Neil Tambe

I'm a Detroiter who happens to enjoy writing, national parks, orange juice, the performing arts, and fanciful socks. More than anything though, I aspire to be a good husband, father, and citizen.

Michigan Men, Morality, and Mentorship

I've been sitting on this post for awhile.


I constantly aspire to be a Michigan Man. Note, that I don't think I've gotten there nor am I vaulting myself atop some moral pedestal. It's just a good way of manifesting virtue in an idea, I think. That means nothing. Let me explain. As always though, a bit of back story.

I took a moral philosophy class in college, and one of the things I remember most was our discussion of different moral philosophies and frameworks. Basically, we talked about different ways people approach morality. Basically, there were three biggies we discussed:

Consequentialism - the moral rightness or wrongness of our actions depends on the consequences we create in the world.

Deontology - the moral rightness or wrongness of our actions depends on whether the actions adhere to some set of moral rules.

Virtue Ethics - would a virtuous person do the action(s)? If so, you're being morally good.

Now, I don't want to get into a discussion about the merits or difficulties with any of the moral theories above. Mostly because I'm only an amateur moral philosopher and can hardly go toe-to-toe defending one theory over another. But, I also wish to push these questions aside, because for one I want to discuss the practical matters of morality.

On that note, I'm a big virtue ethicist. And the way I kind of figure out what "character" is appropriate or what is virtuous, I think of what it means to Michigan Man. I think it means telling the truth and keeping your word. I think it means supporting the people and institutions you care about. I think it means giving back to the world that raised you. I think it means public service and service to one's family. I think it means having pride and confidence without being boastful. I think it means wearing Maize and Blue on Fridays at the office, during football season. I think it means leading for the sake of the team and not for the sake of leading.

I think being a Michigan Man means a lot of things, as you could probably guess.

But it's difficult to figure all this out. Learning what's virtuous is not a straight-forward sort of activity. It takes struggling and making mistakes. It's really friggen hard and time-consuming. For dramatic effect, though, I'm purposefully avoiding the key component of learning what's virtuous...

Mentorship.

Man oh man. How can anyone get through life, let alone discover what's right and wrong without mentors? Parents, teachers, neighbors, relatives, siblings, friends...all these people teach us about virtues and push us to discover these meanings on our own. A young child (or older adult) who has never seen mentorship cannot imagine the big picture or even how to function as a normal human being. I don't think we can expect kids to learn right from wrong without mentorship. How could we?

Mentorship is a sacred passing of tacit knowledge from one generation to the next. For that reason, it's not just a relationship between a mentor and a mentee...it's a relationship between a mentee and all the mentors that have come before him, since the beginning of time. A good mentor, from atop the shoulders of giants, raises you upon his own shoulders. A child - or adult for that matter - without a mentor is not only at a small disadvantage, they are missing out on the support of people across the millenia. That's a big gap.

I also think about how one might learn or set themselves up to learn consequentialism or deontological moral frameworks. With consequentialism, you have to analyze your own action and with deontology you have to understand moral rules. All that shit is complicated. I feel like you could study that stuff your whole life and not understand or apply it in life. You'd get caught up in the minutiae.

Which is why I think mentorship is the only "practical morality" we have. It's our best chance of impressing moral values to those around us. We actually transmit ideas this way, and it fits with our need for human interaction and affirmation. Mentorship is the only way to inflect morality across the masses of people on the earth. And even though it's problematic, I think virtue ethics is the most practical way to interpret morality. Afterall, what's easier to answer, "what are the immediate and long-term consequences of my actions?", or, "am I being a Michigan Man?". Both are hard, but I think we have a fighting chance of answering the second question, because of mentorship.