Wednesday, February 14, 2007


Cosmopolitan Antagonism

By John Taylor; 2007 Feb 14

Let us continue our slow wade through the proposal for a Cosmopolitan History by Immanuel Kant. He begins the Fourth Thesis,

"The means employed by Nature to bring about the development of all the capacities of men is their antagonism in society, so far as this is, in the end, the cause of a lawful order among men." (Cosmopolitan History, p. 252-253)

To rephrase this, competition brings out the best in us as long as it is lawful and conduces to order. A notorious example of how not to encourage competition happened when the bosses of a factory encouraged the night shift to compete against the day shift. Soon the antagonism became so intense that one shift, in order to reduce their rival's output by delaying their arrival onto the factory floor, came up with the brilliant tactic of squirting crazy glue into the locks after they left. Then the next shift had to stand around while a locksmith was summoned. The bosses saw that this sort of competition was not what Kant called "the cause of a lawful order among men;" it gave one shift an advantage over the next but severely reduced overall productivity.

Another example is described in "The great university cheating scandal" (by Cathy Gulli, et al., Maclean's, 12 February, 2007, p. 32). The article is summarized, "With more than 50 percent of students cheating, university degrees are losing their value. Many are worried about long-term consequences. So why do not the schools put a stop to it?" A culture of cheating has arisen among students, since according to polls over half admit to cheating. Some regard it as a survival skill. Probably more do it than admit to it, so it is a safe guess to estimate that two thirds of students are taking shortcuts to knowledge.

The article makes some frightening points about the long-term consequences of this academic dishonesty. Studies found that professionals like doctors and dentists who were disciplined by their professions for malfeasance tended to be the ones who had been caught for cheating in school. If two-thirds are cheating now, what kind of a nightmare world are we looking at in coming decades?

I never witnessed or heard of cheating in my school years but I did later on among the foreign students I befriended in the 1980's. This came about probably because many professors sympathized with their difficulties with English as a second language and let them get away with bought, begged and borrowed essays. I was mostly surprised though to find among them a general attitude of "stick it back to the man, since he stuck it to us." In other words, there was not only a rejection of the idea that education is a good in itself, or even a benefit worthy of working for more than you have to, it was regarded as a malignant and oppressive. This surprised and shocked me. Evidently such rebellious self-rationalizing anger has in years since spread to the general student population.

While I sympathize with those tempted to cheat, who has not been tempted?, mostly one thinks of the one-third of students who are not cheating. Where is justice for them, pitted against dishonest competitors who cooperate in getting around law and order, all that keeps us alive and safe. Ultimately the system is sticking it to them, even before it sticks it to posterity.

According to Jane Jacobs' analysis, such metastasizing corruption is a symptom of credentialism, of valuing buildings, money and credentials over knowledge, education's only excuse for being. Universities are growth mad and have put the higher ideals of education so far behind them that it is ridiculous.

At least when the factory managers noticed that locks were being super-glued they had the sense to stop the contest right away; now supposedly intelligent academics are turning a blind eye to an even more disastrous competitive mess-up. Have they not read their Kant? The job of a leader is to mediate the intermingling of goods in struggle with one another, to take out of many, one. Some deviations from unity are to be forgiven, but others cannot. The overall goal is a dynamic equilibrium. Consider how the first Imam, Ali, clarified what God will forgive and what He does not:

"Know that injustice is of three kinds - one, the injustice that will not be forgiven, another, that will not be left unquestioned, and another that will be forgiven without being questioned.
"The injustice that will not be forgiven is duality of Allah. Allah has said: `Verily Allah forgiveth not that (anything) be associated with Him ...' (Qur'an, 4:48,116).
"The injustice that will be forgiven is the injustice a man does to himself by committing small sins; and the injustice that will not be left unquestioned is the injustice of men against other men.
"The retribution in such a case is severe. It is not wounding with knives, nor striking with whips, but it is so severe that all these things are small against it.
"You should therefore avoid change in the matter of Allah's religion for your unity in respect of a right which you dislike is better than your scattering away in respect of a wrong that you like. Certainly, Allah the Glorified has not given any person, whether among the dead or among those who survive, any good from separation." (Ali b. Abi Taalib, Sermons)

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