Thursday, January 17, 2019

I Asked 400 Undergrads to Perform 90 Minutes of Kindness for No Reward. Here's What Happened

Followers of this blog will recall my post from October 30, where I solicited ideas about a "Kindness Assignment" for my lower-division philosophy class "Evil". The assignment was to perform ninety minutes of kindness for one or more people, with no formal accountability or reward. I canceled one day of class to free up time for students to perform their act of kindness. I described the Kindness Assignment as "required", but I told them I would not be checking on or grading them in any way.

Here's the full text of the Kindness Assignment.

During the final exam, I gave students a single detached page, front and back, on which they could write about their experiences with the Kindness Assignment. The page was prominently marked as "optional". I said I would not grade their responses and would only view the responses after final grades were submitted, so that their reports would have no influence of any sort on their grades.

On the page, students could say what they did (if anything), what they learned (if anything), how they felt about the fact that there was no reward or accountability, how they felt about having spent 90 minutes that way, and how their thoughts about the assignment connected to course themes. I also asked students whether they thought I should give the Kindness Assignment again, and if so, what if anything they would recommend changing. Here's the full text of the response sheet.

Three hundred and ninety-eight students took the final exam. Of these, 150 (38%) wrote something on the Kindness Assignment response sheet. It was a long and difficult exam, and since responding was optional and not for credit, some students who completed the Kindness Assignment may not have submitted a response. I assume that many or most of the non-submitters did not complete the assignment. Reviewing the responses, I estimate that 20% of the students who submitted a response said that they did not perform the assignment. Thus, approximately 120 students performed the Kindness Assignment and chose to tell me about their experience.

Understandably, in the context of an exam, only a minority of students took the time to answer all eight questions on the two-page response sheet. Some just gave a brief summary of what they did. Others praised or criticized the assignment without detailing what they did.

Responses to "What, if anything, did you do for the Kindness Assignment?"

Among the approximately 20% who said they didn't complete the Kindness Assignment, a substantial minority said they had planned to do so but forgot or were prevented. Others said that with no reward or accountability, they didn't feel motivated to do it.

Among those who reported completing the assignment, about 25% chose to spend the time helping a friend or family member with chores, about 25% chose to spend the time in a unusually meaningful or thoughtful personal interaction with a family member, about 25% helped strangers with chores or gifts (esp. homeless people or the elderly, sometimes through an organization), and the rest did a variety of other things.

One student bought five extra-large pizzas and shared them with people on Skid Row, which he described as "a really humbling experience.... Seeing people who were down on their luck cry/smile over some warm food really impacted me. Not sure how to succinctly phrase this, but it showed me a good and kind side of humanity that I often have trouble seeing."

Among students who interacted meaningfully with family:

  • One decided to dedicate the whole weekend to her family and "learned that I needed to re-evaluate my priorities.... I was working and making money... and in a way I was becoming greedy." She concluded "It's sad that it took an assignment... for me to realize this."
  • Another took her niece, who she usually ignores, out for ice cream, and said she came to appreciate that "little kids... are the nicest types of human beings."
  • Another student had a long, personal phone call with his stepfather, from whom he normally felt emotionally estranged, and said he finally realized that his stepfather wasn't really a bad person.
  • Still another "decided on actually listening to my parents about their issues & problems. Each of them had a curious look and asked where all of this had come from. I told them all about the course.... I could even see my dad tearing up while talking. I bet it's from not just having a heart to heart talk in who knows how long but also with his own son for I think the first time."
  • One student, saying he was inspired by Peter Singer's work on charitable giving gave $5000 (!) to an acquaintance in financial need.

    Responses to "What, if anything, did you learn from doing the Kindness Assignment?

    Answers to this question varied considerably. Maybe 20% of respondents said they learned nothing. Maybe half of respondents said something about learning how kindness can be pleasurable both for the giver and receiver. Some who had especially moving experiences said that they learned something important about people close to them, or about their own values, or about the kindness of humanity.

    Several students said that they learned, from the fact that they didn't complete the assignment, that they weren't much motivated to be kind without the benefit of some further reward.

    Responses to "How do you feel about the fact that there is no formal accountability or reward for completing this assignment?"

    For this question I coded responses as pro, con, or mixed/ambiguous. Thirty-four out of 78 (44%) of respondents were pro. They offered a variety of justifications, including (a.) having no tangible reward ensures that the kindness is authentic rather than forced; (b.) it allows students who are introverted or otherwise not disposed to do the assignment the opportunity to decline to participate without penalty; and (c.) it led them to think about whether they or other people would really be willing to go out of their way to be kind for ninety minutes without any tangible benefit.

    Ten out of 78 (13%) were con. When they offered a reason, it was generally that people wouldn't be sufficiently motivated without reward.

    The remainder, also 34/78 (44%), were ambiguous or mixed. Most of these said they "didn't mind" not receiving reward or that it "didn't matter" to them that there was no reward.

    Responses to "How do you feel about having spent ninety minutes in this way?"

    The majority of respondents reported feeling good about having done the assignment: 53/70 (76%). Only a few felt negative about it: 6/70 (9%). One student, for example, who offered to clean a friend's dorm room ended up feeling taken advantage of, especially after other friends started asking for their rooms to be cleaned too. The remainder were mixed or ambiguous 11/70 (16%).

    Unfortunately, the student who gave the $5000 expressed mixed emotions at having given so much, saying that "I can feel my soul feel happy about this" but "looking at my bank account, I am not happy. In fact, close to very sad/depressed." He recommended that in the future I suggest that students not give money.

    This student happened to be among the several students in the course I had come to know personally. I emailed him, asking if he's doing okay, and inviting him to discuss his experience further if he wants. After a brief exchange, he consented to my sharing his experience with others, so that others might learn from it.

    Singer argues that we should give away all of the money that we would otherwise spend on luxuries. My impression is that few students who read Singer on this topic are convinced by his arguments (I have opinion survey data to support this claim), and that among the few who do decide to give, almost all give well within their means, without regret.

    However, once in a rare while, people probably are inspired to radical sacrificial actions by reading the ethics texts that we philosophy professors assign. I tend to forget that this can be a consequence of teaching ethical views like Singer's. Arguably, as a teacher I have partial responsibility for such consequences, perhaps especially for students who are still in their teens.

    Responses to "Should the professor give a version of the Kindness Assignment in the future?"

    The large majority who responded -- 54 out of 63 (86%) -- answered yes, some with big exclamation marks and high enthusiasm. Only four (6%) answered no and 5 (8%) were mixed or ambiguous.

    Recommendations for changes to the assignment.

    Many students said the assignment was excellent as-is, but a substantial minority recommended one change or another. The most common recommendations were to offer credit for it (10 students), to clarify better what sorts of kind actions I had in mind (7 students), and to shorten the length of the act of kindness (6 students).

    Next time, I probably will better clarify the kind of actions I have in mind -- and I will suggest that students not give money.

    [image source]

    Friday, January 11, 2019

    Zhuangzi Might Prefer the Passive Knife to the Skillful Cook

    ... contra the currently dominant "skill" interpretations of the Zhuangzi.

    Among the most famous and striking passages by the ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi is the following:

    A butcher was cutting up an ox for Lord Wenhui. Wherever his hand touched, wherever his shoulder leaned, wherever his foot stepped, wherever his knee pushed -- with a zip! with a whoosh! -- he handled his chopper with aplomb, and never skipped a beat. He moved in time to the Dance of the Mulberry Forest, and harmonized with the Head of the Line Symphony. Lord Wenhui said, "Ah, excellent, that technique can reach such heights!"

    The butcher sheathed his chopper and responded, "What your servant values is the Way, which goes beyond technique. When I first began cutting up oxen, I did not see anything but oxen. Three years later, I couldn't see the whole ox. And now, I encounter them with spirit and don't look with my eyes. Sensible knowledge stops and spiritual desires proceed. I rely on the Heavenly patterns, strike in the big gaps, am guided by the large fissures, and follow what is inherently so. I never touch a ligament or tendon, much less do any heavy wrenching! A good butcher changes his chopper every year because he chips it. An average butcher changes it every month because he breaks it. There are spaces between those joints, and the edge of the blade has no thickness. If you use what has no thickness to go where there is space -- oh! there's plenty of extra room to play about in. That's why after nineteen years the blade of my chopper is still as through fresh from the grindstone.

    "Still, when I get to a hard place, I see the difficulty and take breathless care. My gaze settles! My movements slow! I move the chopper slightly, and in a twinkling it's come apart, crumbling to the ground like a clod of earth! I stand holding my chopper and glance all around, dwelling on my accomplishment. Then I clean my chopper and put it away."

    Lord Wenhui said, "Excellent! I have heard the words of a butcher and learned how to care for life!"

    (Kjellberg trans., Ch. 3).


    Based partly on this passage from the (generally regarded as authentic) Inner Chapters and several related passages from the (more textually dubious) Outer Chapters, it is more or less orthodox to treat the celebration of skillful artisanal or athletic activity as central to Zhuangzi's worldview (e.g. Graham 1991; Hansen 1992; Ivanhoe 1993; Slingerland 2007; Fraser 2014).

    However, if we take the Inner Chapters as our guide to the core "Zhuangzi" outlook, a puzzle arises. Nowhere else in the Inner Chapters is artisanal or athletic skill of this sort singled out for praise. Indeed, skill is frequently criticized, or associated with negative outcomes. Zhuangzi celebrates the useless yak in contrast to a weasel or a dog who is skilled at catching rats (the weasel ends up dead in a trap [Ziporyn trans., p. 8] and the dog bound by a leash [p. 51]). His "desk slumping" friend Huizi's logical skill brings him nothing but trouble. Skilled musical practitioners end up quarreling (p. 15), and people who test their skills in contests start bright but end up in dark conniving (p. 28); "skill [is] mere salesmanship" (p. 48); the divine creator or teacher "supports heaven and earth, and carves out all forms, but without being skillful" (p. 49).

    If skillful activity, guided by the spirit rather than the eyes, is central to Zhuangzi's values, why doesn't he say so anywhere else in the chapters that form the authentic core of the book? Why doesn't he celebrate the skillful weasel rather than the unskilled yak and the various other seemingly unskilled characters in his stories, such as Horsehead Humpback (p. 35-36)?

    The answer, I think, is that Zhuangzi doesn't particularly value skillful artisanal or athletic activity. Celebrating the skill of the butcher in one place and deriding skill in others is an example of Zhuangzian self-contradiction. I have argued (here and here) that Zhuangzi intentionally contradicts himself within and between passages, in his project of undercutting doctrinaire adherence to any set of motivating values.

    So how should we interpret the passage of the butcher? How does the butcher's activity teach the king "how to care for life"?

    The first thing to notice is that the long-lived thing is not the butcher. It's the knife. After nineteen years, the knife is as sharp as if fresh off the whetstone. In contrast, the butcher is in danger! As Zhuangzi says in Chapter 4 and elsewhere, it is dangerous to display your talents before a king. If you please the king, he might bind you into servitude; if you displease him, he might kill you.

    What's good about the knife, or at least what leads to its healthy longevity, is that it simply follows along through empty spaces, rather than hacking and slicing. It lets the butcher's hand lead it, not fighting, not resisting, but also not helping things along. The knife itself has no skills. Due to the butcher's skill, the knife itself needs to do almost no cutting at all.

    Going along with things, doing nothing, lounging in the shade, standing useless and quiet, like a yak or an ancient gnarled tree -- that's closer to Zhuangzi's core vision than acting with impressive skill, like an accomplished artisan or athlete.


    For a fuller treatment of these issues see my forthcoming essay, "The Unskilled Zhuangzi: Big and Useless and Not So Good at Catching Rats".

    [image source]

    Tuesday, January 01, 2019

    Writings of 2018

    Every year on New Year's Day, I post a retrospect of the past year's writings. Here are the retrospects of 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017.

    This past year, I worked quite a bit on consciousness and Chinese philosophy, also some on AI ethics, moral psychology, belief, and the sociology of philosophy. May 2019 be similarly fruitful!

    Book forthcoming:

    Full-length non-fiction essays appearing in print in 2018:
    Full-length non-fiction essays finished and forthcoming:
    Shorter non-fiction:
    Editing work:
      In print in 2018: The Oneness Hypothesis (with P.J. Ivanhoe, O. Flanagan, R. Harrison, and H. Sarkissian), Columbia University Press.
      Under contract: Philosophy Through Science Fiction Stories, (with Helen De Cruz and Johan De Smedt). Bloomsbury Press.
    Non-fiction essays in draft and circulating:
    Science fiction stories:
      I didn't publish any new stories this year, though I have a few in draft that I plan to submit in 2019.
    Some favorite blog posts:
    Selected interviews: