Reflection on a First-Year Professorship: The Problem with Ethics Courses

Spending a year teaching philosophy has brought forth a number of experiences and realizations, many of which are negative, unfortunately.  A portion of these are negative because of the structure of the institution and ways in which things are set up; and another moiety is negative because of the relaxation of standards at institutions of higher learning –and I expect it is the case that I’ve seen the worst of the worst at a community college, but, in discussing with fellow grad students, I fear that isn’t necessarily true.  There certainly were positive takeaways, as well.  In this reflection, I’d like to express my concern for the subject matter of ethics, mostly in terms of instruction, but also, in passing, in terms of the disrepair of the branch of philosophy.

The first thing I was shocked by, when I began teaching ethics at the Community College of Allegheny County, was the amazing incapacity of students in the forum of basic reasoning.  It is a very dangerous affair for society to (attempt) teaching ethics to minds capable of feeling, only, and not reasoning.  In The Little Blue Reasoning Book, page 11, it reads, ‘Notwithstanding our ability to read, no other single skill is more important than our ability to reason.  Yet, strangely, no required course dedicated to reasoning skills exists as a part of our regular school curriculum or as part of any on-the-job training program.’  I must contentiously blame postmodernism for this and its opinion that reason is a pragmatic fabrication of eras past, and that, in Strewth, there is, really, no such thing at all; and I am convinced that this has become a socio-psychological assumption that now pervades society.  At any rate, the blue book has a point: the students I saw, and who were coming to philosophy for the first time, possessed minds that were largely devoid of any reasoning ability.  Especially in these days, when so many parents of K-12 students and the students, themselves, ask, “why learn this math stuff?  What’s it for, if I never use it again?”  Of course, as I have exclaimed elsewhere, math is the only part of the K-12 curriculum in which reasoning is done.  However, even the deplorable lot of math teachers cannot effectively apologize the purpose of their preferred subject of instruction.[1]  With this, I come to my first point: ethics cannot and should not be an introductory course.  First of all, undergraduate students don’t know what reason is, and I’ve even had a discussion recently with a grad student who didn’t know what a reason is.  An opinion, that makes one feel like another statement should be true, is not a reason.  That’s the world of the lawyers, poets, and rhetoricians, oftentimes called “Sophists,” found in the dialogues of Plato.  They persuade through language and convince by emotion; philosophy employs linear argumentation that moves a disinterested mind from self-evident, universally-agreed-upon axioms toward some conclusion.  Second of all, these undergraduates cannot come to an ethics class and be expected to do some sort of remedial degree of philosophy without know what it is, at all; and one cannot throw the Euthyphro at an incoming undergrad, expecting that is perfectly sufficient an introduction to what philosophy is.

The book I used for my ethics class was Barbara MacKinnon’s 7th edition of Ethics: Theory and Contemporary Issues, and the text recognized the lacking prerequisites by including a chapter on moral reasoning.  However, this was not enough.  What I ended up receiving as final papers are proof enough.  The students had lots of atomic statements and basic knowledge about ethical theories, but applying ethical theories to modern ethical issues and dilemmas was a disaster.  A few students, as one might expect, were capable of some small amount of reason, and so did well enough; but most gave me piles of information.  What I mean by that is that students would take data from a source and expect that it, in and of itself, suffice as convincing one’s mind about some conclusion or other.  For example, I had a student writing a paper on whether employees should fully disclose their medical information to an employer, in the case that the employee has aids.  This student included all sorts of percentage of employees in such-and-such workforce with HIV/AIDS, all sorts of employer polls, etc.  The scientistic mentality of my science-illiterate[2] students was annoying enough, but citing data, without any real argumentation about how it forces a conclusion upon another’s mind —especially, considering that, in many cases, I think the data contradicted the desired conclusion—, was excruciating for me, as the reader.

This brings me to a brief diatribe about the state of the branch of ethics.  I tend to stay away from ethics in a discussional forum, and I stay well away from ethicists.  Part of the reason is that many ethicists have no training in philosophy.  I was a private consultant at a medical conference, a few years ago, and I was astonished by a number of items, e.g., lack of clarity in the meanings of words used, lack of reasoning in statements, and other, rather basic, items that (I hope) any philosopher would point out.  The panel chair was a “resident medical ethicist” at a hospital, yet she had no formal knowledge of ethics, as a branch of philosophy.  I suspect the same might be true of Barbara MacKinnon, author of the abovementioned textbook.  It makes you wonder, given the number of people I’ve encountered in the field of ethics without any formal philosophical training, what exactly is going on?  Answer: dogmatism.  Just as is the case in politics —and I consider professional ethics to be a rhetorical subdivision within politics, not a branch of philosophy—, the bodies occupying the professional field are interested in forcing people to think what they, themselves, want them to think; not a genuine seeking after what is right.  (Again, reconsider my remark about postmodernism.)  This is also true, unfortunately, of most academic “ethicists.”  It is believed, in keeping with the postermodern flavor of socio-psychological assumptions, that there is not Truth, there is no such thing as reason, that can get one there, and there is no “Right” or “the Good.”  I believe it is this tacit “knowledge,” or call it assumptions, as I have, that has left ethics courses without philosophy prerequisites.  The Sophists rule the day: what is Right is what the reporters and politicians (and all other rhetoricians), lawyers (more rhetoricians, for good measure), and so forth, convince others of —and that is all the more the postmodern mentality will admit.

[1] I, here, say “deplorable,” because people seeking a profession of better-than-modest salary and summers off, who cannot succinctly state the value of that profession, is, plainly put, a deplorable lot.  In fact, this deplorable lot, I maintain, is the reason that school corporations and Schools of Education don’t take mathematics seriously anymore.  If nobody, but a select few, can say what the use of some thing is, then of what use can it be(!?) –aside from ensuring the occupation of a self-interested lot who seek a summer’s paid vacation.  (Also, note that there are a few of us trying to alter this current state of affairs, and improve the standing within this subject of the noble profession.)

[2] Scientism and scientific illiteracy are both becoming unmanageably big problems.  “Scientism” is the idea that science has all of the answers and can solve all of our problem, which proves a problematic proposition in such a course as ethics, whatever Sam Harris might think.  Scientific illiteracy, in a world in which studies and statistics are used increasingly to make assertions, is, naturally, problematic.  Most of what I have seen is that students commit the informal fallacy of the argumentum ad verecundiam or appeal to authority.  In both cases, understanding philosophy and being able to do a little philosophy would be the best medicine for righting these problems.


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8 responses to “Reflection on a First-Year Professorship: The Problem with Ethics Courses

  1. Nathan

    In the future, you might consider giving your students a brief introduction to graphic argument mapping. Then, when you ask the students to write a paper, require them to submit an argument map of the basic arguments of the paper (as an appendix to the paper). Whether they construct the argument map before or after drafting the paper is unimportant; either way, they will be forced to analyze their own argumentation more closely.

    For suggestions on how to do this, see the references and further reading in the Wikipedia article on argument maps. The articles cited there by Maralee Harrell and Charles Twardy in the journal Teaching Philosophy look especially relevant, but there are many other resources cited there that should be helpful. If your students’ argumentation skills are bad, it is your responsibility as a teacher to help them bridge the gap between bad and good, and argument mapping is one proven way to do that.

  2. Wow… Excellent suggestion, excellent idea, and an excellent literature referral. There is no doubt in my mind that this will prove tremendously useful. Thank you, Nathan.

  3. Megan M Hunter

    Hello Professor!
    I very much did enjoy your class in the spring, although you are right, I had zero background and it was very challenging. I fear that the challenges of the state of education in the schools aren’t going anywhere, I hope that someday I can be a part of the solution. Now in graduate school, three weeks in, I happened to think of you as I have to apply deconstructionism to Heart of Darkness, with Marxism. So I pulled up your page to see if you had any information to add to my collection of sources. No, I won’t be sourcing Wiki anything. Cheers!

    • Hello, Megan. It sounds like you’re already in the thick of things. You are prepared; so work hard, and there’ll be no worries. I doubt you’ll find much on my posts about Derrida (and related), save for a post I may do on one of Hans-Jorg Rheinberger’s papers.

      I got a little smirk out of your Wiki, comment, for two reasons. One is that you are one of my few students who I’d never expect to cite a Wiki. The other is that I just had a conversation with a post-doc about the validity of some genres of Wiki pages over others, in particular, the veracity of math pages on number theory, as compared with a general humanities topic, like “deconstruction.”

      Send me emails to keep me apprised of how your studies are going.

  4. PeterJ

    It seems a very good point you make regarding the positive correlation between scientism and scientific illiteracy.

  5. Jason

    Hello, I wonder your thoughts on why you think philosophy isn’t taught at a younger age? I recall discussing how children will often ask questions that are philosophical and adults are dismissive of the questions. I am curious about your professional opinion but also because as someone who tries to understand it requires changing a life long pattern of thought. It sounds odd to say but I find it complicated to think about how I think

    • Hi, Jason. I think the West has developed a sort of Promethean complex, which is linked to science; and I don’t mean that it a good way. Probably, the more mainstream way to say it is that the West is obsessed with the forcefulness of the capacity to do, rather than the delicate reflective nature of ought, etc. Since value and function have been merged in the Western mindset, and the further desire of mental/caring dis-engagement –see “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert Pirsig for some related discussion to this–, I feel very few people in the West have a true respect for what philosophy does for us. Absolutely every area of intellectual thought had its ground first in philosophy, and sprang forth from it, including science. The lack of historical perspective of Westerners, understanding of our intellectual roots and heritage, and our lack of humble respect for existence (essentially, a deep lack of respect for things on a metaphysical level) has led to ignorance of philosophy and its dismissal as a possible subject in, say, elementary education.

      The tl;dr-version: The intellectual and ideologically violent nature of the West sees no use for philosophy, and so it isn’t even considered a possible subject for our future’s burgeoning, blossoming minds.

  6. Thanks, David. I wholly agree. Just having earned my PhD (in electrical engineering), I was shocked to realize that in my 20+ year formal education, I never had a course on Ethics (nor had I ever to read even a page of Plato!). Ethics was relegated to a 1 hour, 5-6 week “course”, merely about upholding the ethical practices of the university. While perhaps important for students to learn what plagiarism is, for example, it didn’t even try to contextualize the ethical practices in terms of fundamental principles.

    Luckily, education in ethics began in my home, as a child, learning from my parents, as I presume all ethics education begins. Being a very “science-minded” person, I missed out on any semblance of a liberal education. Now, the GBWW and HC sets have opened the door for a more formal study of ethics and all other subjects comprising a liberal education, and I wish I would have started such reading ten years ago!

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