25 January 2017

Day One Discussion

Two weeks ago we had the first meetings of classes here at Wake Forest University, which means we held the first classes of the School of Business's new prerequisite for undergraduate business majors, "Why Business?" The subtitle of the course is: "What is the role of business in a humane and just society?" Its purpose is to give students an opportunity to explore, not the how of business--how to do marketing, accounting, finance, etc.--but the why: Why should one go into business? What is the purpose of a market economy? Why might someone support such an economy, and what are the central objections one might raise to it? We read a range of perspectives--from Adam Smith to Karl Marx, from Milton Friedman to Paul Krugman--inviting students to consider whether there is such a thing as honorable business and, if so, what exactly it is. The course is as much a philosophy course as it is a business course.

I am proud to be a member of the diverse team that teaches this course, and I am proud to be affiliated with a School of Business that takes seriously Wake Forest's motto, Pro Humanitate ("in the service of humanity") in its educational programs. The "Why Business?" course is one part of the School of Business's larger mission not only to educate students in the technical aspects of its disciplines but also to invite them to consider that any activity worth doing should provide real value in the world, should "better the lives of others." If they are going to dedicate their lives to business or merely work with business (as likely all of them will in one way or another), they'd better figure out how it--how they--can create value for others, and then develop a professional identity consistent with the mission of creating value. They need to construct their own substantive and reflective answer to the question, "Why business?"

One thing we tell students in our first discussions is that everything they read will be trying to convince them of something. Their job is: (1) to figure out exactly what the authors are trying to convince them of; (2) to examine the arguments, reasons, evidence, etc. that the authors offer in support of their positions; and (3) to come to an informed judgment: is the author right, or wrong--and why? Students often find task #3 the hardest, but in some ways it is the most important. I tell students not just to give an opinion, but rather to form a judgment. Offering an opinion often spells the end of the discussion: "That's my opinion" often means "and I am through thinking about this" or "there is nothing else to say." Like saying, "in my opinion, chocolate ice cream is better than vanilla": there is no disputing that, so if someone has the opposite opinion, they just continue to have opposite opinions. But if someone says, "in my judgment, Adam Smith's argument fails," that is an invitation to discussion because it implies that the speaker has reasons or arguments supporting her position, which might be capable of persuading people of different positions.

I tell students that, as long as they are open to criticism, all positions and all questions are welcome--with one important exception: ad hominem attacks are not allowed. We address arguments, not the people making them. So we do not question people's characters, we do not speculate about ulterior motives, and we do not dismiss people's claims because people we don't like hold similar views. 

A couple examples I've used to illustrate the point. If I say that the Chicago Cubs are the best team in baseball, and you disagree, it does not suffice for me to respond, "Well, you would say that--you're a Cardinals fan!" Whether you are a Cardinals fan or not is irrelevant to your claim. If I say that vegetarianism is morally required, and you respond that Hilter was a vegetarian, that, too, does not refute, or even address, my claim: whether Hitler was a vegetarian is irrelevant to whether vegetarianism is morally required. (The reductio ad Hitlerum rhetorical device is a species of the ad hominem fallacy.)

I think this is a crucially important lesson for college students to learn, regardless of what they study or what they go on to do in their lives. Higher learning is about pursuing truth wherever it may lie, following arguments and evidence wherever they may lead, and evaluating positions on their merits. Too much of our public discourse is marked by attacks on people and their characters, and we are all the poorer for it. 

A university, if nowhere else, should be a place where we reject such attacks as not only uncharitable but unworthy of us. I believe it is our duty as stewards of a tradition dedicated to the life of the mind to elevate the discourse and set an example of how intelligent, reasoned inquiry should proceed. Even if we continue to disagree, we can still be colleagues and friends, with, as Lincoln put it, "malice toward none, with charity for all." That, it seems to me, is an excellent standard to set for ourselves both in higher education and in a free republic.