Do Ethics Courses Make Moral Students?

A recent event at Stanford raised the question of what good ethics courses do, with a particular focus on the question of whether such courses can and should make students more moral. Tamar Schapiro, Barbara Fried, and Benoit Monin (all Stanford) were the featured participants, and you can view their talks and the following discussion here. What is the job of the moral philosopher as teacher? Comments welcome (except for the obvious jokes, please).

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10 years ago

I have really struggled with this question at times, because I think there is enormous potential in teaching intro ethics to make students morally worse, or at least reinforce some of their worst traits. I once made the following argument to the chair of my department:

Slightly informed nihilists (SINners) – the kind of student who figures out how to make objections with a patina of philosophical sophistication, but is actually just cherry-picking sources to affirm their own biases and privileges without further reflection.

1. If one has a choice between making another moral agent worse, or leaving that moral agent otherwise the same, one should leave that moral agent otherwise the same. (prima facie, defeasibly, etc.)
2. SINners are worse moral agents than most agents with no exposure to normative theories. (Less open to reflection, more likely to take wrong actions and encourage others to do so, etc.)
3. Teaching one-semester intro ethics class is just enough time to make some students into SINners and confuse a handful of others, but not enough time to straighten SINners out or strengthen the moral qualities of most other students.
4. Therefore, it is morally wrong to teach intro ethics. (It makes more SINners and no more good moral agents.)
5. Therefore, I should be granted a course release instead of being required to teach an upcoming section of intro ethics.

My chair did not accept the argument, as it was pointed out to me that the move from (4) to (5) was at least not formally valid. I was told to go forth and SIN no more.

But in all seriousness, I made this extended sarcastic comment to my chair because I kinda sorta maybe in my own special way believe (3). This is not a concern about my own abilities as a teacher, or a way of casting doubt on that of others. My worry is more that the highly compartmentalized ways in which most institutions offer, students take, and professors teach such a class work against morally desirable results and at least indirectly support some undesirable ones. The vast majority of my students in such a class are taking their first and last philosophy class. It is taken for granted by people at various levels of administration and teaching that exposure to material is sufficient, perhaps even an end in itself, and there are concomitant pressures to expose students to all or most of the “important stuff.” Part of the effect there can be to dizzy some students who came in unaware and then face the task of slogging through very unfamiliar sorts of texts and doing very different forms of writing. But another part of the effect (perhaps for some of those same people, but also for others) is to present the course as a kind of definitive statement of The Western Canon on Ethics. Ethics of any form will probably compel those students to do or change things that they would not want to, and thus becomes a kind of gauntlet to survive. Critical reflection becomes a way of fending off new demands (“Kant made a mistake, see? So much for Kant, by which I mean all forms of obligation.”) and if you make it through the gauntlet, you get to not give a shit and feel affirmed in doing so. The philosophers threw what they had at you, but nothing stuck. A crucial part of that is the containment that our educational models give us: one semester and it’s over. That structural feature creates a real mountain to climb for anyone who wants to do better.

This is not to cast doubt on the claim that some professors do in fact do better, as surely we sometimes do. Nor is it to deny that many students (and future academics) get turned on to the subject by such a course. Anyone reading this blog probably has such a story. But the conditions under which institution, student and professor meet in such a moment make those positive outcomes less liekly and the worse outcomes more likely. Thinking up a way to overcome them is how I generally spend August.

Reply to  michaelpwolf
9 years ago

It seems to me your chair was going to easy on you! Without cashing out the ceteris paribus clause in (1)–which strikes me as an uphill battle–you don’t even get to (4).

Seriously, though, it’s hardly clear that ethics teachers should aim to make students better people. I teach ethics in order to present students with ideas and texts that, like the rest of the subject matter of the humanities, are interesting in their own right and may help them reflect on their lives in relation to the human condition. But whether they actually use what they learn for that is their business.