Stanley L. Olsen
November 8, 1990 Convocation
On the occasion of the official naming of the
Stanley L. Olsen Chair of Moral Values
How Then Shall We Live: A Household Perspective on Moral Issues
Arthur L. Olsen
[Gary Olson:] Good morning to you all. I'm Gary Olson, as most of you know, the Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the College. It's my privilege to welcome all of you here this morning for this special convocation. And this is a special audience I think in many ways, that has gathered here this morning, and particularly would like to say a word of welcome to Grace Olsen and family who are here this morning. This is a special gathering I think because it has a large agenda, it includes at least three important segments this morning. The first of these is that it will officially name the Chair of Values that has existed on this campus for the past five years. Secondly, it will officially confer that Chair of Values on its newly appointed recipient. And, finally it will allow the former holder of that chair to address this community, and so that we might hear from him after his tenure in that position, to hear what he as done and the thoughts that he has brought together. And so we're looking forward to hearing Dr. Olsen speak. It's now my pleasure to introduce to you Dr. LaMoyne Petersen, Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the Humanities division, who is also a student of Dr. Stanley Olsen as well as a colleague of his. So it's, I think, very fitting that he should have this role on the program. LaMoyne.
[LaMoyne Pederson:] As Gary said I was both a student and colleague of Stanley Olsen. What was it like to be a student in Stanley's class? Well, it was an unforgettable experience. We were enthralled by those sparkling blue eyes, his infectous enthusiasm, his agility of mind. One thing was immediately apparent to us and that is that Stanley had a very clear head. He had no trouble disentangling a complicated arguement and cutting through to the core of an issue. He was intensely curious about everything, it seemed, at least everything worth knowing. Science, literature, history, religion, anthropology. He just knew an awful lot about everything. And in the classroom, what he knew came alive and was made relevant to our lives. Stanley had the uncanny ability of being able to take some problem that perplexed Kant, or Hegel, or Plato, and to explain it in such a way that their struggle to understand became our own. That was Stanley's way of drawing us into the conversation that he found so absorbing. Stanley wasn't an easy teacher. His tests were tough, some would say impossible, but he was the sort of teacher nobody wanted to disappoint. He knew each student's intellectual ability and never expected more than a student could deliver, but as we quickly found out he never expected less either.
There was a directness about Stanley that was refreshing. He wasn't afraid to ask difficult questions, and in his classes you could expect basic assumptions to be probed, and conventional wisdom to be challenged. Stanley made you think harder than you had ever thought before. He was a man of high ideals, a man who exemplified the ideals, the values which he taught in the classroom. He spoke plainly, forthrightly, but always with that twinkle in his eye. Stanley could be serious without being somber. When he came to class his habit was to carry an old, beat-up, brown, leather briefcase. Some of you will remember that who took classes from Stanley. He would park that briefcase on the desk and then begin unloading it. Book, after book, after book, emerged. And when he had removed the last book, sometimes a quizzical look would come across his face, and then it would turn to a look of disappointment. We knew what had happened. Stanley had forgotten to bring his notes. But it was never clear to us why he bothered to bring notes to class, he didn't need them. He seldom used them. He had so throughly digested the material the evening before, that any notes he brought along were superfluous.
Stanley was not, I think, a polished speaker, and if you sat too far back in the classroom it was difficult to hear him. It wasn't in his manner of speaking, but what he said that so riveted our attention. And if you weren't listening carefully you would miss what seemed like a revelation when it came.
Everyone liked Stanley it seemed. In the eighteen years that I knew him, I never heard a student, faculty member, anybody in the administration, I never heard anyone say an unkind word about him. Everybody respected him and more than a few stood in awe of him. When he spoke, his words carried immense weight. People trusted his judgement. He was a learned man with massive common sense. I shared an office with Stanley the first three years I was on the staff and no one could have had a finer mentor. Hard-working, considerate, generous with his time, quick to praise. I have his old desk in my home, Grace gave it to me shortly after Stanley's death. It's a wonderful reminder of a remarkable human being. He's been gone now for almost a dozen years, and if you ask me if I miss him, the answer is yes I surely do. But I'm grateful for having shared as much of his life with him as I did. We have, of course, Stanley's wife with us this morning, Grace Olsen, and also her daughter, Marilyn Ryan, who flew in early this morning from New Jersey. And I'd like Grace and Marilyn to stand this morning for the benefit for those here who may not know them. Grace, Marilyn, would you stand?
Grace was the wife of Stanley Olsen for, what, 45 years, a long time. As some of you know Grace and Stanley were hosts to many faculty and student gatherings here on the campus and when you were a guest in the Olsen home you were always treated to delightful conversation and delicious food. The conversation sort of took care of itself. And I think that Grace always provided the food. While those were memorable years, Grace, we thank you for sharing your home and your life with us in the way that you did for so long.
Well, that was Stanley Olsen then, a magnificent human being, the likes of which no college, I think, sees very often. And someone who will remain foremost in our minds for a long, long, time. I suppose every person has a gallery of personal heroes and for me, at least, Stanley will always be at the top.
[President Lloyd Svendsbye:] The Values selection committee, comprised of five members of the faculty, have recommended that the chair, which for the past five years has been known as the Chair of Values, be named in memory and honor of Dr. Stanley L. Olsen, who served Augustana for a long time as professor of philosophy. And it is my privilege today to name that chair of values as the Stanley L. Olsen Chair of Moral Values. And I declare that as the official name of this chair at this time. The chair has actually been in existence for five years without being named in anyone's honor. And it was held by Dr. Arthur Olsen. Hence, the first holder of the Stanley L. Olsen Chair of Moral Values falls to a different person. And that person who has just been named to the chair is Dr. Murray Haar, whom I would like to present to you right now. Dr. Haar.
[Murray Haar:] Thank you. It is my honor and privilege to serve as the first holder of the newly named Stanley L Olsen Chair of Moral Values. For already two months, I have already been acting as the Chair and I wish that Stanley was here to help me and to advise me. My sense is, what I try to do is to do some reading, to read some of Stanley's works and to learn from people who knew Stanley. And I discovered that there were certain ideals that Stanley is committed to and so that has caused me to understand the chair in a certain way. I understand that the function of the chair is to provoke and to evoke conversations on the campus concerning questions of moral values. From all that I have heard and read of Stanley Olsen, he was not reluctant to raise difficult, philosophical questions for his students. In that vein, this Chair is committed to the principle that speaking the truth by all elements of the campus, whether it be the Board of Regents, the administration, the faculty, the students, or the support staff, speaking the truth is vital to having a moral community. The Chair must strive to speak the truth forthrightly, to name the questions honestly, and urge the community to struggle for the answers with integrity, with sensitivity, and humor. We ought not take ourselves too seriously here.
With all this in mind, it is my privilege to introduce to you Dr. Arthur Olsen. Dr. Olsen has been a member of the Religion Department since 1960, he holds the Doctor of Theology degree from Harvard University, Dr. Olsen has held a number of positions at the college during his time at Augustana, and for the past five years he has held the NEH Chair of Values. In this capacity, he sought to make sure that the discussion of values was a central part of the Augustana curriculum. Dr. Olsen was instrumental in the college's decision to rename the chair in honor of Dr. Stanley Olsen. He is a colleague with whom I have enjoyed a number of spirited discussions. His address today is entitled: "How Then Shall We Live: A Household Perspective on Moral Issues." Dr. Arthur Olsen.
[Arthur L. Olsen:] Grace, Marilyn, colleagues, friends. How Then Shall We Live? On the occasion of naming the Chair, the Stanley L. Olsen Chair, I invite you to consider this question with me in two ways. First, by inquiring how is it possible to ask, in a time of so many challenges to possibilities of moral discourse. And secondly, by considering with me a household approach to the moral issues which surround us. The consideration of this question is appropriate I believe both to the contributions of Stanley as teacher and faculty member to this college, and to the occasion today when we honor him and in fact claim his continuing presence among us by naming the Chair for him. Those of you who are guests on this campus may not be aware of the significant place of the question, "How then shall we live?" in the Augustana curriculum. The Augustana Plan, which is the name of our current curriculum, has two bookends, as it were. The first is the New Student Seminar, in which we invite new students to begin their education at Augustana that they will be carrying out during their four years. The second is the Capstone course, to be taken in the senior year, in which students are invited to discuss important topics that raise fundamental questions. All these courses come together in the question, "How then shall we live?". There are at least two reasons, I believe, that the consideration of this question is appropriate to honor Stanley. First of all, because it is a Stanley type question. Stanley was one who invited us, to stimulate us, to pull things together. One of the stated goals of Area 4 in the Augustana Plan is to consider faith and ethical commitments as a stimulus to integrate all learning, and as a preparation for a life of responsible service in church and society. A stimulus to integrate, that is what Stanley embodied for many of us, a stimulus to integrate. And I believe that this language of Area 4, a stimulus to integrate, may even be the language of Stanley himself. As a sometime administrator and reader of catalogues, I followed statements of purpose throughout the years. And I believe, although I cannot prove it, that I can show you which piece of Stanley's rhetoric has emerged today in our capstone course. In any rate, the ongoing concern of Augustana College, to encourage all of us to pull together what we learn and teach in relationship to the question, "How then shall we live?", is in a special way rooted to the contribution of Stanley L. Olsen. Hence, it is fitting that we not only honor him today by naming the Chair of Moral Values after him, but in considering this important question, "How then shall we live?" Do the challenges to the possibility to moral discourse make it meaningless to ask? Let us examine two of the challenges today, relativism and emotivism. For relativists, the question as stated is not capable of a meaningful answer because it assumes a common ethical ground, when in fact common ground is not possible. There are only individual grounds, individual rights, at most I might ask "How then shall I live?" Many years ago, Protagorus made the case for relativism when he argued, that a man is the measure of all things. If true, then there cannot be collective answers, but only individual answers to this question. This is the challenge of relativism. If we accept the assumptions of relativism, than we cannot invite people to serious moral reflection without fear of imposing our biases on others or exposing ourselves to those biases of others. At best we can be neutral and acknowledge the validity of all positions. We can compare them, but not make judgements. I think you recognize the method, it's called values clarification. The persistence of the relativist challenge in our own day is attested to in the opening sentences of Allan Bloom's controversial book, The Closing of the American Mind.
"There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of these days: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes the truth is relative. The students' backgrounds are as various as America can provide, some are religious, some atheist, some are to the left, some are to the right, some intend to be scientists, some humanists or professionals or businessmen, some are poor, some are rich. They are unified only in their allegiance to equality."
For students like these described by Bloom, which I don't think accurately describes our students, the principal virtue is openness, not standing for rights in the tradition of John Stuart Mill or John Dewey, not finding common ground. From the perspective of openness, Bloom argues, there is no enemy other than the man who is not open to everything. "With no sense of shared goals or vision of the public good, is the social contract any longer possible?", Bloom asks rhetorically, and sadly. Or is it possible to ask "How then shall we live?" and get any more than individual answers to that question?
From another quarter, from the 20th century philosophy of logical positivism, comes an even more sweeping challenge. It is the challenge called emotivism. At least with relativism the discussion of moral decision is acknowledged. From the point of view of emotivism, our question is not possible to answer because the language of morality, namely the language of good and bad, right and wrong, are empirically unverifiable, and therefore devoid of objective content. At most we might ask for a descriptive answer, "How then did individuals in this or that culture think they should live?" But we cannot ask, "How then should we live" Because then we would be assuming that the language of morality, goodness and badness, has an objective validity of some sort.
Alfred J. Ayer, 20th century philosopher, gives the classic expression to this challenge in his brief but closely argued book, Language, Truth, and Logic, one which Stanley used in one of his courses.
Descriptive statements are in principle, verifiable, but ought statements such as, "We would be involved in any answer in the question ‘How then shall we live?'" are not verifiable. They describe the emotional state of the speaker. If I say, "It is wrong for a teacher to lie to a student, or a doctor to a patient." I am saying only that I don't approve of lying, it doesn't feel right to me, I dislike it.
The language of ethics is the language of emotional states. Hence, the challenge to the language of morality is called emotivism. The pervasiveness of emotivism in our culture is cogently identified by the philosopher Alasdair McIntyre, in his classic work, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. He notes the ironic situation that we in our culture simultaneously and inconsistently treat moral argument as an exercise of our rational powers and as mere expressive assertion. On the one hand, McIntyre observes, we are surrounded by the language of moral debate and discussion on many issues such as abortion and war we are able to line up opposing and internally consistent arguments. But on the other hand, we are unable, at the end of this juxtaposition, of saying more than we have opposing views, which expressed the strongly held views of two different parties. When each of the positions can be consistently argued there seems to be no logical way to mediate between them. We are, from the point of view of logical positivism, left to assert one over the other emotionally.
One way to detect the influence of a moral philosophy in an age, McIntyre argues, is to look at the characters that stand out in that age. In the Homeric age, it was the warrior. Today, he says, the key characters who play out the emotivist assumptions of our age are the aesthete, the manager, and the therapist. In an emotivist age, when values have no objective content, we can call on our managers to be value free and competent. The manager is the one whom we can count on to get things done efficiently, an objective person who can make things work. The overriding criterion that we expect from our managers is economic effectiveness.
The therapist, as Robert Bella observes in his book Habits of the Heart, is but another kind of manager. The one who helps us manage feelings, and emotions, and grief. But to what ends? The therapist, Bella argues, doesn't focus on what we ought to do, but on self-fulfillment. The language of the therapist is not of good and bad, right and wrong, but of fulfillment. Normative commitments are so many alternative strategies for self-commitment. From the point of view of emotivist assumptions, our question "How then shall we live?" becomes at best, "How can we maximize our profits?" or "How can we collectively maximize our personal fulfillment?"
What becomes of the fate of our question, in the face of these challenges to our moral discourse? At best, when exposed to the light of day, I would argue relativist and emotivist assumptions, if you'll pardon me using individualist and emotivist language, are dissatisfying and unfulfilling. But at worst, they leave us woefully ill-equipped to deal with the serious moral issues which confront us. In preparing to write their book Habits of the Heart, subtitled Individualism and Commitment in American Life, Robert Bella and his associates interviewed two hundred Americans to find out what they thought about our question. How ought we to live? How do we think about how we should live? Who are we as Americans? What is our character? Again and again, they found people who were raised on the language of autonomy, individualism, self-fulfillment, but who yearned from something more. They lacked a language, however, they lacked encouragement. They wanted fulfillment. In a deeper sense, they wanted that fulfillment that comes into existence through participation with others in the effort to create a just and loving society. In marriage, for example, they found people looking for relationships deeper than mutual self-gratification. In short, they found people yearning for commitment to something larger than themselves. Individualism alone is not satisfying, nor is emotivism enough. The moral issues which we face are so much larger than our private individual perspectives. Can you imagine the cases at the Nuremberg trial being argued out on emotivist grounds? How did you feel about killing all of those people? Nazi war crimes are wrong because it doesn't seem right? We don't approve? The search for the satisfied self, Bloom observes, is far removed from the concerns for justice that one finds on their own, or in Athenian society.
"The difference is made apparent by comparing the image of Socrates talking to two young men about the best regime, with the image of Rousseau lying on his back, on a raft, floating on a gently undulating lake, sensing his existence."
Inasmuch as the urgency of our question persists despite these challenges, I submit that we need a perspective which enables us to see our legitimate concerns for self development in a larger context. I submit for this purpose, the paradigm of the household. Individual fulfillment, though important, cannot be enough. We crave connections, we want to know, we must know, how to live with others. There are dilemmas in the household that need to be faced. A household, not an individualistic perspective, is necessary to face them.
Consider the challenge to our environmental thinking that was brought by the biologist, Garret Hardin, in his article, "The Tragedy of the Commons." The "commons" refers to the common pasture, shared by a number of villagers who lived near it and who used the pasture as a place for their cattle to graze. Let us assume, he says, that the common pasture is a sufficient place for grazing for each village household neighboring on the pasture. What happens if each householder decided to have two cows in the pasture, knowing that there may not be quite as much feed for each cow, but reasoning that two thinner cows are a better investment than one well fed cow. Or what happens if using the same logic, each village household decides to have three cows. At some point the common pasture will be endangered unless these village householders can bring themselves to ask the question: "How then shall we live together, around this common pasture?" Hardin's analogy of the commons has helped us to come to terms with the inadequacy of individual approaches to environmental issues. We are in a race to save the planet, as a recent TV series by that title has helped us to underline. We must care about our neighbor in Kenya, or India, or Brazil, or Russia. And we must care about what they are doing. Thinking of the earth as a household, we need to ask, "How then shall we live in it?" Every metaphor, every paradigm, has its limits. We know too well how easy it is for individuals to get lost in oppressive fraternalistic systems.
The lessons we have learned from John Locke and from the Bill of Rights about individual liberties must not be lost. However, we need, urgently, to deal with what Robert Bella describes in an interview with Bill Moyers, as "the moral meaning of interdependence." Interdependence is real. What happens in Japan affects our economy here. How can we deal with interdependence in a way which is helpful and sustaining? And not dehumanizing and frightening.
There are two kinds of courage needed in the world, as Paul Tillich, has rightly pointed out in his book The Courage to Be. One is the courage to be an individual, the other is the courage to be a part. In understanding our moral situation, we need a new paradigm which helps us to grasp the relationship between the individual and interdependence. How can we do that? Consider an example of the power of a new paradigm, suggested by the philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead. In the development of the natural sciences, it has been important to understand reality in a mechanistic way, as particles in motion. This has been a very useful model even though it has been very difficult on the basis of this to describe organisms and persons. In a mechanism, bodies, particles are to be interpreted in terms of inertia. In physics, we learn that bodies remain at rest until accelerated, or remain in motion unless stopped. A useful model, but it doesn't help us in understanding ourselves or organisms. The mechanistic map is useful but it doesn't help us to understand the full reality of nature. The poet Wordsworth is correct, "Our meddling intellect misshapes the beauteous forms of things. We murder to dissect." Instead of starting with a part, Whitehead argues, and trying to come up with a whole, we should see the part in relationship to the whole. Perhaps it is true that electrons blindly run, but they differ according to the situations in which they find themselves. Instead of starting with the smallest electron and trying to understand the human being, why not begin with what we know best, the human being.
If growth and understanding the relationship of the parts of the whole requires a new paradigm, why not a new paradigm in understanding the moral issues which we face. I suggest for your consideration, this morning, the paradigm of the household. As students in one of the capstone courses have learned, the Greek word for household is oikos and from this word we get three interesting and very powerful words. Ecumenicity; we need an approach that considers all of the parts. The household is inclusive. Economy, literally the rules of the household. Economy deals with those laws which are necessary for the fair, and prosperous, and healthy running of the household. Ecology, literally understanding the household. A word that we have used to describe our appropriate concerns for our planet. We do not begin life as individuals, we begin connected. We need an ethic which encourages us to nourish our individuality in a household sense of relationship. We discover reality and connectedness.
Some time ago, I was drinking coffee with some colleagues from the Chemistry Department in the Huddle. And I asked them, what does it mean to be solid? Basically, I was told solidity is an illusion. The table is made up of an enormous number of moving particles. If we had a gun that was small enough, it would be possible to shoot right through the table. Elements from that point of view are agreed upon associations of moving particles that are combined into useful forms such as tables. Tables are networks of many particles which need to be nourished and cared for if the table is to serve its function. Similarly, wouldn't it be appropriate to say that the human household is made up of many networks: families, clubs, churches, communities, that need to be appropriately nourished and cared for, both for the sake of the individual and for the whole. In the household it is not only meaningful, it is absolutely urgent to ask, How then shall we live together in a mutually satisfying way in the household?
There is not time nor do I as an individual, have the resources to develop a household paradigm as an approach to this question. This is a household project. And point of fact I think that is what we are about in our capstone program. But let me identify some of the characteristics of this household paradigm. Number 1, it is a paradigm we can relate to. This is important in our complex world we need a paradigm which makes sense to all of its participants. Because the future of our household depends on all the members in it having a sense of responsibility. Both unthinking and malicious behavior in the household is a threat to us all. My lifestyle may be a threat to your environment. Secondly, it a paradigm that connects us to our story, with the whole human story. One of the limits of emotivist thinking, McIntyre points out, is that it leaves the self to define itself apart from the human story, that is apart from the needs of the household and the roles we play in it. The emotivist self, he says, finds no limits. For the existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, it is a central error to identify the self with its role. This is a strange type of thinking which encourages us to think that private decisions are really private. Should the unborn child with genetic defects be aborted? Is it my right to decide to drink alcohol during pregnancy? Shall I marry? Shall we have children? Surely, these decisions are private, but they have household consequences, due to intergenerational dependence. If the next generation stops having children, who will pay for my social security payments? Each one of us has a responsible role in the household.
It is a paradigm which may help us to understand why neither Milton Friedman's pure free market economy nor the top down command economy will work. I realize that I don't have competence to make the judgement. But I submit that neither takes into account household realities. Moreover it is a paradigm which connects us with the nature of practical household reasoning. Long ago, Aristotle warned us not to expect of moral reasoning the kind of certainty and predictability that we can expect from geometry. Moral reasoning involves baselines and principles, but moral reasoning also involves careful analysis of individual cases and judgements. In the age of the enlightenment, thinkers like Kant and Mill tried to find absolute standpoints from which to make all decisions in the household, but this can't be done. The relativists are partially right; there are no absolute standpoints. But this does not mean that anything goes because we live in networks, physical and social networks, that need to be nourished and cared for by us. And finally this is a paradigm which encourages us to relate the narratives of our household with other households. It is a perspective from which to connect the resources of our theological heritage, as Douglas Meeks has done in his book, God the Economist, with the human needs in the household. He shows how the biblical perspective of the household can engage us in serious reflection on the meaning of stewardship in the household.
Finally I can't conclude without suggesting what I believe is true. That in our Capstone project we are developing a household approach to the question "How then shall we live". Our project is a kind of a paradigm of the larger household paradigm. Consider: it is a intergenerational approach to household issues, students and faculty coming together to ask "How then shall we live?" It is interdepartmental: we want to bring the perspective of all disciplines and majors on crucial household problems. As in the case of all household ventures it is fragile. The success of this project depends upon the contributions and support of all of the members of this household. The director, Murray Haar, needs the support of all of us. But I do believe it is a noble project worth nourishing, and I can't help but think that Stanley L. Olsen would be pleased to know that his concern that we design programs to encourage students to see the relationship between what they believe and their personal and social integrity, and to integrate all of their learning, has borne fruit in this household approach to that important household question, "How then shall we live?" Thank you.
[Gary Olson:] Thank you Art for those challenging ideas and words. Thank you LaMoyne for your words about Stanley, and congratulations to you Murray, and we look forward to your leadership in this area. Thank you all for coming. I hope that you will adjourn with us now to the Back Alley in the Commons so that you might visit a bit with Grace and Marilyn, and carry on the conversation that's been started here this morning. We're adjourned.
Transcribed from tape by Denise Steffl, Augustana student, October 1999.