Jun. 9th, 2014

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Thinking ethical stances through to their logical generalizations leads to some weird places.

Last Thanksgiving, in a fit of nostalgia, the party’s hosts put up a YouTube video of some horrible educational claymation film from their childhood in the 70s. One viewer repeatedly chided the film for fat shaming in portraying a girl with an insatiable candy appetite as a giant, disgusting monster.

That got me thinking: how would a teacher educate children about the benefits of a healthy diet without painting people who don’t follow one in a negative light? Is it even possible to teach kids that “doing X (eating healthy, exercising, brushing your teeth, etc.) will improve your quality of life” without inherently, simultaneously teaching them that people who don’t do X are inferior in some fashion? It seems challenging at best. Children are awfully tribal. Plus, there’s the challenge of believing “doing this will make me better than if I don’t” while not believing “doing this will make me better than other people who don’t”.

Part of the problem is that a lesson like “exercise is good for you” is a value judgement. It is, strictly speaking, subjective, and to teach in that manner is a mild form of indoctrination, not education. To be objective, you must instead explain exercise’s benefits in neutral terms — starting with not calling them “benefits”. You must teach that exercise will improve strength and endurance, lead to more restful sleep, aid concentration, and increase resistance to disease, then allow the students to decide for themselves whether they want to attain those things.

Frankly, if you keep with this line of reasoning, it would be improper to call smoking “bad” or “harmful”. To be equitable, you must explain the symptoms of emphysema and lung cancer in unbiased, objective fashion (and don’t call them “maladies”, “afflictions”, or “diseases” — they are “conditions”), then leave the fourteen-year-olds to do their own risk/benefit analysis regarding whether to light up. Otherwise, you’re merely stamping them into the mold of your personal worldview.

Okay. That last paragraph was just a tad hyperbolic, but I think the core line of reasoning stands. I never expected I could start with “don’t belittle people whose bodies don’t fit the idealized norm” and arrive at “to call cancer ‘bad’ is to blindly adhere to a personal worldview”. And now that perplexes me, because while I agree with the sentiment in the first half, I also see the wisdom in not leaving important issues entirely for schoolkids to decide on their own when it’s been psychologically shown that they’re still more than a decade from being able to make sound long-term decisions.


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