Teaching Ethics: A View from the Trenches

Nathan Tierney

Editor’s note: Recently an NAS member inquired whether the National Association of Scholars recommends any “ethics curriculum resources” for teaching ethics in college courses. NAS doesn’t have any off-the-shelf recommendations for this, but we invited a few of our members to answer the question, “How should ethics be taught in the college classroom today?” according to their own understanding.

Ethics is one of the most difficult subjects to teach well, particularly at the university level and particularly in today’s cultural climate. This is not primarily a matter of the difficulty of its subject matter, though the intricacies of ethical theory can indeed be highly demanding at the intellectual level. The difficulty stems rather from the purpose of teaching it: its primary aim is practical rather than theoretical. We study ethics, as Aristotle taught long ago, not to know what goodness is, but to become good ourselves. Ethics is practical in the sense that it guides us in acting well.>

It might at first seem that its practicality would make it rather easy to teach; parents have, after all, been doing it for millennia with little or no formal training. Further, the core teachings of ethics can be stated rather simply. Ethics is about being a good person and doing the right thing: we should respect the dignity of all people, we should take responsibility for our life and actions, and we should be concerned for the well-being of others. Important truths though these are, they do not appear that difficult to convey. Whence stems the difficulty in teaching the subject?

The first and most obvious difficulty lies in the enormous variations of context in which these core values are to be applied. The ways in which dignity, for example, is respected in China are rather different from the ways in which it is respected in the United States. Even in the same cultural context, the variations in circumstance, knowledge and agent capacity make the move from core principles and values to particular ethical decision one that is fraught with complexity. This is why Aristotle urged that too high a level of theoretical precision in ethics must not be sought, and that the final judgment must be left up to the particular agent at the time of decision.

The second difficulty is that the core values of respect, responsibility and concern are linked to a host of other ethical and quasi-ethical concepts such as justice, rights, liberty, loyalty, authenticity, civility, trust, self-discipline, reliability, prudence, forgiveness, gratitude, friendship, grace, humor, patience, kindness, hospitality and many more. Each of these are worthy of study in themselves, and the relations between them complex. Needless to say, there are very many different theories and disagreements about all of these. The teacher of ethics hardly lacks things to talk about.

A third difficulty stems from the fact that the subject of ethics is the broadest of practical subjects. Unless the teacher has an equally broad and balanced experience of life there will be the temptation to insert one’s own more narrow personal perspectives into the discussion as if they were objectively derived. A fourth difficulty is the necessity of having a sufficiently deep knowledge of the theoretical aspects of the discipline so as to avoid the temptation to substitute political polemic for ethics. This is unfortunately a rather common occurrence when ethics is taught outside the discipline of philosophy. Many teachers of ethics in other disciplines see the subject primarily in terms of advocacy for what they regard as social justice rather than the search for balanced moral cultivation. A fifth and opposite difficulty, particularly within philosophy departments, is the temptation to fall into scholasticism. The teacher becomes so caught up in meta-ethical questions and the analysis of the logic of moral discourse that he or she forgets, in the end, to advocate anything.

In my experience, however, the central challenge in teaching ethics well is to combine justification with motivation. A good ethics teacher must not only provide rational justification for moral choices, but must do so in such a way that student motivation toward those choices is increased, otherwise the class fails to live up to Aristotle’s desideratum. Scholastics, of course, will not agree nor, on the other hand, will those who see ethics as political advocacy; the former will stick to justification, the latter to motivation. They are errors nevertheless. The balance and interconnection of these two is not something that can be learned in advance, but is the product of long experience and dedication in the classroom. The good teacher must thread a path between scholastic intricacies on the one hand and heavy-handed “relevance” on the other. Mistakes and failures will be common along the way, and success will often depend as much on the students as on the teacher, but when the balance is struck correctly there are few pleasures greater for a teacher than an ethics class well taught.

I would like to offer a few pieces of practical advice that I have found to be helpful.

Opening questions. On the first day of class, have students write answers to two opening questions: (1) What is the difference between right and wrong? (2) How should we resolve moral disputes? Typically 80% - 90% of students will answer question (1) by saying that it is determined by whatever the individual or society believes. The answers to question (2) will be more varied, ranging from “You can’t” to “You don’t have to” to “Engage in rational discussion”. Discuss the answers with students without inserting your own judgments. This builds a sense of respect and trust, and sets the stage for active discussion throughout the course. Later in the course, you will need to address that 80% - 90% head on.

Texts. Good texts are essential, and the number of bad ones on the market far exceeds the good ones. Publishers tend to publish what they think will sell, and there is a constant call for texts that provide ideological and multicultural perspectives even when their quality leaves much to be desired. Some reliable ones are Louis Pojman and James Feiser’s Discovering Right and Wrong (7th ed.), James Rachel’s The Elements of Moral Philosophy (6th ed.), and Oliver Johnson and Andrew Reath's Ethics: Selections from Classic and Contemporary Writers (11th ed.). For all their importance, however, texts are always secondary to classroom learning.

Relativism.  Naïve student relativism is of course the background dogma against which ethics teachers must today teach. Naïve relativism is the view that ethics is just a matter of individual or cultural opinion, and no rational evaluation of values is possible. Students are attached to this for a variety of reasons. It has been taught to them by their school teachers, by the media, and by our consumerist society. It has a nice air of tolerance and democracy about it. It offers excellent protection against difficult thought. It is promoted by postmodern intellectuals. And it is just simply fun to advocate it to see what the teacher will do. The fact that it is vapid, subject to well-known critiques, and not really believed by most who advocate it does not detract from the fact that it is an intellectual disease that must at some point be directly addressed in the classroom. There are a variety of strategies which I cannot develop here, though the authors mentioned above offer some good advice.

Ethical relativism is often espoused as the ideological guarantor of tolerance, open-mindedness, and peaceful co-existence between nations, and certainly its appreciation of diversity is a useful antidote to ethnocentrism and cultural imperialism. However, in the long run, the cure is just as bad as the disease. Six serious problems of ethical relativism which make it an obstacle, not an aid, to a decent moral order for our planet are: (1) It justifies intolerance as much as tolerance, since intolerant societies cannot be evaluated. (2) It entails that reformers are always wrong, since they object to prevailing norms. (3) It makes morality a tool of power, since power structures determine social norms. (4) It provides no way of navigating the multiple cultures that we all inhabit. (5) It implies a crude majoritarianism: “the majority is always right.” (6) It implies that not only are we unable to evaluate other cultures; we cannot even judge our own, since it is made up of many subcultures. Relativism is, in the end, an incoherent and ultimately corrupting doctrine that destroys our moral compass, undermines our powers of thought, and weakens our will to work together for a better world.

Classroom dynamics. Because it seeks the integration of justification and motivation, an ethics class, more than others, requires active student participation and leadership. The teacher must allow students a great deal of freedom of expression, and establish a trust relationship in which student views are listened to and honored. At the same time, the teacher must gently correct and instruct when appropriate, and stand firm on core values. Also, students must see that the teacher is walking the walk of ethics as well as talking the talk. There will be times in the course when the teacher’s own integrity will be at issue (does the teacher, for example, espouse the virtue of listening, yet talk over a student who is in disagreement?). Students are very alert for hypocrisy in this most honest of disciplines.

We live in strange times. While there is a constant call for more ethics in many areas of life, its possibility as an intellectual discipline has never been more doubted. The ethics teacher who resists the current academic trend to substitute political advocacy for the search for ethical wisdom is frequently regarded with suspicion and even hostility. A good teacher of ethics must actually know something about the difference between right and wrong, in both a theoretical and a practical sense. Claims to ethical knowledge are routinely dismissed as arrogance and an obvious impossibility. Yet no discipline can survive without knowledge. Socrates asked if ethics can be taught. It clearly can’t be taught as a technique, for it requires a willingness on the part of the inquirer to have a change of heart and mind as understanding increases. Given this willingness, however, it can be taught. It certainly needs to be.


Nathan Tierney ([email protected]) is Professor of Philosophy at California Lutheran University, where he has taught ethics since 1990. He is the author of Imagination and Ethical Ideals (SUNY Press). 


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