Friday, April 19, 2013


I have been offered a job teaching Introduction to Ethics. I have been given full creative control in designing my course, and while I have not talked to the department, I wanted first to reflect on teaching ethics for myself. Feel free to speak to me about where you also see an Introduction to Ethics course, and its value.

Earlier in the semester, I objected to an Intro to Ethics course I learned about. The Professor had designed it to re-direct the class away from classical theory survey course, and instead, he taught the class under the question of spiritual vocation or calling of the students. Marx and Weber were principal sources of reading for the course. Had the Professor done right by the students? Maybe. I am ambivalent about it. As one might expect, some of the students were ill-prepared to think about their own values in relation to being called in life. The students "didn't get it." In fact, this experience of being-called or acting under a spiritual vocation does not really "catch" the current undergraduate mind as much as thinking of morality in terms of rule-following.

Yet, the class makes sense when we think of how limiting rule-following accounts can be. I prefer virtue-ethics and sympathize with the designer's intention. Yet again, the purpose of an Introduction to Ethics class may serve several functions that prevent what we, as moral philosophers, think about morality. We should be honest about that. Our theoretical approaches might pre-dispose us to teach certain ways over others.

The purpose of an Introduction to Ethics course introduces students to what philosophers have said about living a moral life. In so doing, the practical upshot of this course is that it forces students to reflect on issues in their own life in a systematic way. Ethics can open up reflection in ways that the student never considered. For the philosophy department, the Introduction to Ethics course may serve as a primer for higher courses in applied ethical courses or a higher-level ethical theory courses. If the department views the course in this way, then an implicit harmony of this intention must be reflected in the Introduction to Ethics design. Some departments might view freshman level courses as services courses in the core curriculum and teach the same theories independently of what the Introduction course teaches. If that is so, then I need not worry about its relation to how the department teaches higher-level ethics courses.

If students will never take another ethics class ever again, then it seems reasonable that theoretical survey approaches would be used. Pack as much ethics in as much as possible! Students should learn a good deal of deontology, utilitarianism and virtue ethics. They should study how these approaches can illuminate different cases and find some exploration in applying these methods to cases themselves. However, the theory survey approach can be done in two ways, and by delineating two ways, I do not mean to suggest that these are mutually exclusive. They are not.

First, we can use primary readings of major philosophers. At some places, undergraduates are equipped with the reading skills to do this; other times they are not. Second, we can use someone that has explained the ideas for them. The former can be done through requiring students purchase translations of Kant, Aristotle and Mill, or I can use a historical anthology. Public institutions typically favor keeping the cost down for students and anthologies or cheap translations are used. At SIU, the Dean wants departments to be sensitive to the fact we have the highest amount of grant funded students in the state.

Regarding the latter, I can teach someone like Rachels that puts the ideas together for the student. In such a class, students are removed from the burden of thinking through difficult readings. They are responsible more for getting the relations of the ideas right as someone like Rachels has articulated them in the reading. In this way, I do not teach the content of Kant and Mill from their own words, but how Rachels articulates them. In some ways, this is easier on my end. I am not burdened at lecturing about a philosophical text, but could focus on the arguments as extrapolated by Rachels. I focus more on the ideas, but then again so do the students.

I could supplement teaching philosophy through the use of literature. For instance, I could use Victor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning or Elie Wiesel's Night. Sometimes, I feel the Holocaust is a bit used and abused. If anybody has thoughts on this, I would love to hear it, and for the record, I do agree with Nussbaum that literature has a place in teaching ethics. I have even heard of a class using Agatha Christie novels.

Next, I could restrict the amount of theory that is done, and devote an entire class to the best approach to ethics. As a virtue ethicist, I cannot help but think that a course on virtue approaches might be the best way to proceed. I could restrict the course to a time period, like Plato's dialogues, Aristotle and some of the Stoics. Then, I could fast-forward to contemporary appropriations of those same themes. Yet, given the other thoughts about the role of Intro to Ethics, the course may serve other functions that such a restriction would be seen as a disservice.

Finally, I have been thinking about the classic three text Introduction to Ethics. I select three texts pitched in a meta-narrative I tell the students. I devote five weeks to in-depth study as to what the philosopher says. Of the three, Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals is used as the skeptical text. Of the three, I am thinking De Beauvoir, Nietzsche and Kant. I would teach Kant as a person that thinks that morality requires a foundation. Nietzsche would be skeptical of that foundation, and De Beauvoir would articulate an ethics even in light of a lack of foundation--a point that Nietzsche would agree with her on. I would fit these texts together and use the class to tell that story, roughly speaking. On my part, I would say that this is the most avant-garde of how I have imagined teaching this course. The drawback of this selection is that the course must come to a synthesis of the texts relation, and when I do that, I do not necessarily apply those ideas outside of that narrative easily. That might generate two conflicting aims to which the students might confuse, and it might stifle teaching the material.

At most public universities, they teach an anthology that divides up the course into three components: metaethics, normative theory and practical ethics/applied ethics. Let's call this the tripartite conception. For the most part, I find this approach reasonable. It keeps the cost low, and there are several texts that are devoted to this distinction with readings in each of the three sections. Of those that I have seen, Schafer-Landau's books are commonly used. Students get a sense of all the types of moral philosophy. The drawback is that students think about ideas, the readings are analytically dense and eschew the historical side of moral philosophy. As everyone knows, I am devoted to understanding philosophy through its history. I do not know if I could sacrifice that even if I taught a classically analytic and ahistoric approach to moral philosophy.

In summary, I have talked about 4 approaches: theory-survey approach, restricted-theory approach, three-text approach, and the tripartite conception. In addition, I have also talked about some ideas concerning the selection of texts from anthologies, primary authors and to the supplementing these with literary examples. I have not drawn any specific conclusions. Instead, I am leaving it purposefully indeterminate, and invite comments about how best to teach Introduction to Philosophy.

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