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October 30, 2006

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Heath,

well-come from another newcomer. I guess I've done two small observations about the students I have taught so far. First, on the level of moral convictions they all seem to be pretty decent people. I don't know much about their private lives and the evils they do, but I don't assume that they are any worse than other civilised people. The answers they give to first-order normative questions seem morally sound. I'm not sure if anything that is taught in the ethics classes could corrupt that - hopefully not.

On the theoretical level, most students when they come to the classes are subjectivists or relativists (and other sorts of sceptics). They often say things like 'this is only what I think' or 'different things are right and wrong for different people depending on their convictions'. So, they accept sound first-order views but think that there are no further grounds for them than that this just is what they believe in. I think ethics classes can be very helpful at this point. They can explain the problems of the relativist and subjectivist higher-order beliefs about morality and introduce other ways about ethical theorising. This hopefully helps students to be able to say something more about their own views and their justifications - or even be more sophisticated expressivists in order to avoid the problems of relativism. It also helps them, hopefully, to think about the consistency of their moral convictions and whether they could be systematised in some way. I don't think much of this makes them better persons but it can improve their self-understanding in moralising. I think much of what Russ Shafer-Landau gets through in his Whatever Happened to Good and Evil is spot on and helpful in teaching ethics in the beginning for these reasons.

This worry seems a little silly to me. Ethical theories are just efforts (ongoing, working efforts) to explain various topics. If students do like one of the standard ethical theories, they merely need to offer a more complete or accurate explanation of the topic. The topics of ethical theory? Let the students come up with these.

By tomorrow my first year business ethics students, reading their choice of Aristotle, Mill, or Kant, will bring to class a list of covered topics. I typically get student generated lists like this: ethical theory attempts to explain a. the criteria for right and wrong b. how we can come to discover these criteria c. how we can come to do right acts (what kind of motivation is required) d. the benefits of acting rightly.

By having the students point out the topics ethical theorists work on, I accomplish a few things. Students feel invited to answer these questions themselves (I think this makes them more active in critiquing our authors.) They realize no philosopher is to blame for how complex ethical theory is.

The issue of morality is itself complex. Invite your students to explain these topics in a simple fashion (they can’t.) But if you have them try, they realize that ethical theorists explain these things better than they can. And once students recognize this I’ve always found they value the efforts of even old Aristotle, Mill, and Kant. They even gain respect for the rigorous thinking that typifies philosophy. (After having seen far more complete explanations of ethics, they are going to be great critics of truncated ones, such as those you find in a lot of writing on business ethics.)

So what if Aristotle, Mill, and Kant give different answers to the same questions? The questions are what you interest the students in. Once they care about these, they’ll study ethical theory because it is useful in helping them come up with answers.

Heath,

Why not see teaching ethics--let's confine the point to the more obvious case of moral theory rather than applied ethics for the moment--as akin to teaching any other kind of theory? Like many others in recent days here, I do not share the view that an ethics class is supposed to make students ethically better (although I suspect it makes them ethically wiser). Instead, I see what we do as theory, just like metaphysics or epistemology or any other branch of philosophy. And, to answer your last questions, that's what I want them to learn: moral theory (plus of course general skills, such as critical thinking, writing, etc.).

Also, while I might not give high grades for a student arriving at the substantively right answer, I do often grade down for being wrong. When students don't internalize/recognize/admit problems with some theory, their score will drop. That seems capable of correcting against the "anything goes" impression you worry about.

Although, again, I don't think we should worry about it anyway, since we're doing theory. Just like most students probably won't cease to believe that the desk is before their eyes just because they've been presented with a bunch of different theories to account for either material objects or epistemic justification, so too is it doubtful that most students will be driven to moral relativism or skepticism just because they've been presented with a bunch of rival moral theories. I suspect the gap between theory and practice is larger than that, at least for most students. But also consider that even the student who resolves to personally adopt whatever theory is most compelling at the end of the course is, on that basis, no more likely to end up with skepticism or relativism than pluralism or one of the particular theories (namely the one they found most compelling). To get to skepticism or relativism from the experience that multiple theories have been taught without the instructor taking a "This One is right" approach, the student would have to be following the rule to adopt skepticism or relativism from such an experience. But I think it's unlikely that many students follow such a rule.

Hi Heath - My experience has actually been the opposite one -- that students often leave my ethics classes with greater confidence in their own moral beliefs than when they came. In part, this is because of Jussi's observation that most students come to the class as skeptics, relativists, or naive dogmatists. When they first encounter serious rational discussion of ethical questions, they end up finding vocabularies with which to articulate and defend their own moral beliefs. And on the occasions when they do end up more skeptical, they still have a greater respect for thinking about moral questions in rational terms, and in many cases, they thirst for more. So I guess I don't see that the academic study of ethics makes students worse: There's no guarantee it makes them better, but I think in most cases students become more morally serious and mature -- and that seems like a good enough goal to me.

I guess I'll be the first to say I think Heath's questions are good, serious questions, which also trouble me immensely (I'm currently TA'ing an Applied Ethics course).

On the procedure question, for my part I find myself wishing I could spend at least the first part of any ethics course doing meta-ethics. I find my students sometimes become frustrated when they don't get to talk seriously and at length about the nature of values and morality, and about what benefits there might be in trying to explain it or theorise about it.

My fond hope and expectation, is that should I ever teach such a course, an interesting and positive discussion might arise in those early stages - one perhaps more interesting and positive than I usually witness on particular moral topics like abortion and euthanasia (where relativism and subjectivism are constantly in the background). Perhaps inviting the students to ask us and themselves 'why are we talking about this?' or 'what can we learn from ethics?' involves treating them as more mature and serious individuals than we usually do.

As far as the performative contradiction goes, I think we can rest easy. The best essays are the ones that are persuasive, that put forward an argument we think is right, right? So in a way, we are giving them marks for getting the 'right' answer, assuming you believe yourself that there is one. (I'm sure Wittgensteineans will have a novel approach to your kinds of worries, one you might want to elicit if you can and think about).

Hi Heath!

I've taught ethics many times. Like most folks, I cover a range of normative views. But the last section of my course is on metaethics. (I save this for the end so that students already have an understanding, based on the prior material, of what reflective thought about morality might be like.) Spending some time on meta-ethical questions such as the realist - non-cognitivist dispute shows students that relativism or other varieties of non-cognitivism are not as easy to defend as they might think, and of course are not implied by the disagreement of various normative theorists. So, I tackle your worry head on. But even if non-cognitivists carry the day, that is not necessarily morally destructive, since one can be an ethical person and a non-cognitivist.

I also borrow Parfit's claim about ethics being a "young science" in comparison to other fields. Sure, there is disagreement now, but perhaps we will converge on ethical truths. So, as he puts it, "It's not irrational to have high hopes."

Furthermore, I do correct substantive normative moral errors I think my students are making. Since morally bad views are hard to defend, students often have trouble defending them, and I can point out errors in their reasoning. So, for example, a student who uses social-Darwinist reasoning to argue that we shouldn't help starving children in a poor foreign country changes his mind (at least about his reasons) when he is asked to consider whether he is also opposed to other anti-social-Darwinist measures, such as using eyeglasses to overcome nearsightedness.

That said, I don't take the aim of my courses to be moral improvement. That would be like taking the aim of an epistemology class to be improvement in the students' capacity for knowledge. I am content with, first, the Socratic aim of showing that what may appear to be obvious truths are in fact conclusions that are difficult to reason for, and second, to show how, in the face of this difficulty, we might try to make progress.

Heath,

I am not really worried that students are any less moral at the end of an ethics course than when they went into it, and for reasons others have stated I think many of them become more reflective about such issues, not less so. But if you are concerned here is one consideration to keep in mind that also might be worth emphasizing to classes: Philosophers offer differing theories and in applied ethics discussions there are different views about what is right and wrong, but these specific disagreements typically occur at the the edges of morality with the toughest cases. Modern Kantians, consequentialists, intuitionists, contractarians, etc all broadly agree that murder, lying, and stealing are wrong in general. They will disagree about some tough cases, but students should not have reason to doubt that in general these things really are wrong.

Moral philosophy classes tend to focus on the points of disagreement and in particular on specific tough cases - animal rights, abortion, and the justification for war, for example - but that is because there is not a lot to talk about with regard to the broad range of cases where there is wide agreement. But perhaps a bit more of a reminder of that agreement and how it suggests that there is a truth of the matter for these other cases, one that is just harder to uncover, might help you feel comfortable that students don't leave an intro class having abandoned morality.

Justin,

I'm little worried by this:

'Spending some time on meta-ethical questions such as the realist - non-cognitivist dispute shows students that relativism or other varieties of non-cognitivism are not as easy to defend as they might think, and of course are not implied by the disagreement of various normative theorists'.

I hope you are not teaching your students that relativism is a variety of non-cognitivism like the quote implies. That would not be correct.

I think it is no secret that today's undergraduates are excellent at offering justifications for any number of "sins." They have a rich appreciation of the fine shadings in a rough and ready discourse similar to casuistry. I share Heath's worry to a point. I have taught Business Ethics both to business and philosophy majors (who have never worked) and to older students who work. The older students loved the clarity that discussing cases from their own experience in light of competing theories brought. The pre-work students used the tools of moral theory to construct elaborate stories behind which they could argue for all sorts of economically maximizing but morally suspect claims. If people have face real moral dilemmas, then moral theory is a tool for clarifying one's thinking. If we inflict moral philosophy on people who have yet to experience a real moral dilemma, one might rightly worry that they are being armed with intellectual tools to defend any action at all. Possible solution: require ethics students to make health care decisions for terminal cancer patients (or something like that).

Jussi, I'm sorry to cause you such worry. It's true that meta-ethical relativism and non-cognitivism are distinct theses. So you've caught me speaking loosely. But some of the same kinds of anti-realist arguments are advanced in favor of both theses. I stand by the substantive point that assessing these arguments shows that these views, both related to Heath's concerns, and which are present in some inchoate form in many students' minds, are not as obviously correct as those students think. I appreciate your concern for my students, and I hope you are less worried now.

Hi Heath!

I think folks are being a bit too quick here dismissing the notion that an ethics course is (at least intended to be) connected to moral development. What I mean is, it strikes me as unlikely that there would be an ethics requirement at so many schools if deans, professors, etc, didn't think this. This is not to suggest that such thinking isn't mistaken; but I think it's naive to think that students and non-philosophers see moral philosophy as a strictly theoretical discipline.

Well, many thanks for all the responses here. A few thoughts:

I tend to agree with Jussi that most students have fairly sound first-order views in ethics, and unsound (according to me) second-order views. One could expect the experience of a philosophy class to bring the two into alignment. Perhaps if you do it right, the second-order views change to accommodate the first-order views, rather than the other way around. And thanks to several for their practical suggestions about how to go about it.

I can’t say I’m impressed by the line of thought that says (I’m paraphrasing) It’s just a bunch of theory. If ethical theory really is irrelevant for practice, I don’t know why we would inflict it on anyone, but if it is relevant, then my worry applies. I’m pretty sure, as Matt McAdam says, that the ethics requirement at many universities is in place because someone, somewhere (with the power to set curricular agendas) thinks ethical theories are relevant to ethical practice by those who learn them. Maybe this is deluded, but if so, that is yet another reason not to teach an ethics course.

I do intend, at some point, to teach ethics. Assuming I’m still contributing to PEA Soup then, I’ll let you know how it goes!

Hallo Heath,
I also have a disatisfactiion - bordering on repugnance - of the 'its just a buch of theory' response. I understand it this way: theories arise becuase there has been a recognition (whether correct or not) that a situation that oneself or another is in has some problems of which at least some are moral problems. Theories are attempts at coherent solutions to them, and similar scenarios.
I suppose one can undertake a 'moral self-help' crusade (if you write a book and get a website for it, you might end up on Oprah ;) ), but helping people become morally better isn't to be sneezed at. Perhaps in the role of a teacher in a university, this could get awkward, but it need not be any more awkward than teaching a theory one is convinced is wrong.

Adam, in part speaking for Heath, writes:

I also have a disatisfactiion - bordering on repugnance - of the 'its just a buch of theory' response. I understand it this way: theories arise becuase there has been a recognition (whether correct or not) that a situation that oneself or another is in has some problems of which at least some are moral problems. Theories are attempts at coherent solutions to them, and similar scenarios.
Now, regarding one of Campbell's responses to Ben's last post, I wrote:
I don't understand why some folks think that it is *so obvious* that it is no aim of an ethical theory to formulate principles that are intended to be, in part, action-guiding rather than merely action-describing.
I'm now compelled to say something similar to you: I don't understand why you should feel repulsed because some folks fail to think that one of the aims of pursuing or teaching moral theory just *has* to be to help people resolve practical moral problems. Morality, and the moral life, is *interesting*: moral judgments are action-guiding, to the point that they might override all other considerations; morality bears *some* relation to rationality--but what relation?; we *care* about what people do; we care about what other people *believe*; we even care about what other people *care about*. I, for one, think that all of this helps to paint a fascinating, interesting picture of us as human beings, one that is worthy of "merely" being understood. I have no difficulty whatsoever appreciating that someone might be interested in moral theory, and so might teach a moral theory course, just because it is so interesting, just because they want merely to *understand* the moral life. Now, it's true that many folks might *come* to do ethical theory because they think that better understanding morality will help us to better resolve practical moral problems. But that does not mean that once they begin theorizing and teaching the theory, that they *therefore* ought always to relate ethical theory to the resolution of practical problems. So, I'm not at all seeing why you would be so surprised by such a view, let alone repulsed.

Hi Dan,
My near-repulsion is of a flippant attitude towards moral problems.
As I understand it, as I mentioned above, moral theories per se, cannot fail to be (ultimately) practical.
I do agree that it can be interesting. But pursuing theory *exclusively* disinterestedly fails to respect the problems. I also agree that it need not *always* relate to the resolution of practical problems. I assert it must relate to the resolution of practical problems. The previous two sentences do not contradict each other.
To have theory never relate to the resolution of practical problems is what I understood by (what I labelled) the 'its just a bunch of theory' response.
I suspect we largely agreed, though we emphasized in our posts two attitudes to it.

Hi Alex,

I suspect we largely agreed, though we emphasized in our posts two attitudes to it.
Yes, that's probably right. Thanks for clearing that up for me. My reaction to your reaction probably arose from projecting onto your and Heath's comments a corresponding and equally flippant attitude that I continue to hear expressed, namely, that investigating issues in ethical theory, and teaching an ethical theory course, is useless in the sense that it is a *complete waste of time* (or worse, probably harmful to students), unless the investigation of issues in ethical theory helps us to resolve practical moral problems. There is much we can learn about ourselves as human beings by investigating, and teaching students about, issues in ethical theory, even when no relation is explicitly made between the theory and the resolution of practical moral problems.

Of course I meant 'Adam'. Sorry about that Adam. I don't know where that 'Alex' came from.

I wanted to second what Dan said. I guess I'm also a bit confused by some parts of this thread's dialectic. I take it that my above comment is one that's supposed to subscribe to the "It's just a bunch of theory" theory that Heath and Adam dislike. Here are some of the confusions:

1) Saying "there's a gap between theory and practice" is not the same as saying "theory is irrelevant to practice." On most days, I like to think that doing moral theory has influenced my behaviors (for better or worse), but that doesn't mean that there's no gap between the two. Thus when Adam wrote, "To have theory never relate to the resolution of practical problems is what I understood by (what I labelled) the 'its just a bunch of theory' response," and when Heath characterized that response as saying "ethical theory really is irrelevant for practice," I was surprised, since I don't think anyone said anything like this.

2) Even if theory were totally irrelevant to practice, why would that be a reason not to teach theory? Wouldn't that at most make teaching theory harmless? And what's wrong with teaching theory for its own sake? If a metaphysics class changed no one's behaviors, character, attitude, etc., the fact that people find the subject interesting (as Dan put it) seems like a reason to teach it.

3) Do the "theory is directly applied" folks think that other theoretical domains are directly practical too? Should philosophy of art make people better artists? Should philosophy of physics make applied physicists better at applied physics? It seems to me to be much more intuitive to say that learning the theory makes them more knowledgable about art/physics/morality. Practice is another matter, not unrelated perhaps, but gappily related at most.

Just to clarify my own position: my own view is that theory, in any field, is what results when a certain practical problem presents itself and people decide they need to systematically understand the situation in order to resolve it. Physics has its origin in engineering problems, and while physics is certainly not confined to what is useful to engineers, it retains its practical connection in the sense that a theory with no real-world empirical consequences is not considered a real physical theory (a current criticism of superstring theory, for example). Likewise, epistemology begins when people have disputes about what they know and try to understand knowledge better. And moral theory arises when people disagree about what to do, or how to order their lives, and try to understand these matters in more depth.

All of that is compatible with the idea that one can get interested in physics or epistemology or ethical theory for its own sake, and pursue those problems just because they are interesting. I don’t think there is anything intrinsically wrong with this; probably all professional philosophers have this intrinsic love of questions. I do think, however, that theorists have a responsibility to keep conscious of (and I don’t mean anything stronger than that) the sorts of practical difficulties that give rise to their discipline in the first place. This is easier in physics because the idea of empirical testability is embedded deeply into the consciousness of physicists. Philosophers, frankly, are more prone to fly off into the ether. But staying conscious of the practical effects of one’s theories has two good effects, I think: first, it is better pedagogy if students know why they might care about your subject, and second, it keeps you from being too self-indulgent—-philosophers have excellent minds and they should use them, at least sometimes, in the service of others. And third, I suspect that if philosophers were better at this, then philosophy would not be such a culturally marginalized discipline.

So I confess I was a little dismayed at Josh’s earlier comment,

>>I don't think we should worry about it anyway, since we're doing theory…. [It is] doubtful that most students will be driven to moral relativism or skepticism just because they've been presented with a bunch of rival moral theories. I suspect the gap between theory and practice is larger than that, at least for most students

which I took to express the idea that learning moral theory was (a) unlikely to have any influence on how students actually thought about the moral issues that confront them, and (b) this is fine, since that is not the role of moral theory anyway.

Here’s an anecdote that will sum things up. I once heard a philosopher whose name you would know (A) say about another philosopher whose name you would know (B) that although B was known for claims about the fine nuances of moral perception, B had a habit of obliviously tromping through and destroying other people’s marriages. A meant this as an indictment of B; the idea was that, after becoming “expert” in a certain kind of moral theory, the total failure to put this alleged expertise into practice was especially bad. Now it seems to me that this is an indictment and the behavior is especially bad; it is not just a matter of destroying marriages, though that is bad enough, but also a certain (important) lack of integrity on B’s part. I do not want to encourage either in myself or in my students this kind of lack of integrity. But if you don’t think of moral theory as practically relevant, then that worry won’t resonate.

Hi Heath. That is all well said. And I agree that sometimes philosophers lose sight of the problems out of which arises one's theory. If this is all you were intending to say, however, i.e.,

I do think, however, that theorists have a responsibility to keep conscious of (and I don’t mean anything stronger than that) the sorts of practical difficulties that give rise to their discipline in the first place.
then I don't think anyone here disagreed. (For example, I don't see any such disagreement in the passage you quote from Josh.)

Yeah, I'm still not sure where the disagreement lies. I definitely didn't mean to suggest that "learning moral theory was (a) unlikely to have any influence on how students actually thought about the moral issues that confront them." I don't even know how that would be possible, really, and I've tried to be clear that I think that moral theory classes can make students more knowledgable about ethics, which presumably involves them doing some thinking about ethics in ordinary contexts. I just think it overstates that influence, and understates the gap between theory and practice, to think that a theory class will drive (the vast majority of) them to skepticism or relativism. And the anecdote you (Heath) gave seems like a perfect illustration of what I was calling the gap between theory and practice. You can get someone who passionately believes in some theory but who doesn't practice it. I don't take that to be a radical claim--as I think Robert put it in another thread, the failure to put it into practice is probably the parent's fault. Again, though, while it seems like these positions are more consistent than suggested at times, the following seems like questionable reasoning to me: "I do not want to encourage either in myself or in my students this kind of lack of integrity. But if you don’t think of moral theory as practically relevant, then that worry won’t resonate." If the one is irrelevant to the other, then theory won't encourage anything--integrity or its lack. It will be practically idle.

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