Another school year begins. As I start another ethics class, I've been thinking about the strange—and off-putting—way that so much ethics is taught in colleges and universities.
Courses too often have three components: 1) An episodic and ungrounded trip through the history of theoretical ethics; 2) A series of outlandish ethical dilemmas, ostensibly to evaluate and criticize intuitions and the positions of those ethical theories; and, 3) A short series of practical applications to issues like abortion and torture.
Most textbooks and readers follow something like this plan, as do most introductory courses. It seems to me—even when I am doing the same damned thing—that this misses on almost all cylinders.
It's very important not to lead students into the genealogical fallacy, but teaching Aristotle without talking about what sort of society 4th-century BC Athens was leaves the students utterly flustered. From there, of course, you have to talk about the way a virtue ethics might be divorced from its context, or better yet married to a new one, but you can't treat theories as ex nihilo. Too often, though, we do. When students can't see what made the categorical imperative live for Kant, there is little hope they can see what might make it live for them.
Then, we ask them questions about fat men trapped in caves, or runaway trolleys, or—Heavens forfend!—unconscious violinists and people seeds. We ask them what their intuitions are in such cases, ignoring the fact that no one has untutored intuitions in these cases. We treat intuitions as if they were themselves ex nihilo, while we really know that we gain them in experience. And, I have just had no experience with people seeds, so whatever my intuitions are they are intuitions about people or seeds. We act as if there were deep underlying principles for each of a person's moral judgments, when we also think that what we are trying to do is provide such principles. When we do this, we ask them to think that ethics and philosophy is pure and utter bullshit. Then we are surprised when they think it is.
Finally, we try to ground this whole project in talking about controversial issues. But, we talk about the same ones all the time. Who really wants to talk more about abortion in a classroom? How many more times can we rehash the same substandard articles on same sex marriage? Or, animal rights? And, we act as if the issues that we are talking about the most central ones in a human life. But, I am not getting abortions most of the time. That is not where my attitude to human life is made most clear. So, we teach them that ethics, if it can be made about anything, only applies at the edges of life, not in their everyday lived lives.
I don't always think that the teaching of philosophy should try to be useful. Mostly, I think it shouldn't. But ethics is one place where it must be about the real world and the common life. And, I think we fail at that. Or, at least I do most of the time.