Updated Contemporary Moral Problems


Many colleges and universities offer a lower-level course on “contemporary moral problems” or “ethics and social issues.” These courses typically include topics like free speech, affirmative action, abortion, drugs, same-sex marriage, capital punishment, poverty, treatment of animals, and the environment—and have for several decades. While these are important topics, there are no doubt other, newer issues that would work well and perhaps better capture the attention of undergraduates. What newer topics are you thinking about incorporating into your contemporary moral problems course? And, if you know, which readings would you use for them?

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anonVAP
anonVAP
6 years ago

Not exactly cutting edge but I have a brief unit on genetically enhancing children and we read Sandel’s “The Case Against Perfection” from the Atlantic and Kamm’s rather devasting reply “Is There a Problem with Enhancement” from AJB.Report

Jon Herington (@JCCHerington)
6 years ago

This semester and next I will run sessions on:

> polyamory/non-monogamous sexual ethics, (Ichikawa & Jenkin’s “On being the only ones”)
> pornography (incl. contribution to rape culture)
> “outing” (James Stramel in Corvino’s “Same Sex”),
> “the right to be forgotten” (i.e. deleting online records of past misdemeanors), and
> “open-carry” (no readings so far, but the recent piece by Jack Weinstein might be good).

Polyamory and pornography, in particular, generate a lot of discussion.Report

Jean
Jean
6 years ago

Last time I taught CMP I had a section on what should be for sale, with a focus on surrogacy (used Sandel’s discussion in Justice and other readings).Report

Jennifer Frey
6 years ago

I always do cloning, enhancement, and reproductive technologies generally. We read Leon Kass’s “preventing brave new world”, Sandel, and responses. Great discussions.Report

Colin
Colin
6 years ago

I let my students decide. I give them a survey on the first day of class and the results of that survey determine which topics we’ll discuss that semester. The surveys also facilitate some great discussions about which topics they think are interesting and why they don’t think some topics are moral problems. The results are often revised after that discussion…Report

mattburstein
mattburstein
6 years ago

When I have time, I try to cover material about:
> file sharing
> the Free Software movement.
> Structural oppression (e.g., racism or sexism)
> Enhancement technologies (e.g., should students take drugs like adderall if they don’t have a diagnosable condition? if I have a body part (or several) replaced with a computer controlled prosthetic, am I responsible for its movement even if I am not the person who programmed it?)
> I’m not (yet) scheduled to teach the course again, but if I do teach it, I would likely consider something about the ethics of whistleblowingReport

Nate
Nate
6 years ago

I taught a section last semester on the right to privacy, when a lot of stuff about the NSA was getting talked about.Report

Alex Guerrero
6 years ago

Mass incarceration, Collateral Consequences, Solitary Confinement, and Alternatives to Incarceration/Restorative Justice (Angela Y. Davis, Dorothy Roberts, Kathleen Daly, John Braithwaite, Erik Luna, Marc Mauer, Michelle Alexander, Marsha Weissman, David Garland, Jason Mallory, Lisa Guenther, and many others).

Immigration and Political Community (Joseph Carens, Linda Bosniak, Ryan Pevnick, Matt Lister, Anna Stilz, Luara Ferracioli, and many others).

Both of these might get relegated to legal or political philosophy intro classes, but I think both are among the central ethical issues of our time, and should be considered in standard ‘contemporary moral problems’ or ‘ethics and society’ classes.Report

Jan
Jan
6 years ago

I don’t teach ethics classes, but think students have a real need to learn and think about our criminal justice system and racism. If anyone had suggested readings to post for others (or myself, if I’m ever assigned a moral problems class), that would be great.Report

Jan
Jan
Reply to  Jan
6 years ago

Oops. Looks like Alex and cross-posted. Thanks, Alex!Report

AnonFaculty
AnonFaculty
6 years ago

Much more done on international issues than previously. In fact the entire course can have an international flavor if one wants: global poverty, climate change, biodiversity, international trade, the resource curse, international migration, refugees, intellectual property and access to medicines, the war on terror, human rights, the ethics of advocacy, etc.Report

Jonathan Trerise
Jonathan Trerise
6 years ago

Along w/ affirming many of the above:
-Sports Ethics (many subtopics of interest here: gender equity; over-professionalization; college athletics; moral value of sports in general; ethics of drug bans; violence; many, many more)
-Ethics of Humor and Comedy
-Education Ethics (again many subtopics; ethics of grading; purpose of education; paternalism issues…)
-Parenting/Family Ethics (broader than just sexuality and marriage issues; questions about the proper relationship b/n parents and children, for example)
-Intergenerational Justice (if that’s too heavy, could just focus on inheritance & bequeathal)
-Ethics and Profiling
-Accounting Ethics (derivatives trading/speculation)
-New types of warfare: drone and cyberwar

I’ve taught some of the above, but not all. Certain things in Sports Ethics work really well and are pretty fascinating in how they connect with other issues. (For example, as Burstein notes above, enhancement-via-Adderall may be fairly similar to enhancement-via-Steroids.)Report

Walter
Walter
6 years ago

– Some of Howard McGary’s work on reparations.
– David Reidy’s paper on hate crimes/penalty enhancement statutes.
– The “doctrine of religious restraint”, which holds roughly that citizens should not ground political activity (such as voting) on explicitly religious values, but should instead seek out shared or at least political values instead. E.g., Rawls, Quinn, Eberle, Talisse, the Audi/Wolterstorff pro/con book.
– Human genetic enhancement or cyborgs.
– If a school does not have a dedicated business ethics course, there are a lot of issues in this area worth considering. E.g., marketing targeting children or other vulnerable populations, drug testing, whistle-blowing, product liability and safety, worker safety or privacy, the meaning of work (purely instrumental vs. intrinsically valuable), Carr’s effort to justify deception in business.
– Following the business theme — the ethics of giving and taking orders seems important, since many of our students will become (middle) managers of different sorts — but I haven’t found a good way to do this.Report

praymont
6 years ago

Genetics is big, and I find the topic of moral enhancement (papers by Savulescu and Persson, and by John Harris) really gets students going, esp. if I include a bit about the transhumanist movement.
Just war theory is an oldie that’s made a comeback. Terrorism also is a good topic (e.g., trying to define it, asking whether it’s ever justified — using the French resistance, the ANC, and the bombing of the King David Hotel as examples).
I find that with love-and-sex issues it takes some work to get the students to see any room for controversy. They tend towards the view that as long as it’s between consenting adults it can’t be wrong. Then I present the German cannibalism case (involving Armin Meiwes). On porn, it’s hard to get them out of a joking frame of mind. So I show excerpts from the PBS documentary on Lizzie Borden and Rob Black (a bit dated but it nicely shows students who aren’t familiar with porn what some of the issues are).Report

Kristina Meshelski
Kristina Meshelski
6 years ago

To add to what’s already been said, my colleague Adam Swenson used to (still may in the future) teach a cool course on the drug war, it was a seminar all about that, but I imagine you could integrate some of it into a lower div. course.Report

Anon Grad Student
Anon Grad Student
6 years ago

I covered NSA/surveillance/right to privacy and drone warfare. Both led to a lot of productive discussion. More generally, tying in recent, local events to topics like racism and the environment was especially successful.Report

Matt Lister
6 years ago

I also think that various aspects of the criminal justice system make good topics for such classes. Among other things, I think most students (and most people) don’t really understand how long prison sentences are in the US, both in absolute terms and in comparison with many other countries. Thinking about things like that, prison conditions, and what should be a crime at all, can be very useful. In addition to the good sources that Alex notes above, I’ve had some success, both with undergrads and with law students with little to no philosophy background, using some of Doug Husak’s work- his book _Legalize This!_ and _Overcriminalization_, among others.Report

Danny Weltman
6 years ago

Students in a contemporary moral problems course I recently TAed for said we should talk about cultural appropriation. I haven’t looked into what readings I would pick but I think it would be a good topic to address.Report

Bradley
6 years ago

Great post. I have my students vote on what they want to talk about, and I’ll add many of these next time I teach the course. Here are the results of my last vote (of 60 students, on 32 topics), for anyone interested. I was surprised at how the ‘classics’ beat out the new problems, which they also did the first time I held the vote. In fact, the top 10 were exactly the same both times I did this.

http://civs.cs.cornell.edu/cgi-bin/results.pl?id=E_875ce3abf8350508Report

Jeremy Kidwell (@kidwellj)
Reply to  Bradley
6 years ago

Thanks for sharing your list-fascinating stuff! Any comment on how global warming hit nearly dead last (less interesting than Pope Francis!?)? That seems a bit concerning, if also surprising.Report

Bradley
Reply to  Jeremy Kidwell (@kidwellj)
6 years ago

Well, it was Notre Dame, and they care more about the Pope there than most places. But I was quite surprised as well. Unfortunately I didn’t ask them anything about why they picked what they picked, and I really couldn’t speculate.Report

shaunmiller
6 years ago

It’s a bit out-dated, but David Benatar’s anthology “Ethics for Everybody” (1991) covers a range of topics that are not part of the canon of applied ethics, such as humor, lying, jealousy and envy, gambling, tipping, gratitude, gossiping, rearing children, and forgiveness just to name a few.Report