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.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”
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.”
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.