Teaching ethics is a tricky business. At least in my experience, the first problem is our generally inadequate notion of what ethics is about. When we hear about morals or ethics in common speech—or in one of the forms of media—it is most often assumed to be about decision-making in difficult situations. How do we negotiate a particular moral dilemma? Ethics texts are full of these, and generally there is no particular answer to them. For those who like the modernist-postmodernist paradigm, this popular understanding is modernist/rationalist reaching back, let’s say, to Kant with his search of the “categorical imperative” and earlier.
The pre-modern (ancient and medieval, Biblical, Confucian, and some forms of post-modern) tradition is to understand ethics as about who we are, the quality or “content of our character,” about our habitual responses to people and situations, whether we are consistently just, truthful, courageous, wise, self-controlled, respectful, etc. (most of this is just translation of the classical cardinal virtues). People with these qualities can be trusted to make wise decisions when called upon. And because they exercise these qualities, they find themselves more rarely in those difficult situations. In this understanding ethics is about how we can become moral or ethical people.
The second problem, in my experience the most difficult, is that today we bring very different experiences ourselves about what is right and wrong to the table (or classroom) when discussing ethical questions, say, about business practice (about which I have the privilege of teaching). How can we come together with some common ethical experience, and how can we break out of the “decision-making” pattern into the fuller “virtue” experience?
To get there, I have devised an experiment that I ask the class to undertake. (I have borrowed some elements of this from others in discussions about university teaching, in particular colleagues and friends in the Association of Core Texts and Courses.) Aristotle said that to study ethics with him, he expected the students in his discussions to be well brought up. That is, they had to have attempted to live ethically and well. I ask my students to try this. Here is the assignment I give them.
Beginning at the end of class …and continuing for the next week, attempt to live as morally or as ethically as you can. By this I mean, according to your highest values, what you know, believe, think, have been raised to believe are good ways of thinking, speaking and acting or behaving. You can think of simple basic goods or values for example: truthfulness, honesty, fairness, or justice, respecting others and the rights of others, meeting your obligations, maintaining a good “work ethic,” doing or being the best that you know how to do and be, being chaste, watching appropriate videos, using decent language, even completing your homework when you should (surely this is a good), etc. Attempt to live your values, what you believe and know to be good, and as you do, pay attention to your thoughts, moods, feelings, and whatever else you experience. You might want to keep a brief journal of your experience(s). What does it feel like when you succeed or when you fail? How hard is it to live and act ethically? What goes on in your mind?
I then ask them to write a brief email explaining their experience so that I can use it anonymously in our class discussion. I try to comment on at least 10-15 of their responses so that many of them recognize their own, they see similar responses in others, and so that they get a sense of the range of responses.
The results are always interesting. I have found them pretty consistent over the years. I invite you to try the experiment and comment on your experience. I have offered my class (fall 2010) the “opportunity” to comment anonymously on this blog for some extra credit toward their semester grade (truthfulness in the interest of full disclosure). After some comments (if some comments) arrive on this blog, I will add what students have repeated throughout the years on their moral experience. I hope to use whatever results are posted here in future courses (anonymously).
You may recognize that Christian spiritual guides sometimes use this kind of experiment with their disciples (another source of my borrowing). Thanks for the help. I hope you find the experience interesting.