Comfortably Numb: Human Rights and South America, Part IV

[Over the next week, I am posting a piece at at time of an essay I wrote reflecting on my trip to South America this summer.  This is the fourth installment.]

IV. Human Rights in the Classroom

There is a kind of eternal frustration bound up with teaching ethics. In Plato’s dialogue, Meno, Socrates asks whether virtue can be taught (short answer: No.). In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle insists that the purpose of the inquiry is not to learn what virtue is, but to become good. The moral virtues cannot be transmitted through instruction, but must be acquired through habituation. Teaching ethics in a university classroom might then appear as a fool’s errand. The challenge is to puncture the air of unreality that pervades an academic setting, to help students see how and why these matters—of virtue and vice, of justice and injustice, of human rights—matter, and are bound up with their own lives. The assumption is that that same air of unreality pervades our everyday lives, and that regular puncturing can make us more awake and aware and responsive to reality. The goal, in short, is to make it real.


Often, ethics as taught in a formal education setting revolves around “big moment” decisions: Teaching Kant: “The Nazis are at the door—is it ok to lie?” Teaching utilitarianism: “An out of control trolley will kill three people unless you flip a switch that causes one person to die—what’s it gonna be?” Of course, such thought experiments can be useful for sparking discussions that help students reflect on their moral principles, intuitions, and reasoning. However, for most of us, for most of our lives, the Nazis never come, and we never find ourselves on a runaway train with the fates of innocents in our hands. The stuff of ethics, by and large, is the stuff of the everyday. But where do human rights and our everyday lives intersect?

Kant, widely regarded as the “father of human rights” for providing a rational, secular foundation for an absolute morality, never studied abroad. More precisely, Kant famously spent the overwhelming majority of his life in his hometown of Konigsburg. He was a creature of habit bound tightly to a mechanical schedule. The man responsible perhaps more than any other for constructing a cosmopolitan vision for the world lived a strikingly provincial life–at least on the outside.


Students in my classes generally aren’t persuaded by Kant’s arguments, yet they are rarely willing to abandon their virtually unanimous belief in human rights. Indeed, human rights are the political DNA of our culture, the marrow of the modern worldview, the lynchpin of liberalism. But “human rights violations” are things that happen to people in earlier periods of history, or on the other side of the world, in countries that most American probably couldn’t find on a map. We take them—and the order that enshrines and protects them—for granted. And we do not value for we take for granted.

Kant is often berated for taking the emotions–and, ironically, the humanity–out of ethics. “His thoughts feel so cold!” But there was a particular emotion he thought had a special moral significance, a feeling with which we are all familiar: the feeling of respect. Respect for the moral law, for persons, for human dignity. For Kant, it is the feeling of uplift kindled in the breast by recognition of another’s humanity, of their free and rational nature, as carriers and authors of the moral law. It is the feeling George Washington wrote about as a young man in his “rules of civility”: “Labour to keep alive in your Breast that Little Spark of Celestial fire Called Conscience.” It is the fountainhead of moral poetry.

Perhaps Kant strikes us as “abstract” or “inhuman” because we so easily lose touch with this most concrete of human experiences. At bottom, Kant was just trying to clarify and justify our moral common sense. Perhaps the challenge in teaching ethics, then, is not so much to impart new ideas or information, but to foster in students the habit of reflecting on what, deep down, they already know: to re-cognize themselves and others, or more precisely, those aspects of ourselves and others from which we are typically distracted. As Lao Tzu puts it, “To attain knowledge, add things everyday. To attain wisdom, remove things every day.”