I’m very grateful for the invitation to join PEA Soup. For my first post, I want to focus on an issue in the area of teaching philosophy. And it is mainly a question, not a positive idea.
By choice, I have never taught an ethics course (though I TA’d for several). The reason is that I have never been able to think of a way to teach ethics that I didn’t think was, in all likelihood, morally destructive for my students. I am not happy with this state of affairs, however, so I am wondering if anyone else has had similar thoughts, and how they have dealt with them. But wait, you ask: Why would taking an ethics class be morally destructive?
Many ethics courses teach a series of moral theories: Kant, Mill, Hobbes, Aristotle. We point out how the theories offer differing prescriptions for similar cases. An ethics course may also do some applied ethics, in which different answers on some controversial topic are defended. We professors typically grade the answers given by students on how well they understand the material and articulate their own viewpoint. What we do not do is grade them on whether they are right.
As far as I can tell, this procedure can only encourage the thought, already prevalent in most students’ minds, that there are no (knowably) right answers in ethics. Of course, if they come in and say this on the first day of class, we will discourage their skepticism and relativism, and ask them to grapple with the Hard Questions. But the procedure of the class is a performative contradiction to the realism of the theories being studied. What’s praised and blamed in the class is not the content of the answers students arrive at, but their methods and (even more) degree of polish in presenting them. If I wanted to train eloquent sophists, this is more or less the method I would choose.
Another way to put my worry is this: it seems to me (i) that many people have the idea that taking an ethics course is likely to make you a better person; and (ii) that this is probably not true, and in fact, may be the reverse of the truth. But if it isn’t true, what are we trying to accomplish in teaching ethics?
I’d like to know if anyone else has these same worries, and if so how they deal with them. (And if not, why not?) These seem to be the relevant questions: What do we want our students to learn, when we teach them ethics? How do we get them to learn that? And does that teaching process undermine whatever ethical conviction they have coming in?