How to Teach Introduction to Applied Ethics

Version 1 (June 18th, 2004)

This, in my experience, is how the typical introduction to applied ethics goes: At the beginning of the semester, the instructor faces a roomful of students who are sceptical about the value of the enterprise, if they are not completely indifferent to it. The class usually begins with a review of normative moral theory. That is, the class will read a bit of Mill (or a substitute) and a bit of Kant (or a substitute). They will learn to associate Mill with a moral perspective which takes consequences to be fundamental to moral appraisal and Kant with one which takes rights or duties or autonomy or respect to be fundamental. And either explicitly or implicitly, the instructor will convey the impression that the task of applied ethics consists in mechanically applying these normative theories to whatever subject matter comes up for review. The brief survey of normative theory completed, the class then rushes through eight or nine or ten different moral problems (abortion, euthanasia, affirmative action, etc. etc. etc.), none of which are discussed with (much of) any reference to the other. Because so many topics are treated, they are all treated superficially and in a way that encourages the original impression that applied ethics involves the mechanical application of normative theories to particular cases. And that it is useless.

That’s a harsh description, but although I make exceptions and even concede that generous plea bargains are in order in some cases, I think it is a fair generalization. (This essay is, in a way, part of my own plea bargain.) And although responsibility for the undercurrent of mutual antagonism running through so many introductory classes (especially, I’ve found, introductory applied ethics classes), falls on students and instructors alike, I think we ought to face the fact that our own lousy teaching is responsible for some of the problems here. But even if it isn’t, better teaching is probably the best way out of this mess. This essay describes a few modest steps in the right direction.

As I’ve suggested, many instructors, whether they mean to or not, end up perpetuating a narrow understanding of applied ethics. Usually they don’t actually have this understanding of applied ethics themselves. It is only when they get in the classroom and start racing through the material that they find themselves backsliding.

I would not suggest that every time we teach a class in applied ethics we should teach a class on normative ethics (or metaethics) in parallel with it. But I do think that we should encourage our students to do applied ethics in a self-reflective way, and that means reflecting on the status of our normative ethical theories as we go along. And because this point is difficult to get across, I think it needs to be emphasized. I intend to emphasize it for my class by putting the point in the syllabus (which is also useful since so many students can be counted on to miss the first class in the flux that begins a new semester). With apologies for a bit of repetition, here, in part, is what the current draft of the syllabus has to say about this:

What is Applied Ethics?

Applied ethics is often distinguished from normative ethics. The project of normative ethics is usually regarded as the attempt to discover the moral theory which makes the best sense of our considered moral intuitions. For example, some normative ethicists believe that our obligation is to do whatever promotes the most pleasure (and the least pain) for the most people involved in any decision. For other normative ethicists, rights are fundamental.

On one way of thinking about applied ethics, applied ethics is rather like applied mathematics. In applied mathematics (or engineering, and so on) we take our mathematical theories - which we know independently of any particular case to be true - and we apply them to concrete problems, such as how much weight a particular bridge will bear given such and such forces acting on such and such a type of material. If we think of applied ethics in the same way, we may well imagine that the task of applied ethics is to take our normative theories - which we know independently of any particular case to be true - and apply them to concrete moral problems, such as abortion, euthanasia, and so on.

In my opinion, this way of thinking about applied ethics is seriously mistaken. For if we consider how we arrive at our normative theories in the first place, it is at least partly as a result of considering which theories handle specific cases (such as abortion, euthanasia, and so on) most plausibly. The analogy with applied mathematics therefore threatens to mislead us about the way that moral reflection actually proceeds: Typically, we begin with intuitions about about what is morally right and test these intuitions against difficult cases. When we find a conflict, or an inconsistency, or the theory yields results which seem terribly implausible, we often revise the theory to bring it more in line with our considered views. So when we “apply” a normative theory to a specific case, such as abortion or euthanasia, as often as not we are “testing” the theory at the same time that we consider the particular case.

A quick example: I taught a class on Just War Theory during the Iraq War. In that class, I tried to respect the point I’ve just made in two ways. The first way was to emphasize the diversity of Just War theorists. Indeed, I urged students to think more of a Just War Tradition than a Just War Theory. So we would never find ourselves simply applying Just War Theory. Rather, we would need to try to find the more plausible versions of Just War theory by examining how they handled particular cases. The second point I emphasized was that even after that work in formulating the best version of Just War Theory, students might nevertheless be inclined to reject it as inadequate. That is, if our most plausible version of Just War Theory still led us to implausible claims about the Iraq War, it might for all that just be tough luck for Just War Theory. (There would still be lots of work to do, of course: We would need to explain why it was implausible, what alternatives there were, why it might seem plausible, and so on.)

In my experience, not every student is thrilled to encounter such untidyness. Some will - initially at least - take an even dimmer view of the enterprise of moral reflection, at least as professional philosophers understand it. And since the epistemological committments implicit in this view of moral reflection as a sort of reflective equilibrium are at odds with the intuitive (and largely foundationalist) epistemological sympathies of most undergraduates, teaching applied ethics this way runs the risk of aggravating students’ natural scepticism.

Hold firm, I say. Hold firm because the alternative view (of applied ethics as analogous to applied mathematics) which grows more tempting as the semester wears you down, is, in addition to being seriously misleading, probably more damaging to your case for the importance of moral philosophy than the alternative. And if you can succeed in giving an adequate sense of how moral reflection actually works - if you can pull it off - then you will have vindicated your teaching in a way that is really impossible on the alternative. This way lies possible failure, but also hope.

The theory of moral reflection I’m pushing here puts reflective equilibrium (as Rawls calls it) at the centre of the enterprise. But taking reflective equilibrium seriously means more than simply refusing to depict applied ethics as the rote application of normative theories to particular cases. It also means testing normative theories and basic intuitions across a range of cases, with special attention to inconsistencies which come to light in the comparison of reactions to particular cases. Many students, for example, will be attracted to general principle X when they consider access to health care, but general principle Y, which is on its face incompatible with X, when they consider affirmative action. A course which moves from access to health care to affirmative action without noting the larger principles at stake - and the need to refine and choose from among them - is really failing to take either issue seriously.

If there is one pedagogical mystery I have encountered in my life as a teaching assistant and student, it is the mystery of how so many intelligent and serious philosophers who have arrived at their own positions through precisely this kind of reflective equilibrium can teach entire classes without referring much (or at all) to the need to sort out the apparently conflicting principles which emerge when we consider our intuitions about particular cases. And even instructors who care to make this point don’t do nearly enough to bring out the connections between particular topics. In my opinion, the connections between issues are not some sort of optional act that might come on during intermissions - time permitting - to keep us occupied. They are interesting and important in their own right. In a good class, they often steal the show.

A good course tells a story. It has a few related themes which are developed and elaborated over the course of a semster by an instructor who knows how to relate any particular topic back to the broader themes. As I’ve tried to show, this is more than sound pedagogy. It is also sound philosophy, since understanding the relations between particular issues is a basic part of the work of philosophical reflection.

“But there isn’t enough time for all that.”

Well of course there isn’t time if you insist on packing an issue a week onto the syllabus. Once, after taking a torturous graduate class on Kant which had us whipping through most of the Critique and half of the works in Kant’s moral philosophy, I almost screwed up the courage to write on the course evaluation: “The course reminded me of galloping on a horse: You don’t see much, and after a while you get sore.” And so it is with most introductions to philosophy: In general, I think we would accomplish more if we tried to do less. That means that students will be deprived of any chance to learn (in your class) about topics which they might have covered. Console yourself thus: When you cut material out of your syllabus, your students at least have a chance to see how philosophical reflection actually works. Philosophical reflection takes time. It usually requires us to dwell on an issue, and especially on different texts which dwell on an issue. You can’t do that in a week. Or rather, perhaps you can, but I can’t, and neither can my students. So stop trying.

So on the one hand we need to think about the connections between different topics, and on the other it is essential to make room for a discussion of the connections between them. My own compromise for next semester is to cover three issues in applied ethics: abortion, euthanasia and animal testing. And throughout the course, I will try to draw attention to the various ways that we might be tempted to balance the different rights and interests involved in each of the cases. The point of these cases is that thinking about them together puts pressure on our specific responses to each. For example, each involves, in a different way, questions about the moral relevance of pain and autonomy. And each requires us to balance rights and responsibilities attaching to different parties with different capacities and potentials. But as I’ve pointed out, part of the balancing act in the treatment of each of these issues involves the balancing we do when we realize that we are attracted, for example, to one view of the moral relevance of pain when we consider euthanasia and another when we consider animal testing.

Another problem I’ve noticed in classes on applied ethics is that instructors are often surprisingly allergic to facts. Philosophers have a habit of bracketing disputes about empirical matters, so that they can focus on conceptual issues: “OK, suppose that that is true. What follows?” That can be an excellent habit, and one that shows the appropriate degree of humility when we’re not an expert in the empirical study of the subject.

And yet it seems to me that we’ve gone too far when we spend two weeks on, say, the issue of abortion, without ever mentioning how many women get abortions; what their financial circumstances are when they seek them; how many women who get abortions have more than one; whether the number of abortions, per capita, has increased or decreased in recent years; how many women likely sought abortions when it was illegal; how many women would seek an abortion anyway if it became illegal again; how difficult it would be to seek an abortion if it were illegal; and whether the difficulty varies with social class; and so on. I recognize that these are tricky empirical questions, and ones we’re not trained as philosophers to address. But if part of the point of studying abortion in an applied ethics class is to make up your mind about the permissibility of abortion, it’s difficult to see how you can get away with bracketing these issues. They matter, if you think that consequences matter at all (and even if you favour rights-based approaches to the issue they ought to matter to you). And anyway, students will inevitably rely on background assumptions about precisely these questions when they approach them. So I don’t think it’s something you can get away from.

One advantage of scaling back the number of subjects you try to cover in a class is that it gives you the chance to spend a class or two establishing some basic factual or technical points that will make the ensuring discussion much less tentative and conditional. Covering the basic facts about an issue in a class also makes the point that responsible moral assessment of an issue often does involve a lot of effort to get clear on the non-moral questions tangled up in the dispute.

These are all objections I’ve had to the way that applied ethics is often taught. Let me draw back a bit and make a more general complaint. Here is another mistake that philosophy instructors often make: They confuse giving a sense of the philosophical questions involved in an issue with giving a sense of the state of the philosophical state of the art.

Now, look. Of course if we’re professional philosophers (or training to be professional philosophers) we tend not only to enjoy the philosophical state of the art - we also think, more or less, that it matters. But we ought to understand that the philosophical state of the art is not something that develops by some purely philosophical process, responsive only to the unfolding of philosophical reasons in some pure Hegelian dialectic. Quite often the philosophical state of the art includes preoccupations which are quite accidental: At some point, one famous philosopher took issue (for possibly very quirky reasons) with another famous philosopher, and it generated a literature that people now feel obliged to take into account - especially because many of the leading lights in the field were trained by one or the other, and writing about the debate is a way of a) working through their own intellectual roots; and b) implying how very respectable those roots are. Fair enough. But don’t for one moment suppose that anyone else is going to be riveted by the to-and-fro here.(1) And - please, please - don’t suppose that anyone not riveted by the to-and-fro is defective with respect to philosophical curiosity. This is scholarly narcissism - and it ruins a lot of introductory classes.

Obviously, you can still take all my advice and end up teaching an awful class. I may have myself, once or twice. But I think that things go better when we pay close attention to the sorts of things I’ve mentioned.

  1. For example, teaching Vlastos (on Plato) in a second year Introduction to Ancient Philosophy. I’m sorry, but that’s just nuts. Even if - if! - a handful of students find Vlastos interesting, they only have so many hours in the week to devote to the class. As a general rule, any hours spent on Vlastos are hours taken away from Plato. But Plato only makes sense after quite a few hours. In all but the most exceptional cases, all this does it teach students how to pay homage to an intellectual authority - which may not be what Plato had in mind.

This essay will be updated periodically as I think through the issues. Please feel free to link to it or otherwise distribute it under the terms of the Creative Commons license below. Feedback is especially welcome.