Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Ethics of an Older Student Attending Graduate School

376 days until the first day of classes....

I wonder what it will be like, introducing myself to the department as a new graduate student, with my gray hair and obviously more years behind me than ahead of me.

The Philosophy Department website contains a list of graduate students. Searching through the list, the closest comparison I can find to my own situation is a graduate student who got a BS in 2000 and started the MA program in 2015. Since it is a two year program, that student will likely not be there when I show up, unless he was aiming (like me) to get into the PhD program.

The next two closest examples got bachelor degrees in 2001 and 2003, but have been in the PhD program since 2008 and 2005 respectively. They will be off writing their PhD dissertations.

So, I wonder what others will think of the obviously older student in their midst, just starting the program.

Don't get me wrong. In a practical sense, there is a part of me that does not care. I am going to graduate school for a chance to learn and, hopefully, to contribute to moral philosophy. That is my reason for going, and no worries about what others may think will get in my way. However, it is not inconsistent to be both, at the same time, concerned about what others think and resolving not to let it become a deterrence.

We are often told, in fact, not to concern ourselves with what other people think.

I tend to associate a lack of concern with what others think with rudeness, aggression, and selfishness. These are not qualities that people generally have any reason to promote.

On the other hand, complete deference to others implies thinking of oneself as merely a tool for others to use. It involves denying one's position as an equal member of the community - as somebody whose interests matter as much as any other.

Navigating between these two extremes involves considering the opinions of others - evaluating their merit - and accepting those that are legitimate while tossing out the rest.

In considering what others may think when I introduce myself in graduate school, one of my imaginings is of a person saying, "What are you doing here? You're going to be dead soon - or your brain will be too feeble for rational thought. You should not be here. You should leave that spot for somebody else - somebody younger who can make a career out of it."

Of course, there is no actual person saying these things. This is a tool that I use to consider the moral implications of what I do. This is a possible opinion that somebody may have. The task is then to consider this opinion and determine if there is anything legitimate behind it, and to form a reasoned response.

The argument is particularly relevant since I intend to use my two years in the master's degree program to convince the professors that they want to keep me around for a few more years and give me some money so that I can afford to do so.

When I apply for funding, I will by taking an opportunity away from the next person in line - probably somebody younger, who can put that education to work for a longer period of time.

Is that of moral significance?

There are those who consider age discrimination to be wrong in itself. However, as somebody who does not accept that there is such a thing as "wrong in itself", I cannot make use of that claim. It does matter (in that it is relevant to the reasons that others have for their actions) that I have fewer expected future years than that of the person who would have otherwise been given the assistance.

I could pass the buck - and leave it up to the department committee that reviews the applications to make that decision. After all, it is their money. If they choose to give it to me, then this must imply that they think that it is the best available use. Who am I to disagree?

However, there is a principle that, even though one can delegate authority, one cannot delegate responsibility. The choice about whether or not to apply is still my choice to make.

One response that I considered giving to that imaginary challenger says, "Imagine that the next person in line is 27 years old, but has a degenerative disease that will likely kill him in about 30 years (equal to my expected remaining life expectancy). Would you tell that person to step aside and leave the opportunity to a healthier individual with a longer expected life span?"

However, I do not see how this answers the question. Instead, it draws on prejudices that still need a justification. One might ask, "Imagine that the next person is black, should that person step aside in favor of a white student?" One cannot simply assume that the answer one gets from asking that type of question tells us anything about what ought or ought not to be done.

Instead, I can say on my own behalf that I am not stepping into this as a complete novice. My initial training in philosophy might be a few decades back, but I have continued to think and write and read about these issues. I have also spent some time and effort studying related fields - history, economics, and world affairs. I will be bringing that history with me.

My history in reading and writing about philosophical matters is not the only thing that is relevant. As I study philosophy, I tend to see a disconnect between what some philosophers say and the community in which they live. A moral theory has to fit into the lives of secretaries, truck drivers, accountants, lawyers, construction workers, and school teachers, research scientists, actors, bureaucrats, firefighters, and janitors. I think that there can be some benefit to having somebody who has lived in the "real world" to bring philosophy - particularly moral philosophy - down to earth.

Both of these pieces of evidence relate to a common question: Can I make a contribution?

When a professor teaches a graduate level class on David Hume, or well-being, or the philosophy of mind, and I turn in my paper at the end of that semester, will I be able to put into that paper an idea that the professor would find interesting and useful, as partial compensation for the professor's efforts?

I am not talking about presenting the professor with some grand theory that solves all of the problems in that person's field of study. That would be grand, but it would not be reasonable to expect. I am talking about simply presenting an option within the field that the professor had not considered before.

Something like suggesting to Dr. Heathwood that a desire satisfaction theory of well-being should understand desire satisfaction, not as getting as much desire satisfaction as possible, but as fulfilling the most and strongest of an agent's actual desires.

Something like suggesting, in a course on moral psychology, that performing brain scans on people answering moral questions and calling that the study of morality is a bit like performing brain scans on people answering questions about stars and planets and calling that the study of astronomy.

Something like suggesting that John Stuart Mill was not, in fact, suggesting that we evaluate actions according to their conformity to rules that are then justified on utilitarian grounds but, instead, suggesting that we evaluate actions according to their conformity to desires that are justified on utilitarian grounds.

Something like suggesting that punishment aims not at retribution, and not just at deterrence, but at providing moral lessons that mold the sentiments of individuals, forming a set of likes and dislikes within the community that themselves provide benefit.

I think I can do that. I think I can do a better job of it than many of my competitors. I think that my age and experience gives me an advantage in this. And I think it is a reason for the school to accept me as a PhD candidate and fund my education.

Now, all I need to do is convince them of that.

1 comment:

Bob Balkas said...

Living Bible [lb], acts 2:17, "In the Last Days I will pour out my Holy Spirit upon all mankind". Very good news if true!!