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Sunday, July 21, 2013

Is it ever too early to learn about ethics?

Le Penseur, by Auguste Rodin

To follow up on last week's nerd confession, why don't I go the whole way and say I love philosophy.

As you will see shortly, nerd or not... philosophy has a role to play in our daily life.

But first, a short, nerdy intro:

It was not enough that I read Plato's Symposium (among other philosophical pieces) during my teenage years, I also used it for my Master's thesis, which is based on another text by a very philosophical French writer. As an undergrad, I had taken as many philosophy courses I could (as electives), and if it wasn't for the fact that everyone told me there were no jobs in the field, I might have majored in it altogether.

Philosophy temporarily lost ground to more down to earth considerations when I became a mother and got busy with the diaper and milk overflows I mentioned in a previous post.

One day, however, the kids received, as a present, a subscription to a children's magazine that contained a section entitled "les petits philosophes" (the little philosophers). This philosophically flavored section aims at teaching young children the basics of ethics. E.g. A mouse and an elephant are eating cake together. The elephant serves himself a very big piece, and serves the mouse a very small piece. Is that fair? Why?

My kids are now 7 and 9, and the little philosophers they are have graduated to more complex concepts. Here, a recent conversation I had with R as we walked the dog together:

- Mom, what's my behavior now, from A to Z? (Yes, I use letter grades to give feedback to my kids... the nerd in me again.)

- A. You've had a very good behavior.

- What kind of behavior would Z be?

- That's an interesting question. What's the worst thing someone can do?

- Er... to kill someone else?

- I think you're right. What would stealing a pack of gum in a convenience store be?

- Hmmm... Q.

- How about calling your mom dumb?

- Well it's not a crime, but it's not nice at all, so L.

- How about throwing your trash in the woods?

- That's polluting, and if we do too much of it we could become extinct, so P.

- What about touching someone's private parts when they don't want to?

- V?

- Well, I think it's Y. It's very wrong.

- We could say Y minus.

- I agree.

If we can have such conversations now, I can't wait for what we'll talk about in a couple years!

Now, there are some grown-ups out there who obviously haven't done their philosophy homework, especially the section on ethics! See for yourself with the following anecdote:

I recently happened to look at a bag of Swedish Berries. That raspberry-shaped candy contains (per tiny portion of 11 pieces):

140 calories
20g sodium
35g carbohydrates (or 12% of the recommended daily intake)
28g sugar
NO fiber, protein, vitamins or minerals whatsoever

Apart from the sugar amount and the fact that this provides you with more than a tenth of your carbs without giving you any nutrients (better options include, uh, let me think... fruit and vegetables, maybe?), what bothers me the most about this "food item" is the claims on the packaging, namely:

"Made with real fruit juice"
"A fat free food"
"To be enjoyed as part of a healthy, active lifestyle"

Seriously? Could it possibly be more misleading? Am I the only one who feels like screaming "bullsh**!"

And what about those Nutella commercials who claim their "sh*t" (er, I mean, product) contains milk and hazelnuts? Have you ever calculated how much milk and hazelnut you get in a portion? As for "providing you the energy you need", I would imagine it does with the sugar peak... only to be followed by a sugar low, and we all know what that does: zzzzzzzzzzzzzz...

Speaking of Zs, aren't you tired of being treated like an idiot by unscrupulous companies?

Philosophy, ethics, conversations with children, misleading food packaging... tell me what you think!

For more around the theme of philosophy:




  1. So on the misleading food packages - I hope that Skittles really contain real fruit juice because (sadly) that is how I ate "fruit" through both of my pregnancies! (Pathetic but true).
    Your daughter had some interesting questions!! I love talks like that with my kids.

    1. Oh, they do contain fruit juice. The question is: how much? Probably a drop.

  2. Great post !

    I think it's never too early to introduce philosophy. Aren't they thinking of doing it in schools ?

    And don't get me started on the food convo... :-(

    1. I think you're right, healthy eater, they have been talking of doing an "intro to philo" with elementary students. I'll have to do a little research on it.

      Keep eating healthy! :-)

  3. I took Metaphysical Problems as my only philosophy class in college. The teacher was a jerk! He would smoke a cigar in class as he walked around pontificating. Years later I read the book None-being and Somethingness and finally learned what metaphysical meant! I wrote several papers in college. I received an A on every one except the C I got in that class. I took the class pass fail so it didn't hurt my GPA. The reason I got a C on the paper was that the teacher didn't agree with my original premise that morals are determined by the evolutionary process. Interestingly enough, now that original concept of mine is accepted by the field. Not that long ago I got back in touch with my University's Philosophy deportment and relayed to them my experience with taking that class! Interesting what we remember from college...

    1. When all teachers give you good grades except for one, you know you're NOT the common denominator. Unfortunately some have forgotten that grading should be an objective process.

      You remind me of a French literature teacher who was failing pretty much everyone. When the students started complaining, he dismissed them, basically telling them they were just too dumb to pass. That's when I, the one who was always 20% above the average in French lit, took the floor. I said I'm one of the few who pass, but you're grading me about 25% lower than any French teacher ever has. There might be something else than student dumbness involved. He looked at me thoughtfully and said he would review everyone's copy. The whole class applauded! LOL

      Also, one Psychology professor graded me low on one term paper once... because he disagreed with my views on the origins of gender differences (innate vs acquired). :-(

    2. I had several wonderful teachers in school, and maybe three who were not. I'd love to see them now. lol!

      As a teacher, I've learned that we have a lot of power over students and their lives. For what it is worth, I've never failed any student. I figured if a student had gotten that far they had earned it. For the few students that failed my exams I would just meet with them and make sure they understood the material. After all, that's what education is about at its foundation I think.

    3. When I taught (I trained swimming instructors/lifeguards), I learned that a lot of teachers mistake evaluation for education. Your role as a teacher is not solely to assess if a student masters the material, but rather to make sure the student improves his knowledge and understanding of the material. Unfortunately that is sometimes forgotten.

      So, I agree. :-)

  4. Love the ethical alphabet idea! And I totally agree about the unscrupulous and misleading product marketing. But I also get impatient with people who are such wishful thinkers they don't ask the most basic questions when confronted with marketing claims--if they want junk food they are happy to let the marketers give them any lame excuse to go ahead. Read the dang nutrition labels people!

    1. Agree: we so want to relieve our guilt that we swallow (literally) anything marketing will tell us. It's time to use our brain about it!

  5. I love the ethical alphabet idea too! What a great way to introduce ethics to children. I'm going to start using the alphabet scale with my oldest! And don't get me started on the way big food companies target children with cartoons, bright colors, and other marketing traps so they're begging mom & dad for sugary cereals, drinks & snacks. Ridiculous!

    1. You're so right. Thankfully, if you explain it all to your kids (the food marketing gimmicks), they will eventually understand it. My kids know very well what is good or not for them. :-)

  6. I strongly believe in teaching philosophy to kids early on. It has to be adapted of course.

  7. I really enjoyed your post. I love those kind of conversations with kids. My 18 year old and I still have them when we are alone. We talk about so many things. You are so right about the food industry. I shared this to Twitter and Plus 1'd it. I hope you don't mind.

    1. Thank you so much, Betty!

      Conversations like that are what I enjoy most about my kids. They say such smart things, too. :-)

  8. I'd never thought much about teaching philosophy to the girls, aged 3 and 5, but the idea of ethics, gratitude and kindness I do teach (values), but not with the whole big picture of philosophy with asking the question why in mind. I like it! Thanks for the inspiration :-)

    1. Thank you for your comment, Rebecca!

      Philosophy is like everything else, it can be adapted. :-)

  9. I hate food labels so much! They drive me insane and I never know how these companies can actually get away with toting that they're HEALTHY! When they have that much sugar and TRANS FAT none the less, it's ridiculous! Sadly, so many people are not educated when it comes to nutrition that they fall for the packaging tricks!

  10. It is crazy what they can get away with on food labels and how they market certain products sometimes. I think some of the studies at well that come out with certain claims need to be more transparent about who is paying for the studies. E.g. the Dairy companies paying for a study that surprise surprise says everyone should have more dairy.

  11. I think teaching ethics, history, and giving our kids the tools to think critically is all important when it comes to food and to life.