Undergraduate Attitudes About Ethics

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Chris Panza at Metatome has an interesting post worrying about how ethics instructors teach ethics and whether it just fosters relativism in the simplistic "who's to say?" form. If the results of an ethics class are largely that students can't figure out how to know which ones of the multitude of views they've been presented with are best, then they will often leave thinking the whole subject is hopeless, wondering if there's any truth to the matter. This is a problem with philosophy courses in general, but it's particularly disturbing with ethics. What struck me in the discussion was how much insight the commenters showed about most college students' attitudes.

As a matter of explanation to those who have never taught a philosophy class, the "who's to say" form of relativism is the standard response of introductory students who simply don't want to engage with the material. They want philosophy to be something where they can say whatever they want and get As, and when they discover that philosophers want to look into questions in a systematic and detailed way they have nothing to offer, so they raise the smokescreen of "who's to say" to try to steer the discussion away from anything that will require them to think. Once the consequences of relativism are made clear, almost no one who begins this way holds onto moral relativism, so it's clearly not a genuine view with most people. In the mentoring sessions we had when I was beginning to teach my first class, we called this student relativism (as opposed to more sophisticated philosophical relativisms). I prefer to call it stupid relativism, because it's an attempt to remain ignorant and unthinking.

In the post, Chris recognizes one value most students clearly have:

All of my students are deeply involved in the project of �being authentic� and are worried about failing to be so.

He connects this with integrity and sees ethics instruction as at least partly serving the task of helping students to clarify how their views can fit together without contradicting themselves. This is at least a start.

David Morrow says:

I find the "Who�s to say?" response to ethics an interesting one. It often goes along with things like, "Peter Singer can�t tell me what to do." Why do students phrase their complaint that way? Ethics, for them, seems to be a matter of authority, and they don�t see that anyone has the proper authority to dictate ethical truths. It may prove difficult for professors to assert that authority.

There's a fundamental confusion here. My recognition that there's a truth about what we should all do does not mean I'm telling anyone what to do. One is a claim about a truth, expressed through a declarative sentence. The other is a command. They're quite different speech acts.

At the same time, I think this reveals something pretty interesting about most people's views. If they think morality inherently involves authority, they seem to be assuming a moral lawgiver. Philosophers spend a lot of time resisting and dismissing this conclusion, but many ordinary people do assume it. Different people will explain this differently, of course. Many will say it's a remnant of old-fashioned views that still hangs on without any explicit affirmation of those views. Christians will see it as a deeper sense of the reality of things manifesting itself in a fallen way. I thought it was an interesting observation, either way.

Adam Potthast:

I tend to find that students� natural inclination is to think of their lives as pretty unwaveringly moral. To admit that something they are accustomed to doing or like doing is immoral is more pain than they are willing to undergo for the sake of what a teacher says or what a philospher writes about.... I think this is the root of "Who�s to say?", actually. Basically, they think that in order to override their own view of their actions' acceptability, someone would have to stand in some special authoratative relation to them. Since they don�t believe that such a relation exists, they tend to look around for the ethical theory that best supports their view that their lives are just fine, morally speaking.

I observed this quite a bit when I was a T.A. for Laurence Thomas' 450-student introductory ethics class. He covered sexual ethics a lot, sometimes even for as much as a third of the course. I got the sense that students would simply state what they would like to be true without looking for an overall view that might justify it. It was as if certain things couldn't be wrong because people do them all the time. I wonder if the same thing goes on with other ethical issues, and Adam seems to think it does.

Michael Cholbi:

The difficulty, as I see it, is that being unfamiliar with the various traditions within moral theory leaves our students with only two options, neither of which helps them engage value questions in a rich way: the aforementioned "who's to say?" relativism and indefensible dogmatism. So in large part I see the point of moral theory courses as introducing students to a conversation, a conversation wherein rival moral theories attempt to make sense of the ethical landscape.... The point is to be able to think about moral questions in ways that are not simple-minded. (Incidentally, I think it still comes as a shock to many students that there are such things as moral theories, general accounts of morality in which the theorist offers reasons for her views. That there is a civilized, systematic, and apparently rational way to think about moral questions comes as a novelty to many.)

This seems to me to be the best approach out of all the ones people mentioned in the comments. Those who teach ethics need to demonstrate the false dilemma of stupid relativism and unargued dogmatism, making it clear that taking objectivist ethical views does not amount to the latter of that pair. If they can see what a moral theory is supposed to offer them, and they can think about the endeavor of moral philosophy as a systematic and rational way to capture what's going on with our moral thinking, then I don't think they'd dismiss it the way they do if they start out the course by looking at how we might know anything about morality, whether our moral terms mean anything more than just expressing preferences, and or whether we can make sense of the idea of morality with or without God. The parenthetical statement is really sad, but I think that lack of understanding is one of the biggest obstacles for students in overcoming the simplistic "who's to say" relativism that I don't think most of them really believe but simply say to avoid having to delve into the hard questions of philosophy.

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I wonder if part of the reason for the students bringing such attitudes to your ethics classes is due to their upbringing in which parents might retort with a "Because I told you so" in response to "Why should I do that?"

This reminds me that the school that my children attended who were very intentional about teaching virtues to kids and even ran courses to help parents teach and internalize virtues early on in the kids.

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