The Vices of Applied Ethics

 Posted by on 12 January 2006 at 3:35 pm  Uncategorized
Jan 122006

Last spring, I served as one of three teaching assistants for a large course on applied ethics. My job was to grade the papers and exams of my fifty students, plus teach two discussion sections of 25 students per week. Although the professor lectured clearly, I doubt the course served as a good introduction to ethics for the students. As a standard applied ethics course, the weekly topics largely concerned social or political questions remote from the choices of daily life — such as abortion, slavery reparations, inheritance, cloning, and so on. So over the course of the semester, students learn that ethics is not even so relevant to life as to demand piety on Sunday. It’s only function might be to help you vote for the less-awful blowhards on Election Day.

As bad as that might be, it’s of minor consequence, since the far worse lesson taught by the course was moral relativism, albeit implicitly and unintentionally. Christina Hoff Sommers (of Who Stole Feminism fame) discusses the problem in her article “Teaching the Virtues“:

I, too, have been teaching applied ethics courses for several years, but my enthusiasm for them tapered off when I was how the students reacted. I was especially disturbed by comments students made again and again on the course evaluation forms: “I learned there was no such thing as right or wrong, just good or bad arguments.” Or: “I learned there is no such thing as morality.” I asked myself: What it was about these classes that was fostering this sort of moral agnosticism and skepticism. Perhaps the students themselves were part of the problem. Perhaps it was their high school experience that led them to become moral agnostics. Even so, I felt that my classes were doing nothing to change them.

The course I had been giving was altogether typical. At the beginning of the semester we studied a bit of moral theory, going over the strengths and weaknesses of Kantianism, utilitarianism, social contract theory and relativism. We then took up topical moral issues such as abortion, censorship, capital punishment, world hunger, and affirmative action. Naturally, I felt it my job to present careful and well-argued positions on all sides of these popular issues. but this atmosphere of argument and counterargument was reinforcing the idea that all moral questions have at least two sides, i.e., that all of ethics is controversial.

Perhaps this reaction is to be expected in any ethics course primarily devoted to issues on which it is natural to have a wide range of disagreement. In a course specifically devoted to dilemmas and hard cases, it is almost impossible not to give the student the impression that ethics itself has no solid foundation.

Certainly, those observations match my own experience. Ethics courses do not establish any solid foundation for ethical reasoning. Major theories like deontology and utilitarianism might be taught, but then must be dismissed as defective or accepted arbitrarily. Without any foundation for ethical reasoning, all manner of objections can be raised against any and all claims, particularly against the very derivative claims found writings on applied ethics. So arguments simply go to-and-fro, back-and-forth, pro-and-con, without any genuine resolution. That’s particularly true of the controversies discussed in courses on applied ethics. So ultimately, over the course of a semester, the impression given to students — even by professors devoutly opposed to moral relativism — is that moral questions have no right answer, that no argument ever proves anything, that reason is impotent so emotions must rule, and so on.

Lovely, no? Sadly, I doubt I did enough to combat those conclusions amongst my students, as I realized the problem too late.

Although I appreciate Sommers’ diagnosis of the problem of applied ethics, I cannot accept her proposed solution of teaching ethics by appealing to supposedly uncontroversial ethical truths. That seems like little more than appeal to arbitrary moral intuitions, not to mention an unfair imposition upon dissenting students. (It’s also unnecessary for enforcing basic codes of honor in the class.) Still, I’m pleased by the central role she gives to Aristotle in that endeavor, as I think students can learn much from his approach to ethics.

At this point, I’m inclined to only sell my students on the importance of philosophy (in general) and ethics (in particular) to their lives. With particular issues, I do not think it necessary or proper for me to push one side or another, but only to present the full range of basic alternatives faced by the students as clearly as possible. Then the students decide by which principles — if any — they ought to live.

The discussions at ARI’s 2005 Teaching Workshop (held just after OCON) helped me clarify the virtues of that basic approach, as well as outline its requirements. (Such pedagogical issues are never well-discussed at Boulder, I’ve found.) Hopefully, that method won’t be too hard for me to practice within the confines of the course topics and readings established by the professor this upcoming semester. In any case, I expect to be muddling along as usual.

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