Because of length, I have decided to break this into 2 posts. The first deals with exercises that I do on the first day of class.
As I indicated in part one, three factors that lead to student hostility are, 1) fear, 2) disconnect between philosophy and the ‘real’ world, and 3) the perception that colleges and universities exist as training grounds for people to enter into the market as employees. In this post I am going to outline some approaches that I have found helpful in dealing with this hostility. (They are also helpful in dealing with lack of motivation.) Putting any hostilities, or other issues, on the table, in the open, makes them something we can deal with. People can start to let go of these hostilities through discussing why they exist and whether or not they have merit. Often they do and it is my responsibility to openly and objectively deal with those that do have merit. These exercises are designed to get the students actively involved in doing ethics and to start to look at their own conceptual schemas and moral perspectives. There is nothing particularly earth shattering or original in what I am doing, but they do work and provide a foundation that can be built upon. I am sure that many of you already practice some of these approaches. I welcome additional suggestions.
My overall course objectives are:
1) To get students to begin to understand their own moral perspectives and analyzing moral issues from these perspectives, modifying their perspectives as required by arguments or inability to reach a reasoned conclusion.
2) To start getting them to realize the importance of explaining and justifying their actions. By focusing on #2 we begin to introduce philosophical concepts into the discussion and applying them to their individual schemas.
3) To start to get students to understand the importance of defending their positions in the face of criticism and to construct sound arguments which explain and justify their positions.
4) To provide students with a basic understanding of the major moral perspectives of utilitarianism (act and rule), deontology (Kantianism), ethics of care, and virtue ethics.
My immediate objective in the first class meeting is to get students actively involved in discussing ethics. I have found that this is a good way to bring out any hostilities and other issues that might be present that, if left unattended, could result in students not performing as well as they could. It also establishes that the main learning/teaching strategy is going to be dialogical in nature. I do not rely on lecture. I find that when I lecture many students lose interest, but if we are actively engaged that they stay attentive.
On the first day of class I do 1-2 of the following exercises:
1) I have students take a short survey of questions dealing with practical ethics and have them answer them True, False, or Undecided. I then have students break into small groups and discuss why they answered as they did. We then discuss some of the responses in the larger group setting. The goals of this exercise are to 1) start to make students aware of their conceptual schemas and moral perspectives and 2) start the process of learning how to make a sound philosophical argument.
2) I have them write a one-sentence reaction to the question, “What is the purpose of a college education?” Again I have them break into small groups and discuss their answers. Then we discuss the answers in the larger group. This will bring out the distinction between ‘instrumental’ and ‘intrinsic’ goods. Each response is discussed from the perspective of it denoting an instrumental or intrinsic good.
3) I discuss the famous ‘trolley problem’ (simplified; a choice between killing one person to save five people who would otherwise die, or letting the five people die) in four different variations and place them at the switch. The first scenario has them deciding to throw the switch and putting the trolley on an empty unused siding thereby saving the five lives. I then survey the class to see how many would throw the switch. Almost universally they will respond that they would throw the switch because we should save lives if we can. We treat this as a moral principle; we ought to saves lives if possible. I then modify the scenario and place a sleeping bum on the unused siding. The bum will be killed if the switch is thrown. Again, almost everyone will throw the switch even if it means killing the bum. I then ask students to explain why they would do so. Most answer in the time-honored fashion that numbers matter and that if we can save five lives by only killing one person then we should do so (besides it is only a bum, some will say). I ask those who would not throw the switch “why.” The response most often given is that killing is wrong. (We can here introduce the distinction between consequentialism and non-consequentialism.) We discuss both of these positions and try to develop reasons that support each position. I then modify the scenario and have their baby playing on the siding who will be killed if the switch is thrown. Not surprisingly, but not easily defensible from what has been said earlier if they would have thrown the switch, most will not throw the switch. I ask them to account for these different and contradictory responses. The fourth scenario is there is one of their children in the group of five and one of the children playing on the unused siding. Most students now groan! We discuss why there is frustration with these examples. I also explain that many problems we face in our lives resemble the trolley problem is structure. I then end with an assignment to find a real life example that resembles the trolley problem. I will use this paper as the focal point to start off the next class discussion.
4) As I take role I have them tell me why they are taking this course, what their expectations re for this course, and/or what they think ethics is. This is another way to introduce the concepts of ‘instrumental’ and ‘intrinsic’ goods, but it will also uncover some of the hostilities that might exist.
5) As I take role I will ask each student a question on ethics pertaining to their major and ask them to give a reason that they think supports their positions. For example if they are majoring in advertising I will ask if they think it is permissible to use sex or violence to sell a product. If they are in marketing, I will ask if it is morally permissible for a drug company to price a product at such a level that it results in many people not being able to purchase the drug.
By establishing a dialogical approach to learning, I get most of my students to be willing to understand the importance of studying ethics as a means of arriving at an understanding of their own individual conceptual schemas and how these schemas influence how they understand, and act in, the world we live in.
In my next post I will present personal experiences with ethical implications that occurred while I was a manager that I discuss in business and professional ethics courses as ways of getting students to understand and examine the underlying ethical dimensions of their actions in professional life.