At U of All People, as one of our sociologists, Professor Q. A. Wagstaff, once put it, “Faculty and staff eventually leave either vertically or horizontally.” As it happens, Wagstaff left with his own faculties intact, though the same cannot be said for the sociology faculty, which spent the next five years trying to regain the hiring slot. In any event, since many of our professors got their jobs in the late '60s, when all you had to do for a tenure-track position was cough in the right direction, more than a few are beginning to feel that it’s time to move on.
Sometimes poor health or a desire to travel motivates the decision. More commonly, as Professor Kahn Federitz in the history department noted, “The thought of facing one more set of student essays on the Civil War makes me want to puke.” For whatever reason, in the last few months, not a week has gone by without a retirement party. Professor Wagstaff, operating from a think tank of his own devising in his basement, has even drawn up a formula for these events, soon to be published in American Sociological Review of American Sociology. Below are the necessary steps, only slightly embroidered.
1. Settle on a time inconvenient for everyone, including the retiree. 1:30 on a Wednesday, when everyone’s either teaching or at a meeting, is a popular slot. Procure a room, though the Men’s Studies Caucus has taken over the function area in the Frump Humanities Building, and Students for Nondemocratic Change are occupying the cafeteria again. End up in the faculty lounge, with its shaky sconces and once-wine-dark carpeting, where the lumpy beige couch could also use a retirement party.
2. Shake down the department for a gift, the gold watch of yore having long ago given way to an online gift certificate that expires within a year. Choose the most untrustworthy faculty member to make the collection, the professor who misses his office hours with no note on the door — but who perhaps was hired by the retiree and now, two decades later, wants to return the favor. Add some scuffle about who’s kicked in and how much. At the last minute, if worried that the gift is insignificant, add a small Lucite plaque.
3. Plan a reception by working with Scrump-Chess, the campus food service that both overcharges and underserves, yet, miraculous in these hard economic times, remains the university’s caterer. Plan several menus but end up with the same cookies and weak iced tea that have been served since 1980. Possibly provide a punch bowl with a ladle that slowly submerges in the sticky, over-sweet brew.
4. Tap a few aged colleagues to make speeches, usually ancient anecdotes that have lost all relevance to everyone but the few principals involved, one of whom is dead. “I remember when the department needed some extra students for Soc. 120, and the only way Tom and I could get some was by going to the dormitories at six a.m. and beating a gong we stole from the music department.” Such stories are more poignant than funny: they conjure up an era when people in academia seem to have enjoyed more freedom and had more fun than is possible nowadays.
5. Discuss what the retiree plans on doing after leaving the institution. In the old days, a standard response was, “Finish my book.” The unspoken but heartfelt response is “Not grade any more papers.” Usually included in the plans is a lengthy vacation -- Morocco? Kenya? -- at an unseasonable time of year -- “Max and I are packing in October.” The return home occasions a period of boredom and casting about, followed by a request to teach an occasional class at adjunct rates. After all, where else can the retiree find a captive audience for recycled anecdotes about sociology?
But meanwhile, a polite round of applause, please. And then, the rest of you, get back to whatever it is you still do.
David Galef directs the creative writing program at Montclair State University. His latest book is the short story collection My Date with Neanderthal Woman (Dzanc Books).
“Not to be born is, beyond all estimation, best,” chants the chorus in Sophocles’s Oedipus at Colonus, “but when a man has seen the light of day, this is next best by far, that with utmost speed he should go back from where he came.” They make a quick inventory of life’s miseries, including pain, envy, war, and old age. Which seems like rubbing it in, considering Oedipus is an ex-king who, in the trilogy’s earlier play, tore his own eyeballs out of their sockets.
In any case, the sentiment is hardly original. Consider another king, Midas, of golden-touch fame. He kidnaps Silenus, teacher and drinking companion of the god Dionysus, and demands that he reveal the most desirable thing in the world. Silenus resists answering for a while but finally blurts it out: "Never to have been born." It's not the voice of clinical depression speaking but a nugget of grim wisdom from antiquity. It's Western civilization's way of saying that your parents did you no great favor.
I don’t see much good in arguing the point, one way or the other. Cosmic pessimism is a sensibility, not a proposition. It's not even that dour, necessarily. Silenus doesn't kill himself; in the myths, he seems to be having a pretty good time. If anything, pessimists might find life easier to bear. They’re less likely to be disappointed.
In her new bookWhy Have Children? The Ethical Debate (MIT Press), Christine Overall, a professor of philosophy at Queen's University in Ontario, assesses the usual grounds for having kids or deciding against it. She scrutinizes them like an IRS accountant in the middle of a ruthless audit. Few claims survive her red pen. To summarize her findings with somewhat reckless brevity, Overall maintains that many of the motivations for having children are, for the most part, at least somewhat ethically dubious -- while the decision not to have them tends to be less problematic.
“Deciding whether to procreate is a moral decision,” she writes, “…because it affects so many people -- not only the prospective parent(s), but also the prospective child, other family members, and other members of the community. Although one is certainly entitled to take into account the effects of having a child on oneself, if one decides only on the basis of a gamble about one’s future well-being, then one is refusing to treat procreation as a fully moral matter.” Having a baby to boost self-esteem, or save a marriage (does that ever work?), or simply because it's expected of you, grossly underestimates the seriousness of becoming responsible for someone's existence.
Conversely, even if a person's reasons for opting out of reproduction are specious or self-interested, that doesn’t make the decision itself bad. It has little impact on anybody besides the decision-maker, apart from the occasional unhappy would-be grandparent, perhaps.
She is particularly critical of arguments that there is some obligation to have children -- duty to nation or community, for instance, or obedience to a divine command to “be fruitful and multiply.” Her guiding concern is the moral right to autonomous decision-making about whether or not to reproduce. Otherwise, we have “the compulsory and unwilled use of people’s bodies for procreative purposes, whether they are other individuals’ or the state’s purposes.”
Here the phrase “people’s bodies” is a little more gender-neutral than strictly necessary. If presidential candidates or members of Congress tried to outlaw vasectomies, or made sperm-bank donations obligatory -- well, that would be bad, but it’s not something men tend to worry over. Given the extremely asymmetrical distribution of the burdens involved in procreation, the real issue is whether women can decide not to have children. The precondition for making an ethical decision about having children is that it actually be a choice.
Perhaps I’ve made the author sound like an echo of the chorus in Sophocles. She isn’t -- very much the contrary. Overall has two children, and the final pages of her book are a testament to the distinct satisfactions of raising them and seeing them grow into adults. She recognizes that antinatalism (the philosophical brand-name for arguments that coming into the world is a horrid misfortune) tends to be explicitly misogynistic. “The idea that it is better in every case never to have been [born],” she writes, “implies that women’s reproductive labor in pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding, and even rearing children contributes to the accumulation of net harm on this planet.”
For that matter, “the theory can be interpreted to mean that both contraception and abortion should be mandatory” -- hardly an attitude consistent with autonomous decision-making.
But antinatalism isn’t a real force in the world -- while the expectation that if you can have kids, you should, remains fairly strong. Overall’s book is a welcome antidote.
“Children are not essential to all good lives,” she writes, “nor are having and rearing children prerequisites to becoming a good person. Moreover, there are many childless persons who support, love, care for, and teach other people’s children. Chosen childlessness has as much potential for the good life as chosen parenthood has.”
There is more to this passage in a similar vein. It appears on page 219. I mention it because some readers might want to photocopy it to post on the refrigerator door, when the family comes around.
In search of a rationale to avoid making any New Year’s resolutions, I was glad to see that Princeton University Press has issued a book called The Virtues of Our Vices: A Modest Defense of Gossip, Rudeness, and Other Bad Habits, by Emrys Westacott, a professor of philosophy at Alfred University.
It is not, alas, a handbook on self-improvement through creative rationalization. Two chapters started out as papers appearing in International Journal of Applied Philosophy, and Westacott’s project falls under a specialized heading within the humanistic division of labor: “microethics.”
The term was unfamiliar. A look at The Oxford Companion to Philosophy and similar reference works was to no avail. Searching the Library of Congress catalog turned up no book or journal titles mentioning microethics, nor was it a keyword in any subject heading. Missing from the LoC’s holdings, but locatable online, is Paul Komesaroff’s Experiments in Love and Death: Medicine, Postmodernism, Microethics and the Body (Melbourne University Press, 2008). Komesaroff, a physician and professor of medicine at Monash University in Australia, contrasts microethical decision-making to the more general level of bioethical argument.
The issues that bioethicists discuss (cloning, euthanasia, animal rights, etc.) are matters of public debate, while microethical questions arise in a clinical setting – often enough while doctor and patient are face-to-face, with a piece of bad news between them. “Microethics,” writes Komesaroff,“is in general not the terrain of arresting cases involving heroic decisions or extraordinary circumstances…. Indeed, this may be one reason for the relative lack of attention it has attracted. Rather, it is the field of day-to-day communication and structured, complex interactions, of subtle gestures and fine nuances of language.”
He gives as an example the obligations of a physician when conveying unwelcome results from a biopsy. Here, the microethical question is not whether to be honest. That is a given. But the moment of truth will reverberate for the patient throughout whatever may be left of his or her life. The duty to render a prognosis is complicated by the possibility of creating false hope or absolute despair. The dilemma is both fine-grained and profoundly consequential.
By contrast, the microethical issues that interest Westacott seem like decidedly smaller beans. The subtitle of The Virtues of Our Vices mentions gossip and rudeness. In addition, there are chapters on snobbery and offensive jokes, as well as an investigation of the balancing act involved in respecting the opinions of others. On the one hand, people have a right to their beliefs. On the other hand, it is an inescapable reality this sometimes those beliefs are uninformed, irrational or downright insane.
None of these issues are a matter of life or death, as such, though I suppose they could be, if you offended the wrong person. But they all fit Komesaroff’s definition of the microethical domain as “the field of day-to-day communication and structured, complex interactions, of subtle gestures and fine nuances of language.” They are problems that flash up in the course of routine social interaction, with ambiguities that can make things even more complicated. Deciding whether a given action or remark was rude or snobbish is not always easy -- even for the person responsible for it.
Questions about right and wrong concerning everyday interaction “take up the bulk of whatever time most of us spend in moral reflection and decision making,” writes Westacott. “[O]ur everyday thinking and conduct regarding commonplace matters are the most important indicators, both to ourselves and to others, of our true moral values and character. Certainly, they count for more than purely hypothetical scenarios in which we imagine how we would handle terrible dilemmas involving lifeboats, terrorists, deathbed promises, or runaway trains.”
Quite true: It’s hard to remember the last time I had to decide if it would be okay to torture a prisoner to extract information about a ticking time bomb. The microethical questions of everyday life tend to be less stark, though not necessarily more simple. The very familiarity of an experience such as rudeness means that we ordinarily do without formal definitions of what counts as rude and what doesn’t. It is the microethicist's task to specify what is otherwise left implicit in such terms. That can take some doing, as shown by Westacott's labor to synthesize a precise definition of snobbery. It takes six efforts. (The final product: "believing without sufficient justification that you are superior to another person in certain respects because you belong to or are associated with some group that you think places you above them in a social hierarchy.")
Plenty of gray areas remain even after the terms have been clarified. It's possible to generate decision trees for judging if a piece of gossip is damaging and unethical, or whether a given violation of social norms will be assessed as rude. And so Westacott does -- seeming to sharpen up the distinctions between good and bad microethical distinctions. But at the same time, the author reckons the possible benefits of various vices, as well as their costs. Gossip, for example, is typically criticized as evidence of "shallow living," writes Westacott, "something we are continually discovering new ways to achieve." But that is one-sided. "Since one of the benefits gossip can bring is a deeper understanding of human nature and social institutions ... it is more plausible to think that a willingness to talk about people -- which at times will involve gossiping -- may be an integral part of 'the examined life.' This is why we find Socrates, in Platonic dialogues like the Meno and the Gorgias, freely discussing the failings of others in the course of his philosophical inquiries."
Not to push the comparison too hard, but in Westacott's microethical analyses, as with Socratic badinage, it's the process of inquiry, as much as the result, that engages the reader's interest. His tree-chart algorithms probably won't be that useful to anyone having to make a decision. But they reveal some of implicit choices that we often make very quickly when dealing with other people. The unexamined life may not be worth living, but it is, after all, where we spend most of our time. The Virtues of Our Vices shines a little light in that direction.