Saturday, January 15, 2005

Relativistic worries

This week it was time for the first exam in my intersession ethics class. Exams are good as a lecturer, because an exam day is a day that I don't have to teach. I do really enjoy teaching, but at the same time I become extremely nervous right before teaching. The whole experience is a lot like stagefright--or anyway the sort of stagefright I experienced when I was younger and in college or community theater productions. Most days, I get such a serious nervous cough before I teach that I am on the edge of being sick. No matter how long I do it, I still get the same feeling; but I am also exhilarated when a lecture or a discussion is going well, the students are interested, intrigued and maybe a little entertained.

But on exam days, while the students write their answers, I usually take the classtime to read some philosophical book that doesn't directly apply either to the class or to my normal academic interests. So, they were answering questions about moral skepticism and Immanuel Kant and I was thinking about relativism. In fact, I was thinking about relativism and the danger that classes like mine might lead my students to reject ethical thinking altogether.

The way I have always taught ethics has been in two parts. For a while we talk about various traditional ethical theories. I provide the arguments in their favor, the sorts of ethical answers they provide, the problems and counterintuitive results. Then we move on to the next. After we talk about the theories, we talk about various ethical and social issues; I provide or elicit the various positions that people do or might have on the issues discussed. We talk about the arguments for the views and the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments. What we rarely arrive at is anything like a consensus; and I (almost) never tell them what I think the right answers are on any of the issues, concentrating instead on evaluating arguments, justifications and rationalizations.

Not surprisingly, my worry is that my students might come away from the class thinking that, since there are arguments on either side and these arguments all have strengths and weaknesses, there just are no answers. In other words, I'm worried that I might be turning out a group of moral relativists. That, since we don't arrive at any answers, they might just believe that there's nothing more to morality than what they unreflectively believe in any case; ethical thinking doesn't provide them with answers anyway. But, at the same time, I don't think I'm in any position to provide them with answers.

I know what I think about abortion, I know what I think about same-sex marriage, I know what I think about drug use, I'm pretty sure that I am well-justified in my beliefs about these matters. But I don't have anything like certainty about my beliefs. And a philosophy lecturer teaching an introductory ethics class isn't probably the right person to teach someone how to be moral. Aristotle was undoubtedly wrong about a lot of things, but he was probably right in thinking that moral beliefs and practices are habituated through the way in which one is raised and not learned in the way one learns physics. If I wanted to teach them to be ethical, I would take Alasdair MacIntyre's advice and have them read(Jane Austen) novels.

But then I worry that if I'm not giving them answers but I am showing them difficulties with moral arguments I'm not doing much more than destabilizing them in their moral beliefs. So, what good could I possibly be doing? If teaching ethics the way I do has any positive effect, it must be in teaching them that, if they are going to hold others to their ethical standards, they must be able to defend those very beliefs. And, since other people have different beliefs, they need to be able to do a better job than their epistemic competitors do. Otherwise, they have to admit that they have no very good reason for holding the beliefs they do hold dear. That isn't to say that they must give up their morality if they are unable to defend it, but just that they ought to respect those views they can't refute or outargue.

And, maybe this isn't such a bad goal for an ethics class, these days. After all, one way of thinking about the war that we are currently engaged in, is as a war of ideas. But, all too often, the ideas are presented merely as conclusions without support or any need of it. So, if I get a few students to think that they ought to be able to defend their views--even if their defense is never conclusive--maybe I am doing a service to the world.

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