracies in which we now live.

Even though I never took a course of theirs, nor did research under them, Dr. Jasso and Dr. Beehler taught me more than any of the professors I knew in professional school. Dr. Jasso introduced me to the great ethical philosophers and showed me how to integrate their theories into my professional life. Dr. Beehler pushed me to a higher level of writing and textual criticism, making me a better writer. Both inspired what I suspect will be a lifelong interest in the Western canon and the humanities in general, and teaching under them was one of the most valuable aspects of my professional school experience.

Euthyphro of Plato

Plato’s Euthyphro is one of his shorter and earlier dialogs. It is concerned with piety (holiness) which, as I mentioned last time, was considered to be one of the five components of virtue. The interlocutor, or person with whom Socrates converses, is Euthyphro. Euthyphro was a well known, very respectable priest. It is typical of Plato’s dialogs dealing with virtues that the interlocutor is an expert on the virtue in question.

Page from a 1578 bilingual edition of The Euthyphro [public domain via Internet Archive]

Page from a 1578 bilingual edition of The Euthyphro [public domain via Internet Archive]

Socrates and Euthyphro meet as they are waiting for their turn in court. Socrates is there to defend himself in the trial that will end in his execution. Euthyphro has come to indict his own father for manslaughter. The father had let a captured murderer die through inattention. Euthyphro has been set up with a classical ethical dilemma: he has a duty as a religious leader and citizen of Athens to prosecute and punish killers, and there is not a shred of doubt concerning his father’s guilt. On the other hand, the man is is own father. The man who was killed was a stranger who had himself knifed one of the family slaves. Furthermore, the father did not deliberately kill the man; he had simply not remembered to check on him after tying him up and leaving him in a ditch, allowing the man to die of exposure.

According to Euthyphro, however, there is no conflict. Piety demands that he follow divine law and prosecute his father. Nothing else comes into the decision. This leads Socrates to begin questioning him on what piety is. Piety, points out Socrates, is an important part of his own upcoming trial, since Antyus has accused him of denying the city’s gods and creating his own. He could really use some instruction from Euthyphro on the matter.

I occasionally teach business ethics classes, and Euthyphro’s story reminds me quite a bit of the mini cases which are in most ethics textbooks. They are deliberately murky, the idea being to force undergraduates to consider both sides of the dilemma and write a reasoned response for why one decision or the other is better. One of the things which we drill into the students is that when they are posed with an ethical dilemma, they need to consult the official code of ethics for the company or professional society. If the situation is covered by the code, then the decision has been made for them. This is essentially what Euthyphro has done. His “professional code of ethics”, of course, is Athenian religious law. This is a good lesson to teach twenty-year-old business majors. They have limited practical experience, are still developing their critical thinking abilities, and will probably never receive further training in moral philosophy after this ten week class is over; they don’t really have many tools to deal with complex or ambiguous ethical situations. However, since the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, most companies, and all large companies, have fairly extensive written ethical guidelines. As long as my students obey them they probably won’t go too far wrong and, ceteris paribus, the world will be a better place.

To Socrates, however, just obeying the law without examination is a cop-out. Euthyphro says that piety requires men to obey the law of the gods, but what is piety, exactly? Can he provide a definition?

Euthyphro first offers himself and his actions as an example of piety, but Socrates is looking for a universal definition. He then defines piety as “doing those things which are pleasing to the gods” and impiety as “doing those things which are displeasing to the gods”. Socrates points out that different gods might be pleased by different things and quarrel among themselves about morality. This causes Euthyphro to refine his definition, saying that “Piety is that which is approved of by all the gods.” Immanuel Kant fans will recognize that his argument is now skating close to the idea of a categorical imperative: something that is always right or wrong regardless of situational factors. The difference, however, is that approval is still coming from the gods, and Socrates seizes on this point for further examination, asking,

“Is the holy approved by the gods because it’s holy, or holy because it’s approved?”

In the first case, the holy action would be a categorical imperative. In the second, a divine command. Socrates then proves that it can not be both:

But if the ‘divinely approved’ and the holy were really the same thing, Euthyphro my friend, then: (i) if the holy were getting approved because of its being ‘divinely approved’; whereas (ii) if the ‘divinely approved’ were ‘divinely approved’ on account of its getting approved by the gods, then the holy would be holy too on account of its getting approved. But as things are you can see that the two are oppositely placed, as being altogether different from each other; for if the one is ‘such as to get approved’ because it gets approved, while the other gets approved because it is ‘such as to get approved’. And perhaps, Euthyphro, when asked what the holy is, you don’t want to point out the essence for me, but to tell me some attribute which attaches to it, saying that holiness has the attribute of being approved by the gods; what it is, you’ve not yet said. (text and emphasis from the Tredennick/Tarrant translation)

Socrates next suggests that piety might be a kind of justice and asks Euthyphro to define what type of justice it is. Euthyphro replies that piety is the part of justice which has to do with looking after the gods, but Socrates worries about what exactly this means. What is the work of the gods, and how do humans help it along, if at all?

Euthyphro, now getting a bit tired of the conversation, says that piety is knowing how to sacrifice and pray to the gods, but Socrates is still concerned that the Gods don’t get anything from relationship except gratification. If so, they are back to Euthyphro’s original definition about piety being that which is pleasing to the gods. Socrates suggests that they start over from the beginning but Euthyphro, suddenly “remembering” a prior appointment, makes his escape.