Author Archives: Lauren Ilsley

Zinn Reading Response

Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” does much more than the average history textbook, and it serves to tell the more complicated side of American history. Textbook production in the United States is monopolized by the textbook industry in Texas, and for that, most textbooks that circulate around the country are whitewashed, uncomplicated, and partial versions of history. This book would add a lot to the American history that high schoolers learn in school. In textbooks, minority histories are written in the sidebars. On the other hand, some histories solely tell the stories of the victims or the oppressed and fail to mention the larger political and cultural narrative of history. Zinn strikes a balance between these two ways of addressing history. He writes, “my point is not to grieve for the victims and denounce the executioners…in the long run, the oppressor is also the victim” (10). Along the same vein, Zinn’s outlook on studying history aims to look at “the past’s fugitive moments of compassion rather than in its solid centuries of warfare.” This is a unique perspective on history, for the discipline of history disproportionately focuses on the blood, wars, death and the oppressed.

Zinn criticizes the metaphor that is frequently made about America as a family with a complicated past. He writes, “nations are not communities and have never been. The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, most often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and works, dominators and dominated in race and sex” (10). This critique is epitomized in the the way that the history of lynching in the South has been ignored and covered up, just as family would cover up the complicated aspects of the past. However, the “covering up” is solely committed by the Southern whites. The “family” in the metaphor represents the whites, while blacks have no place in this family metaphor. Zinn’s critique of American history as the history of a family is relevant. Americans would benefit from recognizing the flaws in this narrative, and instead work towards trying to uncover the repressed stories of the past. Overall, Zinn raised some crucial points about the flaws in the popular narrative of history, and the average Americans’ take on history would improve in fundamental ways if they were taught Zinn’s more holistic version of the past.

Response to “The Righteous Mind”

The chapter, “Where Does Morality Come From?” reminded me of the interconnectedness of morality, philosophy, law, economics, anthropology and psychology. The way humans have understood morality and ethics have changed over time based on the findings of anthropologists, psychologists, scientists and philosophers, and we often to not give these findings enough credit on changing an entire groups’ world views. Take the death penalty: when scientists found that lethal injection could be felt by the person being killed, the debate on the morality of the death penalty changed. While it might not seem like it, our moral compasses adapt based on our environment, society and our own self-interests of the time.

In order to understand the way we understand morality today we have to keep in mind the way that the understanding of morality and the changes in groups’ morals over time. As children, we weigh our decisions based on what our environment has taught us, however as we gain experience and education, we begin to take more complex ideas and other people into consideration in making moral decisions. Haidt’s discussion about how harm does not affect children’s morality as much as moral psychologists used to think it did challenged my prior beliefs. As children, we are taught the golden rule: treat others as you would like to be treated. The idea is that children will not commit the same harm that they have experienced because they hated the experience, and therefore it is wrong. However, Haidt concluded that “cultural learning or guidance must play a larger role” in forming a sense of morality than simply children’s experience with harm. In American society, many children do not face as harsh punishment as their parents and grandparents might have experienced, but their parents are still able to instill the same moral lessons without inflicting harm. This goes to show that the way we raise our children changes based on society’s morals.

In class today, many of my classmates and I were confused about how someone really could be a non-cognitivist in American society. We are surrounded by moral arguments and it seems impossible to make arguments independent of ethics. It seemed that almost every one of my ten reasons that my topic for my research paper was important were related to ethics. I tried to make a non-cognitive argument about the issue of the economic cost of alcohol-related deaths and fatalities, but it was difficult to separate economics and politics from morality. Even by making a utilitarian argument based on economic resources allocated by the government is inherently an ethical discussion about who deserves the resources. This personal struggle to separate morality from my research on the drinking age proved to me that we live in a society of cognitivists, and it seems incorrect to separate ethics from the rest of the world in many of the debates in society today.