"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, February 5, 2016

Addressing Social Inequality–The Restoration Of Fundamental Moral And Ethical Values

The son of a close friend will be married in June.  He, the son of a New York lawyer and a preeminent oncologist will wed the daughter of an equally successful Manhattan couple.  Isaac graduated from Stuyvesant High School near the top of his class, and his fiancée was a graduate of Hunter, another premier competitive high school in the city.  Isaac went on to Harvard and Harvard Law School, and she to Princeton and Yale Medical School.

The Levins were no different from any other upper middle-class Jewish family and as such prized learning and academic achievement.  Isaac and his sister Ruth never had to be advised or reminded of their patrimony.  Generations of Levins had succeeded in academia, business, and the professions.  Their academic and career trajectories had been determined since birth.

These expectations had never been expressly stated.  Nor had either of the Levin parents ever been Tiger Moms or Dads.  The culture of success, achievement, and personal achievement had never been questioned; and it was assumed that their children would follow the same trajectory as their parents and grandparents.

Isaac never felt obligated or pressured to follow in the footsteps of his illustrious family.  He was never hectored, badgered, or besieged.  He simply had grown up in a family that valued ideas and the discipline, logic, and perseverance that were the sine qua non of understanding, synthesis, and conclusion.

Dinner table discussions were often about morality, ethics, Judaic law and their application to modern life.  The ideas of Kant, Kierkegaard, and Schweitzer were never abstract intellectual premises, but viable , important postulates.  Kandinsky, Giotto, and Picasso were not simply artistic icons but creative geniuses who studied, interpreted, and validated life.  Humanism, revered by Isaac’s parents as the most influential philosophical movement since the Enlightenment, provided the intellectual context for all debates. 

Although Isaac’s parents never insisted on its principles nor ever guided discussions to such rational conclusions, the lesson was not lost.  Success was never simply a matter of intelligence, ambition, and social savvy, but  a function of moral and ethical principles.

Isaac did well in school, but his parents were less concerned with his grades than what he had learned; and even before he entered kindergarten he had already been schooled in metaphysics and ontology.  Before he was five, Isaac had begun to understand the nature of things, their essence, and their meaning.

One day his father had taken him to the roof of their apartment building and let him explore the exhaust pipes, air conditioning units, and television towers servicing the units below.  Isaac learned that a hole could mean the aperture of a plumbing exhaust tube, the gaping unfinished repair of the gutters, and the opening to the elevator shaft.   A hole was always a hole, but had different dimensions, design, and character.

Isaac’s father liked to play word games with his on, and challenged him on the meaning of words and how they could represent concepts.  Words had meaning only within context.  Nothing was absolute but always conditioned.

Isaac’s world was never taken for granted.  Nothing was what it seemed, and everything had to be understood  based on what it could be.

The point is that from a very early age Isaac learned the value of objectivity, inquiry, and analysis.

Not only did Isaac’s parents insist on logical, disciplined study, but emphasized the moral and ethical implications of understanding.   It was never enough to conclude about the nature of being.  Responsible action, although predicated on logical conclusions, was a function of right.

It was no surprise, then, that Isaac was not only successful in his career, but became a profoundly moral person, one aware of the consequences of his actions on those less aware.

There has been considerable discussion about social and economic inequality; and most of it has been focused on the public interventions to address it.  The poor, disadvantaged, and marginalized only need remedial programs to help them join the mainstream- more attentive primary education, job training, and psycho-social preemptive counseling to improve self-esteem and image.  Yet few of these well-intentioned efforts address the foundational issues of dysfunction – the family.

By the time disadvantaged pupils enter primary school, it is too late.  The Isaac Levins have long left them behind.  They matriculate with none of the intellectual, moral, and ethical education necessary for social, economic, or personal success.

There are no programs to address this deficiency.  Head Start and other pre-school programs which attempt to redress the lack of intellectual training of early childhood can never compensate for parental indifference or ignorance.  Once a child has reached school age, the die has been cast.

How then, can the problem of early childhood learning be addressed?  How can the persistent problem of social dysfunction be remediated?  How can children learn the basic principles of right and righteous behavior that have been the foundation of all civilizations?

Cato the Elder, ancient Roman philosopher and educator is known for his diptychs – the essential precepts of education.  Honor, compassion, empathy, courage, respect, honesty, and discipline were the guiding principles of civilization; and were so taught to the future leaders of Empire.  Such education was no different in Athens, Persepolis, or London.   Why should it be any different today?  Why do we assume that social dysfunction can be remediated without these principles?

Image result for images ancient athens

Some academics and social activists have dismissed these principles and this education on the grounds of diversity.  Racial and ethnic minorities, victims of slavery, racism, and social marginalization have their own ethos and culture which must be respected.  The imposition of white middle class values is ethnocentric and outmoded.  Black teenagers subscribing to a sub-culture of the street, an ethos of respect and principled codes of honor - all essential to survival in a hostile environment - need to be encouraged for their defiance and understood for their refusal to accept neo-slavery, patriarch, and marginalization.  Nothing could be more misguided.

Although some religious and secular leaders  have begun to speak out about the importance of moral responsibility, the nature of the socio-political system is such that this counsel has fallen on deaf ears.  To advocate individual responsibility and to reject the notion that history and society have less to do with social dysfunction than a lack of community integrity and personal moral values is political suicide.  Ward politics has always been based on political patronage and cash flow; and local politics based on entitlement and compensation.

Pulling the plug on inefficient, politically-motivated entitlement programs may seem harsh and retributive; but there is no other alternative. After decades of public assistance and investment with no visible results, a reliance on community effort is the only recourse.

A conservative administration in Washington will help and will do much to reverse the policies of the past; but only if local communities themselves understand and accept responsibility can any meaningful change occur.


  1. How can you suggest that "progressives" have dismissed honor, compassion, empathy, courage, respect, honesty, and discipline with a wave of the pin and ignore that "conservatives" have been doing the same for as long or longer? Your argument does not hold water.


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