The private school for very bright children presented a program to parents about their mathematics education. Random Granddaughter was supposed to demonstrate kindergarten math skills involving fractions. The sound system was faulty and produced loud feedback. Sensitive RG could not deal with the amplifier noise and fled to another room and started crying.

At the mommies house a few days after this unhappy experience, we talked about mathematics. Soon RG’s skills will outstrip mine, but I thought I might still have a useful tidbit to offer her.

I said, “Let me tell you how to divide a cookie fairly. One person divides the cookie. The other person gets to choose the half they want.”

RG understood the principle immediately. As she is a writer as well as a mathematician, she composed a parable about Mia and Alee. [Mia is her best friend who lives across the street; Alee is her younger sister.]

“Mia gets a cookie. She breaks it in half. She says to Alee, ‘You get to decide which piece you want.’”

“Exactly!” I said enthusiastically. “You can be sure that Mia will break the cookie very carefully, so both halves are very equal in size.”

Next week, RG goes on tour, lecturing to kindergarten classes across the country on the new field of mathematical ethics.

Acorn Replies (Part 3)

January 28, 2008

Renaissance Guy wrote:

I have a tricky question for you. When you talk about your own ethical code (ethics is a better word than morality), do you ever think hard about where it came from? Did you just choose to adopt it arbitrarily? Do you think it was instilled in you by other people? Did you get it from “mother nature”?

Although I didn’t get along very well with my parents, I don’t think of them as “bad” people. I think they were people who didn’t get very good parenting, who weren’t a very good match for each other, and who had a lot of difficulties and frustrations in their lives. As a result, they weren’t very good at parenting. When I got married, and we found ourselves nine months later with a child we weren’t planning on happening, I thought it was a good idea to try and start a better tradition of parenting.

However, my parents’ ideas about ethics and morality were probably fairly good ones and they passed them on to me. Empathy is a genetic capability of human beings that provides a capability of being ethical. It’s similar to swimming. We are born with the ability to swim, and ability that varies from person to person. However, if a person who has never been taught to swim is thrown in a pool, he or she is likely to flounder. If a person has never had an empathy capacity nourished, he or she is likely to detect little reason not to steal and rape and murder. Not every person learns to swim very well even if they are taught. I fall into that category; I took quite a few swimming lessons, but I never learned to swim very well.

I think that influence (and from other adults as relatives, friends, and teachers) set the basic foundation of my ethical beliefs and behaviors. As I grew older, I thought about such issues and started to make my own judgments and tried to act on them.

For example, when I was in high school we read the book The Ox-bow Incident, a Western novel and movie about an incident when three innocent men are lynched. The book made a strong impression on me.

A few years later, when I was in college, I joined the student newspaper, an activity which gave me another excuse for not studying (not that I needed any). At one point, the newspaper dissolved into a power struggle for control. The details are completely obscure and forgotten. Only one incident remains in my memory. One of the editors of the newspaper became very unpopular. At one point a bunch of the rebels who wanted the administration to change stormed into a room and shouted abuse at the editor. (No violence or threats of violence were involved; this was just dumb kids too full of themselves.) The editor (whom I remember as not too bad a guy) replied sadly that the accusations against him were unjustified and that the people who maligned him would later remember the incident with regret.

Although this was a trivial incident among not very grown-up college students, I was struck with a shock and a pang. This is rather like The Ox-Bow Incident, I thought, considering how easily I had been swept along with the mob pschology of the group. This is not very different than the way people really do get lynched, I thought.