This post was originally going to be called "Kids these days," so be warned that what follows is likely to be cranky nonsense. I'm writing in response to a couple of things. One is a student in my poverty course (we are discussing distributive justice at the moment) who said, as if to save us all a lot of wasted effort, that the thing about this stuff is that it's all normative. He seemed to mean that because it is normative there is no point discussing or thinking about it. De gustibus non disputandum, and of course the normative is all a matter of gustibus. I say 'seemed' because he was unable to say what 'normative' meant. It was almost as if he had been taught that 'normative' means impossible (or at best pointless) to think or talk about. A colleague at another school who also teaches a course on poverty tells me that this is the biggest obstacle he faces. Students just don't accept that, or see how, one can reason about questions of justice, right and wrong, etc.
The other thing that has set me off is a visit to the theatre on Monday night. The performance was not the greatest I have ever seen, and some people in the audience got restless. One person near me laughed at all the most highly dramatic points, which was understandable but distracting. Perhaps she couldn't help it, or didn't realize that the play was not a comedy. The two people behind me talked throughout the second half of the play, seeming to think that it was OK as long as they whispered and so did not drown out the voices of the actors. This too was distracting, and the last thing you need when trying harder than usual to suspend disbelief. It was annoying, but it also struck me as stupid. Not just thoughtless, but betraying a kind of blindness to the reality of other people. No doubt they had not thought through what it would be like to try to enjoy a performance while people around you were whispering constantly. But also, and one reason for this thoughtlessness, they appeared not to have much sense of other people as subjects, as beings both sentient and mattering.
Sentience and mattering seem to me to go together. Not because the sentient can feel pain. But, roughly speaking, because sentience, consciousness, is a miracle. Failure to appreciate this is a kind of mental dullness. I ought to say more about this, though, which is not easy to do. One aspect of what I mean is related to the fact that anyone who appreciates a great work of art will care about its treatment. This, I take it, is analytic. And it's not that people are great works of art, but we are like great works of art. What a piece of work is a man! and all that. The moral importance of human beings is something like self-evident.
Another part of my idea is that we are people. Whatever other people are is what we are (so far as we are people). Tat tvam asi. That you are in that seat and I am in mine, or any of the other individuating differences between us, is obviously irrelevant at some, important, level. Moral equality is self-evident too, in other words.
So bad behavior is a kind of stupid behavior. And the normative is something we can reason about, however difficult it might be to do so. We just need the right sense of reason, one that has more to do with reasonableness than with means-end reasoning. It's a sense of reason that includes the ability to empathize and to see (but not exaggerate) the value of civility. (This point seems relevant to, but is not intended to be about, a bunch of debates going on elsewhere on philosophy blogs.)