Thursday, February 16, 2006

Proud Sophists

I’m sure, with all of the philosophers around the world working on ethical issues, that somebody has stumbled across this before, but I have not seen it yet. The problem basically involves this argument:

  • Things that are difficult are good

  • Doing something that is unethical is sometimes difficult

  • Therefore, doing something unethical is good.

People get a warm and fuzzy feeling from doing things that are difficult and require discipline. A person feels good when they come home from work at five and still find the time and energy to work out for an hour. When you are finished you feel good about yourself. You didn’t want to do it but you forced yourself anyway. Many times this feeling is right, you should feel good about having the discipline to force yourself to do things you don’t want to do – but many times people use this feeling to usurp their conscience. They feel that because their conscience is saying no to the extent that it is difficult to perform the act, that it is somehow noble to then do that thing.

I have heard, though I would have to look it up to confirm it, that some of the concentration camp guards in Nazi Germany were horrified by what they were doing, but they felt it their duty to do that thing for their country. Though I have not confirmed this, I believe it, because those guards were made up of the same flesh and blood that every other human being on earth is.

I tend to see this a lot in law school. As a lawyer, being able to argue any side is an important skill both because you have to anticipate your opponents arguments and because you may have to defend something you don’t believe in. This is a duty, and one that we should be careful about.

I describe law students as incredibly intelligent people with no passion or imagination. I think a lot of these people have truly found themselves here. They weren’t good at math so they were forced into those horrible liberal arts classes where nothing was ever done, and students just meaninglessly opined for fifty minutes. Now they are in law school, and there is finally a reason for everything – to argue well enough to make good money. The professors reward a student’s ability to argue any side and believe me when I say the students notice.

From the ground level, as a first year law student, I can tell you a lot of these people take real pride and glee in the statement “I’ll argue for whoever pays me” and “I can argue any side, I don’t care.” I hear these tough guy statements a lot. In addition, there is no quicker way to make everyone in your law school think you are annoying than to theorize. “I’m just here to learn the law, get out and get a decent job to support my family” is how everyone wants to act. No one wants to be the guy who actually cares. Sure, you can talk about these things in private conversation, but you would look like a complete ass if you were to slow down a class (God Forbid) with a theoretical question or an ethical comment. The extent to which ethics are talked about in class is just enough to be an insult.

I’m still not sure whether the people in this school are a lot smarter than the people in my previous school, or if the most difficult parts of the curriculum has been stripped away to leave only the pure logic of learning.

This is all a big show, and it is a tragic show. Class is a show, your presence is only required to justify the job and wage paid to the professor. No one is learning anything they will be able to use (save for legal writing, but you actually are only being tested there – not taught). I was once asked “do you think this is ethical” and I couldn’t even respond. I didn’t want to participate in the façade. I had less than 3 seconds for my response, and anything too theoretical would make my classmates eyes roll, so I just said “I guess not.”

You have to be able to argue both sides, but to take revel in having the opportunity to do so troubles me. The Sophists would be proud of today’s law schools. Sophistry is cool and it is noble as well. I have never been anywhere in my life that is such an absurdity as law school. Never have the lack of the emperor’s clothes been so apparent. Never has “its always been done this way” been relied on to such an extent – or the age old (and I hate this) “it builds character” argument – which has been used for centuries to justify the most absurd pedagogical traditions throughout history.

Whenever I criticize law school I always have the need to say that there are aspects of law school that I am impressed by – the absence of lazy and unintelligent people foremost. The students are incredibly considerate to each other. I haven’t met any bad people in law school, but I have met plenty who could allow themselves to be through a mix of ambition and the anything goes pedagogy of law school.

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