Sunday, 14 March 2010

Ethics and Undergraduates

Over at Crooked Timber right now there is a good thread listing possible articles for undergraduate ethics courses though, as one of the contributors points out, a lot of the initial suggestions really fit more in the area of political theory. Nonetheless, the thread lists a lot of interesting pieces, some of which are linked to copies of the articles that can be downloaded on-line.

Reading the list and thinking about the difficulties of teaching ethics to undergraduates brought two things to mind that don't appear to be registered in most of the suggestions. On the one hand, whenever I have taught ethics to undergraduates there has been one persistent problem. This is the amazing endurance of lazily relativist views of the subject. This is especially apparent on first year introductions to the area, it is really the major difficulty in teaching the subject since relativism tends to get reinforced by the problems with the major ethical theories and the difficulty, in an introductory course, with bringing out why theories that have major difficulties are nonetheless worth paying sustained attention to and are, one and all, more worthwhile than any "relativist" view. The consequences of relativism are untenable as can be easily shown whilst the internal contradictions of it are not difficult to find. However, if a course opens with a discussion of relativism then it is all the more likely that its ghost won't get put to rest. If any readers out there feel like commenting on occasion the question of how to address this problem is one I would be most interested in hearing about as it is the single one that most puts me off the very idea of teaching ethics.

A second point not addressed in most of the contributions set out in the list from Crooked Timber is the absence of discussion of the notion of "common sense morality". There are quite a number of good reasons why this topic needs to be addressed. 1) It is a central notion in intuitionist views of ethics and also a version of it motivates the argument of the first section of Kant's Groundwork. 2) Criticism of it is a major motivation of utilitarian views of ethics. 3) Some idea of it is important in terms of relating ethical theory to moral practice since the latter frequently appeals, implicitly or explicitly, to the notion. 

Not sure why this second topic is missing from the contributions so far to the discussion over at Crooked Timber but perhaps, if any readers of this blog also read that one and notify others of its absence from the debate over there it will help to put it on the map!


Anca said...

Hi, perhaps you might find it helpful to use for teaching the sub-chapter on "Relativism" from Simon Blackburn's "Being Good. A Short Introduction to Ethics"?

Gary Banham said...

Thanks for the suggestion: I'll look at that!