The Ignorance Next Door, and What to Do about It


Philosophers sometimes complain about how colleagues in other fields don’t know enough about what philosophy is and what philosophers do, even as said colleagues make pronouncements about philosophy, or decisions that affect philosophy department, or changes to curricula or requirements relevant to philosophy course offerings, and so on.

[lock and keys by Abloy]

In case you were looking for an example of this, here’s a recent one that was published at Inside Higher Ed.

In it, historian Steve Mintz (Texas) argues that universities should require their students to take ethics courses—not a bad idea at all. But he seems to think this should (or perhaps could only) be achieved by taking ethics education out of the hands of philosophy departments and having it be taught by others who have “no formal training in ethics.”

Why? Well, he:

1. appears to believe that philosophy departments don’t offer courses on real moral problems, despite “contemporary moral problems” (and its variants) being perhaps one of the most widely-offered philosophy courses in the United States (I’d bet it is in the top three, with “introduction to philosophy” and “logic”)

2. appears to believe that philosophy departments don’t offer courses on medical ethics, environmental ethics, business ethics and other applied ethics topics

3. complains (because of 1, above) that ethics courses in philosophy departments are ” too abstract” but also complains that other forms of ethics instruction, such as the New York Times “Ethicist” column, rarely discuss “in any depth the conflicting principles that should underlie ethical or moral decision-making”

He also:

4. thinks an important task of a college course on ethics and moral reasoning is to teach students the difference between “ethics” and “morals”

5. asserts that if ethics is subjective, teaching ethics will be “ineffective and impractical” without explaining how there is a connection between these two seemingly unrelated points

6. says that the idea that “teaching ethics is inappropriate in a pluralistic society with diverse value systems” has “a certain validity”

7. uses the term “certain validity”.

Okay that last one was a bit pedantic, I’ll admit. Maybe you think some of the others are, too, but I think that pedantry might be excusable in regard to an article calling for people to be better educated and better able to “engage critically.”

Mintz’s article was brought to my attention by Mark Couch (Seton Hall), who pens a response here. Here’s an excerpt, though I encourage you to read the whole thing:

While Mintz is right to raise some concerns, I would demur at his suggestion that ethics should as a general matter be taught outside of Philosophy departments (or maybe Religion departments). What struck me as unusual about his article is how much of the material mentioned is already addressed directly in existing ethics courses that I teach. For instance, he suggests that any courses should help students learn how “to think critically and reason morally” about different issues. This sentence looks like it’s taken straight out of the syllabus for my ethics course I teach every year.

Learning to understand diverse moral frameworks is already part and parcel of every general ethics course being taught in Philosophy departments. Students are taught a range of perspectives in courses that aim, not to indoctrinate students to this or that view, but to expose them to a broad range of approaches and issues. The aim is to improve students’ understanding and ability to think through different moral issues and perspectives, so they can avoid the kinds of knee-jerk, emotional reactions that seem to characterize many students’ initial reactions to moral problems. Moreover, these courses are precisely in the areas that Mintz suggests might provide helpful areas of focus. Every year Philosophy departments offer courses on general ethics and applied areas, including environmental ethics, business ethics, and biomedical ethics.

Professor Couch’s reply is very reasonable and patient.

Here’s a different kind of response:

History is important. Studying it involves learning not just about actual events but all sorts of general lessons that students could make use of in reflecting on their own circumstances; it can provide context for understanding the complexity of current controversies; and it offers a wide range of perspectives students can use to help shape their own. Yet students seem to know so little history! I propose that college students should learn more history.

I don’t mean college students should take more history courses. Certainly not! History is too important to be left up to historians. And besides, when historians teach history it can be too abstract and focused on general lessons and understanding, rather than actual events. Rather, I propose instead that history be taught in other courses by faculty who have no formal training in history. It is the best way for students to have a better grasp of dizzyingly complex issues.

Somehow I think the historians wouldn’t be fans of this proposal.

Philosophers tend to think it’s good for students to take a course or two on ethics. Mintz thinks this, too. We should be allies! But because Mintz seems to not know what happens in philosophy courses, or not know much about moral philosophy, he positions himself, practically, in opposition to philosophy departments. This is unfortunate. But isn’t it avoidable?

Philosophers and our departments bear some—perhaps most—of the responsibility for the ignorance that others on campus have about what we do, and some of the responsibility for the practical effects of this ignorance (curricular decisions, funding decisions, hiring priorities, etc.). What steps, if any, do individuals and departments take that are aimed at overcoming this ignorance? What else could we be doing?

Suggestions and discussion welcome.

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Dennis Arjo
6 months ago

I think the points made here are fair enough, though I’m sensing a bit of an over-reaction. Mintz is one of the more fair minded and reasonable commentators on higher ed out there and worth reading a little more sympathetically. I did not take him to be saying what philosophers do in their Ethics classes can and should instead be done by others, who could do it better. I think the point was more that as ethical problems arise in all sorts of contexts, professors in other disciplines ought to be able and willing to address them in constructive ways as they do. A history professor ought, for example, to be explicit about the moral issues raised historic events and incorporate a discussion about them into their class. Being more deliberate about this would help students be better ethical reasoners. This would be comparable, I think, to what we do when we talk about the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution in class to provide context for Kant’s ethics.

Michel
Michel
Reply to  Dennis Arjo
6 months ago

Sure, but he does recommend that there be courses in environmental, biomedical, business, and military ethics, and that the rest of the university should step up to offer them because philosophy doesn’t. That’s a pretty big failure to do one’s (historical) homework.

Dennis Arjo
Reply to  Michel
6 months ago

That’s fair.

Cynthia Anne Freeland
Cynthia Anne Freeland
6 months ago

I find this surprising, because I know Steve Mintz and have no idea why he would say such things. He used to be in History at the University of HOuston, from which I’m retired, and in fact Philosophy shares a floor with History in our building. He certainly seemed to know about things that we were up to at the time he was an Associate Dean in our college and various kinds of grant proposals, course descriptions, and even hiring went across his desk. In fact I always had friendly relations with him. Our department is fairly well known for having experts in various types of ethics (David Phillips, Tamler Sommers, and Justin Coates). So I am going to write him and ask him what on earth has motivated him to say such things.

Monte Johnson
Reply to  Cynthia Anne Freeland
6 months ago

Thanks Cynthia! And let us know what he says…

David Austin
Reply to  Cynthia Anne Freeland
6 months ago

At his present institution, UTexas/Austin, the list of PHL courses (with descriptions) is easy to find: https://liberalarts.utexas.edu/philosophy/courses/. The listings for Fall 2023 and Spring 2024 include 94 occurrences of “ethic” and 48 occurrences of “moral,” and among the course titles are, “Contemporary moral Problems,” “Intro To Technology ethics,” “Introduction To ethics,” “History Of ethics,” “Health And Justice,” “ethical Theories,””Biomedical Ethics,” “Lies, Secrets, And Deception.” Even if, as seems unlikely, he thought that Philosophy at UHouston was anomalous, he could have found a better way to make whatever points he was trying to make.

Louis Zapst
Louis Zapst
6 months ago

I’ll offer three pessimistic thoughts. (1) Many colleagues in other departments, as well as many administrators, have never taken a philosophy course. Usually having PhDs themselves, these colleagues and administrators, however, do not consider themselves incapable of critical thinking or unable to make ethical judgments pertaining to their own fields. (2) One wonders if the main reason philosophy departments get to teach courses such as bioethics, business ethics, enviro ethics, etc., is that it saves other departments from wasting their valuable faculty resources and curriculum requirements on something as tangential to their concerns as they perceive ethics to be. (3) In rare cases (notably in law schools and medical schools, but also some business schools), where there is appreciation for ethics, this leads to ethics courses being taught in-house by non-philosophers who have sufficient professional clinical experience to speak with authority to their vocationally minded students. In sum, the sad fact is that philosophers are misunderstood and under-appreciated. I don’t have a solution for that.

David Austin
Reply to  Louis Zapst
6 months ago

Somewhat along the lines of (1), above: In Michèle Lamont, How professors think: inside the curious world of academic judgment (Harvard UP, 2009), the author recounts her study of faculty behavior in reviewing grant and fellowship proposals in the humanities and social sciences. One section of the book is entitled “The ‘Problem Case’ of Philosophy.” Lamont summarizes:

Several panelists expressed at least one of the following views: (1) philosophers live in a world apart from other humanists, (2) nonphilosophers have problems evaluating philosophical work, and they are often perceived by philosophers as not qualified to do so, (3) philosophers do not explain the significance of their work, and (4) increasingly, what philosophers do is irrelevant, sterile, and self-indulgent. (64)

Views very similar to (1)-(3) might well be expressed by many in the humanities about pure mathematicians and pure mathematics. Isn’t it true that: nonmathematicians have problems evaluating mathematical work, and they are often perceived by mathematicians (and by nonmathematicians) as not qualified to do so? Aren’t the latter perceptions of mathematicians and nonmathematicians correct? Is the situation different for philosophy and philosophers?
Would these panelists also level the charge in (4) against pure mathematicians? Perhaps some would. Surely their assessment would have to be based largely on popular media reports about recent research in mathematics.
Lamont reports that philosophers often have difficulty in securing grant money when they compete with other humanities faculty. Perhaps pure (as opposed to applied) mathematicians also have comparable difficulties in securing grant money. I’ve often heard the latter claim, but have not verified it.
I am confident that despite five decades in academia, I am not qualified to evaluate most work in history, literature and many other disciplines. Anyone who does ‘philosophy of X’ must also be an expert in X to be competent, and expertise is what’s needed to evaluate grant proposals and fellowship applications from a discipline.
I would guess that philosophers on reviewing panels often come across as blunt and impatient – often because that’s how they are – and that their demeanor explains much of what is negative in Lamont’s (1) – (4).

Aeon J. Skoble
Reply to  David Austin
6 months ago

Anyone who does ‘philosophy of X’ must also be an expert in X to be competent” What level of expert? Are you suggesting that the only people qualified to teach medical ethics have an MD as well as a PhD? That the only people who are qualified to teach political philosophy are PhDs who have also held elective office? Maybe you meant something else.

Drew Cavallo
Drew Cavallo
Reply to  Aeon J. Skoble
6 months ago

I don’t think that line was about teaching. I’ll use their example of pure mathematics to demonstrate my point. One does not need a PhD to be capable of teaching some classes under the umbrella of pure mathematics. What I am thinking the claim is is that to understand the latest and most advanced work in the field of pure mathematics one needs to be an expert even if they could teach some comparatively lower level pure mathematics classes.

David Austin then uses that idea to talk about grant money and such where I think the argument is that if one does not understand the work being funded one is not fully capable of properly evaluating whether or not it should be. This combines with the idea that one requires a level of expertise to make this evaluation such that the whole can be used to explain the dismissive perspective of some towards certain fields.

That is how I understood it at least. The matter of who should be teaching what is not directly touched on my the argument.

Aeon J. Skoble
Reply to  Drew Cavallo
6 months ago

Oh, ok.

Patrick Lin
Reply to  Louis Zapst
6 months ago

To your first point: we, at a polytechnic university, recently had a provost from the humanities, art history to be specific. We thought she’d be a champion for us in philosophy.

But in an early meeting with our faculty, we saw some red flags, and someone finally asked if she had ever taken a philosophy class. She replied with somethlng like, “No, it was too hard/confusing.” Jaws dropped to the floor.

The lesson here is that if you’re involved with interviewing or town-halls with prospective university leaders, ask them if they’ve ever taken a philosophy class, how many, or in what way they’re familiar with our discipline and its value. You cannot assume, even if they’re from the humanities.

Mark Raabe
Mark Raabe
6 months ago

This strikes me as an unnecessarily sour reaction to Mintz’s article. True, there’s plenty to quibble with. (“Moral and ethical education should be left to religious institutions” is a proposition that “ha[s] a certain validity”? Really?) But he leaves enough unspecified that it’s possible to fill in the blanks charitably, and in a way that asserts philosophers’ central role.

He doesn’t seem to be saying that philosophy courses don’t already cover this material. He’s saying that any coverage is locked within philosophy departments, where it’s less likely to be encountered by students and less likely to be placed in context — context that would not only inform the discussion but also add relevance to capture the audience.

He also isn’t precisely clear that ethical instruction needs to be taken out of the hands of philosophers and given to untrained (and possibly unmotivated) instructors in other fields. He admits to not having an answer: “[T]his does raise an issue that faculty members would have to ponder: how to ensure that such courses have instructors who are not only knowledgeable about ethics but can also teach this subject effectively….”

Let’s help him out here. The goal of “embedding ethics education across the curriculum” should be collaborative. Simply put, philosophy departments need more outreach. They should offer to help bring ethics instruction into the catalog of every other department by offering a co-teaching service. There is no need to find a unicorn instructor who knows both ethics and the context field when the requirement can be readily satisfied by a team of two.

And philosophy need not be humble about this and ask for permission. It ought to assert the need and create the expectation that this has to be done. It can do so by embracing its unique role as the universal meta-field, the one discipline that legitimately has something foundational to say to all the others.

The other aspect we might help Mintz with is understanding what this new curriculum should entail. As a dilettante, I’m really interested to know what the professionals here think, but it seems to me Mintz overestimates the value of applied ethics and underestimates the value of metaethics.

The current crisis highlights that the issue isn’t that people don’t know how to apply ethics, or don’t want to, or don’t take time to; it’s that too many people are applying their own ethical system without questioning whether it’s the only valid one. We need to teach students how essential it is to be able to evaluate, compare, and reconcile differing ethical systems.

Mintz worries about how you can properly teach ethics “in a pluralistic society with diverse value systems” and without “privileging one set of values over others.” Part of the answer, I think, is to focus less on teaching specific norms and more on equipping students with a robust metaethical awareness.

Ned Hall
Ned Hall
Reply to  Mark Raabe
6 months ago

For an example of what it can look like to embed ethics in *one* curriculum (CS, in this case), see here: https://embeddedethics.seas.harvard.edu/

Laura
Laura
Reply to  Ned Hall
6 months ago

This is very cool and I appreciate you sharing it as a possible model for others as well.

Laura
Laura
Reply to  Mark Raabe
6 months ago

He’s pretty clear about taking it out of the hands of philosophers, at least for the education he has in mind:
“Let’s not ignore ethics education—and let it languish as a subspecialty within philosophy, where it can become too abstract and less practical or applied.”

This right after he has asked the question, “what might a college-level course on ethics and moral reasoning do?” and gone on to give a list of exactly what a bunch of philosophy courses do, which apparently he thinks need to be done outside philosophy now by non-experts.

None of this surprises me because we hear it all the time: ethics is taught by everyone and you don’t need any special expertise to do it. Sure, in the general sense, but if you want real expertise you’re going to need to go to an expert. The ethics expert is not necessarily a more ethical person in the sense that an expert surgeon is great at surgery – they’re like a baseball expert who doesn’t have to play baseball to tell you all about how the game works.

It might be great if philosophy faculty could deliver such instruction hand in hand with other experts, but most philosophy departments don’t have that luxury because they won’t be given proper credit for the work. It will subtract from the things they have to do for successful evaluation, in a climate where philosophy programs are struggling to justify themselves in the first place.

Mark Raabe
Mark Raabe
Reply to  Laura
6 months ago

On the contrary, I don’t think he’s particularly clear. “Let’s not … let it languish as a subspecialty within philosophy” has at least two interpretations: either (1) taking it out of the hands of philosophers, or (2) getting philosophers to engage to help embed ethics across the curriculum, not just within their department.

Whether he intends (1) or not, I would let him know that I read him as saying (2) because that’s the most constructive way to view his remarks. Aside from being foolish, (1) leaves him with the problems he identifies further on (who do we find to do this, etc.), whereas (2) points to solutions to those very problems.

As for your final point that there are systemic obstacles and disincentives, I get it. But if ever there was a moment when institutions should be open to calls to rethink their systems and their incentives, this would be it.

Laura
Laura
Reply to  Mark Raabe
6 months ago

Thank you, point taken – he may be more amenable to philosophers getting involved in this renewal of applied ethics teaching than it appears at first glance. The part about what content should go into an ethics course – as if people don’t think about this every day when constructing exactly those courses – threw me off. But an optimistic reading also makes more sense.

Last edited 6 months ago by Laura
Ryan
6 months ago

A sort of interesting aside: it has long been my contention that medical ethics courses should be taught by the white coat doctors. Their direct experience is irreplaceable. and they’re no doubt capable of grasping and communicating the basic philosophical terrain (or at least the ones that should be hired would be).

Whether I’ve TA’d it or taught it myself, I’ve always felt like I’m just extracting rent. Let’s get the life-and-death doctors in there.

V. Alan White
Reply to  Ryan
6 months ago

I strongly disagree.

(1) There are plenty of papers/books/resources by philosophers with real world medical experience–I learned the hard way to emphasize those over more purely theoretical pieces.
(2) I have had numerous real-world doctors, nurses, and other health-care professionals who took my bioethics courses and reported that they learned a lot from seeing points of view other than what they had acquired in the workplace.
(3) Like most philosophy, getting the kind of meta-view of real-world ethical problems that philosophers provide expands people’s thinking about complex issues. That’s our job–not dealing directly with clients/patients.

Mark Jago
Reply to  Ryan
6 months ago

My (white coat) doctor friend described his med student ethics class (taught by the med school) as follows. The instructor began the class with “you don’t want to be here, I don’t want to be here, but you need this class to qualify”. And it continued much in that vein. Teaching ethics is best done by committed, qualified, knowledgable ethicists.

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
Reply to  Ryan
6 months ago

On the one hand, I have often felt this way when teaching biomedical ethics. But on the other, (a) I have occasionally been contacted by students who later went into medical fields who have told me how helpful the class proved to be, and (b) my physician friend has on multiple occasions told me how he made use of some of the ideas and insights I’ve shared from my teaching in his professional work.

One of the benefits of ethics classes taught by philosophers is providing an opportunity for reflection on one’s ethical commitments outside of the urgency of a particular moment and without uncritically (and invisibly) accepting the presuppositions and conventions of a particular domain of practice. This should be complimented with ethical training and mentorship from those with more concrete experience of the choices faced in a given practical domain.

Here is a passage from an article I often assigned by two military medical officers:

“In the final interpretation, each person must continually reflect on the key elements of personal and professional ethics and consider the following questions: What should I do; What can I do; What will I do; and What will I not do. Notice that only the last has a negative. This guardrail or “red line” must be established—even if hypothetically—well before one is faced with the events of the moment and potentially overcome by them.”
https://www.cgscfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/McPherson-Shimkus-MultipleLoyalites.pdf

Philosophers are well positioned to teach classes that give students the tools and opportunity to reflect on these questions.

Last edited 6 months ago by Derek Bowman
Laura
Laura
Reply to  Ryan
6 months ago

A better way of implementing your suggestion might be to get the doctors, nurses, another health professionals into the philosophy ethics classroom as guests. Students can thereby see how the ideas they’re struggling with in ethics class will translate into real life struggles with patient cases. Written case studies might be good but in my experience it’s profound for students to hear it directly from a practitioner of the sort they aspire to be someday.

Aaron Goldbird
Aaron Goldbird
Reply to  Ryan
6 months ago

Sounds like you are devaluing your own expertise as a patient or potential patient. If medical ethics is taught just like an “ethics for drs” course, I get why someone might want a medical professional to teach it. But it doesn’t have to be taught that way and even if it is, then us non-medical professionals have enough of a stake to warrant a voice in the classroom.

JDRox
JDRox
Reply to  Aaron Goldbird
6 months ago

Having served on ethics committees at medical institutions, I can tell you that having medical ethics taught by medical practitioners would be a bad idea. Most of the time medical practitioners think of medical ethics as act consequentialism within the bounds of legality and common sense, at least in my experience.

Gorm
Reply to  JDRox
6 months ago

My first ethics course at university was with John Rist. This was in the late 1980s. He remarked that the people who he knew working in bioethics then, saw their job as one of rationalizing the choices that the doctors had already made.

Laura
Laura
6 months ago

Could someone at this person’s university please offer to let him sit in on a decent quality, typical ethics course as taught in a Philosophy department? It is indeed as if someone came to the realization it would be very helpful to understand historical events in order to make sense of present challenges – then sketched out a basic idea about what a history class might include – and then inexplicably decided anyone but historians should offer them because history gets too deep in the weeds. Baffling.

Bob Kirkman
6 months ago

They key is not just to talk to others in the academy, but to work with them.

Collaborate with an economist, or a historian, or an engineer; team-teach a course with an ecologist, or a theologian, or a linguist; launch some bold interdisciplinary venture with physicists or political scientists.

I have the advantage of having worked in interdisciplinary programs for the past 25 years.

At one point, when I was collaborating on a research project with an economist in my program, we were invited to give a joint guest lecture to a course in another program. Then we were invited back again . . . and again.

By the last time we did this joint appearance, I ended up talking about economics, and my colleague ended up talking about ethics. It was brilliant.

If you want others to understand what you do, show them and, while you’re at it, learn something about what they do, too.

Last edited 6 months ago by Bob Kirkman
Paul Wilson
Paul Wilson
6 months ago

An empirical question, prompted by Justin’s first point, poses a challenge for data geeks:

“1. appears to believe that philosophy departments don’t offer courses on real moral problems, despite “contemporary moral problems” (and its variants) being perhaps one of the most widely-offered philosophy courses in the United States (I’d bet it is in the top three, with “introduction to philosophy” and “logic”)”

Perhaps. What data might be available for backing up that reasonable bet?

Other candidates — besides “contemporary moral problems” (and its variants), “introduction to philosophy”, and “logic” — might include generic “ethics”, and “critical thinking” aka “informal logic”

I suspect ethics may be increasingly departmentalized (business, law, medicine, etc.), to the detriment of philosophy departments’ generic ethics offerings, just as “critical thinking” may be increasingly absorbed by English &/or Speech and Rhetoric programs

But surely, such a question can be answered with data

Paul Wilson
Paul Wilson
Reply to  Paul Wilson
6 months ago

Perhaps, OpenSyllabus.org might be of help in mapping the perceived migration of ethics (and critical thinking) courses across the curriculum

https://www.opensyllabus.org/