Friday, July 8, 2011

Responding to knee jerk student skepticism in ethics courses

An anonymous correspondent writes with the following query:
I am entering my second year in a 'Leiterific' program and as a second year I will be teaching my first section in an intro to ethics course.  Since I have no background in teaching I am a bit anxious about it.  One source of my anxiety is the specter of student moral skepticism! I worry that until I'm pedagogically acclimated that the first few weeks of teaching might be prone to derailment from such conversation stoppers as "Well, that might be true for you..." and "Nothing matters."  I was wondering whether you might consider soliciting ISW readers for advice on how to effectively address relativist, subjectivist, and nihilist student comments.  I stress 'effectively' because while I've received tips regarding general strategies, I'm more interested in hearing about what kind of arguments philosophers 'on the ground', as it were, often employ successfully.  As a new teacher, it will take some time to distinguish arguments that I and my colleagues find convincing from those that 18 year olds will.  My skill in conversational philosophy are still very much in development, and I don't want to lose my students as they wait for me to get my chops.  
Any tips on how to answer the student skeptics?


  1. I always found the following to work when faced with the "Nothing matters" claim: "OK, I am assigning you an "F" for this course."

    "But that's not fair."

    "Ahha, you mean that fairness matters?"

  2. I teach English not Philosophy, but I have encountered similar kinds of situations. I'll leave the philosophical responses to others.

    My suggestion is that as you introduce new ethical theories ask to students to actively inhabit them. Give your students case studies, break them up into groups, and then have them analyze the case study from the perspective of a particular moral philosophy. And make sure the skeptics aren't in the skeptic group. After they have analyzed the case study in small groups have them report back to the class. This way they will be forced to explore an alternative viewpoint that might temper their skepticism.

    Similarly, if you sense that skepticism might be a major part of your course, you might ask students in class to think about how the philosophy you are studying attempts to answer skeptical arguments. In this way you outsource the response to the students while acknowledging the importance of skeptical arguments.

    Finally, (and excuse my lack of philosophical training) it seems that casual skepticism is often just intellectual laziness, since it provides little to no basis for making any choices whatsoever (except randomness?). If nothing matters well then why not behave morally? It's really seems to be a starting point for a moral philosophy not an absolute rejection of them.

    So if a student proclaims relativism, nihilism, etc. You might ask why they're at university, why they wear the clothes they do, why they listen to the music they do. Either they think their behavior is completely random or predetermined, or they will begin to realize that at least an ad hoc system of values underlies their choices. Heck this might not be a bad exercise for the first day of class, so that students realize that many of their choices already are informed by some kind of underlying system of values.

    I hope this helps and I don't sound like too much of a fool.

  3. 1. The Argument from Moral Progress

    2. The Argument from Moral Disagreement

  4. I assign James Rachels.

    I've found that, oddly, students seem sort of okay with asserting we can't make moral judgments of Nazis (!). But they cannot bring themselves to bite the relativism bullet when it comes to slavery. Using the argument from moral progress specifically to answer, "Are we a better place for having banned slavery?" seems to work best.

    Also, I use the example of flat earth to argue against the belief that because there is disagreement, therefore no one is right. Although some people have believed that the earth was flat, and we don't, does not mean one of us wasn't right.

    Against subjective relativism (as opposed to cultural), I just ask them, "Have you ever been wrong about something?"

    It requires a surprising amount of work to explain to them why if they agree to the idea that we are a better for having banned slavery, then that means they are not cultural relativists.

  5. Two things.

    1) As Elizabeth already suggests above, rumors of rampant relativism among students are a bit exaggerated--even amongst the students themselves. I'll have students who start to respond along "I do my thing; you do yours" lines, but issues like slavery, etc., seem to be big exceptions for them. My typical example runs, "If you see someone lighting kittens on fire and tossing them off the 59th Street bridge, do you say that this simply isn't how you want to live your life? Or do you say that what they are doing is wrong, and they should not be doing it?"

    2) I think it's more important to address the question of why students (try to) take up the moral relativist position in the first place. I find that it's less a postmodern skepticism about truth, and much more a reaction to the authoritarian models for universal ethics to which they have been heretofore exposed. I think that Erich Fromm lays out the issue nicely in the second chapter of Man For Himself, and so I like to begin my ethics classes there. If we make the semester about the common search for a non-authoritarian, universally valid system of ethics, then I find that the students--even when skeptical about our chances of success--will at least come with me for the journey, instead of dismissing ethical norms out of hand.

  6. Hi Archas and everybody else on this forum.

    I actually find the skeptics to be of great value.
    They are often the ones who tend to challenge and question an already established theory or principle. I mean, where would we be today without skepticism? As Archas mentioned, I think we should try our best to help these rare gems to actively pursue and develop their thoughts into theories and grade them for their effort instead of how well they have accepted their indoctrination.

  7. I think that moral reasoning is a process of development, as is critical thinking, so I link them together. I ask a skeptical student to construct a valid argument where their skepticism (or relativism - as this process works for these students also) is the conclusion. Then we investigate whether the argument is sound by analyzing the premises to determine their truth value. More often then not, the skeptic (or relativist) will see that at least one of the premises is false.

  8. There is interesting discussion in the journal Teaching Philosophy and other places about something called "student relativism," starting with an article by Stephen Satris. If I remember correctly, this basically interprets relativist-like responses as psychological self-defense mechanisms given to avoid thinking about personally challenging issues. This is worth tracking down and, in class, it's worth making some observations about how people often respond to challenging and controversial issues, recognizing some of these responses as not the best we can do, and working on overcoming them.

  9. I have an article in the JME, currently in early view, which argues that making it 'political' might be one response. It is not dissimilar to the meaning of some of the above comments i.e. we all have to take responsibility or a collective position on this, how shall we do it?


  10. Good comments everyone!

    As several have noted, I think the concern here is not the philosophically sophisticated skeptical student, who arrives at her skepticism through careful consideration of various ethical problems and theories, etc. but the philosophically unsophisticated skeptical student, who assumes skepticism at the outset in order to avoid thinking about difficult issues, offending others with controversial opinions, etc. On the whole, I've seen many more unsophisticated student skeptics than sophisticated skeptics.

    Four ideas for responses:
    1. Emphasize that 'you think your way, I'll think mine' might work for some issues (think of that flippant bumper sticker that reads 'Don't like abortion? Don't have one'), but can't work for others. Either the U.S. will or will not support a global climate change treaty. Either we criminalize prostitution or we don't. Etc. Here it's worth reminding them of the *social* aspects of ethics.

    2. Be clear that there are several different positions in this area and that they do not logically entail one another. Let's call 'skepticism' the denial of moral knowledge. Skepticism is actually incompatible with relativism and subjectivism, since those views think we have moral knowledge. All these positions have the same pragmatic upshot: we are not rationally entitled to judge others' ethical views. But I've found that when students are made aware of the differences among subjectivism, relativism, skepticism, error theory, etc., they begin thinking more critically, and in some cases, they begin to appreciate the shortcomings of these views (or at least their relative merits).

    3. Question just how broad their skepticism/relativism is. Some areas of practical ethics seem more contentious than others (anything having to do with sex, for instance). But is there so much contentiousness about other issues or questions?

    4. I like to tell students that skeptical views are not the default position -- that you have to earn your way to ethical skepticism just as much as you have to earn your way to utilitarianism (or whatever). This means you have to engage the various non-skeptical views and theories, not just rejecting them out of hand but critically analyzing them to pinpoint their flaws, etc. About four years ago, I wrote this in an ISW post (
    "The cultures from which they [students] come, to the extent that they have 'moral argument' at all, don't tend to treat moral questions as amenable to rational discussion or progress. The choices available in the wider culture are easy dogmatism (sometimes though not always religious in origin) or easy skepticism. What I intend they discover in a moral philosophy course is that there are other options. The students need not hitch themselves any one of them, of course. But the overall message is that moral knowledge is not hopeless. Indeed, moral philosophy presents us with an overabundance of plausible theories and options, rather than a meager menu of self-serving dogmas or theoretical non-starters."

    I still think that to be the case, so while skepticism cannot be ruled out, it also can't be gotten on the philosophical cheap either.

  11. While I think that naive relativism is wrong, I also think that it is a perfectly understandable reaction to the actual moral complexity of the world (from a psychologica point of view). As others have pointed out, it is a way of opting out, or avoiding responsibility. But this makes sense from a population that has a lot of anxiety about being wrong.

    At my own school, students who espouse the naive relativist view often do so out of considerations of tolerance and epistemic humility. Obviously, I can leverage their commitment to these perfectly objective moral values to get them to see why relativism is so problematic. The point is, not all students adopt this point of view for reasons of intellectual laziness.

    It might also be worth noting that students are getting this view from somewhere...where? The general culture, perhaps. But they are also getting it from other faculty across the humanities and social sciences. Students often find themselves defending views that they have inherited from their professors but not thought through for themselves - there is a lot of psychological baggage that comes along with having your philosophy teacher throw into question something you thought you had on good authority from your, e.g., sociology professor.

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  13. Another idea or strategy is this:

    Near the beginning of the term, have the students (maybe first individually, then in groups, or just in small groups) make lists of actions that *most people would think are obviously wrong* (as well as lists of actions that are in a broad not-wrong category: permissible, obligatory or otherwise good). Encourage them to make the actions on this list very specific (so that nobody says "stealing" but rather something more like "Jumping out of your new BWM at a red light to steal food from a hungry homeless person, on your way to a fancy dinner of your own"), vivid and, potentially, gruesome! The longer the lists, the better, and anything that doesn't fit the category should be striken from the list, when the lists are shared and a master list is put up on the board or screen.

    This list can be used to at least show that there's a lot of moral judgments that almost everyone accepts (and so that anyone who denied these judgments would be seen as a deviant).

    This list can be used to say, "Now, maybe none of these actions are really wrong (or whatever non-realist interpretation any student suggests), but we really need a good argument for that view.."

    This list can also be used as a data set to generate moral theories from: students can identify patterns of explanation, and common factors that can be used to explain what makes wrong actions wrong and right acts right. And students' explanations will likely be similar to simple versions of the major moral theories, which is interesting and useful.


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