August 26th was the first day of my fall semester class of Ethics and frankly it hasn’t been all that eventful. The reality is college is pretty monotonous. You search for classes on-line, you register for class, you pay for class (you cry), you take class, you hate your annoying classmates, you silently judge your professors, you study (or not), you take (and hopefully) pass exams, then you finish class, get your grade and you start all over again. The point of chronicling this journey isn’t to document the minutiae of each course I take, but rather to keep me energized to keep trudging through the minutiae by relating it to what’s happening in my life and in turn perhaps motivate some other student along the way.
Philosophy 1104: Philosophy and Social Ethics is a course designed, it feels, to thoroughly confuse me. Once we learn about a particular philosopher’s argument about morality we then quickly learn why that same philosophy is riddled with flaws and inconsistences. It seems that the more mankind has explored the questions of “why are we here” and “what are we supposed to do with this life”, the more mankind has discovered that they have no real idea. What does it mean to be moral? That appears to be the question that everyone from Plato, to Socrates, to Mills and Freud have tackled. Centuries later, their pontifications provide the backbone of modern day study which are applauded as ground breaking hundreds of years after their deaths. What a legacy! In today’s day and age people post funny videos of their cats on YouTube to secure their long term legacy. Sad.
My professor, a very young, laid back Philosophy major studying for his doctorate, paints dozens of scenarios each Monday and Wednesday night in which our class explores ethical dilemmas. So far we haven’t addressed the ethics of friendship but I find it easily applicable to the cases we have explored. Friendship is a funny thing, it requires something that other institutions like marriage, parenting, and family, don’t – – it requires you to stay in it because you want to, not because you have to. With adult friendships you CAN walk away without much baggage. True it can be at times painful to end a friendship, but there isn’t a social stigma in breaking up with your friends the same way there is with divorcing your spouse, putting your kids up for adoption, or institutionalizing a family member. Friendship exists because it’s important to both parties in the friendship, not necessarily to anyone else or to the larger society. If you don’t like something a friend does, if it feels wrong, or not quite right, or downright crappy then you have the option to forgive and forget or end the friendship. You may lose other friends in choosing the latter option, but generally speaking, the choice is yours with minor long-lasting repercussions. Few people spend multiple years as adults in friendships that give them little to no positive return. Simply put, if your friend’s not nice to you, then eventually you cut them loose, you move on.
In my first 8 weeks of Ethics, I have discovered that at the core of most philosophical teachings is getting to the root of what makes humans act and which actions are right and which actions are wrong. It’s a fascinating discussion because in my mind, up to this point, what is wrong and right is everyone’s individual opinion. If you think it’s wrong to jaywalk and so you never cross the street without the traffic light being green, then that’s what you hold important. If your best friend crosses on the red, are they wrong? Or because it doesn’t matter to them, are they right and you’re wrong? Ah, the twists and turns of philosophical debate. But jaywalking is a pretty lackluster example. The scenario gets more challenging when we start talking about much more weighty topics such as abortion, gay rights, veganism, and corporal punishment — just to name a few. And even juicier still when it comes to that precarious state we call friendship. At what point do differing opinions of what is appropriate behavior for a friend become worthy of an “ethical” battle ground?
When I was in the third grade, my teacher, whom I adored at the time, Mrs. Stenhouse, returned my English assignment to me full of red ink. She had circled the word “nice” a dozen times. She pulled me aside and said, “You’re a good writer, but you have to stop using the word “nice”. There are thousands of words that can be used in its place, STOP using the word nice. It’s overused and over done.” Clearly it was a hot button word for Mrs. Stenhouse, and it instantly became a hot button word for me. From that day on I tried very hard never to use “nice” to describe people in written or in spoken word. It was a generic, all-encompassing word that had no backbone or meat behind it; it was for all intents and purposes the generic version of any number of better adjectives that would more aptly describe a person, place or thing. Impressive choices such as, winsome, copacetic, ingratiating, simpatico and so on and so on – – anything but that hateful N-word.
Lately, however, I’ve been wondering if perhaps I have given “nice” a bad rap. Perhaps when I disowned it from my vocabulary, I somehow disowned it as a requirement for the basics of how people are supposed to treat me and how I should treat them. Maybe what’s right about the word “nice” that I’ve let slip away, is that it’s just what Mrs. Stenhouse condemned it as — a very simple, basic way of describing the act of just being good and kind. Perhaps, in fine literature that is a curse, but in relationships, it should be a fundamental cornerstone. If you can’t expect your friends to be nice to you, then do any of the other adjectives that might describe the relationship even matter?
Roughly every two weeks, I buy myself a bouquet of fresh flowers for my kitchen table. It’s a tradition I started when my boyfriend left me a year ago. When I walk in my house, it’s the first thing I see as I enter and it makes me smile each and every time. Yes, you guessed it; it’s a Nice feeling to see them. I want to have that kind of reaction on the friends in my life and I want them to be that for me. I don’t think it’s too much to ask, I don’t think it needs any fancier word or description.
I think it would be great if we all just were nice to one another.
Sorry, Mrs. Stenhouse, Sorry Plato – – it may not be the most elegant prose or the most poignant philosophical musing, but that’s just how I feel.